Tag Archives: Drums

For Drum Master Ben Riley’s 84th Birthday, a WKCR Interview/Musician’s Show From 1994

Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.

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Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):

TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music.  You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?

BR: I was four when they came.  I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it.  I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

BR: A guard.  In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall.  I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up.  Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.

TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?

BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school.  I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to.  So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me.  So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon.  The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time.  I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.

TP: Healthier!

BR: Yes.  But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…

TP: You were a paratrooper?

BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah.  I was in the last of the Black battalions.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?

BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area.  We weren’t on the main post with the buildings.  We were over into the Second World War barracks.  Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops.  So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence.  He said that was a very good idea.  We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade.  When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.”  So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!

TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?

BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan.  That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot.  We used to jam.  And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing.  This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something.  The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.

TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.

BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.

TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?

BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar.  On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions.  So you’d never know who was going to come in.  Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play.  Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.

TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…

BR: Not right away.  When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child.  So I got a job.  I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing.  It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent.  So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.”  So she really kind of helped me step off.  I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?

BR: Yes.  We had a fellow named Phil Wright.  He was a drummer, and also a teacher.  That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor.  We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together.  Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.

TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.

BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual.  So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in.  So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different  direction that they wanted to go into.  For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each.  I didn’t have to say, “This is…”  Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated.  But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this.  This is a little bit too difficult.  I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.”  It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke.   “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.”  I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table.  Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.

TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…

BR: Nobody’s business!

TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.

BR: Right.  This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night.  Usually that was going down to Minton’s!

[MUSIC:  Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]

TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.

BR: That’s right.  It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists.  You have three different styles here.  You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two.  He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat.  So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.

TP: But it’s very subtle.

BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose.  That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be.  It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat.  What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it.  The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand.  This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things.  I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do.  So his beat was really very technically efficient.  He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.

TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.

BR: A sound.  That’s so important.  I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound.  An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists,  Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.

TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.

BR: Yeah.  When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do.  But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo.  Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.”  And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time.  So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound.  Because now I know what I want to hear.  It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.

TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…

BR: Yeah.  Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound.  Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound.  So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.

TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing.  Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into.  Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing.  So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until.  So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch.  Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

BR: Right.  So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.

TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…

BR: Opened him up.  The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.”  [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up.  He framed the door for you.  When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do.  You find the things that you want to fit into this room.

TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.

BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners.  So you had the full scope.  You had to do like a vaudeville show plus.  I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…

TP: Talk about those experiences.

BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people.  This was all educational.  Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.”  So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.

TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.

BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks.  In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there.  Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation.  When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud.  They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room.  So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal.  That’s all she would let me bring to the gig.  So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal.  Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks.  There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name.  He played with Woody Herman, too.  Well, it will come back to me.

TP: Which room was this?

BR: This was a room called the Composer.  And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room.  I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.

TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.

BR: Yes, more or less.  Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places.  Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that.  But professionally I started in ’56.  The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston.  And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street.  So I was making that circuit…

TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.

BR: The supper club thing, yeah.  And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music.  That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.

TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.

BR: Yeah.  Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.

TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.

BR: [LAUGHS]  Oh, yes.  Well, Bu was marvelous.  He was always encouraging.  He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know.  Papa Jo Jones was the same way.  Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand.  He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming.  He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a  dime next to you and run out.”  That means, “Call me.”  [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]

TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?

BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.

TP: Explain.

BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended.  Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated.  Because Philly just was a multi-talented person.  He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing.  What I really loved about him were the surprises.  Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise.  Like Art.  Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art.  Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.

TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

BR: Interpret it, right.  Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.

TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…

BR: In other bands, right.  Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on.  Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.

TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.

BR: That’s right.

TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change.  It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it.  But all of the great drummers did that.  And all of the great bands had that kind of situation.  As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be.  Because that’s the type of person he was.  Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great.  But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important!  They made sure that those things worked.  Never mind the individualism.  They made sure that the band sounded good.  That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.

TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.

BR: Small groups.

TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing.  Were you influenced by big band drums?  Were you interested in that?

BR: Oh, yes.  Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer.  I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this.  I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

BR: Then Shadow, right.  Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band.  I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow.  But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying.  And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing.  Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know.  I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound.   As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance.  That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music.  They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing.  That’s what we were doing when I started up, man.  People would get up and actually dance.  So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.

TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…

BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance!  I’ve seen people get up and dance.  Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!

TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.  How did that come about for you?

BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant.  John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.”  So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport.  Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…”  He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it!  “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking.  And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way.  When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer.  Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band.  Come on down.  We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.”  So I said, “Okay.”   So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all.  We didn’t hit it off at all.  For some reason he was just cold.  I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.”  Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t.  So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland.  It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me.  And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer.  So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on.  At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.”  He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.  I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”,  and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering.  So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA.  So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.”  I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.”  So that’s when I really started…

TP: You got the mood.

BR: I got the mood, right.  Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me.  And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin.  It was a great band.  I really enjoyed that band.

TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis.  He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…

BR: Yeah, because he played differently.  As most guys used to say, he played backwards.

TP: What do they mean by that?

BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite.  And he had that Ben Webster sound.  Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences.  He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand.  If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior.  He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time.  When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from.  You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people.  I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them.  It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.

TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes.  He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…

BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill.  It was a helluva trio that he had.  We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio.  So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet.  Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s.  Which brings up another point in the development of the music.  In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…

BR: Chase you out!

TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.

BR: No.  We became real favorites at Minton’s.  I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.”  I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.”  So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see!  The place was filled.  So I had to call my wife up.  I said, “Don’t look for me back.  I can’t hardly get in the club!”  It was loaded.  We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band.  And the music we played, you wanted to dance.  We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance.  And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day.  Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance.  The Messengers, dance music.  It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.

TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show.  How late did you go?  Four or five sets?

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

BR: Yeah.  Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

BR: Well, one was right downstairs.  Then there was another down a couple of blocks.  So there was always somewhere to play.  Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot.  So you had somewhere to go all the time.

[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]

TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down.  And that was a complicated piece!  You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.

BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end.  It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.

TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.

BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.

TP: “John S” was from The Bridge.  Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums.  You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern.  What do you remember about that record?  I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.

BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things.  I didn’t bring that other album…

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing.  So it was like another band within the band.  Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him.  I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.

TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.

BR: That’s right.

TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!

BR: Roaring!

TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.

BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band.  This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.

TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that?  That’s hard to do.

BR: What I did, I never watched my hands.  I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing.  I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast.  But it worked.

TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…

BR: Made it easier, yeah.  There again we get to the same thing.  When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing.  I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.

TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley.  The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.

BR: For years.

TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

TP: Well, let’s be chronological.  You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.

BR: Yes.  I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood.  But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play.  All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street.  Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson.  Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead.  Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street.  When you get off, come down and sit in with us.”  So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down.  I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.”  I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.”  Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.”  So he said, “Come over and play.”  I said, “Okay.”  So we went up and we played.  So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.”  He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?”  I said, “I really don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I’ll call him.”  So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording.  When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.”  I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.”  He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was.  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ll ask him.”  He said, “Let me call.”  So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful.  But Lock didn’t like that too well!  But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.

TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there.  It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.

BR: Right.  And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.”  Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge.  What was interesting, we went to California by train.  It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters.  So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day.  That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together.  By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.

TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.

BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful.  It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes.  So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos.  We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on.  So every night we had three changes.

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!

TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…

BR: Yes, he was.  Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there.  I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music.  I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.

TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.

BR: That’s right, yeah.

TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?

BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter.  I met Cannonball in San Francisco.  He said, “What are you doing here?”  I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time.  He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.”  I said, “No kidding!”  So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.”  So I imagine that had to be Miles.  I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up.   I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious.  So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk.  Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking.  So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going.  That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby.  He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke.  So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.”  So I got in a cab and went down.  He still didn’t speak to me.  So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing.  So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?”  I said, “No, I can wait for the check.”  He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.”  He says, “Do you have your passport?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?

BR: Well, I never spoke to him before.  We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.

TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?

BR: A record.  I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach.  It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time.  And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”

TP: Did you hear Monk in person?  Did you go to the Five-Spot?

BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.

TP: So you dug the music and…

BR: Oh yeah.  When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.”  I just felt that that was going to be it for me.  Then when Frankie left, I was there.

TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!

BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.

TP: Okay.  And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you.  We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley.  We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia.  You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.

BR: Oh, it drove us crazy.  This is my first recording with him also.

TP: This is the one that he called you to?

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie.  See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band.  I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know.  We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe.  There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.”  So I’m trapped here.  I have to play a drum solo.  But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years.  So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes.  So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?”  That was the first test that I had to go through.  I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first.  I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.

TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.

BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been.  It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.

TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?

BR: That was the beauty of it.  He would only play what he thought you could handle.  Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on.  But he never would try to embarrass you.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]

TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.

BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time.  He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things.  I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.

TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?

BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing.  Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.

TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it.  So he would play it first sometimes.  It was really something to see the both of them in action.  It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.

TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?

BR: He left things out that normally people would play.  He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with.  Either you use the space or you put something in there.  I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time.  I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances.  Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.

TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…

BR: Shuffles, right.

TP: …and church type of things.  Talk a bit about his sources.

BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things.  He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in.  He played all those things.  So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people.  So this is what you get from him.  You get a whole history of different things.  He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.

TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.

BR: Not the same tempo.  That’s what made his music so interesting all the time.  Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo.  He was a great one for playing in between meters.  He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.”  He played in between all of those!

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today.  When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.

TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.

BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that.  And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players.  This is tricky music.

[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]

TP: Say a few words about recent activities.  You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.

BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes.  We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished.  Also we’re doing a series of concerts.  We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]
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For Drum Master Kenny Washington’s 59th Birthday, an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2002

I was in over my head when I conducted the DownBeat Blindfold Test with the great drummer and discographical omnivore Kenny Washington in 2002. But today’s his 59th birthday, and it’s time to present the uncut proceedings.

 

Kenny Washington Blindfold Test — 2002:

1. Roy Haynes, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (from BIRDS OF A FEATHER: A TRIBUTE TO CHARLIE PARKER, Dreyfus, 2001) (Haynes, d; Kenny Garrett, as; Roy Hargrove, tp; David Kikoski, p; Dave Holland, b) (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Roy Haynes! He gets a million stars. That’s the record, Birds of A Feather, with David Kikoski, Dave Holland is on it, Roy Hargrove, and Kenny Garrett. That’s a great record, man. Listen, man, Roy Haynes just continues to play better and better. Last time I saw him I said, “Man, can’t you slow down so that I’ll just be light years behind you?” I did all the drummers from the bebop era, of course; I studied them all. But Roy Haynes is really the only one that in the ’60s could have made Chick Corea’s recording, Now He Sings, Now He Sobs, sound so contemporary. Not that the other ones couldn’t do it. But he had a certain freshness, approaching Chick’s music that was incredible. Of course, playing with John Coltrane, filling in for Elvin Jones, he sounded so fresh with that band, too. I mean, Roy Haynes has always been at the top of his game, all the time. And nowadays, he’s playing better than ever. He’s an amazing musician. I used to do transcriptions and proofread drum solos, and when you’re writing out Roy Haynes’ drum solos, you have to create map. Roy Haynes creates so many different sounds on the drums, so to get students to understand what he’s all about, you have to make an enormous map, do all these little diagrams, make notations of different sounds he makes on the drums. And he’s got tons and tons of different sounds that he just gets off the snare drum alone. We won’t even talk about the rest of the instrument. And look at the records he made with Gary Burton in the ’60s. As far as I’m concerned, there’s no other drummer from that era, the ’40s and ’50s, who could have made that music sound as contemporary as it did. Of course, it’s as fresh as some of the other drummers of that era, like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette and people like that.

But Roy has paid his dues. He goes back to Luis Russell’s band! One time I was on the radio, and I played some record of Benny Carter’s band with Max Roach. When I came back on the air, I talked about Max and how he wasn’t just a bebopper, that he’d played with some of the swing bands as well and knew all the swing styles. I go on to the next record, the phone rings in the studio. I pick up the phone. “Hey Wash. This is Roy Haynes.” I say, “Hey, Roy, what’s happening, man. How are you doing?” He says, “You know, I played with the swing bands, too. And you didn’t mention me. I said, “Haynes, I know, man. You played in Luis Russell’s band.” He got quiet. He said, “How did you know that?” I said, “That’s required reading, man. You kidding me?” I said, “Haynes, I apologize. I just happened to leave your name out. I didn’t mean anything by it.” Man, he’s a helluva cat. Nice man, too. He’s just as slick off the drumset as he is on. Full of vitality, a hip dresser, just a hip person out and out. I give that one a million stars. The band plays great. It’s a nice matchup. They all played well together. They all came to this session ready to play. It’s a great record, one of my favorite of Roy’s later recordings.

2. Wynton Marsalis, “Saturday Night Slow Drag” (from ALL RISE, Sony Classical, 2002), (Marsalis, comp.; Herlin Riley, d) (3 stars)

Well, it started out as a blues in A-flat. Probably Wynton. In the beginning there were a lot of problems pitch-wise. And it sounded like there were some double-reed instruments in the beginning along with the bass. There were a few pitch problems. But that happens with putting those kinds of instruments together. It was okay. It was cool. It’s like a cross between Duke Ellington’s voicings and Gil Evans’ close voicings. I’m almost 100% positive it’s Wynton and the band with… It might have been Wess Anderson on alto and Joe Temperley on baritone, probably Herlin Riley on drums, with a string orchestra. The piece was all right. I wasn’t completely knocked out. They got some nice sounds, though. To me, it went on a little bit long. For the writing… You have to put work into that. It was cool. Didn’t knock me out. But the writing was good, the musicianship was very high. So 3 stars.

3. Bill Charlap, “Blue Skies” (from New York Trio, BLUES IN THE NIGHT, Venus, 2001) (Charlap, p; Jay Leonhart; Bill Stewart, d) (5 stars)

That was a great arrangement of “Blue Skies” in 5/4 time. I’ve never heard that before. It’s got to be Bill Charlap. But the beginning was hip, man. At first, it sounded a little bit like Chick Corea. He’s got a hip touch anyway on the piano. But the way he played on 5/4 was real light, and the time just sailed. It wasn’t bogged down at all. The whole rhythm section just floated. That cat can play any style, man. I know it’s him by the way he thinks, and I also know the lines he plays — even in 5/4 time. The trio sounded just like they were playing in four. Sometimes, when you start playing in odd time signatures, you definitely have to think a certain way. But they sound as if they were playing in 4/4 time. It didn’t matter to them. They would play straight through the barlines. That’s a nice arrangement. That’s Bill Stewart on drums. I’d know that sound anywhere. Great drummer. Another one of them guys who can play in any style and he’s got his own unique sound on the drums. They played straight through as they were playing in four. I didn’t get a chance to hear the bass player solo, but the cat was rock-solid. He held down the time. Could it be Jay Leonhardt? There it is! I don’t have this record. 5 stars. High musicianship, man.

4. Dafnis Prieto, “El Guarachero Intrigozo (The Scheming Party Animal)” (from Caribbean Jazz Project, THE GATHERING, Concord Picante, 2002) (Prieto, drums & timbales; Richie Flores, congas; Roberto Quintero, perc.; Dave Samuels, marimba; Dave Valentin, fl; Dario Eskenazi, p; Ruben Rodriguez, b) (4 stars)

Man, I have no idea who that is. You got me on that one. It could be somebody like Dave Samuels, and the flutist could have been Dave Valentin. Any number of people who play that style. The arrangement was slick. The percussionists were great, tight as a drum. It’s not something I listen to all the time, but look, man, those guys played very well together. You could tell Dave Samuels knows something about playing changes. He was right in the middle of the chord changes. It’s a hard arrangements; it kept changing times and everything. Super slick. Slick arrangement, slick tune. It’s not something I would go home and play all the time, but the musicianship was high. What more can you ask for? But I don’t know who the drummers are. There are so many guys who play well in that style and can do that kind of thing. But the drum ensemble was very together. It almost sounded like the CD had skipped, because they played so well together. I don’t know how long it took them to get that tight. 3-1/2 stars.

5. Charlie Haden, “Blue Pearl” (from Charlie Haden, NOW IS THE HOUR, Verve, 1996) (Quartet West: Ernie Watts, ts; Alan Broadbent, p; Haden b; Larance Marable, d) (2-1/2 stars)

It’s Charlie Haden. That’s the West Coast Philly Joe Jones on drums, Larance Marable. It’s probably Ernie Watts on tenor. The tune is by Bud Powell, I think, but I can’t remember the name. I didn’t feel that Charlie and Larance hooked up as well as they could have. I wasn’t too bowled over by the bass lines. I like better bass lines than that. And he always plays bass lines like that. But I’m sure that was Larance Marable on drums. I’d know that drum sound anywhere. He’s one of the guys that brought the East Coast sound to the West Coast in terms of drummers. the other drummers out there, with the exception of Stan Levey and a few others, had a certain way of playing. But Larance Marable played just like a New York City drummer. As a kid, I always dug him. Like the record, The Resurgence of Dexter Gordon. That record was a big influence on me, man. The records he made with Sonny Criss. He also made a bad record with Victor Feldman called Victor Feldman Plays The Music From ‘Stop The World, I Want To Get Off’ that’s never come out on CD. He played his ass off on that record! Nice man, too. One of the unsung heroes of drums. It seemed to me that when Larance got a chance to play the drum solo he got a chance to take all the shackles off, and he said, “Whoa! BAM!” He sounded like himself then, as far as I’m concerned. He’s a keeper of the bebop flame. The piano player was good, too. Was it Alan Broadbent? Good piano player, man. I just did a concert with Jane Monheit, and he was the conductor. Great musician. Great writer and arranger. He really knows what he’s doing with strings. I wasn’t bowled over by the way the rhythm section sounded, though. 2-1/2 stars.

6. Frank Wess, “Short Circuit” (from TRYIN’ TO MAKE MY BLUES TURN GREEN, Concord, 1993) (Wess, ts; Gregory Hutchinson, d; Richard Wyands, p; Steve Turre, tb.; Cecil Bridgewater, tp; Lynn Seaton, b) (4 stars)

That’s magic, man. Frank Wess. I learned so much from him, playing in the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. He used to sit right in front of me. He’s the kind of guy that if you didn’t do what you’re supposed to, he would tell you straight to your face that it wasn’t happening, and he’d tell you what you needed to do to get it together. So I learned a lot from him. And just hanging around with him, talking. He’s been on the scene for years, playing with Basie and Lucky Millinder. Great musician, man. It’s too bad he doesn’t record more. He’s a master of the flute, one of the pioneers of the flute, at least in modern jazz. Great writer and arranger, too. That might have been Steve Turre on trombone. The pianist is Richard Wyands. It’s hip how he threw in that quote from Jimmy Heath’s “C.T.A.” Bass player could have been Lynn Seaton. That’s my nephew-in-law on the drums, Greg Hutchinson, early in his career. He plays a lot different now. He’s learned a little bit more about touch, about dynamics. The cat has hands. He always had the chops, as you can hear. Even, good swing, good time, comped well with his left hand. But now, the way he’s playing, he’s learned a lot more about the snare drum and he’s learned a helluva lot more about dynamics. He sounded great then, but since then he’s come a long way. I think this is a Concord record, “Turning My Blues Green” or something. Could the trumpet player be Terrell Stafford? Somebody like that. I can’t think of his name right off, but I can see his face in my mind’s eye. But it’s definitely Frank Wess, no question. Big tone on the tenor, swinging his ass off, great lines. 4 stars.

7. Ralph Peterson, “Smoke Rings” (from THE ART OF WAR, Criss-Cross, 2001) (Peterson, d, comp; Jimmy Greene, ts; Jeremy Pelt, tp; Orrin Evans, p; Eric Revis, b)

Ralph Peterson. That was a slick little tune, a hip tune. Those cats just play too damn loud, man. There were no dynamics. The only time there was some dynamics is when he went to the hi-hat near the end of the piece. To play like that, of course, takes a lot of energy and you have to know where one is. He definitely knew where one was. But there was no dynamics. It’s just loud, straight through the whole piece. There were no hills and valleys. In my opinion, if he could have taken that and just did something with the dynamics, it would have made it that much better. But I liked the tune, and the way he was playing around, all the time things… But it’s too loud. Too much. It’s too much ALL the time, as far as I’m concerned. Is that Orrin Evans playing piano? I know he’s trying to sound like Monk and everything, but… Whoever wrote the piece… Ralph wrote it? Nice tune. But I thought it was too loud all the way through. They didn’t seem to be playing any kind of dynamics at all. You’ve got to let things float sometimes, too. They’re just busy all the time. It made me nervous. He definitely knows what he’s doing. It’s just not my cup of tea. To sit up there in a club with the drums and everything that loud, I just don’t know. Ralph plays trumpet, too, and he plays piano. So he definitely knows something about melodies and harmonies. That’s definitely a hip tune. For what they were going for and that kind of playing… For the tune I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars. They knew what they were doing. But I didn’t hear any dynamics. Just loud and wild.

8. Dave Holland Big Band, “The Razor’s Edge” (from WHAT GOES AROUND, ECM, 2002) (Holland, b, comp., arr., Duane Eubanks, tp; Steve Nelson, vibes; Josh Roseman, tb; Billy Kilson, d) (3 stars)

Was that Steve Nelson on vibraphone? It’s probably Dave Holland’s big band. I like the tune. But I think it went on much too long. The band played very well together. That’s a hard piece of music. Did Dave write that? It figures. Great musician. Great bass player, too. Nice man. I didn’t think the rhythm section swung. The drummer sounded more like a cat that’s into R&B or a fusion-type drummer. It could have been somebody like Billy Kilson. When it came to the spangalang, to the swing, it really wasn’t IN there like… You could tell by the way the drums were tuned. To me, he’s not really a jazz drummer. Now, he played the ensembles wonderfully. But it sounded more like Fusion music. Plenty of energy. He played the hell out of the ensemble, though. But when it came time to play spangalang, to get in there and swing along with Steve Nelson, to me it really wasn’t making it. The drummer makes or breaks a band. The way a band sounds depends upon what the drummer does. But the band played great. Well in tune. Everybody sounds together. That’s a hard piece of music. 3 stars for the musicianship and the playing. High marks for the musicianship and the writing.

9. Duduka DaFonseca, “Bala Com Bala” (from SAMBA JAZZ FANTASIA, Malandro, 1999) (DaFonseca, d; David Sanchez, ts; Claudio Roditi, tp; Helio Alves, p; Romero Lubambo, g; Nilson Matta, b; Joao Bosco, comp.) (4 stars)

Is that Claudio Roditi on trumpet? I don’t know who the tenor player is. He played good, though. I can’t put my finger on that sound and phrasing. The drummer is very good. That’s a true art, to play brushes on a samba. Was that Duduka DaFonseca. Duduka DaFonseca is a bad dude, man. Nice man, too. The whole feeling of the thing was nice. He kept it light with the brushes, and it just floated along. It had that feeling. Of course, he knows about that. 4 stars. They all played their asses off.

10. David Hazeltine, “Horace-Scope” (from SENOR BLUES, Venus, 2001) (Hazeltine, p; Peter Washington, b; Louis Hayes, d) (5 stars)

That’s the real thing. It doesn’t get much better than that. David Hazeltine with my soul brother on bass, Peter Washington. Billy Higgins said you’re lucky in life if you get one bass player you can really hook up with. Well, the Lord smiled on me when they sent Peter to New York. That’s my favorite bass player to play with. I mean, very easy… Always plays the most sophisticated bass line ALL the time, better than any of the other bass players his age or younger. He knows what to play and when to play it, and at the right time. Of course, he checked out all the masters, like Paul, Percy Heath and especially Doug Watkins. My favorite bass player, easy to hook up with.

David Hazeltine is really the keeper of the bebop flame. He’s a great writer. He writes tunes like Horace Silver writes tunes — that was “Horace-Scope.” Anybody can get into them. He’s a great arrangers. Have you heard some of those R&B tunes he’s done arrangements of. He’s swinging his ass off! He’s coming out of Cedar Walton, Barry Harris, Buddy Montgomery and those kinds of guys.

And Louis Hayes! Listen, Louis Hayes is one of the only drummers, besides Mel Lewis, who took the time out with me when I was a teenager… I used to follow this cat around to all the clubs and the Jazzmobiles, and he used to see me all the time, and we got to talking. I’d say, “Hey, man, how did you get your cymbal beat like that, how did you get such great time, how did you get that sound?” He said, “Come up to my house, man, and I’ll show you.” I lived in Staten Island, and I’d go from Staten Island to all the way up in the Bronx, where he lives, and I would stay in his house all day and half the night. We’d stay up discussing Kenny Clarke records. I learned a lot about the right hand, that cymbal beat. He’s got the best cymbal beat outside of Kenny Clarke, who was of course his idol. You could take a handcuff and lock his left hand to the drum stool; he could make a date with just the ride cymbal, man, and you’d never know anything else was missing. That right hand could swing you into bad health. He’s one of my biggest influences. I grew up listening to them Cannonball Adderley records and Horace Silver records he was on. And he really helped me out in getting my stuff together, especially playing fast tempos, practicing the cymbal beat on the practice pad. I got that from him. So did Tony Williams, for that matter. Tony Williams asked Lou Hayes the same questions I did, and Louis told him the same thing — practice the cymbal beat on the practice pad and what have you. That’s how he got his cymbal beat together so he could play real fast. Louis Hayes taught me the same thing. Of course, later on I went on to play with Betty Carter and the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin, and it sure did come in handy. He showed me all I needed to know in terms of playing tempos. He’s got such a hellified feeling! In that middle tempo like that, it just laid right in there! It doesn’t get any better. He just swings his ass off.

It’s a great trio record. No one plays bass solos like that any more. Because Peter is one of the only bass players that took the time out to listen and study Israel Crosby and Ron Carter and especially Paul Chambers. He always plays great solos. 5 stars.

11. Teri Lyne Carrington, “Middle Way” (from JAZZ IS A SPIRIT, ACT, 2002) (Carrington, d; Herbie Hancock, p; Terence Blanchard, tp; Gary Thomas, ts; Robert Hurst, b) (3 stars)

Is that Jack DeJohnette on drums? It wasn’t Jack DeJohnette, huh? Well, if it wasn’t Jack, it’s someone who listened to Jack DeJohnette. I like the tune. It’s an interesting tune. That was Terence Blanchard playing trumpet, though. The tenor player could be that cat from Baltimore, Maryland. He plays with Steve Coleman, muscle-bound cat. Gary Thomas. Is it Joey Baron? It isn’t Joey Baron on the drums! Huh. I don’t know who the piano player could be? Is it Keith Jarrett? It could be Orrin Evans. Kevin Hayes? Billy Childs? The piece is nice. It’s kind of open, then they got into swinging in the middle. It sorta-kinda had the feel of an Ornette Coleman tune. I know it’s Terence playing trumpet, but I don’t know anyone else. But the drummer has the same setup as Jack, the cymbals with the real tight sound, them Paiste cymbals. The drummer sounded to me a lot like Jack, with a nice cymbal beat when they got into the groove. That’s the same approach that Jack would use. They played well together. Wait. I thought it could be Bill Stewart, but it didn’t really sound like him. I don’t know who that could be. I don’t know who the bass player is, the piano player, nor do I know who the drummer is. Most of the time I know the drummers, man, but this one is throwing me for a loop. What are these cats that are running around New York City? Who the hell could that drummer be, playing like that?! And it wasn’t Joey Baron… I give up. Who was it, man? 3 stars. [AFTER] Oh!!! Right, of course. That explains it. She used to hang out with Jack DeJohnette. She was very much influenced by him. Herbie on piano? Wow! So it was a California session. At least I guessed two of them.

12. Harold Mabern, “It’s You Or No One” (from STRAIGHT STREET, DIW-Columbia, 1989) (Mabern, p; Ron Carter, b; Jack DeJohnette, d) (2-1/2 stars)

Sounded to me like Harold Mabern with Jack de Johnette (I know that was Jack!) and Ron Carter. “It’s You Or No One.” While the three of them are great musicians, I didn’t think they played well together as a group, probably because they’d never played together in a trio setting. They didn’t sound like they were used to each other. They’re all great musicians, but to me the chemistry didn’t really work. They all played well, and you could see that the three of them were really listening, but the combination didn’t do much for me. Harold Mabern’s a great piano player. They call him Hands because he can play all them big, fat, pretty chords. Marvelous musician. Plays with George Coleman. Nice man. Knows everything about harmony that you want to know. It’s good for what it is. Three great musicians. What can you say about them? But 2-1/2 stars. I didn’t think it really hooked up. It wasn’t totally sad!

13. Branford Marsalis, “Trieste” (from REQUIEM, Columbia, 1998) (Marsalis, ss; Kenny Kirkland, p; Eric Revis, b; Jeff “Tain” Watts, d) (2 stars)

Sounded like Jeff Watts to me. Probably Branford. It went on too long, man. The stuff is too long, man. I could see they were going for something, but it didn’t knock me out. It didn’t do anything for me. It just went on and on and on. Pianist could have been Joey Calderazzo or somebody like that. Kenny Kirkland? That’s an earlier record. Well, ’98 is a while ago! It was okay. Those guys are good musicians. But I’m listening to this stuff, and I don’t really FEEL anything, man. It doesn’t really make me feel happy. It doesn’t make say, “Yeah!” It’s not that kind of feeling where you go into a club and say, “Hey, barkeep, give me another drink, man, and buy her one, too, or buy him one, too.” It didn’t have that feeling to me, man. Music’s got to have feeling. While these are great musicians, it doesn’t hit home for me. You’ve got to give them something for musicianship, because the guys can play! They played well together, they were going for a certain thing; it just didn’t appeal to me.

I’ve been in this music all my life, and I’m thinking what does the audience, the public think? A lot of this music you’ve played, sometimes I can understand why the audience doesn’t come out to hear jazz. They stay home watching “The Sopranos” and whatever else it is they do. I’m a musician, I’ve been in this stuff all my life, and it doesn’t have the feeling. Sometimes, when you go to these clubs and hear some of these bands play, and they go on for 15-20 minutes, when you look at the audience… Especially a woman. She’s looking like she’s thinking about what’s happening tomorrow, or “I’ve got to wake up and go to work tomorrow.” Because after about 2-3 minutes of that stuff, you’re thinking about something else. You’re not really into the music. People have a short attention span anyway. So to hear this kind of stuff in a club for 10-15 minutes, I can understand why people… Sometimes people come up to me… I’m not talking about hipsters. People who want to go out and like jazz, they want to be entertained. They’ll come back to me and say, “Well, I heard such-and-such.” I haven’t said anything one way or another. They get this look on their face, like a confused, sometimes apologetic look. Then they start blaming themselves because they feel they just didn’t understand it. It’s just too much for them to understand. It’s too much for them to comprehend. They think jazz is a high art — and it is — and they blame it on themselves. But then they finally come out and tell me, “I didn’t really dig it too tough.” The I start laughing. I can understand why they didn’t dig it. They went on for 20 minutes with a tune, man! Of course they didn’t dig it. They won’t play anything that an audience can grab a hold of.

I’m not saying it’s cold. I’m saying it lacks… I don’t know what it is. It just doesn’t have that thing that makes you say, “Yeah!” It doesn’t make you say, “Hey, let’s stay, baby, and have another taste.” There’s no finger-popping there. Not really. While they all play great, you know… It doesn’t do anything for me. 2 stars for the musicianship. Because those guys can play. They’re great musicians. It doesn’t do anything for me.

14. Ken Peplowski, “If This Isn’t Love” (from LOST IN THE STARS, Nagel-Heyer, 2002) (Peplowski, cl; Ben Aronov, p; Greg Cohen, b; Lewis Nash, d; Roy Yokelson, engineer) (4 stars)

The musicianship was high. The clarinet player played his ASS off. So did everybody actually. It’s a tune you very seldom hear called “If This Isn’t Love.” Cannonball used to play this tune. But this is the first time I’ve ever heard it as a calypso. Felt good, man! Everybody was playing their ass off. The clarinet player was incredible. Good time. Swung. Played the shit out of the changes. Man, the only cat who plays clarinet like that… That’s Ken Peplowski. That’s who I think it is. He played his ass off! There aren’t a lot of clarinet players like that, who can play. He can play any style. He’s a helluva musician. He’s studied it all. Is this record brand-new? I’ve never heard it before? That’s the best record that Peplowski has made. He’s got a good rhythm section for a change. For me, he’s a great musician, but he always makes these records with hack drummers. Every one of the records he makes, the drummers don’t swing. That’s the most important part of the band. For once, he made a record with someone who really nailed all of it.

I think I know who the drummer is, but they screwed him for a drum sound. The bass is buried under everything. I know the engineer screwed up, because if the drummer is who I think he is, this man gets the best drum sound out of all of us. No matter where he goes, no matter how sad the engineer is, he always manages — I don’t know how he does it — to get a good sound on the instrument that sounds like him. But I’m telling you, if this is who I think it is, they screwed him royally on this one. I want to hear another track before I say who it is! If I could hear a fingerpopper or something… All right. That’s Lewis Nash. That’s the worst drum sound they ever got for him. Because he was playing some spangalang, I could tell it was him a little bit more. On the other tune, they were only playing swing like in the bridge for a few bars. But in a better studio… I don’t know if Lewis was using his drums, he might not have been, but even when Nash doesn’t have time to bring his drums, he always gets his sound in the studio, no matter what. That’s the first time I’ve ever heard anything like him… It’s not his fault. Don’t get me wrong. It has nothing to do with him. The engineer should be slapped three times on each cheek, man.

To me, Nash has the best time out of all of us. You stomp it off, it’s like set it and forget it. If I have a gig and send him in as a sub, I can sleep that night, because I know the gig is taken care of. Great drummer, he can play in any style. We make all the records on the scene… This cat can do it all.

That’s a good record. I have to get it. I don’t even have to listen to anything else. It’s the best record Ken Peplowski has made. 4 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Kenny Washington

For Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, a Jazziz Article/Celebration from 2012, a Long Interview with jazz.com from April 2009, a Mid-Sized Article for Downbeat from 2005, and the Interview Conducted For the Downbeat article

For master drummer-bandleader-pianist-composer Jack DeJohnette’s 74th birthday, I’m posting three separate pieces — at the bottom is a mid-sized article for Downbeat in 2005 on the occasion of his Readers Poll victory for “Best Drummer”; above it is an exhaustive Q&A interview that appeared in 2009 on the now-defunct and much missed http://www.jazz.com website (it contains a lot of information about his formative years in Chicago); above that is a piece for Jazziz in 2012  in responsed to his NEA Jazz Masters Award that year that is primarily focused on appreciation-testimonies from 6 colleagues and friends from different generations.

 

Jack DeJohnette (Jazziz Article, 2012):

Calls of “Happy Birthday” rang out from the sardine-packed house at Manhattan’s Blue Note as Jack DeJohnette positioned himself at the drumkit for the first of two sold-out sets on January 8th. Rather than inform his fans that their salutations were premature (he turns 70 on August 9th), DeJohnette opted for inclusion: “Say it as many times as you like.”

Two days hence, uptown at the Rose Theater, DeJohnette would receive an 2012 NEA Jazz Masters Award. But on this evening, the iconic drumman-pianist-composer was celebrating that honorific—and a new self-released CD, Sound Travels [Golden Beams]—with his working quintet of the past two years (Rudresh Mahanthappa, alto saxophone; David Fiuczynski, double-neck electric guitar; George Colligan, piano and keyboards; Jerome Harris, electric bass) augmented by saxophonist Tim Ries and percussionist Luisito Quintero. Reacting to Quintero’s imaginative postulations of the beat, DeJohnette uncorked a symphonic array of organic grooves that touched on swing, salsa, tango, calypso, funk, drum-bass, Indian, and open rubato feels. The unit cohered from the jump, listened closely, self-orchestrated instantly, shifting on a dime from one feel to the next while reimagining such DeJohnette standbys as “One For Eric” and “Tango Africaine” and fleshing out new jewels from  Sound Travels.

Centered around DeJohnette’s intense simpatico with Quintero, a steady partner since his clave-centric Latin Project from 2005, Sound Travels is a succinct, interactive date on which DeJohnette—who plays piano on all but one track, joined by Esperanza Spalding on bass—distills a lifetime’s assimilation of musical dialects, while embracing experiences on a cohort of more recent projects. Bruce Hornsby, who partnered with DeJohnette and Christian McBride on the 2007 instrumental date Camp Meeting, contributes lyrics and vocals on “Dirty Old Ground,” a 7/4 line that DeJohnette describes as “Levon Helm and the Band meets New Orleans.” On “Luisito Serena Salsa,” Spalding’s elegant vocalese, a spare solo by guitarist Lionel Loueke, and a clarion wrap-up by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire transpire over the DeJohnette-Quintero connection.

Sound Travels took shape while DeJohnette and his wife, Lydia, were in England last summer. “She’d been thinking we should plan something special for my 70th year,” he relates, noting his participation in the 70th birthday celebrations of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. “Then the NEA called.” They approached jazz impresario Chuck Mitchell to work with them on “a record that encapsulates my musical taste,” with “a focus on groove and beautiful melodies.” Mitchell assented, requesting only that DeJohnette play piano. Based in Nice during the Keith Jarrett Trio’s annual summer tour of Europe, DeJohnette took advantage of off-days to write the tunes on a Korg M3, playing the pieces over the phone to album producer Robert Sadin.

Like DeJohnette’s entire oeuvre, Sound Travels embodies, as DeJohnette puts it, “the spirit of playing with Miles Davis, the Gateway Trio, and Keith Jarrett—open, prepared for the unexpected, and willing to follow that where it takes us. It’s easy to say ‘come up with something different,’ but the challenge is to come up with something that’s different and also makes sense and communicates.”

Asked to self-assess his accomplishment, DeJohnette focused on collective imperatives. “I’ve always come to the table with an intention to help—to add my creative input and make someone else’s music be the best they want it to be. I do this with love and passion. I was thrilled and touched to be recognized as a ‘jazz master’ for what I love to do, to be in the category of those who laid groundwork for me to build my music vocabulary on. But I hope that I am doing something to inspire the younger players, too. It’s important to have that exchange. It keeps everybody connected. You’re learning on both sides.”

TESTIMONIES

TERI LYNE CARRINGTON:

I see Jack as a natural extension of Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones, a perfect combination of the two—of course, with his own sound and style. You can hear Roy’s influence in the crispness of his touch and articulation; you can hear Elvin’s influence in the elasticity of his beat. I fell in love with Jack’s drumming when I heard him playing with Charles Lloyd on Forest Flower. That’s what I wanted to play like, so I spent a lot of time with his jazz style. I appreciate all of his recordings, but one of the more inspirational things for me is the way he plays standards with Keith Jarrett. I always keep one of those CDs in my car; sometimes, in my brain, I’m still trying to get to that.

Jack and Lydia have been like my second family. When I was 18 and able to drive, he invited me to his house in upstate New York, and I’d spend weekends, leaving Monday at 6 a.m. to make a 10 a.m. class at Berklee. I was a jazzhead, closed in my personality and playing, and they helped open me up. They were listening to all kinds of things—reggae, music from Africa and New Orleans, ECM style music. Jack calls his music multidirectional, which I think is a more accurate description than jazz—he let me know that you define who you are. Sometimes he’d play piano and I’d play drums; once he told me I didn’t have to repeat he rhythm he played, but could complement it with my own idea. Jack understands the importance of passing on his knowledge more than anyone else I’ve encountered. He made himself available for me and other younger people, which is a lot of work. The older I get, the more I recognize how special that is.

GREG OSBY:

Jack seeks out eclecticism in players who are proverbial diamonds in the rough, and nurtures and hones them to fit his purposes as a bandleader, like a musical chef, using a jigger of this, a pinch of that. Then he lets the dogs loose. His philosophy is that if you have to make too many statements and judgments and modifications, then obviously you’ve hired the wrong people. He expects nothing other than experimentation, people walking the tightrope, having open ears and being responsive to what’s going on around them. Playing with him is like playing with an octopus, a multi-tentacled drummer-percussionist. You get so caught up in the vortex of what he’s doing that you have to slap yourself back into the moment. You just can’t believe you’re that secure. He’ll do what he calls ‘elastic time,’ playing cycles within the cycles, like a metrical embodiment inside this rhythmic rush.

When I played with him, he was very open to the experiments we were doing with the M-BASE Collective. His band was the best laboratory for me. Gary Thomas or I would make what we thought was a mis-step, but Jack would say, ‘That was some bad shit; keep that in there.’ That let me know he was listening, and I had license to stretch. He embodies the spirit of somebody who wants to know about everything; he’s probably the most curious person I’ve ever met. We’d be out on the road for six to eight weeks, and he’d carry a suitcase filled with hardcover books and cassettes. He’s always checking out different languages and cultures and folklore. It was like a furthering of my academic education, on-the-job training with somebody who was a professor of life and information.

JOHN ABERCROMBIE:

Jack sums up everything for me about jazz drumming—or just drumming in general. He can play audacious rock-and-roll; and he can play great open, free music; he can swing like mad; and when he feels like it, he WILL just lay down a beautiful time feel—there’s nothing that sounds and feels quite like that. To play with him is challenging and very abstract sometimes, but it always feels great, because he comes from how it feels and how it sounds, and not so much worried about WHAT he’s doing. When we recorded together in the ‘70s, his pieces were often very loose, but he also wrote very pretty songs that he liked to play on the piano, which became structured, with dense harmonic material, like things that I or someone like Ralph Towner was writing. I think we got along so well because we both liked to listen to everything. That’s why he can fit into any situation—he’s able to respond and get into what the music calls for, rather than just superimpose his thing on the music. Jack is very accepting. You don’t have to be the most killing musician, but if he hears something in your playing that he likes, he’ll play with you and make something out of it. I was a totally green kid when he found me, but he was open and brought me along into his little world.

DAVE HOLLAND:

In 1967, when I was still living in London, Jack was in town with Charles Lloyd. At the time, young musicians were using Ronnie Scott’s old place to do late night sessions, and I was there playing at 2 in the morning, my eyes closed, when suddenly I heard a change on the drums. It was Jack. It felt so easy, comfortable and familiar. We did a lot of playing together that month, and we’ve enjoyed it ever since. Both of us had listened to and practiced with similar records—Coltrane’s Crescent and “Chasin’ the Trane,” We were working on the same ideas—the fast tempos, the relaxed, beautiful grooves that Elvin and Jimmy Garrison would set up. Perhaps that’s one reason why we hit it off so quickly, Jack brought his own set of parameters to the table. His understanding of harmony and melody helps him assimilate new music; I’ve seen him learn complex songs so quickly on recording sessions because he can recognize the form and changes right away.

When I came to New York in the summer of 1968 to start working with Miles, Jack and Lydia accommodated me at their small apartment in Manhattan, and introduced me to all kinds of people, which gave me a chance to get a foothold. He gave me a big opening in 1990, when he asked me to be part of the Parallel Realities tour with Herbie Hancock and Pat Metheny, which was a turning point in my career. We grew up in a time where we were inclusive about music, and both of us have stayed that way. We don’t consider categories to be limiting. Music is music, and we can use any aspect of it that feels creative.

ERIC HARLAND:

When you go to various drum festivals, Jack is the one drummer who brings something different every time, who isn’t afraid to have another drumset on stage and make music instead of a drum battle. He’s willing to play less for the sake of the music. Jack definitely has amazing technique, but he didn’t bog himself himself down with trying to be technically efficient. He’s not a classically-trained drummer, who uses a lot of finger technique, a lot of wrist, minimal arm movements. Early on, the way he held his sticks was unorthodox; I always wondered, “How is he playing that way?” But that’s how he taught himself. His musicality behind the piano and other melodic instruments helped him hear things that he forced out at the drumset. Drummers were always taught that in playing swing you need a washy cymbal, a loud cymbal that drives the band. Jack’s approach is closer to African music, where the cymbal is very dry, so it functions with the drums more like a unit. It’s like a mix between the rumbles of Elvin Jones and the clarity and back-and-forth skip from snare-to-bass drum of Roy Haynes, but more relaxed.

When you try to mimic drummers, you have to get into the body style, try to feel them as a person. When I try to pull off a little Jack, I notice that I have to become almost like a child. Which proves the innocence that you hear within his playing. He’s playing from a space that Herbie and them call ‘Why not?’—there is no right or wrong in music, and you can do anything you want. You can be supremely technical, or you can just be you.

GARY PEACOCK:

Playing with Jack is always an adventure. It’s always fresh. I love playing with him. There is this element called swing, which is undefinable, in some ways a lost art. Jack would refer to it as “lock”—when a bass player and drummer have a lock. It requires a total surrendering of whatever you think you are or whatever you think is going on, and you’re just there with a pulse of some kind—and when it’s swinging, the hair on the back of your neck comes up. He’s one of the few drummers that I can do that with forever and ever. There’s never a question about where Jack is when he’s playing. He’s always present. So many interesting nuances come out of that. He doesn’t trot out what he knows. He’s just there with the music, and he uses his array of drums and cymbals in a unique, intuitive way that’s always musical. He’s always adding something, playing the harmony. It’s amazing how he can bring a ballad to life with one little sound, You’re like ‘how the hell did that happen? How did he know?’ I don’t even think he knew. He was just responding. But it was absolutely perfect. You can’t learn that. You have to forget about yourself altogether. You have to be totally committed to the music. Can’t be about anything else.

SIDEBAR:

The piano is Jack DeJohnette’s oldest musical friend, but it’s been a while since he played it as much as he does on Sound Travels—he bookends the recital with two unaccompanied improvisations, uses it to dialogue with Bobby McFerrin and Quintero on “Oneness” (from the 1996 ECM date of that title), and both coheres and blends into the flow throughout.

DeJohnette began taking lessons at five from a private piano teacher, got more serious in mid-teens, and was working with a trio around Chicago’s South Side by the end of high school. He cites Ahmad Jamal’s famous Live At the Pershing: But Not For Me as a seminal influence, both for Jamal’s orchestrative approach to the piano, but also for Vernell Fournier’s brushwork. He also dug Erroll Garner, Wynton Kelly, and local pianists Jodie Christian, Billy Wallace, and Muhal Richard Abrams; as the ‘60s progressed, he also got into Herbie Hancock, a neighborhood friend from teen years.

“I had a trio [Scotty Holt on bass; Harold Jones, Steve McCall, or Arthur McKinney on drums] that played tunes like ‘Empyrean Isles’ and ‘One Finger Snap,’ and the pieces off of But Not For Me,” he says. “I did standards and originals, and learned how to interact with a rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist. The piano is a percussion instrument as well as a melodic instrument. It’s like an orchestra, and I can translate that to my drumming—the way I tune the instrument, the way I hear cymbals.”

On Sound Travels, DeJohnette observes, “I’m using the piano to be of the fullest service to the music, not to show off what I can do. I’m not in competition with all the great piano players I play with. I don’t get to play it as much as I’d like. In the future, I’d like to study and get some more knowledge and theory and harmony—get that done.”

 

In Conversation with Jack deJohnette  (April 18, 2009) — http://www.jazz.com

“I’ve always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist,” Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. “Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer, most recently on the CD Music, We Are [Kindred Rhythm], as pianist Danilo Perez, and bassist John Patitucci title their equilateral triangle-oriented trio, which performed in April at Manhattan’s Blue Note. Seated before a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated an electronic sampler and his own customized bells, and also playing melodica, DeJohnette propelled the flow with an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project, with Jerome Harris on guitar, for which DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music “that needed guitar and six-string banjo,” Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of the Afro-Iberian diaspora—several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a unit called the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman, and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, on which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-‘70s group Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 partner with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds, which he assimilates, digests, and incorporates into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflected in 2005. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.”

 

TP: We were speaking how you handle this group. Have you been playing at all since 2005, when you did the Birdland gig that inaugurated this band?

JDJ: We played for the first time as a trio in Panama, the Panama Jazz Festival.

TP: Right. At Birdland, Jerome Harris was playing guitar.

JDJ: We’d played as a group with Jerome in Europe. So we had the experience of playing the three of us together. This kind of thing, with the grooves we get, was happening, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we talked about it, and put aside some time, and last February everybody came up, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. Of course, we had a great producer, Mirav Ozeri, who we asked to come and film the process. She did a great job—the interviewing, and asked great questions, the editing, and putting it together. We worked together on that.

TP: That’s the DVD that comes in the package.

JDJ: Yes. I think Danilo and John both talk about when how we all play together, the music has a level of quality, and also a risk-taking thing. They feel like they can take off and do different things that they don’t do in other situations than with me, because I’ve kind of got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. So even when you play abstract, there is some kind of connection. There is some kind of groove even you can’t kind of 1-2-3-4. There is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection.

TP: There’s also a lot of color.

JDJ: Absolutely.

TP: You don’t usually hear Danilo playing synth-keyboard.

JDJ: Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we’re not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion…

TP: John Patitucci also uses the six-string electric bass. A few years ago, you told me that you’d written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish sound, and you were hearing John and Danilo’s sound with that. Is that the base on which the next…

JDJ: No. It’s taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There’s plenty of room, even when it’s busy. So there’s lots of space, and each night the music is totally different, so we take different approaches to it, and we’re not afraid to follow where it might go, and we have a great time! The other thing about the group is that it connects with its audience, in the sense that we can connect with each other facially, and also our audience. So there’s this rapport that connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there’s a lot of smiles and stuff going on between us. So it’s like an intimate thing that’s shared, and it comes back from the audience.

TP: You played on Danilo’s first record. Is that where you and he met? Did you know him before?

JDJ: I knew of him, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Gonzalo, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

TP: How do you mean that?

JDJ: Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors and all of that. But it inspired him, in a way, to develop certain things. Certain things that he’s playing now came about when we were touring with Jerome in Europe, this way of… This sort of multi-directional pulling, with John playing in one direction, I’m playing in another one, and Danilo pulling two or three ways, but we all know where are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.

TP: Compression-and-release.

JDJ: Yeah. It’s like breathing. It’s fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it’s boring.

TP: I seem to recall you remarking that you first played with John in ‘96 or ‘97.

JDJ: The first time we played together was with Eugene Pow, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I was familiar with John through his work with Chick Corea, so I was excited to get the opportunity to play with him. I said to him, “Hey, man, you and Danilo sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.” I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

TP: Before that, they played with Roy Haynes.

JDJ: Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

TP: In 2005, when this group launched, you were in the middle of presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Quartet, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez… I’d like to ask the present status of these projects. There was the duo with Foday Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix thing with your son-in-law, Ben Surman. Last November, you did a month with a group of…was it African musicians?

JDJ: Yes. I actually did it at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritani, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abbar. She’s like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but most of the time it’s a desert, it’s very hot, no electricity… At any rate, he met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn’t do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She had a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She’s amazing. She’s like a goddess there. This soulful African-Moroccan-sort of Mali-ish… She’s got a lot of things. She’s powerful, man. She’s got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights there at the museum.

TP: That’s great to hear about. I was thinking of a month-long tour in Europe last November that’s on your website.

JDJ: This performance with Dimi Mint Abbar happened in March. The project you’re talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino in it, Jerome Harris, a couple of British horn players, Brian Waller on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small groups—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She’s from South Africa, from Johannesburg, and she’s amazing. I heard her in London. We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. So I heard Sibongile at the London Jazz Festival, and when I heard her I thought, “Oh, man, I want to play with her.” She’s amazing. She has this classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. Amazing. It’s like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. She’s very much into dynamics. She’d written some pieces. That first band had Danilo in it, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I’d like to do it at some point. It’s a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she’s going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody’s availability. Of course, I’m still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I’m working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczinski on guitar… In the horn section, I’d have Don Byron here, but if I go to Europe I’d have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

TP: Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

JDJ: That’s changed. I want to play some more of my music. That’s something I feel the need to do. Also, I want to write some new music. It’s fun playing my music! That’s the other part of it. I haven’t been writing prolifically for a while, so that’s coming back. The juices are flowing for that.

TP: In the ‘90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That’s not so much in the picture these days, is it.

JDJ: Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they’re struggling with that.

TP: As are you.

JDJ: Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. This release is really… We knew it was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more.

TP: This group?

JDJ: Yes, but also a group led by me. Hopefully, we’ll do some more things with the Music, We Are Trio.

TP: As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Frisell, and your New Age record, which you received a Grammy nomination for. I’m sure you’ve sold a ton of units…

JDJ: No, not yet. But it’s definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

TP: But one thing that occurred to me in observing how John and Danilo interact with you was what sort of people are best-suited to play with you. You’re a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You’re a force. What sort of people are you looking for to play with?

JDJ: I’m looking for people like Dave Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris, people who are not afraid to take chances and are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances, and like to interact. Because I always need…I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don’t know about themselves. That’s the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that’s stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Then, certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different things. Type of colors, different types of concepts.

TP: I’d like to ask you about your drumming, aspects of your personality on the drumkit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, what they call your “dry” snare sound that’s your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drumkit, how your identity developed, how it’s evolved over the years. It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you’d want to respond.

JDJ: Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I’m a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drumset is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. And I develop my own cymbals also, and the bells you saw that were there. So I’m always searching for ways to enhance the color. One of the things I like to develop, and I’m still working on it, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I’m playing, there’s a touch, a lightness to it, an uplifting spirit that happens. So the cymbals, again, are like the icing on the cake basically. I hear all kinds of colors and tones. And the sticks… The sticks create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives more of a tribal sound to the drum—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum sometimes can overshadow the rest of the band, because it’s got these wire snares underneath, and they just resonate when you put them on. So it gives more clarity when I don’t use the snare drum. But when I do use the snare drum, it’s pretty crisp. I just the hear the instrument as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar…

TP: At least this week, you’re using a huge kit.

JDJ: That’s the kit I always use.

TP: How many pieces?

JDJ: An 8-piece kit.

TP: Not including the cymbals.

JDJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t count those as a drumkit.

TP: So it’s drums-and-cymbals.

JDJ: Yes, I’ve been doing that for a while. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

TP: How did that evolve? In the ‘60s you weren’t using so many components.

JDJ: No. But that came maybe in the ‘70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it’s just more colors. There’s just two smaller drums, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drumset. So yeah, I love having those extra colors?

TP: Are beats colors as well as pitches?

JDJ: Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they’re played.

TP: I also wanted to ask you a bit more about your tuning system. How did it develop, and why did it take the shape it did?

JDJ: I try to tune the kit so it’s in a range that doesn’t clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abbar, I actually had tuned to a G dominant VII scale, so that it would be tuned… Because they sing in the same key all the time. So I’ll change the tuning for that. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I’ll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

TP: How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

JDJ: Not enough. I haven’t been doing that enough. Although with this group, I’m playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that in terms of writing, for writing new compositions, and I use the piano to write.

TP: Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

JDJ: It is. It’s still my friend.

TP: Your bio states that you started playing it at 5?

JDJ: Around 5, yes.

TP: What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

JDJ: I had a piano teacher come by.

TP: You had a facility for it?

JDJ: Well, I had a piano.

TP: Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

JDJ: I didn’t get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

TP: I’d like to talk a bit about your roots in Chicago, and discuss some of the information that’s on your site, which I can link to. There’s a photo of you as a little kid with a toy saxophone. Can you tell me where that picture is from?

JDJ: That was at the Pershing. That’s the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did “But Not For Me,” Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. I believe I was 7 or 8, and this was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing…I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I’m 7 years old. “How the hell did they know that?!” I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, “Look at this kid, he’s 7 years old, and he’s playing—he’s listening to the record.” So that’s what that was. I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

TP: Getting that feedback from grownups.

JDJ: Wow. They must have been like, “Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.”

TP: You also wrote on the site that your mother is the author of “Stormy Monday.”

JDJ: So she says. She sold the tune for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. “Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.” Then they’d put their name on them.

TP: Was she involved in music at all?

JDJ: No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

TP: So your uncle was the inspiration.

JDJ: My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

TP: At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

JDJ: When I was a teenager. About 16.

TP: What was making you think that?

JDJ: I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. Then I knew… It was something I was really good at it, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, “Oh, this is what I want to do.”

TP: As a pianist, were you playing in the Ahmad Jamal style? Were you emulating him primarily?

JDJ: When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner’s stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who’s still around. Billy Wallace.

TP: He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter ‘50s.

JDJ: Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

TP: Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

JDJ: Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

TP: Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

JDJ: Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. But Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like “One Finger Snap” and “Empyrean Isles.”

TP: Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

JDJ: I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist, and I’ll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

TP: Was your trio Scott Holt and Steve McCall?

JDJ: Yeah, actually it was. That was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty also. You know Harold, right?

TP: He played with Ellington.

JDJ: Yes, but he also was the drummer on Eddie Harris’ Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with Eddie. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep’s in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

TP: Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington’s husbands.

JDJ: He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because they wanted Eddie’s band to play for her—she came with no band. So Eddie said, “Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.” The guy didn’t want to cough up what he had. Some Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, “Yeah, by the railroad tracks…” — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, “I might get a band together; maybe I’ll call you.” But she never did!

TP: So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you’ve put it, Eddie Harris steered towards concentrating on drums.

JDJ: He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I’d be more successful at it—and as it turned out he was right. When I came to New York in ‘64 or ‘65, I went up to Minton’s, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, “Hey, man, you got a set of drums.” I said, “Yeah.” “Well, you got a gig.” That’s when I decided, “Ok, I’m going to make drums be my main instrument.”

TP: What brought you to New York?

JDJ: Of course! It was the mecca.

TP: Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

JDJ: I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, “Ok, let me out of here.” Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton’s before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

TP: Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM. Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig…

JDJ: No-no, I was right in it. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal formed…he got a charter to form it. I was there when the whole thing started, and he found the building. We had the AACM Orchestra. Out of that orchestra… First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, another guy named James Willis. We used to actually go… Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn’t like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. But Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other’s house every day. I’d go to his house, or he’d come to my house, and we’d play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say “free”… I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

TP: They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

JDJ: Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

TP: You’ve also related a certain time when Coltrane came to Chicago and you were able to sit in.

JDJ: Yes. I’d been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh’s, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn’t return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I’d played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, “Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he’s a good drummer.” John said, “Ok,” and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

TP: Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

JDJ: No. It was the first time for that.

TP: Was it a transformative moment for you?

JDJ: Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energetic level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I’m happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

TP: It’s interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Leo Smith—you’re the only one who went to New York at the time.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Which is apropos of nothing. But as a speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid ‘60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

JDJ: Maybe. I don’t know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

TP: You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton’s, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you go out with Charles Lloyd, which brings you onto another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

JDJ: Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that’s where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver. The musicians around at the time were Henry Grimes, Cecil McBee lived on 10th Street… It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles Tolliver was very influential; we became close friends and musical constituents. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, “When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you’re going to get a call from Jackie.” I’d gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn’t even remember me…

Anyway, it was great, man! There was just music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. But I was freelancing. I think I worked some with Betty Carter, with John Hicks and Cecil McBee. I remember we played a concert at Harout’s, and then I played a concert with Charles Tolliver and Gary Bartz and Hicks and Cecil McBee.

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter…was it Pete LaRoca on drums… But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then I was playing with Charles, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was playing, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I’d worked with Cecil with Jackie McLean, I recommended him. He asked me about pianists, and I’d heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. So that became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon’s Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

TP: Being in New York, you’re all of a sudden in first-hand contact with all the drummers you’d been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony. Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You’ve mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then…

JDJ: No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Coltrane worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music. We can talk about the electric movement later.

TP: When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who was someone who deeply analyzed and emulated what other drummers did, or were the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that…

JDJ: More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. You can hear… I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations… The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble as well as solos. I’m not an analytical player. I’m more an intuitive player, really.

TP: But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

JDJ: Well, yeah. But the process is… That sort of happens in the instant that I’m creating something. I’m not sitting down and saying, “Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.” I just take it in.

TP: Were you a big practicer?

JDJ: Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity, playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could…you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I’m ready to go. But I didn’t study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers that was called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it’s kept me working all of these years.

TP: You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

JDJ: Yes. That’s something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it’s very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience of playing with Keith… If you look at my history, I’ve done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

TP: You joined Miles Davis in 1969, and you played with him for two years—‘69, ‘70, and ‘71.

JDJ: Well, ‘70. I came back in ‘71 to play one or two gigs with him.

TP: Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

JDJ: Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band, yeah, that changed… It changed before I joined him, really. So I was already set up for that, between Elvin and Tony. Miles and Jackie McLean both had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, “Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummer.” Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He’d heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that, they had to set up. “Ok, now you’ve got to set this way…” If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It’s in the rhythm.

TP: Did you box yourself?

JDJ: No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn’t want to get into it.

TP: You have to keep your hands safe.

JDJ: Yeah. No-no, I don’t want to mess with that. But I’m big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the… When guys are evenly matched, I like that. There’s a good match coming up, actually, with Manny Pacquiao and Ricky Hatton. Coming up on May 2nd. If you wait a week, you can watch it on HBO.

TP: Correct me if I’m wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new area of music that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix, and that he was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles’ music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I’m paraphrasing it correctly.

JDJ: Yes.

TP: Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles’ music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

JDJ: One of the things Miles was trying… I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I’m glad that they released the different nights.

TP: You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn’t present for.

JDJ: Yeah. Because you can hear the development of it. Each night it was different. But Miles liked it because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I’d want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that’s what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that’s what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we’d already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

TP: there’s a difference in a music as nuanced as jazz between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-a-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

JDJ: Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there. Charles is doing ok now. He made a comeback. I heard him a few years ago in Turkey doing something with Zakir Hussain and Eric Harland. And his group now with Jason Moran is nice.

TP: What’s also interesting is that you were so known for your deep grooves and energy, and then as the ‘70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through people like Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

JDJ: I think it was… Manfred Eicher had this vision; he’s a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, whether it be jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophone before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world…

TP: You were on so many sessions in the ‘70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

JDJ: Those recordings with Miles… Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, and extended that kind of creativity. He really heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. But as a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It’s been very valuable, even to this day.

TP: Talk about the ways in which it’s valuable.

JDJ: Well, it’s left a legacy of recordings that I did there, that are still relevant, still important recordings and…

TP: Did the experience refine your sense of playing the drumkit? Sometimes there’s a feedback loop with your production. As a musician or as a writer, you produce something, you see it, it might have some residual impact on what you do the next time, and you build on things incrementally. I’m wondering if the process of making those ECM records then had any sort of impact on your conception both of the drumkit and yourself as a musician, a composer or pianist. I’d also like to talk a bit about the evolution of your identity as a leader.

JDJ: I would say in that sense, yes, hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing, how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only by the sound quality, but what the musicians…the music that we were doing. People like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then my records as a leader, Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refining. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works… To learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You really have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don’t ring a lot. Because concert halls can tend to be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they’re made of, what type of walls and so on. So that also had an effect on me. I took consciously the idea of playing music in concert halls and bigger halls like that, learning how to adjust my playing. You asked me about being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that’s something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

TP: Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, it changes tonally—Lester Bowie was playing with you, and it became more abstract… I’d like to talk about why different groups took the tonal identity they did? Do you hear possibilities maybe a few years ahead and work towards them? Do you react to circumstances and respond to that with different personnel? I’m just trying to get to why different bands take on the personalities they take on.

JDJ: Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

TP: I seem to remember a concert at the Public Theater that Julius Hemphill played.

JDJ: He filled in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing, man. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, which when I go to universities and do orchestras, I take these charts. He really did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I’ve had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas and Mick Goodrick, who was phenomenal.

TP: A very different sound with that band.

JDJ: Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio-Visual Scapes, Extra Special Edition. I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players, and then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

TP: It’s interesting how you’ve stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

JDJ: Yes. We can talk about that on my label, Golden Beams, on which we’ve got Foday Suso, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, to remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is just light years ahead of anybody else I’ve heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He’s a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We’re going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that’s a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

TP: When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

JDJ: Well, world music has always been there since the ‘60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records. Hamzel Al-Bin(?). I was listening to that.

TP: Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side…

JDJ: There was a lot of it going on. But I didn’t get into it til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. So that came a little later. But the Afro-Cuban thing, I really got into it, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez. I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That’s what I like about playing with Danilo…or also Gonzalo…but Danilo and John. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. Because I like to dance. We like to move. That’s why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

TP: Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions.

JDJ: He’s a great teacher.

TP: But you’ve told me that you more take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

JDJ: Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things which, independence-wise on the drumset, influence Danilo. Danilo says, “Man, you were doing that.” I said, “Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.” In other words, we’re feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we’ll discuss it, we’ll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. “Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let’s try this and this.” So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn’t get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that…

TP: Well, it is intellectual, but it’s intellectual because of the nature of what it is, not out of some intention you place upon it.

JDJ: Well, yes.

TP: Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your career as a professional musician, which spans about fifty years, you’ve been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you’ve been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want to live. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock…

JDJ: Oh, I love it.

TP: Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

JDJ: No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that’s what I love to do. It’s my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with the climate today, the way it is, I expect there will be some challenges in the years to come. But I’m trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favorable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

TP: But with your own label, you’ve also made the transition to being an entrepreneur, as many musicians have done, and you seem to have put together a pretty good business model.

JDJ: Well, the business model is the result of my wife, Lydia, and her ability to… She’s a better business person than I. I’m very grateful to her, and also for her ability to pick the right people to run the label. Jane Chun and Doug Yoel from Now-Forward Music have been great as label manager. Jane is now a co-manager as well. So we’ve all developed and created a business situation which we feel very good about. We’re still learning how to make it be more successful, and I plan to work towards attaining that goal.

TP: Could you give me a couple of minutes to talk about the Creative Music Studio and your experiences with it? Were you pretty involved in it in the ‘70s?

JDJ: Well, yeah. I mean, of course, because I had a name, and so it drew students to it. That’s one of the good things that came out of it. Sometimes it was kind of loosely put together. But it brought together some very interesting musicians. People like Cecil Taylor came up and did concerts, and we had people like Aïyb Dieng, Trilok Gurtu, Colin Walcott…

TP: Did that influence your own absorption of world music and beats and grooves from different cultures?

JDJ: Well, yeah. Oregon, which was on the label. Oregon still is quite a world music cooperative group. It was up near Woodstock, and Karl Berger and his wife had this idea for a school, and a lot of people came from all over the world. Since then, a student has written a book about it. It was really very interesting. I think it set up an environment to bring a lot of musicians together from different parts of the world, to work together and also pass on their knowledge to students. It’s become sort of a cult icon, you know, or a cultural situation that people look back on like something special. There were times when they were struggling financially, so my wife, Lydia, and a group of other people put together a benefit concert, which I think came out as a DVD, a Creative Music Festival with Braxton, Chick, Colin Walcott, me and John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Lee Konitz.

[PAUSE]

JDJ: Chicago used to be a very stimulating musical place. In fact, people who were going to New York would come up from St. Louis, or Indiana (like Freddie), would come to Chicago, and then go to New York. There was a lot of music happening. It was a music town. There’s still a lot of music there. Joe Segal is doing his Jazz Showcase.

TP: But it seems that Chicago had a certain musical personality of its own apart from New York. It didn’t seem to rely so much on New York for musical models.

JDJ: Well, yeah. First of all, you’ve got to talk about the environment and the city’s rhythm. Chicago rhythm, Midwest rhythm is more laid back than New York. So you had more spaces, it’s more laid-out. But it doesn’t mean that the musicians who came out of there were all necessarily laid-back. Johnny Griffin, Herbie, me, Ahmad Jamal, to name a few. Ira Sullivan, who spent a lot of time there. Ira was a pretty phenomenal guy. I played with him when I was a youngster, then I went back to the Showcase and played with him. In fact, I have recordings of the Showcase with him and Von, with Jodie Christian. In fact, now that I think about it, those are historic recordings, because Jodie now has MS and it’s hard for him to play. He doesn’t go out much. But I have these recordings of Ira and Von—we’re doing standard tunes.

Now, we should talk about Wilbur Campbell, because he’s one of the legends of Chicago.

TP: Four years ago, you mentioned that he influenced you greatly, and Miles made the comment about you falling up the stairs.

JDJ: Right. Wilbur was that kind of drummer. I mean, he was a swing drummer. He played bebop really, really well, and he played marimbas—he knew harmony. Wilbur was an influence on me, in what they call…Danilo calls it “the washing machine.” Don Byron calls it this swirly, rolly kind of thing that’s not necessarily metric, but it’s really very abstract. Wilbur was the first cat I ever heard play that way in Chicago. He’d play some fours, he’d play this concept and you didn’t know whether he was going to get out of it.

TP: People say that Ike Day played like that.

JDJ: I never heard him, and there’s no recordings of him playing full-out.

TP: That stacked-rhythms approach seems to be the way he approached it, though.

JDJ: Fortunately, there are recordings on Delmark with Wilbur on them. There was another drummer named Dorel Anderson, who’s on Live at the Birdhouse. But Wilbur was special. Wilbur was like the Edgar Bateman of Chicago. Edgar’s another one who was a really unusual drummer. The same with Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith. Had some totally different stuff happening. So Wilbur I’d say was a real big influence on me in the sense of what you could play, how you could stretch 4 bars or 8 bars. I’d advise anyone to listen to those Delmark records by Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

Then there was another great guy from Chicago, who if he’d left Sun Ra might have given John Coltrane some problems, was John Gilmore. Gilmore had that ability, if he’d been in another situation and not stayed with Sun Ra, and been pushed and taken on being a leader… He obviously didn’t want to be a leader, because he stayed.

TP: It didn’t seem to be his personality.

JDJ: No. But he had something special..

TP: Then there was Wilbur Ware, another one-of-a-kind…

JDJ: Yes. Then the other bassist was Raphael Garrett, who had this unique way of playing rhythmically—and soulful. He was great. He moved to Seattle later, and he started making flutes and playing the bass.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*_*_*_*_
Jack DeJohnette (Downbeat Readers Poll 2005 Article):

“I’ve got just one more project to tell you about,” says Jack DeJohnette, capping a conversation about the staggeringly diverse activity of his seventh decade.

At 63, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a career c.v. that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. He intends to document as many projects as possible on his imprint label, Golden Beams, which he launched in early 2005 with Music In The Key Of Om, a solo drums, cymbals and tuned bells recital intended, in DeJohnette’s words, “to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and get rid of stress.” In short order, he released Music From The Hearts Of The Masters, a set of improvisations with kora virtuoso and griot singer Foday Musa Suso. He followed up in October with Hybrids, on which sound engineer Ben Surman, DeJohnette’s son-in-law, layers Techno, Reggae and African grooves onto four Suso-DeJohnette tracks and three tracks by Brazilian singer Martui Miranda.

“Foday and I mix Africa with the African-American jazz sensibility,” DeJohnette says. “It’s light and buoyant, not weighty. We’re interested in breaking out of the groove while still respecting it. We inspire each other, and our chemistry grows every time we get together. Foday gets free, and starts flying; a lot of traditional kora players would have no idea what he is doing. He has his own technique, which borders on jazz improvisation.

“Ben kept the integrity of the original tracks and made new stories out of them. Hybrids moves us into areas like remixes, special club mixes, and outlets like electronica. But where a lot of remixes are looped and repetitive, these are soundscapes that tell stories and change in surprising ways, with a great balance between acoustic and electronica. I think it raised the bar of artistic meaning.”

To raise the bar or push the envelope—choose your cliche—is the mantra of Golden Beams, which has in the pipeline a 2001 duo concert with guitarist Bill Frisell and a percussion discussion with Don Alias. These are the latest in a distinguished line of DeJohnette duos that include Ruta and Daita [ECM], a now-classic 1971 encounter with Keith Jarrett; Zebra, a 1985 worldbeat dialogue with Lester Bowie; and Invisible Nature [ECM], a hair-raising 2002 virtual concert with DeJohnette’s brother-in-law, John Surman, the English baritone and soprano saxophone master.

“You’re exposed in the one-on-one setting, and you hear differently,” DeJohnette says of his fondness for the format. “As with John, Bill and I used electronics—pre-recorded ambient things and my Roland Hand-Sonic percussion module—to get a bigger sound. Even though it’s two people, you’re still an orchestra.”

Recording duos is an efficient way for DeJohnette “get the label off the ground with projects that are doable both artistically and financially.” However, he emphasizes, “the label is meant to document new directions—although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path. I’ve always been curious about doing different things, like an alchemist. Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now.”

Speaking of hybrids, DeJohnette recently has focused on grafting various Afro-Hispanic strains. As an example, he cites a quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris, who first convened in January 2005 at Manhattan’s Birdland, and will tour for a November fortnight. “I wrote some Andalusian-influenced music that needed guitar and 6-string banjo, which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting,” he relates. “We’ll record the live gigs and see what comes out.”

A member of DeJohnette’s late ‘90s ensemble with Alias and keyboardist Michael Cain, Harris, who will triangulate DeJohnette’s 2006 performances with Suso, performed on two DeJohnette concerts this year with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez, and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, an association which DeJohnette plans to nurture. Also to be released on Golden Beams is the Latin Project, a clavecentric unit (Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to elaboration and abstraction of the groove.

Uniting DeJohnette’s flights of fancy is a “universal one” concept that he began to codify while playing drums with Miles Davis between 1969 and 1971. He draws beats from African, Afro-Cuban, Indian, aboriginal, and Near Eastern sources, processes them from the perspective of his own deep roots in jazz and funk, and incorporates them within the flow of his compositions and improvisations. He emphasizes that he doesn’t study the metric systems in a systematic manner. “I can certainly analyze, but I pick things up almost through osmosis, from listening, from the feeling,” DeJohnette says. “I tune the drums to different pitches of the intervals—thirds, fourths, fifths, maybe a chord—so that whenever I’m accompanying or soloing I can build a motif or a melody.”

DeJohnette recontextualizes more familiar territory—specifically cusp-of-the-‘70s fusion a la Tony Williams, Larry Young, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and Miles Davis—on a forthcoming recording by Trio Beyond, a partnership with John Scofield and Larry Goldings that formed during a week at Yoshi’s in February 2004. For an-depth look at how DeJohnette found fresh solutions to merging populist and esoteric vocabularies back in the day, hear the crisply executed machine gun shuffles, polyrhythms, and rubato sound-painting that he contributes to a series of never-issued performances by Miles’ blues-fueled, psychedelic jukejoint band with Gary Bartz, Michael Henderson, and Keith Jarrett on The Cellar Door Sessions, 1970. DeJohnette and Jarrett play with uncanny intuition and sensitivity, as they have done for the ensuing 35 years, not least during a 22-year association in Jarrett’s acoustic trio with Gary Peacock.

“I’m more refined now, but much looser in another way,” DeJohnette reflects. “I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I’m free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me.

“The ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected keeps Keith’s trio interesting. Usually we just sit down and see what happens. That’s the whole idea of improvisation—always be prepared to play what you don’t know.”

 

Jack DeJohnette (Sept. 27, 2005) — Downbeat Readers Poll:

TP: Let’s talk about why you formed the new label.

JACK: I’m involved in lots of musical projects. One specifically that I’ve been involved with, and it just turns out that it comes up that way, is duo projects, which consequently I’ve done some duo projects for a number of years with John Surman. Over 15 years, we’ve done 2 CDs — well, three. Two duet records, and one bigger…

TP: One is London Brass from 2003, and the second duo was from 2000, Mysterium.

JACK: Right. At any rate, then I did a duet project with…a concert with Bill Frisell, which we’ll get into later. And Foday Musa Suso.

TP: I’ve just been watching the promotional DVD for that from Montreal 2003. Very inspiring.

JACK: Thank you. Foday is very inspiring and a very innovative kora player and griot and singer. I first became aware of him with Herbie’s duo project with him in 1984, on a record called The Village. Over a period of time, I’ve followed Foday’s development. He had his own group, the Mandingo Griot Society, and did some things on Bill Laswell’s label, Axiom. I always wanted to hook up with him, and the opportunity came when we met in London. He had this idea of just doing kora and jazz drums. He didn’t want to sing, because he really wanted to put the kora as a lead instrument. That in itself is unusual, but then with me he came up here to the house a few years ago, and we spent four days, I think—a couple of days jamming, and then went in the studio. In two days, we had all this material. Right away, we had this rapport like we’d been playing together for a few lifetimes. Since then we’ve done a European tour, and we did some playing at Joe’s Pub, and we’re going to be doing a tour next year. But at any rate, the art of the duo—there’s that project, the Hearts of the Masters. Then I have a little project that will be coming out sometime next year which is with percussionist Don Alias and myself.

TP: You did a video with him as well.

JACK: Yes. That’s called Talking Drummers. That has a forward by Dave Holland and Michael Brecker. It’s on Homespun. But we’re going to tie in these…

TP: How do you see this label vis-a-vis the other recording projects that you do? Is this for special things that might not otherwise find an outlet? For particular areas of your activity?

JACK: It’s doing projects—closer to your first point. Closer to projects that are artistically doable and financially doable. That’s why we’re doing smaller projects, just to get the label off the ground. But it’s also a unique thing, doing projects that are just different… Or different in some ways to me, although people who are familiar with me may say it’s Jack following his path and doing interesting and different things. But I like to do things that captivate the listeners and inspire them, as well as other musicians.

TP: It seems to me that these projects take you in a different space than your jazz projects — to use the term broadly. Just these few. It’s not the way you play with the Keith Jarrett Trio or the way you played with Special Edition or with Danilo and John Patitucci. It’s a different orientation towards the beat and the groove and so on. It seems so to me, though it may be a superficial impression.

JACK: Well, the Foday duo is definitely interested in the groove, but also breaking out of it while still respecting the groove at the same time.

TP: That’s sort of what you did with Miles, too, isn’t it.

JACK: Mmm-hmm.

TP: You make that comment on the DVD.

JACK: Yes, it’s a similar thing. It’s a way of honoring tradition but also moving out of the tradition to something totally new and different.

TP: That’s really been your focus since you emerged on the scene, from the records with Jackie McLean and Charles Lloyd, and Miles, of course… You’ve been able to find spaces in which to apply that notion throughout your career. It’s either luck or circumstance, but something tells me it’s not just luck.

JACK: No. [LAUGHS] It’s just always interesting… I’ve always been curious. Curious about doing different things. Like an alchemist trying different things. The music seems to be… Different genres of music seem to be cross-pollinating more now than they have been before. I mean, they always have been, but I think the rate of that is speeded up now.

TP: Do you think there are more people oriented to that now?

JACK: Yeah, I think so. I think that it isn’t jazz musicians. It’s much broader than that. I think a jazz sensibility… For instance, what Foday and I bring to this music is the African and the African-American jazz sensibility. You know what I mean? I think it’s stated in a clear way between us. It’s not straight-ahead, but it has elements of funk in it and grooves in it. But it’s light. It’s not weighty. It’s buoyant.

TP: You get that counting and not-counting thing at the same time. The groove is so stated, but he also talks about how when he’s in Africa he doesn’t count. And somehow, the two of you are able to able to access both qualities.

JACK: Right. He trusts me. He knows that I’ll come up with something and play something. If he plays something, I’ll find something to play with it. And when we improvise, man, I tell you, when we played at Joe’s Pub… Foday surpasses himself and we both kind of inspire each other. I mean, he comes up with things that he really gets free, and he just starts flying. I’ll tell you, some of that stuff a lot of the traditional kora players would have no idea of what he is doing. But he’s got his own technique, and it borders on jazz improvisation.  So the chemistry between he and I grows tremendously every time we get together. The beautiful thing about it is we don’t have to go into deep discussions about it. We can get right to the core of it.

TP: You’ve utilized African beats, you’ve utilized Afro-Cuban beats, you’ve utilized Indian beats, you’ve utilized beats from all over the world within the flow of your compositions and your groups. Have you studied those beats and metric systems in a systematic manner, or do you kind of improvise-learn them, pick things up and react intuitively?

JACK: Exactly. The second statement is more accurate.

TP: Sorry to give you these multiple choice questions.

JACK: No, it is more like that. I pick these things up almost through osmosis, from listening to the music, not by trying to analyze it. I can do that, but it’s the feeling of it. What does that feel like? I use my jazz sensibility or broad perspective of jazz sensibility and apply it to a composition or an improvisation.

TP: Another project, which you’ll be touring with in November, is the band with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci and Jerome Harris. How did that one come together?

JACK: Well, Danilo, as you know, is one of the premier Latin artists who has really made a stamp from the Latin American expression on the jazz scene. He hasn’t been afraid to use his roots to expand the jazz horizons or capabilities of music. But he’s also able to stay in tune with the tradition and move outside of it. Jerome has played with Danilo and I, and the trio, and basically Danilo… So we have a rapport with Jerome and Danilo. Then I had this idea. I’d written some Spanish-influenced music, or Andalusian music, and I wanted to have guitar and 6-string banjo, and Jerome plays guitar and he plays a few other string instruments, and he got a 6-string banjo. So I wrote this music which I thought would be perfect for a quartet setting. Then John Patitucci, who is really well-versed in Afro-Cuban music and funk music, and is very broad, as well as having a really great feel and is a joy to play with… I wanted to do this with this quartet, with this group, because I felt the chemistry would come out and generate the vision I had for the music. We did a week at Birdland last January, and that was so good.

TP: How did the music evolve over the week? It’s such an interactive trio, and I suppose John and Danilo after four years with Wayne Shorter have the notion of exploding form in their bones!

JACK: Yeah, there’s a natural affinity we have. Each night got better and better actually. So now we’re going to be going for two weeks, playing pretty much every night. We’ll record the live gigs and we’ll see what comes out.

TP: Now you have the flexibility because of the label, should…

JACK: Yes, I have that. Whether it’s become a case of bigger projects… A case in point. There’s this cooperative project that I have with John Scofield and Larry Goldings, which we call Trio Beyond. Originally it was to celebrate Tony Williams, but we decided that Trio Beyond would… You know, I don’t want to be stuck with it having to be just Tony. But it was a good launching pad, because we all had an affinity and love for Tony, who was a great master drummer and composer…

TP: Did it start as revisiting and reinterpreting the Lifetime repertoire?

JACK: Yes, it did.

TP: How did it evolve?

JACK: It came together because the wonderful Montreal Jazz Festival every year has an artist-in-residency, and a couple of years ago I was called for an artist-in-residency — actually the first percussionist to be called for it.

TP: Was that 2003, where the Foday Musa Suso performance DVD comes from?

JACK: Yes. So I did four nights there with different groups. One with Herbie, Dave and myself, another with Foday and myself. I actually wanted to have John and Larry, but they were busy! But everybody got so excited about the idea of it that I said, “Okay, let’s go into a club.” So in February 2004 we played a week at Yoshi’s, and the place was sold out every night. The music evolved and evolved, and got better and better. Then last fall we did a European tour, and that was amazing, just playing this music all the time. By the way, we’re not just playing Tony’s music. We’re playing Wayne’s music, Miles music, some of Larry Young’s music, and John McLaughlin’s music, and some of our own music as well, our own originals. So it’s pretty broad. But on that tour, we made a recording in Europe, and we hope to put it out next year, and we’re going to do the summer festivals in late June-July.

TP: It’s interesting, because that’s a project that takes you back not to your earliest roots, but to your first mature professional roots.

JACK: Oh, yeah.

TP: How does that feel from this perspective, 30 years later? You never really left it, but that’s a particular time and space you’re articulating there.

JACK: Yeah, except that the space we’re articulating is in the present, not in the past. So that’s the difference. So I’m looking at it from fresh eyes. I’m not looking at it from looking back.

TP: But let’s look at how the fresh eyes differ from looking back. I’m assuming you’ve probably spent some time listening to the Cellar Door recordings, as you gave some public commentary on it. How has Jack DeJohnette of 2005 evolved from the player of 1970-71?

JACK: Well, from there to now I guess I’m more refined to some degree, on the one hand, and much looser in another way. I’m having more fun with the music.

TP: More fun?

JACK: Yeah, more fun. I had fun with it then. But it’s being older. I’m taking in much more. My heart is more open. So it’s more joyful to me, playing music.

TP: That’s a wonderful thing. Has that been a continuous process? Have there been ebbs and flows with your enjoyment with music? Has there ever been a time when music wasn’t fun for you?

JACK: Not too much. But there were times when it was better than others. which is natural in the course of life, to have these ebbs and flows.

TP: What makes it more enjoyable now? Is it that you have more freedom to do whatever you want?

JACK: Yeah. Also, the kinds of things… Yes, that’s a good answer for it.

TP: May I quote myself, then? “I have more freedom to do whatever I want.” Was Tony Williams a very inspiring figure for you when you were a young guy? You’re actually older than him.

JACK: Yes, but we’re still contemporaries, about a three year difference. But yes, he was very inspirational.

TP: When did you first see him play?

JACK: I saw him in Chicago right after 7 Steps to Heaven came out. The things he was doing — his touch, his concept, it all was different. And his drive, the way he could drive the band was different. Also some of his sideman recordings and also some of his leader recordings — his compositions were happening. I saw the Lifetime band when they did their first gig at Count Basie’s in Harlem, and that was really incredible, to see the band playing that material live. It was fantastic.

TP: Who were the people you were paying attention to before Tony? I gather you weren’t fully decided that you were going to be a drummer until fairly late.

JACK: Yes. Well, I had at some point played both of them, and then I decided to make drums the main instrument. I was listening to Elvin and Roy Haynes actually, who is still one of my favorites, who is still, I’m happy to say, going strong in his eighties, getting more attention than ever — and deservedly so. Philly Joe Jones. Art Taylor was a guy I really liked, although I never tried to imitate him, but I loved what he did on a lot of those Blue Note and Prestige records.

TP: Any local drummers?

JACK: There was a drummer in Chicago named Art McKinney who was an influence on me. Vernell Fournier was also a big influence when I started playing drums as far as brushwork was concerned. And Wilbur Campbell. Wilbur was one of my mentors. I used to hang out and watch him play all the time coming up. Wilbur had this way of playing, filling up when he took solos; it felt like somebody was cleaning out a closet and everything was falling out all over the room. That’s one of the things that kind of inspired my concept when playing the drums. I remember Miles said to me that my way of drumming reminded him of a drunk falling upstairs. Up stairs. Not down.

TP: In some of your own publicity, you very much emphasize that you never put music into categories and are fascinated by diversity. It seems so characteristic of so many musicians who came out of Chicago, particularly during that post-war period up through the ’60s. Any speculations on why that is?

JACK: Well, I don’t know. I can speak only for myself. I was just drawn to all kinds of music as a kid. I listened on the shortwave radio we had to music coming from Europe. I didn’t know what it was, but I used to listen to County-and-Western music, Grand Ole Opry, gospel music, I listened to soul music… I was curious about it. I just never put it in the category. Of course, I was listening to jazz when I was 4 or 5 years old.

TP: Was the scene in Chicago conducive to nurturing that sort of attitude?

JACK: Yeah, it was pretty broad. There were all kinds of people. We had the AACM, and then you had the regular gigs that you did, and the outlet of the AACM… In fact, I was in Chicago for the Jazz Festival there, and the AACM Orchestra was there, which had a big group of musicians — three drummers, two bass players, singers, woodwinds, brass. Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman were there as guest soloists. I was in it at the beginning, with Muhal Richard Abrams, who was also a great mentor to me and still is… He got the idea to create a viable outlet for musicians who were thinking differently and wanted to create a different language. That’s what came out of that, musicians who totally knew the tradition, but wanted to find another language to express their creative views. This was perfect for that. So Joseph, Malachi Favors, Roscoe, Henry Threadgill, Braxton, all those people were around then, and it was a very exciting time.

TP: Do you see yourself as in the same line of sensibility as those people? Do you see yourself as an AACM musician? Or did you go past it, in a way?

JACK: I think that’s all just part of who I am, part of my experience. I also was a member of Sun Ra’s Arkestra in Chicago, and also very often played with him in New York. It’s very broad. You could say I’m a potpourri of all of that.

TP: Eddie Harris was the one who convinced you to stick with drums and make it your main focus?

JACK: Yes, he suggested it. Then it was later that I decided to do that. He thought I played good piano, but he said I was a natural drummer, and that if I would stick with it, I would be more successful.

TP: He was a smart guy, wasn’t he, Eddie Harris.

JACK: Oh, he was a genius. Great guy. He played all the instruments. That’s what he said. “I play all the instruments, but I had to make saxophone my main instrument.” He had to do the same thing for himself. You have to decide.

TP: Let me ask about a few other collaborative projects. One is the Ivey-Divey record, which had a lot of acclaim, although I gather you’re not playing that gig any more.

JACK: But that doesn’t mean that if something comes up and I’m available, I won’t go out and do it.

TP: What was that project like for you?

JACK: Don and I are good friends. I love Don. He lives nearby. When we were talking about coming from that lineage, Don is extremely broad, and he has a penchant for investigating all kinds of genres of music and juxtaposing his spin on it, which is very interesting. He talked to me about this project in the sense of a great jazz trio, which was an original recording with Nat King Cole and Buddy Rich and Lester Young. He wanted to do something based on that, without a bass — although he did add a bass, Lonnie Plaxico, on a couple of tracks, and Ralph Alessi on a couple of tracks. But the primary premise was to do some of those songs that they did, but do them in the present. I think one of the reasons that came off so great is that Jason had planned to listen to that recording, but he never got around to it. Well, I think he listened to it afterwards. But it was good, because then he wasn’t pre-frontloaded about how to approach this concept. So when he got there he was fresh, and approached it with a fresh concept — his concept. As a result, it was a surprising feeling that took over the music, and it was received really enthusiastically by the critics and by the public.

TP: Now, you knew that Prez-Nat Cole-Buddy Rich record.

JACK: Yes.

TP: What was it like for you to deal with material that’s iconic? But I suppose it’s old hat for you to find fresh ways to deal with received information.

JACK: Yeah, but there are some nods to the way the drums were played in the period. Like, in the introduction, the solo I played on I Want To Be Happy, you hear that nod to that type of playing, the 4/4 on the bass drum, and playing the solo on the snare exclusively. So you’ve got to move in and out of it as the music calls for it. You have to be there right in the present with that music, and not try to duplicate what it came off before. Sort of somehow it’s going to come out anyway, the past, the present and the future, all in that instant.

TP: And you’re still touring with Keith Jarrett and Gary Peacock, so I suppose that’s another major part of your activity, at least for when the band is touring.

JACK: Yes, it is.

TP: It’s scheduled for later this year and 2006, too.

JACK: There are some things scheduled for that. I’m going to be touring with Foday in the fall of next year — October. The duo now has actually become a trio, with Jerome on bass.

TP: Do you know Jerome from Sonny Rollins?

JACK: Yes, actually through Sonny and through him playing with a lot of other musicians around New York. He’s such a versatile player and creative musician that he’s in demand all the time, and I’m fortunate to get him in quite a few of my projects. I also have a Latin project which involves Jerome and Don Byron and Giovanni Hidalgo, Edsel Gomez, and Luisito Quintero. I’ve recorded that band professionally, and I just haven’t… It’s great. I have an abundance of projects. We have another one, but before I get to that, in regards to Jerome: He just is so supportive and great as a person. He adds so much to the music. So it’s always a pleasure to work with him.

TP: Does the Latin Project have a different book than your quartet with Danilo and John Patitucci?

JACK: The Latin Project involves music written by Don, Jerome, Edsel and myself.

TP: So it’s a more cooperative band?

JACK: In a sense. I mean, it’s my band, my project.

TP: Are you concerned with playing idiomatically on that band, in other words, with not breaking clave, or are you bringing your typical expansive approach to that music?

JACK: We’re doing both things. Somebody’s always holding it together. There are grooves going in there. What breaks that is when I’m soloing behind anybody else, or if Giovanni is soloing he’ll break out of just playing steady rhythms and get abstract. I’ve noticed that… We did 8 dates for Artist Presenters concerts earlier this year, and as the band progressed, the percussionists got looser. So we do work off of the clave, but a lot of the music is written as Latin, but no straight-ahead swing stuff. It’s more or less in the Latin vein, but the way we treat it is very different.

TP: Again, we have the serious deep groove and then the elaboration of that groove. It occurs to me that you’ve played with Keith Jarrett now for about forty years.

JACK: No, it’s about thirty.

TP: With Charles Lloyd…

JACK: It’s about 30 years. A little over 30.

TP: Miles at the Cellar Door was in ’70, and you played with Charles Lloyd before that.

JACK: That was the late ’60s.

TP: So 36-37 years. It’s in my mind because I’ve just been listening to the Cellar Door recordings, particularly the ones before John McLaughlin joined in, and checking out the interplay between you when he was playing those keyboards and how open and intuitive it was, and how imaginative it was. I’m wondering how the relationship has evolved and your mutual impact on each other. I don’t know if there’s anything to say about it…

JACK: Well, there’s not a lot to say about it except that you hear it in the music. It’s a trust of each other. It’s a continuation of… I guess it’s experience that we bring together… Also with Gary, too. But the experience that we bring to the music, no matter what it is we’re playing, and the ability to stay open and be ready for the unexpected, that keeps it interesting for Keith and I and Gary to play together. We don’t have to talk a lot about the music. Maybe for tunes or about an arrangement for a piece. But most of it is we sit down and see what happens. That’s always the way it’s been?

TP: Is that what you like to have in all your projects, a sit down and see what happens kind of thing? After due preparation, of course.

JACK: Yes. Absolutely. Well, that’s the whole idea of improvisation, to be prepared to play the unexpected. Always be prepared to play what you don’t know.

TP: It sounds like you’ve really been able to move yourself towards a one-sound concept, bringing everything you know into all the projects you’re doing. It’s a very nice position to be in.

JACK:  I’ve got a few other projects I want to tell you about. There’s a project which is coming out next month which involves remixes.

TP: I just listened to it this morning, before this conversation.

JACK: Good. My son-in-law, who is Ben Surman, who is a good musician and technical sound-engineer and a great remixer… We wanted to work together, and we decided to do a project called The Ripple Effect—and of course, the title of the CD is Hybrid. Ben and my daughter, Minya, on our website who does some of the covers, came up with it. But the idea for this, as Ben puts it on the back, is to take previously recorded tracks – duo tracks I might add (I call this the Art of the Duo series) – and to be able to keep the integrity of the original tracks but make new stories out of them. This is what Ben has done so incredibly well. He’s taken four tracks from Foday and I from The Hearts of the Masters, and remixed those, and three tracks from a very gifted and talented Brazilian singer and musician, Martui Miranda, So those have been remixed. And we have one track that Ben and I did together. I’m real excited about the results of that. This is moving into different areas, when you talk about remixes, special mixes for clubs, and different outlets, like electronica. But Ben’s ability to remix in such a way that it’s not like a lot of remixes, where you put on a loop and it’s repetitive, it runs on for a long time. These are soundscapes that tell stories, and they change in surprising ways, and there’s a great balance between acoustic and electronica, and I think it raised the bar of artistic meanings.

TP: Do you listen to much electronica? Have you been?

JACK: I’ve listened to some, yeah. Some chill music. I don’t listen a whole lot, but there and then. Will Calhoun comes up and he’ll keep up to date on what’s happening.

TP: There’s also the meditation record.

JACK: Yes, the meditation is the first of these Golden Beams. Again, that’s something I did for my wife Lydia. She does healing work.

TP: So this was her commission for you.

JACK: Well, yeah. I wanted to do something to make it nice for a person to relax and just get rid of stress.

TP: Do you use it for yourself?

JACK: Yes. When I’m on the road, I use it. It grounds me and soothes me. A lot of people do that. It turned out that I passed it out to friends and people said, “Oh, this is nice,” and I thought, “Well, maybe I should put this out.” The person who took the cover photograph liked it so much, he used it for yoga. People use it for healing work, to ground people. So it’s taken on a life of its own.

TP: It might be the most personal of all the records, then, if you’re using it to relax like that. Are you spending much time on the road now?

JACK: Yes, I’ve been on the road a lot. But before we get to that, I’ve got six weeks off, which I have a lot of work I have to do. Actually, another project that’s coming out by the end of January next year is a project that Bill Frisell and I did. While I was out with Keith at the Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle in 2001, he and I did a concert together.

TP: You’ve done a couple of records with him on other people’s projects, right?

JACK: Yes. And I did something with Tim Ries as well. Anyway, now I have to get this together by the end of next month. That will come out next year on Golden Beams, because there’s a quick window to get it in there and get it out. The label is allowing that to happen.

TP: So it just doesn’t stop for you, does it.

JACK: No, it’s great stuff. It’s just a lot of work for all of us.

TP: A musician these days has to be an entrepreneur, I suppose. You have play, you have to practice, you have to set up the gigs, you have to set up the technology, and you have to find people help you who know what they’re doing.

JACK: Koch Music will be our distributor here in the States, and in the next couple of months we’ll have European distribution. So we’re moving slowly. One other thing about the label which I think is important to mention. You’ll notice that within a span of a year, maybe 18 months into next year, there’s a lot of releases being released on this label. Normally, an artist wouldn’t do that. But the different CDs I’m doing seem to fit different areas. So we feel strongly that they don’t conflict. The electronica is one thing, the Hearts of the Masters is another, the duo with Frisell is another, the project with Don Alias will be another. The DVD with Don is about the making of that. It’s called Talking Drummers, but the CD will be called Welcome Blessing. We’re going to put that out a little later.

TP: Why do duos appeal to you so much?

JACK: They just seem to pop up that way! It’s a one-on-one, so therefore, you’re really exposed in that setting. You hear in a different way when it’s just two people playing. Like, with Bill, there’s some electronic stuff that we use that enables us to get a bigger sound, the same as it was with John Surman in the live performance, where we have pre-recorded ambient things, and I have my Roland (?)-sonic percussion module. So it gives you… Even though there’s two of you, you’re still an orchestra.

TP: I have many more things I can ask you, but not enough room to print it. We’ve covered your projects, which is what this is about.

JACK: Oh, one more project. This one is a Spanish project with Chano Dominguez. I’ve been a fan of his for quite a while. I first heard him in Cuba at the Free Jazz Festival, and Danilo Perez introduced me to him. This year I was able to do something with him, Jerome Harris, Luisito Quintero, and a flamenco singer named Blas Cordoba who sings with Chano. We did a few dates in Europe this year – one in Germany, one in Italy. We’re doing some of Chano’s pieces and some of mine, and I’m looking forward to hearing some more of that. Hopefully, I can bring Chano over to do some things in the States. So that’s another project I’d like to pursue in the future.

I’m also may be doing a project with Nigel Kennedy which may feature Herbie and Ron Carter. I’m also producing a project with Igor Butman, tentatively next year…

TP: Will that be a straight-ahead jazz project?

JACK: Yes. It’s a project of his arrangements of a Russian cartoon that was famous, and the music for that. He’s got somebody interested in seeing him record that music. Also, next January I’m going to be doing something with Chick Corea, John Patitucci, myself and a couple of guest artists. We’re going to go to (?).

TP: We need a book here, or at least a full website.

JACK: Well, that we’ve got.

TP: On your website, you make reference to your melodic concept of the drums, but you don’t elaborate on what the melodic concept of the drums is. How do you mean it?

JACK: First of all, tuning the drums, tuning them to different pitches of the intervals. In other words, fourths, fifths, thirds, or a chord maybe. It depends. But they’re tuned so that whenever I’m accompanying someone or playing a solo, I can build a motif or a melody that I can follow and somebody who’s listening can follow, so there’s always music happening on the drumset.

[—30—]

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Filed under Chicago, DownBeat, Drummer, Jack DeJohnette, Jazz.com, Jazziz

For Dafnis Prieto’s 43rd Birthday, A Downbeat Article from 2018, A Jazziz Article from 2012, An Uncut Blindfold Test From 2009, and an Interview conducted for a 2013 Jazz Times article on Musical Education in Cuba, and a 2001 Interview for a Short DownBeat piece

Downbeat, 2018 Feature

Dafnis Prieto’s vivid new big band album, Back To The Sunset, gestated with a phone call. It came on May 2016, a month after the virtuoso Cuban-born drummer-composer self-published A World Of Rhythmic Possibilities, a well received book that deep-dives into his methodologies and aesthetics. On the line was Eric Oberstein, who’d become friendly with Prieto while serving as Executive Director of the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance, the umbrella non-profit that sponsors Arturo O’Farrill’s Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra. ALJO had recorded Prieto’s “The Triumphant Journey” on the 2015 Grammy-nominated Cuba: The Conversation Continues, and “Song For Chico,” which titled ALJO’s 2008 Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy-winning CD, both of which Oberstein produced.

“I fell in love with ‘Song for Chico’ the moment I heard it,” Oberstein recalled in early February. “Dafnis’ beautiful, lush melodies captured me, and I’ve never met anyone with such an incredible sense of time. His pieces are little journeys that take hairpin turns, but he’s always in control as he takes you down his beautiful path.” Oberstein was looking to branch out, and decided to suss out Prieto’s interest in a collaboration.

Before Oberstein finished asking, “What’s your dream project?” Prieto declared, “I want to do a big band with my arrangements.” That aspiration dated to Prieto’s adolescence in Santa Clara, a city of 215,000 in central Cuba where he was focusing on classical percussion in conservatory and teaching himself to play drumset with exercises from a technique book by American percussionist George Lawrence Stone. He fueled his imagination at performances by the local big band Orquesta La Musica Moderna, propelled by the “extremely musical drummer” Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”), who would subsequently spend consequential time with Chucho Valdes’ Afro-Cuban Messengers.

“Through them I heard not just Cuban music, but American music and any other kind of music—played well,” Prieto said by phone from his Miami home. “Always in the back of my mind I hoped some day to record my music with that great, rich sound.” Thirty years later, with the cessation of funding from his $500,000 2011 MacArthur “Genius” Award, and a substantial corpus of original music from five quartet, quintet and sextet CDs on his imprint, Dafnison, Prieto decided that the prospect of professional support in navigating infrastructure and logistics made this a fortuitous moment to take the plunge.

As spring transitioned to summer and summer to fall, Prieto and Oberstein looked for a narrative thread. Prieto decided to construct a notes and tones autobiography through tributes to a Pan-American cohort of heroes—some living, some deceased; some direct employers-mentors, some admired from afar—who influenced and inspired him in the process of evolving his sui generis heritage-meets-modernity sonic vision.

Three of the nine pieces are features for Steve Coleman, Brian Lynch and Henry Threadgill, who each recruited Prieto for their bands not long after he arrived in New York in 1999. Each master is also a dedicatee, as are Jane Bunnett, Andrew Hill, David Samuels, Eddie Palmieri, Jerry Gonzalez, Michel Camilo, Roberto Carcasses, Bebo Valdés and père and fils O’Farrill, all of whom he worked with, and such signposts as Dizzy Gillespie, Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá, Tito Puente, Chucho Valdès, Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti, Buddy Rich, amd Art Blakey.

As Prieto composed new charts and expanded older ones, Oberstein tasked himself with financing the enterprise and convening a 17-piece band comprised of five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, piano, bass, percussionist, and Prieto on drumset. The core members were saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Roman Filiú, trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, and pianist Manuel Valera, all long-standing friends who are intimate with Prieto’s vocabulary, and intuit his intentions.

Oberstein announced the project around Thanksgiving 2016, and launched a crowd-funding campaign through the New York based non-profit arts service organization Fractured Atlas. They created tiered levels of rewards that, at the Producer level, included access to the recording session. Via this modality, a May 2017 fundraising concert by Prieto’s Si O Si quartet at Manhattan’s Jazz Gallery, and several grants, Oberstein, “by hook or by crook, raised about $60,000.” They decided to self-release the project on Dafnison.

On August 21, a year-and-a-half after project’s conception, Prieto and company entered Michiko Studios for three days of rehearsal, then played a sold-out August 25-27 engagement at the Jazz Standard. Thus prepared, they recorded Back To the Sunset at Brooklyn’s Systems-2 on August 28 and August 29.

“The recording session was relaxed,” Valera recalled. “Most of the tunes were two takes, with hardly any overdubs.” He added that the charts are stimulating to play. “Dafnis’ writing for big band reminds me of the way Thad Jones wrote, where all the lines could stand on their own. He applies his rhythmic concepts to give the big band forward movement, push-and-pull, similar to those old Cuban bands—less about harmonic complexity than the different sections playing the melodies and rhythms.”

As an example of Prieto’s rhythmic legerdemain, Valera mentioned “Out of The Bone,” dedicated to Coleman and Camilo, on which, after a stentorian baritone sax overture by Chris Cheek, Prieto states a ferocious 7/4 time feel that conveys the illusion that two separate drumkits are in play, or that he perhaps deployed an extra limb—or two—in addressing his instrument. With that rhythmic signature as a fulcrum, the sections render complexly syncopated, Colemanesque polyrhythmic cycles over which bass trombonist Jeff Nelson and trombonists Alan Ferber and Jacob Garchik uncork evocative solos.

Prieto first encountered Coleman in Havana in 1996. He made 1997 and 1998 sojourns to the Stanford Jazz Workshop at Coleman’s instigation, and played drums on Coleman’s 2003 album Lucidarium. “Through Steve, I discovered the playing and music of Max Roach, which was huge, and music from South India and Ghana,” he said. “I’ve incorporated his strategies in my playing and in my teachings—you can see his influence in my book.”

The refracted motif of Gillespie’s “Manteca” introduces the album-opener, “Una Vez Más,” which Prieto composed for jazz quartet he played in with Palmieri, Lynch and Boris Kozlov in the early 2010s. Lynch—a co-dedicatee with Palmieri and Tito Puente—follows Valera’s Palmieri refraction with a clarion solo, flawlessly rendered, that signifies why he and Prieto have remained close since 1997, when Lynch played a concert at Stanford with him and Yosvany Terry.

“Right away I knew something special was going on with both guys,” Lynch said. He told Prieto, “If you’re ever in New York, call me.” He followed through in 1999, hiring Prieto to replace Antonio Sanchez for a band he was leading weekly at an Upper West Side bar called Cherokee Phoenix. “He had a lot of finesse, obviously a lot of knowledge and understanding of the rhythms from his culture, and a real ear for what the soloist is doing,” Lynch said. “He’s able to pull things into a creative place while respecting the form he’s playing. He plays like a composer always. When someone comes along and plays so great in an idiom that interests you, you think, ‘Ok, now this is the cat.’”

Both Lynch and Apfelbaum played in Prieto’s early ’00s groups, developing the repertoire that appears on the 2005 album About The Monks. Apfelbaum elaborated on Prieto’s creative mojo. “Dafnis plays with this exploding imagination,” he said. “He reminds me of the young Tony Williams. Every once in a great while, a drummer comes along with that breadth of vocabulary, and not only can they do all these different things, but they make everyone sit up and say: Wow, I didn’t know you could do that or that you were allowed to do that.”

He emphasized the linear ingenuity of Prieto’s quartet and sextet music, analogizing it to a tree with different branches. “Now each line is harmonized and played by a different section comprising four or five instruments and the tree’s branches are now filled with fruit,” Apfelbaum said of Back To The Sunset. The overall effect, he added, “is seeing a movie that seems familiar, but in 3D with Surround Sound.” Apfelbaum opined that Prieto “seems to have evolved in two directions. Not only is his imagination moving forward, but he’s using an even broader vocabulary to swing back and reference some roots of Afro-Cuban music.”

Prieto dedicates the title track to Andrew Hill and Threadgill, who uncorks a searingly vocalized alto saxophone solo, marking his second recorded sideman appearance with Prieto, following “Afrotango” on Absolute Quintet (2006). Both masters availed themselves of Prieto’s skills in 1999; Threadgill (who can be viewed on a Youtube clip playing alto sax and flute on a Prieto concert at the Jazz Gallery in March 2001) hired him for his paired 2001 albums Everybodys Mouth’s A Book and Up Popped The Two Lips.

“Dafnis operates at a very high level of musicality,” Threadgill said. “He’s able to translate non-percussion ideas into percussion ideas, to look at a piece in terms of the entire picture of the composition and not just his part. As a composer, he has command of the resources he uses and an ability to carry it out.”

Prieto observed that Coleman, Threadgill and Hill “showed the possibility for music to sound like yourself—it doesn’t have to be generic.” He first heard Threadgill’s music during a 1998-99 sojourn in Canada under the sponsorship of Jane Bunnett that directly preceded his move to New York. “I thought it was surrealistic, the music I could hear in my dreams—and when I wake up, it disappears,” Prieto said. “I learned from Henry that each tune should have its own character and intention upon which you put your own voice. You create your own world, which reflects your set of beliefs and structures and content, and it comes through in your artistic vocabulary.”

As he describes in A World of Rhythmic Possibilities, Prieto has practiced techniques that evoke a panoply of sounds on his drumkit, endeavoring to make his instrument both a vehicle to represent or imitate various Cuban folkloric percussion instruments and a portal to “the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas.” He speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time, and deploys the rhythms to serve synesthetic or abstract imperatives—a notion of visual art, or a philosophical principle, or the sound of thunder.

His compositional process transpires “mostly by ear.” “I like scores from classical music, like Bartok’s String Quartets or some Stravinsky works,” he said. “It’s like they consist of words, and the game is how you play with those words—you see what results. The quality of the performer is also part of every composition—a melody played by Henry is almost a different melody than the same melody played by someone else.”

Prieto first conceptualized his procedures on mid-’90s tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti (acknowledged on “Two For One” and “The Sooner The Better,” respectively), whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. As his horizons expanded, he increasingly felt stifled by the absence of a platform in Cuba on which he could—pardon the bad pun—march to the beat of his own drum. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, landing first in Barcelona, then in Toronto, then in New York.

After the two aforementioned albums for Zoho, Prieto launched Dafnison in 2008 with Taking The Soul For A Walk. “I was basically swiping my credit card, or saving money from the gigs for my own projects, which wasn’t easy in an expensive city,” he said. “But I wanted and needed my own label. If no one wanted to release my albums, I had to do it myself. It gives me absolute control over the product, from the first note to the last artwork. I have the courage to challenge myself economically to make it happen. I make a record, and I don’t know how much I’ll make or how much exposure it will get—I depend on an industry that rolls on other principles. Our distribution is mostly online, through iTunes and Amazon. I always joke, ‘I don’t need anyone to make myself poorer; I can do that very well.”

At the beginning of 2018, Prieto released Transition, by the Kairos Sextet, an ensemble that he assembled during his first academic year (2015-16) at Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, where he teaches composition as well as drums and ensembles, and a course called Rhythmic Synchronicity, intended “to help people on different instruments work in depth with rhythm in conjunction with other members in the band.” “For me, teaching is one of the highest spiritual paths,” he continued. “There’s the reciprocal relationship of giving and receiving; you feel the students develop through time, and feel their gratitude for what you are giving them, just as I feel gratitude for what the musicians who I honor on Back To The Sunset did for me. They see I’ve done it on my own, and they ask why I did it, what the challenges are, why I made the decisions I made.”

Prieto lives ten minutes from the Fort Lauderdale airport, from which Jet Blue runs a direct daily flight to Santa Clara, facilitating visits to his mother. But increased proximity to his homeland hasn’t resulted in invitations to perform or teach there. “I’ve never even been invited to play the jazz festival in Cuba,” Prieto said. “I wouldn’t ever be able to do in Cuba what I’ve done in the U.S. as a leader and creative musician. In order to work with a Steve Coleman or a Henry Threadgill, to do what I really wanted, I had to come here.” On the other hand, he continues: “In Cuba, you can dream about what it’s going to be like, but when you get here, it’s not what you thought it would be. It takes a lot of time and courage, a lot of strength to keep your belief alive. Just to keep yourself at the top of your game is very challenging.”

For now, Prieto was focusing on the challenge of working with Oberstein to spread the word about Back To the Sunset, to book gigs for the orchestra, and to find personnel with whom he can tour. Ever the pragmatic risk-taker, Prieto is both optimistic and realistic.

“If the budget allows, I want to use the guys on the record,” he said. “But I’m open to using other musicians. To play these pieces, you don’t have to be a specialist in Latin music—though you need to be good at rhythm. But this isn’t generic music. We’re not playing ‘El Manicero.’ It’s completely new material. Besides being strong already as a musician, they have to be open-minded in order to accept it and be able to execute it.”

[—30—]

 

Jazziz, 2012 Feature

Late last September, not long after Dafnis Prieto was awarded a $500,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation — to be distributed at quarterly intervals over the next five years — the virtuoso drummer discussed how he intended to deploy the funds. Tops on Prieto’s to-do list was to issue a recording a year on his imprint, Dafnison. The first of those recordings would be by the Proverb Trio, in which, for several years, Prieto, keyboardist Jason Lindner and vocalist Carl “Kokayi” Walker have conjured tabula rasa improvisations that, as Prieto says, “create a sense of compositional music.”

Eleven months later, not long after two sold-out nights at the Jazz Standard to support the Proverb Trio’s just-issued, eponymously titled CD, the 38-year-old Cuban expatriate compared the “nothing preconceived” imperative that drives his newest project to the carefully roadmapped compositions he presents with his sextet, (documented on the 2008 date Taking the Soul for a Walk) and his Si O Si Quartet (which recorded Live at the Jazz Standard in 2009). “When Proverb Trio does a concert, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whereas with the other bands, a certain amount of what we’re going to do is written,” Prieto says. “There I want to write and interpret music separately from playing standards or anything else that’s been done.”

In the Proverb Trio, Prieto says, the interpretative flow emanates from a mutual “chemistry and empathy” that “lets us be the way we want, express anything we want, fully accept who we are. It’s more about listening and reacting to the sounds than playing jazz or any other style that involves a lot of improvisation. Any path could be the path we develop. It’s the joyful journey of the real unpredictable. To behave that way is a basic element of life. Otherwise we become a computer which only reacts to whatever it is designed to react to.”

The opening invention on night two at the Jazz Standard reasonably represented how this aesthetic could operate in real time. Lindner, stage left, began the sonic conversation with musique concrete chords from his synthesizers, to which jockey-framed Prieto — in a lime-green, short-sleeved guayabera, chin uptilted — deployed his mallets, uncorking rolling, wave-like tom-tom beats. Lindner, the brim of his black cap almost perpendicular to the keyboard, stated a percussive response. Kokayi — burly, full-bearded, skull-shaved — shifted weight from foot to foot like a pendulum, then declaimed about texting and tweeting in a sweet tenor not unlike Sting’s. The discourse transpired within the rhythm, which Prieto had morphed into a clave with a mallet on a small bell-like cymbal while executing a counter-rhythm on the snare drum with a stick.

The performance proceeded along principles similar to those followed on the 12 pieces comprising Proverb Trio, for which Prieto juxtaposed edited-down open jams from the first portion of the sessions with shorter, more focused tracks from the second half. Each tune sounds structured, but certain giveaways — Kokayi’s abstract permutations of lines like “I got a little bit … got a little bit … little bit to say”; Lindner’s intuitive voicings; Prieto’s polyrhythmic refractions of rhythms drawn from hip-hop, funk, and the folkloric rituals of Cuba, Brazil, India and parts of Africa — bear out the extemporaneous back story.

From start to finish, Prieto showcases his extraordinary control of the drumset — the micronic precision of his subdivisions, his ability to play at different tempos with different limbs simultaneously, his refusal to sacrifice orchestration for technique. But he regards the Proverb Trio’s primary achievement as conceptual. “Most people think of ‘spontaneous composition’ as music that’s hard to connect to,” Prieto says. “It can be very introverted or follow a specific style, like Ornette Coleman or the latest period of John Coltrane. The musicians enjoy it, but not the audience. We are creating a fresh strategy, a new sound that people can enjoy.”

That strategy, Prieto notes, gestated in 1996, shortly after he graduated from Havana’s National School of Music, when Kokayi traveled to Cuba with Steve Coleman for a large-ensemble project. “I was impressed by how he incorporated hip-hop freestyling with Steve’s music, improvising with words and using a lot of rhythmic elements outside the regular beat we’re used to hearing in the hip-hop style,” Prieto says of Kokayi. After Prieto emigrated to New York City in 1999, he and Kokayi worked together on several Coleman ventures, including a 2004 engagement in Saalfelden, Austria, where they were invited to do a separate duo performance. “We learned to listen to each other on that gig,” Kokayi says. Prieto adds, “That was the birth of it —trying to interact with as much freedom and sincerity as possible.”

Sporadic work ensued, sometimes with Coleman or Henry Threadgill, himself a Prieto fan and employer, as were, during the early 2000s, Andrew Hill, Eddie Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Brian Lynch and Claudia Acuña. To have a wider range of sounds to draw upon, Prieto decided to recruit a permanent third member. In 2010 he started calling Lindner, with whom he’d previously played in Acuña’s band, in Lindner’s big band at Smalls, and in his own Absolute Quintet (the latter group documented in 2006 on Absolute Quintet).

Lindner says that the Proverb Trio offers “the thrill and challenge of getting to play everything I’ve ever learned in my life — and everything I’ve never learned in my life.” He credits Prieto for being “completely open to letting things come to him. He’s probably evolved a lot as a person to decide to have a group like this, where every night he’s making it known that we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

In Kokayi’s view, that spontaneity emanates from a “hive mindset” through which the band establishes a shifting narrative that draws on their “collective memory,” accumulated from “conversations we’ve had during travels, what we said over lunch or in the dressing room or on the phone.” He continues: “We don’t live within the confines of the paradigm of what is supposed to be jazz music. We all have this lexicon of music language, and we’re a sum total of our experiences. I don’t just listen to hip-hop. I listen to punk and rock, and I’m heavy into go-go. Jason listens to a huge bunch of stuff. Dafnis can play a rumba, a son, a guaguanco with the best of them. When he’s with Si o Si, he’s not bringing the funk and the hip-hop; he’s ‘Let me play the shit out of this Cuban music.’ But with us, he let’s go of everything and leaves his influences out.

“Dafnis has the biggest name right now. But he isn’t arrogant, like ‘This is the me show.’ It’s an equally distributed thing. Anybody can lead at any time. Anybody can set the rhythm. When everybody is allowed to contribute, you get what you have now, which is a big-assed pot of sounds and people being able to freely give of themselves and receive the messages and share information all at the same time, without pulling down trousers and see who got the biggest penis.”

[BREAK]

Last September, Prieto mentioned that, with the MacArthur funds, he hoped to publish a book, in the works for several years, about his “personal relationship and love for the drums, the passion that I have felt since I was little.” The experience began when Prieto, who is of Spanish descent, was a 7-year-old guitar student at a music school in the predominantly black, working-class Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. When his teacher decided to organize a combo to play traditional Cuban music, Prieto opted to play bongos.

“I’d seen the bongos, and they felt natural to me,” Prieto recalled, noting that he’d frequently observed rumberos and parading carnivalistas on the streets around his house. “One day, the person who was playing the clave and singing didn’t show up for the performance, so I ended up playing the bongos with my hands and singing the clave with my mouth. The teacher told my mom she had to put me in percussion.”

At 10, he enrolled as a percussion student in the Santa Clara conservatory. At 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music, where he taught himself to play the drum set, conjuring home-grown methodologies (for example, enhancing independence by playing études from a snare drum book with his left hand while adding a clave or cascara or cowbell pattern with his right). In the course of teaching over the past decade, whether at NYU or at various clinics and master classes, he began to reflect upon and codify these practices.

“Before I started playing the drums, music for me was sound,” Prieto says. “I walked around the streets in Cuba and related to everything around me — the music, my friends, the way they talk, nature, buildings. What I am trying to re-create is somehow the way I grew up — very intuitive, very innocent, feeling the music as though for the] first time, as well as playing it. I was playing the rhythm of the clave; I didn’t know there was a clave rhythm. The name itself wasn’t relevant. For me, it was the content and the meaning.

“I look for different sounds in the drums, and develop a technique to get it. Sometimes I try to make drumming an inner step into the abstract zone of emotions or intellectual images or ideas. Rather than melody or rhythm, I think of visual art, form or a structure or visual illusions. I might want to re-create an idea of thunder while I’m playing a rhythmical structure, and insert different combinations to transmute and transform that idea into sound.”

Prieto began conceptualizing those ideas during his late teens and early 20s, on tours with Chilean pianist Carlos Maza, an admirer of the m.o. followed by Brazilian composers Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, whose own drummers played from an orchestrative, textural perspective. He further exercised his imagination on late-’90s gigs in Havana with Columna B, an experimental quartet that springboarded from Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s dense, plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ’80s, Coleman’s odd-metered structures and the jagged tumbaos of timba. As his horizons expanded, he felt increasingly stifled. Unwilling to play commercial jobs, Prieto left the island, moving first to Barcelona and then to New York City.

“The alternative scene in Cuba was very small,” he says. “I was listening to Ornette Coleman and Coltrane and Monk and Indian music, and connecting on a deep level. When I got to New York, I felt like a fish in different waters — and I liked those waters and finding myself within those waters.”

Liberated from quotidian concerns by the MacArthur funds, free “to not have to accept gigs, to give more attention to what I really want, which is to be as sincere as possible within what I do,” Prieto intends to continue the process of self-discovery. Toward that end, he’s privileging self-development — “as an individual, a player, and a musician” — over composing new music for his groups. But he’s leave all options open.

“It’s like having two babies,” he says. “One appeals more to you one day, the next day the other kid does something you like. I’m always carrying with me my tools and strategies, the visions that I had before, and I’m always open to new ones. I am trying to be as sincere as possible, to play what I really feel the music needs. If I’m in a band that needs a specific music content, that’s fine, even though I’ll always be trying to develop my own voice within that.

“I don’t take styles for granted. To be myself touches those styles, or might resemble those styles, but it’s no longer those styles. I don’t live like the Funkadelics or Sly and the Family Stone or James Brown. How can I play the same as somebody else if I’m not them?”

SIDEBAR

Title:

“I really never see myself as a Cuban player,” Dafnis Prieto says. “I see myself the same way I hear my voice. It doesn’t matter what language I speak, it’s going to be the same sound.” Still, he adds, the rhythms and sounds of Cuba are inside him, both via osmosis and close listening to predecessors and peers, several of whom he discusses here.

Juan Carlos Rojas (“El Peje”) — “He was one of the first drummers I saw and heard live in my hometown of Santa Clara, particularly with a big band named Orquesta de Música Moderna. He’s an extremely musical drummer. He’s played with Chucho Valdés since 2006.”

José Luis “Changuito” Quintana — “His great sense of innovation and knowledge of the tradition always inspired me. He is the main person who created the rhythmic structures of the congas and drums and timbales in the songo style. I got to record with Changuito and Tata Güines on a big-band record by pianist Hilario Duran.”

Giraldo Piloto — “When I heard Piloto the first time, he was playing with NG La Banda. Then he started doing arrangements — which are unbelievable — and his own compositions, and created a great dance band called Klimax. He has done what I consider to be part of my dream: establish a band with a sound that is yours.”

Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez — “In Cuba, I saw El Negro a few times with Gonzalo Rubalcaba. I like his subtle, fluid, relaxed, interactive playing. And his independence. He can play the clave with the left foot while playing something else with his other limbs. He’s incorporated a lot of Cuban traditional patterns into the drum set. I didn’t meet him until I came to the States, and he was very welcoming. He loaned me a set of drums, which I’ll never forget. I consider him a friend.”

Ernesto Simpson — “Ernesto’s musicality, his touch and beauty and tastefulness, always amazes me. He knows how to move from one style to another in a subtle, integrated way, and always plays from the heart. He’s a fluid, natural player with great talent, ears, technique and maturity.”

Downbeat, 2011 Feature

The penultimate track of Dafnis Prieto’s first self-released recording, Taking The Soul For A Walk, titled “You’ll Never Say Yes,” is a rubato, ostinato miniature with a beautiful line and a floating, ambiguous feel. Prieto—who immaculately directs and entextures the flow from the trapset—described it at the time as reminiscent “of the old Paul Motian-Keith Jarrett approach of open sound.”

“It reflects the emotion of frustration I feel of always trying to break the wall,” Prieto said in 2008. “It’s not specifically related to the music business—it could be a personal thing also. I’m trying to show people what I’m doing and I have inside myself the thought that they will never recognize it—they will never say yes.”

He was reminded of this remark three years later, a week after the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship named Prieto one of 22 “genius” awardees of their annual, no-strings-attached $500,000 gift.

“I’m honored and happy to have been selected,” Prieto responded in the living room-practice den of his Washington Heights one-bedroom. “But I want to work, and it’s hard for me to feel like the MacArthur is going to be the answer.” Legs akimbo, Prieto sat on a small sofa, surrounded by an upright piano, an electronic drumkit, a Macintosh desktop with a huge screen, and various artwork, artifacts, small instruments, books and CDs. He’d performed the night before, and his drums, still packed, were on the floor.

“I will feel much better when I see that presenters notice what I’m doing, and start to open their doors for my music,” he continued. “But why do I have to wait for a MacArthur to get attention when I’ve been doing as much as some people they’re already booking? Sometimes it seems the only way to get to those places is if somebody is behind you with a very recognized name, maybe George Wein or some guy who looks like a padrino.”

In point of fact, on the previous evening, Wein had witnessed Prieto’s first New York concert since the MacArthur announcement—a mindboggling scratch-improvised duo encounter with tabla player Pandit Samar Saha, out of Benares, India, a master practitioner of Hindustani classical vocal and instrumental forms.

For the first forty minutes, a packed house at the Cornelia Street Café saw the protagonists trade solos of gradually increasing length. Navigating a drumkit setup that includes a frying pan amongst the cymbals and a conveniently positioned pair of orange jam-blocks, Prieto, sustaining a clave metronome on the hi-hat, developed polyrhythmic designs with a “melodic” connotation reminiscent of a Cuban Max Roach. Saha established his own terms of engagement, then Prieto, deploying brushes, alternated swish and stutter patterns. Saha emulated them with the right hand on his dayan drum, punctuating with the left on the bayan. Prieto established another clave, displaced it with surging, wave-like embellishments. Saha rendered the patterns with his own ideas and subdivisions as Prieto kept the pulse; he withdrew as Prieto postulated a rumba, establishing and sustaining three independent lines. The mind-reading continued over a sequence of exchanges—Prieto, barely moving a muscle above his elbows, soloed at length on the ride cymbal and hi-hat, crisply executing intricate figures; Saha turned the bayan on its side, extracting a rich tapestry of rhythm-timbre from its metal skin; Prieto’s riposte seemed to elicit all the colors of the kit before he stated a tumultuous cumbia over which Saha improvised.

Neither drummer seemed to have broken a sweat, but they decided to take a breath. “This is a pretty interesting fusion you’re hearing,” Prieto remarked, as he picked up two super-sized mallets. “Now we’re going to get a little bit wild.” Positioned over the drums like a jockey steering a thoroughbred, he unleashed a volcanic wall of sound, then set up juxtapositions between rolling thunder and whisper, playing soft with the left hand, loud with the right, and vice-versa. Mixing percussive hand chops with skin-to-skin rubs, Sala transformed his drums into animistic sound containers. Prieto responded with long cymbal washes, complemented by feathered bass drum beats; using his tuning fork as a mallet, Saha explored further overtone combinations. Then they stopped.

[BREAK]
Over the past decade-plus, Prieto has made it his business to investigate the correspondences and distinctions between the drum languages of India and his native Cuba, where he lived until 1998, when he was 24. Indeed, as we spoke, he was preparing for a November to mid-December residency at the Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music in Mumbai.

Questioned on the subject, Prieto answered, “Right now, it’s harder to separate things in my brain than to put them together.” Then he gave it a shot.

“One general similarity is that each culture contains a very wide possibility for improvisation,” he began. “One difference is that we work a lot with intuition, while they are really conscious of the mathematical, scientific aspect of rhythm—where the note is played inside of a bar or inside of a certain length. In Cuban music, each instrument plays an intricate melodic line. The pulse is there, but the beat doesn’t need to be heard. In most Indian music, the solos are very sophisticated, but without that intricacy in the melodic lines between the instruments; the connection between the three is in relationship with the beat.”

During the performance, Prieto continued, he’d “mixed everything,” sometimes manipulating folkloric Cuban rhythms—played “in the most personal way I could play them”—with tihais, a North Indian technique that involves three verbatim repetitions of a structure and landing the first beat.

“I never see myself as a Cuban player, or Latin player, or Swing player, or Fusion player,” he said. “My voice is not anybody else’s voice, and it doesn’t matter which language I speak—it’s going to be the same sound. My idea of soloing is the freedom of the possibility to play anything you want, manipulating the sounds you’re able to execute while developing your ideas thematically. Those are the two basic elements of improvising—creating something in the moment, while being simultaneously aware that you’re creating a bigger compositional structure. I like the idea of trying to do more with less—using one single phrase or rhythm for the structure and getting many different meanings out of that same idea.

“We all manipulate sounds, and we have the right to feel a relationship with those sounds. Sometimes, I look for a sound in the drums and that gives me the technique to play it. Sometimes I see myself doing something I haven’t seen before, and it gives me the specific sound I want to play. I’m not necessarily thinking in melody or in rhythm—sometimes it’s visual art, form, or a structure, or developing some philosophical or conceptual ideas about objects, or even visual illusions. Any information I see that’s interesting, that I feel comfortable with and connected to, I will transmute and transform into sound.”

Prieto’s heritage-meets-modernity aesthetic took shape during formative years in the predominantly black Condado district of Santa Clara, an old colonial city primarily devoted to the processing and distribution of sugar cane. Himself of Spanish descent, he internalized the language of rumba from carnival musicians on the streets outside his home, and received formal instruction on bongos and congas at 7. At 10, he entered the local conservatory to study classical percussion, teaching himself to play trapset on the side; at 14, he matriculated at the National School of Music in Havana.

Through his four years at ENM, Prieto absorbed the idiosyncracies of Cuba’s state-of-the-art percussionists and drummers—trapsetter Enrique Pla from Irakere, congueros Tata Guines, Changuito, and Miguel “Anga” Diaz. He freelanced, playing post-timba “Latin-Cuban Jazz” in units with Irakere trumpeter Julio Padron and pianist Roberto Carcasses, as well as pianist Ramon Valle’s Keith Jarrett-centric trio. He made his first trip to Europe with a Pan-American oriented ensemble led by Chilean pianist-guitarist Carlos Maza, who drew deeply on Brazilian visionaries Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal, invoking imperatives of playing feelings, telling stories with sounds and beats. Further stimulation arrived in 1996 when Steve Coleman bivouacked in Cuba to do fieldwork on a recording project, bringing information on South Indian music and ways to render astrological and numerological principles in notes and tones.

Soon thereafter, Prieto joined the road warrior rank-and-file with Jane Bunnett’s Spirits of Havana ensemble. He also workshopped with the experimental band Columna-B, with Carcasses, saxophonist Yosvany Terry, and bassist Descemer Bueno (best known for his involvement in pan-Caribbean hip-hop band Yerba Buena), which refracted Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s plugged-in ensemble music of the latter ‘80s and Coleman’s odd-metered structures, augmenting the mix with jagged tumbaos, and elements drawn from Hip-Hop, Funk and the Euro-Classical canon (Enclave [Mas, 1998] documents an unbridled recital).

As his conceptual horizons expanded, Prieto felt increasingly stifled. “There were only a few musicians I felt the empathy to play with,” he recalled. “I was treated like a crazy guy; some people felt I wasn’t representing their idea of how to play the tradition. But the way we see tradition sometimes is just a premeditated idea of what it really is. Don’t get me wrong. Since I was little, I played dance music and popular music—which is the same thing in Cuba. I love a lot of dance bands from Cuba. Once in a while I like the experience of playing drums with Los Van Van. But after I got into jazz and into more avant-garde or contemporary music, the idea of playing music for dancers was already washed out.”

On tour with Bunnett in 1999, Prieto, by then a Barcelona resident, moved to New York City on his work visa. Soon thereafter, he took an engagement with singer Xiomara Laugart on which trumpeter Brian Lynch—with whom he’d played the previous year at Stanford University, while in residence via an arts grant to attend a master class with Billy Higgins and Albert (“Tootie”) Heath—was present.

“Just from that gig, I thought this guy has more happening in terms of playing Afro-Caribbean music with a real jazz sensibility than just about anyone I’d heard,” Lynch recalled. “He had the chops, the finesse, the dynamics, the reactivity, the feel, the swing. It was like, ‘Oh, this is the cat.’ There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

Others felt similarly. Springboarding off a weekly hit with Lynch, and gigs with Coleman and Henry Threadgill’s Zooid ensemble, Prieto quickly became one of New York’s busiest sideman, accumulating a c.v. that, by 2002, cited consequential engagements with a diverse cohort of challenging leaders—Eddie Palmieri, Andrew Hill, the Fort Apache Band with Jerry and Andy Gonzalez, David Samuels and the Caribbean Jazz Project, D.D. Jackson, Michel Camilo, and Peter Apfelbaum—as well as a trio with John Benitez and Luis Perdomo, and numerous ad hoc gigs at downtown musician hangs like the Zinc Bar and the Jazz Gallery, where he also played his first American gigs as a bandleader.

“New York is a functional place,” Prieto said. “You get to meet a lot of people, most importantly—if they are interested—the people that you really want to meet. In order to play with Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill, to connect with them and experience their music one-to-one, you most probably will have to be here. Steve’s approach to rhythm will challenge any drummer who wants to do it right to develop skills of coordination and independence. With Henry’s music, I learned that each tune should be developed as much as possible in the diversity of sounds, that each should have its own character with different structures and instrumentations. I had an opportunity to exercise my imagination, to represent the music, like acting. You have to own the character and the intention, and put your own voice on it.”

As he soaked up information, Prieto began to refine his instrumental voice as well, mining Cuban raw materials in a systematic, meticulous manner. “I started looking at everything that came from my country as an observer,” he said. “Now I have an enormous amount of different sounds at my disposal. Sometimes I play things that represent or imitate the sound of the congas, or the batas, or timbal, or bongos or maraccas—or from inside myself.” He trained himself to make the instrument an extension of his brain—he speaks the rhythms, speeds them up and slows them down at will, plays and subdivides any theme on any limb at any time. “I’ve heard that idea of intricacy of lines—having one theme in the bottom that becomes the top theme later on—in ancient African music and also in the Baroque,” he says.

He called on all of these attributes in guiding his sextet and quartet through cohesive suites of music on, respectively, Taking the Soul For a Walk and Live at the Jazz Standard, both on his imprint, Dafnison. “The rhythm is usually really important and strong, and he guides the band on the drums,” said Manuel Valera, who played piano on both dates. “The compositions have very strong melodies, with no frivolous notes. Each has its own character, and is fun to play over. It’s definitely rooted in Cuban music, but less like the Latin Jazz tradition, and more compositional, with rhythms from Cuba that people don’t really use here. The group orchestrations are unconventional, and he has an interesting approach to orchestrating his compositions on the drums, certain grooves and colors that are perfect with whatever the tune is calling for.”

With the MacArthur funds, Prieto intends to record the Proverb Trio, a collective improv project with Jason Lindner on keyboards and vocalist Kokayi freestyling on trans-Yoruban chant, hip-hop, contemporary R&B, and jazz.

“It would be almost impossible to make music this way with other musicians,” Prieto said. “We completely accept each other; I feel open to express anything I want, and so do they. We are not trying to do anything. We are just doing it.”

Inevitably, he continued, that expression will reference Cuban roots. “This is not clothes that I put on and take off,” he said. “This is the way it is. It’s the resonance of a specific attitude and a specific meaning that I’ve captured from when I was a child until now, and is still inside me. Like talking. Certain words mean something specific. It’s the same thing in rhythm.”

Prieto added that the MacArthur provides him funds to publish a method book—in English—that “explains some of the things I did in order to develop independence and conceptualize my ideas. It’s about my passion for the drums. It’s analytical, it’s instructional; in a way, it’s poetical. It’s a result of all my teaching experiences in clinics and things like that, and my experience of teaching in NYU for six years, which helped me organize information that I already knew intuitively. Somehow, it reflects all these things.”

But above all else, he reiterated, “I want to keep playing my own music as much as possible. I’ve already played a lot of other people’s music, and I’ll keep playing with people like Eddie Palmieri and Jerry Gonzalez because they’re still open, and make me feel challenged and encouraged. But I am not the kind of musician who only assumes that music is a job, and I have to do anything to get money. When I play music I don’t like, I go home and I don’t feel good.”

Downbeat, 2009 Blindfold Test:

1. E.J. Strickland, “Asante (for the Tribes of Ghana)” (from IN THIS DAY, StrickMusik, 2009) (E.J. Strickland, drums, composer; Marcus Strickland, tenor saxophone; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Luis Perdomo, piano; Hans Glawischnig, bass)

This is a very light groove. It’s nice to hear a 6/8 pattern really light. I don’t know what to say about a piece like this. I can’t really recognize the album. Maybe that’s Luis Perdomo. I haven’t heard Luis in a long time. It is Luis? It’s not his record? It might be David Sanchez’ record? Miguel? Not David or Miguel? Then I can’t recognize it. I like the tune, but it’s very simple. It has the specific idea of what you hear the horns doing against thing, but there’s not really a B-section or any kind of sophisticated compositional elements in it, at least from what I heard of the tune itself in the beginning. Sometimes this kind of tune sounds to me like an excuse to improvise. The tune itself is not really that developed in how many things you can do on a compositional level when you write the tune. I have to say that a lot of alto players are very influenced by the M-BASE—Steve Coleman, Greg Osby, and things like that. The drumming and the percussion is really supporting the tune itself. See, the tune is a vamp; it’s a redundant melody. Which is fine. It gives this effect… It’s kind of tender. I can’t recognize the drummer or the two sax players. I liked it. It has a lot of improvisation, really nice trading by the two horns. Somehow it’s a very settled or normal kind of tune. I liked it. More than a band itself, it sounded to me like a record date. For me, it’s a difference; a record date and a band. I don’t want to insult the band, if it is a band, but it sounded like a record date more than a band. 3½ stars.

2. Gerald Cleaver, “Isobel” (from Yaron Herman, MUSE, Sunnyside, 2009) (Herman, piano, composer; Matt Brewer, bass; Cleaver, drums)

Very groovy, the drummer and the bass player. The bass player sounds great—a very nice sound. I like the bass player. Is that Jason Moran on piano? Then it could be Jean-Michel Pilc maybe. Whoever it is, the pianist is very together. I don’t know. I was trying to get the… The tuning of the drumset itself, I don’t know if he uses… Maybe there is solo drums here. Oh, the tuning the bass drum, the skin is loose. Besides… I haven’t really heard…I don’t remember any guy who plays this style that uses this kind of drumming. There is a guy named Keith Carlock who plays this kind of bass drum, but he plays a different style. It’s a very rhythmic line there, the piano. The trio sounds very together. I couldn’t recognize the drummer, though. He sounded great, very groovy, very supportive of the tune itself. Strong. 4 stars.

3. Arturo Stable, “Call” (from CALL, Origen, 2009) (Stable, percussion, composition; Francisco Mela, drums; Javier Vercher, tenor saxophone; Aruan Ortiz, piano; Edward Perez, bass)

It’s a blues form on top of a bata rhythm. They’re putting a 7/4 pattern on top of the 6/8—the bass line he has. I like the fact that it’s evident to have the batas…the elements that they’re using in the tune itself are very evident, have this open sound, this loose sound with the drummer on top of the batas, kind of an avant-garde sound in the soloing—but not in the tune. The soloing goes more into that mode of freedom principle; it reached a freedom of playing it on top of the batas and stuff. I couldn’t say who… The only guy who comes to mind is David Sanchez, but the saxophonist doesn’t sound like David. I mean, it sounds like a Coltrane tune. I like the fact of that tension of contradiction that comes from having a really steady rhythm in the batas and having the drums filled with more free adventures sonically on top of it, following the improvisation of the tenor, which in this case is the only one soloing. It comes through very natural, so I liked it. 3½ stars.

4. Bill Stewart, “Incandescence” (from INCANDESCENCE, Pirouet, 2008) (Stewart, drums, composer; Kevin Hays, piano; Larry Goldings, Hammond organ)

That must be Brian Blade? It isn’t? I like the fact of the emptiness of space. That emptiness of space lets me think that they’re doing that as accompaniment to a solo which is not there. It sounds like they’re doing the backup soloing for somebody else, but it’s not there. The effect is nice. I like the effect of somehow not having all the information in there at once. The drummer sounds very fluid to me. He sounds open and groove at the same time, which are two boundaries that sometimes it’s very hard for a drummer to get together. I can think of Nasheet maybe. No? I don’t know. I liked it. 4 stars. [AFTER] Bill is a great drummer. Sometimes the kind of sound… That’s why I got it confused with Brian Blade. The sound of the drums, sometimes it can be… Just the style is different, because Brian, for my taste, uses more surprise in his playing. For doing really little of something, going all the way to the maximum of the expression of the sound of the drums, that’s Brian Blade. I always have the tendency to see that from him. But the two of them have a very distinctive sound when they play the cymbals and the toms. Obviously, they know the tradition and the jazz sound of drums very well, and they have it incorporated in their playing.

5. Nasheet Waits, “Bowie” (from Dave Douglas, SPIRIT MOVES, Greenleaf, 2009) (Douglas, trumpet; Luis Bonilla, trombone, Vincent Chancey, French horn; Marcus Rojas, tuba; Nasheet Waits, drums)

That’s Dave Douglas’ stuff, the brass and drumset thing. So that’s Nasheet playing drums. I like Nasheet’s drumming. He’s always looking for the polyrhythmic thing, like playing the bass drum and the snare at the same time, which are things that a normal drummer will think of in a more melodic way—which is great. Using two sounds at the same time, like the bass drum and the snare drum, things like that. It’s very compositional. Everything was arranged until now, when the trombone solo comes over the swing. I like the experimental thing with the tuba. It reminds me of when I worked with Henry Threadgill, who had done this for a long time already—working with a lot of horns. It reminds me of European music. It reminds me of parade music in a more open way. I’ve seen a lot of that kind of sound connected to music that you see in the parks in Europe right now, this kind of experimental sound. It sounds very European to me. It’s cool. They used actually a few things reminiscent of some other tunes. 4 stars.

6. Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, “Free Latin” (from ITALUBA, Pimienta, 2004) (Hernandez, drums, composer; Ivan Bridon Napoles, keyboards; Daniel Martinez Izquierdo, bass; Amik Guerra, trumpet)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s El Negro’s stuff. That’s Negro. I don’t know which album this is, but that’s El Negro. The drum sounds big! Sounds like a Cuban band to me! Negro is a very strong player. He has this quality of having a big sound. Well, he uses big drums, so it sounds big. The tune itself reminds me of the sound of jazz music that was happening in Cuba in the late ‘80s, this influence from Chick Corea, the Gonzalo thing using the keyboards, having the same pulse but incorporating a lot of different things with the bass and the drums in different places than the melody line, and sometimes joining them together and stuff like that. It’s a rhythmic approach more than melodically. Then he has a vamp at the end, and goes to the last part of the thing. 4 stars. [AFTER] I’ve known Horacio for a while, he’s a good friend, but I met the others about two years ago at the Northsea Jazz Festival.

7. Tyshawn Sorey, “Somewhere Between Dreaming and Sleeping” (from John Escreet, CONSEQUENCES, Posi-Tone, 2008) (Escreet, piano; David Binney, alto saxophone; Ambrose Akinmusire, trumpet; Matt Brewer, bass; Tyshawn Sorey, drums)

I love that drummer. Very sensitive, but he’s very swinging. Let me see if I can get it. Sounds like Tain to me. It’s not? [AFTER] I liked the piece. I liked how it unfolded, the different sections in it, and the surprise factor. I really liked the drummer. I don’t know if it’s Tyshawn or Marcus, but I think it could be one of them. There is a big difference between the two of them, but it’s really hard in context, but sometimes one specific kind of music will make you feel a certain way and you’ll become more aggressive, and then it becomes confusing to identify who it is by the sound. It’s Tyshawn? I really like him, his inner sound. That’s why I got confused about Tain, who gets a powerful, aggressive sound on the drums on the drums as well? Was that Tyshawn’s record? No? Vijay’s. No? Greg Osby? No? Wow. Then I don’t know. 4½ stars.

8. Eric Harland, “Treachery” (from THE MONTEREY QUARTET: LIVE AT THE 2007 MONTEREY JAZZ FESTIVAL, Concord, 2009) (Harland, drums, composer; Dave Holland, bass; Gonzalo Rubalcaba, piano; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone)

I recognize this. It sounds like Chris Potter, and by the playing, I think it’s the band with Dave Holland, Gonzalo and Eric Harland. I really like it. Eric Harland is one of my favorite young drummers. I like the way he interacts with the music, besides the fact of how much he can play or not the drums. What is happening at the moment in the music, the way he actually interacts with the music, I really like that. You have to use different textures and techniques to make that happen, but… He’s a very open player. He can be a very open player, he can be very straight. He’s very versatile. An exciting drummer. I like Gonzalo here, but for my taste, Gonzalo has been getting a little bit too conceptualized in his own music. It’s a very recognizable sound, the sound of Gonzalo, the sound of Chris, and… I like the band. It’s a challenging idea. Sometimes it doesn’t really work when you put those kinds of characters together. But Dave is a really strong bass player. I think the four of them blend well. 4½ stars.

Lately, I always want more from Gonzalo in his playing. I want more digging in the piano, digging in ideas. It’s not necessarily the chops, but the ideas itself, on an emotional level. Nothing against what he’s doing now, but lately I think his playing is more in the context of conceptualized things and ideas. Obviously, he plays great piano, but for some reason… Like, Chris Potter right now is expressing himself, he’s putting it out. Sometimes Gonzalo gives me this… I miss the old Gonzalo sometimes.

9. Marcus Gilmore, “Smoke Stack” (from Vijay Iyer, HISTORICITY, ACT, 2009) (Iyer, piano; Stephan Crump, bass; Gilmore, drums; Andrew Hill, composer)

That’s very Monk-influenced playing. I liked it. I liked the involvement of the piece. The involvement of the three of them playing is very nice—it’s a nice trio. I don’t know if it’s Vijay or Jason Moran. It’s hard to tell. They have sometimes a mutual place. But I don’t know. Maybe the drummer was Marcus Gilmore, but the sound of it…it’s hard to… He’s a very versatile player as well. He’s very supportive of the tune itself. I really like his drumming; it’s really good. I liked the piece. So it’s probably Vijay’s record. 4 stars. I liked it. This is a very involved tune, and the drummer really has to be on top of it in order to make it happen. Not so much the virtuosity of what you play, but the meaning of what you’re doing there. That’s the nice thing when you hear a trio working together, because there’s only three elements, and it’s very easy to identify what they’re doing and what they mean. It came out nice here.

10. Antonio Sanchez, “Fat Cat” (from DECLARATION, Sunnyside, 2009) (McCaslin, tenor saxophone, composer; Edward Simon, piano; Ben Monder, guitar; Scott Colley, bass; Pernell Saturnino, percussion; Alex Sipiagin, trumpet; Chris Komer, french horn; Marshall Gilkes, trombone)

I cannot recognize the band or the players in this case. I like it. It sounds kind of evident to me, the sound of the tune. Evident. Something that you’ve heard before, something that is not really personalized that much. I mean, the tune is good. But this is my personal thing. I couldn’t really get who was the drummer, or the percussion player. 3½ stars.

11. Steve Gadd, “Matrix” (from Chick Corea, SUPER TRIO, Mad Hatter, 2006) (Corea, piano, composer; Christian McBride, bass; Gadd, drums)

[at 9:30] Sounds like Steve Gadd! It’s not the regular sound of the drums that he’d normally use. Normally, I don’t recognize him doing it in this context. This is a very open set for him. For what I’m used to from him, it’s a more precise sound. The bass player is killing! Is it Miroslav Vitous? It’s Christian McBride! Who is the piano player? That’s a trio with Chick and… At first, I thought it was the old trio with Chick and Miroslav and Roy Haynes. But then I realized it wasn’t Roy at all. I like that they’re going through different phases in one piece. Because the piece has changed like five different times already. It seems more like a jam than a tune itself. The drummer just grabs whatever is there, and having a piano player like Chick, who is a very leading voice, helps to organize it. That’s the convenient thing about having the leader play a harmonic and melodic instrument. It’s hard for me when I have to do it myself on the drums. 4 stars.

*-*-*-

Dafnis Prieto on Cuba Educational System, Jazz Times (May 14, 2013):
DP: There are different ages that we start in the school. I believe actually 7 years old is when you start in the school with violin and piano. Those two instruments are fundamental to start at that age in the school. I started school when I was 10, which is most of the other instruments… I started at 10, and pretty much I would say 90% of it is related to Russian or Eastern European classical training.

TP: On violin and piano, you mean.

DP: Violin and piano, and every other instrument as well. There are some French influences as well in terms of the program when we’re talking about saxophone and horns and things like that. But pretty much all the education that we get there is classical training, and because of the circumstances after the ‘60s we became somehow in relation with Russia politically, and that affected actually the educational aspect. We got a lot of influence, and teachers that were coming to actually work and teach in the schools of Cuba. So we got people from Russia and the Eastern European Socialist countries.

TP: May I ask… You went initially to a local school, and I think you were also able to study percussion there.

DP: Well, here’s the thing. Also there is something that the translation to English would be House of Culture, which in Spanish is casa de la cultura. That I started when I was 6 or 7 years old. That is a completely paid program, subsidized by the state. I was around 7 years old. What I did there, I was interested at the time to play guitar. I was playing acoustic guitar. I learned a few Cuban songs from the Cuban tradition, like guaracha, guajira, son montuno, things like that, those kinds of styles. After that, then we got into the more classical-oriented thing. But still, both of the programs were integrated into that early stage. I was like 7.

TP: So you were doing two separate program?

DP: Well, it was integrated. It was part of the same thing. That is something very interesting that I always saw from my early ages in music in Cuba, is that I always integrated kind of everything instead of putting on, playing a Russian composer, …(?)… and the whole thing… I mean, there is an attitude behind the music, etc., etc., but in terms of the program itself, in the House of Music, that was part of it. It wasn’t like “this is classical music and this is Cuban music.” In the same class, you had both.

Then, when I went later on to a school of fine arts in Santa Clara when I was 10, we had specific classes for different things.

TP: Did you move from a local school to a regional school to then the national school?

DP: Exactly. The House of Music that I first went to is not really a school… I mean, it is a school, but it doesn’t really have that many students. We were 6 or 7 students in one class, almost the same age, everybody. This is actually the reason I became a percussionist. It was because we were saying we wanted to have a Cuban band for certain activities, that were going to happen as cultural events in the town. Then everybody decided to play the other instruments, so everyone chose, and I chose to play the bongos, since I was already somehow exposed a lot to a lot of percussion because I was living in a neighborhood where there were a lot of rumba and things like that. Therefore, I did the bongos, and that was how I became a percussionist.

TP: Are these schools also used to track kids? In other words, you displayed a lot of ability right away. Were you then tracked the way athletes are here or in Cuba, as a musician? Were you being identified as someone who was going to continue along this path.

DP: Yes, in a way. But that didn’t necessarily mean… I mean, somebody recommended you. A teacher at that time recommended you to the next level, which is the School of Fine Arts. But that didn’t necessarily happen. I kind of made my own connection, in terms of, you know, the teacher told my mom that had a special aptitude, and I seemed to enjoy it very much, etc., and therefore my mom went to the school and asked for when the admissions were and things like that, so I did a whole process of it. I actually did on the side…I kind of got a tutor or something like that, to prepare me for that examination which I need to go into the fine arts.

TP: When you went to the school in Santa Clara, was it more of the same, but more advanced?

DP: Not really. Percussion in itself, I didn’t know anything about…

TP: Oh, you went to Santa Clara as a percussionist.

DP: Yes, that’s what I did. Drumset in itself, I’m completely self-taught. What I did specifically, when we got into the school I started doing the technique. I did actually one of the most important technique books from an American percussionist by the name George Lawrence Stone. He did this magnificent stick control book, a very famous stick control book. Anyway, we had some material. We had a lot of material from Russia also. We had a book called Polansky(?), and we had so many other things. So we had both information somehow…

For me, the special thing… Maybe this is going a little bit ahead. But the most wonderful thing that I found about how Cuban musicians come to be very powerful is because of the combination of the technique that the Russian and Eastern European countries brought into Cuba together with the culture that we already have musically. Which doesn’t take away the technique. It has its own technique. But it’s just different. So I think the most fundamental thing that happened in education in Cuba is that we have the culture, which is very strong, with the technique aspect of those things. Musically, too. So I think that marriage of culture and technique, plus the culture of the Russian and East European.

TP: What is it about the Russian pedagogy for percussion that’s particularly distinctive?

DP: Well, it gives you a very elegant and functional technique, control of the instrument… For example, I did… They started focusing in the beginning with the snare, just the snare. You spend a lot of time on the pad, getting control of your hands. So then you go to the snare, and you do all these classical pieces on the snare. Then they introduce you to a set of percussion, which can include timbales, bongos, bells, and things like that, just like a classical set, and you play different pieces, the classical things and from Cuban composers as well on those kind of sets—and I did play those, too. Then after that you go the tympany. So you start developing little by little, and by the end of the four years, you know how to play very decent a snare tympany, set of percussion… Not necessarily a drumset, but I did a drumset, and I wrote some stuff actually for drumset as well. But the drumset itself wasn’t taught at the school. It was there physically, but there wasn’t really a teacher. Some of the teachers played, but they weren’t really teaching you; you’d just hear it. I don’t know why.

TP: I recall you told me that you developed your own techniques on the drumset. Were they also teaching you theory?

DP: Yes. Theory of music was very important, too, because that’s what’s brought from the academic style… And we had solfegge. We had the harmony. We had counterpoint. And we have history of European music and history of Cuban music, and Latin American music, too.

TP: Were you also being taught the liberal arts or sciences?

DP: We did. From 10 to 14, we had chemistry and we had biology. Also, in music, we also had to take complementary piano lessons, which included mostly classical music.

TP: You’re 38 now. So you’re doing this from 1985 to 1989. That coincides with the last years of the Soviet Union, and the Empire, and the economic impact on Cuba was considerable.

DP: Yes.

TP: Was education politicized in any way? As you describe it, it doesn’t sound like a particularly ideological education.

DP: Well, inside of it, we also had somehow philosophical classes. We learned about Lenin…

TP: Marxism-Leninism and aesthetics.

DP: Yes, and also in literature, classes of literature. We were exposed to Eastern European writers and that new wave of belief.

TP: For instance, was the folkloric music of music looked favorably upon, or was anyone talking about jazz during those 10-14 years?

DP: Yes. I was very captivated by the Orquesta de Musica Moderna. It was kind of a jazz band that played Herbie Hancock’s music and some Maynard Ferguson music. It wasn’t like a big band in itself. It was actually like an orquesta, which means it has…almost the Irakere size, but I think it had more horns. I don’t remember the specific amount of horns, but it had a drummer, a percussionist, an electric bass player. By my time, I think that idea of restriction in terms of listening to jazz music specifically, or the Beatles, or that thing, it was already gone.

TP: Paquito described there being a certain party line during the ‘60s about jazz being unacceptable.

DP: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories about it.

TP: At 14, then you go to the national school, La ENA. Talk about the continuities of the pedagogy and how it was different?

DP: Then the next step was for me to go to Havana, and the whole thing got a little bit wider. There I was introduced to… Actually, there was a class in percussion. It was about Cuban percussion. So we learned the patterns of the congas and the batas, and a more Cuban thing also. I will say that it wasn’t enough. I would love if there would have been more, actually.

TP: More percussion instruction.

DP: Yeah. I would have liked… Coming from Cuba at that moment, it wasn’t really that much of a pedagogy in the school of our tradition. It was still oriented… But I was more free, and I played whatever I want. I’m just telling you what the system was giving you in that way.

TP: What was the attitude towards playing outside of school, and towards artistic freedom, for that matter?

DP: At the moment that I was there, as long as it doesn’t affect the school, you’re good. They’re serious. The whole thing is that most of the people who get into the music school, they had their own experience…but most of the people who come there, it’s because they really want it and they really express a talent. Teachers don’t want to be wasting their time in that way. If you’re there, it’s because you mean it. Otherwise, you shouldn’t be here. You’re not paying, so what is the big deal? This is about being…

But yeah, it wasn’t a big deal at that moment. Actually, that’s the way I made my way through into becoming a professional musician, because what I basically did was everything that… Mostly everything I’m doing now is what I did on the side of the school, as a consequence as well of… I took advantage of what was given to me.

TP: So the school gave you the tools to experiment and find what your voice actually was.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did you graduate?

DP: I did graduate from the National School of Music. I had to do a presentation of… You select a program and you do a presentation. I played something on the tympany called “Molto Perpetuo,” and I have no idea who wrote it now—I’ve completely lost track. I played “The Venice Carnival” on the xylophone. I played a piece on the snare called “The Train.” And I played a piece that I wrote for drums, four horns, and a bass player. I actually got the music from one of the bags that I found in my house in Cuba; I found some of the charts of that music. So yes, that was the program that I did on my recital. Five things.

The drummer in Orquesta Musica Moderna was one of my big influences at the time, my first influence of seeing somebody playing the actual drums in front of me. His name is El Peje, who is one of the drummers who used to play with Chucho. Through them I started hearing more than just Cuban music, but American or any other kind of music played in front of me. So I used to follow them a lot, just to hear. They sounded good.

TP: You seem to have balanced your time… there’s an element of the conservatory musician in you and an element of the street musician in you, just using the words roughly.

DP: Yes.

TP: Did a new type of Cuban musician start to emerge in the ‘80s because of the development of education in the conservatory?

DP: Yes, I think so. See, the thing is, you either receive an education from your house or from your very close related family, or you go to what the system offers you, which is to go to these kind of places. There are a lot of musicians who are I guess self-taught, in a way, in Cuba, that they didn’t go to a conservatory. But in my case, going to the conservatory was the way for me to develop myself as a musician. Everybody was looking for that, because that was a very good system. So I think yes, the generation that came after Paquito and after all those guys… That was even including… Well, Gonzalo is 12 years older than me, and El Negro as well. That generation I think also took a lot of… I think Gonzalo would be…

To tell you the truth, I didn’t get really good results when I got into the school. Not at the beginning. For some reason, I don’t know…

TP: Are the people who come out as jazz musicians somewhat misfits in the conservatory system?

DP: I wasn’t sure what got them… There seem to be a few stories of people… I heard also a story about Anga, that he had a problem… I don’t know if he got fired or he got a problem with something, because they said he didn’t have an attitude to play percussion. [LAUGHS] So it goes from the very subtle and naive to the most sublime and ridiculous.

TP: What are musicians being trained for in Cuba? What purpose are they seen as serving?

DP: The purpose is to really be good at playing… Eventually, we play Cuban music, or you will become whatever. But it is focused on classical music. It is classical training. That’s for sure.

TP: Has that changed? Is jazz in the curriculum now?

DP: At this moment, there is something open in the schools that they teach, like, jazz harmony or jazz history or whatever it might be, related to any other kind of culture that is not classical or, in a small degree somehow… Maybe more now they do teach Cuban music maybe. I think so. There are a lot of summer camps and things that happen also. Now there is more than when I was at the school.

TP: There are also these cultural exchange programs, like Jazz from Lincoln Center going over. Or Steve Coleman, for that matter.

DP: The story of Wynton or Steve or all those guys going now…it’s very different from the story that Paquito is saying. It’s not that they did it on purpose. That something has changed. Time goes by and things develop, and hopefully develop for the good. And in that case, it did develop for the good, because we opened up ourself to those…

TP: Can you describe to me… Around 1990 or so, things started opening up for Cuban musicians to start to travel, which you were able to do later on. Can you say something about the history of how that worked, what you had to do to go out on the road and the live elsewhere? What they asked of you, what sort of bureaucracy you had to go through to do it?

DP: Yeah, it was… For most of the people, there was a system created where you actually become an employee of… You have a salary a month for being part of a band or for teaching or for anything. You have a salary. You have different entities that represent music and culture. So through them, they organize tours and things like that, and that’s the way a lot of people traveled outside of Cuba when they started opening it up. I never was really part of any institution there, after I finished my school studies. I was completely independent since then. I was somehow playing with some musicians who were part of this orchestra, especially ….(?—28:56)…. and this organization, and I came to know the director. Then whenever I had a trip, I arranged it through him. For most of the people, when you’re going outside the system, you’re going with a very specific salary. I am not really sure what the salary was, because I didn’t experience it myself. But they had a very specific salary. There were some people traveling with them who were part of making security for them and making sure…

TP: That they don’t defect.

DP: Both. Yes, that they don’t defect, and they’re being their road manager and their management, period. I don’t know the amount of people that… But that was the way they did it. I didn’t do it that way. But it did exist, and some of my friends did it.

TP: Let me get to some more general questions. You touched on this earlier, but the ways in which your experience in the Cuban educational shaped your attitude towards music, helped you move in the directions you’ve moved in. I don’t know what you would have done had you not been in the system. You were self-taught. I’m sure you would have been a musician. But have you been shaped by that experience?

DP: Oh, yeah. I got to know classical music, which is a very fundamental… This is the music that came before. If we have to put a tradition on the podium, that is part of our tradition, in a way. The music in the world. Not in Cuba itself, but in the world. I got to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach…from Bach to Schoenberg.

TP: Would this be one reason why you were so open to someone like Henry or Andrew Hill…

DP: When I was in the National School of Music, I heard a few things of Andrew, but I heard Henry’s music much later on. I was already… I hadn’t heard Henry’s music when I was in the school, but I heard it maybe 17 years ago, something like that.

TP: That’s around when you met Steve.

DP: Exactly. Kind of the first person that I met from outside who was doing something, where we created a link, and we interchange ideas, and we actually played together… We were having the band Columna B. Steve came to Cuba, and he jammed with us, and I got to know his music. But then through that…then I came to Canada, and I heard Henry’s music, my searching for …(?—33:26)….

TP: Do you think the conservatory experience enhanced your ability to play the folkloric music?

DP: Not necessarily at the period I was in. Maybe now, when… I have a feeling that now, somehow, our popular tradition (I like to call it popular tradition more than anything else, which includes all the percussion…Cuban instruments, coming from our African heritage) is more integrated now into the system. But at the moment when I was there, it wasn’t integrated into the system.

TP: Why do you think that is?

DP: I don’t know. I think there was somehow a misleading perception about differentiating too much between the two of them. I think now everything has become more integrated, in a way, and the system has accepted more Cuban music as something that could be taught and something that could be part of our academic system. Before it was more of people who were on the street, and musicians self-taught, differing approaches… There have been musicians, earlier musicians who were trained on those European terms, as we know…

TP: Well, Cachao was one of them…

DP: Well, Ignacio Cervantes or Manuel Saumell, which were early Cuban composers. Those are the ones who created a nationalistic Cuban music in the period of nationalism. But it wasn’t… I don’t believe at that time, and I’m talking about the beginning of the 1900s, or actually… Anyway, there were people who had their own thing. But I don’t believe it was a music academy. I don’t know if there was a music academy at that moment in Havana.

TP: Also, being in the conservatory, you developed the techniques of composition and so on.

DP: The thing is that music is how we get to organize sound, and we learn in the schools how to organize and appreciate sound, and that becomes a form of knowledge that is very necessary in order to be conscious and have different ways, different paths, and different alternatives, and different strategies of how to make music. That’s what it is, and that’s why the academic world… As I said before, in my experience, it really was significant, because I wasn’t coming from a musician family. So I had to go and get other studies in order to do what I really want to do.

TP: There’s certainly that tradition of families bringing forth several generations of musicians.

DP: A lot of people came from it. That’s a completely different thing, even though they went to the school and it was completely different.

As time goes, you see a journey of how that system kind of changed. At the beginning, it seemed to be very rigid, and at the end everything got somehow integrated. That’s how I see the whole picture.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

*-*-*-

Dafnis Prieto (5-19-01):

TP: You’re 26, born in 1974. Where in Cuba?

PRIETO: In Santa Clara, right in the middle of the island.

TP: Is there a drumming tradition from there?

PRIETO: Not really. It’s good, you know, the drumming in Cuba, in the whole place. But it’s not really specifically a heavy point in that place, no. Not really.

TP: Tell me about your early years in music, and how you found your affinity for the drums and developed as a musician.

PRIETO: I started young, like at the age of 8 or something like this, to start playing guitar. But then I changed I think when I was 9. We had a children’s band, like Cuban music, and nobody wanted to play the bongos. So I said, “Okay, I’ll play the bongos.” Then it became a strange situation, because I started doing… In one concert that we had, the guy that played the claves didn’t show up, so I started doing the claves with my voice. [REPLICATES THE SOUND] I made the clave sound. Then I started playing bongos. Then the director of the band looked at me, and he said to my Mom, “You have to put this guy in the school now.” Even when I came into the school I was in guitar and percussion, but my mind was like percussion-percussion-percussion.

TP: So when you were 9 or 10 years old, your musical talent was discovered, and then you were sent… How does the schooling work?

PRIETO: At 10 years old I started to go to a school in Santa Clara, for four years. They call it a FEVA school, like for education. I did four years there. . In this school you just learn classical music.

TP: By vocational school, they teach a number of trades, including music.

PRIETO: Definitely. Half the day you do music, half the day you do the other part of the studies.

TP: Was it a school for the region or for the city of Santa Clara?

PRIETO: In the city of Santa Clara.

TP: How big is Santa Clara?

PRIETO: It’s not that big. I don’t know.

TP: Did you learn classical music and Cuban music…

PRIETO: Well, the thing with the Cuban music… I don’t know if at some point Cuban people need to have this in the school, because you’ve got so much on the street… Just washing your face in the morning, and you hear the neighbors and stuff, and then at the same time you’re in the school and you see people playing. It’s easy. If you are interested, it’s easy to get that kind of knowledge from the street. But they don’t teach that much Cuban music at the beginning, in those four years. After that I did ENA (Escuela Nacional De Artes), which is the national school in Havana.

TP: That’s the high school that the most talented musicians on the island go to when they’re that age.

PRIETO: Yes. You have to do an examination after you finish the four years. For example, in my case in Santa Clara, after I finished I did an exam, and I was 14-15 years old, and then I went to Havana for four more years.

TP: You were playing drums at ENA?

PRIETO: Drums.

TP: Was it developing yourself on hand drums, orchestral percussion, trap drums?

PRIETO: In the beginning at the school, I started learning the classical stuff. . Then I started playing more congas and percussion during the first four years in Santa Clara. Then I started really playing the trapset at the end, during the fourth year, before I went to Havana.

TP: I gather around 1990 records started becoming more available — Los Van Van, Ritmo Oriental, Irakere. People were able to get these more than they had ten years before.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: And did you listen to this stuff?

PRIETO: Yes, I listened.

TP: Were these the records that influenced you, gave you ideas or models to follow?

PRIETO: Well, there are records from Emiliano Salvador, like “Nueva Vision.” I really liked that stuff… There was a generation that did the Revolutionary part in the music in Cuba. That band included Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez… They were called La Nuevo (?). The band was really good musicians. Emiliano was in that band, and a really good bass player who played with Pablo Milanes. Many musicians in that period that did the classics of the Revolution… It was a consequence also of the Revolution. They sing, and some of the songs are revolutionary songs. Singing about revolution and freedom and these kinds of things.

TP: The bands in the ’60s..

PRIETO: Yes. The ’70s actually was the more developed stuff.

TP: You’re listening to Emiliano Salvador, and his records are an ingenious synthesis of modern jazz harmony, like Woody Shaw, with very advanced Cuban rhythms and playing polymeters and all this stuff. Then you’re saying that you went back from that and listened to older records by the people he was playing with?

PRIETO: I’m just saying at that at the same time, in that period, like in the ’70s, then there was this new…the same people… The contemporaries of Emiliano Salvador. They did a band together that was including Pablo Milanes, Sergio Rodriguez, (?), and the music was happening.

TP: Were there any drummers in particular who influenced you?

PRIETO: Actually I listened a lot to Los Van Van. In the beginning I went for that kind of thing, like the root part. Because I started playing percussion, I started listening to more Rhumba than the other things. So the Rhumba is the street stuff. So I start listening to this, and then in Havana I start listening to Coltrane and all this jazz thing. But from Cuba, Changuito, Tata Guines, also Enrique Pla who is the drummer from Irakere.

TP: Then Ignacio Berroa had left Cuba, I guess.

PRIETO: Right. Well, I didn’t hear much of Ignacio Berroa. I just met him like four years ago. Maybe I heard him on some record that I didn’t know he was playing on, because in Cuba the kind of information I got in that time was from underground tapes. It didn’t have credit.

TP: So by the time you were in Havana and studying classical music, you had the street music just from living in Cuba and paying attention. That was a given. Then you were able to develop your techniques and get a universal sense of approaches to drums while you were in the high school.

PRIETO: Yes. I started at 15 years old to play trapset.

TP: Around this time is when the Timba style starts to become popular. Can you speak to how that affected the way you think about music? In other words, from Son and Rhumba the songo rhythm evolved, and from that feeling comes the virtuosic Timba style. Were you playing all of it? Were there functions for you to play the whole timeline of the music?

PRIETO: Definitely. The thing is that the Timba includes… The thing with the rhythms is sometimes that it’s not a rhythm that you’re playing. It’s a rhythm that you’re feeling. This is kind of an abstract thing, kind of philosophy shit! But I’ve talked to some drummers about this. Because sometimes we’re feeling so many things, and we’re playing short stuff…

TP: You mean you’re editing yourself to suit the function of the music?

PRIETO: Not really, no-no. It’s that sometimes you don’t play what you are feeling. You are just playing the essence. So in those terms I am talking about the Timba thing. For me, the Timba is the consequence of all these things together. It’s a feeling. It’s the same thing as the Songo. The Songo, after a while, became like categorizing, and they put it in the books, like “Songo number 21,” that kind of thing. But when Changuito started playing Songo, he just started playing what he was feeling inside. So it’s kind of the same feel. Changuito is a Rumba guy also.

TP: So it all comes out of Rumba.

PRIETO: Well, the Rumba is really deep stuff. And the Timba is including the Rumba inside it anyway.

TP: So you go to the high school, then you’re 18-19, and it’s 1993-94. Apart from going to school are you playing in bands?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. When I was 15 and started in school, I started playing… Well, I played in a band by Julio Padron, the trumpet player. He was playing with Irakere for a while. That was a kind of Latin Jazz group.

TP: Does “Latin Jazz” mean something different to you than “Rumba”?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. The instrumentation is different, and harmonically and everything you can really go wide-open. The Rumba mostly is congas and singing and claves and stuff. You can put something on top. Some people have done that.

TP: Some Latin musicians say that Clave is much freer in Cuba than in other areas? Can you comment on that?

PRIETO: Yes, definitely. Well, the same thing I was talking to you about the Songo. It’s a feel. In Cuba, when you play the clave, we are not thinking on 3-2, 2-3 or how many beats, or even the people in Rumba don’t know how to explain it. It’s a feel. They trust the music first of all, because they feel it. It’s not because of their knowledge.

TP: So it’s more of an art and less of a science in Cuba.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, I think that the science is a consequence of other things actually. But people here at the end, to analyze the clave, they put it a second away, so people are starting to classify the clave like in 2-3, 3-2, and all these kind of things. But in Cuba, as soon as a guy gets a clave, they don’t know where… It’s just they go. The music, it goes. That’s what these people mean when they say it’s more free.

TP: also in the early ’90s, ’93-’94-’95, a lot of the younger generation of American musicians starts coming to Cuba. When do you start interacting with American jazz musicians?

PRIETO: In Havana at the jazz festivals.

TP: Do you remember when?

PRIETO: Actually I don’t have my curriculum in front of me. I don’t remember that much.

TP: Around ’94-’95?

PRIETO: Yes, I think so. Around ’94-’95 I started playing at the jazz festival. Then I saw great musicians. Airto Moreira; I was fascinated with his playing. Chico Freeman. Dizzy Gillespie I saw earlier. Not that much, but some.

TP: When did it start to be in your mind that you would like to come to New York and play with jazz musicians? How did that develop?

PRIETO: In 1994 New York wasn’t in my way of living or in my way of thinking to do. But I saw those guys, and I really wanted to do something like this. But I didn’t expect…

TP: Because of the politics.

PRIETO: Well, at some point… I didn’t have the politics in my mind. Actually, I came to New York twice before I decided to stay here; the first two times I didn’t feel comfortable. The first time I came with Jane Bunnett, and the second time with Columna-B, which Yosvany played in and Roberto Carcasses.

TP: So you were playing with Yosvany at this time, and Julio Padron.

PRIETO: Yes. That was out of the school, although we practiced in the school in the nighttime.

TP: What were you practicing?

PRIETO: In that period, I started listening more to Coltrane-Elvin Jones’ stuff, more Tony Williams’ stuff, and I really liked it, and I started to go to this position(?) at some point.

TP: What are the complications for someone whose first language is clave to adapt to a 4/4 feeling. There are confluences, Elvin Jones has a triplet feeling. But are there complexities to play swing properly?

PRIETO: Yes, there are. At some point, it’s a different… It’s an attitude thing. When you’re playing different kinds of music, in your mind you have to accept different attitudes at some point. Mostly when you’re a drummer, because you have to keep the strong rhythm part, and it’s… It gets different at some point when you’re playing jazz and when you’re playing clave, definitely! The clave stuff and the rhythmically Cuban stuff is really complex. The jazz could be as complex as these kind of things. It depends who plays. The things that Charlie Parker and Max Roach and all those guys did… They did some research.

TP: Well, Max Roach spent time in Haiti.

PRIETO: Yes, I know. Those guys were doing music 24 hours a day.

TP: By the way, did you play also in santeria functions? Can you talk about the spiritual aspect of Rumba and drumming in Cuba?

PRIETO: Well, the difference between the Rumba thing and the other thing is that the Rumba you can get on the street. You don’t have to be part of the Santeria stuff, even though most of the Rumberos are part of it. But I didn’t have that much contact in Cuba with the Santeria stuff. When I was living there I started playing with different cats, but doing a mix of stuff, like I was doing with Jane, with Pancho Quinto and Lucumi(?) and Pedrito and all those guys that play the Santeria stuff. But I just started playing it consciously when I left Cuba actually.

TP: When did you move here?

PRIETO: I came here in October ’99. How I got here is a story. I was staying in Barcelona. I started to go out of Cuba, because my wife was in Barcelona at that time; I was touring Europe with Columna-B, and I decided to stay in Barcelona. That’s a real avant-garde Latin and jazz band.

TP: So you were touring in Spain with that band, and you’d been here earlier as well. You get to Barcelona and what happens?

PRIETO: It was getting really boring for me. So I came to Canada to do a tour with Jane. I was doing a tour with her in Europe, Canada and the United States. Then at the end of that tour I was trying to decide to go to Spain again, because I was supposed to go back, but I got some visa problem. I wasn’t able to go back to Spain in that period. Actually, Spain is part of the G-7, and they denied my visa to go to the Northsea Jazz Festival. So I couldn’t go back to Europe. It was a really fucked-up situation.

TP: So Spain has passport restrictions on Cuban citizens also?

PRIETO: No. The thing is, I left Spain without having a residency. It took so long that I had to leave! So I left without any legal paper in Spain. So they didn’t let me go back that year. Then I decided to come here, because I didn’t want to stay in Toronto, in Canada. So I decided to come here with my heart! [LAUGHS] So after I came here, I started feeling really good. It was completely different than before. Maybe it was my difference. But I started seeing everything in a different way. For me before it was all too aggressive.

TP: In Cuba did you listen to the great Salsa bands from New York, or the Fort Apache Band or bands like this, and did they have anything to do with the way you thought about music?

PRIETO: I didn’t hear the Fort Apache stuff, believe it or not, until a week before I had to play with them! I’d heard the name, Fort Apache, and I had met Jerry a couple of years before that. But I didn’t hear the records.

TP: From your perspective as a Cuban and from the first generation that had freedom in some degree to travel, what do you think of the way Latin music has developed in New York in the last 15-20 years?

PRIETO: I think it’s really nice. I really love the stuff that all those guys in the ’70s did — Hector Lavoe, Eddie Palmieri, Mario Rivera. I think they made some innovations, mostly harmonic. They have more knowledge in some points because they have lived here. So they started mixing the harmony stuff with the Cuban thing in the… You know, the same thing at some point as Benny More in Cuba. He did a big band with Perez Prado. But I think it was really developed for those guys. I really like what they did musically. It was fresh in that period. And if you listen now, it’s great. When I hear Hector Lavoe, Mario Rivera, all those guys, man, I say, “Fuck!” It was nice arrangements. And you didn’t miss the Latin part. They were doing that approach to the jazz stuff. It was interesting.

TP: So from the mid-’90s on you were hearing a lot of bands around the world.

PRIETO: Yes. But there’s one part we’re missing. I met a guy named Carlos Maza at the school. He’s from Chile. He had really different ideas. He was listening to the more avant-garde stuff, like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti. I really enjoyed those kinds of things, and I started hearing different kinds of drummers with more freedom.

TP: Yosvany sounds very comfortable with avant-garde music also. It seems it must be because of the level training you get, being in the conservatory and learning so much music. Do you think that intensive training may differentiate you from other musicians in Latin America?

PRIETO: Definitely. Because you do four years at the school, and you have time to practice if you want. If you want to practice, you practice. My friends have a really high level musically, but they do not like the avant-garde stuff or they are not interested in that kind of thing, and they keep going in maybe the Salsa stuff or jazz in the Latin way. So there are differences in taste.

TP: But you became interested in Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, and playing feelings, and the science of sound.

PRIETO: Yes. I really like that approach.

TP: Do you have an abstract turn of mind? Sometimes there are correlations between musicians who think like Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti with physics and mathematics and so on, and I wonder if you have a bent towards that.

PRIETO: Actually I work with that. I have been doing some research with Steve Coleman also about all these things. We’ve been doing some work on South Indian stuff. Working with him, this kind of approach numerically and philosophically also… We were doing some work with the relationship between the Moon and the Sun and that approach to music.

TP: You mean how music relates to the angles and gravitational pulls of the universe.

PRIETO: Yes.

TP: Did you meet Steve in Cuba?

PRIETO: I met Steve in Cuba.

TP: Were you part of his big project?

PRIETO: Not at the beginning, no. I just played with him a year ago.

TP: Has he been an influence on you?

PRIETO: Yes. Big. I was really interested in the odd-metered stuff, and he is one of the more developed guys on that kind of thing. He started playing me records that he’d heard a lot, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, different, and I liked them.

TP: Probably Von Freeman, too.

PRIETO: I met Von Freeman. We played together in Chicago with Steve Coleman actually. He’s really great. He did a nice duet with a mrdingam player. It gets a similar sound to the tablas, but it’s kind of the bata. In a way it’s like a sitting drum.

TP: A lot of Latin musicians in New York heard Steve Coleman’s record with Cuban musicians and didn’t like it because it wasn’t idiomatic enough. They felt he took liberties. But you had no such feeling.

PRIETO: Right.

TP: But you know what I’m talking about.

PRIETO: I know what you’re talking about. I’m still hearing that, but I liked it. I think everything you do that somebody can learn from, it’s good to have had it. [LAUGHS] Nothing is perfect in this life, and maybe the people who talk about those things, they don’t do that much.

TP: When did you start composing music?

PRIETO: I started composing music when I started doing the thing with Columna-B in ’96 or ’98, something like this. I did a piece, and then we did some arrangements together with the band. But now I’m really interested in composing.

TP: Tell me about the musicians you started to form alliances with in New York. John Benitez is crucial, Luis Perdomo seems crucial…

PRIETO: Brian Lynch.

TP: Talk about how you started making your inroads. I guess the first time I heard your name was with Brian.

PRIETO: Yes. Well, after I’d been here for about a month, I went to Brian’s gig at the Cherokee-Phoenix, and it was good. Antonio Sanchez was playing drums then. I met Brian the year before that, when we did a concert at Stanford University with Conrad Herwig. When I saw him here, I sat in, and I said, “Man, if you need a drummer…” The next week Antonio couldn’t make the gig, so I did it.. And I started doing that gig for something like two months.

TP: Was it different music than you’d played?

PRIETO: Yes. Brian’s compositions has a specific kind of tone, like more Palmieri stuff, that kind of influence that he has. And I didn’t play that kind of stuff before so much. At some point, it could be really Latin — the way of forming the melodies and the harmony. I really liked doing that gig, and I still do it. We’re doing a concert June 16th at the Jazz Gallery.

TP: One thing I’m trying to get is how forward-looking musicians from Latin America are converging in New York, and what sort of music is evolving from it. Every time I hear one of you guys it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve heard before.

PRIETO: As I said before, I think my main influences musically since I started playing music (I can tell you right now from the bottom to now): I started listening to the Rumba thing, Changuito with Los Van Van, Tata Guines doing other stuff; some of Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s stuff…

TP: The things he did with his quartet.

PRIETO: Yes. Some tunes I didn’t understand that much about in that period. But I saw what’s interesting. I liked all the time things that I didn’t understand, so I have to work on that. So Gonzalo’s things, Irakere, Chucho, the whole thing. Then on the other side, as I said, I met Carlos Maza, and I started to hear Hermeto Pascoal, Egberto Gismonti…

TP: So meeting him helped you get a pan-hemispheric attitude.

PRIETO: Yes. When I met Carlos Maza I started to hear all this avant-garde stuff, and different things, more South American stuff, like Joropo, Venezuelano(?) and Querqua(?), and… All these rhythms. Different things. Ornette Coleman. I was also listening to Coltrane. All those guys. I played with Carlos Maza for four years; he plays piano and guitar also.

TP: Did the music sound like Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto?

PRIETO: At some point, yes. He used that approach. Then I played with this piano player in Cuba also named Ramon Valle. In some points he has an approach playing in a Cuban feel and in the jazz stuff, an approach like Keith Jarrett, not that much classic, and at the same time more… This approach, the way of playing. I did a trio record with him at Egrem. I think we did that record with PM Records, Pablo Milanes’s record company, when he had it. He doesn’t have it any more.

TP: Ramon Valle, Columna-B, Yosvany, and Roberto Carcasses. What is Roberto’s sound like?

PRIETO: He’s a great piano player. He’s a great musician also. He does arrangements and he’s really good.

TP: Then you’re here and playing with Brian Lynch, John Benitez…

PRIETO: I played with Yosvany Terry’s quartet also. Eventually I did this stuff with Andrew Hill. That was a great experience. I came in after Nasheet Waits, and I did a big band with him at the Jazz Standard. We played for three nights there, and then on June 14th I’m doing a concert with him in Philadelphia with the sextet. His music is really fluid. One of the first things that I asked him, on one tune, “What kind of feeling should I put here?” And then his answer was, “that’s the reason you’re here, to show me the feel.” [LAUGHS]

TP: He speaks in code, too.

PRIETO: Yes. I like that code!

TP: Then you started playing with Henry Threadgill.

PRIETO: Yes. That was before. Actually, Andrew Hill came to Henry Threadgill’s performance at the Knitting Factory where I was playing.

TP: How did this happen?

PRIETO: Steve Coleman called Henry and told him he had to check out the Columna-B band. We came here and did a performance at the Knitting Factory and also… The day I met Henry, he came down to the Zinc Bar to the Columna B concert. He really liked the way I was doing stuff. Then I left for Cuba, and when I was staying in Barcelona I received a call from a friend saying that Henry Threadgill was looking for me to invite me to play here in New York. At that time I couldn’t leave Barcelona because of the papers. Then one the first things that helped me decide to stay here was, “Dafnis, if you want to do that kind of music, you should stay here!”

A year before I met Henry, I heard one of his records at a friend’s house in Canada, and I said, “Man, who is this guy?!” He was doing some crazy shit rhythmically and harmonically, like Henry’s stuff. I really liked it. I really feel sensitive with those kind of things. Then I met him.. I think it’s a really sensitive music. It contains so many specific things. I really feel comfortable with that kind of idiomatic musical language. I don’t know how to describe it technically. But definitely he has his own way of harmonizing things and for orchestrating the stuff. He writes out the whole orchestration. If you put a harmonic chord, like five notes, he probably will give one note to each member of the band. I mean, his own particular way of doing that.

TP: Did this influence the way you write? Henry sounded so comfortable playing your music.

PRIETO: I don’t do that much this approach. I’m trying to get in touch with myself, trying to be sincere with myself. But I definitely have influence from Henry and from Andrew also.

TP: That brings me to this question of how being in New York and interacting with the cream of musicians from around the world on a regular basis is affecting your path.

PRIETO: New York has a really high level of musicians. The people who come here have in some way this feeling that they can do something. That makes it a kind of challenge musically, because you can see formidable shit, really nice stuff, and a really high level of people playing.

TP: When you’re playing Latin or pan-diasporic music… You’re from Cuba, John Benitez is from Puerto Rico, Luis Perdomo is from Venezuela, Carlos Maza is from Chile. Each country has a specific folk tradition, then they have a specific way of playing salsa or clave. But here people are coming together. There’s someone like Edsel Gomez or Ed Simon or David Sanchez, El Negro, all these different people. First, you keep your own identity and your own path. That’s always going to be with you. There’s a set of influences and experiences that you’ve had. I guess this is another one that you’re responding to. But there’s a sound to the music that all of you are doing that seems very New York in some way. I’m wondering if you could give me your impression is of what that quality is that is New York in what you’re doing.

PRIETO: I was talking to Yosvany about this actually. I was saying to him that I’m happy to be here, because I feel we have a generational thing happening now musically. Luis Perdomo, Miguel Zenon, David Sanchez. At some point, we are this generation that has, as I said before, knowledge about different cultures. It’s not about just Latin things. When you go to a concert, we are not just playing Latin stuff. We are mixing all the things we know and putting it in one language — music. If it’s Latin rhythm, we’re doing a Latin rhythm, but we can do it in the jazz style, in the swing shit, and also be free like Andrew Hill could be. It could be as wide open harmonically as Henry can do. You know what I mean? All these influences that I feel are with me personally, but at the same time, because I’m playing with them, we’re sharing the same thing. So I was talking to Yosvany about this generation that is coming now, between 25 to 35…

TP: Like Gonzalo and Danilo Perez on the front of it, down to you guys.

PRIETO: Well, I don’t know if I want to say that. I don’t know Danilo that much. I can’t say anything about him. Danilo doesn’t live here either. I haven’t got the chance to play with him.

But I think it’s a generation that has many questions to ask and many answers to respond at the same time. This is really fun. I get together with Yosvany to do some research, the same thing I do with Steve Coleman and with Miguel Zenon. We get together in my house and hear some music together and analyze it. I enjoy that part.

TP: So you’re able not just to play, but to get together and think as one. And in Cuba, you might have an opportunity to do it because people come to the school from all over Latin America, but it would be a different context. Have you been back to Cuba since you moved here?

PRIETO: No, I haven’t. I have a (?). It’s a permit you get here in the United States to travel out of the United States. So I may go this year to Cuba to visit my family.

TP: I gather that the situation in Cuba started changing in the early ’90s, and they started allowing musicians to travel out of the country and not give back all the money that they made, or to keep a good chunk of it.

PRIETO: In Cuba, when you become a professional musician, you have to become part of the Impresa…

TP: The union?

PRIETO: Well, it’s not a union thing. They have different ones. They control you definitely!

TP: They tell you where to play?

PRIETO: They’re supposed to. But sometimes it gets so disorganized that they don’t even do that! For example, all these musicians are part of the “Impresa” thing. I don’t know to describe “impresa.” A company.

TP: Like a guild maybe.

PRIETO: Something like that. So you’re part of that. And through this company you can make your papers to go out of the country. So sometimes you have to give them part of the money or a benefit or that kind of thing. Most of the travel that I did through that company, one of them, I did it because I was a friend of the director of that company. At some point, he helped me out. But I wasn’t part of the company. I don’t know for what reason, but I’ve always been kind of a revolutionary in that sense!

TP: You mean being a sort of free agent within the structure?

PRIETO: Yes, I like the freedom shit. I like to be freelance.

TP: Does that make it hard to function in Cuba?

PRIETO: Yes, it really makes it hard! Well, you know. In Cuba, Jazz doesn’t have much support. The only thing that happens in Cuba with jazz is a couple of concerts a year, and that’s mostly the same thing — Chucho Valdes, Gonzalo. When we were there, we tried to make some stuff. We did some. But we want to do more.

TP: So part of being here is being able to express yourself, even beyond the politics. Although there were the jazz festivals, and you could meet Roy Hargrove or Steve Coleman, and they could meet you. And tell me about some of the venues in New York. It seems the two primary ones have been the Jazz Gallery and the Zinc Bar.

PRIETO: The first things I started to do was at the Zinc Bar. Then at the Jazz Gallery we did many things with Yosvany.

TP: It seems you’ve developed an audience, and it’s a very international audience on just Latin. It’s interesting to hear a young, hip audience come out to hear some jazz of any sort, and you’ve drawn a lot of people.

PRIETO: Well, as I say, maybe they identify something with themselves about this music. That’s one of the reasons I think this is happening about this. At least myself, I am not interested in doing just Latin music or Jazz. I don’t even want to categorize the music that I play.

TP: So you’re a musician of the world, and there are a lot of musicians like you now.

PRIETO: Yes. The contact with the other side of the world is getting easier. The influences culturally. You can now get how many books you want about India or how many books you want about Greece or Asia, and you can start by your own. I like the studies that people do because they want to do it, and they do it on their own. They don’t go into school and do this and that because the professors told you to. I like the research that you’re really interested in, and you get the opportunity to do research on your own. You navigate with your own luck.

TP: And also, you can hear any music you want. Are you mostly listening to music from India and Egypt, rhythms of the world — folkloric music. [Yes.] Classical music?

PRIETO: I love classical music. That was my training for eight years. I couldn’t leave it.

TP: You left school at 18, didn’t go to the conservatory. The training must be good for you as a composer, knowing the harmony..

PRIETO: Yeah, definitely. And the way of writing and all this stuff. So you make the sections clear in your mind. I think the classical training… I was talking to Clarence Penn, and I said, “Man, I feel good because I have the classical training, and now I can appreciate different things.” I think it gives you a really good basic knowledge of the music. Even if the music that I sometimes am trying to reach now is…it gets in a different way… Like, the Indian stuff has different melodies, different scales, different rhythmic patterns. Different culture.

I said also about my influence of Elvin Jones, Tony Williams and Doug Hammond. The first time I heard Elvin was really inspiring for me, because it was really powerful rhythm and at the same time it could get free. But there was a real rhythmic thing going on that I enjoyed from him, the stuff he did mostly with Coltrane. With Tony Williams, he’s a really technically developed drummer in a musical way. He’s a very musical drummer, and he can do melodies on the drums. I’m really influenced by him also.

TP: You did a solo the other night where you sounded like about four drummers. I was trying to figure out what instrument you were striking. It sounded like you had three hands. What was interesting was that you had the timbre. Usually when drummers try to do that, they get the rhythm but not the timbre.

PRIETO: It’s good you talk about this. I’ve always been interested in European Baroque music, because it has the same melodies repeating in different places. At some point I like to do that in my drumming, doing the same phrase in different places, and explaining this phrase in different ways. That kind of thing.

TP: Is your family musical?

PRIETO: No. My mother works in an office, and my father is an elevator engineer. They like music, but they are not musicians at all.

TP: They are hard-working people.

PRIETO: Yes, people from the people. From the Bushmen. I played with Essiet at the Zinc Bar a few weeks ago, and he called his family the Bushmen.

TP: You look like you’re from a Creole background.

PRIETO: Yes. But the neighborhood I was born in at some point you could call a Black neighborhood. I grew up in that kind of situation.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Cuba, Dafnis Prieto, Drummer

For Terri Lyne Carrington’s Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2011 and a Downbeat Blindfold Test From 2015

To acknowledge the birthday of the estimable drummer-producer Teri Lyne Carrington, a force on the scene since her late teens, here’s a feature article that I was given the opportunity to write about her for Jazziz  magazine in 2011. (Her inclusivity and incisive taste come through in this excellent Jazz Times “Before and After” with  Larry Applebaum.) Following that article is the pre-edit proceedings of a Blindfold Test that we did for Downbeat in 2015.

* * *

When Terri Lyne Carrington was 17, about to matriculate at Berklee School of Music as a full-time student, her fellow Bostonian, House Speaker Tip O’Neill, intoned the now-famous aphorism, “all politics is local.” Without implying any direct influence, one might say that Carrington—now a 45-year-old tenured Berklee professor, long-standing master drummer, and respected producer—operates by the imperative that “all music is social.”

That principle applies to Carrington’s new release, The Mosaic Project, her fifth as a leader, and fourth on which she coalesces, as she states on a promotional video on her website, “a lot of different textures and colors and pieces to make a whole picture.” There are 13 genre-spanning selections, including her arrangements of songs by Irving Berlin, Al Green, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Nona Hendryx, and the Beatles, and originals that refract the Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock and M-Base schools of hardcore jazz and fusion. To perform them, Carrington assembled nine singers whom she’s either worked with or produced (Dee Dee Bridgewater, Carrington, Hendryx, Carmen Lundy, Gretchen Parlato, Dianne Reeves, Patricia Romania, Esperanza Spalding, and Cassandra Wilson), and an ace ensemble including, in various configurations, Geri Allen, Patrice Rushen, and Helen Sung on piano and keyboards, Spalding on bass, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Tineke Postma on alto saxophone, Anat Cohen on clarinets, and Sheila E. on percussion. She propels the proceedings with a global array of beats, navigating each flavor with idiomatic authority and a point of view, unfolding an intricate metric web in whatever direction the music suggests.

With so many moving parts in play, the outcome could well have been disjointed, or by-the-numbers stiff. Instead, Carrington creates a cohesive suite—the flow is relaxed and kinetic, the soloing is intense and probing, the ensemble breathes as one. “Terri has a broad, clear voice, and knows how to state her intentions so people understand,” says Reeves, who met Carrington when the drummer was a 10-year-old prodigy. “If she’d painted this picture with somebody else on drums, it would still be uniquely Terri Lyne Carrington’s music.”

“Terri is a connector,” Allen says of the way Carrington’s calm demeanor inspired the tight-yet-loose chemistry. “She knows how to pull together the right combination of people and energies and give them a sense of freedom within the context of her projects. This setting felt like home, a family thing where nobody’s sitting with their arms folded, waiting for you to prove you deserve to be here.”

Notions of family, both biological and musical, deeply inform Mosaic Project and two prior Carrington recordings from the aughts. On 2001’s all-instrumental Jazz is A Spirit [ACT], she convened several first-call peers, as well as Herbie Hancock, her frequent employer, and the voice of drum icon Jo Jones circa 1984, with a year to live, telling Carrington, “As long as I’m here, you run into any problems, call me—because of your grandfather, because of your father, and because of you.” She explicitly acknowledged bloodlines on the 2008 session More To Say (Real Life Story: Next Gen), a creative take on the funky side of smooth jazz (with brief blasts of Afro-Carribean and hip-hop). On that album she plays the contemporary grooves with an attitude that recalls the function that her grandfather, drummer Matt Carrington, fulfilled when jazz was swing, and swing was dance music. He died a few months before her birth, and his drums became her first kit.

On the aforementioned projects, Carrington, like many prominent sister musicians accustomed to being the only woman on the bandstand, recruited almost exclusively male associates to convey her vision. But on Mosaic Project, Carrington makes a firm statement on what it means to be a female jazz musician in the 21st century.

“People always tried to put me in situations with women, but it never felt comfortable or natural,” Carrington said. Influenced by recent engagements with Spalding (she performs on her 2010 release Chamber Music Society), and with Allen (they’ve shared numerous bandstands since the ‘80s, most recently in Postma’s quartet), her feelings shifted. “For me, Esperanza completed a circle,” she continued. “Nothing against other female bass players, but I felt like-minded with her, as I do with Tineke and other female horn players I’ve met recently. I won’t think twice about accepting a gig with them or calling them for a gig, because I like the way they play.”

Carrington provided detailed charts, each catering to the idiosyncracies of the vocal and instrumental soloists. She conveyed the nuances not only through in-studio instructions, but by sending to each participant an MP3 demo containing horn parts, basslines, chord changes, harmonic voicings, even her own interpretation of the lyrics in the style of each singer. “I composed every note you hear, other than the solos,” Carrington says, noting that she wrote nightly last spring after putting her three-year-old son to bed.

Sometimes, Carrington loosened the reins, instructing the players to do “something more personal” by focusing on the chords and not the written voicings. That flexible perspective and attitude of trust was crucial in actualizing her “jazz means no-category” aesthetic. “Terri doesn’t play drums like a groove machine that I need to lock into with a bass part,” Spalding said. “To me, she plays drums sort of like a piano. Each register and drum of the kit is like its own instrument that you could say she’s orchestrating, as though each drum has a voice. Playing bass, I have to be solid keeping the time in a specific place, but stay on my toes and be ready to dance with this orchestrated, multi-faceted momentum she’s creating. She’s so diverse—in her playing, you hear all the styles of music she’s mastered.”

In Allen’s view, Carrington’s encyclopedic knowledge of drum history bedrocks her cool boldness. “Terri has the foundation together, and she’s always felt confident to push ahead and mix, in a seamless way, the root with the future,” she says. “She understands drumming from the perspective of different world musics. She understands technology. She understands the pulse of what’s happening today.”

“I’m a jazz musician who is influenced by many other things,” Carrington said. “I try to mesh them together in my presentation, but jazz is still going to come out.” In this regard, she mentioned her father, Sonny Carrington, a professional saxophonist who went 9-to-5 to raise his family. “When I was doing TV shows in the ‘90s (she was house drummer on the Arsenio Hall Show and Vibe, hosted by Sinbad), I was playing very little jazz jazz, and I told my father I didn’t want to put the word ‘jazz’ in front of my name, like ‘jazz drummer’ or ‘jazz musician.’ He said, ‘You can’t run away from who you are.’ It stuck.

“I grew up listening to his music, jazz-based stuff that felt good—Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball, Hank Crawford. That swing conception is my root. Then I allow all my experiences as a child, teenager, young adult, and now adult, to seep in. Obviously, classic jazz is not of our generation—though I’m not putting down people who live more in the past, because they’re keeping that alive. It goes back to art for art’s sake or art for social consciousness. If you want to be socially aware through your art and tell people how you feel about life in general, what you’re doing has to reflect who you are, and current music is important. With instrumental music, it’s challenging for the listener to really know your intent. That’s why vocal music has always been so important to me—the message gets out to the listener.”

[BREAK]

Carrington remarked that she predicates her musical affiliations on “who I can connect with without thinking too hard,” and that playing with women “doesn’t feel particularly different” than with men.” Indeed, as she states in the publicity materials, the whole point of The Mosaic Project is that “you don’t hear gender.”

Reeves concurred, stating that she felt only “the vibration of creativity.” Yet she also states that on her album, That Day, a Carrington-supervised opus from 1997, “it was exciting to have a woman’s voice” in the producer’s chair. “As an artist, you want the producer to respect you for what you do—your ideas, your ability,” Reeves said. “I’ve known Terri so long, I knew I was in capable hands; she allowed me to feel I could be vulnerable—that I could stretch. She hears everything, she has strong opinions, and she came up with specific ideas that she knew would appeal to me. She knows how to do that with other people, too.”

Spalding opined that gender plays a subtle role in musical production, parsing the Mosaic Project experience through a music-mirrors-life approach. “Working with all these women, for the first time I experienced what most men always experience,” she stated. She noted that women are raised by similar codes, encounter similar “social stigmas and social habits,” and that, since music “is an extension of our identities and personalities,” these affinities “can’t help but seep into the way we choose to interact with music as it passes by us in real time—maybe we’re communicating a little closer to the same language. Sometimes I feel it in a subtle, sort of unconscious way, but as soon as I try to identify something, it’s gone.”

For Carrington, that “something” is the female predisposition to be “a little more in tune from a compassionate perspective, a serving perspective, a ‘let me make this bed for you’ perspective, whereas a guy more naturally just steps in. I like both things, and both are happening in most women. The best male players have it, too. But a woman’s nature, I think, is to hold back for a second, assess the situation quickly, and be supportive. That nurturing quality—without trying to—makes the music feel more beautiful. Sometimes I have to work at not doing that too much, so everything doesn’t sound too polite.”

She observes such reticence among the young women who study with her at Berklee. “I think it’s less natural for women to hit things,” she said. “Even though we’re making music, it’s still a somewhat aggressive action that a lot of women—not all—don’t gravitate to. The majority are still a bit apologetic. When kids play catch, say, a girl’s instinct is to throw or pass the ball. A guy’s instinct is to grab the ball and hold onto it.”

It was hard to imagine that this had ever been an issue for a musician who spent consequential time on bandstands with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Danilo Perez, following postgraduate New York associations in the ‘80s with such high-pedigree jazzmen as Clark Terry, Frank Foster, James Moody, Pharaoh Sanders, Kenny Barron, Lester Bowie, Stan Getz, and Mulgrew Miller, not to mention M-Base innovators like Greg Osby and Gary Thomas.

“No, I think it has been,” Carrington responded, recalling past engagements at the Village Vanguard when she “wanted to put my best foot forward” before her drummer peers in the crowd, “to show off and say, ‘Yeah, I’m bad; I can play.’” Often, she added, “I couldn’t get past a hurdle to do that ownership thing. I wanted to stand out more, but I couldn’t make myself do it if it didn’t come naturally at that moment.”

It seemed that this response might pertain more to the demands of apprenticeship than some inherently female characteristic. “That’s true,” she said. “But I felt a lot of the younger drummers were more willing to step all over the music. To me, that’s a male quality. Some people perceived that as overplaying or being inappropriate, whereas many people felt I was always appropriate, didn’t overplay. As I got older and more seasoned, and played with peers or younger people, I became more confident and comfortable with myself. I know that I’m naturally about serving the music and fitting in, so I don’t mind saying, if necessary, ‘We’re going over here for a minute, and we’re doing this.’ I’m always going to be appropriate. But now I see being appropriate differently.

“My father told me, ‘You never give anybody a show.’ He felt I could. But that’s not what I do. I like playing through everybody’s solos, and bringing something to it. I’ve started realizing that this can be captivating in itself. People tell me they couldn’t take their eyes off me, and I hadn’t taken a drum solo. So I allow myself to be featured without featuring myself. I know that when I get deep inside the music, it can be a force, a magnetism, that draws people in.”

Few drummers could conjure as much contextually appropriate dazzle as did Carrington in November with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci during a Philadelphia concert exploring the repertoire of Perez’ landmark 1996 date, Panamonk, on which she and Jeff Watts split drum duties. Earlier in the month, after several gigs in Spain with Perez and Patitucci in the Wayne Shorter Quartet—she recommended them to Shorter at the end of the ‘90s—as a sub for Brian Blade, Shorter told Carrington it was as though she “had never really left the group—I was like the fifth member all that time.” He backed the words by asking her to join the group in Brazil in June.

Still, Carrington’s 2011 itinerary includes numerous encounters with women, including various Mosaic Project offshoots, tours with Spalding’s trio, a collaborative Carrington-Allen-Spalding trio, and hoped-for follow-ups to a program of young girls’ songs that debuted at the Kennedy Center last October on which Allen and Rushen played Steinway Grands. Over the summer, she’ll play drums and serve as music director for a tour called “Sing the Truth,” on which Reeves, Angelique Kidjo, and Lizz Wright will interpret songs written by African-American women from Bessie Smith to Lauryn Hill.

“I might want to do a Joni Mitchell song, even though she’s not African-American, because she’s such a strong songwriter,” Carrington says of the latter endeavor. “It doesn’t have to be just writers either—it could be a Mahalia Jackson song.” She expounds on her ecumenical tastes, referencing Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, neo-soul, “organic rock with a blues orientation” a la the Allman Brothers, and drummers “who aren’t mechanical” like Mitch Mitchell and John Bonham. “From TV, I developed respect for all the genres, because I had to sound as close as possible to people who specialize without imitating them. You focus, come on strong and make the point, because you have less than a minute. There’s no room for error.

“I’ve always put my heart into whatever I do,” she continues. “One of my favorite gigs ever was with Bill Withers when he came out of retirement to do a party. If I was just about playing the drums, then playing with Wayne or Herbie would be much more satisfying than playing with Bill Withers. For me it’s about making music and being creative.”

 

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Terri Lyne Carrington Blindfold Test (Raw):

Ali Jackson, “Ali Got Rhythm” (Amalgamations, Sunnyside, 2013) (Jackson, drums; Aaron Goldberg, piano; Carlos Henriquez, bass)

It’s swinging hard, though I don’t like to use that word—it feels so ’80s. Something in the ride cymbal pattern reminds me of Ali Jackson. The track was good; his performance was great. I love his forward motion on the beat. It doesn’t feel rushed, but it’s real edgy. I tend to play a bit more behind the beat than that, but I appreciate when somebody does it well. I appreciate drummers, or musicians generally, who preserve a style from another time period, though that isn’t necessarily where I live. In most cases, I’d rather listen to something that was done when the style was fresh, cutting edge, pushing a boundary. 3½ stars overall; 4½ for Ali, because I could pick up his ride cymbal.

Kendrick Scott, “Never Catch Me” (We Are The Drum, Blue Note, 2015) (Scott, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone and bass clarinet; Mike Moreno, guitar; Taylor Eigsti, Fender Rhodes; Joe Sanders, bass)

The way the toms and snare is being played sounds like Kendrick Scott, but the bass drum sounds heavier than Kendrick. Some things remind me of Eric Harland, and one beat I’ve heard Jamire Williams play—there’s a school of drumming that is being pulled from the same sources. I enjoyed the writing, the counterpoint between the two melodies. I like the piano sound. Obviously the drums are featured, but they’re not overwhelming. It’s nice to hear something in 4, because so much music these days is not played in 4. I like playing in odd time signatures, too, but you have to balance it. I would buy this track for sure. 4 stars. [after] There’s an organic quality to Kendrick’s playing that I appreciate. His playing has grown. The articulation, his ideas, everything feels more intentional.

Jeff Watts, “Brilliant Corners” (Blu, Vol. 1, Dark Key, 2015) (Watts, drums; Troy Roberts, tenor saxophone; David Budway, piano; Neal Caine, bass)

I’m sure it’s Jeff Watts. I went to school with him, so I’ve known his playing for a while. From the first beat. Jeff has a distinctive way he plays that swing-funk thing,. His triplet is very distinct. With the metric modulations, the tune sounds either like something he arranged of Monk’s or trying to write something in Monk’s style as a tribute. I’m not crazy about the sound of the recording. I know he now has his own studio, in a church or something. There’s a certain raw nature to that sound that I like, and it makes it sound older, in a sense, like everybody in a room playing. At one point, he started playing a hi-hat, and it was overwhelming. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but he sounded great. The piano solo was great. 4 stars. The playing is strong enough that I can get past the sound.

Antonio Sanchez, “Fall” (Three Times Three, CamJazz, 2014) (Sanchez, drums; John Scofield, guitar; Christian McBride, bass)

You can’t mess this song up. It plays itself. That’s Antonio. That little sound, the little bell. [bass solo] Earlier on, during the ostinato, I couldn’t tell it was Christian, but some things in the solo tell me. It sounds amazing. I’m used to hearing Sco play more lines, but this is a pastoral sound. Antonio is playing very cinematic and textural. I just love the sound of the recording and how his drums sound, full and powerful, so balanced. 5 stars. The song already sucks you in, it isn’t over-arranged, and it’s the right combination of players. The guitar-bass-drum combination is my favorite; it allows the drums to be present in a different way than with a piano. Antonio masterfully took up the right amount of space without overplaying. He made it sound big and full without playing too much. What he did play was tasty, but also meaningful.

Lewis Nash, “Y Todavia La Queiro” (The Highest Mountain, Cellar Live, 2012) (Nash, drums; Jimmy Greene, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Pelt, trumpet; Renee Rosnes, piano; Peter Washington, bass)

That song took me back. It’s Lewis Nash. At first I wasn’t sure, with the fingers on the drums, though I’ve seen him do that, but I knew it was him when he picked up the sticks. He plays with a certain forward motion. He’s steeped in the bebop tradition, and has a way of playing it that sounds modern and has an excitement factor. It’s the ferocity he puts on the tempo, undeniable, like a train. The track is really a drum feature, and it’s done live, and it’s so well-executed…just great drumming. He’s a master at what he does. 4½ stars.

Myra Melford, “First Protest” (Snowy Egret, Enja-Yellowbird, 2015) (Melford, piano; Tyshawn Sorey, drums; Ron Miles, trumpet; Liberty Ellman, guitar; Stomu Takeishi, bass guitar)

The drummer likes Jack DeJohnette. The sound of the snare is making me think of Brian Blade, though it’s a little more on top, and the ride cymbal is brighter. I gravitate to this kind of drumming, because it doesn’t feel lick-oriented. It feels organic, like you’re playing off what you’re hearing, as opposed to things in your repertoire. The piece felt organic, very open. When it started, the piano soloing with the drums, I thought it was going to stay in the vein of contemporary classical musicians who also improvise, but then it entered an area where I was hearing M-BASE inflections—someone who might have gone through that camp or been influenced by it. I like the loosey-goosey effect in this player’s groove as opposed to some others from that school. I really liked the guitar player, and I like the piece. 4 stars.

Brad Mehldau-Mark Giuliana, “Luxe” (Mehliana, Nonesuch, 2014) (Mehldau, synths, keyboards; Giuliana, drums, electronics)

I like it before the drums even start! I like this record by Brad and Mark. I’d never heard Brad play electronic instruments, and I’d never know it was him if I didn’t know the record. There are elements that remind me of Weather Report, a little Joe Zawinul creeping in. Mark Giuliana is a strong, well-rounded drummer. I like the minimalism of the groove, that I only heard the toms a few times in the whole piece, and that he REALLY held my interest with just the kick-snare and a hi-hat in the pattern, that he kept a relentless feeling to the groove while improvising inside of it. His choices never took away from the thing that’s making me dance to the track. I like the kind of ’70s lope that pops into the beat.4 stars.

Billy Hart, “Yard” (One Is The Other, ECM, 2014) (Hart, drums, Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass)

I wish they had mixed the drums a little louder. The ride pattern, and the way the drummer is breaking up the beat is very familiar to me, like out of the Billy Higgins-Ed Blackwell school—the double-stroke triplets from the snare to the cymbal, and the snare and the tom. This person isn’t trying to prove anything. The drumming is musical, almost compositional—it fits the piece. It’s nice to hear the space and feel you don’t need any more to be satisfied. The swagger of the time also makes you feel satisfied. The tenor player and the pianist sound great. I love that when the tenor started, it sounded like an alto. It felt like the horn player’s record. 4 stars for the drumming; 3½ for the track because I couldn’t hear the drums as much as I wanted. [after] Billy normally drops some bombs, hits a kind of crescendo; his playing was more restrained than normal.

Peter Erskine, “Lost Page” (Dr. Um, Fuzzy Music, 2015) (Erskine, drums; John Beasley, keyboards; Janek Gwizdala, electric bass; Bob Sheppard, tenor saxophone)

I really like this except for the ending. They could have just faded! But I would have this on heavy rotation because of the feeling it evokes. The groove is great. The bass line almost sounds like something would Meshell would do or produce. I love the high-pitched kick-drum, the tastiness of the drums. It sounds like a seasoned professional who doesn’t have to prove himself, who puts just the right thing in the right place. It hits me on an emotional level and makes me want to move my body, but it’s still intelligent, soulful playing. 4½ stars. It has a West Coast flavor, though I’m not actually sure what that means. I lived on the West Coast, and I don’t think my records sounded West Coast when I lived there. The drums sounded East Coast, but the production and the smoothness of it sounded West Coast. Now, it was quite funky, so I don’t mean smooth like in Smooth Jazz. It’s that thing you get when you have to ride on the freeway for 45 minutes to go any place versus the thing you get when you have to ride the subway. [after] I don’t remember hearing Peter’s bass drum tuned that high, and I would have thought Peter’s fills would be more intricate, less meat-and-potatoes than I heard.

Irene Schweizer-Han Bennink, “Verflixt” (Welcome Back, Intakt, 2015) (Schweizer, piano; Bennink, drums)

The spirit and the energy spoke to me. It was constant sound, without any real breaths, which is cool. But in this free context, I can’t hear phrases the way I’m accustomed to hearing them, which would help me to figure out who the drummer is. I loved the piano as well. They have a marriage. I’m assuming this style is what these people who do. Every time I have to do something in that vein I feel like I’m not quite there. I haven’t checked enough of it out to feel like I can put my vocabulary inside it where it makes sense.

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Filed under Drummer, Jazziz, Terri Lyne Carrington

For Steve Gadd’s 70th Birthday, a Jazziz Profile From 2013

A day late for master drummer Steve Gadd’s birthday, here’s a “director’s cut” of a feature that I had the opportunity to write last year for Jazziz magazine, framed around the release of Gadditude.

* * * *

The only drum solo on Gadditude [BFM], Steve Gadd’s first studio leader date in a quarter-century, occurs at the six-minute mark of the album-opener, “Africa,” a smoky modal number. Actually, Gadd doesn’t so much solo as emerge from the ensemble in dialogue with Larry Goldings’ percussive vamp on Hammond B-3, intensifying, but barely embellishing, the crisp, swirling 7/4 groove that has heretofore propelled the flow. For the remainder of the session, Gadd draws from his exhaustive lexicon of bespoke beats—New Orleans march figures, tangos, shuffles, waltzes, straight-eighth feels, and a soupçon of 4/4 swing—to personalize nine songs either composed or selected by Goldings, trumpeter Walt Fowler, bassist Jimmy Johnson, and guitarist Michael Landau, his bandmates over the past decade behind singer-songwriter James Taylor.

“I didn’t do it intentionally or think about it beforehand,” Gadd said of animating of own session by assuming a supportive role, as has famously been his default basis of operations since he became a fixture in the New York City studios in 1972. “I think a drummer’s goal is to allow other people to sound their best, to have space to shine and create. Some situations favor an energetic approach, interacting more with the solos. Other times, people are playing over the groove, and it’s better to stay out of the way—use those notes when it’s your chance to solo, rather than behind them. For me, the better solos happen when the groove gets strong and the intensity is where it should be. Then it feels natural. In the studio, it would have felt forced. I thought it was better to let it just be what it was.”

It was noted that, as producer, Gadd made an executive decision not to position the drums prominently in the final mix.

“I want the mixes to sound dynamic and balanced, so you can feel our intent, not to get everything so in your face that it highlights what I’m doing,” he responded. “If I’m playing soft, I’d rather you hear it soft and place everything around it. Then the music is speaking, not just one instrument.”

Gadd has actualized these aesthetic principles with extraordinary consistency on the 750 sessions—some 230 of them during the ‘70s—listed on his web discography. During that decade, His ingenious figures stamped hits by such pop icons as Paul Simon (“50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” from Still Crazy After All These Years) and Steely Dan (Aja). His inexorable pocket was integral to the feel of Stuff, the funk super-group with keyboardist Richard Tee and guitarists Cornell Dupree or Eric Gale, who contributed to the soundtrack of the Jimmy Carter-Ronald Reagan era with Stuff It and dozens of backup dates, not to mention Simon’s quasi-autobiographical film One Trick Pony, in which all play consequential roles. His explosive straight-ahead skills came through with a succession of high-profile jazz and fusion groups—Steps with Michael Brecker and Mike Mainieri, Chick Corea (The Leprechaun and My Spanish Heart), the Brecker Brothers (Don’t Stop The Music), and several dozen CTI dates.

During the ‘80s, Gadd, already a key influence for a generation of aspirants, performed on over 150 recordings. He toured extensively, both as a high-profile sideman and as leader of the Gadd Gang, with Dupree, Tee, and acoustic bassist Eddie Gomez. During the ‘90s, he developed new relationships with James Taylor and Eric Clapton, and spent consequential bandstand time in a short-lived, gloriously creative trio with the French pianist Michel Petrucciani and bassist Anthony Jackson.

“I admire musicians who constantly try to raise the bar for themselves,” Gadd states, in a piece of self-description that is manifested by his production of and participation in If You Believe, his second eclectic, erudite collaboration with marimbist Mika Stoltzman; an as-yet untitled encounter with conguero Pedrito Martinez that is scheduled for a late 2013 release; and the third recording in three years by the Gaddabouts, a Gadd-directed backup band for singer-songwriter Edie Brickell. Less omnipresent in the studios than before, he recently augmented his c.v. on dates with Eric Clapton (Old Sock), Italian pop singer Pino Daniele (La Grande Madre), and Kate Bush (50 Words For Snow). As we spoke, Gadd was preparing for shows in Japan and California with Quartette Humaine, titled for an acoustic Bob James-David Sanborn CD that the protagonists had supported on the road for much of June and July, and by the Steve Gadd Band, booked for post-Gadditude appearances in Korea, Japan, and California.

“I don’t think of it as my band,” Gadd said of his latest leader endeavor. “Of course I put it together, and I’m in a position to make suggestions and some final decisions. But it’s always a group. People brought in tunes, and I picked the ones that I liked best and thought we could have fun playing. Then we worked them out by trial-and-error.”

Gadd’s assertion to the contrary, he has, as Goldings notes, “a very convincing way of putting his own spin on something.” As an example, Goldings mentioned the leader’s treatment of Keith Jarrett’s “Country,” a ballad first recorded by Jarrett’s “European Quartet” in 1978. “Steve likes to experiment with time signatures and feels, and after a day of playing sort of as-is, in 4/4, he suggested we try it in three,” Goldings said. “He didn’t know the song, wasn’t tied down to it, and wanted to do something different.” Goldings described another Gaddian volte face, at a 2008 recording date for James Taylor’s Covers. “One song we’d played for years had an iconic drumbeat, a heavy tom-tom thing, and we listened back to the live version. But when we started going for takes, Steve immediately went for his brushes, almost the opposite thing, done beautifully, in this understated way. Nobody said a thing. It just worked.

“I think he has a sound in his head, and he knows how to create it instantaneously. It’s one of the mysterious things about him.”

[BREAK]

The facts, anecdotes, and sounds of Gadd’s biography—documented in dozens of articles, some easily available on the Internet, and hundreds of Youtubed videos—are well-known. A native of Rochester, New York, he’s held drumsticks literally since he learned to speak. By age seven, the year he received his first drumset, he was tap-dancing publicly. While Gadd was still in grammar school, his father, a drug salesman, and uncle, a semi-professional drummer who taught him the rudiments, brought him to Sunday matinees at the Ridgecrest Inn, a small club that hosted such best-and-brightests as Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Max Roach, Oscar Peterson, Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, Carmen McRae and Gene Krupa as they traversed the northeast circuit.

“You could sit next to the bandstand and watch them play,” he says, recalling the frequent presence of childhood friends Chuck and Gap Mangione. “Sometimes they’d let the kids sit in. When I was in high school, there were organ clubs that booked Jack McDuff, Groove Holmes, George Benson, and Hank Marr—you could sit in with them. I loved that music. All this time, I was taking lessons, doing drum corps, playing the high school concert band and stage band.”

In 1963, Gadd enrolled at Manhattan School of Music. After two years, he transferred to Rochester’s Eastman Conservatory. “Eastman had more orchestras and wind ensembles, so I had more playing opportunities,” he recalls. “In Rochester, I started working six nights a week with different bands, so I could support myself through college.” Upon graduation, Gadd, hoping to avoid combat duty in Vietnam, auditioned for and was accepted in the Army Field Band at Fort Meade, Maryland, where he spent the next three years, the final two of them propelling a Woody Herman-Buddy Rich styled big band. “There were great writers, who wrote new arrangements every week for us to sight-read,” he recalls. “I couldn’t have gotten that kind of education anywhere else.”

Understanding this blend of formal education and practical experience offers a window into the deeper levels of Gadd’s ability to elicit maximum results with a minimum of flash, to quickly comprehend the big picture of a track or a song and make it sound like he’s been doing it for years.

“I came to New York having fun with the ability to play different styles of music,” Gadd remarked. “I loved the kind of playing Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette did, but in New York I heard Rick Marotta, who played simple but with a really deep groove. I didn’t understand that kind of simplicity, but it challenged me. So I worked just as hard at playing simple as playing complicated and playing fusion. Different people were typecast as funk drummers, Latin guys, jazz guys. But I didn’t like categories. As long as it was good music, I loved it.”

This was about as far as Gadd would go in the advertisements-for-myself department, but others were glad to comment, among them modern-day drum avatar Eric Harland. Now 35, Harland states that for his senior recital in high school he modeled himself after Elvin Jones and Gadd’s playing on Chick Corea’s extended jazz suite, Three Quartets.

“I feel Steve came a lot out of Elvin, and applied it to fusion,” Harland said. “It isn’t so much about chops but the feel of the drums—solid, like earth.” Harland referenced a video—as of this writing, three versions are on Youtube—of a “drum battle” between Gadd, Dave Weckl and Vinnie Colaiuta that concluded a 1989 Buddy Rich memorial concert. “Chops-wise, Steve couldn’t compete with Dave and Vinnie,” Harland says. “They get around the drums like water. But when Steve comes in, he lays down a groove that you swear you can hear people start screaming. It was so moving, he didn’t NEED to play anything else. That comes from within, like some samurai king-fu shit, where you break the laws, not with your body but your mind. In his minimalism, you get the same feeling as if you’re watching a drummer do everything humanly possible. That’s what I think amazes us. How did he make THAT feel like I’m listening to Trane playing all the baddest shit, or Tony playing the most incredible things, all over the drums?”

A drum avatar of the previous generation, Jeff Watts, checked out Gadd extensively during his ‘70s high school years, when he aspired to a career in the studios. “He became my favorite drummer for a period,” Watts says. “He struck me as really consistent, and as things unfolded, I got hip to his range, that he had his own way of playing different styles. He didn’t play textbook funk; he evoked Samba though it definitely wasn’t classic Samba. The first time I learned a mozambique, it was Steve Gadd’s interpretation of the mozambique.”

Last September at the Tokyo Jazz Festival, Watts heard Gadd play in Bob James-led band with bassist Will Lee, saxophonist David MacMurray and guitarist Perry Hughes. “On some tunes, he was playing really naked pulse, almost like something a baby would play. These days guys like Chris Dave try to imitate samples, embellishing the pulse a lot, so it was cool to hear him play just quarter-notes, but like it’s the last thing on earth.”

“Steve is all about the time,” says James Genus, fresh from playing bass alongside Gadd nightly while touring with Quartette Humaine. He describes Gadd’s feel as “in the middle or slightly behind the beat, depending what the music calls for. He can play with a click track and make it swing—precise, but not rigid, with a human, natural quality.” Sanborn adds: “At a turnaround or some other point in a tune, he’ll speed it up or slow it down a bit, just to make it breathe. But he never loses the pulse of where the click is.”

“Steve seems into understatement more than ever,” Goldings says, and Gadd agrees. “I probably played busier when I was younger,” he states. “My goal was to give whoever hired me what they wanted, so I’d get called back. I’d try busier fills—sometimes they’d like it, sometimes it was too much. But it wasn’t about ego. It was about trying to make the thing as good as it could be. It’s challenging and fun to not just go up there and play everything you know, but leave some room.”

Retrospecting on their 39-year professional relationship, which began with the 1974 CTI date One, James observes that Gadd “has stayed remarkably true to his approach.” “Steve is a virtuoso player, but he keeps his playing simple,” he says. “To me, the virtuosity comes across more in the fact that he plays every note just in the right place, the right pocket.”

For a present-day example, James cites “Follow Me” on Quartette Humaine, on which Gadd keeps “the freight train rolling through the different time signatures that appear in practically every measure, making the rest of us feel as comfortable as it would have felt in 4/4 time.” For another instance of Gadd’s derring-do, James hearkens back to One, where, confronted with a “fast, bombastic drum part that alternated between 7 and 4, with a lot of hits” on James’ arrangement of Mussorgsky’s “Night On Bald Mountain,” Gadd figured out a way “to keep the freight train intensity flowing” after a couple of hours.

Characteristically, Gadd—who feels that this recording helped cement his New York reputation—credits James for “being a great leader who knew what he wanted.” “An orchestra was overdubbing later, so we had to play with that in mind,” he says. “I had experience with odd time signatures from Eastman, and I tried to figure out a way to subdivide it, to make it feel comfortable.”

[BREAK]

James also recalls Gadd’s legerdemain on a “repetitive, modal, atmospheric” number called “The River Returns” on the 1997 record Playin’ Hooky. “He played one of his classic brush beats that seemed to make everybody play better,” James says. “It felt great, but I couldn’t figure it out until I listened to the drum track during post-production and looked at the console needle that shows volume levels. Slowly, imperceptibly, over five minutes, it became louder and more intense. You could have made an amazing graph of its crescendo.”

Gadd’s dynamic control in live performance fascinates Sanborn, who points to the peculiar bandstand sensation of “knowing that Steve is hitting hard, but never feeling that the drums are too loud—in fact, sometimes the opposite. He has an uncanny ability to blend the sound of his drums with the group. He always does that unexpected thing that you never saw coming, always knows where he is and what to do. You never feel he’s showboating.”

“I’m always aware of dynamics and space,” Gadd says. “It’s not fun for me to start out at level-10 and stay there. It affects my endurance. It affects the creativity. Without dynamics, you give up the element of surprise. Starting simply gives you someplace to go—you can explode, then get soft again. Using space can make the notes that you play more interesting.”

When playing live, Gadd adds, he tries “to reach an agreement with the sound guys to keep a balance in the monitors so that other people on the bandstand can hear you when you’re playing soft.” He adds: “When you feel you’re not being heard, the tendency is to play loud, and the music goes right out the window. When guys who can PLAY can hear each other, the magic can take over. The more you trust the sound, the more chances you take, and it can evolve into something a little different every night. Of course, some music is meant to be played hard, at a louder volume, where you can get away with just a strong backbeat. It’s all about communicating, and understanding where you want to go with the music. You can’t give up on it. You’ve got to keep always trying.”

If a musician’s sound mirrors their personality, then Gadd’s results-oriented, team-first philosophy is of a piece with Goldings’ assessment that he is “very down to earth.” “Steve is one of the great joke-tellers, and he puts a fantastic amount of detail and personality into telling them,” Goldings says. “Perhaps that’s consistent with the amount of subtle detail in his playing. He’s also very warm, and sensitive to your moods. I had some personal things happen on the road, and every other day or so he’d ask me how things were going. I really appreciated that he wasn’t afraid of going there. He kind of cuts through the bullshit.”

Indeed, Gadd displayed these qualities with me, when I called him an hour before our scheduled time for a first conversation to ask we could push back the chat to allow me to rush my cat—who I had just come upon with the skin flayed open over his stomach—to the vet. He immediately assured me that he was available all day, and to take my time. “You’ve got to take care of your animals,” he said, noting that he himself “likes to hang out” with his five dogs—two English bulldogs, a 90-pound American bulldog-pitbull mix, a Yorkshire, and a Morky (part Maltese, part-Yorkshire). “Man, I love those guys,” he said.

Concluding our conversation five hours later, Gadd said, “I’d like you to call me and tell me how your cat is.” Is it a stretch to extrapolate this empathetic reflex to Gadd’s bandstand comportment? Perhaps. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

[SIDEBAR]

In Paul Simon’s excellent film, One Trick Pony, which was released in 1980, Steve Gadd plays Danny Duggin, a hard-drinking, pot-smoking, blow-snorting, wisecracking, bad-ass drummer. He’s acting, and acting well, but the character reflects his lived experience.

“Those were the party years,” Gadd says of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “Before the shit hit the fan and everyone went over the top with it, we had a ball. We didn’t know you could get addicted to this stuff. When I first started getting high, it was like I was trying to stay awake so I could play with these different people I’d always wanted to play with. Then at some point, it got dark. I went from using so I could work with these people to working to use, and I didn’t even know when it changed. It got more about the drugs than it did about the music.”

Now “in recovery” for about two decades, Gadd opines that his sobriety is apparent in both his playing and his state of mind. “I did things then that I can’t even remember doing,” he says. “The things that I’m doing now are more a part of my life because I feel like I’m there for them. I’m not totally numbed-out.”

Part of the routine that Gadd adopted “after I was in my forties, after I got sober,” is regular exercise. At the beginning, he spent much time in the gym, doing half-resistance and half-cardio, but now, especially when on the road, he concentrates on cardio. “I prefer getting out of the room and jogging rather than going into another small room in the hotel and using machines,” he says. “It’s nice to be outside and get some air. The resistance is important, but I don’t do as much weights now as I used to—if I had time, I would.

“Playing big venues with loud bands is a workout. You have to be in shape. The only way to really be ready for a gig like that, endurance-wise, is to exercise. You can’t practice full-out for 2½ hours. But if you run for 30 or 45 minutes or an hour, it helps you stay fit for that situation. Walking my dogs is also good exercise.”

At 68, Gadd anticipates playing at a high level into his eighties. “You have to realize that your body isn’t made of steel, and you’ve got to eat for fuel, not necessarily just things that taste good,” he says. “That can lengthen your quality of life. It could affect how you play, too. We get old, but the body is pretty resilient. It responds when you take care of it. How you treat people, how you enjoy yourself, how you play music—how you do everything—is all connected.”

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Filed under Article, Bob James, David Sanborn, Eric Harland, Jazziz, Jeff Watts, Larry Goldings, Paul Simon, Steve Gadd

For The 66th Birthday of Drum Master Thurman Barker, a WKCR Interview from 1985

When I started my 23-year run on WKCR in the fall of 1985, I made it my business to try to document the personal histories of many of the AACM musicians I had admired during the ’70s, when I lived in Chicago, and continued to follow after returning to New York City in 1979. One of them was drum-percussion master Thurman Barker, who turns 66 today. It’s been on the internet for 14 years on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

* * *

Thurman Barker
November 18, 1985 – WKCR-FM New York

copyright © 1985, 1999 Ted Panken

Q: Thurman is a product of Chicago, Illinois, and a founding member from a very young age of the AACM. It’s there really that the sources of his music are to be found. So I’d like to now start to talk about your early years in the music in Chicago, when you were coming up, even before you became a member of the AACM — how you picked up on the drums and began in music.

TB: Well, I first used to take tap dancing. That was my first exposure to a form of art, you know, was tap dancing. I really got into it. Of course, I’m in grade school now, and I’m taking these tap dancing lessons about three days a week. But during my eighth year in grade school, we used to have these concerts on Fridays. They called them assemblies, you know, the drama department would put on a show or something. This particular afternoon, it was a drummer, and he came up with a full drum set, and it was just him by himself. His name was Roy Robinson, and he left a very big impression on me at that point.

So when I started high school, I started taking private lessons. I studied at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, under James Dutton, who was head of the percussion department there. I feel I got a very good training, because for the first two years I really didn’t see a drum set. I worked out of these workbooks for harmony and learning the basic notation of music and things like this, and just working on rudiments on the snare drum. So I really didn’t see a drum set until later on.

Q: Were you also working with musicians your age, doing gigs?

TB: Well, sure. But at this time you’ve got to remember, the first couple of years I wasn’t really playing any gigs. But I was very active on the session scene in Chicago. Monday nights were the big nights for sessions. Club De Lisa, which was a very famous night-spot in Chicago, the Coral Club on the South Side, the C.C. Lounge at 66th and Cottage Grove — a lot of these places had sessions every Monday. In any other city, probably it would work the same. You would go down, you’d meet people, you’d get up and you’d play. So I was very active, and I made sure that I got there. Of course, I wasn’t thinking of working; I just wanted to play. Fortunately, the activity was there for it to happen. I got to New York in the fall of 1979. I don’t know if that kind of activity is still going on in Chicago. But at that time it was like a training ground for me.

Q: Let’s narrow down the years we’re speaking of right now.

TB: Oh, it was ’62, ’63, in that period. You had a lot of jazz clubs that were still very big at that time, which the most famous one, where Miles Davis recorded, was the Plugged Nickel . . .

Q: Which was on the North Side.

TB: Which was on the North Side. So I got very active on the session scene. Later on I started jobbing around with people. People would meet you at a session, and they would give you a Saturday night, a party to play or a wedding. One thing led to another, and the next thing I knew, I started working with this saxophone player by the name of John Epps. He was a big local guy in Chicago that did a lot of parties. And that was my first steady employment, I would say, from music, was with this saxophone player. We used to work at a North Side Club in Chicago; I can’t think of the name. I was still young now. I was still in high school, you see, really my sophomore year.

Q: Who were some of the musicians in Chicago who you admired at that time?

TB: Well, Eddie Harris was a big idol of mine. Because my drum teacher used to work with Eddie Harris. His name was Harold Jones, and he was the drummer with Eddie Harris at the time. And Don Patterson, the organist, was around a lot. Of course, Von Freeman was very active. But I didn’t know Von; I knew his brother, George Freeman, who was a guitarist. So during those years I was pretty much working few jobs with George, and I didn’t get to meet Von until later on.

Anyway, so I had my first employment with John Epps, and we had this four- night gig on the North Side. I made $7 a night. And that was a big deal for me. In high school . . .

Q: This was pre-OPEC.

TB: So I had this gig, and my parents, of course, were into it, because they used to have to take me there, and go back home, and three or four hours later come back and pick me up . . . So it was a reassurance, of course, for my parents that I was getting active. Of course, for them they weren’t really concerned about the money I was making, but just the fact that I was getting active at something that they had taken some money to give me music lessons, and they were beginning to see it pay off. One thing led to the other, you know.

Q: You mentioned Eddie Harris. And in 1961, he and Muhal Richard Abrams began to form a rehearsal band that eventually became the core of the Experimental Band, and that became the core of the AACM.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This is a convoluted way of asking how you first encountered the Experimental Band and got into the AACM.

TB: At this time the Experimental Band was functioning. Of course, I didn’t know, but it was functioning. And how I got to meet Muhal was, when I was in high school, one of my best friends turned out to be Muhal’s son, and he knew that I was in the band in high school. And in high school, you know, you hang out together at lunch periods, and talk. Of course, I was a little different, and he wanted to find out what I was always doing after school. I was going home practicing, you know. And he told me that his father had a band rehearsal and was a bandleader, and for me to come down and check it out. So I said, “Wow!”

So of course, I took advantage of it. One Monday night he took me down to the rehearsal. Now, at this particular time the Experimental Band was rehearsing every Monday night at [the Abraham] Lincoln Center in Chicago. Lincoln Center is one of the cultural centers on the South Side. So they were in rehearsal. And that was my first encounter of the AACM.

Q: For people who don’t know, just describe what the Experimental Band was.

TB: The Experimental Band was a band put together of a lot of musicians on the South Side, including Eddie Harris, Phil Cohran, Roscoe Mitchell, Delbert Hill . . .

Q: And Muhal, of course.

TB: Muhal, of course! The Experimental Band was a band where musicians could come together and work on their own music. At that time there was a lot of energy among the musicians I just spoke of, Roscoe and Muhal, and they were at the point that they were doing a lot of writing. They were also jobbing around in Chicago and playing gigs and everything with big bands. Morris Ellis was one of the bandleaders around at that time that a lot of us worked with.

But this was a place, though, for everybody to come together and work on some of their original compositions that they normally wouldn’t get a chance to perform. It was run very orderly. Whoever had their composition up would direct it (of course, they would explain it first). Because we’re talking about people who had really gotten up into their music, man. In fact, they had changed the music notation. They used different music notation! At that time, you had a few people who just didn’t like the . . . Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t like it, but they just had their own symbols, you know. So they had to explain this, you see.

And of course, this was very different for me, because I’m a kid. For me, it was something really different and brand-new, you know. And I got such a big charge out of the fact that these people, not only was the music different, but they were serious about it. I mean, they could explain what they had on paper, and they had a feeling about what they were explaining and what they were doing.

Q: So you had musicians of different predispositions coming together in a rather unique situation. . .

TB: It was very unique!

Q: What do you think were some of the forces in Chicago that enabled this? Is it possible for you to say?

TB: Well, yeah. I’m sure a lot of it had to do with the fact that we were equal in terms of coming and discovering new ideas and new concepts of expressing and writing music. It’s funny how it seemed to all happen with everybody at once, you see. The period that I knew of was ’65. That was my first year of visiting the Experimental Band. So I think a lot of it had to do with, well, gee, nobody had any big record contract or nobody had 20 tours looking at him . . .

Q: It took some of the pressure off.

TB: It really did, I think. And the fact that we were all there together, and we were all equal in terms of discovering these new ideas. So there was no interference, I guess.

Q: Also there wasn’t that much work in Chicago at that time, was there?

TB: There wasn’t that much work.

Q: The urban renewal on the South Side.

TB: That’s true.

Q: The organ trios had changed.

TB: A lot of the clubs. . So it did affect the music. So right there at the Lincoln Center we were able to just start sharing these ideas, and it was like school, you know. Because I used to come down to rehearsal, and here was Henry Threadgill, Vandy Harris, Roscoe Mitchell and Delbert Hill, the first time I heard a saxophone quartet. I never even thought of it. Then I came down and hear these guys, four of them in a corner, going over these quartets, and it was just great! It was just something that I hadn’t seen.

But sure, I think a lot of the fact that it was easy for us to come together, there wasn’t a lot of work happening at that time, and it was just the opportune time for us to come together.

Q: Within the rehearsal band, there were different configurations and smaller groups that developed. I know you were playing with Joseph Jarman, and in 1967 you did your first records with Joseph Jarman and Muhal.

TB: That’s right, Joseph Jarman. Song For.

Q: Tell us how you met Joseph, and some of the connections with Joseph and with Muhal.

TB: Well, Joseph was right there in the woodwind section in the Experimental Band. Of course, he had a composition. Of course, by me going to school at the Conservatory, see, I had been introduced to playing mallets, like for tom- toms and tympany, you see. So he had a chart for mallets, you see. So we went through this chart, and he was a little amazed maybe, surprised that I had a touch for playing.

Q: You could play the charts.

TB: Yeah, I could play the charts. I could read.

Q: Your rudiments were very developed.

TB: Yeah, they were pretty developed at that point, that I could read, you see. And he had music; I mean, music for the drums. Of course, I had played all these other gigs with people, and there was no music. I would just go up and play. But here I come down to the Experimental Band, and these guys not only have music for the brass and woodwinds; they’ve got a chart for me. So that was in itself different.

But anyway, after the chart he came over and told me how much he really liked the sound, and what I was into. And I told him that, well, I would like to play some music, I’m not playing with anybody. So he asked me to come down and start rehearsing with his group. So I would get down on a Monday early. At that time in the Experimental Band there was a bassist by the name of Charles Clark. He was a very exceptional player, and he also was in the string section in the Experimental Band. Obviously, Charles had done some playing with Joseph before, because I could see that they knew each other, see. And Fred Anderson, a saxophonist in Chicago, also was in the woodwind section. So when I got to our first rehearsal, well, Fred Anderson was there, Billy Brimfield, the trumpeter who lives in Evanston, and Charles Clark and Joseph and myself.

Q: Was Christopher Gaddy on that also?

TB: And Christopher Gaddy, who was an exceptional keyboard player at the time. But we were all at this rehearsal, and that was the first time that I had got together with some people who were really playing some serious music, and I could see that it was just different. So I really wanted to be a part of that, you know.

Q: Let’s hear “Adam’s Rib” from the first LP on which you participated, Joseph Jarman’s Song For. Say something about the LP.

TB: First of all, I was going to say that after four or five months of getting really active with Joseph and playing some gigs around Chicago and the Experimental Band, the surprising thing came up one day that Joseph said, “Look, we’ve got a record date.”

Q: Had you been gigging? A few jobs here and there?

TB: We had a few gigs here and there. And it’s funny, my only experience with gigs were in clubs. All of a sudden, I look up and we’re playing in a bookstore. So immediately I knew that this music was going to take me in a different place. It was different, and it was exciting, you see. So just to make a long story short, I looked up one day, after I’d known Joseph four or five months I look up, and there I am in a studio making my very first record.

Q: Do you think that Song For is representative of the music that Joseph was doing at the time with the group?

TB: Yes, it is. Because the music that you’re about to hear is the music that we were playing during this period, and this is 1967 in Chicago.

[Music: “Adam’s Rib”; example of TB’S percussion music; Muhal Richard Abrams, “The Bird Song”]

TB: This is the stuff that was going in Chicago during this period.

Q: Programmatic music of all idioms.

TB: That’s true. Of course, during this time, we were doing this in clubs! We didn’t only do concerts at Abraham Lincoln Center.

Q: There were concerts at the University of Chicago campus.

TB: That’s true. There were a lot of concerts. I can remember most Fridays there were concerts at the University of Chicago. Also, the Student Union there used to put on a lot of concerts that the AACM members participated in. So we had some people that liked this music, and supported it, and wanted it to be heard.

Q: Meanwhile, the big band was still functioning.

TB: The Big Band was functioning every Monday. And believe me, no matter what happened, we all made that Monday night available for the Experimental Band. Because hey, that was the time that somebody got their music played, and that was a real serious and big deal then.

Q: Is Levels And Degrees of Light in any way representative of what was going on in the Big Band?

TB: Yes, it is. Because in the Big Band we had people like Henry Threadgill. Well, you know Henry, he’s really into theatre, you see. So for him to use the Big Band and use some recitation and some theatre, and be able to combine it, he definitely was one who would do it — and of course, Muhal. And Joseph was doing a lot of theatrical material. A lot of stuff.

So this was all a brand-new experience for me, and I had never seen it anywhere else. Of course, by the time of this recording with Muhal Richard Abrams, Levels and Degrees Of Light, my second record, I am really involved musically and, you know, as a group. I really felt I wanted to be a part of this movement here that was happening.

Q: I neglected to ask you about some of your musical influences outside the Chicago music scene? Who were some of the tough drummers who you thought well of?

TB: Well, the first guy that stands out is Cozy Cole. Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me, because in that period Cozy Cole made a solo 45 called “Topsy.” That was the very first drum solo that I memorized, beat for beat and rhythm for rhythm. I mean, I got that down. Because it just had a lot of emotion in it. So Cozy Cole was a very big influence on me at that time.

Also Roy McCurdy, who was the drummer with Cannonball Adderley. And of course, my drum teacher, Harold Jones. During the latter part of the ’60s there was a TV show that used to come on an educational station in Chicago, WTTW, a program that used to come on once a week called “Jazz Casual.” This was my first time actually seeing the music on TV. Of course, Ed Sullivan and all them people were on TV, but the band never really got featured. But here was a TV show that featured music, you see. So I was influenced a lot by, of course, Philly Joe Jones, Roy McCurdy with Cannonball, and Elvin Jones, who was with John Coltrane’s Quartet. I saw the original quartet on this show “Jazz Casual.” The host of the show I think was Ralph Gleason. Anyway, he ran this show once a week, and I saw Nancy Wilson, Cannonball Adderley, the John Coltrane Quartet, the pianist Bill Evans.

Now, these people were coming to Chicago, but I could not get in the clubs. There was this one club that they used to play at called McKie’s on 63rd and Cottage Grove, right there by the El. The El train is the elevated train that runs in Chicago, for those who don’t know. But I used to catch there right at 63rd and Cottage Grove, and I used to pass by this club, and I would see these names in big letters: The John Coltrane Quartet, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley, Sonny Rollins. And this was the club.

Q: And cats would be jamming there.

TB: Of course they might be jamming there.

Q: Gene Ammons might be strolling by and give a lesson for out-of-towners.

TB: That’s right!

Q: Were you playing in venues outside the AACM? Were you playing classical music at this time? I know you said you studied at the Conservatory.

TB: Well, mainly it was private training and ensemble classes at that time. At this time, ’66, ’67, ’68, those three years, most of my activity was with the AACM, with Muhal and Joseph Jarman. Those three years most of my activity was that. And we got some gigs!

Q: You went to Detroit, for instance, in 1967 and ran into John Sinclair.

TB: Yeah, exactly. John Sinclair was an organizer in Detroit who used to organize concerts at Wayne State University, and one year, I think it was ’67, he got us a big gig at the Ann Arbor Jazz Festival. And you know, this is my first big out-of-town gig now. Joseph Jarman, the late Christopher Gaddy, the late Charles Clark, and myself on drums. So this music that we’re hearing on Delmark is a very good representation of the music scene in Chicago.

Q: And you’ve filled us in most thoroughly on things that were happening.

TB: I hope so.

Q: We’ll progress now and move to events that happened later.

TB: Sure. As If It Were The Seasons, that was my third album at this time. This was a session that was put together by Joseph Jarman. We have Charles Clark on bass and cello, myself on all kinds of drums, a vocalist named Sherri Scott, Muhal Richard Abrams on piano and oboe, a very good flutist who really never got any attention named Joel Brandon, and Fred Anderson is on tenor sax, John Stubblefield, who has a big feature here, is also on tenor sax, and the late John Jackson on trumpet and Lester Lashley on trombone. This composition is written by Joseph Jarman, entitled “Song For Christopher.”

Q: Everything changed in Chicago after 1969, because that’s when Anthony Braxton, Leo Smith, Leroy Jenkins, Steve McCall and the Art Ensemble left for Europe.

TB: That’s right.

Q: This, of course, would have had its effect on Thurman, who was still a very young musician.

TB: Well, Joseph in ’68 had gotten involved with the Art Ensemble, and they were really into some intensive rehearsals. So boom, there I was, the late Charles Clark had died, the late Christopher Gaddy had died — and these two people were like my brothers; we did everything together. So it was a real lonely period for me, because Joseph now, you could say the quartet had broke up, and Joseph had joined forces with the Art Ensemble . . .

Q: They were lacking a drummer, however. Did the possibility of your performing with them ever come up?

TB: Yes, it did. And it came up at a bad time. And I swear, it’s one of the biggest mistakes that I regret in my life. Because the group had gone to Europe, and you know, they were pioneering some areas. They didn’t have anything really guaranteed, and they had been to Europe for a few years now. We’re talking about the years 1970-’71. So they were in Europe. But at this time, I had gotten involved with theatre, you see. In 1968 I started doing the Broadway production of Hair. Q: As a musician?

TB: As a musician. I got a call, and I was playing percussion, okay, so the Broadway show Hair was in Chicago at the Schubert Theatre — and I looked up, and there I was in theatre now.

Q: With a good union job!

TB: With a good union job! And see, that was a big deal for me. See, my father is a retired union man, so he was very pleased and very happy. So here I was working downtown at the Schubert Theatre at this time, doing Hair. That job lasted two years, from 1968 to 1970.

Q: Naturally, you didn’t want to leave that for the insecurity of roaming Europe.

TB: Well, of course. So what happened was, I get this call in the wee hours of the morning, something like two or three o’clock in the morning, and it’s from overseas — and this was Roscoe Mitchell. And Roscoe Mitchell expressed, “Well, look, T-Bird. . .” That was a nickname that came from Roscoe. He calls me T-Bird, and now it caught on, and everybody calls me that, now, you see. But he gave me that name. And he said, “Look, we’ve been over here working, and we’ve been thinking about it a lot, and we would like for you to join the Art Ensemble.” So of course, the first thing I said was, “Well, look, do you have any gigs?” And Roscoe was really honest. He said, “Well, no, we don’t have any gigs, and we don’t know where our next gig is, but we’re working on some things that we’re pioneering, some new areas.” So I said, “Well, look, I’ve got a gig; I’m doing this show” — and I never knew! Well, I had this full-time job, and I didn’t think I should leave it.

Q: It happened to a lot of musicians in Chicago, what happened to you.

TB: Yeah! So I said, look, I couldn’t make it, but I would like to join them if they got back into town. So Roscoe said, “Okay, I understand.” And the next thing I knew, months and months up the road,they came back.

Q: They came back in ’71.

TB: They came back in ’71, and they had Don Moye.

Q: That was that.

TB: That was that. I kissed that gig goodbye, and that was that.

Q: What else was happening as far as gigs in Chicago after they left for Europe? You were playing with Kalaparusha [Maurice McIntyre]?

TB: I was playing with Kalaparusha, and I was doing a few gigs with Leroy Jenkins now. He was still there, you see, after the Art Ensemble had cut out and everything. So we had these gigs at clubs on the South Side. I’m trying to think of the names of some of these places; it’s been so long. But George Freeman, Leroy Jenkins, myself, and. . .

Q: George Freeman playing the AACM type of music?

TB: Yeah, he was into it. He plays guitar, and that was the first time that I saw guitar into the music.

Q: Was Cosey doing. . .

TB: [Guitarist] Pete Cosey was doing a few things. At this time, Pete along Sherri Scott. . .

Q: Who played with Earth, Wind and Fire . . .

TB: At that time she was rehearsing with Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire, and he was getting the band off the ground. They were doing a lot of rehearsing.

But mostly in this period I had really gotten involved in theatre. Not saying that the AACM was not functioning. It was still going on. It was just that we were still doing our concert series. . . You know, a lot of people had left, like the Art Ensemble, but at the same time we were recruiting new blood. Like Douglas Ewart, who came in at that time. So we were getting new blood, and the organization was still moving on along with the times.

Q: And the Big Band was still functioning.

TB: And the Big Band was still functioning. And you’ve got to remember, even though we had this concert series happening, we were very, very supported by the community which we lived in and participated in. And I think that was one of the main differences between then and now, was the fact that. . .

Q: In New York City.

TB: Yeah, but . . .

Q: But then in New York City as well. I think New York City is just not that type of town.

TB: It just isn’t that type of town. And at that time in Chicago, we were very well supported by the community. And we used to even go outside and play outside and jam. I don’t know, this was with Muhal, Muhal would bring his clarinet out, and Roscoe Mitchell, Malachi Favors, Kalaparusha, Charles Clark — We used to take our instruments out there in Jackson Park, which is a large park on the South Side, and just sit out there and play. For me it was like a rehearsal. Maybe for people like Roscoe and maybe Muhal, maybe they were thinking of, “Well, this is a way of getting this new music out to the people.” See, for me at the time, I had a comfortable gig, and I was getting gigs, and I was playing some music, and I was active.

Q: So you were active in theatre throughout the ’70s, is that it?

TB: Most of the ’70s.

Q: What made you decide to return to performing creative music, then? And let’s talk about some of the circumstances that led you to return actively to the scene.

TB: Well, one thing was that after playing in theatre, I had learned a great deal. Number one, I learned how to play with a conductor. I learned how to play in a section. Because in theatre, not only do you have a trap drummer, but you have two or three percussion players. And a lot of my training, and a lot of music that I was studying at that time, I’m having an opportunity to really try out now. But I learned a lot in the pit orchestra. And one of the main things was being able to play in a section.

So after, say, 1975-’76, I started getting back to the AACM, into that music. Because I had gotten all of this training, you see. And for the first time, I felt like I wanted to add something to the music of Muhal and to the music of Joseph Jarman and Roscoe, or whoever was doing something. The music took on a new meaning for me at this time, because I had the years from ’71 to ’75 to really think about all the music that I had performed in the late ’60s with Muhal and everybody. Because at the time I was performing it, I really had on clear idea of this new music, you see.

Q: I can think of an analogy. In the 1950’s, and in the ’60s, for that matter, a lot of musicians after their initial apprenticeships in the Army, and got their rudiments very much together in the Army by playing all the time.

TB: That’s true.

Q: And it sounds like this theatre job performed a similar function for you.

TB: It really did. And I was just able to sort of get a clearer understanding about the music. And keep in mind, I’m still studying, I’m practicing very hard. . . So when I returned in ’75, that was really a very progressive year for the organization, because everyone had really gone out and developed their personal concepts.

Q: George Lewis had hit the scene . . .

TB: George Lewis hit the scene in that year. So it was like a revitalization of everything, you know. And I think especially the Art Ensemble, Muhal, Jenkins, they all had had a taste of getting their music performed and recorded, and gotten a taste of the business, gotten a taste of the music scene outside of Chicago. Because you’ve got to remember, before that time nobody had left Chicago.

Q: And that was a time when musicians from all over the country began converging on New York.

TB: Exactly. Now, I must get in here that during the early Seventies, like ’72 and ’73, there was a collaboration of musicians from St. Louis, like for instance, Oliver Lake. Oliver Lake had formed a new music organization I think called X-BAG . . . I think that’s it; I’m not sure. But I do remember that there was a collaboration with the St. Louis musicians.

Q: I remember Julius Hemphill was coming to Chicago in the ’70s.

TB: Exactly. Julius Hemphill. We’re talking about Oliver Lake, we’re talking about Charles Bobo Shaw, Baikida Carroll. Who else?

Q: Joseph Bowie.

TB: Joseph Bowie, of course. So the AACM members even went to St. Louis. And they produced a concert in collaboration with both groups, and also we did the same thing for X-BAG, and Oliver Lake and Baikida and everybody came from St. Louis to Chicago to participate in a concert series that we did. And that was a real strong thing that happened in ’71 and ’72, or so.

Q: Let’s get back to some music.

TB: I was going to go with some more of my percussion duet record.

[Music from Muhal Richard Abrams, LifeaBlinec, “JoDoTh”]

Q: Now we’re in 1978, and in 1978 Thurman joined Anthony Braxton’s working band.

TB: That’s right.

Q: That was a very tight band.

TB: Yeah, it was. It really began in 1977. Anthony Braxton had come to Chicago, and I guess at that time he had just broke up the quartet that he had with Barry Altschul, Dave Holland and George Lewis that was his working band, they’d made some records for Arista. There was an AACM Festival I remember at McCormack Place.

Q: I remember that. Braxton played a gig all on clarinets, with you and Malachi Favors.

TB: He played a gig all on clarinets. And part of that concert was a quartet with Leroy Jenkins on violin, Leonard Jones on bass, Anthony and myself. After that concert, Braxton asked me if I wanted to join the band, and I was just thrilled. I was ready. So that’s the beginning of how that started. We went out. That was the fall of 1977. I remember my very first gig with the quartet out of town was the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival, which was in Philadelphia, I think. And that was my first big out of town gig with the Braxton Quartet. I must say, at that same time Ray Anderson also was very new in the band.

Q: Another Chicagoan.

TB: So Ray Anderson and myself were the new members of the quartet in 1977, and Mark Helias had joined the quartet a few months prior, so he had already played a few gigs. But for Ray Anderson and myself, the Quaker Oats Jazz Festival was our first gig.

Q: How did you like playing with Braxton? What’s the relationship of his music to a drummer, in some sense?

TB: Well, it was really interesting, because Braxton had a way, first of all, of notating his music. He gave me the same part that Ray Anderson had or that Braxton had, see. That was one of the big differences, see. It wasn’t a drum part. It was a part that everybody else had. So now for the time in playing improvised music, I could not only create my own drum part, but I could follow along with all the other instruments to see what they were doing. So it was exciting, it was different. In a way, it was a lot easier for me to adapt to his music, because this was, I would say, my first feeling how jazz and classical music could mix together. This was my first introduction. Because a lot of Braxton’s music had these sounds and compositions that were very close to classical music for me. So for the first time now, with all that training that I watched the percussion players play in the orchestra pits in Chicago, and watching my percussion teacher at the Conservatory. . . For the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the knowledge and strokes, and the finesse and touch on my drum set playing jazz.

Q: Did Braxton produce a lot of new music during that time?

TB: He was writing a lot during this time. And I think the way the band was going. . . I know we used to travel a lot. And he would be so occupied with turning out compositions every day, just for this band . . .

Q: And he’d play them on the stand that night?

TB: He’d play them on the stand that night.

Q: Nice for Braxton, to have a band like that.

TB: It was great for Braxton! I hope he had his ASCAP and all that stuff together. But it was great for me, for everybody, because we were not only playing some new music, but we were working, we were out on the road, and we had an opportunity to perform it that night, and to see how it would go for the first time.

So for me, for the first time now, I was able to start executing a lot of the percussion concept on traps. All those years with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, I didn’t really know how to. . . I mean, this music was brand-new. I was trying to find my way, you see. One thing about Muhal and Joseph at this time, one thing they did give me, and that was a lot of support. Even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing — I was trying. But they gave me a lot of support. But by the time ’77 came around, I had a pretty clear idea about how I wanted to perform and how I wanted to construct.

Q: You were a mature musician at this time.

TB: Yeah, of course. Now I’ve learned a lot. I’ve played a whole bunch of gigs, and I’ve learned a lot. And believe me, that’s the best training you can get, is right there on the bandstand.

Q: Just playing.

TB: That’s true.

[Music: Braxton Quartet, “W6-4N-R6-AH0”]

TB: That recording was done while the quartet was on tour, so it was a real special time for me. Even though I had recorded with Joseph Jarman and Muhal, it was a very good time for me. Because to record with Anthony Braxton who at that time had risen to be a very popular figure in new music, and number two, he had a record contract at the time, so that was a little different.

Q: And later that year you recorded with Sam Rivers.

TB: That’s right. What happened was that the AACM gave its first concert on New York territory in 1976, right here at Columbia University. We were able to perform our first jazz festival right here in New York. And in the audience, of course, was Mr. Sam Rivers. I had performed with some of the groups and with the Big Band. So Sam was in the audience — and this was in ’76.

A few years later, I get this call right out of the blue. It was Sam Rivers, and he was asking me to come to New York and to make a record. Of course I was floored! I said, “Sure, when are the rehearsals and when can we get together, because I need to learn your music.” He said, “Look, we’ll just rehearse in the studio. But can you be here by this particular date?” I said, “No problem.” So my very first contact with Sam Rivers was in the studio, and we made the record that we are about to hear called Waves on Tomato Records. Of course, I am now very familiar with Sam Rivers in terms off what he’s done, and all the Blue Note records that he appeared on with Andrew Hill and Tony Williams — the early Blue Note dates.

Q: Not to mention that he had used Braxton’s previous bass and drums.

TB: Exactly. Now here I go, I’m beginning to think that I’m in a circle here, because somehow Anthony Braxton’s rhythm section went with Sam Rivers — and we’re speaking of Barry Altschul and Dave Holland. At the time I joined Sam, Dave Holland was still there. This recording features Joe Daley on brass, Dave Holland on bass and cello, and myself on drums and percussion, and Sam Rivers. Like I say, I was really back, because this was my first contact with Dave Holland and Sam, and here I am getting ready to make a record. So it was quite a special event for me.

[Music: S. Rivers, “Surge”]

Q: Thurman, you played a gig this past weekend in Boston with Sam Rivers as guest artist.

TB: Exactly. It was my gig. I was able to get two nights at a club in Boston called Charlie’s Tap, Friday and Saturday, the Thurman Barker Trio featuring Sam Rivers. Anyway, I had an opportunity to be able to join forces with an artist who I was able to learn a lot of music from, and we played a lot of gigs. As a matter of fact, after the Waves record, we went on tour. Contrasts was also done while we were on tour. Sam did spend a lot of time in Boston, studying at the New England Conservatory, and then throughout the ’50s.

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Filed under AACM, Anthony Braxton, Drummer, Interview, Joseph Jarman, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sam Rivers, Thurman Barker, WKCR

For Billy Hart’s Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test from 2007 and a Jazz Times Feature From 2012

Billy Hart, known to some as Jabali, is 73 years young today. I’ve appended below the full proceedings of a Blindfold Test he did with me six years ago [and on Nov. 29, 2019, pasted a feature piece that Jazz Times gave me the opportunity to write about the maestro in 2012.] I 2011, I posted a review of his Steeplechase recording Sixty-Eight and included an excerpt from my liner notes for Jabali’s 1997 Arabesque date, Oceans of Time.

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Billy Hart Blindfold Test:

1.  Jimmy Cobb, “Green Dolphin Street” (from WEST OF FIFTH, Chesky, 2006) (Hank Jones, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums)

It’s somebody like me. I might even say Billy Drummond, who’s younger than me. But somebody that’s like me. It doesn’t seem like it’s Al Foster, and it doesn’t seem like Kenny Washington or someone like that. It’s more like Billy Drummond or that kind of player. It’s just the sound of it. For  me, it would be somebody who heard Tony Williams but also liked Vernell Fournier. Of course I like it, because I understand it. He’s playing in a way I would play. From the left hand, the  piano player sounds like a younger guy. When I say “younger guy” – ha-ha – I’m talking about somebody my age, like Hicks (though I don’t think it was Hicks) or Stanley Cowell (and I don’t think it was him) or Kenny Barron (but I’m sure it wasn’t Kenny Barron). Somebody in that vibe. The bass player had some chops. I’d be curious about who the bass player is. For the moment, I don’t recognize it. It was well done. It didn’t sound like they put a lot of time in it. It was just something that they could do, but it was well done. Everybody could play. When I say “Play,” it means they have a good traditional base, a good foundation. I liked everybody for that. 5 stars. Jimmy Cobb!! I should know Jimmy Cobb. That sounded a little light for Jimmy Cobb for me. Perhaps it’s the way it was miked. But then again, for certain kinds of those things, Jimmy Cobb is an influence. He influenced Tony Williams. Let me hear that again. No, I would have never guessed it was Jimmy Cobb. That’s not what he sounds like to me. A couple of the things that I thought somebody might have heard Tony Williams, now I think it’s the influence Jimmy Cobb had on Tony. I could have guessed Christian. [DRUMS PLAY FOURS] See, that’s obviously a Philly Joe influence which Jimmy Cobb has. But for what I know Jimmy Cobb to do, what I would recognize, I didn’t hear anything that’s… Nor Hank Jones. I would not have recognized him. I thought I would know Hank Jones’ sound. I made 6 records with him. I’m influenced by Jimmy Cobb! As much as I thought I knew Jimmy, I’ve got some more to listen to. Hank is phenomenal. That he can sound that modern. What made me think he was a modern guy is his left hand, and I know from playing with him that he’s got at least four generations of jazz vocabulary in him. He can do that in a tune.

2.  Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, “Water, Water, Water” (from Andrew Cyrille-Anthony Braxton, DUO PALINDROME 2002, Vol. 2, Intakt, 2002) (Cyrille, drums, composer; Braxton, alto saxophone)

Is that just one drummer? Yes? Ha! I don’t know who it is, but it’s interesting to talk about it. Somebody who can do what this guy is doing (by the way, of course I like this very much) would be Blackwell. But I’m thinking Blackwell, who is somebody who can do that, but then, a guy who liked Blackwell was a guy named Eddie Moore. After that, it’s a whole host of people, like Don Moye, who would do that. Maybe Andrew Cyrille. The saxophone sounds so familiar, like Roscoe Mitchell. 4 stars.Cyrille is an unsung hero for understanding and being enthusiastic for what I think is really a world music viewpoint, realizing the function of African- and Indian-related musics, before it got to be so academic. He’s one of the heros of that, as were, strangely enough, a lot of avant-garde players. I think of Milford Graves and Don Moye in that vibe also — world music intellects. That’s what I like about Blackwell, of course. I feel that same way about people like Bill Stewart and Jeff Ballard, too. They have a strong interest in and are very enthusiastic about world music, especially in terms of Indian and African traditional musics.

3.   Ari Hoenig, “Anthropology” (from INVERSATIONS, Dreyfus, 2006) (Hoenig, drums, Jean-Michel Pilc, piano; Johannes Weidenmuller, bass)

[FOUR BARS] [LAUGHS] Is that Ari Hoenig? I think of Ari with Kenny Werner and Jean-Michel Pilc. But of course, I know him to be already a huge influence on emerging drummers. He’s not really doing it on this piece, but he’s a guy who I think is approaching this world music, just more academically. He’s figuring it out. Because of that, there are a lot of people who can be influenced by him. What made me laugh is that I know that he, as well as Lewis Nash, likes to play the melodies of bebop tunes on the drums, which is very enjoyable for me. I love hearing drummers do that. Especially them, because they’ve spent time working it out. As a teacher, one of the first things I ask my students to do is to play “Anthropology” on the drums. Any student of mine who heard this would think it was one of my students that I had assigned that project to. Is Pilc playing piano? Man, I should know more about Pilc. It’s one of the contemporary guys that I think is approaching this music in a more academic way. In other words, they weren’t there, but they’ve received what I consider traditional information…what’s a better phrase… Classical music.It’s people like them who make classical music. [How do you mean that?] They’re part of the evolution of the music. That’s all. It’s obvious that they’ve studied the music and have tried to bring it forward, or naturally bring it forward just from their natural understanding of it. Pilc is French, he’s European, so he brings that to it. It’s not going to be James P. Johnson or Horace Silver, but he brings a contemporary… I think of it as a contemporary sound that’s influential in today’s music. 4½ stars. I think the music is important. Is the bassist Moutin? Weidenmuller? That’s interesting. Pilc with KennyWerner’s bass and drummer. That means that Ari and Weidenmuller have become a team.

4.  Herlin Riley, “Need Ja Help” (from CREAM OF THE CRESCENT, Criss-Cross, 2004) (Riley, drums, composer; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Eric Lewis, piano; Reginald Veal, bass)

The first thing I notice is what I would consider an obvious Duke Ellington influence. Now, who besides Duke Ellington would have a Duke Ellington influence, besides everybody… Who that would be, I don’t know yet. Except I can’t think of Duke having a bass player like that. But then that brings up Mingus, too, but I don’t think that’s Mingus either. It’s not Duke, which makes me think it’s someone from the guys who play with Wynton like Herlin Riley and Wycliffe Gordon. Duke is a huge influence on these people. I love Duke Ellington, too. The drums make me think of Sonny Greer, especially that period of time when Sonny Greer was the drummer. It is Herlin and Wycliffe?  Who’s the bass player? Reginald Veal? He’s not playing with them any more, right. It means Ali Jackson could have been the drummer, too, but… Herlin is very recognizable for certain things. First of all, he’s a New Orleans drummer, and for me, all the New Orleans drummers have a special badge. They’re born with another understanding of the original jazz drum language. So Herlin not only is a great example of that, but he’s a great creative drummer, and how he uses his knowledge of the tradition is very inspiring to me. 4½ stars. The pianist was Eric Lewis: If you’d said Eric Reed or Marcus Roberts, I’d have expected, but Eric Lewis could go in there!

5.   Francisco Mela, “Parasuayo” (from MELAO, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mela, drums, voice; George Garzone, tenor saxophone; Nir Felder, electric guitar & effects; Leo Genovese, fender rhodes, keyboard; Peter Slavov, bass)

Hmm, there it is again; the New Orleans tradition of drumming, the funeral march and funeral dirge. Whoops! There’s some contemporary sounds around it. Whoops! So this is like Cuban tradition with contemporary… Oh! I mean, this is the age of academic… I wish I could think of a better word. Now my guess would be somebody like David Sanchez, someone who is interested in or has knowledge of the Cuban tradition or Afro-Caribbean tradition, but is a contemporary player at the same time. It’s the drummer’s record?! That opens it up. I’ve been hearing about this drummer who I haven’t heard play live yet, Francisco Mela. I’ve heard, first of all, he’s from Cuba, but also he’s been playing with Kenny Barron, and to me, to be able to play with Kenny Barron, you have to have a pretty good knowledge of the North American tradition, and if he’s from Cuba, it means he automatically has a knowledge of the Afro-Caribbean tradition. That makes me think he’s extraordinary. Not only that he’s extraordinary, but also if there’s an academic tradition coming out of North America, people like Ari Hoenig, then it’s also coming out of Cuba, because I’m also interested in Dafnis Prieto — who I would have guessed next — for the same reasons. The world is smaller now. You can almost not separate North America from South America any more, because the North Americans study the South American tradition, and obviously, the South Americans study the North American traditions. That’s the way I want to play! It is Mela? I was lucky again. I’d better to listen to him. Because he listens to me. He comes to my gigs. I never heard a Cuban drummer get that far away from the Cuban tradition. I can’t tell who the saxophone player is. George Garzone! Really. I thought I knew Garzone, too. It’s strange, because I picked Sanchez because I like that he plays so lyrically. That’s the reason why I wouldn’t have said Garzone, who I love. 5 stars. I went to one of my favorite Afro-Cuban drummers… When I teach, one of my first assignments, besides that “Anthropology” thing, is to study and learn the second line. Unless you’re from New Orleans, that’s one thing that most of us don’t get naturally. So their assignment is to study the second line. And the way I describe the second line, my rationalization for it is that the second line is the direct translation of African rhythm through the Afro-Caribbean to the invention of the drumset. So by you saying Idris, who is a New Orleans musician, it really sounds like… But that’s what I feel.

6.   Brian Blade, “The Midst of Chaos” (from Edward Simon, UNICITY, CamJazz, 2006) (Simon, piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

So many of these things remind me of the way I would like to play. This could be…it could be… It could be me! But it isn’t, obviously. But obviously, it’s somebody who was influenced a lot by Tony Williams. So it could be any of a number of people between Bill Stewart and Billy Drummond. Whoever the drummer is, I like his touch very much. Whoever this is likes Roy Haynes, too. But so do I. It sounds so familiar; I’m thinking something will give it away. Wow, I really like the drummer. The pianist sounds Chick-influenced to me. Sounds like a great modern piano trio. 5 stars. Brian Blade! Whoa! I thought about Patitucci. I thought about Blade. But Blade is tricky, man. He’s a Louisiana drummer, and for me that’s close enough—he’s like a New Orleans drummer to me. But I think of him as more influenced…more of a… If you could be influenced by Elvin and Tony, I think of him as more influenced by Elvin, but here I heard more of a Tony influence. Again, it reminds me of me, of the way I want to play.  I have some students who loved him, early on. In fact, they had heard him with his band. I thought, man, this here’s one of the first cats besides Jeff Watts that obviously has put a band together that’s similar to a band that I would put together—if you think of my band with Kikoski and Mark Feldman and Dave Fiuczynski.  I asked him, “Man, what is it about Brian that you like so much?” He said, “It’s the way he influences the music. He influences the music the way you do, Billy.” Here I’m hearing it. I didn’t hear it so much before because I thought of him more as an Elvin influence. But here he sounds like the way I would play—if I could. It’s incredible that he can go that far in different spectrums.  I think of Lewis Nash as being able to go that far. But if you think of the way he plays on Norah Jones’ record or the way he plays Wayne’s music… I mean, I sort of thought I knew him. But this shows a side that I wasn’t that familiar with. I’m obviously extremely impressed with his musicality, as most people are.

7.  Joe Farnsworth, “The Lineup” (from One For All, THE LINEUP, Sharp-9, 2006) (Joe Farnsworth, drums; David Hazeltine, piano, composer; Steve Davis, trombone; Jim Rotondi, trumpet; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; John Webber, bass)

My first thought is somebody’s listened to the Art Blakey band when Freddie and Wayne were on it, and of course, my next thought is One For All—Farnsworth and those guys. Farnsworth is another guy that I think of as academic, but he’s chosen more the Billy Higgins, Philly Joe, Kenny Washington, and — something that I know personally about him — Jimmy Lovelace school of drumming, which of course, for me, is classical music in every sense. I mean, the highest level. It’s pristine. It has a sort of perfection. I mean, how can you talk about Higgins and not talk about perfection? Same thing for me about Jimmy Lovelace, whom most people don’t talk about. It’s Higgins, it’s Philly Joe, which is sort of…well, pristine is the… Poetry in motion. A beautiful touch. I have to love the piece because it reminds me of the music that I’m most familiar with. I grew up on this music. I grew up on Art Blakey. I grew up on Max Roach. I grew up on Philly Joe. I think it’s well-done. But of course, it’s not Art Blakey, as great as it is. And I don’t think it can get any better than they’re doing it unless it was Art Blakey.  4½ stars.    [Do you think it’s imitative?] You didn’t ask that question. [Well, I could.] When I say “academic,” that’s what I mean? Let’s not say imitative. Let’s call it interpretive. If you’ve still got a Count Basie Orchestra, if you’ve still got a Duke Ellington Orchestra, then you’ve got an Art Blakey Orchestra with Philly Joe and Billy Higgins sitting in. But it’s so well done, it’s so enjoyable to listen to, and it brings back fond memories. I know how they feel playing that. I know how I enjoy listening to it.

8.  Jack DeJohnette, “Seven Eleven” (from Chris Potter, UNSPOKEN, Concord, 1997) (Potter, tenor saxophone; John Scofield, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; DeJohnette, drums)

Now, for me, as much as I may not understand this, this is exciting to me. It sounds like a certain area of new music to me. Offhand, I don’t know who it is, but the saxophone player sounds like Chris Potter. So it would be whatever drummers play with him, whether it’s Clarence Penn or Nate Smith or Billy Kilson. It’s hard to say who it sounds like, though. I want to say Bill Stewart, but then, on the other hand, one of the things about Bill Stewart is that he sounds something like Jack DeJohnette to me, so then I hear Jack. Some of it sounds a lot like Jack to me, too. I can’t really hear the bass. But the drummer reminds me of Jack. I think of Jack like I think of Roy Haynes. Even though because he’s my age group, I can hypothesize his influences, but Jack to me sounds like Jack. So if this isn’t Jack, it’s somebody who sounds like Jack. The bass player is Dave Holland? Whoa! I should have known that. But I couldn’t hear that. But the first thing it sounds like to me is when Elvin was playing with John for Atlantic. It has that Atlantic drum sound. Whose record date is it? Chris? Is that Scofield? See, I know those guys! It’s interesting how much Bill Stewart has copped from Jack. Jack used to tell me, “Stewart, he’s a good little drummer.” [Not so easy to cop from Jack.] It sure isn’t. But Jack is Jack. I think I know some of his influences because they’re my influences, too. It’s again Tony and Elvin and Roy Haynes.  But for me, he’s one of the few cats who he is him. I’m sure Baby Dodds had influences. 5 stars. Man, I got a lot of records, a lot of CDs, and I don’t think you’ve played one record that I have. I read a lot of Blindfold Tests, and a lot of guys will say, ‘Yeah, that’s a record I have; oh, yeah, that’s so-and-so, I remember when I heard it.” You haven’t played anything I’ve heard before. Am I listening to the wrong things? You haven’t played one that I’ve heard.

9.  Brad Mehldau, “Granada” (from DAY IS DONE, Nonesuch, 2006) (Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

I like this. I’m just trying to think of who it is. Again, so much of this stuff sounds like me! Isn’t that out? I’m at the age where I think everything sounds like me. Except, of course, that I know it’s not me. It’s the way I would like to play it, the way I would like to do it. In a lot of today’s so-called contemporary jazz, where you see a world music approach, or the influence of more cultures than just the American, then obviously, a lot of this kind of music is prevalent now. As a drummer, or musician, I call it straight-eighth or eighth-note music, or Latin-influenced or whatever. Now, who plays like that? The first thing that came to my mind, strangely enough, was Jeff Ballard. As I said, I can tell that he and Bill Stewart are students of African and Afro-Caribbean music. I can tell that they’re enthusiasts of it. It’s Ballard? That was a lucky guess. I don’t know what made me say it. There must be something that I recognize. I know that a lot of the people he plays with… It’s not even that. It’s him. The way he’s playing really sounds Spanish to me; it sounds like a guy playing a castanet or something. It sounds like he hears it that deeply. I know that he, like Ari Hoenig, seems to be a huge influence on younger drummers today—in a certain area. I know lately he’s been playing with Brad, but it doesn’t sound like Mehldau to me. It’s Mehldau? [LAUGHS] I’m still hearing Jorge Rossy, who was from Spain, play with Mehldau, so I have to hear this group some more. But I didn’t think of Brad when I was listening to the drums. It is Jeff, and he is an influence—4½ stars.

10.  Susie Ibarra, “Trane #1” (from SONGBIRD SUITE, Tzadik, 2002) (Ibarra, drums)

Tell me again that this is not… This can’t be ordinary listening. [No. But it’s somebody you might know.] Again, it’s something that I think I might have played or attempted to play like that. Especially that. It’s a way of choking the cymbal without really grabbing the cymbal; you put your hand on it but take it off real quick. You just place your hand on it for a fraction of a second. And I do that all the time. In fact, I have never heard anybody else do that but me. Unless, of course, that’s not what he’s doing. Now he actually is choking the cymbal, but before he wasn’t. But even all of that… I’d be interested to guess who I’m imitating! Let me listen to this again. You wouldn’t give me a drummer twice, right? [No.] Okay, so it’s not Cyrille. It’s bad, though. Now, this is the closest thing I’ve heard to something that I would try to do. I don’t use that cymbal. Blackwell used to use that cymbal—that you put it on the snare drum. I’ve heard Stewart do that do; he’ll put that gong-like cymbal on the snare drum and hit it, or on the tom-tom and hit it. I have no idea who it is, but I love it. I really like it. Joe Chambers? Who would think like that? Wow! The same guy playing the brushes, too? [Same drummer, yes.] That’s what sort of made me think of Joe Chambers. Whoever that is, is heavy. Not because I would do it, but I just like their mind, whoever it is, and just his ability as a drummer—the brushes, too. It’s funny, I can’t say if he’s young or old. He could be an older guy or he could be a younger guy. 5 stars. Susie Ibarra? Whoa!!! I’m in love with Susie Ibarra. I’ve just never heard her play the brushes like that. I know that she has a certain kind of technical facility that I did hear her do with the brushes, but I’d only her do it before with the sticks. When you talk about modern drummers, a lot of the groundbreaking, just for plain drumming, comes from the so-called avant-garde drummers… When people talk about “contemporary” this or “modern” that, that word for me means the stuff that comes from Milford, Rashied, Andrew Cyrille, Barry Altschul, Stu Martin, and then a new breed of that came along about 15-20 years ago with Jim Black and Tom Rainey and Gerald Cleaver, Hemingway. But of those drummers, Susie Ibarra is by far one of my favorite drummers to listen to, not only on the drums, but as a musician, too, some of her compositions. I was very impressed with that.

11.   Victor Lewis, “Suspicion” (from Charles Tolliver, WITH LOVE, Blue Note, 2006) (Charles Tolliver, trumpet, composer; Victor Lewis, drums)

This is the trumpet player’s record? [Yes.] I have two impressions. The first impression, of course, is that it was some kind of Latin band, and I’m trying to think of that drummer who teaches at the New School… [It’s not Bobby Sanabria.] How’d you know that’s who I meant?  The next thing is the opposite of that, like say, Charles Tolliver. I know Victor Lewis played with him when I heard him at the IAJE. But I didn’t hear any music like this, and great as that music was, I didn’t hear THIS. It took me a minute to recognize him. It’s interesting to hear Victor. People ask me about Victor Lewis, and for years I would say, “If I ever had to recommend a sub for me…” In other words, if they said, “I want you to hire a sub, but I’m not going to tell you what the music is going to be like,” I would say Victor Lewis. Because his musical scope is similar to mine. Anything I would be interested in or try to do, I know Victor could do. Anything somebody would call me for, I think they could call Victor for. Victor is one of my all-time favorite drummers. I remember asking a recording engineer, just for recording clarity, who his favorite drummer was, and he had recorded everybody, and he said Victor Lewis. 5 stars, of course.

12.  Lewis Nash, “Tickle Toe” (from STOMPIN’ AT THE SAVOY, M&I, 2005) (Nash, drums; Steve Nelson, vibraphone; Peter Washington, bass)

All the things you’ve played have been very enjoyable. You know how some people say, “I really didn’t like that at all.” You didn’t play one thing that I didn’t enjoy. I have ideas on this, but they’re so far-fetched… If the drum had no bottom head, I’d say Chico Hamilton or something. But it does have a bottom head. Even this sounds like me! Well, I mean, it’s something I would have played in this situation. So it just shows you, whoever I’m influenced by, a lot of other people are, too. He’s playing the form of the tune really well, or so it seems to me. It’s an older style of drumming by a modern guy. You sort of think of Zutty Singleton, Baby Dodds or Gene Krupa, even Sid Catlett, but there’s obviously a more contemporary drummer. He’s playing a calypso beat, which is interesting. It sounds like so many people… His sense of humor reminds me of Frankie Dunlap. There’s something about him that reminds me of Chico Hamilton. It’s somebody with some chops, though. 4 stars. Lewis is a student of the music. I should have been able to catch him. What threw me off is Nelson. Because he sounded so much like a Bags-influenced guy. I kept thinking it was back there, like somebody like Terry Gibbs or someone, and that made me think it might have been Mel Lewis, or even Ben Riley. Brilliant, man. He’s got a wide scope, too.

 

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It’s embarrassing, really, at my age,” Billy Hart said over the phone in February, prefacing a long enumeration of the working bands for which he plays the drums. In a few hours, one of them, Contact-Hart plus Dave Liebman, John Abercrombie, Marc Copland and Drew Gress-would start night three of a week at Birdland, and he didn’t have time to spare. Still, as has happened more than once during our 20-year acquaintance, a perfunctory chat-we were pinning down an interview-was ballooning from five minutes to 90. “I tell people I thought my career was over at 30, that I was too old and behind the game,” said Hart, 71. “But that’s when it started. I joined Herbie Hancock, which opened a whole ‘nother thing. I couldn’t be any busier. If I don’t stop it, it looks like it won’t stop.”

It was hard to dispute this assertion. For one thing, Hart was anticipating an early April Birdland residence with the quartet he has led since 2003-pianist Ethan Iverson, tenor saxophonist Mark Turner and bassist Ben Street. The dates would celebrate Hart’s ECM leader debut, All Our Reasons, which the band recorded after a six-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola in December.

But there was much to discuss about the here-and-now. The previous weekend, at Iridium, the drummer had propelled the Cookers-in which old friends Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, George Cables and Cecil McBee navigate David Weiss’ charts of their compositions-through sets that evoked the romanticism and balls-out energy that these elders had displayed as young lions. Four days hence, they’d fly to Europe for nine engagements supporting their 2011 album Cast the First Stone (Plus Loin). In March, Hart would briefly recommence his normal schedule: a Monday flight to Ohio to teach three days at Oberlin; a Thursday flight to Boston to fulfill obligations at New England Conservatory. “I get home late Friday night,” Hart said. “If people know I’m home over the weekend, I end up working at Smalls or something like that.”

Hart maintains this schedule despite diabetes and a “worsening” retinal injury that makes “driving at night almost impossible.” Furthermore, he added, “my daughter is 14 and I’ve hardly spent any time with her. I love this family but I’m never here. The worst thing is they don’t say anything; they just deal with it. I’d rather have some complaints.”

While abroad with the Cookers, and on a mid-March long weekend in Europe, Hart would perform with several other groups that retain his services at regular intervals. “My students don’t even want to hear me play with American musicians,” he said. “They think the interesting records are the ones where I feel less inhibited.”

After remarking that he’d recorded four times since December, Hart named several newish releases: The Same As It Never Was Before (Sunnyside) is an introspective open-loose performance by French trumpeter Stéphane Belmondo’s working quartet with pianist Kirk Lightsey; Cymbal Symbols: Live at Porgy and Bess (TCB) is Hart’s third equilateral trio date since 2002 with Austrian-based saxophonist Karlheinz Miklin; and Billy Rubin (Enja), his fourth session with the accomplished German tenor saxophonist Johannes Enders, is a swinging, harmonically daring affair. Enders connected Hart to an experimental German electro-acoustic collective called the Tied & Tickled Trio (La Place Demon, Morr).

It was observed that turning down such gigs-and Hart’s itinerary listed even more-is an option. “Well, no,” he responded. “They make you an offer you can’t refuse, but it’s not just that the money is cool. The people who call me, for the most part, have interesting music. How do you turn down interesting music? How do you remain yourself? And what are you going to do? Retire?”

He mentioned the Tied & Tickled Trio, which Hart headlines, spontaneously orchestrating from the drum kit. “We play big concerts, and they let me play whatever I feel like. Not only that, they respond to it the way it’s supposed to be. That’s encouraging, and it’s happening more and more.” And he effused over an unreleased recording by Saxophone Summit, on which he functions as a kind of cross between Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali, generating multidirectional grooves for Liebman, Joe Lovano and Ravi Coltrane. “Our last few tours we’ve played Coltrane’s ‘Meditations Suite’ only, and it’s a 90-minute set,” he said. “The new record is all of our compositions out of that perspective.”

As Lovano put it, “Billy’s vocabulary is vast, and he can execute all of his ideas, but the dynamics from which he does that are deep from his soul.” But what is striking is how seamlessly Hart’s notion of unfettered self-expression matches real-time collective imperatives. Whether sharing the bandstand with peer-groupers or post-boomers, he assesses their vocabulary and idiosyncrasies and creates a flow apropos to their particulars, sometimes leading, sometimes following, changing colors and feel behind each soloist. If quiet fire is required, Hart needs little coaxing; if requested, as Harper had done at Iridium, “to keep this shit up there,” he’s more than willing to oblige.

“It’s to get them to play what satisfies me,” Hart said with a chuckle, downplaying the idea that he is unusually accommodating.

Liebman, an associate since 1982, when Hart joined him, pianist Richie Beirach and bassist Ron McClure in the still-extant quartet Quest, begged to differ. “He dances around with his partners more than most guys from his generation,” he said. “He’s open and democratic, fair and equal to everyone. His ability to be chameleon-like, always high level, is based on his very insightful, thoughtful personality. It’s psychological and technical insight. If you want to get into detail about bar 22, he’ll go there with you; if not, he doesn’t.

“Uniquely in his generation, Billy is a storyteller. His playing has a dramatic quality. He knows where chapter one goes, and where it should go next. He knows how to make you connect to that, makes you feel like your choice was exactly the right one. That’s why you can have 18 guys in a row soloing and no solo will sound the same.”

Hart’s narrative instincts come forth most palpably on his seven leader recordings since Enchance (A&M), from 1977. Already one of the busiest sidemen in the business, he then held a steady gig with Stan Getz, with an impressive contemporaneous discography including Miles Davis’ On the Corner and unsung classics with Charles Sullivan, Eddie Jefferson, Joanne Brackeen, Tom Harrell and Sir Roland Hanna.

He was not so far away from his years of apprenticeship in cusp-of-the-’60s Washington, D.C., where native sons like Jimmy Cobb, Osie Johnson, Ben Dixon, Harry “Stump” Saunders and George “Dude” Brown set standards of excellence. Jazz was in his blood. His family lived five blocks from the Spotlite Club, where the underage drummer pressed his ear to the window to listen to the Coltrane-Adderley-Evans edition of the Miles Davis Sextet, and the Lee Morgan-Benny Golson edition of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. His father, a mathematician and “an intellectual cat who demanded respect and knew a lot about a lot,” was a staunch Ellington fan; his paternal grandmother had played piano for Marian Anderson and knew William Grant Still. His mother was devoted to Jimmie Lunceford; his maternal grandmother-who bought him his first “good drum set for a gig with a good bebop band”-was a friend of D.C. tenor hero Buck Hill, who turned Hart on to Charlie Parker, and hired him at 17 for nine months of weekend gigs at a spot called Abart’s, where fellow McKinley High School students Reuben Brown and Butch Warren joined him six nights a week as the house rhythm section.

He matriculated at Howard University as a mechanical engineering major, but left when Shirley Horn, who had hired Hart out of Abart’s, took him on the road. Hart credits her with teaching him to play bebop at a simmer, not a roar; he also learned Brazilian rhythms from the source on early ’60s sub jobs at Charlie Byrd’s Showboat Lounge with Antonio Carlos Jobim, João Gilberto and Bola Sete. Through local connections, he had backstage access to the Howard Theatre, where he analyzed such master New Orleanians as Idris Muhammad (the Impressions), Clayton Filliard (James Brown), Ed Blackwell and Earl Palmer (Ray Charles). (For a few months in 1967, he even occupied the drum chair in the theater’s house band.)

Howard classmate Marion Brown introduced Hart to Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali. Hart increasingly self-identified as an experimental musician, drawing on their example in a trio with Joe Chambers on piano and Walter Booker on bass. Later, during mid- and late-’60s stopovers in Chicago with Jimmy Smith, Wes Montgomery and Eddie Harris (on one residence, he roomed with Anthony Braxton), he attended to the “textural, timbral approaches” of AACM drummers Thurman Barker, Steve McCall and Alvin Fielder. He applied those lessons during two years with Pharoah Sanders, a period when, via percussionist Mtume, he received the sobriquet “Jabali” (Swahili for “wisdom”). In the first half of the ’70s, Hart’s mature tonal personality-advanced grooves drawing on “some knowledge of African and Indian music, and all the American traditions”-emerged during three years with Hancock’s Mwandishi band and a subsequent two years with McCoy Tyner.

Hart drew on all these experiences in conceptualizing Enchance and, subsequently, Oshumare (1985), Rah (1987), Amethyst (1993) and Oceans of Time (1997). On each record, he assembled idiosyncratic virtuosos from different circles, each signifying a stream of cutting-edge jazz thought. Functioning more as a facilitator than a stylist, he meshed their distinctive personalities, generating fresh ideas through intense drum dialogue. Each date has a singular quality, as though Hart had conjured a unitary vision out of various strains of the zeitgeist.

In his basement-den practice space two days after our initial conversation, Hart described his thought process for Oshumare, for which he convened Branford Marsalis and Steve Coleman on saxophones, Kevin Eubanks and Bill Frisell on guitars, and Kenny Kirkland and Mark Gray on keyboards, along with violinist Didier Lockwood, bassist Dave Holland and percussionist Manolo Badrena. “I had a dream in Germany that two guitar players could improvise together and sound like one person playing the harp,” Hart said. “Marc Johnson recommended Frisell. When I asked what he played like, Marc said, ‘I can’t tell you.’ I said, ‘Then he’s in; that’s what I’m looking for.’ Eubanks had all the James Brown stuff, so it seemed interesting to put them together. No one could follow in Herbie’s footsteps more than Kenny Kirkland. Badrena is South American, so that’s anywhere from Dizzy Gillespie to Tony Williams. For me, Dave Holland was almost the perfect bass player-someone who played with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton but also Herbie, and who knew the workings of the electric bass, which is to play these ostinato patterns [not walking lines through chords] that originated in Afro-Caribbean music, which was transformed into pop music. I was trying to do what I did on Enchance-find a way to play like Ornette and Cecil and Coltrane and Miles-with a more contemporary viewpoint.”

Hart follows a similar conceptual m.o. on Sixty-Eight (SteepleChase), a 2011 homage to Roy Haynes, Tony Williams and Ed Blackwell. There, Hart’s first-class ensemble of young individualists-Logan Richardson, alto saxophone; Jason Palmer, trumpet; Mike Pinto, vibraphone; Dan Tepfer, piano; Chris Tordini, bass-interprets inside-outside repertoire from ’60s dates by Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Mal Waldron and Jaki Byard: records on which Williams, Haynes and Blackwell-all key roots of Hart’s influence tree-performed. “It turns out that if I try to explain what I do academically, it always goes back to Tony,” said Hart, who cites Elvin Jones as another primary inspiration. “Tony is the architect and designer of contemporary drumming as I know it today. Someone asked him, ‘When did you first discover you had your own style?’ He said, ‘I never thought I had my own style. I was trying to sound like Art Blakey, Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones-if they were me.’ That meant a lot to me.

“Tony was a prodigious bebop scholar, but he also emerged at the time of ‘straight eighths,’ which started with Dizzy Gillespie’s Afro-Caribbean music and then was called rock and roll. That meant Tony could legitimately relate Cuban music to rock and roll, whereas the beboppers were always a little condescending about it. Then, right after he moved to New York, the Brazilian thing hit, and the beboppers condescended to that because they couldn’t hear the samba. Tony could relate to all three.”

Around 1964, just before Hart started his three-year run playing “advanced pop rhythms” with Jimmy Smith, John Coltrane heard the Chambers-Booker-Hart trio play a Saturday matinee. A year or so later, after Elvin Jones and McCoy Tyner had moved on from his employ, Coltrane asked Hart to play in his new band alongside Rashied Ali. “John had been in Jimmy’s first band, which is one reason why I interested him,” Hart explained. “I turned him down. For one thing, I didn’t think I could do the music justice. I think he could have coaxed me into it, but he was taking his music somewhere very unpopular, and he needed somebody to be sure that’s what they wanted to do. If I’d had two or three days of the experience I got playing with Pharoah, I’d probably have been in that band. Maybe I would have done OK.”

Hart pointed to a shelf of orange-and-black-spined Coltrane LPs on Impulse! “As we speak, he’s still the reason for me,” he said. “Even on his very last record, Expression, he has this incredible lyricism that almost nobody else has. He had that ability to sing, to be like a vocalist on the instrument. Stan Getz had that-Coltrane complimented Stan. Miles played like a singer, too. Coltrane’s way is my way. I would follow him anywhere. As loud as I’ve learned to play, I would like to be a drummer that’s a singer.”

Coltrane and drumsong come through abundantly on All Our Reasons, particularly in Hart’s inspired interplay with Mark Turner on the opening tracks, his own “Song for Balkis” and Iverson’s “Giant Steps”-ish “Ohnedaruth.” “You’re only going to push Mark so much-you’ve got to build a solo with him,” Hart said. “That takes me back to Shirley and Stan. He reminds me of something Elvin told me about Philly Joe: ‘Man, I didn’t want to play like him, but I savored him like a fine wine.’”

Indeed, throughout the program, it’s evident that each member-all were born when Hart was already well established-ideally suits the aesthetic space the leader has reached over the last decade. (So does ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher, a fan of Hart’s dynamics and cymbal sound from the ’70s [Bennie Maupin’s The Jewel in the Lotus] on through his three end-of-the-’90s ECM dates with Charles Lloyd. The Eicher touch suffuses the proceedings-the rendering of Hart’s pointillistic brushwork on Iverson’s “Nostalgia for the Impossible,” the crisp snare-toms-cymbal combinations and surging ride cymbal on Turner’s Sonny Rollins homage “Nigeria,” the signifying second-line bass drum on Hart’s “Imke’s March.”)

“They’re brilliant contemporary conceptualists,” Hart said of his younger partners. “Even though we’re playing a lot of my older tunes, I’m not playing any freer with anybody than I play with them. Mark profoundly understands Coltrane, but also has total command of Lennie Tristano’s vocabulary. With Ethan, it’s like playing with Thelonious Monk or Andrew Hill one minute and Herbie Hancock the next. Ben has a command of all the Afro-Caribbean and Indian flavors that are the biggest influence on so-called jazz today.”

With the quartet at Dizzy’s in December, Hart set up his accompaniment or solos by grabbing a sound from one or another component of the drum kit and then developing it through ever-expanding permutations and combinations. Drummer Billy Drummond referenced this quality when he called Hart a “shape-shifter.” So did Matt Wilson in describing Hart as “a Picasso of rhythm, who abstracts something we already know so that it sounds different coming at you.”

“With [this quartet], I can’t smash like I’ve done on so many bands,” Hart said. “I’ve had to go back to lyricism, the things I learned with Stan and Shirley. It’s almost irritating how I’m forced to play this way, but then I remember that playing with all this space-a lot of cymbals, that higher-pitched sound, tuning the drums high-is the way I really play. It’s [trying to take] the music out of techniques, so that suddenly you’re not hearing C-minor, but it’s raining. Or the sun is shining. Or grass is growing.”

Iverson and hart first connected on a 1999 rehearsal for a date led by trombonist Christophe Schweizer. “It was very advanced academic music,” Hart recalled. “Christophe told me he hired Ethan because he was the only guy in New York who could read it. Just that description made me very interested in him.”

The feeling of urgency was mutual. “When Billy started playing, I immediately felt I wanted to be next to this and I’d do whatever it takes,” Iverson remembered. Two weeks later, he asked Hart to join him and bassist Reid Anderson for two trio concerts. The proceedings became The Minor Passions (Fresh Sound). The relationship deepened on a brief Italian tour. “You can learn a helluva lot about swing just by watching Billy talk to a stranger,” Iverson said. “I can think whatever I think about music and play what I play, but this man is what jazz is.”

Even as the Bad Plus coalesced and blasted off, Iverson and Hart worked occasionally, and in 2003 Ben Street and Mark Turner joined them for a week at the Village Vanguard. Soon thereafter, Hart asked his young partners to join him at a New Jersey concert. “We added his tunes for the gig,” Iverson recalled. “Then he was on the microphone talking, and we agreed right then that this should be Billy’s if he wanted it.”

All Our Reasons displays the group’s evolution since their 2005 debut, Quartet (HighNote). “It sounds a little constricted now, because we hadn’t figured out all the ways we should try to play together,” Iverson said of the earlier document. “In some ways we’re still figuring each other out. Billy can be very intense, and you need to step up to the plate.

“Billy plays this constant selection of incredible patterns with the maximum vibe,” Iverson continued. “It’s this very secure, indomitable collection of stuff that makes everyone else play a certain way and raises the music to the highest level. I don’t hear enough of that in younger cats. He has this undulation, an older sense of space. We’ve all had to adjust to make this work when it’s so swinging, but the t’s aren’t crossed and the i’s aren’t dotted like we learned off records and playing with our peers. At Dizzy’s, it began to inhabit a different rhythmic sphere, like we were letting go of something.”

In Hart’s view, he’s growing along with his bandmates. “I’ve never thought about these cats being so much younger than me,” he said. “They say each generation transforms art into its own image. My take is that it’s not the art that changes, it’s the image. I like the art. In other words, I don’t think whoever was playing drums in 5000 B.C. felt what they were doing any less than I do. They might have felt it more. I want that.”

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Billy Hart, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Jazz Times

R.I.P. Chico Hamilton (September 20, 1921-November 25, 2013). Two WKCR Interviews and a DownBeat Blindfold Test

Word comes through Facebook that drummer-composer Chico Hamilton, a master drummer and bandleader, and fresh thinker through more than 75 years as a professional musician, passed away last night at the age of 92. His immense c.v. and accomplishments will be abundantly available for your perusal on the web. During the ’90s I had the privilege of doing two comprehensive shows with Chico, one a Musician’s Show in 1994, the other a five-hour Sunday “Jazz Profiles” show in 1996. Later, I had an opportunity to conduct a Blindfold Test with Chico at his East Side Manhattan apartment. I’ve appended the full transcripts below.

* * *

Chico Hamilton Musician Show, WKCR, July 20, 1994:

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton, “Around The Corner” (1992)]

TP:    We’ll be creating sort of an oral autobiography.  Chico is surrounded by records, of which we won’t get to a fifth.  It covers the Los Angeles scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and a variety of people.  The first selection cued up is “Tickletoe,” by the Count Basie, featuring the man who drummed like the wind, Papa Jo Jones, who seems to have been the person who influenced your approach more than anyone else.

CH:    That’s absolutely correct, Ted.  As a matter of fact, Jo… Actually, the first drummer I ever saw was Sonny Greer, and I was very impressed with him.  I was a youngster, about 8 or 9 years old.  But when I started playing, which was I guess 9 or 10 or something like that, and when I was in junior high school, all of a sudden Count Basie’s orchestra came on the scene, at least on the West Coast.  We began to get his records.  Then when I heard Jo Jones… Because Jo completely turned the rhythm aspect of drumming completely around, you know, with the sock cymbal.  As a matter of fact, that last composition that you opened up with, “Around the Corner,” was sort of dedicated to Jo Jones and the Count Basie era because of the sock cymbal, you know.

TP:    Let me turn the conversation to a few things you touched on in those few sentences.  You came up in the Los Angeles area, and when you were ten years old it would have been around…

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you.  It was two weeks before baseball.  How does that grab you?

TP:    Do you care to elaborate on that one?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Well, I started playing in the late Thirties and early Forties, more or less the early Forties.  I guess when I was around 13-14 years old, we had a band, a big 15-piece band.  It was under the leadership of a guy by the name of Al Adams, and the only reason why he was the leader is because he was the oldest.  I think he was about 19 at the time.

TP:    What was the age range?

CH:    The age range was from 14 to about 19.

TP:    From all over Los Angeles or from the neighborhood?

CH:    From the neighborhood and from all over.  We had guys like Dexter Gordon, Illinois Jacquet, Ernie Royal, Charlie Mingus, myself, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette…

TP:    Now, for those who aren’t familiar with the West Coast, tell us about the neighborhood, as specifically or as generally as you want to, and the circumstances by which you met, some of the factors in your musical education and so forth.

CH:    Well, I don’t know how it was throughout the rest of the country, but in L.A., in the school system, you were required to take music, either Music Appreciation or an instrument or something.  It was in the curriculum.  You had to be involved with music.  Regardless of whether it was junior high school or high school, you had to become involved in music.  And at that time, L.A. wasn’t a very large place.  As a matter of fact, everybody just about knew everybody.  Young guys, young musicians will always be able to get together or find one another, just as they do today.  That’s how it really came about.  Also, we came out of Jefferson High School, which most of us attended.  Buddy and Mingus, of course, were from the Watts area.  But the school actually was the common denominator.

TP:    There was a very prominent teacher at Jefferson High School, I recollect.

CH:    Yes, his name was Samuel Browne, the music teacher there, who virtually, in a sense, encouraged all of us to become good musicians.  At that time also, man, it was an unbelievable amount of… All the bands would come to L.A.  As a matter of fact, they would let the kids out of school, man, when a band would come into town, which they virtually would come in on the train… They would let us go down to the train station to see Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, all the bands.

TP:    Where did they play?

CH:    Well, there were several places, big cabaret dance halls, virtually.  I guess they were called nightclubs, but they were big places.  The Casa Mañana(?), the Palladium, the average dance hall name, but…

TP:    So you’d have a band, a film, a couple of dancing acts and comedians and so forth…

CH:    Well, at that time, most of the bands carried their own show.  For instance, when I joined Count Basie’s band, Jimmy Rushing was singing, I forget the lady singer now…

TP:    Helen Humes?

CH:    Helen Humes.  And the dance team that they had was the Berry Brothers, Coles & Atkins, and Pot, Pan and Skillet.  All of these were fantastic dance acts.  And that would consist of the show, sort of a semi-vaudeville type of show, but the band would be the feature — and they played all over the country.  At the Avedon, which was a ballroom, this is where the bands that came in would play, and we all had an opportunity to hear Lunceford and Basie and Duke.

I consider myself very fortunate, Ted, because I came up during the right time.  Because to be able to hear the originals, the people who invented this particular style of music, this way of playing… You know, I was there.

TP:    I think one thing that’s misunderstood because of the nature of the recording process in the 1920’s and Thirties and early Forties is what the drums sounded like in the big bands and the actual presence of the drums.  If you hear them on records, they sound kind of tinny or in the background, but I’ll bet that’s not what it sounded like when you heard Sonny Greer with Ellington, or Jo Jones or Jimmy Crawford…

CH:    All of these guys, man…the drummer… You know that old phrase about “give the drummer some.”  All of these guys, all of these drummers, all of these great, brilliant musicians, the drummers were determining the styles of the band.  It wasn’t so much what the bandleaders were doing.  Jimmie Lunceford used to conduct with the baton.  Basie, sure, played piano; Duke played piano.  But the actual sound of the rhythm, the feeling, the whole mood that was created by the bands was created by these drummers.

Now, Sonny Greer played a particular style of drumming which was like what we might refer to…your listeners might not understand about playing on the beat, one-two-three-four, two-two-three-four.  He played DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN, DJA-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, DJUN-DJUN, CHOO-CHI-TU, that kind of a thing.  Now, the Ellington band swung in that groove.  Whereas with the Basie band, Jo Jones did DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-DANG, DIT-DI-CHANG, DIT-DA, DIT-DA, and he swung that band with a completely different feeling than what Ellington had.

Strangely and oddly enough, even bands of today, here, what is this, 19…what year is this…?

TP:    1994.

CH:    Here in 1994, a large ensemble still plays with either one of those two grooves, as far as the Jazz aspect is concerned.

TP:    When did you start playing drums?  When you were 15 or 16?

CH:    Well…

TP:    In the 1960 Encyclopedia of Jazz it says you started out playing clarinet.

CH:    I did.  I started out playing clarinet.  And the reason I started out playing clarinet is because my best friend, Jack Kelso, played clarinet.  So having my best friend play clarinet, I figured, “hey, I’d better…I want to play clarinet.”  But I soon gave it up because it became a little bit difficult, you know… Also my older brother was playing drums.  This was in grade school, so we had to be no more than 8 or 9 years old.  When he… They graduated from grade school in those days, right!  So when he graduated, I figured, well, since he was my brother and plays the drums, I’m going to play the drums.  And I just started.  I had no idea what a drummer did really, but I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do it,” and I just did it.

TP:    You did it on his pair of drums?

CH:    Well, it was the school drums.  The school had the drums.  As a matter of fact, we rented the clarinet for two dollars a week (can you believe that?) from the school.

TP:    That was a lot of money then.

CH:    Oh, tell me about it, man.  Tell me about it.  That’s virtually, in a sense, how I got started.  The more I got into playing and the more I got into the instrument, the more difficult it became, and the more difficult it became, all of a sudden, I realized, “hey, this is it; this is what I’m going to try to do.”  I started reaching out, and everyone helped me.  Everyone.  Everyone I played with.

TP:    How would they do that?  Talk about how musicians would help a young musician coming up, what the scene was like for a young musician in Los Angeles in the Thirties and early Forties.

CH:    Well, in those days, there was a camaraderie, a relationship with musicians.  You know, strangely and oddly enough, as young as I was, people like Jo Jones and Lester Young, people like that, the Charlie Parkers, they weren’t that much older than we were…

TP:    You’re a year younger than Charlie Parker.

CH:    Well, I probably was older than Charlie.  I just mentioned him… But the fact is that Bird influenced me tremendously, when I came out of the service, in California.  He and Howard McGhee virtually introduced me to what the Bebop scene was all about.

But back in the early days we were very much influenced by anyone that we heard, especially the ones with the names that came to the West Coast.  And once the guys came out to the West Coast, it was… Everybody was friendly, everybody was warm.  And we jammed a lot, man.  We jammed all day and all night long!  It was unbelievable, the amount of time we put in the jam sessions.  That’s how we learned to play.  If it wasn’t happening, somebody would pull your coat and say, “Hey, listen, why don’t you try doing this” or “why don’t you try to do that” or “Why do you want to do this?” — that kind of a thing.

TP:    This is the Musician’s Show, and you’ve been listening to Chico Hamilton tell you about coming up there in the Thirties and early Forties as a young drummer.  First on cue is “Tickletoe,” the Basie band with Papa Jo Jones.  It also said in your biography that you studied with Papa Jo while you were in the Service in the first half of the 1940’s.  Tell us about that, and then let’s get to some music.

CH:    Well, I’ll tell you how dumb the Army was. [LAUGHS]  I was already drafted, I was already stationed at Fort McCullough in Alabama, right.  I wasn’t in the band, but I was attached to the band, which means that… They had four other drummers in the band, but none of them could play.  They virtually really… I mean this.  They couldn’t play.  So whenever a show came through, they would send for me, and make… They put me in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Now, I  came into the Service carrying my drum under my arm.  This is the truth, man!  And you know, when they put me in the drum-and-bugle corps, do you know what they did?  They made me play bugle! [LAUGHS]

Anyway, to make a long story short, when Jo Jones… This is why I’m saying how dumb it was.  When Jo Jones and Prez, Lester Young, when they came through there… They were drafted, and they came through the same camp, man.  They would not let them in the band!  Man, it just broke my heart.  They made them… At one time they wouldn’t even allow them to even associate, and come to the band room and things like that.  Well, anyway…

TP:    Well, Lester Young’s bad times in the Army are very well-documented.

CH:    Well, they gave Prez a terrible time, man.  First of all, he was a beautiful human being, man.  He was a tremendously warm, sensitive human being, and so was Jo.  What their contribution to what we call Jazz today, or in the Swing or whatever era…it will never be duplicated.  Because try as you might, there’s no one that could get that sound and get that feeling Jo had or could get playing, and the same thing applied to Prez.  But in the Service, I had a chance to get with Jo quite a bit when he would come off doing the daily Army thing.  We’d get together at night, and we’d jam, we’d play, we’d practice.  We would talk drums constantly, and talk music.  It was priceless.

[Basie, “Tickletoe” (1940); Ellington, “Ring Dem Bells” (1931); Basie “Topsy: (1938); Lunceford, “Tain’t What You Do” (1939); Prez/Shadow Wilson, “Indiana” (1944); Prez/Chico, “Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio, “Tickletoe” (1992)]

TP:    We covered quite a bit of ground on that last set of drummers.

CH:    Well, just about.  Music is very broad, Music is very big, Music is very long, and Music is very beautiful…

[ETC.]

TP:    The 1946 performance of “Lester Leaps In” featured Chico’s long-time partner, bassist Red Callender.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Red and I did quite a bit of playing together when I was out on the West Coast, when I was out in L.A.  I just want to establish a fact that what the people here in New York, the East Coast people, everything they consider the East Coast Sound, which was a big thing, I guess, in the Fifties or Sixties regarding the East Coast versus the West Coast… How that originated, how that came about, I think it was in the Fifties or early Sixties, there was a club here in New York, Basin Street East, and for the first time I was coming east with my original quintet with the cello, with Fred Katz, Carson Smith, Buddy Collette and Jim Hall.  We were playing opposite (are you ready?) Max Roach’s original quintet with Clifford Brown and I think it was Harold Land, and Richie Powell and George Morrow.  So in order to stir up some…to hip business up, to make it a happening, the publicist started the East Coast versus the West Coast…

TP:    Harold Land, of course, was from the West Coast.

CH:    He was from the West Coast.  But that’s how that East Coast-West Coast thing really got started.

But in the meantime, getting back to Red Callender, Gerry Wiggins, people like that on the West Coast, there was a definite… We had a very definite way of playing, a style, a West Coast style of playing.  It’s just like they had a style, all the Kansas City musicians, the musicians from the Midwest — they had a particular style, a way of playing.  They swung very heavy, right?  Guys on the East Coast, they had their own thing going.  I’m speaking before the Bebop Era came in…

TP:    How would you put into words the Southwest sound?

CH:    Well, the Southwest sound was more… The prime example is Count Basie, the Count Basie Orchestra.  There was a band by the name of Nat Towles and Snookum Russell…

TP:    Now, did those bands come to California?

CH:    No, they didn’t make it to the West Coast.  But this was a Midwest type of band.  Because during the War years, the early part of the Forties, I sort of left the Service for a quick minute [LAUGHS], and went out on the road with Snookum Russell’s band in the Midwest.

TP:    That’s the band J.J. Johnson left Indianapolis with.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    What was that band like?

CH:    It was just a swinging thing.  Just out-and-out swing.  I realize today when I use that terminology, “swing,” that a lot of young people don’t know what I’m talking about.  But unfortunately, there’s no substitute for it.  Because whether you’re playing Rock-and-Roll, whether you’re playing Pop, or whatever you’re playing, it’s got to swing.  In other words, it’s got to have a pulse to it, to make you feel like, hey, snapping your fingers or patting your foot.  That was the one thing that the Swing Bands did do, man.  You couldn’t… It was hard for anyone to keep still when you’d listen to one of those bands.

TP:    Also, in Los Angeles, a lot of the Black community came from the Southwest and the South Central parts of the United States, and subsequently settled there.  So it seems to me a lot of that sound came into the Los Angeles sound in a certain way.  True or false?

CH:    Not necessarily.  Not during those days.  I don’t know… The fact that I was born there… Well, just from my generation up is what I’m familiar with in regards to what music was all about, what Jazz was all about.  And the majority of those guys…

TP:    They were from L.A.

CH:    They were from L.A.  Before then, who knows?  We all came from…

TP:    I was thinking about people coming for jobs in the Navy yards…

CH:    Oh, no.  Well, this was before then.  That started when the War started; people would come there for gigs.  But most musicians, if they came there, man, they came there to play.  Because there was a zillion places to play at that time.

TP:    Let’s talk a bit about the scene in Los Angeles towards the end of the War and the years right after.  A lot of musicians also moved to Los Angeles who lived there for long periods of time, like Lester Young, who we heard you with, or Art Tatum…

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    …and many other people.

CH:    Well, after the Service… I think I got out of the Service around 1945.  But I came back to L.A.  Before I went into the Service, the Swing thing was the thing, the Swing beat — [DA-DANG, DAT-DA-DANG], that was it.  Right?  When I came out of the Service and came back to L.A., I heard and saw for the first time, and just was blown away completely by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee, Teddy Edwards, Roy Porter, people like this.  Man, this was a whole, brand-new kind of thing to me, man.  Because I was down South, and I just only knew one way of playing.  And to come back to the West Coast and start hearing Bebop, man, it was just absolutely amazing.

TP:    Were you hearing the records when you were in the Service, as they came out…

CH:    What records?

TP:    Oh, you didn’t get any of those records.  Okay.

CH:    [LAUGHS] Those records didn’t come that far down there!  No, unfortunately we didn’t have that opportunity to hear the records.  But it was really amazing.  As a matter of fact, man, I was fortunate enough to get a job, join a band by the name of Floyd Ray.  In Floyd Ray’s band, there was a piano player by the name of Hampton Hawes, there was a trumpet player by the name of Art Farmer, and his brother, Addison Farmer, played bass.  The tenor players were J.D. King, Bill Moore.  People like this.  It was a big band.  We played for… As well as playing dances and things like that, we played shows at theaters.  We were playing a show, and headlining the show was this little kid from Detroit by the name of Sugar Chile Robinson.  We used to think it was a midget; he was a piano player.  The Emcee of the show, who carried the whole show and the dance team, was the Will Mastin Trio, featuring Sammy Davis, Junior.  Man, we were playing all up and down the West Coast.

We happened to be in Oakland, and this was maybe like on a Friday night… We heard that the Billy Eckstine band was coming to town to play a dance.  And in that band was Art Blakey [PRONOUNCES “Blakeley”], Dexter Gordon and Gene Ammons.  I’ll tell you, man, you talk about getting blown away!  I had never in my life heard anybody play like Art Blakey!  Right?  And I was so influenced, carried away by his playing, that the next morning, when we were doing our show, I started trying to play…dropping bombs, as we say, playing Bebop licks on the drums.  And man, I almost got fired, because Sammy Davis’ father told me…he said, “What the hell are you doing?!”

But anyway, that was my first really introduction to playing Bebop music.  Hearing Art Blakey, man, was just… He turned me completely around.  Whereas Jo had set things up in the beginning, he and Sonny Greer, Art Blakey really turned me around.

TP:    He gave you a sense of the feeling.

CH:    Oh, man, did he ever!  Art Blakey was a brilliant, brilliant master percussionist.  He was just an out-and-out hard-swinging drummer.

[D. Gordon/T. Edwards, “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” (1947); Bird, “My Old Flame” (1947); Dexter/Wardell, “The Chase” (1947); Howard McGhee, “Thermodynamics” (1946); Eckstine, “Blowin’ The Blues Away” (1944); Hamp/Mingus, “Mingus Fingers” (1947)]

TP:    …after “Mingus Fingers” we heard the Billy Eckstine band, the tune Chico Hamilton said was the first he ever heard the band do, “Blowin’ The Blues Away.”

CH:    Talk about blowin’ the blues away, man; it really blew me away, man!  That was the band I heard in Oakland, California, I think it must have been in 1945, 1946.  Man, can you imagine hearing a band like that?  It was unbelievable.  Unbelievable.

TP:    That was a radio broadcast, and Art Blakey’s sound really came through well on that one.

CH:    It was fantastic, especially in regards to the fact that they only used maybe a microphone for the reed section and one mike for the brass, and that was it — the rhythm section had to go for itself.  The band was swinging, man.  It was cookin’.  You know?

TP:    And I’m imagine they were playing for dancers as well, so there was a whole ambiance that doesn’t exist today.

CH:    Well, that’s something that… For instance, every band…Count Basie… Basie had that thing that he knew the right groove to make you dance, want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford had that groove that would make you want to dance.  Jimmie Lunceford’s rhythm was basically in a two-beat kind of thing.  Basie’s was a 2/4.  Duke Ellington?  Once in a while you felt like dancing to Duke’s music.  But Duke’s music, you listened to it more, in regards to, hey, you just cooled and listened to the amazing arrangements and the brilliant playing of the players.

TP:    It seems to me that Ellington had different sets for different audiences, and he could pull out so many things.

CH:    Well, different strokes for different folks!

TP:    Before that we heard Howard McGhee on a couple of classic Bebop sides, “Thermodynamics,” featuring his virtuosic trumpet from 1947, with Jimmy Bunn on piano, who was present on a lot of these early West Coast dates.

CH:    I knew some of Jimmy’s relatives, as a matter of fact. Jimmy’s cousin was a good friend of brother’s, Bernie Hamilton, the actor.  Jimmy Bunn is still playing.  He’s still in California, and he’s still playing very-very-very good.  He perhaps was one of the most underrated players as far as recognition was concerned.  But at one time, Jimmy Bunn, nobody in L.A., you know…

TP:    He had first call, is what it sounds like.

CH:    Exactly.  If you couldn’t get Jimmy… Then when Hampton Hawes started coming on the scene, Hampton began to get all the calls.  Also in there was Dodo Marmarosa.  Dodo was originally from Pennsylvania someplace, but…

TP:    Pittsburgh, I think.

CH:    Pittsburgh, yeah.  But man, Dodo could play, too.

TP:    And he recorded with many people, including Charlie Parker.

CH:    Yes, he did.

TP:    Jimmy Rowles was active in Los Angeles at that time.

CH:    Jimmy Rowles.  My man, Jimmy Rowles!  I haven’t seen Jimmy in quite a while, but last time I heard, he and his daughter were playing together.  His daughter, Stacy, plays trumpet.

TP:    Before “Thermodynamics” we heard “The Chase,” one of the most famous sessions of that time, also for Dial, recorded in 1947, with Jimmy Bunn, Red Callender on bass, and Chuck Thompson, a very active and strong drummer.

CH:    He was a very good drummer.  Very good.  As a matter of fact, Chuck is still playing.  And you mentioned another drummer on the West Coast…

TP:    Roy Porter?

CH:    I don’t think Roy is playing any more.  But before Roy you mentioned…

TP:    On one of these tracks?

CH:    On one of the tracks.

TP:    Well, Roy Porter played with Howard McGhee.  And… Well, I don’t know who that was.

CH:    He played with the Hampton Hawes Trio.

TP:    Oh, Larence Marable.

CH:    Larence, yeah!

TP:    He was very active, and he’s now going out with Charlie Haden’s group amongst others.

CH:    Hey, Larence is a fantastic player.

TP:    He’s someone who had an impact on Billy Higgins when Billy Higgins was coming up in the Los Angeles area.  Before “The Chase” we heard “My Old Flame” by Charlie Parker for Dial; Bird cut many sides for Dial while in Los Angeles.  And we began the set with Dexter Gordon and Teddy Edwards, another tenor duel called “Blues In Teddy’s Flat” with Jimmy Rowles, Red Callender, and Roy Porter

Again, we have this combination of native Los Angeles musicians, and musicians who settled in Los Angeles from other places, like Teddy Edwards, who came from Jackson, Mississippi to Detroit to Los Angeles, or Howard McGhee, who was from Oklahoma, Detroit, then Southwest bands into Los Angeles.  I’d like to ask Chico for brief portraits of some of your contemporaries.  Let’s begin with Charles Mingus, because you knew Mingus when he was very young.  How old were you when you first met?  Do you remember?

CH:    Well, let me see.  I don’t know, I suppose I was about 10 or 11, something like that — 11 or 12.  As a matter of fact, Charlie Mingus and my wife went to Sunday School together, attended the same church.  Do you believe that?

TP:    Which church was that?

CH:    It was some church in L.A.  I don’t recall the name of it.  Buddy Collette and his family attended that church, and Mingus’ family, and my wife’s family attended the church.  So actually she knew Mingus before I did.  But we were unbelievably young, and unbelievable at that time as young players, as young dudes.  We thought we were… As a matter of fact, some of the joints we played, we’d have to disguise ourselves to look older because of the booze thing.  But Charlie and I came through a lot of wars together as far as playing on the bandstand.  He developed into a very uncanny kind of a musician.  I guess that’s my way of saying how brilliant he was.  It hurts me, the fact that Charlie had to die a pauper.  Because what he contributed to this thing called Jazz and this thing called Music, unfortunately, he really didn’t receive any of the benefits while he was alive.

TP:    Some of the things that he wrote… “The Chill Of Death” which he recorded in 1971, was written, I think, when he was 17 years old!  Do you remember these pieces, or seeing them?  Did you talk about music or his compositions a lot?

CH:    Well, you know, every conversation Charlie and I would have would be off the wall!  I was never surprised at anything he would say or anything he would do…

TP:    Or come up with musically.

CH:    Or come up with musically.  And I guess he might have thought about me the same way.  A funny thing, though, when I came out of the Service, all of these guys, Charlie and Buddy, John Anderson and guys like that, they had gotten re-established again out in L.A. on the famous Central Avenue, and I had to come out… Nobody knew who I was, and I had to sort of establish myself all over again.  I got pretty lucky, because I ended up being the house drummer for Billy Berg’s.

TP:    A famous club where a lot of Jazz history was made.

CH:    All the Jazz, that’s where it was.

TP:    That’s where Bird and Diz came through when Bebop first hit the West Coast.

CH:    Bird and Diz, right.  That’s when I began to play for all the singers, too, at that time.

TP:    What were the chain of events that led to that?  It couldn’t have been just luck.

CH:    Me playing at Billy Berg’s?

TP:    To be the house drummer, especially then, you had to be versatile, be able to basically play anything, read, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  Well, I’d played for him before I went into the Service.  He used to have a club called the Club Capri, before Billy Berg’s.  As a matter of fact, at the Club Capri, this is when I first… Norman Granz used to be like a go-fer for all the guys. [LAUGHS]  You know, he ends up being a zillionaire, an entrepreneur.  But anyway, to make a long story short, at the Club Capri, that’s where Lorenzo Flournoy’s band, Red Mack’s band, Lee and Lester Young… When Prez first left Basie’s band, his brother Lee Young had a small group.  These were all small groups, no bigger than five or six pieces, seven pieces at the most.  Billy Berg’s was the number-one room in Los Angeles at that time.  That was it.  If you played that room, it was fantastic.

The other room that was called the 331 or the 333, I forget…

[END OF SIDE 2]

…of my playing, of my career, I played with this guy named Myers, Old Man Myers.  He kept me on brushes.  He wouldn’t let me play sticks at all, man.  We would go out and play at least three or four nights a week.  Right?  I was lucky enough to make… He’d pay me like maybe 75 cents, I mean, really 75 cents! — we were lucky if we made a dollar.  But I would play brushes constantly.  Constantly.  Every time I’d get ready to pick up the sticks, he said, “Put those sticks down!”  So fortunately, that helped me to develop a stroke that swept me into some of the choicest gigs at that time.

TP:    This conversation evolved from word portraits of some of your associates in Los Angeles at this time.  I’d like to ask you about Dexter Gordon, who was a few years younger than you, but came up around the same time.

CH:    Well, can you imagine… When Dexter was about 10 years old, he was already twelve feet tall.  Then he shrank!  We used to call him Big Stoop, from the character in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates — if anybody remembers that.

Anyway, Dexter and I… You might not believe this, but Dexter Gordon and myself, and a trombone player by the name of James Robertson, we were the only three guys, three people period, to get an A in English in high school.  That was the toughest teacher in the whole entire system.  Her name was Mrs. Smith.  And Dexter and myself and James Robinson got an A in English, man!

As a matter of fact, Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he used to play clarinet, he used to come on the campus… Dexter was like the pied piper.  Dexter would play his horn anywhere, in the hall, in the room, it didn’t matter — all over the school.  And he loved Prez.  He just adored…

TP:    Took apart the solos and…

CH:    Everything was note-for-note.  So that’s how we learned to play, virtually, in a sense, by copying the masters, the people who invented that way of playing.  But Dexter was, again, a brilliant, fantastic, inventive kind of player.  And to be among this kind of talent, you know, you just took it for granted that, hey, he could play, I could play, Ernie Royal could play, you know…

TP:    And you went out and played.

CH:    And we went out and played.

TP:    And then things happened, people heard you, and that’s how…

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    A few words about Red Callender.

CH:    George “Red” Callender.  George was a little older than myself and Mingus and Buddy and Jack Kelso.  But we had a tremendous amount of respect for Red, because Red was the big-time already.  When we got on the L.A. scene before the war, well, Red Callender had been playing with Louis Armstrong and playing with all the big names.  And the fact that he was local, he was in L.A., and we… He was… You know, just to be in his presence was something.  It meant something to us.  We all befriended each other, and we came up this way.

As a matter of fact, at one time Red Callender, myself and a piano player by the name of Dudley Brooks, we were the only three Black musicians that were ever hired by the studios out there; actually put on staff, you know, at Paramount Studios at one time.  Because at one time it was a no-no.  But we got a job… I was playing for… It was equivalent to being the rehearsal player.  I was like the rehearsal drummer.  I used to keep time for people like Marilyn Monroe, Sherrie North, I used to work with all the dance directors out there, keeping time for them while they got their act together.  But it got boring after a while, and I split.

TP:    But the money must have been nice.

CH:    Hey, man, listen.  It was steady.  Right?  To get paid every week?  It was unbelievable, man.  But I don’t know, man, I was always pretty fortunate.  I was able to… I’ve been lucky, blessed, because I’ve been always able to have a gig.

TP:    Well, it seems you’ve been very flexible and adaptable as well, and yet very determined, and with very definite sounds in your mind’s ear.

CH:    Well, I’ve always, first of all, been very proud of my profession.  Like, I’m a professional musician, just like a doctor is a professional or a lawyer is a professional.  I’ve been very, very highly… Well, this is what I do.  In other words, this is the jokes, folks.  And I don’t fluff it off.  I never blow a gig, man.  Whether I sound good or bad or indifferent, man, I’m playing my heart out.  I’m playing the best that I can at that time.  And that’s it.  That’s the way I came up.  And I believe in music.  I believe in what I’m doing.  People are always wondering what I’m going to come up with next.  I have no idea what I’m going to come up with next.  But I know that when the time comes for me to come up with something different, or change, I will change.  I don’t like to get bored.

TP:    Well, you were the envy of hundreds of thousands of men as the drummer with Lena Horne for five or six years.  The listing is ’48 to ’54, approximately.  Is that right?

CH:    No, as a matter of fact, ’47 to ’55, I think it was.  I’ll tell you, playing for Lena was truly an experience.  I give her a tremendous amount of respect and a tremendous amount of credit in regards to her musicianship.  Most people don’t realize what a fantastic musician this woman is.  And through her, and with her, her late husband, Lennie Hayten, and Luther Henderson, I had an opportunity to really learn what music was all about, how to express what you feel and what you think.  Even to this day, man, we’re still friends.  I don’t see her that often.  But as one of the singers that I had a tremendous amount of respect for and that I kept time for, I would put her up at the top of the class.

TP:    Our next selection is by the original Chico Hamilton-Buddy Collette Sextet, recorded for Johnny Otis’ label, Tampa Records, or Dig Records, available through VSOP Replica Editions.

[MUSIC: Chico Hamilton/B. Collette, “It’s You” (1956); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon” (19  ); Gerry Mulligan, “Frenesi” (1953); Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1953); C. Hamilton/John Lewis, “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” (1958); C. Hamilton, “Where Or When” (19  )]

TP:    That was Chico Hamilton singing, from The Three Faces of Chico, the Chico Hamilton Quintet on Warner Brothers.  That’s the group that had Eric Dolphy, one of his four or five recordings with Chico, although of course not prominent on that particular track, Dennis Budimir on cello, Wyatt Ruether(?) and bass and Chico Hamilton on drums.

[ETCETERA]

Let’s begin with the Tony Bennett side and the vocal tracks we heard.

CH:    At one time I played for Tony, I kept time for him, and we became friends.  When I went out on my own, with my own group and everything, I happened to be on the East Coast, as a matter of fact, in Philadelphia, and I got a call from Tony.  He had this idea that he wanted to get all the drummers together.  He had me, Jo Jones, Art Blakey, and I forget who else was on there.  He wanted to record with all of us.  Tony has always been a rhythm man.  He’s always had a fantastic appreciation for drums, for drummers…

TP:    It had Candido, Papa Jo, Billy Exiner, Sabu…

CH:    Billy Exiner was playing with Tony Bennett at that time, and Candido, myself and Jo Jones, right?

Tony asked me which one of the tracks would I play on, and some kind of way, the idea of “Lazy Afternoon” came up, and I told him I really would dig playing to see what I could do with the sort of orchestral approach to the way he was singing “Lazy Afternoon.”  And it turned out gorgeous.  It really turned out dynamite.  We were more than pleased.  That’s how that came about.

TP:    That’s from The Beat Of My Heart on Columbia Records.  Now, Billie Holiday spent a lot of time in Los Angeles as well.

CH:    Yes, she did.

TP:    Were you a regular part of her group for a while, or was that just a session?

CH:    No, no, I was part of her group for a while.  I played for Lady in several different groups.  At one time, one group consisted of Hampton Hawes, Wardell Gray, myself and Curtis Counce!

TP:    Lady Day must have had a chance to rest her chops!

CH:    Man, you’re talkin’ about cookin’!  We were swinging.

TP:    Did you play bebop licks under her, or… How was she in that regard?

CH:    Lady kept good time, so all I had to do was swing.  I just played myself, you know.  As a matter of fact, all of us did.  That’s what we did.  She was a tremendous musician as well, and she dug musicians being themselves, players being themselves.  As a matter of fact, that’s how Prez named her Lady, because she was cool that way.  I met her, man, when I was about 14 years old!

TP:    What were the circumstances?

CH:    Well, I went to a jam session over… Lorenzo Flournoy, who was a piano player at that time, who I was playing with at the time.  I was just a kid, man.  I knew Prez, man, and Prez asked me, “Do you want to meet Lady?”  I didn’t believe it was her, man.  She was at the session, right, in the house.  That’s where everybody used to put on a big pot of red beans and rice and things like that, and we would blow all day long, right?  She was sitting on the saxophone case, she and Prez were sitting on this case.  And man, when I came up through the door and I looked at her, I said, “Hey…”  I told a friend of mine, [WHISPERING] “Hey, there she is!  That’s Lady.”  And when we went inside, Prez introduced us.  From then on, from time to time I would see her then.     Then later on, I started playing for her, working for her, doing dates and everything.  At one time, the group was Bobby Tucker and myself…

TP:    He was the pianist.

CH:    He was a pianist, a fantastic pianist.  Bobby was with Eckstine.  He was with B for thirty or forty years almost.  When he left Lady he joined Billy Eckstine.

TP:    And you worked with Billy Eckstine for a minute, too.

CH:    I worked with Billy Eckstine.  Also I played for… Oh, heh-heh, I played with Billy Eckstine, I played with Sammy Davis, I did some things with Danny Kaye, Ella… Oh, yeah, I forgot about Ella Fitzgerald.  And I kept time for Sarah once in a while…

TP:    All singers with different styles, different approaches of playing off the drums.

CH:    Exactly.  Here again, remembering something about Lena Horne:  I was right on the floor behind Lena, and the band was behind me.  It was very unusual, because here’s the singer, the drummer right behind her, and then the band, the orchestra would be right behind me.  It worked.  It worked beautifully.  I really developed a way of playing for her to the extent it wasn’t offensive; I didn’t get in her way.

TP:    Was Billie Holiday a strict rehearser, or was it just get in and hit?

CH:    No, Lady was cool, man.  She was cool.  Every singer I have ever kept time for was very sincere about what they did.  And I’m saying that in a complementary way.  Whether you understand that, or reading in between the lines or whatever… It wasn’t easy playing for singers, man.  It’s not easy. I have a tremendous amount of respect for any drummer that can keep time for a singer.

TP:    Why is that?

CH:    Well, you never know what a singer is going to do.  Because some singers react differently.  They react to what people… They react to the audience.  If they feel as though they’re not getting to the audience, then they’re going to push, or they think…or either they’re going to fluff off something or whatever.  And the first one they’re going to take it out on is going to be the drummer.  “What’s the matter?  Can’t you keep time?”  That sort of thing.

TP:    So we’re talking about temperament now.

CH:    Exactly.  That’s the reason drummers are cool, man.  You know, a drummer sits up… When you start to realize that a drummer has to keep time for people, musicians, people he don’t even like, you hear somebody playing, somebody getting their oobies, they’re not making any music, but they’re just sounding like the teacher’s out of the room, that kind of thing — and you have keep time for that and you have to make it sound like something.  You know?  Because there’s only one drummer.

TP:    Well, sometimes there’s two.

CH:    No, you’ve only got one drummer, man.  One drummer’s keeping time, man.  Also, I’d just like to acknowledge the fact that people in general see conga players, timbales players, bongo players, people playing drums with their hands, and they say, “Hey, this is dynamite; that’s fantastic.”  But there’s nothing, nothing in the world like a drummer sitting down playing on a set of drums, where his left foot is doing something different from his right foot, his left hand is doing something from his right hand, and the hands are doing something different from the foot, the foot is doing something different from the hands, and he’s playing on at least a half-a-dozen drums at the same time.  This is amazing, man.  This is really something.

TP:    You were part of the Gerry Mulligan pianoless groups on the West Coast in the early 1950’s, and that was a different side of your work as well.  Talk about your hookup with him and your contributions to the music as it was developed.

CH:    Well…heh-heh…

TP:    Uh-oh, I stuck my foot in it.

CH:    No.  Well, I believe that it just happened to be four people in the right place at the right time.  That story is… I can go on and say, “Well, I did this or Gerry did that, or Chet did this, Chet did that,” that kind of thing.  No, it just happened that we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and we got together… As a matter of fact, we got together at my house for the first rehearsal that we did.  Gerry was out in L.A., and I was out in L.A. at that time.  I was still under the employment of Lena Horne, but I stayed home; I didn’t want to go to Europe that year.  In the meantime, I was playing with Charlie Barnet’s band, and Gerry used to come out and hang out with me every night at the bar. [LAUGHS]  As a matter of fact, he said to me one night, “You know, if I was Charlie Barnet and you played for me like you play for Charlie, I’d fire you!”  Because I used to do some pretty funny things with that band.  Anyway, Charlie didn’t mind.  He was a prince, man.  He was a dynamite dude.

But Gerry and I got together, and we were talking about this and that, and next thing I know, hey, he contacts Chet and Bob Whitlock, and we get together, and we just… Like I said, man, it started happening.  And it happened, from the first time we sat down to play.  I would say everyone contributed, one way or the other; everyone contributed to making the quartet the way it was.  That’s how it came off.  That’s the reason it came off.  It wasn’t just a question of Gerry Mulligan being Gerry… Well, it was a question of Gerry being Gerry, Chet being Chet, me being me, and Bob Whitlock being Bob Whitlock.

That’s putting it simple, man.  Mild.

TP:    Would you like to get complex?  At any rate, the first track we heard featured the genesis of the Chico Hamilton group, the Buddy Collette-Chico Hamilton Sextet, from Tanganyika.  You go back as far with Buddy Collette as you do with Mingus, with Dexter Gordon, and so forth.

CH:    Right.  We go back when we were young dudes, kids more or less, young guys on the scene.  As a matter of fact, the first time I heard Buddy, Buddy had his own band, and he had Mingus playing.  Mingus really started off playing cello with Buddy’s band, and Buddy made him get the bass, because he realized that the cello was a little weak, that kind of thing, trying to play cello like a full-sized bass.  I went out to hear him one night, I went all the way out there to Watts, right — I’d heard about him.  I asked him could I sit in, and I did.  One thing led to another, and the next thing I know we were all playing in all the bands around L.A.  It was interesting.

TP:    How did that band develop a repertoire?  Because eventually, both of you were working toward a really broad tonal palette particularly.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    I mean, along with swing, but it went… Talk a bit about that.

CH:    What we did, virtually, in a sense, we copied every record that we heard by Count Basie and some of the Duke Ellington things and Jimmie Lunceford, but between them, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie are the bands that we imitated, even down to the solos, note-for-note.  We even played the same solos, that type of thing.  All the licks.  I tried to play all the drum licks that Jo Jones would play, that type of thing.  And eventually, it was very successful, because also, you must remember, we didn’t have… It wasn’t a matter of deciding whether you were going to play Rock-and-Roll, or whether you’re going to play the Blues, Rhythm-and-Blues, or whether you’re going to play Pop, or whether you’re going to play Country, or anything like that.  There was only one kind of music, man, and that was Swing.  So in a sense, it was relatively easy.  Because hey, there was only one way to play.

TP:    We forgot to play some of the sides you backed T-Bone Walker on for Imperial.

CH:    Hey!  He was amazing.

TP:    So we’re going from T-Bone Walker to Tony Bennett to Charlie Barnet’s band to the Gerry Mulligan band…

CH:    Right.

TP:    You really were covering the whole spectrum of Swing music in the Forties and Fifties.

CH:    Well, I’m fortunate.  I’ve been fortunate, man.  As a matter of fact, I’ve been blessed to be able to do that.  Because it was broad.  It was very broad.  That’s what the spectrum was in regards to what Jazz was all about.  Still, even now, what Jazz is all about.

TP:    And we’ll be hearing an aspect which Chico Hamilton is defining in his group, in many ways, the cutting edge, one branch that Jazz is in the process of becoming.

CH:    Well, I could go through a whole great big series of stories about, “Well, I decided to do this, I decided to do that.”  But I don’t know, man… Here, again, about the original quintet with Fred Katz on cello, Buddy Collette on reeds, Jim Hall on guitar and Carson Smith on bass, here again… It’s not a copout, but I feel that it just happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time for that to happen.

TP:    Things were in the air…

CH:    Things were in the air, and it happened.  Because no one knows why it happened.  But it happened, and it worked.

[ETCETERA]

This is the first record that Eric Dolphy ever made.  This is a Billy Strayhorn composition which is one of my favorites.  Most people… A majority, I would say, of Eric Dolphy’s fans and audience don’t realize, or didn’t realize what a tremendous flute player Eric Dolphy was.  And this is my presentation of Eric Dolphy, “Something To Live For”

TP:    From Strings Attached on Warner Brothers.

[MUSIC: C. Hamilton/E. Dolphy, “Something To Live For”; C. Hamilton, “Mandrake”; C. Hamilton, “Taunts of An Indian”; C. Hamilton, “Guitar Willie”]

TP:    A selection of four compositions and performances by various groups under the leadership of Chico Hamilton.  That last was “Guitar Willie,” featuring the late Eric Gale from Headhunters, on Solid State, and my guess is that it was recorded around 1970.  Do you recollect, Chico?  Of course, being a Solid State release from that time, there’s no date, but they have a zip-code.

CH:    Probably around ’68.  Eric used to do a lot of commercials with me when I was knee-deep on Madison Avenue, you know, doing commercials.  That’s music for commercials.  Here again that was sort of unusual, because just to have the bass walking and myself keeping that time, and the horns… Steve Potts was on there, and I think…

TP:    Russ Andrews on tenor.

CH:    Yes, Russ.

TP:    Ray Nance appears elsewhere on this release.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    And Jan Arnett on bass.

CH:    Jan Arnett.  It was a happening.

TP:    Before that a few selections by the current group, Chico Hamilton and Euphoria.  Before that, a very beautiful and affecting piece, “Taunts of An Indian Maiden,” a dedication to your mother.

CH:    I dedicated to it to my mother.  She was an Indian maiden, you know?

TP:    That’s from Arroyo, a 1990 release, with Eric Person, saxophone, Cary DeNegris on electric guitar, and Reggie Washington, one of the better electric bass players around, playing acoustic bass.

CH:    Well, he’s playing electric on that.  He just sounds… That’s how well he plays it.  He’s one of the few fender players that can get the sound of an upright bass.

TP:    Before that we heard “Mandrake,” the group’s arrangement of Eric Dolphy’s composition, one of seven compositions arranged by Chico Hamilton and Euphoria on My Panamanian Friend, the most recent release by the group.

CH:    It’s an interesting thing.  Jeff Caddick was the one who suggested that we do an album of Eric Dolphy’s music.  And the more we got into it, the more we started talking about it, the more I realized and he realized, as much as people talk about Eric Dolphy, nobody plays his music.

TP:    Well, Oliver Lake is one, and a few other people play his music, but not so much.

CH:    Not that many.  Hopefully this will shake them up again.

TP:    The way that you arrange and set up your songs… I think if one held to a stereotyped view of a Jazz musician, and heard you from all these sessions in the Forties and Fifties, to hear the sound of your bands would seem disjunctive.  But it’s obviously not.  You’ve always had a predilection, for one thing, for saxophone players who like to get into the extremities of the instrument, from Eric Dolphy to Charles Lloyd to Arthur Blythe to Steve Potts to your current saxophonist, Eric Person.

CH:    Well, look, to simplify it, that’s what I’m all about.  I’m into sounds, and anybody that sounds different or original (which is pretty difficult) I’m for.  I’m open, as far as all music… First of all, I understand fully that it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I also understand that I’ve been blessed to the extent that I’m able to make music at this stage of the game of my life or my career, as opposed to just playing it.  So that’s what it’s all about.  Music I believe is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  Right?  That’s the name of the game.

TP:    If it’s meant to be… Well, you’re making it happen.

CH:    Hey, that’s what it’s all about.

TP:    A few words about the people in your group.  A few words about how musicians find you and you find musicians.  Eric Person, first of all.

CH:    As a matter of fact, Eric was introduced to me by Arnie Lawrence.  Arnie had heard Eric when he was in St. Louis.  I think he was at Eric’s school.  When Eric came to New York, I think he contacted Arnie, and Arnie in turn contacted me, and that was it.  Right away we hit it off.  I helped him to grow, and he’s grown, needless to say, and developed into one fantastic kind of a player.

TP:    You may not be able to hold on to him.

CH:    Well, it’s not a question of holding on.  He’s supposed to go on to bigger and better things.  That’s what I’m all about, again.  Hey, you come this way, you pass through me.

TP:    He’s currently with Dave Holland’s group and the World Saxophone Quartet as well as Chico Hamilton’s Ensemble.

CH:    Well, this is good, because this gives him an opportunity to play all kinds of ways.  I haven’t heard him with the other groups, but I imagine he plays different with them than he does with me.  Because we play a different kind of music; a different kind of rhythm, let’s put it like that.

TP:    Cary De Negris, the guitarist.

CH:    Cary met me.  Cary called me when he came from Albany, New York, I think.  His potential I heard right away, the first time I heard him play.  He has developed, needless to say, into really some other kind of guitar player.  He is perhaps one of the most fluent players that’s on the scene today, period, regardless of what style or what kind of guitar playing there is to be played.  He’s doing it.

TP:    Finally, Matthew Garrison, the group’s newest member.

CH:    Well, Matthew’s father used to play with me, Jimmy Garrison.  At one time he did dates and things with me.  He was brought to my attention by Cary De Negris, who heard him and said, “Hey, Cheeks, you’ve got to hear this bass player.”  As a matter of fact, man, he’s so prolific, he sounds like a guitar player.  He’s got chops.

TP:    Well, his father had that type of fluency in his sound also.

CH:    Exactly.  So I’m more than pleased, man.  I’m having a ball.  Because hey, we’re making music.

[MUSIC: “Song For Helen” (1992)]

[-30-]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Profile (WKCR) – (1-14-96):

[RECITAL ON “In the Beginning”, Dance To A Different Drummer:  “You know how this all started with me playing, the drums.  I guess I was around 8 years old when my mother took me to see Duke Ellington and his Famous Orchestra at the Paramount Theater in Los Angeles, and for the first time in my life, not only did I see an orchestra, but I saw on this pyramid, the top of the pyramid, on top of the whole band was the one and only Sonny Greer.  I had never seen anything like this in all my life.  Matter of fact, he had so many drums, he had more drums than  a drum store.  But he was really something special.  And that impressed me, the way he played, the way he had control of the band, and the sound he got.  He was also perhaps one of the first percussionists in every sense of the word; not just a drummer, but a percussionist, a man who made sounds.  Everything he touched made a sound, and it blended and it worked with what Duke Ellington had written and played.  Like all kids, it was an impression that stayed with me, and I decided that’s what I wanted to be — another Sonny Greer.”

____________________________________________________________

TP:    Chico, do you remember what year you first heard Sonny Greer?

CH:    I don’t remember what year it was I heard the band, and I wouldn’t even tell you if I did remember!  I was around 8 or 9 years old when I first heard the band.

TP:    So it was probably when Ellington first came out to the West Coast, around ’30-’31.

CH:    It probably was.  You know, one thing about being on the West Coast, all the bands came there, not only Ellington, but Basie, Earl Hines, Benny Goodman, Dorsey — all the bands eventually came to the West Coast.  A miraculous thing is the fact that the Board of Education system out there, it was compulsory to take music in all the schools in the system, whether you took a music appreciation course or rented an instrument to play or something like that.  Whenever the well-known bands would come to the West Coast, they used to let us out of school to go down to the train station to greet the bands as they came in.  Fundamentally, all the guys from the Royal brothers, Ernie and Marshall Royal, Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette, myself, Jack Kelso, Charlie Mingus, all of us…

TP:    Grew up in the same area.

CH:    We grew up in the same area, with the same musical aspect in regards to… Like all kids, we had a band…

TP:    Where exactly in Los Angeles did you grow up?  Was it around Central Avenue, later the real music strip?

CH:    Yeah.  Los Angeles at that time was the East Side and the West Side, and I think Main Street divided L.A. into what was East and what was West.  I was born on the East Side of town and then grew up on the West Side of town.  Central Avenue was the street, our avenue; that was our 52nd Street.  It only consisted of two or three blocks, but within those two or three blocks, man, you had everything…

TP:    You’re talking about the 1930’s, now.

CH:    The late 1930’s and the ’40s.  They presented a big documentary about the jazz on Central Avenue not too long ago.  It’s part of the curriculum at UCLA or one of the schools.  Central Avenue… You had the Dunbar Hotel, and then inside the Dunbar Hotel was the Club Alabam, which was the equivalent to the East Coast Cotton Club — the same type of shows.

TP:    It would have been the equivalent to the Theresa Hotel in Harlem, or the Braddock or the Woodside.

CH:    Exactly.  From there, that was the number-one club or joint… That was super big-time, where all the big bands played.  Then right outside of Hollywood, in Culver City, there was a club, which I forget the name of.  They had at least half-a-dozen big, big rooms, big joints where all the bands played, which made it very lucrative for bands to come to the West Coast, from the Palladium to the Ambassador Hotel.  But Central Avenue was the avenue, man.  When I was a kid, I used to burn matches and make a moustache so that I could look old enough to go in these joints.  This is when Duke Ellington’s band with all these guys, Ben Webster, the people who invented this kind of music, who really did it, were on the scene…

TP:    When the bands would come out, the musicians would also circulate after-hours or in other situations, and you would have contact…

CH:    This is what I’m getting ready to say.  After the gigs, we all hung out at a place called Lovejoy’s which was a joint on Vernon and Central, right on the corner, upstairs.  Man, many a night I used to stay in there until 7 and 8 o’clock playing, jamming, and man, I’d have to rush home and go to school… I was in high school, and I’d do everything I could to get the cigarette smoke off of me.  But man, we had a ball; we would have a ball.  This is how I learned to play.  One thing about it, the pros helped us; they helped all the young players.  They would listen to you and you’d get a chance to play with them, and they would advise you, give you some tips on what to do and what not to do.  Unfortunately, I don’t know whether that still happens today.  It was really, really different.

When I got drafted and went to the War and came back, it was a different Central Avenue altogether — completely different.  Before I went, all the movie stars and everybody used to hang out on Central.  That was it.  It was just like hanging out on Broadway here in New York at one time.  But when I came back from the War, music had changed completely.  As opposed to the Swing thing, we were into the Bebop.  Miles, Diz, Bird, Erroll Garner — everybody was in Hollywood at that time.

TP:    You got back when?

CH:    Late ’45.

TP:    Right around when Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker got into Billy Berg’s.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Did you come from a musical family?

CH:    No.

TP:    Where did the inspiration to play music initially come from.

CH:    That’s a very good question, man.  I don’t know.  I’ve always…music has just… First of all, I’ve never done anything else but play music, or make music, or been into music.  My closest friend at the time, who is still my best friend, Jack Kelso, had a clarinet, and I figured since he had a clarinet that I’m gonna get me one; I want to play because my best friend is playing.  We were both about 7 or 8 years old, something like that at that time, and that’s how it worked out.  To play drums just was a sheer accident, because my older brother was fooling around with the drums in the school orchestra when we were both in grade school, and when he graduated, they didn’t have a drummer, so I just said, “Hey, since he’s my brother, I might as well play.”  And I went in, sat down and started playing.  I had no idea what I was doing.  And the next thing I know, I had the gig, because nobody else wanted to play.  Other than that…

TP:    Did anybody give you lessons outside of school?

CH:    Yes.  A friend of mine… I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Oscar Bradley.  Oscar Bradley was on the West Coast; he was the drummer with Les Hite’s orchestra.  I used to hear them play.  They used to rehearse ar a playground near where I lived.  Before I went into the Service, I took some lessons from Lee Young, Prez’ brother.  That was about the size of it.

When I went into the Service, there was a drummer by the name of Billy Exiner, who played with Claude Thornhill.  Billy taught me how to read music.  He’d climb over a mountain, man!  It was two camps then, and one was Black and one was White.

TP:    This was at Fort McCullough.

CH:    Fort McCullough, Alabama, man.

TP:    It’s known infamously in jazz history because of the treatment accorded Lester Young and Papa Jo Jones.

CH:    I was there, man, when that happened.  But Billy Exiner taught me how to read drum music.  Actually, I was more or less self-taught.  Then when I came out of the Service I enrolled in the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music on the G.I. Bill.  That’s when I really got serious about… Well, I was serious about playing, period.  I was blessed because I always was able to hear things.  I used to depend upon my ear as far as music was concerned, for arrangements, cues and things like that.  The fact is that as a teenager, man, I was playing shows, burlesque shows, where you’ve really got to catch all the cues, all the kicks and things like that.

TP:    Tell me more about the gigs you had when you were a teenager.  When did you first play for a sum of money, and how much was it?

CH:    A sum of money?  It was 75 cents; like, a half-dollar and a quarter.  My friend Jack Kelso and I used to play in a neighborhood band led by a man named Myers, who we called Old Man Myers.  He had a family band.  One of his sons played piano, another one played trumpet, another one played trombone.  It was very common during that time for families to have family orchestras.  Most families who were musical had a band…

TP:    Such as Lester Young’s family, Louis Jordan’s family, Oscar Pettiford’s family…

CH:    Exactly.  So it was a very common thing.  Jack was playing alto saxophone by that time, and I played drums, and we joined the band.  We would rehearse and rehearse, and we’d play.  As far as the gigs were concerned, we would drive for half-a-day, it seemed like, outside of L.A. to play a lot of different roadhouses.  We had a kitty, and people would give us money to play certain tunes.  Funny thing, the name wouldn’t be up there.  They wouldn’t say “Myers’ Orchestra”.  They would say “All-Colored Orchestra.”

TP:    Did that mean that they could expect to hear a certain type of music?  Were you expected to play in a certain way.

CH:    That was the feature.  They knew that at least we wouldn’t be Country music or some down-home stuff or whatever.

TP:    What type of things did you play in that orchestra?

CH:    We played just the regular standard music, the old standard tunes like “Stardust.”  No original material.  We just played time whatever was popular on the radio at that time.  It was relatively simple.  As far as I was concerned, I just had to keep time.  He wouldn’t let me use sticks; I always had to use brushes.  I’ll tell you, man, I ended up… Every important job that I got seemingly was due to the fact that I could brush, keep time, and be smooth and cool with it.  Because I spent about 15 years or more just being an accompanist, playing for singers.  But during that time I wanted to play with sticks and he wouldn’t let me.  Every time I’d pick up the sticks he said, “Put them sticks down!”

Jack and I used to come home… Sometimes we’d make a buck-and-a-half.  Riding for about four or five hours, then playing until 2 or 3 in the morning kind of thing.  This was on the weekends, Fridays and Saturday nights.

TP:    And you were 14-15-16 when this was happening.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    At the same time, you were at Jefferson High School, which had one of the most distinguished music programs among Black high schools in the country, and one of the great music teachers, Samuel Browne…

CH:    Well, first of all, Jefferson High School wasn’t a Black high school.  It was a school in the area, on the East Side.  As a matter of fact, man, it was one of the most beautiful schools in the whole state of California.  It was the duplicate of Monticello, Jefferson…

TP:    Built along the lines of Greek Classical Architecture.

CH:    Yes.  And there was no such thing as all-Black.  There were just as many White students as Black students.

TP:    So the community wasn’t as segregated as it later became.

CH:    The community wasn’t segregated at all.  Because it was a deep mixture.  I was born that way.  I grew up that way.  So it didn’t become…well, if you want to refer to what is a ghetto, what is not a ghetto… It didn’t become a reservation, man, until after the War, when the War started.  Because as people progressed financially, they moved to different areas.  In fact, the only ghetto area in L.A. at that time was one called Ball Heights, which consisted of a lot of Yiddish, you know…

TP:    The Jewish neighborhood in Los Angeles was the only real enclave based on ethnicity or race.

CH:    Exactly.  And when those people became successful, they moved to Beverly Hills.  They started up Beverly Hills.

TP:    I’d still like you to talk about Samuel    Browne.

CH:    Well, Sam Browne was a very good instructor, a very good teacher.  But I don’t think he dug me and I didn’t dig him.  I didn’t really take music in school.  As a matter of fact, he used to give me hell because I was gigging at night, getting to school sometimes on time, sometimes not on time.  I wasn’t in the school orchestra at that time, with Dexter and Jack and James Nelson and all those guys.  As a matter of fact, I was working with Lorenzo Flournoy working for Billy Berg, at his first place, called the Club Capri.

TP:    This was around ’38 or so?

CH:    ’38, ’39, something like that.  This is before Prez left Basie.  I was big-time, man.  I think we were making about $37 a week, which was a lot of dough.  I had my own car.  I was slick. I was cool.  But I was already playing… The only reason why I joined the school band was to get a sweater, which they gave you, and I could go to the games free.

TP:    That band played a rather challenging repertoire.  According to Art Farmer, who was there in 1945, they played Dizzy Gillespie charts at that early time!

CH:    Well, yeah.  See, that was after my time.

TP:    What was he doing in the late 1930’s?

CH:    They were playing Swing music.  Some Ellington things, Earl Hines kind of things, Horace and Fletcher Henderson, those kind of charts.  But here again, I never did anything with them.  But the band that came out of Jefferson was a band called Al Adams during that period.  We formed that band, which was myself, Dexter, James Nelson, Jack Kelso, Buddy Collette, Mingus, Lady Wilcor(?), my brother-in-law James Henry, who was a trombone player, Ernie Royal was in it.  We were all about 15-16-17 years old.  As a matter of fact, when Illinois Jacquet first came to L.A. he joined us, and he was about 16 at that time.  Man, this band, we raised so much hell… If a union band had a gig and it was paying $5 we’d take the gig for $4 We raised so much hell with the union, they made a deal with us, and we got into the union practically for nothin’!  They were so happy…

TP:    Get rid of the competition.

CH:    From then, we were all in union.  I think we paid something like $7 to join; it was ridiculous.  But then we started rehearsing at the union.  One fantastic thing that happened was that all the bands when they’d come in, like Jimmie Lunceford, would rehearse at the union, so we had a chance to hear them…

TP:    So you had a chance to get up close to Jimmy Crawford or Jo Jones…

CH:    Oh, man, I’m trying to tell you… And next thing we know, we were doing everything that they were doing, note-for-note, beat-for-beat.  We would imitate them.  We started playing all the school dances, and we would sound like Jimmie Lunceford, we’d sound like Basie… It was dynamite.  Because from that band, the experience I got playing with big bands, and all of us went on to different things and different areas…

I think I was around 16 years old when I got the call to Lionel Hampton’s first band, that “Flying Home” band.  Man, I lasted about two or three weeks, because I wasn’t ready.  I did get that experience, but I wasn’t quite ready.

TP:    What were you lacking, would you say?

CH:    Well, my reading was bad.  I depended upon my ear at that time, and my sight reading wasn’t… I could play, man. I could swing.  I could keep good time.  But reading the charts, following the charts down. I couldn’t do it too well.  I wasn’t quick enough.  They’d waste a lot of time going over different sections just so I could get it.  That’s the band where “Flying Home” became a famous thing.

But when I got fired out of that band, that turned my whole life around, my whole career.  I really got serious.  I’ll never forget the day that they gave me my notice… A friend of mine…well, he wasn’t a friend, but a big-time dude that knew me who was a player, said, “Listen, kid.  You’re hurt now, but don’t let it get to you.”  It turned my whole life around, man.  I really got serious about what I was doing.  From there I got drafted, and this is when I started doing my number as far as learning.

TP:    In our previous show, you mentioned that in the big bands of the 1930’s, something we can’t hear properly on records is how the drummers shaped the sound of the band, like Jimmy Crawford or Papa Jo Jones or Sonny Greer.

CH:    Exactly.

TP:    Now, when you were in the Al Adams band, emulating the sounds of those bands, were you emulating the styles of those different drummers.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    So you had reached that level of proficiency.

CH:    Yeah.  I could play, man, and I could always keep good time.  I had some funny kind of ideas as far as my solo ideas were concerned.  I wasn’t a straight up-and-down kind of a player.  I have never been interested in being fast, have chops like the Buddy Rich kind of thing.  There’s nothing wrong with that particular style of drummer, but I’ve never been interested in it.  I’m into sound.  I’m into making sounds or creating sounds or inventing sounds, then taking the sounds and creating a mood.  The supply and then the demand, that type of thing.  But at the time, I could play just like Jimmy Crawford if we were playing a Lunceford type of tune.  If we were playing a Basie type of tune, I was Jo Jones.  It was groovy.  It was cool.

It didn’t get confusing, man, until I came out of the Army.  The first dude I heard… Man, I was in Oakland, California, playing a show, in which one of the acts was the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis, Jr.  We were doing 7 and 8 shows a day, that type of thing.  Then we heard Billy Eckstine was going to play a dance that night, a Friday night in Oakland.  Needless to say we couldn’t wait to get off after of the last show…

TP:    This was with a band called Floyd Ray.  A young Art Farmer was in it, Hampton Hawes…

CH:    Yeah, Art, Hamp.  I’ll tell you something funny as hell that happened when we were up there.  I was taking a solo, my big moment, and Mingus came out with a hammer and started hammering on the bandstand while I was playing! [LAUGHS] I got so teed off at him, man…

Anyway, to make a long story short: We heard Eckstine’s band that night.  That’s when he had Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon, “Blowing The Blues Away”, and Art Blakey was on drums.  Man, I had never heard anybody play like this before in my whole entire life!  I was just flabbergasted!  Art Blakey turned me completely around.  I had never heard anybody play the Bebop style of drumming.

TP:    How would you describe that in relation to what Jo Jones and Sonny Greer were doing in terms of your perceptions at the time?

CH:    For instance, Swing, you keep a steady beat going on the sock cymbal, which is the side cymbal, or even the top cymbal — DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING.  You keep that going.  DING, DI-DI-DING, DI-DI-DING, and every once in a while you might do something with your left hand.  But in playing Bop the way Art Blakey played, he kept something going, DING, DI-DI-DING, but meantime, man, he’d dance between his left hand and his right foot.  DE-DUM, DE-DUM, DE-DUM, BOP!!  CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM, CHITTI-TI-TI-BUM.  Just dancing all the way through, keeping time, and the band was hitting… It worked!  I’d never had no idea of this style of playing.  I was just flabbergasted.

So the next morning, back at the theater, first show, I’m playing for Sammy Davis and his uncle and his father, and we’re playing, keeping time, then all of a sudden, I decided I was going to drop one of these bombs — BOP, BOOM!!  I did that, man, and Sammy’s father, his uncle, they stopped, turned around, and said, “What are you doing?!”

TP:    You didn’t do that any more, huh?

CH:    Oh, Ted, it was unbelievable.  After the show, he came up to me and said, “Listen, son, you’re our favorite drummer.  Don’t do that!” [LAUGHS] I’m just reminiscing.  It was funny as hell.  But I’m saying this is the first time I’d been turned around.

TP:    When you heard Art Blakey, had you been to hear Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Billy Berg’s club?

CH:    I had just come out of the Army.

TP:    And you went right out on that job?

CH:    I went right out.

TP:    Did you get to see that band during that particular engagement in December ’45 and January ’46.

CH:    No, I didn’t.  But I played with Bird.  After that, during ’45 and ’46, everybody was out on the West Coast.  And I used to jam with Bird all the time.  There was a place on Central Avenue, the Downbeat, Billy Berg’s…

TP:    There was a place called Jack’s Nest.

CH:    Jack’s Nest.

TP:    And the Finale Club in Japan-Town where Howard McGhee had a band.

CH:    Yeah.  Maggie was…all the guys.  It was just a happening.  Roy Porter and Chuck Thompson were the popular drummers around that time in L.A. when I got out.  Roy was a Bebop drummer moreso than Chuck Thompson was.  That’s when Wardell Gray and all those guys… It was a happening.

TP:    There’s a recording from 1946 of you backing Lester Young.  What was it like as you for a drummer to play behind Charlie Parker, purely on the rhythmic level?  That must have really developed your conception of the instrument.

CH:    Charlie was really nice to me.  Well, he was nice to everybody, man.  He was a brilliant man, a brilliant human being.  Not only did he encourage you to play, but he gave everybody a shot, the rhythm people at least, to keep some time for him, just to play, to make a gig.  All I know is hey, man, he was a helluva saxophone player.  It was entirely different from me playing with Prez or playing with guys who swung in regards to this new style of playing.

Howard McGhee helped me quite a bit with getting into Bebop playing and understanding what the concept was all about, and the phrasing.  That was most important thing, how you phrased, in playing this particular style of music, leaving space in the rhythm so you can fill up the holes.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know anybody right now who can explain that.  I can’t. [LAUGHS] It’s a style of playing that the concept came about by Diz, Bird, Monk, people like that.  Strangely and oddly enough, when they left the West Coast, that particular style went East.  It didn’t linger on the West Coast.  Shorty Rogers and all those guys, people like that, they come out of the Kenton area, and Stan Kenton’s band was a Swing band… I don’t know, it just left.  Years later when I came back and started my own thing, the quintet with the cello, flute and guitar, we were the furthest thing in the world from playing Bebop, that particular style.

[MUSIC: Prez-CH, “New Lester Leaps In” (1946); C. Hamilton Trio (Duvivier-Roberts) “Street of Drums”, “Nuttye” (1955); CH-5, “The Morning After” (1956); w/ Billie Holiday, “Too Marvelous For Words” (1956); CH-5, “Gone Lover” (1956)]

CH:    This was the first time in the history of recordings that a drum and a guitar and a bass had been recorded as solo instruments alone, as the featured instruments, as opposed to being in a rhythm section.  Up until that time, the rhythm section, which consisted of piano, guitar, bass, drums, was always just a section — it was never featured.  The fact that we did this… Dick Bock promised to record me because of the Gerry Mulligan Quartet things.  Part of the deal was that each one of us would have an album.  Doing this, it was really something, because nowhere before in this particular form of music, known aa Jazz, had you heard anything like this.  Guitar, bass and drums was very common in Country music and things like that, but not presented as Jazz, solo instruments.

TP:    What were some of the inspirations for the idea?  You mentioned playing in a lot of different situations as a professional drummer, including Chet Atkins, and you undoubtedly heard the Nat Cole Trio and others that used guitar and bass.

CH:    I played with Nat Cole also.  As a matter of fact, Nat played for my wedding.  I can’t BS your listeners and say I had an inspiration.  It just happened.  The fact is, I had an opportunity to make an album, and I just thought of something to be different.  Because the previous albums I’d done with the original Gerry Mulligan Quartet became unbelievably big as far as record buyers and record listeners were concerned, a different concept having a trumpet, baritone saxophone, bass and drums.  So I just more or less fell into the same pattern just by having… I was very fortunate, because George Duvivier and myself at that time were working with Lena Horne, and I knew Howard Roberts and liked the way he played, so when the opportunity arose we just did it, and it came off.  It came off beautifully, I thought.  When you stop to consider the fact that this is 1996, it still holds up today as contemporary as far as the sound and feeling are concerned.

TP:    We’ll step back and ask Chico for word portraits of some of the musicians he was associated with and friends with at different points of his career.  I’d like to ask you about Lester Young’s manner as a bandleader, and the kind of relations you had with him.

CH:    Let me tell you something about Prez.  Prez was one of the most sensitive human beings I have ever met or heard of.  He was a very sensitive man.  And he was total, total music, man.  Prez, Eric Dolphy, people like that… He was totally music.  Prez had a tremendous sense of humor for one thing.  Half the time I don’t know whether he was putting me on or putting everybody on or what.  But he was cool.  He was very cool.  Also he was very proper.

TP:    Well-mannered, you mean?

CH:    Well-mannered in regards to being respectful.  Prez was cool, man.

TP:    Did he have a nickname for you?

CH:    [LAUGHS] Yeah, he had one for me… Yeah, he was cool.  In fact, Prez introduced me to Roy Haynes, and Roy and I became friends after that.  But Prez would call everybody “Miss.”  Miss Hamilton, Miss so-and-so; everybody was “Miss” as far as Prez was concerned.  As a matter of fact, the original word “smothertucker” came from Prez, heh-heh.

TP:    He had a house as well in Los Angeles where a number of people would stay?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Any memories of that house?  I gather it was a congregating spot.

CH:    No, no… I recall when I first met Prez, it was one of those days I played hooky from school, and we were all meeting over at Lorenzo Fluornoy’s house, because he was having a session.  We used to put the pots on.  In other words, Lorenzo would cook a great big pot of beans or something like that, and all the musicians in L.A. used to come by his pad.  This particular day I came by there, and the screen door was open, and I looked in and I saw Prez, and I saw this lady that was sitting on Prez’ saxophone case who was Lady!  I told (?), “Hey, man, that’s Lady!”  Sure enough, when I got into the house, he said, “Miss Hamilton, Miss Day.”  That’s when I first met Lady.  She was something else, man; she was really something else, too.

TP:    You mentioned Mingus on the tour up and down the West Coast with Floyd Ray, coming out and banging on the bandstand during one of your solos.  You went way back with him.

CH:    Oh, man, we were almost kids together type of thing.

TP:    You grew up near each other.

CH:    Well, no.  I was in L.A.  He was in what they called Central Gardens, which was between L.A. and Watts.  But my wife and Charlie and Buddy Collette, all went to Sunday School, all went to the same church.

TP:    Do you remember which church?

CH:    No.  I didn’t make it! [LAUGHS] Oh, man, I guess we go back to 12 or 13 years, back when we were youngsters.  People say Charles used to do crazy things, but hey, he was always like that.  He was always a mischievous kid, that kind of thing.  We got along beautifully.  As a matter of fact, I had the pleasure of spending some time with him before he passed away…

TP:    You and Mingus and Buddy Collette all knew each other, then, from back when.

CH:    Right.  Buddy had a great influence upon Charlie.  As a matter of fact, Buddy was Charlie’s mentor.  Even up until the time he had got out of Dodge, man, he would always call Buddy.  Every time he had a problem or would run into something, Buddy was his mentor… As a matter of fact, Charlie was playing cello before he played bass, and Buddy talked him into playing bass as opposed to playing a cello.  These guys out in South Los Angeles, they had a band, and we used to jam, and all of a sudden when the main hit came… We all auditioned for one job at the Orpheum Theater, I think it was, to play this show.  Buddy had his band there, and we had our band (the Al Adams Band), and we got the job.  But we needed Buddy and we needed people like that. [LAUGHS] So that’s how we all became one band.  Man, they had a helluva show.  The comedian was Mantan Marlan, and I forget who the big star singer…Ninah Mae McKinney… These were superstars at the time, and we were the pit band.  That’s how we ended up being one very good band.

TP:    In thinking of the types of influences that made the music of the Chico Hamilton Trios and Quintets have a distinctive sound, a lot of the music sounds narrative, like there’s a very specific image in mind, and it would seem influenced in many ways by your exposure to show music and those type of arrangements, film music and things like this.

CH:    I’ll tell you.  The years that I spent as Lena Horne’s accompanist, I was influenced very heavily by Lennie Hayten, her husband.  Between Lennie Hayten and Luther Henderson, my concept as far presentation began to happen, to make things dramatic, make things un-dramatic, whatever…to start creating moods.  I guess the real me started to happen.  I’ve always been a different kind of player.  It was totally impossible for me to try to play like Max Roach, you know, or Art Blakey or Gene Krupa, Jo Jones…

TP:    That was part of the ethos of the time anyway, was for players to develop an individual sound.

CH:    You took a little bit from him, you took a little bit from him, and a little bit from him, and put it all together, and all of a sudden it became you.  That’s what it amounts to.

TP:    By the way, on the liner notes to one of these old LPs, which are an invaluable source of information, you mentioned briefly playing with Jimmy Blanton while the Ellington band was in Los Angeles in 1941, I guess.

CH:    I sure did.  As a matter of fact, I had gone to the movies with my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, and we had just come home from the movie, and it was about 5 in the afternoon, and when I walked up to the porch door, her mother came out and said, “Forrest, Mr. Ellington… They’ve been calling you all day!”  And I said, “Who…?” — that kind of thing.  Sitting in the car was Herb Jeffries, and he said, “Man, we’ve been waiting on you.  Duke wants you to play.”  Sonny became ill, and they were playing the Casa Mañana out in Culver City.  Here again, man, I was about 19 years old, something like that.  And man, I went out there… We came in through the backstage (because you came in through the back), and the band is playing, and the band was swinging, so man, I just knew they had a drummer up there.  My heart stopped.  I was sort of disappointed, because I really was looking forward to it.  It turned out the band was just hitting, playing its keister off!  I went up there and climbed up, way up on the pyramid type of thing…

TP:    Well, with Jimmy Blanton, sometimes you might not need a drummer…

CH:    Well, at that time, the band set-up was… Sonny Greer was on the top of the band.  The band like a pyramid; it came down in pyramids.  And way down by Duke, by the keyboard, was Jimmy Blanton.  So they were playing, oh, something like “Don’t Get Around Much” or one of those tunes, and man, I just sat down and started playing and started sweeping, and next thing I know, Jimmy Blanton turned around and looked up [LAUGHS], and he says, “Wow!”  Anyway, I stayed on there for a couple of weeks.

TP:    Did you get drafted shortly after that?

CH:    A little later, after I got married.  I was about 21 years old.  But one thing about young players at that time, we had all the records.  Every time a record would come out, man, I had the record, and we would listen to the band.  I knew everything everybody did in the band with the solos.  I could hum or whistle the solos just note-for-note almost.  So this made it really easy in a sense, because I depended upon my ear to play with those bands, to keep the time, because I knew the arrangements.  It wasn’t a question of me reading music, because number-one, man, neither Duke nor Basie, when I joined the bands…there wasn’t one stitch of drum music.  You either knew the charts, or that was it.  So this is how I got around that.

TP:    I think one thing about a lot of the drummers of that period, Art Blakey being a great example, is that he could take a piece of music, and then just know it and transform into his thing.

CH:    Well, you develop that.  That’s something you develop.  For instance, the average arranger, he’d write something for the brass section, the reed section or whatever, and write something for the keyboard and bass, would then say to the drummer, “Hey, you know what to do; you’ve got it.”  Because it was totally impossible for an arranger to write a drum chart, to make it swing.  If it’s a march type of thing, that’s something else.  That’s something different. But to write a Jazz chart and make it swing, you don’t need a drum part.  You give the drummer the first trumpet part.  Because that’s where he’ll make the hits.  He’ll play the same kind of figures that the trumpet players would play, more or less.

TP:    Dexter Gordon is another of your contemporaries from teenage years.  And you mentioned on first hearing the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, it was Jug and Dexter.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    I think in a previous interview you described Dexter as being a kind of pied piper as a youngster, who had his horn out all the time.

CH:    We used to call him Big Stoop. [LAUGHS] Dexter.  Dexter started off playing clarinet, and he constantly had his clarinet in his mouth, all over.  That was it.  He was just clarinet, clarinet, this type of thing.  Man, no one really made the progress that Dexter did.  By the time he left L.A., man, automatically he became a giant.  He became something else, and he gained the respect of all the pros, all the heavyweight players — Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Prez, people like that.  Prez was the master.  They all tried to simulate… As a matter of fact, we even tried to walk like Prez, talk like Prez, even the porkpie hat…

TP:    Hold the horn sideways.

CH:    What a lot of people don’t know is Prez held the horn that way because he had a problem.  Most people thought he was doing that for show, but he wasn’t.  He did that in order keep the pressure off his gums.

TP:    That’s why he didn’t put the mouthpiece all the way in his mouth.

CH:    Right.  And that’s one of the reasons for the sound he got, which was a beautiful sound.  That was the bottom line to it.  It wasn’t a question of him doing that just for show.  That was the only way he could play his horn.

We came up beautifully, let’s put it like that.  As young as we were, we were all total music, too.

TP:    It seems like those musical values were instilled in you right from the beginning of playing music.  If you were going to go out and play in the community, you had to have certain things right.

CH:    Exactly.  Even today, man, you never… Music, first of all, deserves to be played well at all times, regardless of whether it’s two people in the place, or if you’re playing in the men’s room or the lady’s room.  Music deserves to be played well.  I grew up with this understanding.  I believe that music is one of God’s will, and God’s will will be done.  That’s what keeps it going forever and forever and forever.

TP:    Back to Lester Young, let’s go back to Fort McCullough, Alabama, and your recollections of that experience.

CH:    Man, that was a bad time period.  It’s part of my past that I don’t want to… It was devastating.  It was very devastating for the simple reason that I’m in the Service, I’m not in the band, but I’m attached to the band.  I’m a drummer, and in my company they made me the company clerk and made me a bugler.  The Drum Corps master knew that I was a drummer, but he made me play bugles, just to show you what was going on.  And when Prez… Now, they attached me to the band, so I wasn’t in the band, but whenever a show came through there, I had to play the show, because they had three drummers in the band and none of them could play the show.    So when Prez and Jo came through there, man, they had guys in this band that couldn’t even hold their instruments.  I mean this.  And these people wouldn’t let Jo Jones and Lester Young in that band.  It was disgraceful.  It was unbelievable.  I still can’t get over it.  But it’s part of my past.  It’s just like a lot of other things that happened down there. [LAUGHS]  I don’t want to talk about that.

TP:    It sounds like the most positive thing that happened there was meeting Billy Exiner and learning how to read music.

CH:    That was the most positive thing that happened to me, along with meeting some guys who became my lifelong friends.  Jimmy Cheatham, for instance, was one of the guys who was in the band.  But other than that… Hey, that was then.  This is now.

TP:    Right.  And in our radio chronology, we’re around 1958 in Chico’s music.  The track we’ll hear features a pianist whose name is unknown to me…

CH:    Freddie Gambrell.

TP:    He, bassist Ben Tucker and Chico form the trio.

CH:    Listen, I met this kid in San Francisco.  He’s blind, and he could play his keister off, as you will hear.  This is very rare for the simple reason I haven’t recorded with piano players that much — period.  I played with Art Tatum and Nat Cole, and I did a lot of things with Nat, but it was different, a big thing where he was singing…

TP:    Studio productions.  But with Art Tatum you played as part of the trio?

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk a little bit about playing behind Art Tatum?  Was keeping all you had to do, or did you embellish?  What did Art Tatum want from a drummer?

CH:    Well, you’d just try to realize where he was going all the time.  It was dynamite, it was cool.  It was easy playing with Art, in a sense, because all you had to do was swing, keep good time, and that was it.  It was just an accompanying kind of thing; that was it.

TP:    You just worked with him in Los Angeles?

CH:    Just in L.A.  I think we played maybe the 333… Just joints all over L.A.  Clubs, that is.

[MUSIC: CH w/ F. Gambrell, Ben Tucker, “Lullaby Of The Leaves” (1957); Tony Bennett, “Lazy Afternoon”; CH-5 w/ B. Collette (ts), P. Horn (as), “Take The A-Train” (1958); CH-5, Dolphy-Katz, “Something To Live For” (1958)]

CH:    Beat Of My Heart with Tony Bennett was a dynamite record.  Tony and I talked about that during when I was playing for Tony, keeping time for him, the combination of keeping time and playing with my own group… Matter of fact, I was in Philly, at the Showboat when they decided to do it, and I had to come up to New York.  It came off beautifully.  Jo Jones is on there as well.  It was really something.  Now, Tony has always had a good sense of time.  His phrasing is really very unique.  Besides, I like him.  We’re friends.  We’ve been friends a long time.

TP:    The first track featured pianist Freddie Gambrell, who seems not to have been heard much from since.  That really orchestral piano style.  He’d obviously listened some to Ahmad Jamal at that time…

CH:    I don’t even know if he’d heard of Ahmad Jamal then, because I don’t think Ahmad Jamal was known on the West Coast during that period.  This was just a young kid, man.  He was blind, but he could play his keister off.  Fantastic pianist.  Matter of fact, every time I would be in Frisco, there was an after-hour joint where we used to hang out called Slim’s, and we’d go in there and jam all night long.  The night I came in and heard him, he was sounding so good, I wanted to play with him.  So we sat up and played, and I think we played until 9 or 10 o’clock the next day, he and I and I don’t recall who was playing bass at the time.  But here Dick Bock had given me an opportunity to record again, and I told him about this kid, and it all came about.

TP:    A couple of points you raised.  In talking about singers, you didn’t say “playing drums for”, but “keeping time for.”  Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Billy Eckstine for a minute, Billie Holiday, Nat Cole.  What’s the difference between playing for a singer within an instrumental situation?  Why is it different?

CH:    Well, number one, you never know what a singer is going to do.

TP:    Does that mean that a singer who is a skilled improviser will treat the music differently, or something less complimentary than that?

CH:    Well, all respects to singers, because I learned how to play by playing for singers.  It calls upon… You have to have a magic wand and you have to be able to look into the future playing for singers.  Because singers are subject to do things on the spur of the moment.  It all depends on what their mood is all about.  If they get an idea in the middle of a phrase, if they decide they don’t want to phrase that way, it will just change automatically, as opposed to a horn player who is more or less restricted because there is just so much he can do.  In other words, there are only so many keys on the instrument, and he’s only got ten fingers on the horn — or three if it’s a trumpet.  Singers, first of all, have the perfect instrument, which is the human voice, and they do with what and do what with.  And to keep time for them… A lot of singers don’t know how to keep time.  They just sing the way that they feel, as if they were singing in the bathroom or in the shower.  So in order to make it cohesive as a drummer, you have to keep the thing going so that the other players, if it’s a piano and bass accompanying the singer, make some sense out of it, so it gives them some idea of where they are at all times.  Because a lot of times, a lot of singers don’t sing in tune.  They have no idea that they’re not in tune, as well as singing the melody or whatever the composition is or whatever the song is.

Overall, in playing for singers, you learn how to anticipate in regards to what they’re going to do and when they’re going to do it.  I played for Lena Horne for eight years, and I only saw her once from the front, and that was when we were in Madison Square Garden.  All the rest of the time, the only thing I saw of her, man, was her keister.  I was right behind her.  I developed a system of watching her neck, and I could tell when she was going to reach for a note or something like that.  Playing for Lena was something else, because you never knew what Lena might decide…you never knew what tempo she was going to do something in.  She could sing, man.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a vocalist and for her musicianship… We’re all musicians.  You don’t have to be a player to be a musician.  In other words, I can’t tell you how to listen.  So everybody’s a musician as far as I’m concerned.

TP:    Tell me about your brief time with Billy Eckstine.  Or how brief was it?

CH:    With B?  I did several shows with B.  That had to be in the late ’40s and then the beginning of the ’50s.  Well, number one, B was a trombone player, a musician, and Mr. Class.  He was cool!  He was one of my favorite singers, him and Johnny Hartman.  B contributed a lot, man, to the contemporary style of not only singing, but phrasing and songs, good songs.  B sang good songs.  Everything he sang became a hit, was automatically a hit… Let’s put it this way.  Everything he recorded became big.

TP:    Well, he was a style-setter.  Like you related the way people would wear Lester Young’s porkpie hat, everyone would try to dress like Billy Eckstine.

CH:    That’s right.

TP:    He had a much greater impact than people realize on the generation of people who came up after World War Two.

CH:    Well, just like Sinatra influenced a lot of people, Eckstine influenced a lot of people.  He was very hip.

TP:    What was his manner like with the musicians?  He was always supposed to be totally at one with…

CH:    Oh, man, he was a sideman as far as he was concerned!  He was always one of the guys, one of the dudes.  B was cool.  I mean that in a complimentary sense.

TP:    I can’t remember if I asked you about playing with Lady Day or not.

CH:    Lady?  Playing with Lady was dynamite.

TP:    Now, she was unpredictable, but I’ll bet there was never any question about…

CH:    No, she wasn’t unpredictable as far as keeping time was concerned.  Lady swung.  Her and Ella were good swingers.  They swung.  Their phrasing was different.

TP:    Would she treat material differently from one performance to the next?

CH:    Not so much as Lena would.  Lena would treat material different.  Plus, a majority of Lena’s book, her library, her repertoire was very heavily arranged.  It was really a challenge, because it was very well arranged, and we always worked with 12-to-15 piece orchestras accompanying her, whereas with Lady it was Bobby Tucker and a bass player and myself sometimes, which was cool, which really kept a free, flowing kind of thing going.  With Ella it would be the same thing, small groups.

TP:    So the singer would be more like a horn really in a situation like that.

CH:    Well, they were.  Matter of fact, one of the hippest times I can recall playing with Lady, Wardell Gray was on tenor, Hampton Hawes was on piano, Curtis Counce was on bass, and I was on drums.  And man, we swung a hole in her head!  I’ll tell you, we had a ball.  It was a happening.

TP:    So by the mid-’50s, Chico, you were working behind a lot of singers, pretty steady work…

CH:    That’s the name of the game, man, steady work.  Go ahead.

TP:    I understand.  And you came up during the Depression, when you had to have a job.  That was the first order of business.  But I’d like to talk about the development of the Chico Hamilton group in its various configurations.  Of course you’d known Buddy Collette for a good twenty years by this time.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Fred Katz.

CH:    Fred worked with us with Lena Horne.  Lena was doing a production number called “Frankie and Johnny”, and wherever we went we had to have a string section.  We were here in New York, as a matter of fact, at the Copacabana, and it was during the “Frankie and Johnny” period, which was a huge production number, with singers and things like that.  Fred Katz was the cellist in that group.  We became friendly, playing together every night and that kind of thing.  At that time I had no idea that Fred was a pianist as well.  So to make a long story short, when I left Lena I went back to California — my mother was ill.  Just playing around town, I became very disappointed in some of my old cronies who I used to play with.  I didn’t feel as though they had progressed any.  They were still playing the same old kind of way and the same old kind of things.  I got bored.

I realized that the only way for me to play and keep it halfway interesting, I had to get my own thing started — and so I did.  Originally I was going to use the French horn.  There was a French horn player by the name of John Graas.  I had met Jim Hall, and I knew Carson from the Gerry Mulligan days.  Of course, I knew Buddy from growing up; I needed a triple-threat man to play alto, clarinet, tenor, flute.  So the first rehearsal we had, unfortunately, John Graas had a heart attack, so that was the end of that.  Out of left field I get a call from Fred Katz who said he was playing for a singer named Jana Mason, and would I help them out; they needed somebody to make a couple of things with them out at one of those Hollywood places.  So I said, “yeah,” and I went on out, and I played two nights with them.  One thing led on to another, Fred wanted to know what I was doing, and I told him about my group and about John passing.  He said, “What if I come up to the rehearsal and bring my cello.”  I said, “Yeah!”  So he came over, made the rehearsal… It happened to be five guys in the right place at the right time.  That’s the bottom line to it.

TP:    Is that a sound you had in your mind before forming that group?

CH:    No, at first I had French horn in mind (there’s no similarity, but there is a similarity), using the guitar, bass, drums and the horn.  So it developed, and then it went on and became history.

TP:    When Eric Dolphy joined the band in 1958, he came to you as a player who was well known to musicians in the Los Angeles area, a master, mature, 30-year-old musician, already proficient on flute, bass clarinet and alto sax.  When were you first in touch with Eric Dolphy, in the early part of the ’50s?

CH:    Eric followed Paul Horn.  When Paul left the band, I needed another horn player, and my brother, the actor Bernie Hamilton (he and Eric went to school together), recommended Eric.  I vaguely recalled Eric, but I had spent so much time out of L.A., back and forth, that I didn’t know… In the meantime I had called a very good friend of mine, the composer-arranger Gerald Wilson.  Eric was playing with Gerald at the time, and Gerald recommended him very highly.  So that was it.  Eric came on the band and read everything that we had, and sounded fantastic and played exceedingly well.  That was it.  I took him out and brought him east when we went out on tour.

It’s a funny thing.  Some people didn’t like him at first.

TP:    What was it about him that caused that reaction?

CH:    What caused that reaction was because they didn’t understand his style of playing.  Having heard the previous players in my band, people who had a straight-ahead kind of approach to melodies, Eric shook them up, which was dynamite as far as I was concerned.  I watched him grow.  I watched him grow.  I watched him develop into a tremendous player.  And next thing you know, he had a tremendous following going.  At that time I disbanded up that band in New York, and went back to California.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ Dolphy, “Gongs East (1958),” “Don’s Delight,” “Miss Movement” (1959), CH-5 (1992), “Mandrake”]

CH:    That set on touched on Chico Hamilton’s relationship through music with Eric Dolphy, three tracks, plus “Mandrake” from a recent dedication recording on Soul Note, My Panamanian Friend.  If I’m not mistaken, “Miss Movement” from 1959, was Dolphy’s first recorded composition, on which Chico Hamilton sings as well as swings throughout the recording.   On the liner notes to My Panamanian Friend, Jeff Caddick took down Chico’s recollections of Eric Dolphy, and as Chico mentioned before the music: “Every place we went all over the country, the first thing people would say was, ‘Get rid of him!’  Everybody wanted me to fire him.”  Of course you did not do that.  You told him that you needed the sound that Paul Horn and Buddy Collette provided before him, but on solos he was free to operate.  Has this always been the case with your groups that once the solo comes, it’s totally up to the individual…

CH:    You’re on your own.  You’re strictly on your own.  Any time you play music, well-arranged scores, compositions, etcetera, there has to be a certain amount of freedom of expression.  This is my way of letting players develop into what they want to be musically.  So I put no restrictions on anybody’s solo.  If you want to holler on your horn, it’s all right with me.  It’s cool.  Because at least you’re showing me hat you’re reaching for something.  This only way that you’re going to come into your very own as far as making music.  You have to be allowed, you have to be able to play what you hear, play what you feel.  There’s no problem playing notes that are written and arranged a certain way, a certain time meter, etcetera.  This is what Classical music is all about.  But to be able to have that freedom, that’s it.  This is one of the ways that Eric and all of us, in a sense, helped ourselves develop into what we are as players.

TP:    You mentioned again in the recollections in My Panamanian Friend that the second time this band went around the country, Eric Dolphy was accepted by most everyone who heard him, especially the musicians.  Everyone has a Sonny Stitt anecdote from the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, the ’70s, and so forth, and there’s another one here involving he and Eric Dolphy, with a slightly different resolution than most of the stories you hear.

CH:    Man, let me tell you.  We were in Philadelphia, and in all the clubs in Philadelphia you had to play a 5 o’clock on Monday and Saturday as well as playing at night.  We got in town a couple of days early, and Sonny Stitt was playing.  We were following Sonny Stitt in the club.  So we went to the matinee on a Saturday afternoon.  I think we’d just gotten in that morning.  I had Eric with me.  Eric always carried his horns with me.  We were sitting at the bar, the bandstand was over the bar, and all of a sudden Sonny looks down and sees me, and we speak, we acknowledge each other, and all of a sudden on the mike he says, “Hey, Cheeks, I hear you’ve got a little bad alto player.  Tell him to come up and play something.”  I said to Eric, “Yeah, man, go up and play.”  Sonny Stitt figured he was going to blow him off the bandstand.  So Eric came up, took his horn out, the alto, went up on the bandstand, they did the ensemble, the first chorus, and Sonny Stitt starts playing, plays his thing, does half-a-dozen choruses…

TP:    Played about eight keys…

CH:    Yeah, and things like that.  Then he looked at Eric and says, “You got it.”  Right?  Man, Eric started playing.  Sonny kept looking at me, looking at me, looking at me, looking at Eric: “Where did you get this guy?  Where did you get this guy?”  Eric was something else.  He blew Sonny Stitt off the stand, really.  And that’s saying something.

TP:    In the liner notes to The Three Faces of Chico Hamilton, on which “Miss Movement” appears, there’s a nice quote where you talk about creating an individual environment for each of the tracks with the standard drum kit.  You say, “It’s difficult for a drummer to play anything different than any other average drummer, although each drummer does have his own individual styling.  I use the standard equipment I have with me whenever the quintet takes the stand — two cymbals, sock cymbal, snare drum, tom-toms, bass drums.  I don’t use tympani because I’m not a timpanist; I don’t carry them around.  I work with sticks, mallets and brushes to obtain different sound textures.”  Now, on the 1992 version of “Mandrake” you put a whole different beat and feeling on it than the original with J.C.  Moses on drums.  It was done in a more free-floating time; you use more of a funk beat and so forth.  Talk about analyzing tunes and putting your own stamp on material.

CH:    Well, the fact that Eric Dolphy had done “Mandrake” originally… Well, this album was Jeff Caddick’s idea.  He put the bug in my ear, “Hey, why don’t you do something of Eric Dolphy’s?”  The more I thought about it, I began to realize that it would be dynamite, for the simple reason that people talk about Eric Dolphy, but I haven’t heard any contemporary musician play any of his music.  I’m talking about the contemporary musicians today, the people out here today who are supposed to be reputed Jazz players.  They play Bird, they play Diz, but I haven’t heard them play any Eric Dolphy.  Anyway, to make a long story short, this is why we said, “Yeah, let’s do an album of all Eric’s music.”  Number-one, his music isn’t that easy to play.  Most guys find it problematic structurally.  So in order to put a different twist on it, I just did a different kind of rhythm approach.  As opposed to giving it a straight 4, a Bebop 4, I just put a little Funk thing underneath there, a little Rock beat or whatever you want to call it.  It makes a difference.  As a matter of fact, it was so different that Bonandrini, who owns the record label, didn’t like it at all! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there anything else you’d like to say about Eric Dolphy before we move on with the music?

CH:    Eric Dolphy was perhaps one of the nicest guys, nicest person, really… He was a gentleman, and he was totally dedicated to playing, to music, to his instruments, etcetera, etc., and he was a very nice person — very nice.  He did a lot of things for people that they don’t even know he did for them.  He was very kind to everyone.  I don’t think he had a vicious bone in his body, man.  I’m very proud to have spent some time with him.

TP:    The next band, the next period of Chico Hamilton’s career featured four musicians who made their mark on music.  Charles Lloyd on reeds, who was able to give the triple-threat, and also went to USC, as did Dolphy; Gabor Szabo on guitar; Albert Stinson on bass, who had he not died as young as he did, would undoubtedly have made a big mark; and George Bohannon on trombone (a two-horn front line).  A few words about creating different repertoires, different vocabularies, different environments for new groups of musicians.  Are you tailoring the music to the personalities or are the personalities fitting your music?

CH:    Well, Ted, the bottom line to that is that old colloquial expression about “do with what and do what with.”  That says it all.  Do you understand that?  Or is that too far-fetched…or too unfetched?

TP:    That’s clear, I think.

CH:    That’s what I do.  I don’t know what anyone else does.  I learned that from the one and only Edward Kennedy, Mr. Duke Ellington, because he did it better than anyone in regards to tailoring everything he did around the player.

TP:    Now, Ellington chose very carefully and selectively the people who would play with him, 95 percent of the time, I’d think.

CH:    Yeah, but 95 percent of the time he composed or arranged something, he had a particular player or a particular sound in mind.  He had the player in mind.  He knew the sound, but he had the player, because he knew no other player would play it like the player would play it.

TP:    And that’s why he got them.

CH:    Well, you dig?  That’s the bottom line.  In my case I did the same thing.  I would change up on groups.  After so many… It’s not that you get bored, but you use a sound, you do a sound as long as you can, and go with it, and as long as it keeps that thing happening, then it’s dynamite. When the thing begins to not start happening, when it becomes not music, when you find yourself imitating yourself, when you find, “Hey, I’m so busy trying to be Chico Hamilton that I can’t even play,” you know what I mean, then you change up.  It becomes time to change.  No one did that any better than Miles.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Miles for doing things like that.  And Art constantly had new groups.  Once you find a young player and you help them develop, they’re supposed to move on.  And every time someone moves on, I don’t expect them to play like the previous group or the previous player.  Because here again, everyone’s got their own sound.  They need their own space.

[MUSIC: CH-5 w/ C. Lloyd and G. Szabo, “Witchcraft”, “People”; w/ Mariano and Richardson, “Manila”, “Conquistadores”, “Jim-Jennie”]

CH:    Man, I’m hearing some of this music for the second time.  I never play it.

TP:    You never play your old music?

CH:    No.  As a matter of fact, people when they come to my house, I play everything else but me, and they say, “Hey, why don’t you play something… We want to hear something of yours.”  But I don’t know.  Only rarely do I play any of my music.

TP:    Getting into talk show territory here, what kind of things do you listen to in relaxing and putting music in your consciousness?

CH:    I listen to all kinds of music.  I listen to Classical music, I listen to Rock-and-Roll, I listen to Country-and-Western, I listen to bad music, I listen to good music.  To me, it takes all kinds of music to make music.  I mean that sincerely.  The hip thing is to listen to something and don’t critique.  Just listen to what it is and what it’s all about, and try to put yourself in maybe the player’s shoes or in his place, and if you can understand what he’s doing, what he’s talking about, what he’s trying to say, that’s really dynamite.

TP:    It seems like in the mid-’60s, when you did this series of recordings for Blue Note, you were listening to Spanish music, the Flamenco sound among other things.  You really start using the properties of the guitar quite a bit.

CH:    First of all, at one I time I was the only guy that used guitar.  Everyone else was using the piano and keyboards and things like that.  From the very beginning, I was the guitar player’s best friend.  I’ve always used guitar.  It’s only within the last 15 or 20 years that other people have used guitars and their usage… I’m an originator, man!

TP:    I’m talking specifically about some the devices of Spanish music…

CH:    Oh, the Latin feeling, man.  It’s part of my life.

TP:    A lot of musicians in the Southwest worked in bands dealing with Mexican music, and I asked you off-mike if that had been part of your experience.

CH:    And what did he say?

TP:    He said, “Chicano music?  I have a little of that blood in me, that’s all.”  But I didn’t say it to them.  I’d like you to be saying it.

CH:    Hey, I don’t speak English; I play conga drum, man.

TP:    Well, last time you were talking of playing trap drums as opposed to hand drums, and the distinctiveness of the trap drum set as an instrument.

CH:    Well, there’s a big difference, man; a tremendous difference.  The fact that a drummer is playing a full set of drums, meaning that he has snare drum that he plays with his hands, he has a bass drum that he plays with his feet, and he has a sock cymbal, a hi-hat cymbal that he plays with foot, with his left foot if it’s right-handed, and you have cymbals that you’re playing on, that means you’ve got all four things going as opposed to a hand drummer, who has his hands.  I have a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for hand drummers, because man, their hands are their sticks, their implements, their brushes, their mallets.  Whereas a sit-down drummer, playing a regular set, you have to control each one of these separate instruments which completes the set, and to play, to keep some time and to keep a good rhythm pattern going along with a hand drummer, is… It’s more than a notion.  Because hand-drumming, when they play those hand drums, they get set on a beat.  TOCKY-TI-BOOM, TOCKY-TI-BOOM — that’s set.  Well, in order to get in between there and help it to swing, you’ve got to come up with something entirely different.  But that’s got to correlate, it’s got to groove, it’s got to hit that same pocket.  You’ve got to find out where the main pulse is, whether it’s on one or whether it’s on the upbeat or whether it’s on the downbeat.  If it’s on the downbeat, that means that anything that goes down is down, anything that comes up is up.  It’s not easy for the two to really hit it off and to make it happen, but when it does happen it’s dynamite, when a sit-down drummer and conga player and timbales player can really mash.  It’s cool.  And it was a helluva challenge in the beginning to get this sort of groove going.  It turned out so well that Bob Thiele, who was producing these records at the time… That’s the reason we did a whole series of them, which was cool.

TP:    In the ’60s, you had been in New York, then gone back to California when your mother was ill, then you went from being in the studios backing singers on the West Coast to doing a lot of commercials and being part of the New York studio scene, which was a very different deal.  Talk about your parallel activities during the 1960’s, when those records for Blue Note were being issued.

CH:    Well, I was on the road.  I was virtually on the road at the time.  Because in the Impulse days I had the quartet with Charles Lloyd, Gabor Szabo and Albert Stinson.  That’s mainly the Impulse period.

TP:    Say a few words about each of those musicians and how you recruited them.

CH:    The day that Charles graduated from USC is the day that he joined my band.  I took him on the road.  I took him out of L.A.  He couldn’t wait to get out of L.A.  He wanted to go on the road for the first time in his life.  And Gabor?  We were in Newport when Gabor first heard the group, and he was determined to play with me, play in my group.  As it came about, when I disbanded the cello group and put the word out I was going to form a new group, in some kind of way Gabor found out about it, and next thing I know I get a phone call from him.  Charles helped me to recruit Albert Stinson.  He knew Stinson from playing in Pasadena.  When Stinson first came in the band, he was only 16 years old.  He was a young genius as far as bassists are concerned.  Here again, man, I’m very fortunate.  There happened to be four guys in the right place at the right time.

TP:    A couple of other musicians of note appear in their early years on those recordings, like saxophonist Sadao Watanabe and Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    Sadao’s a big superstar now.  He’s very big over in Japan, and I guess throughout Europe.

TP:    Was he part of your working group?

CH:    Yeah.

TP:    And ditto with Arnie Lawrence.

CH:    You know, there used to be a bar here in New York, one of the hippest bars in the whole entire world.  It was on 48th Street right off of 6th Avenue between 6th and 7th, and it was called Jim and Andy’s.  If you wanted to see or find out where everybody was, you went to Jim and Andy’s, and that’s where we hung out.  As a matter of fact, A&R Studios was right above the bar.  Well, I met Arnie Lawrence at the bar at Jim and Andy’s.  I think Clark Terry introduced us. At that time he and Clark were playing in the Tonight Show band.  One word led on to another, one drink led on to another, and we started hanging out every day.  After my sessions I would hang out there.  It just happened.  I told him, hey, I’m going to start putting something together, and he said he would be interested, and we just started rehearsing and getting it together.  I knew Larry Coryell from the West Coast, and introduced Larry and Arnie both on The Dealer, and the record was a winner.

TP:    Now, in the ’60s your personal style begins to expand vocabulary-wise, and incorporate rhythms from Rock and Funk and Soul Music and Latin Music.

CH:    Yes.

TP:    Talk about the process of assimilating these different sounds in your vocabulary.

CH:    You know, if they keep moving they can’t hit you.

TP:    Is that like “sting like a butterfly, float like a bee”?

CH:    [LAUGHS] I don’t know, man… I could give you a big story, BS you about something, but in all honesty I don’t know why.

TP:    Does it have something to do with playing commercials and studio type things where you had to play a lot of different rhythms?

CH:    No.  I was very fortunate as far as my commercial career was concerned here in New York as a producer and a player, because I composed everything.  In order to be different from my competitors, the only thing different that could be would be the rhythms, not the melodic structure of a commercial.  So the fact that I would come up with different ideas, with different rhythm patterns and use them… Hey, once I played a pattern it was mine, and I just went on to use it to enhance upon it.

TP:    What are two or three patterns that were signature Chico Hamilton patterns in the ’60s?

CH:    Well, we have a thing here on a track we’re going to play called “Guitar Willie,” which I’d say would be a typical Chico Hamilton rhythm pattern type of thing.  It’s difficult for me to say how I play.

TP:    This one features Steve Potts, who was introduced with you, Russ Andrews, Eric Gale.  Ray Nance plays violin on this date, who I guess you must have first met when you hit with Ellington that time.  This one is called The Head Hunters… [ETC.]

[MUSIC: CH w/ Potts & Gale “Guitar Willie,” “Theme For A Woman”; CH live, w/ Mark Cohen, Abercrombie, “Without A Song” (1971); w/ A. Lawrence, Alex Foster, M. Richmond, B. Finnerty “In View” (1973); w/ A. Blythe, “Sweet Dreams” (1972)]

TP:    A long set of music    by Chico Hamilton from the late ’60s and early ’70s, incorporating electronic and contemporary sounds into his drum style, never losing a beat and creating fresh and original sounds and rhythmic figures.

The final set will focus on recent configurations with young musicians getting seasoning with Chico — Eric Person on reeds, Cary De Nigris, guitar, sometimes Kenny Davis on bass and sometimes no bassist.  Let’s talk about the formation of this recent group, which has produced as strong and cohesive and individual a body of music as any group you’ve had.

CH:    First of all, Cary and Eric, I raised them more or less.  They joined me when they were very young, young guys.  I think both were very new to New York at the time.  We’ve been together eight or nine years maybe… So over a period of time we’ve grown to know each other, know each other’s strong points and weak points in regard to music.  They’ve come into their not only as fantastic players, but very good composers and very good professional musicians.

TP:    Considering the quality of the saxophones you’ve employed since the early ’50s with Buddy College, what are you looking for from your reed and woodwind players?

CH:    First of all, if I feel as if they have something to say and I can help them study, it’s dynamite.  Do you understand that?

TP:    If they have a voice and you can help bring that voice out.

CH:    Exactly.  Because in the beginning they’re not fully  developed.  They don’t even know themselves what they want to do, or they have an idea but they don’t know how to go about getting there.  And fortunately, I am able to help them find a direction.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the ability to get around the instrument is a given once a player is with you, i.e., sound, facility, technique, knowledge of theory and so forth.  But is that the quality you’re looking for?  Is that inner voice looking to break out of the shell, so to speak, or to mature and grow?  Is that the main thing for you?

CH:    Well, one of the important things is that they have a desire to want to grow.  They have a story that they want to tell.

TP:    How do you determine that when you first meet someone?

CH:    Well, it’s not easy, but you can tell.  I’m not impressed with somebody who can play his keister off right away, that kind of thing, who can play the instrument extremely well.  It’s how much music comes out of it, which is a big difference as far as I’m concerned.  I’d rather hear a young player try to do something, and if he doesn’t make it, it’s cool — but at least he tries.   Which means he’s going to really stretch and develop into his own person, his own sound.  That’s the only way music can be different, as long as someone plays himself.  Because you never know… Being a young player, just like being a young person, from a teenager to young adulthood, you mature.  And when you have an opportunity to play the way that we play, the way I structure my sound, my music, my arrangements and things like that, I give full opportunity for a player to be himself and play himself.  That’s why over a period of years all these guys eventually become fantastic soloists as well as good players.  They come out of my band and start their own bands, become good bandleaders with an individual sound.  I guess that’s about as close as I can come to it.  That’s close enough for Jazz anyway, right?

The first track on the next set is a soundtrack from a German movie.  The director was Rudolf Tomei(?), and it was my first association with him.  Since then we’ve done several films.  The most fantastic thing about this score and working with this director, he never forgot why he hired me.  Most directors, somewhere down the line, when you record, they become the composer.  But this man let me do what I thought and the way I felt about his film, which was dynamite.  As a matter of fact, the film opens up with a guy on a bicycle going to the park with his baby daughter.  It’s almost self-explanatory when you hear it.

[MUSIC: CH Movie soundtrack, CH, “Sorta New,” “Jeffrey Andrew Caddick,” “Song For Helen,” “Every Time I Smile”]

TP:    Are you always writing new music?  Does this happen whether you’re working or laying off?

CH:    Always.  It goes in spurts, though.  If everything is right and I’m thinking good, and I come up with some ideas, I’ll just concentrate on writing.  Then when it’s time to play, I’ll just play.

TP:    Do you practice a lot?  Are you past practicing at this point?

CH:    No, I practice, man.  I’d better.  There’s too many young players out there, man!  No, I try to practice every day.  As a matter of fact, I get the guilts when I’m at the keyboard, because when I’m at the keyboard something says, “Hey, man, you should be playing your drums.”  And vice-versa, that type of thing.

TP:    What’s your practice regimen?

CH:    There’s a difference between practicing and rehearsing.  I rehearse with the group, but when I practice, I practice within myself and the instrument.  I try to keep my chops, my hands and my facilities very loose so that I can play, and to have the strength to play… I’m a high energy kind of a player, and if you’re not in shape, playing with these young guys who can play… Eric Person is unbelievable, Cary De Nigris is unbelievable, and we’ve got a new little bass player by the name of Kip Reed who’s for real, man.  So I get as much from them as they probably get from me.  As a matter of fact, I probably come out winners as far as the energy aspect of it and the musical thing.  But in practicing, I practice my instrument because I’m still trying to learn how to play it.

TP:    You mentioned Sonny Greer, Jo Jones and Art Blakey as the three major influences in forming your style.  I’m interested in other drummers apart from them who you’ve admired, perhaps been influenced by, perhaps not, and the reasons why.

CH:    Well, who I consider my peers, Max Roach, Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones, people like this, I marvel at what they do, the things they have to say drumnistically and the way that they play.  It’s fantastic.  For one thing, no two drummers can play alike, no two drummers can sound alike.  It’s the physical aspect; I might have long arms and they might have short arms, and vice-versa.  This is how you approach the instrument.  They each have something different that they’re saying.  Elvin is completely different from Max Roach, his playing, his style, his whole ambiance, his thunder.  It’s dynamite.  It really drives you.  Max is a classic within himself, within the realm of his ability to do the things he does on the instrument.  And Roy Haynes, here again, he’s completely different from Max.  And I’m completely different from all three of them.  Plus the fact, I like anybody, man.  Any young drummer, anybody who strives to play, because I know what it takes to play the instrument.

TP:    Any of the young drummer who’ve particularly impressed you, or don’t you want to name names.

CH:    Yeah, if I can remember them.  Pheeroan akLaff, I’m very impressed with his playing.  There are a lot of them.   It’s just a question of not remembering their names.  I don’t make the scene too much any more.

TP:    A few words about the drums and dance.  There seems to be sort of an ongoing dance between the drummer and his kit.

CH:    That’s what it’s all about.  The tap-dance.  That’s what drumming is all about, really.

TP:    Did you ever play with any tap dancers?

CH:    Did I ever play with any tap dancers!  Quite a few, as a matter of fact.  There was a tremendous dance team by the name of the Berry Brothers, there was a tremendous team named the Nicholas Brothers.  I kept time for them.  I think I played with Baby Lawrence at one time or another.  When you were in the big bands, that’s what you did.   You played for all those dancers.  Most bands when they were on the road, they were with a show.  There was a complete show.  They would have dancers and singers and things like that.  So you had to learn to play for dancers, which is an art within itself.  But laying down taps on one of my records… The last album I did, Dancing To A Different Drummer, I simulate a tap dancer dancing.  I do a brush solo, which is the same kind of thing, same kind of groove.

[ETC.]

TP:    Chico Hamilton is a drummer who has gone through almost the full history of the music, and he’s experienced just about everything that a working drummer could, from Swing music to backing singers to tap dancers to studio dates and reading, and continued to pick up on contemporary rhythms and formulating a very distinctive and individual style to them.

CH:    I appreciate it immensely.  The chance to come into a studio like this and get to hear your music played for five hours consecutively is a privilege, in fact.  It don’t happen every day!

[MUSIC: solos, “Tap Drums,” “The Snare Drum”]

* * *

Chico Hamilton Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.  Charles Mingus, “Mysterious Blues” (from The Complete Candid Recordings of Charles Mingus, Mosaic, 1960/19__). Charles Mingus (bass, composer); Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Roy Eldridge, trumpet; Jimmy Knepper, trombone; Tommy Flanagan, piano; Jo Jones, drums)

I don’t know whether that was Roy or not. It wasn’t Sweets. It might have been Roy Eldridge. That’s either a bad recording of Bird or Sonny Stitt. I don’t know. Neither one of them? I don’t know who it is. The drummer could be Denzil Best. It’s hard for me to detect whoever’s sweeping, you know. As a matter of fact, I’ve never heard this before – for one thing. [There are a few people here whom you know very well.] Was the drummer Jo Jones? Okay, that’s Jo sweeping. Is that George Duvivier? [How do you like the whole thing?] For then, it was good. It’s still good now, but it’s a little… It’s nothing I would retain. It’s just some guys blowing, as far I’m concerned. Dig? Today I’m not really into solos. I don’t care what you play in your solo. I’m more interested in the ensemble sound and things like that. So just listening to somebody blow… Hey, I’ve heard them all and I’ve played with half of them, which is cool. But I don’t know who this is. Who in the hell is that? [Charles Mingus is playing bass.] It was Mingus playing bass? See, now, Mingus and I grew up together. But I’ve never really heard him play like this. I’ve heard enough of this. I’d give it 5 stars. First of all, excuse my French, but they weren’t fucking around, man. They were playing! They were playing their hearts out. As far as the performance is concerned, that’s cool. The alto player moved like Sonny Stitt, but I don’t think Sonny was on the scene during that period. [When do you think it was recorded?] Man, it had to be recorded in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. [It was Eric Dolphy.] That was Eric? I thought it was Eric, but I wasn’t sure. Honest to God.

2. Paul Motian Trio, “Dance” (from I Have The Room Above Her, ECM, 2005) (Motian, drums, composer; Bill Frisell, electric guitar; Joe Lovano, tenor saxophone)

I’ve never heard this before. Is this Ornette Coleman? Not having heard this before and not knowing who it is – and you want to know what I think of it? It’s a form of an expression… As far as I’m concerned, it takes all kinds of music to make music. If this is where your head is and your heart is and your listening vibes are, then it sounds right. If it’s not, it’s just some guys – as far as I’m concerned – doing whatever they do. Not to say that they’re doing it well. It’s every player for himself. Now, if there’s some form to it, they know the form. They got the secret. But I haven’t been able to pick up the form. [Any thoughts on the performers?] Well, there again, I’m from the school of having a pulse. I don’t get no pulse of whoever this is who’s playing, regardless of his chops. I’ve had it. It just sounds like they’re exercising. It’s difficult for me to give it stars. One of my favorite phrases is “how’s your feelings?’ That’s what it’s all about, as far as I’m concerned. If that’s the way they felt, dynamite. That’s cool. Far be it from me to say, “Man, they sound like shit.” But in my opinion, I couldn’t listen to this no more than once. I don’t even know what kind of groove they were trying to say. Who were they? The Paul Motian Trio? Lovano ain’t no Mulligan and what’s-his-name ain’t no Bill Evans, so he’s out there by himself as far as I’m concerned.

3. Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums, #1″ (from Baby Dodds: Talking and Drum Solos, Folkways/Atavistic, 1946/2005) (Baby Dodds, drums)

Well, it has to be some drummer from either the ‘50s or ‘60s, because he’s just playing the straight 4/4 on his bass drum. He’s not playing any syncopation licks. Everything’s on the downbeat. A lot of guys played like that during that period. Who that is, it’s difficult to say. Basically, it’s a Gene Krupa style of playing as far as I’m concerned, from what I heard. But it’s not him. You got me. I don’t know who that is. It’s good, though. It’s a little too straight-up and down for me, but the chops were cool. But like I said, I didn’t feel any syncopation. I didn’t hear any hot licks. Everything was straight up and down. It started off as a march and it stayed a march, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll give him 5 stars. He was doing he was doing. Baby Dodds! Well, I knew it was one of those guys who went way back there. That’s cool. As a matter of fact, on my solo drum album I had 10 tracks, and every last one of them was different – rhythmically different.

4.  Jason Marsalis, “Seven Ay Pocky Way” (from Music In Motion, Basin Street, 1999) (Marsalis, drums; John Ellis, tenor saxophone; Derek Douget, alto saxophone; Jonathan Lefcoski, piano; Peter Harris, bass)

It’s played very well. Having the rhythm, having drummer playing on top like that is dynamite; he’s got his shit going. But I have no idea who it is. I’ve never heard this before. But it’s good. [Do you like to incorporate these kinds of beats in your playing?] Here again, I’ve got the feeling of that New Orleans style of drumming; in other words, you’re dancing, but you’re not swinging. Strutting. But whatever they’re doing, they’re doing the hell out of it. I’ll give it 5 stars, too, man.

5.  Charles Lloyd, “Heaven” (from The Water Is Wide, ECM, 2000) (Lloyd, tenor saxophone; Brad Mehldau, piano; Larry Grenadier, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

That’s Charles Lloyd. I finally got one. How do I know it’s Charles Lloyd? I raised Charles Lloyd. I gave him his first job, man, when he came out of school in L.A. He was at USC. When he graduated, I took him on the road. He was playing alto then. He eventually got to tenor. I don’t know the song. Oh, it’s by Ellington? Did Duke write it or Swee’pea wrote it? Duke wrote it? Okay. The performance? It’s par for the course. How do I mean that? His treatment for this particular composition is dynamite! He couldn’t do it any better. So that’s it. Is the drummer Billy Higgins? I thought quite a bit of his playing. Billy was a good player. He’s doing probably the same thing here that I would do – or I would do the same thing he was doing. There’s only one way to play for this kind of thing, to play on this kind of rhythm. 5 stars. It’s cool.

6.   Chick Webb, “Liza” (from Chick Webb/Ella Fitzgerald: Savoy Ambassadors, 1936-1939, JBM, 1937/1991) (Webb, drums; Bobby Stark, trumpet; Sandy Williams, trombone)

Is this Gene Krupa? No? It’s not Buddy Rich. Either Dave Tough or somebody like that? [It’s not a white drummer.] Cozy Cole. No? Shit, well, I don’t know who it is. The tune is “Liza.” Oh, it’s Chick Webb. Why do I know it’s Chick? Because of the kind of chops he had. Buddy Rich and Gene and all those guys all sort of duplicated Chick. You can’t compare him to Baby Dodds. Baby Dodds was a different kind of player. Chick swung. Baby Dodds didn’t really swing. He was a good timekeeper. But Chick’s pushing this whole band. I’ll give it 5 stars, man. I’ll give it 8 stars! Man played his ass off.

7.   Matthew Garrison, “Unity” (from Shapeshifter, GJP, 2004) (Garrison, electric bass, keyboards, programming; Arto Tuncboyacian, percussion; Jojo Mayer, drums; Jim Beard, keyboards; Sabina Sciubba, vocals; Gregoire Maret, harmonica)

I don’t know what to say about this. Everybody’s got a different groove and different moods going, as far as sounds are concerned, and everybody’s got a concept. I don’t know exactly what they have in mind. But the ensemble playing is, in a sense… There’s a lot of shit going on. I can’t really hear one particular thing. Even with the drum solo, the rhythm solo, it’s either timbales and bongos or cowbell and… It’s cool. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had it, man. I didn’t think much of it, man. Not to say that it isn’t good, because evidently somebody must have liked it. That’s Matt Garrison? The kid? He did a couple of dates with me, man. I didn’t know that was Matt. I’m not in that bag right now. I’m not in that kind of a groove. As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know how to evaluate it.

8. Hamid Drake, “Bindu #1 for Ed Blackwell, from Bindu to Ojas” (from Bindu, Rogueart, 2005) (Drake, drums, frame drums; Daniel Carter, Greg Ward, clarinet; Sabir Mateen, bass clarinet, Ernest Dawkins, tenor saxophone)

See, with something like this, it’s hard to maybe distinguish what the drums sound like, because they all sound the same. It’s one drummer doing all that? Overdubs? Is that a soprano saxophone or a clarinet? Here again, man, you lost me. I don’t know who that is. The rhythm is a typical rhythm. I’m not excited about it. It’s not going to make me say, “Man, what’s this dude doing.” Matter of fact, it’s really just straight up and down. You hear these horns? You know what this sounds like to me? It sounds like in the music room, and the teacher walks out of the room, and all the players begin to play.

9. Gerald Wilson, “Jeri” (from In My Time, Mack Avenue, 2005) (Gerald Wilson, composer; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that a West Coast band? It sounds like a West Coast style of arranging and orchestration. Oh, it’s a New York band playing? [Why does it sound like a West Coast band?] First of all, it’s not a Gerald Wilson West Coast sound. No, I don’t think so. But it’s got that West Coast feeling. I don’t think it’s Gerald’s writing. To me, they don’t swing as hard as East Coast ensemble playing. Oh, that’s Gerald? It really didn’t sound like Gerald’s writing to me. Oh, that’s Jon Faddis there. I don’t know who the drummer is. Maybe what I don’t really think is cool is the way the drums were recorded – miked. It’s getting too much of a rickitick type of sound. It didn’t pick up his cymbal playing with the swing of the rhythm section. It would be difficult for me to say… Well, I didn’t think it was Gerald, but once you mentioned it, I heard some things. But the rhythm section didn’t sound like an East Coast rhythm section. I like Lewis Nash’s playing very much. He’s one of the young players that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. I’ll give it 5 stars for the ensemble and all.

10.  Tony Williams, “Crystal Palace” (from Native Heart, Blue Note, 1990) (Williams, drums, composer; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, tenor sax; Mulgrew Miller; Ira Coleman, bass)

When was this recorded? 1990? The drummer is playing his ass off. Rhythm-wise, the pianist is kind of like Herbie Hancock and Wynton Kelly. Is that Philly Joe Jones? It’s the way he’s dancing. Roy Haynes? I’m getting warm. It isn’t Elvin. Elvin is a little more thunderous. This dude is swinging as well as… He’s got nice licks, nice chops. [Does he sound like an original player?] It’s difficult for me to say who is original in this particular style. Because you’ve got half-a-dozen players who play this style. That isn’t Lewis Nash, is it? I don’t know who it is. Tony Williams!? I never even thought about Tony. But like I said, he’s playing his ass off, plus the fact that he’s swinging. My goodness. I dug the shit out of Tony. Matter of fact, he dug me, too. A strange thing. When Tony passed away, I was out of town, and when I came back, picking up my messages, Tony had left a message on my service. 5 stars. In fact, I’ll give Tony 12 stars. Beautiful player.

11.  Don Byron-Jason Moran-Jack DeJohnette, “I’ve Found A New Baby” (from Ivey-Divey, Blue Note, 2004) (Byron, clarinet; Moran, piano; DeJohnette, drums)

Well, for one thing, this turns me off. I just hate to hear a player play 4/4 on the bass drum like that. That means he isn’t really going to be playing any syncopation. Everything is straight up and down on the bass. I don’t know who these guys are. The clarinet player ain’t happening as far as I’m concerned. That was my first instrument. You hear that squeak? Is that “I Found A New Baby”? No stars. What makes you think I don’t like it?! Jack DeJohnette? Oh, shit. I’m surprised that it’s DeJohnette. It didn’t sound like his playing. It didn’t sound like his instrument. He can play his ass off. But it didn’t do anything for me.

12.   Roy Haynes, “The Best Thing For You” (from Love Letters, Eighty-Eights/Columbia, 2002) (Haynes, drums, Kenny Barron, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Joshua Redman, tenor saxophone)

I don’t know who these guys are, but I’ll tell you one thing – they’re together. The rhythm section is happening. The piano player is exceptionally good. So are the drummer and the bass player. As a rhythm section, they’re happening. But I couldn’t tell you who they were right now. I don’t know who the tenor player is, but I’d say he’s a contemporary player, a player of the day, who plays everything. 5 stars. That’s Roy? The master. Dynamite. Very good. I’ll give that 14 stars, and give Roy Haynes another car! I love Roy’s playing. As a matter of fact, Prez introduced me to Roy. We met in L.A. My man.

13.  Max Roach, “Sassy Max (Self Portrait)” (from Survivors, Soul Note, 1983) (Max Roach, drums, composer)

That sounds like some I would probably be doing. I don’t think it’s me! I work with my hands and sticks to get the clave feeling, syncopated rhythms like that. That’s all he’s doing, is working with the snare drum with the stick and his hands, and the bass drum, which is cool. [LIGHTNING PASSAGE] I do things like that. Is it Billy Higgins? I have no idea. Is that Max? Max stealing my thing? [LAUGHS] It’s good. Like I said, it sounded like something I would be doing. Hey, man, there’s only one Max. Max was the first musician I met when I came to New York City in 1947 with Lena Horne. Max Roach was the first musician I met here, and we’ve been friends ever since. I was at the Capitol Theater, and one of Max’s friends was Charlie Drayton, the bass player. He came up to see Charlie, and we were in the dressing room, and me and Max started playing on the chairs. We hit it off. Ever since, we’ve been cool. I’m sorry he’s not doing too well now. But he was original. God bless him. 15 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, Chico Hamilton, DownBeat, Drummer, Obituary, WKCR

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th Birthday, a 2004 DownBeat Feature , and Several Verbatim Interviews

For Andrew Cyrille’s 74th birthday, I’m posting my “director’s cut” of a DownBeat feature, as well several contemporaneous interviews, an interview that appeared in the liner notes for one CD of the double set Anthony Braxton & Andrew Cyrille: Duo Palindrome 2002, and the proceedings of a WKCR interview  from 1997.  Additionally, here’s a link to a previously posted Blindfold Test from the early ’00s, and an interview i conducted with the maestro in 2001 for a piece on Cecil Taylor. (https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/tag/andrew-cyrille/)
* * *
Over a fortnight in July, Iridium, the upscale mid-Manhattan venue, presented two very different bands comprised primarily of hardcore survivors of the ‘60s “New Thing.” The common denominator was drummer Andrew Cyrille, who fed and stoked the simmering fires that, back in the day, had led the cohort to try to change the world with music.

During the first week, Cyrille participated in open-ended tabula rasa sets with Henry Grimes and Perry Robinson, who were joined for one night apiece by Dave Douglas and Gary Bartz and for the final four by Bennie Maupin. On week two, Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman propelled outcat avatars Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd through 12 sets of their own programmatic music. Cyrille addressed each circumstance with the finesse and power of a master tennis player, instantly intuiting intentions, recalibrating dynamics and rhythmic shape, volleying back deadly accurate, complementary responses to every salvo and deploying an enormous lexicon of beats and timbres to keep his postulations fresh. In the consistency of his creativity and unfailing professionalism, Cyrille epitomized the discipline and exhilaration of speculative improvising at its highest level.

These qualities are no secret to Cyrille’s peer group. Attracted by his ability to mold a multitude of drum dialects into a continuous  stream of ideas, composer-improvisers like John Carter, Muhal Richard Abrams, Leroy Jenkins, Oliver Lake, Don Pullen, David Murray and John Lindberg employed him extensively on projects during the ‘80s and ‘90s. During the past 15 years, he’s partnered with Workman and Lake in a coop trio, and on numerous gigs and recordings with Mal Waldron, Horace Tapscott, Dave Burrell and Finnish saxophonist Juhani Aaltonen. In the ‘70s and ’80s, Cyrille expressed his compositional voice with Maono, a quartet featuring David S. Ware and trumpeter Ted Daniel, and over the past decade he’s led more consonant, groove-oriented ensembles that articulate the rhythms and melodies of the African diaspora. These followed the pioneering 1969 solo drum recital What About [BYG] and a 1972 percussion dialogue with Milford Graves entitled Dialogue of the Drums. Over the past quarter-century, Cyrille has documented a string of extemporaneous encounters with such diverse artists as Jimmy Lyons, Irene Schweizer, Richard Teitelbaum, Vladimir Tarasov, Borah Bergman, Peter Brotzman, Odo Addy, James Newton, Peter Kowald, Greg Osby and, recently, with Anthony Braxton.

In a conversation for the liner notes of Duo Palindrome: 2002, Vols. 1&2 [Intakt], documenting the Braxton-Cyrille meeting, Braxton, whose 1979 duets with Max Roach are classics of the idiom,  illuminated Cyrille’s extraordinary resourcefulness at musical conversation. “Andrew has his own special rhythmic logics and sense of time, and he hears everything in the music,” he said. “He has a very clear understanding of what constitutes an idea. He works with devices that he’s evolved to suit his own needs that give the illusion of time in a very strict way. He’s a conceptualist who is able to respond to the moment in a dynamic array of syntaxes and propositions, while at the same time, his work is very mature and he goes to the HEART of the problem.”

“Andrew is a very sharp-minded individual,” says Grimes, who recalls first breaking bread with Cyrille on a Brooklyn gig with baritone sax legend Harry Carney in 1963, and toured with him and David Murray shortly before the Iridium engagement. “We develop forms playing with each other. I think the important thing to remember is that we both learned to do that playing with Cecil Taylor. You never forget those things.”

* * *
“I didn’t know that,” Taylor laughs, upon being informed that Cyrille, his regular drummer from 1964 until 1975, was preparing at the time they first met to matriculate at St. John’s University as a chemistry major. Born in Brooklyn in 1939 to Haitian immigrants, Cyrille learned his rudiments in a junior high school drum-and-bugle corps from instructors like Lenny McBrowne, Willie Jones and Lee Abrams, all established jazz drummers of the day. They brought the aspirant to see Max Roach, himself a son of Brooklyn, rehearse at a bar called the Putnam Central  around the corner from his school, and told him about Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke and Shadow Wilson. By 16, Cyrille, who had bussed dishes at a Horn & Hardhart cafeteria and rolled carts of ready-to-wear around Manhattan’s Garment District after school, was earning pocket money on local dances and social functions with a trio that included guitarist Eric Gale. Soon, he was swinging on gigs with eminent beboppers like pianist Duke Jordan and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne.

One afternoon, trumpeter Ted Curson heard Cyrille rehearsing, and came in from the street to listen. “When the rehearsal was over, Ted said he was going to Times Square to rehearse with this piano player,” Cyrille recalls. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.’ I took my snare drum. We went to the school, and I met Cecil Taylor. Cecil let me sit in, and then we took the train uptown and played some more at a club on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th Street where I’d gone several times for sessions.”

“What I remember about Mr. Cyrille,” says Taylor, “is a session at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. I think it might have been Mal Waldron’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in. At one point Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that made me stop playing. I looked at him, and I asked him, ‘And what is that?’ He gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, ‘Well, you want me to try it again?’”

That year, Cyrille, daunted by the difficulty of studying chemistry by day, gigging at night, and doing both to the best of his ability, opted for music and transferred to Juilliard. There he “learned the literature and materials and theory of music,” and began to accrue the strains that comprise the sum of his mature tonal personality. “My head was into jazz, and that’s what I wanted to get together,” he says. “My teacher told me he’d prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, which was not what I had in mind. So I went out and found people who would help me – like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams, Illinois Jacquet, Hank Mobley and Kenny Dorham. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village in Brooklyn. Same with John Handy; we played a gig at the Shalimar in Harlem, across the street from Sugar Ray’s by the Hotel Theresa.”

Extracurricularly, Cyrille gigged and recorded with Sudanese bassist-composer Ahmed Abdul Malik and Babatunde Olatunji’s drumcentric ensemble, and began the process of internalizing the rhythms of the African continent and extrapolating them to the drumset. He played for classes at the June Taylor School of Dance for emerging choreographers like Michael Bennett, Jamie Rogers, and Claude Thompson. “That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums,” he states. “I drew on that experience in making solo percussion records. Someone would tell me, ‘Make my body move,’ and I had to play the rhythms and accent things in a way that would do that. I also learned the way Africans visualize some dance component when thinking about the music. When I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what informed my playing, and one thing I told him was that dance did.”

As Cyrille accumulated knowledge, he became restless with the musical status quo. Throughout this time, he remained in touch with Cecil Taylor. “Cecil wasn’t who he is now,” Cyrille states. “He was a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. We’d run into each other, or he’d hear me play, and say, ‘Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.’ I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. We developed a spiritual relationship through our musical attraction until we began to work together regularly.

“I had never heard anyone play the piano that way – the speed, the alacrity, his passion for the music, the information he had, the way he notated his music, what he asked from each of the musicians who played the music in rehearsals. With Cecil I could do whatever I wanted. I think only twice during the eleven years I played with him did he ever say, ‘Play five beats of this’ or ‘give me three beats of that.’ He’d say, ‘Man, you know how to play the drums. Do what drummers do.’ So it was incumbent upon me to make sure that my integrity was as true-blue as Baby Dodds or Zutty Singleton!  I did not want to do anything against the tradition of those guys, and the people from whom I learned, like Max and Art and Philly Joe, in case people might say that it wasn’t it wasn’t blue-blood, so to speak. I got my information together on every aspect of the drumset – the independent coordination, the foot-play, the dropping of the bombs, being tasty, playing in the spaces, accompanying – and I brought my information to the table. But it was my own sense of how to do it. It wouldn’t necessarily be the same kind of rhythms my mentors they would play or the way that they would parse or organize the rhythms. But then again, it was!”

“Mr. Cyrille had a secret,” Taylor says, choosing his words with care. ”You could take him wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. He understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer.”

Taylor recounts hearing Cyrille put his process to work over a week at the Blue Note several years ago with Mal Waldron and Workman. “I went three consecutive nights,” he says. “It was an experience in what mature musicians can do. On one occasion it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement, and I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. You could actually hear Andrew developing the material in Mal’s compositional form, and see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.”

Whatever the context in which the give-and-take of improvising occurs, Cyrille attends to the kinetics of sound in motion. “I think a lot of the invention in improvising comes from the push-and-pull of people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with their concept of the music,” he says. “I try to think of a rhythmical shape that will allow me to make music with the voices of the drums. For example, when Cecil sits down at the piano, he’ll usually start with something pointillistic and jagged. So I’ll begin that way, then I’ll take a step, another step, two-three steps, then sit back and listen for a while, and pace, like fencing or a cat stalking a mouse.”

* * *
In one of their rare meetings since 1975, Cyrille joined Taylor’s group for a panoramic 1999 Berlin concert, documented last spring on Incarnation [FMP]

“Cecil was very sharp,” Cyrille recalls. “We had a magical dialogue. This kind of improvising is a matter of very close listening and trading of information. It’s like a game. We put forth sounds, ideas, rhythms, melodic fragments that turn into much longer statements, and we surprise each other with replies and continue to evolve within the dialogue. It can be endless. And when we decide to resolve what’s happening, it’s as though we’ve finished a conversation. We’ve grown, matured, to some degree even mellowed. It’s always a struggle to create art. But the way we put forth the effort is so much smoother and more nuanced. We’re much more confident with the language than we were.”

Cyrille manifests that confidence whether, as Workman puts it, he’s “doing what you do the way you want to do it or compromising certain things to satisfy a need.” “I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say,” he says. “For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. It’s giving what’s being asked for. When I was in school, Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, ‘You’ve got to be a professional.’ Max Roach was a consummate professional. I’d see Gigi Gryce and Jackie McLean at a place called the Continental, and they looked professional. That means they were working and making money.”

During the ‘70s, as musicians from Chicago, St. Louis and Los Angeles came to New York and shook up the scene, Cyrille found new sources of inspiration. “What I got from those people is that there’s no particular formation or configuration to play this music,” he says. “I appreciated that cultural perspective. I love adventure. I love to explore. It boils down to being creative and dealing cooperatively within the concept the music presents to find exciting, new and different stuff. It’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make things happen.

“When I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from forty years ago. It’s different when I play with Muhal Richard Abrams, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal often plays blues at the end of his gig, and he’ll want a backbeat. I used to play organ gigs at those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, on Thursday or Friday nights, when those sleep-in women who worked at the homes out there had a night off. You’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that. That’s part of being a professional. With Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then is to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, ‘Okay, drummer, make my body move.’”

“Part of the excitement of playing with Andrew is the spectra of gambits thrown into the air,” says Braxton. “It’s not like we just do everything we can come up with. We define parameters and work inside them, and he presents me with very mature ideas and conceptual propositions to either accept or transform. There are rhythmic time spaces, sections that demonstrate extreme timbre states, sections which take more silence into account, and sections which are multi-directional. His vocabulary is really broad. It’s the same with Max Roach. He has enough ideas and experience to take the hi-hat, make a whole concert on it, and not bore you. Andrew has that kind of understanding. His music goes past the concept of idiomatic. He always respected the scholastic and scientific components of the music, he’s always been open, and that openness put him in a very different psychological and vibrational space from many of the New York musicians of his era.”

Closing in on 65, Cyrille is not about to close any doors. “When the element of surprise is not there, it doesn’t seem like there’s too much happening,” he concludes. “I remove as much of any barrier as I can, I aim for the heavens, and always try to have something that will surprise not only myself, but the musicians I am playing with and the audience that listens.”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (7-22-03) — for Duo (Palindrome) 2002:

TP:    Was this your first duo interaction with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  The first duo, yes.

TP:    What’s your performing history with him?

CYRILLE:  I did a recording, it must have been back in the ’80s, with him and Jon Raskin, the bassist Cecil McBee, and a pianist named Dred Scott, on Tristano music.  That was for Hat Hut.  Years ago we did a concert in Connecticut — I think at Wesleyan, when Bill Barron was up there and Bill Lowe.  Anthony Davis, Gerry Hemingway; a lot of cats who were new music at that time, and that was one of the places where it was done.  Prior to that, I first met Braxton in Paris when I went there with Cecil in 1969.

TP:    That’s when he traveled to Europe with Leo Smith and Leroy Jenkins and Steve McCall.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Maybe it was during that BYG Festival business, when all the musicians were in Paris, and I did those recordings with Grachan Moncur and Jimmy Lyons, and I did the solo What About album.  I met Braxton in the street, and I forget the details, but he came up and said, “Oh, my name is Anthony Braxton,” and we started talking and meeting each other, etc.  It was just guys from different parts of the country who were into the music, and in Paris, and had something in common.

After that, I’d see him in Europe and other places on occasion.  He was doing a lot of recording.  He was then almost the way David Murray was in terms of recording.  He was recording all the time.  He was the darling of a lot of those people.

TP:    That quartet was very popular for a few years.  He kept them working quite a bit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, he did a lot of stuff.  Before that I saw him with Circle, that quartet with Chick Corea.  So I’d been checking out Braxton from time to time.  I remember this one time someone had put out the word that he didn’t want to work with drummers, or something derogatory from him about drummers, and I went up to him at the old Five Spot and asked him about it.  And he said, “Me?  No, man. How can I not love drummers?  I play with drummers all the time.  Drummers are some of my favorite people.” Blah-blah, blah-blah.  You know how he gets.

Then later on, I heard that duet recording he did with Max Roach.  And on a number of occasions, he said to me that I was one of his favorite drummers and one day he’d like to do a duet with me.  He’d done one with Max Roach and he’d like to do one with Roy Haynes.  I don’t know if he ever did one with Roy Haynes, but here I am, number two, and maybe one day he might do something with Roy.  But that’s more or less how we got in touch with each other.

TP:    What was your early sense of the dynamics of his music?  I’m presuming you didn’t listen too closely to it, but enough to form an opinion.  How would you describe his musical personality?

CYRILLE:  It was different. See, a lot of times what defines great musicians, and sometimes you have to get used to this… It’s not necessarily the melodies they play, or maybe even the harmonies they play, but it’s the rhythm.  And the way he assigned rhythm was just a little bit different.  It was a little bit pointillistic, you might call it.  Steve McCall was working with him on occasion…

TP:    Barry Altschul played in that group, so did Thurman Barker and Gerry Hemingway.  It was a pulse-oriented group.

CYRILLE:  All I’m saying is that the way he would play… I bought a couple of records.  To me, a lot of the music was pointillistic. In other words, BEEP bop, BOOP.  Buh-bu-bup.  buh-bup.  That’s kind of what I thought about it.  I knew he could play tunes, etc.  But then, when we played Lennie Tristano music, which had to do with straight-up-and-down bebop, more or less, then he came into another light.  The light had to do with, I guess, playing not in a pointillistic, but let’s say kind of a legato, where you had those melodies, like “Lennie’s Pennies,” based on “Pennies From Heaven.”  Those kinds of bebop lines. The legato kind of thing instead of staccato.

TP:    So you found that could go into various approaches depending on the context.

CYRILLE:  Exactly.  Which is the sign of a great musician, somebody who is flexible and has studied and learned the language.

TP:    What was it like to work for him that first time in organizing that Tristano date?

CYRILLE:  Well, it was a lot of work.  I can’t say that it was easy. But he knew what he wanted to do.  He had a sense of direction, and he knew more or less what he wanted from each one of us. When we play jazz, period, I don’t care what variation it is, most of the composers or people who are the leaders want you to play the material their way, so then we can come together.  I just had to find my way on the drumset with that music, and then we’d bring my department to the other departments, and join them so we could have more or less a corporation — or a cooperation.  It was pretty cool.  I enjoyed that music.  Everybody was straight-ahead, everybody wanted to make it a success, and I think it came out being that.

TP:    In a broader sense, what was your impression when you encountered the AACM guys 35 years ago?  You’re a New York musician, and that approach wasn’t necessarily agreeable to every New York musician. Maybe I’m wrong about that when you all were in Paris.  But what was your overall impression of that earlier AACM music at the time?

CYRILLE:  I have always been one who understood the regionalisms that existed and exist in the music.  First, I knew that there were regional bands, and people who came from different parts of the country and played the music a bit differently, who came in with certain ideas and feelings and things they thought were important, and at the same time made the contribution to the whole.  I felt the people from Chicago were some of the most innovative in terms of breaking with the tradition as well as being part of the tradition.  I know they were doing all sorts of things in terms of how they were composing. It wasn’t AABA form a lot, or the sonata form, so to speak.  They were playing a lot of extended forms, and doing all sorts of things rhythmically and harmonically that maybe some of the other people from other places weren’t doing.  You had musicians who came out of Detroit, you had musicians who came out of Indianapolis, even the New Orleans people…

TP:    But what I’m getting at, Andrew, is that perhaps more than any other New York musician of your period, you really embraced the aesthetic that a lot of the AACM and BAG people were dealing with when they got to New York.  You played with Muhal for years, and others.  As a New York musician at the time, with Cecil, I mean, Cecil was pretty much full-bore straight-ahead and take no prisoners type of thing in 1966 and 1969 — though I guess not all the time.  But it was a different attitude toward organizing music.  So I wonder if you can trace back to the impact that attitude of making music had on you.

CYRILLE:  Now, you’ve got to remember that we’re talking about Cecil, who of course is one of the great people in my music life.  But I’m not Cecil, see!

TP:    But you were in the band 11 years and knew him from the late ’50s.

CYRILLE:  That’s true.  But as a result of having experienced playing with Cecil and wanting to make a contribution to the history of the music, to the lexicon of the music, and especially as far as drums were concerned, AND the fact that my mind was opened… I was still and am still learning.  I love to explore different ideas with people and see what I can do with those ideas as far as those drums are concerned. I’ve done things with Japanese musicians, or the drummer Vladimir Tarasov from Russia, and the dancers, etc.  So when I met people like Muhal and Leroy Jenkins, and they asked me to part of their concepts… I even organized a tour and took Henry Threadgill and Fred Hopkins to Europe after Steve McCall quit Air.

There was another contingent of musicians from Chicago who I’d had the opportunity to work with prior to the time when people like Muhal and Jenkins and Wadada and George Lewis… I worked with George and Leroy and Richard Teitelbaum… Well, Teitelbaum isn’t from Chicago, but I met him long ago in Connecticut.  All of those people were more or less in touch with each other.

But just to get back to what I was saying about my openness, and the fact that… Look at Coleman Hawkins.  He was all over the place, doing all kinds of things with people.

But getting back to the other Chicago musicians:  I met people like Julian Priester.  Also there was John Gilmore, whom I had done some work with in the Olatunji band.  And on a couple of occasions, I did play with Sun Ra and that Arkestra — way back when.  Sun Ra used to come to my house, as a matter of fact, when I was living in Brooklyn.  He and Walt Dickerson used to show up early in the morning.  There was Clifford Jordan, who I’d played with on occasion, doing some gigs in Brooklyn.  Charles Davis was another one, who lived around the corner from me.  So it’s not that I didn’t know these guys.  So when the second wave came in, hey, here I am.  I’ve got feet in both camps, so to speak — the bebop camp and then the avant-garde camp.  But I knew this, too.  If I were going to do something that was a bit different from some of the other drummers, then I knew I had to do something that was going to be conceptually acceptable to a lot of those people from the AACM.  And that’s where their heads were.  So in a sense, my connection with Cecil, who let me know that I could do anything with anybody I want, any time I wanted to do that… So it was no problem for me dealing with the concepts of the people from Chicago.
All I know about all of this stuff is, if somebody asks me to do something with them, and if it’s different, then I have to learn about what it is, and then it’s my job to bring it to life — especially if I like it.  If I don’t like it, that’s a different story.  But for John Carter and all those people, I have to bring this stuff to life.  A lot of the stuff is written music. But it’s not the page that’s playing the music, it’s the person.  That’s the way I feel about most of that stuff.

TP:    Are there different challenges for you in dealing with, let’s say, the less pulse oriented forms of drum music that you’d be encountering?  Did you have to develop new techniques?  Did you have to develop a difficult vocabulary?

CYRILLE:  That’s an interesting question.  Most of the time, when I think about myself, I think about myself as using pieces of the language that I have learned from the traditional greats, like Jo Jones and Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Baby Dodds, and listening to all of those people, seeing and hearing how they would play.  Frankie Dunlop and the big bands I saw him playing with.  Rufus Jones.  Even Buddy Rich to some degree, even though he was a speed merchant.

TP:    That came in handy with Cecil!

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s right!  Number one, to be able to play the drums.  When we learn the instrument, we have to go through the schools, more or less, of some of the other drummers.  When I was working with Illinois Jacquet, he had Jo Jones in his head.  So to some degree, I had to give him some of the stuff.  I couldn’t do all of it, because I was too young and I didn’t know that much about Jo Jones.  But I had to be able to play songs like “Robbins Nest” and “Flying Home.”  Certain things would happen in those songs that would bring certain kinds of climaxes, which were almost things that were scientifically proven, you might say!  They would get to certain peaks, and then make certain descents, and go back to certain peaks… You had to know what to do in order to play that music.  So yeah, I was learning, and of course, there were a lot of things that I didn’t know, and sometimes I’d be frustrated because I couldn’t give people like Jacquet, for instance, everything he wanted all the time.  Then, again, I don’t necessarily think that I had to, because I was trying to find my own place, trying to do my own stuff, and some of the stuff he probably didn’t like either.  But he was stronger than I was at that time.  He was the leader of the band, and I was still finding my way.  But still, he hired me.

Anyway, all I’m saying is that with all of the stuff that I’ve learned, even the stuff that I did with Nellie Lutcher way back, playing in 2/2…those kinds of things I can use in some way with the things that I do today.  So for instance, if I’m doing a duet with Braxton or Greg Osby and it comes into my mind, well, I want to try something that might have a two-feeling for a part, or maybe even a whole (I never really thought about this until now), I can play like a two-feeling, and maybe stretch the meter, so to speak.  Then it’s up to THEM, then, to deal with what I’m putting down.  So what I’m saying to you is that the stuff that I play as a drummer, it’s not necessarily so much where I’m not using the techniques or not using the vocabulary that I have.  It’s just that I might be using it in a different way.  It’s the same old thing, like when people talk.  We still use words.  But sometimes, when we think about what we’re saying, we use the same words but the meanings are different.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that applies to what you and Braxton are doing here.  You mentioned at the beginning that Braxton had told you that you’re one of his favorite drummers and he wanted to do something with you some day.  So let’s jump-cut to 2002, and talk about this recording came to be.  Was it on your initiative or his?

CYRILLE:  Well, this is what happened.  Very often, it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and the sky opening up and the lightning come out, and it strikes whoever is in the vicinity and we say, “Eureka, I’ve found it!”  Anyway, I had gone to hear Anthony play a solo concert at the Ethical Culture Society.  I was there with a number of other people listening to him, and the music was gorgeous.  But at the end of the concert, I went over to congratulate him, and he said, “Oh, Andrew, it’s good to see you.  When are we going to do our project?”  So I complemented him on his playing and I said, “Look, Anthony, any time you’re ready, man.  Let’s exchange numbers and talk about it.”  He said, “Okay, I’ll call you.”  So I gave him my number, and a couple of weeks later he called me and said, “Hey, man, let’s get together and do this project.”  He told me that he had Jon Rosenberg in his employ, and Jon and he had already done some work at Wesleyan University, of Anthony recording with different people, and Rosenberg would be willing to come up and record us.  The price was right, and we got a date together, and I said, “Okay, fine,” and then it came to pass.

TP:    How much preparation did this involve?  Was there a rehearsal?  Let’s talk about the dynamics of putting together this two hours.

CYRILLE:  I sent Anthony some music I had written and prepared.  Sometimes with those concepts… Well, we talked about them a bit on the telephone, and he told me some stuff that he was going to do.  I forget whether he faxed me any music or not.  Maybe he did.  I can’t remember.  But I know we were preparing for each other.  Braxton’s solo concert was in May 2002, so from May until we came together…

TP:    What’s interesting is that his compositions here are Compositions 310 and 311, and on the solo concert he did five subsets of Composition 312.  I don’t know what that means, but I’ll try to find out from Braxton.  Because each one has a different graphic connotation.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] Well, that’s what’s happening.

TP:    So it sounds like he gave you some stuff that was preoccupying him at the time of the solo concert.

CYRILLE:  Perhaps so.  But all I saw was the music.  I didn’t remember the melodies.  I played them at Wesleyan and I got into it.

TP:    well, your stuff seems more melody-oriented.  His stuff seems like more sound navigation structure stuff.

CYRILLE:  Kind of.  Well, he only gave me I think two written parts.

TP:    The other one seems more just a motif you took off on.  It doesn’t have a number, but is called “A Musical Sense Of Life.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title like that from Braxton.

CYRILLE:  Well, those titles were to a large degree my titles.  We sat down and talked about it.  I came up with these titles and words, and explained to him, why I felt this particular piece should be that, and so on, and he agreed.

TP:    So we had this conceptual preparation before you actually came up to Wesleyan in October.

CYRILLE:  Very much so.  Conceptual and including improvisation as well as written music.  He has two credits individually, I have two individually, and then we have the rest in duo as composers.

TP:    I think your point that he brings out a more legato side when playing with drummers… On the Max Roach records, he played beautiful melodies, and here he plays similarly.  Do you approach different configurations with a different approach to the drums.  Would you play differently with Oliver and Reggie or Dresser and Marty, or if you’re playing with a Muhal Sextet… Obviously, they all have different demands.  But your overall approach to the interactive component of playing with other people… How does it differ in duo context for you?

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a heavy one.  When you use a term like “overall”… Overall has to be the person.  It has to be Andrew Cyrille.  And then it depends upon what music I’m playing.  Then I get my information on what I have to do from what the composer dictates when he writes the composition.  If I’m playing with David Murray’s Big Band, and we’re playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” and he’s got Carmen Bradford singing, I’ve got to bring myself to that and give those people what they need so they can deliver what they deliver in the Ellington mode.  That’s the same thing that I do with everything, even though they might be different in terms of concept.

TP:    Let’s talk about the conceptual aspects of duo music, then.

CYRILLE:  Playing solo to me is the most difficult.  The reason is that you don’t have anybody to feed off of or to get some kind of information from that you can relate to, so to speak, so you’re always more or less relating to yourself.  With duet, you have fewer than three or four.  So as far as playing a duet is concerned, you have to give something to the other person that they can more or less vibe off of or feel good about, or hear or conceptualize with the desire to play.  And they have to do the same for you.  During the duet with Osby… All of them.  I’ve done duets with Osby, Oliver. Carlos Ward, who’s another one that a lot of people haven’t gotten.  I did duets with Jimmy Lyons.

TP:    A lot of pianists say they think of the piano as an orchestra.  Do you think of the drumkit as an orchestra?

CYRILLE:  You could very well say that, too. There are so many different parts of the set, and you can get so many different sounds in relationship to the combinations, or the combinations in relationship to the different pieces of sound that you can find on the set.  Then you have to be able to generate that so that somebody gets something from it, so it’s not just noise, or what some people might consider noise.  I guess it’s the attitude, too, that whomever it is playing with the drummer comes to that forum with.  If you think it’s noise, then perhaps you won’t make any music. But if you think it’s music, then it’s a different story.

But there’s one other thing, too, that you’ve got to remember about drums, especially from where the “jazz drummer” comes, and from there in terms of Western music, where a lot of the other people come from, too — the Rock and Fusion people.  That’s out of a metrical sense of time.  So when you start thinking about Africa, again, and you start thinking about a lot those rhythms that the Africans play, which is very often the basis of the feeling that jazz musicians play off of, like the shuffle beat, CHONK-A-CHOOK, CHONK-A-CHOOK, then you’ve got that and you go CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCKA-CHOCKA-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM, CHOCK-A-CHUM… You get a lot of that stuff that comes out of Africa.  And many jazz pieces are still being written off that rhythmical motif, what they call the quarter-note, and then you get the dotted eighth note and the sixteenth note.  BANG, DIKA, BANG, DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG-DIKA, BANG.  I’d say damn near 85% of all the music written in jazz is based on that rhythmical motif.  That’s one of the problems we have with stations like WBGO moving away from that foundation to play music that perhaps doesn’t emphasize that dotted quarter-note, dotted-eighth and sixteenth beat.  See, all of that music that you hear that’s so-called mainstream or CD-101 stuff comes out of that particular motif.

TP:    As opposed to what we might call swing or…

CYRILLE:  No, it ain’t opposed to swing.  That’s what swing is. That stuff is based on Swing. So I’m saying, it kind of comes out like a shuffle, see, which is nothing but you get the quarter-note and you get the dotted sixteenth, and you just keep repeating that with the accentuation on 2 and 4.

TP:    So 35 years ago, when you’re making Akisakila with Cecil, the patterns and responses you’re making are constructed off these elemental building blocks from African music that you’re speaking of.

CYRILLE:  Precisely.  So from those building blocks you can thrust a certain kind of feeling.

TP:    Or many kinds of feeling, I guess.

CYRILLE:  Or many kinds of feelings, that’s right.  See, this goes back to me working with Mary Lou Williams and saying to her, “Gee, Mary Lou, I’d like to play the ride beat differently and still play the music.” She said, “Well, if you did that, you’d lose a lot of work; a lot of people wouldn’t hire you.”  And that’s what she was talking about.  So if you go BANG-DING-A-BANG, DING-A-BANG, and I’m playing that with Jacquet, then I say, BANG-DING-A-DANG, and let a couple of beats go and no space, or say, BANG-DING-A-BANG, BANG, DING-A-BANG, DINGABANG-DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, DANG-DANG, DINGABANG, he’ll say, “What the fuck are you doing, man?!  Swing!”

So when the concepts change, and you have Cecil and the people from Chicago and now a number of other people considering how we’re going to move these rhythms, then it’s no longer a problem because they’re basing their music on what it is that either the drummer is playing or however it is that they conceive of playing that dotted-8th or 16th, and maybe they’ve even moved away from that and… See, a lot of the time, the way most of those composers got to their music (I know this to be a fact with David Murray, and you can go back to Ellington), is they’d think about what the drummer would be playing, and then they’d write their melodies over that.
TP:    Well, going back to Ellington, there was often a dance orientation to it.  I mean, the drummer used to be completely functional, back when there were chorus lines and tap dancers and so on.

CYRILLE:  Of course!  Let me tell you something.  You know that I played for dancers.  I’m talking for people out of the June Taylor School — Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson.

TP:    You played for dance classes.

CYRILLE:  Dance classes, and I did gigs… I did something with Cleo Parker Robinson at Jazz @ Lincoln Center 2001.  I’m trying to make a point.  I had a gig one time in the projects somewhere.  It was a dance for regular people who came to a party.  They had no dance education or training, but it was what they would do socially, what they’d learn from their parents or friends.  The three musicians I was supposed to play with, probably a bassist and piano player and saxophone player, for some reason didn’t show up for a while. I was there, the first one.  The people began feeling impatient with the music.  I mean, they’ve got their schedule.  So I just started playing the drums.  I don’t know what rhythm I did, but I was playing something.  And do you know, those people got out on the floor and started dancing.  All I’m saying to you is knowing certain things to play and certain things to do that will elicit certain responses in people.  Music is also scientific in that light.  We deal with emotions, but there are certain ways that musicians can make people feel by the notes and scales that they play.  We learn this stuff in school.  It’s the same thing with the drums.  If I want you to march, I’ll play a march.  If I want you to waltz, I’ll play something in 3/4.

So with that kind of information, when I decide that… How can I put it?  I can augment it.  I can contract it.  I can do it like I’m talking to you in terms of rhythm — those ingredients.  That’s what I do.  Here you and I are having a conversation.  I’m not talking to you in 4/4 meter, one-two-three-four, here-I-go-Ted, you-can-hear-me-talking…

TP:    It’s not iambic pentameter.

CYRILLE:  Right.  So as I’m speaking to you, sometimes it’s the same way as I think in playing the music.  But I’m still using my words or the words I’ve learned.  Maybe I can learn new words, go in the dictionary and find out the meaning of so-and-so and bring another word into my vocabulary.  But it just clarifies, let’s say, more what it is that I’m trying to say.

TP:    But of course, within a musical performance, each musical conversation is organized around a certain set of themes and structures.  You’re not just going anywhere.  Within an improvisation, there are explorations of separate motifs; you’re not going all over the place on every different thing.  So there is a formal aspect to a performance.  It’s not just like a conversation.

CYRILLE:  You are precisely right.  But now, you see, here is another concept that some people don’t realize or understand or don’t know about, and I guess it has to come into realization. There are two ways of playing.  There’s one way where there’s a prescription: In other words, we say we’re going to play this tune or that tune, or we’re going to play this composition or that composition based on either some idea that the composer presents, whoever the composer is, or we’re going to play a piece that’s “open,” which means that the composition is after the fact.  So when you say “all over the place,” sometimes the music can be all over the place.  It depends on what one decides to do.  And sometimes, when it’s all over the place it can be fantastic.  For instance, the concert I did with Kidd Jordan and William Parker at the Vision Festival.  We had no rehearsal.  The first time the three of us played together was when we got up on that stage.  And from what I understand from the people who were there, they enjoyed it very much, the heavens opened up and all that sort of thing.  But as one of the participants, I can’t exactly tell you what people were receiving in the audience. I’m having a good time playing.

TP:    But what I mean is that you’re playing ideas.  You and Kidd Jordan weren’t just playing random sounds.  You’re playing ideas that you’ve developed over 50-55-60 years of playing music and thinking about music.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Just like we’re having a conversation now.

TP:    When we did the Blindfold Test for Downbeat, I gave you a Braxton-Max Roach piece.  You said, “Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms is amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know that he has to work with it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums, and that’s why it comes out with such clarity and weight.”  And motif and theme-and-variation construction, and so forth.  It seems that, more or less in this concert, you play from that perspective.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would agree with you.  Because I am a product as much of Max Roach, in that evolutionary line, as you might say somebody like Carl Allen or Cindy Blackman or Joe Chambers.  All of us come from more or less the same funnel, that same matrix.  Max comes out of Jo Jones and Baby Dodds.  Max was telling me himself the people that he listened to.  Kenny Clarke and Sid Catlett.  When you start thinking about the person who started syncopating the rhythm with the swing, Kenny Clarke was the person who did that shit.  Kenny Clarke was older than Max, and Kenny Clarke was doing that stuff up at Minton’s.  In terms of that bebop stuff, with those licks being put on different parts of the drums, especially with the bass drum being syncopated, Kenny Clarke started that stuff.

TP:    After Max and Braxton, I gave you Cecil Taylor and Tony Oxley.  And you said about Oxley, “The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics, rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm, as, say, a Max Roach would. So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, or give-and-take. There wasn’t a lot of the polarity, which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic and generates another kind of feeling.  I think usually in improvisation, a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms and motifs in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.”  So you were saying that there’s basically a unison and it was less interesting.  So there are two different approaches to playing in these separate duets that you elaborate upon, and it seems very much that you’re in the former camp.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.  Now, if I had to do some stuff like Tony… I’ve played with Tony, and let me tell you when I did that.  I did that with Tony and Rashied Ali, and there must be a recording of this.  I’ll get back to the point.  Don’t let me lose the point.  I played with Tony and Rashied with three saxophone players and three bass players in East Berlin right after the Wall came down.  We did a concert there for Jost Gebers and FMP.  I’ve also done things with Peter Brotzman and Peter Kowald, and there’s something in the can that was done back in the ’80s with Brotzman and Kowald.  He has a duet with Teitelbaum and another duet with John Tchicai, and he’s trying to figure out how the stuff can come out.

Anyway, on this one piece with these nine musicians, I played with Oxley.  Sometimes there would be duets between myself and Oxley… The concept of the concert was that among the nine musicians there would be certain kinds of combinations.  So maybe there would be two basses and a saxophone, or two saxophones and two drums.  Whatever the configurations came out to be was how the music was presented.  So I can’t tell you exactly when I played with Tony or with Rashied, or when all of us played together.  But with Tony… And I heard Tony and Cecil again in Den Hague a couple of years ago, when I was over there with Mal Waldron and Reggie Workman. It’s like a wash, so I can get a lot of percussion instruments… There’s a guy named Paul Blackman who plays like this skiffle band in New Orleans, but he plays these rhythms, etc. But I can get all different kinds of…

Hey, this is even better.  If I had all of that stuff, let’s say, that Chick Webb had around him, or maybe even Sonny Greer, and then I would go and just wash…

TP:    You mean washes of color.

CYRILLE:  Washes of color.  You know when you play on the piano and you from one end of the piano, and you go all the way up to the top, and you play these glisses… That’s the word.  To me, very often what Tony does is he plays these glisses of rhythms.  Which is cool.  But sometimes, too, you could take those pieces of glisses and you can make certain rhythms out of it.  So for me, instead of playing like that wash… I can’t say that’s all he does.  But the general impression that I take away from having listened to Tony is this is how he plays.  At least, this is how he was playing with Cecil.  Maybe when he was doing that stuff with Bill Evans years ago…

TP:    Well, when it was time to play time, he played time, and when it was time to play with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  But here’s what I’m saying.  When you start talking about time, time can also be pointillistic.  And he doesn’t do that.  He plays glissando time.  Here’s another term.  People use these things, and I come up with them sometimes, too.  It’s difficult to explain sound and feeling, to give people a good picture in words of what’s happening with the music. So you come up with stuff like “liquid time.”  Liquid time to me would be like water, where you would get motion, but you wouldn’t get any separation.  Think about a river or think about the ocean.  Don’t you see motion?  Don’t you see rhythm?  But is it divided?

TP:    If you were going to think of a visual arts analogy, there’s a kind of Jackson Pollock analogy to Tony’s playing.

CYRILLE:  Yes, all right.  In other words, all of us being human beings, we have to try to relate whatever we do to our bodies on this planet!  So we can’t get too far out, although sometimes we can make analogies as to what it is that we think and what it is that we feel, from whence these ideas come.

TP:    But your playing on this duet with Braxton, for the most part, is not pointillistic.  It’s much more in that Max Roach sort of theme-and-variation aesthetic.  You postulate a rhythm and you sort of set it up as a field, and then you do various iterations and modulations of that idea, and Braxton plays his melodies and does his theme-and-variations and modulations on the melodies and rhythms.  Then the next piece is another idea.  It seems like there’s a sequential sequence of ideas that you work on.  Is that accurate or inaccurate?

CYRILLE:  I can’t say it’s either one.  It’s somewhere in between!  Because there are certain pointillistic things that are done in some of those compositions.  I remember there are some things where I’m playing on the rim of the snare drum, or something, and I would call that pointillistic.  Then maybe I might go from pointillism to some kind of legato, or maybe even glissando type of effect.  Maybe not so much glissando.  But thinking about it now, I could consider that in some kind of musical way from the drumset.  But there are certain things where I play a click and a clack and a bop and a bang, and Braxton relates to it in that way — and that’s what I consider to be pointillism.

TP:    Who would set what up first, from tune to tune?  Would the rhythm be the first principle?  Would the melody be the first principle?  Would it vary from tune to tune?

CYRILLE:  It would vary from tune to tune.  Sometimes Braxton would start something… See, what he’d do, sometimes he’d go to one of his other horns, and each one of those horns have a different timbre, and then I would think to myself, “Gee, what could I do to match that timbre?”  Then with the rhythms he would play, I’d think what can I do to give some kind of contrast or unison to those rhythms.  Sometimes, when we would stop…and I’d stop it… See, that recording could have been a blast… It could have been the same kind of performance that I did with Kidd and William — just played from beginning to end.  Kidd and I stopped maybe once during that performance, and then we started again.  But sometimes, even some of the stuff I’ve done with Cecil is just from the beginning, just get up and start playing and we don’t stop until the final note is hit.  But with Anthony, we started playing, and then it got to a certain point… Like, the first piece, “Duo Palindrome,” it got to a certain point and I said, “I’m going to stop now,” and it was a complete piece.  Also conceptually, I was thinking we’d have different pieces, this was not just going to be an improvisation from Point A to Point Z.  I wanted it to be that way because I wanted different feelings and different concepts to project it.

TP:    Braxton did a live recording with Max on Hat Art after Birth and Rebirth which is totally different.  Probably because it’s a studio recording, Birth and Rebirth is segmented into tunes, but on Hat Art it’s basically an 85-minute improvisation where they flow one into the other.  What dynamics in Braxton’s playing have evolved over time?  Is he a different player than he was 15 years ago when you did the Tristano record, or when he was doing the quartets, or the duo with Max?  what do you hear as distinct to this period?

CYRILLE:  Like all of us who decide as youngsters that we want to play this music, more or less essentially we’re the same people.  I think of Picasso. Of course, he’s the grandmaster, a genius, and I could only aspire to be something like him.  But when you saw Picasso’s stuff from his twenties, there was a grand line that started from his first paintings to the time he died.  You could always tell it was Picasso.  The grand line. Regardless of whatever it was that he was conceptualizing or doing, you knew that this was Pablo Picasso.

TP:    You could say that, but if you’re familiar with Picasso you can also locate a piece by how he is deploying that grand line at any given moment.  You sound different now than you did 35 years ago or 20 years ago.  I don’t know exactly how to quantify that, but I think I can discern your periods.

CYRILLE:  That’s very interesting.  Frank Lowe said to me that he was playing for somebody some recordings I did with Coleman Hawkins, and then he turned around and played something you might consider more modern or different from “Just A Gigolo.” And the person said, “Is that the same Andrew Cyrille?”

TP:    Parenthetically, someone told me he played for Kenny Washington something you did with Bill Barron forty years ago, and he was nonplussed.

CYRILLE:  You’re talking about Hot Line.  I had a great time on that date.  But my point becomes this.  Is there a certain kind of recognition of my sound, maybe of some of the ingredients that I play from one period to another. I would like to think so.  I don’t know.

As far as Braxton is concerned, to me he is the same Anthony Braxton who has now evolved and has become set in his concepts in terms of what it is he wants to do, and feels that he is carrying some weight, and what he says means something as far as the lexicon is concerned — the evolution and history of the music.  I would more or less have to feel the same way.  Both of us are still here, we’re still making contributions, and we have a sense of history, we have a sense of present, and we also have a sense of where we would like to go in terms of what we have done.  I am always looking for new things to bring forth, but there’s no way in the world I can deny my mother and my father!  You know what I’m saying?  In that way, I think Braxton is more or less the same.  Because when we talked to one another in order to get this feeling of camaraderie and hand-in-glove, we’d talk about the same things you and I are talking about in terms of what makes us tick, and what makes us tick from then until now and what we hope will continue to make us tick, all things considered, as far as life is concerned.

TP:    When we’re talking about the theme-and-variation-on-a-design Max Roach approach to rhythm and Tony Oxley’s glissando thing, you can almost extrapolate that into cultural aesthetics about how to approach musical improvisation, the Afro-diasporic and the Modernist European, as it were.  Perhaps we could discuss this in terms of the scene of world improvisation, where these worlds have come together substantially over the last 30 years, in great part because of the AACM guys and their embrace of the forms and structures of the Euro-Modernist canon, and also the European community of free improvisers.  Do you have any reflections on the convergence of those streams and how it might be manifested in an interaction between you and Anthony Braxton?

CYRILLE:  You’re bringing in another piece of who we are.  Me being an African-American, I’m very much European, too, because this is what we learned, this is our culture, this is who we are.

TP:    But I’m talking about forms of music.  But please continue.

CYRILLE:  But there’s no way in the world for anybody who is a legitimate human being to start talking about what they do outside of where they live and how they got to be what they are.  So when I play with someone like Irene Schweizer, and I’ve done a number of things with Irene, and we’re going to do some more stuff… David Murray was part of he last thing I did with Irene.  So how in the world can Irene Schweizer, me and someone like David Murray get together and play on a stage if we don’t inherit certain things from each other’s culture?  Does it have to be so cut-and-dried?  You say Europe, you say Africa, you say America.  Well, yeah, you’d have the polarity when musicians from Africa and from Europe did not play together.  But as we have evolved… We’ve had a couple of wars in Europe, people like James Reese Europe…

TP:    But you didn’t have Stockhausen playing with Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins, or Pierre Boulez using Hank Jones or Oscar Peterson to improvise  within a piece.  Those are very different attitudes towards what music is.  But within the AACM, or with Cecil Taylor, that convergence exists.  It is a kind of paradigm shift.  I’m speaking more of the modernist notion of European music than the broader civilizational stream.

CYRILLE:  But you see, all of these things are works in progress.  In other words, civilization is an evolution.  So in a sense, when you start talking about Stockhausen and about Boulez, how do I know that Boulez won’t call me up and say, “Come on, Andrew, play some drums” for one or another thing. This is an evolutionary process.  Some people understand it. Some people want to see what will happen when they put maybe acid and a base together to see what the effects are going to be.  Sometimes nothing will happen, sometimes you get an explosion, sometimes you get a hybrid or a mutation that’s fantastic.  People say, “Yeah, we should have thought about that all time,” but sometimes it’s just an accidental combination.

Point:  Last year Reggie Workman and I go to Finland to do a project with one of the great Finnish saxophone players, a guy named Johanni Altern(?), along with some Finnish strings.  Now, the guy who wrote the string music is a guy named Ato(?) Donner(?).  Now, Ato(?) Donner(?) has 18 strings, violins and cellos and basses, reading this music.  So he says to me, “Play what you hear within the context…” He gave me some charts that I had to read, but as I was reading the charts with the strings, I’m also improvising the same way I would do it if I’m reading Duke Ellington charts.

What I’m saying to you is that those people from Finland, coming from that cultural base, get together with me, coming from another cultural base, but at this time, in terms of the evolution of civilization and the planet, I’m influencing them and they’re influencing me.

TP:    So as the world gets smaller, these kinds of interactions become more common.  It’s no longer an exotic thing for this to happen.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s not as exotic as it was before.  Maybe if I went to play with some Amazonian Indians, there might be some different stuff coming out.

TP:    That’s something Peter Kowald was interested in, taking folk musicians out of their local contexts, and creating a broad dialogue of discrete vocabularies.

CYRILLE:  Outside the concepts people have about each other… There’s only one human race, and the simple reason for that is because everybody can still cross.  We can all have an offspring with anybody on the planet.  So conceptually, in terms of culture, the same thing could be possible!  Again, when you start talking about Braxton and the guys from Chicago dealing with some European forms with which they have filtered some Africanisms, so to speak: That’s what jazz has always been anyway.  From the spirituals through the gospels… Well, maybe the gospels were a little different.  But you’d take those harmonies by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and they’re singing some of those European hymns about Jesus and God.  It’s the same thing that’s been reprocessed over and over through the generations.  It’s just that each generation has to interpret it according to the dynamics of the time in which they live.  Some times are better than others.

TP:    I think the one problem with comparing this hybrid phenomenon we’re talking about is that the role of the drums is very different…

CYRILLE:  Well, in the Fisk Jubilee Singers there were no drums.

TP:    But there were certain rhythms that they more than made up for.  If you want to really extrapolate abstractly, there’s a continuity from that up to the Cecil Taylor Trio with you!  If we look at that trio and the John Coltrane Quartet as the two extremes to which that notion of music-making went, and how much farther could it go after that?  So there is evolution. There is a difference.  And I think Braxton and the AACM people are the people who were doing all that research and development on how to elaborate that difference and find a way to continue — find their space.

CYRILLE:  In some ways, something I did that worked was a concert with Miya Masaoka, Richard Teitelbaum and Frank Lowe.  Masaoka is Japanese-American, and she comes in with the koto, etc., and we start playing these rhythms.  You hear the sound, so you’ve got to get used to the rhythm.  That’s something that’s going to be in evolution as time goes, what the Asians bring to this mix of “America” and “American music.”  I’m all for it, in a lot of ways.  I am open to it.  I want to be part of it. It feeds me, I feed them, we feed each other.  For me to say, “Well, my thing is this, and I don’t do nothin’ else,” that’s not Andrew Cyrille.  Whether it be avant-garde or whether it be Ellington stuff… Because Lord knows, I had a fantastic time playing Ellington’s music, and I’d do it tomorrow if I had to.  I loved it.  With all those great musicians up there, and Carmen Bradford singing on top of all that stuff.

But getting back to Braxton: As the arc of life moves from the time I met him, back in Paris around 1969-70… I was hanging out with Philly Joe Jones in Paris, and we started talking about Braxton. He said, “Yeah, man, I knew Braxton can play.  You know how I knew he could play?  I watched the way his fingers moved.”  And we laughed.  But that was Joe’s impression of Braxton, and Joe relayed that to me, and that made me also consider Anthony… Because he was given an endorsement by somebody whom I looked up to.

TP:    We’ve been talking a lot about concept, but we haven’t talked that much about feeling.  And obviously, the way you play in an improvisation will pertain directly to the way you feel.  You’re going to feel one way with Cecil Taylor.  You’ll feel another way with Oliver Lake and Reggie.  You’ll another way with John Carter, another way with Muhal, and another way with David Murray.  How does it feel to play with Braxton?

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] It feels good!  I can’t say it feels bad!

TP:    Well, it felt good to play with all those people, or you wouldn’t have stuck with it all that time.  But it felt good differently.  Let’s talk about the distinctions that make the difference, even though they all made you feel good.

CYRILLE:  [LAUGHS] You’re something else, man, with your analyses and questions.  They cause me to think, and I have to find things to carry some truth to them and also mean something.

I always have to come from the way that I get to how I feel, and then I have to understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about feelings.  Feelings usually come from some experience that somebody has.  Right?  You feel good or you feel bad.  So in the brain it says to you, “Gee, this is going through my body” — like sound, etc., because it travels through the skin and that’s how we feel, too, physically.

In a musical sense, what I have to do, again, is find out what’s on the page.  In other words, let’s put it this way.  Braxton gives me a score, and he’s playing one line, I’m playing the other line, and then we come to a part whereby there is this…it’s not a painting, but you might call it a sketch, where he has these lines and figures, and he says, “Play this at this particular time, whatever you think or feel about this.”  So here I am now, at the moment I’m talking to you, and let’s say he had venetian blinds — because I’m looking at venetian blinds in front of me.  So let’s say it’s venetian blinds on this page, and I’m looking at them and saying, “Well, what do I feel about venetian blinds, and how can I interpret venetian blinds on the drumset?”  I can go from left-to-right and right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, left-to-right to right-to-left, and I can do that, say, from snare drum to tom-tom, from snare drum to tom-tom, back-and-forth and back-and-forth and back-and-forth.  And just from that motion, a motion like a windshield wiper blade, I’ll be able to get kind of sound.  I’ll get some kind of rhythm.

Now, how does that make me feel?  Does it make me feel good?  Yeah, it could, if I’m doing it and it’s coming out and I’m not flubbing, and it’s very clear to me in terms of how I’m doing it in terms of one to another.  You gave me another idea in terms of a rhythm — OOM-BOOM, OOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM; I could do it slower or I could do it faster — looking at the Venetian blinds.

Then what Anthony does in relationship to it also makes me feel a certain way.  When he’s playing, I could say to myself, “where is he going with this?  How can I play this so that it makes him move into another area or makes him feel he wants to create with this sketch he’s given me up to a certain point, and then we move on.”  That happens on the record.  Sometimes I’ll play certain things, and then he will imitate them.  He’ll come back and play verbatim rhythmically just the piece I’m in.  It’s interesting and it’s cute, and it makes me laugh.  So in that light, it makes me feel good.

I don’t like to think… Hey, look, it’s like asking somebody is the cup half-empty or is the cup half-filled.  So I don’t want to start talking about what I don’t like, because it ain’t about that.  So the only thing I can say as far as doing the thing with Anthony is concerned and how I feel about him in relationship to John Carter has to do with what they’re asking me to eat.  In other words, what they have cooked up for me to eat and taste and digest, and what am I to do with it with my on sense of seasoning, or to put in my oven and bring out a certain way.

It’s a difficult question.  This is how I have to look at the overall thing, since you used that term…

TP:    I did.  But now I’m being very specific.

CYRILLE:  How can you get to the specific without some kind of overall?  Or how can you get to the overall without some kind of specific?  Both of them relate to each other, even though they may be on opposite sides of the pendulum.  But when you ask “how do you feel about something?” what else can I say than that I feel good.  I can say in terms of this project, I thought it was a grand recording.  There are some magical things that happen.  There are some things that come out of the tradition, where you have theme-and-variation, but I feel there are also some other things that weren’t quoted or stated in past presentations.  Now, this has to be for people who can sit down and listen with some sort of history of the music in terms of the evolution, or people who will sit down and just say, “Hey, man, this is some good stuff; where are THESE guys coming from?  I like this.”  Or some people will say, “Hey, man, turn that shit off.”  Because I’ve been in the company of so many people who just don’t even give a damn what’s being played.  They don’t want to hear that.  You’ve got to turn on 97.1 with the hip-hop, and then you get a response out of them.  But as far as I’m concerned, it’s a great project and I think it will stand the test of time.

TP:    Some of these songs I’m familiar with.  I think you did “The Loop” on one of your solo albums in the ’70s, and “The Navigator” is from that quartet you had with Sonelius Smith.  Can you discuss the dynamics of those pieces?

CYRILLE:  I have a duet tape somewhere around here of me and Butch Morris doing “The Loop.”  That was the first time I ever played the piece in public many years ago, when he and David Murray first came to New York.  “The Loop” is a piece I’ve played on occasion with people, you could say as a foil maybe, or something to give them to think about, and I’ve explained to them what I mean by “The Loop.”  The loop, to me, is like a figure-8 laying on its side, like the infinity sign.  So you go back and you go forth, you go back and forth.  It goes, DINK-duht-duht-DANK, DINK-duht-duht-DANK.  Then on top of that, I improvise a rhythm with the drumsticks on the drumset, with the basic rhythm being with the hi-hat and the bass drum, with that feeling of looping.  I explained that to Anthony, and I asked him to improvise something within this particular concept.

He wanted that one, and he also wanted…there’s another one that starts out with a basic ostinato kind of drum feeling.  He wanted those to be the first pieces, I think, of each CD, but I didn’t want that.  So we discussed that and came to an agreement.  I wanted “Duo (Palindrome)” to be the first piece, because that was more representative of how I felt our collaboration was or is at this time — even though “The Loop” is part of it.  Sometimes they say that to sell a CD, you’ve got to have a hook, and the first hook should be one of the strongest things on the CD in order to get people to buy it.  Because usually, when people pick up a recording, the first thing they do is play the first track, and if the first track is appealing, then they say, “Hey, I want to get this,” and then they listen to the rest of it.

Anyway, I thought it would be better for me and Anthony to have “Duo (Palindrome),” since that’s the idea anyway; we’re looking at each other, and 2002 is 2002 going forwards and backwards.  So conceptually, that’s what I got him to agree to.  He had another idea in terms of the water.  But I sat down and thought about it and explained it to him.
TP:    The tracks that are co-credited could be called improvisations.

CYRILLE:  Yes, I would say so.

TP:    Then we have “Water, Water, Water.”

CYRILLE:  That comes basically out of an African matrix that has a 6/8 feeling.  “Water, Water, Water” is a piece I recorded with Mor Thiam on Ode To The Living Tree, and I’ll tell you where the concept came from.  That came from me being on Gorie Island, which is one of the slave points of embarkation in Senegal, with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Fred Hopkins and Adegoke Steve Colson.  That was my first recording in Africa.  The feeling of being on that island… I was saying, “It could have been me,” as being one of those people moving through the door of no-return, getting on those ships, and being in those places of confinement.  I’ll tell you this much.  I visited Dachau, which is near Munich, and the construction of those camps and what I saw on Gorie Island is the same.  The same people could have constructed it.  It’s terrible.  And it makes me feel very sad as I’m talking about having viewed both of those places.  What people do to people, man, is terrible shit sometimes.

Anyway, I just thought about the buoyancy of being in one of those slave holds of one of those ships, and the ship moving up and down on the water.  That’s how I got that sense of composition for “Water, Water, Water.”  The beat is a 6/8 Ghanaian beat — GANK, GUGANK-GUGANKGU-GANK, GUGANK-GUGANK-GANK — and I augmented it with some other things that I do… In other words, that was the code.  The other part of it, with the sock cymbal and left hand and the bass drum, I added in terms of independent rhythms to support that code.  That was one of the pieces that I played with Anthony that projected this ostinato, which he liked very much.  I think he also wanted that to be the first piece on the second CD.  So we compromised, and I said, “Okay, Anthony, that can be the first piece of the second CD.”  I didn’t w want “The Loop” to be the first piece of the first CD.  For some reason, I didn’t want the drums to be out there like that on both CDs.  Maybe I have to analyze more in my head why I didn’t want that.

The excerpt from “The Navigator”: I wanted a rhythm that projected some kind of a march, and that was something that was the section of “The Navigator” which comes from the beginning part.  Now, all this is very interesting about me and water.  I’m not sure about what all this means, even though I’m a water sign, as they say, but I don’t necessarily believe in that kind of shit.

TP:    Did you used to go to Brighton Beach or Coney Island?  You’re from New York!

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  Riis Park was the place.  The thing about “The Navigator” is that when I asked a friend of mine to send me a picture of what he thought of the music, he sent me a picture of the coast of Panama, with these palm trees, and when I saw that, I said, “Yes, this works as the cover for ‘The Navigator,'” and then the association with water came after I’d written the composition.  I wrote the music, then I remembered this term, “the navigator.”  Noah Howard had said to me somewhere in Europe, “Yeah, you’re the navigator.”  So when I started writing this piece, I was going to call this “The Navigator.”  The navigator can be an airplane pilot, too.  Anybody can be a navigator.  But in this particular case, it came down with water and the navigator.

“Dr. Licks” is a brand-new piece, the one I most recently wrote.  “Dr. Licks” comes out of some drum licks, and I just wrote some notes to the drum licks.  I’m going to expand either with Marty and Mark or Reggie and Oliver.  It’s a sketch, so to speak.  But Anthony played it very well.  He brought some information to it in terms of how we could do it, and that was good.  We had to practice that a few times, because how it was written was relatively difficult.  I’d have to do it again myself, even though it’s my tune.  But I’d have to get in and use my brain to play the music.

TP:    You said you titled “A Musical Sense Of Life.”

CYRILLE:  Right.  I titled most of them, except for Anthony’s.  But we agreed on the titles.  I did the same thing with Richard Teitelbaum, titling most of the things on that recording, Double Clutch.  It has to do with how the music makes me feel, and what it makes me think about.  I guess all music which does not have words makes people think of something.  So whatever it is that you think of could be the title.  And if you agree with somebody that you’re in collaboration with, then fine.  Or if it’s just your piece… I said, “This is ‘Dr. Licks.'”  I didn’t say, “Tell me what you think about this title.” The other ones I said, “This reminds me of so-and-so; does it remind you of this?” And we sat down and listened to the music.  This was up at Rosenberg’s house, when we were thinking about titles.  He said, “Yeah!” or “No” or “Yeah, but you can add this word.” Like, “Duo (Palindrome),” I was going just going to say, “Palindrome,” but he said, “No, let’s make it ‘Duo (Palindrome),’ and when I explained to him what the word “Palindrome” meant in terms of 2002, he said, “Yeah, let’s call it ‘Duo (Palindrome) 2002.'”

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 7-30-04):

TP:    Let’s talk about the two weeks at Iridium, and then we can branch out. It was an opportunity for you to navigate a lot of the different areas you navigate. One was very open-ended improvising, and the other was more task-directed, playing tunes and interpreting them in your own way. Looking back, how do you evaluate the whole thing?

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, was challenging in that I had to deal with different personnel in the front line, so to speak. The horns were different. It was Dave Douglas the first night, then Gary Bartz on the second, and the third through sixth nights was Bennie Maupin, and each one of them came with something else insofar as how they decided how they were going to play what was being asked for. A lot of times, when people say things are open, sometimes they are very open and sometimes they are a little less open, even though, say, the improvisation might be free insofar as what you do within those different aspects of being open.

Now, what I mean is a lot of times, Henry would say, “Okay, Andrew, you and I will go out and we’ll start something and play together, and then Perry will come in, and then Bennie would come in.” Or he might say, “I’m going to start with a solo, and then Andrew, you come in, and then Gary, you come in.” Or he’ll say, “All of us start together.” In that light, I have to decide what it is I’m going to do based on a couple of things. One would be if that I’m going to start with Henry, then I have to have something in my head that’s pretty clear in terms of what I’m going to do to thrust the music out there and give it some thrust as I am presenting what it is that’s on my mind. At the same time, it’s like a gambit, an opening gambit in a chess game. So you make a move, and if both Henry and I make a move together, it might be some kind of unison, and sometimes it might not be a unison. So from that explosion, so to speak, or that piece of genetic, or genesis-birth, we go from there.  Then we begin listening to each other.

On the other side, if he says, “Okay, Andrew, you start and I’ll come in,” then I’ll start something more or less with the same idea that we play something, then he’ll relate to it.  He’ll listen and then he’ll play what he thinks goes with that.  It’s the same thing with me.  If he starts something, then I’ll listen to it.  Then I’ll try to find some music in my head that comes out of the drumset that will go along with what he’s playing on the bass.

TP:    By the end of the week, were you doing more unisons or call-and-responses?

CYRILLE:  Well, sometimes it was a call-and-response and sometimes it wasn’t. What I like to do sometimes with bass players… Horn players, too, but especially sometimes with bass players, because it’s not often done during the song… We’ll do exchanges.  So in that light, they’re not necessarily unisons; they’re like call-and-responses. Unisons are usually played when somebody plays something definite and it’s repeated. So then if I wanted to play exactly what would do that, and that would be a unison.  Other than that, there’s always a certain amount of “counterpoint” that’s going on, whether it be rhythmical or whether it be melodic — or even sometimes harmonic, depending on what the instrumentation is.
person was playing, or vice-versa, then we
TP:    You have a lot of experience playing in that context, but how much do you get to do that these days with people who share your history? What was interesting about the two weeks is that you were playing with people who were your generational peers and whose histories intersect in various ways. It’s an interesting dynamic.

CYRILLE:  The first week, of course, with Henry and Dave and Perry… You have to understand, too, that Perry is an extraordinary musician, insofar as, yes, he’s part of what you might call the avant-garde movement, but he plays a lot of standard tunes also. When we were touring in Europe… We didn’t do too much of that at the Iridium. On occasion, we’d play a standard.  But he was playing things like “My Foolish Things.” We played “Oleo” at the Iridium.  We also played that in Europe.  And there were several other pieces, standard repertoire. Another one was “Doxy.” He likes those standard tunes Sonny Rollins played, because he had a lot of experience with Sonny.

Anyway, we would segue sometimes from things that were totally open, or freely improvised, into something that had a certain kind of form. What that does is, that gives a kind of tension-and-release not only to us, the musicians, but also to the people who listen. Very often people appreciate that. Then sometimes, with certain groups, it’s just freely improvised for the whole set. On occasion we did that at the Iridium. We didn’t play any standard material with Dave Douglas; that night it was just free improvisation for the most part, if I remember correctly. When Gary came in, you know, Gary likes to play certain things in the pocket — grooves. So at a certain point in time, he would start playing something that had an ostinato motif, and we would all pick up on that and go there. Also sometimes, coming out of a solo, let’s say… And this was something great that Henry did. Coming out of a solo that I was playing. I’d start playing some kind of a rhythmical motif in an ostinato way, or maybe not even ostinato, maybe I’d just do it a couple of times coming out of a solo, and then Henry picked up the rhythm and added some pitches to it, and that became the genesis of another piece, or something that evolved from a solo that I was doing.

He’s great that way. His ability to be flexible is fantastic. Bass players very often have to play a lot of ostinato lines, and then when those ostinato lines are played everybody, including me, the drummer, and the horn players or piano players, we can dance on those kinds of things.  It gives us a bed that we…like little kids jump up and down on and do whatever flips, jumping off the bed, jumping back on the bed, etc., landing on your behind, on your stomach — and it’s because you have that mattress there.  That’s what Henry provided.

So that week was interesting in that way. The other thing about sometimes playing free is that you have to find something, number one, that is of interest to you.  That is, I, the musician, have to find something that I feel good about, and then try to get the musicians on stage to relate to it and have them feel good about it, and then collectively we can give that to the audience, and the audience feels good about what we’re feeling good about.  So it’s not as easy sometimes as people might think it is, because we have no prescription.

TP:    Playing free doesn’t imply, then, any particular way of playing.  It doesn’t imply playing rubato or playing metrically.  It has more to do with playing the idea that suits the moment.

CYRILLE:  Right.  And that could be metrically or it could be rubato. It all depends on what you decide to do.

TP:    Would that have been the case, say, forty years ago?  Let’s say you and Perry Robin and Henry had been playing at the Judson Church in 1966, would those options have come into play, or would there have been a more rigid approach to what you could or could not do?

CYRILLE:  Well, it all depends on where our heads were at the time, and what was being put out there at that particular time.  I can’t really tell you. Forty years ago…

TP:    1964-65-66.

CYRILLE:  Well, it would depend on the people I was playing with. I remember playing rubato stuff with Walt Dickerson back in 1961-62. There weren’t very many people that I came into contact with at that time who were doing that kind of stuff.

TP:    But by ‘65-’66, you were with Cecil a few years, and Unit Structures is ’66 and Conquistador is ‘67, or vice-versa. What I’m saying is, had the three of you been together then, would you have availed yourself or so many options, or might your approach have been a bit more rigid?

CYRILLE:  Well, I can’t answer that. It all would have depended on what we wanted to do at that time.  If somebody came up with that idea and said, “Well, let’s play free…” Well, for instance, look.  When I was a kid and 15-16 years old, I had a band where it was Eric Gale, the guitar player, and another young fellow in Brooklyn named Leslie Braithwaite. We used to get together, and we’d play tunes like “But Not For Me” “Lullaby of Birdland” and “Scrapple From The Apple.” Now, at that time, if somebody said, “Hey, man, let’s play some rubato stuff,” probably everybody would say, ‘Hey, man, what are you talking about?  That stuff is not what we want to do; that’s not the kind of music we play.”

I was trying to learn how to play time, learn how to swing, etc.  Around that time we began meeting certain musicians, like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne, etc., all those guys in Brooklyn, and there was a certain kind of basic thing that you had to do if you wanted to play drums with them, if you wanted to be a musician. If you couldn’t do that, that meant you couldn’t play with them.  Now, all of this other stuff came later on insofar as musicians who became stronger and decided that they wanted to do something else musically — philosophically is really what it comes down to — and had the strength to do it.  Like, for instance, Cecil. Because Cecil played standards, but then he decided to become more or less what you might say an iconoclast.  And he broke that up!  Because he felt that he needed to do something else…a way to play the music. And he would say that there was another way to swing, you see.  In some ways, that’s true.  But when you don’t play changes in a very methodical way, if you don’t keep time in a very methodical way, it opens the music up. Things open up. So at that particular time, when we began to do that kind of stuff, it was something that we were doing in contrast to something that we had already known about, you see, that we could do.  It was a matter of choice.

TP:    I won’t keep this real historical.  But I’ve never had a chance to ask you in a detailed way which drummers you were modeling yourself after when you were that 16-17-year-old learning to play those tunes.

CYRILLE:  Well, listening to records.  The first records I went out and bought were… The first or second 10” record was one with Red Rodney, and the other one was “Tempus Fugit” with Miles Davis, with Gil Coggins on piano. Red Rodney looks like he’s about 19 years old on the cover. But I had a job.  I was working in Horn & Hardhart, washing dishes, and I started getting into the music.  I had a drumset.  And I began listening to this music, which was fascinating to me.  And since I was playing drums, I decided, “Gee, I wonder can I do this; I’d like to do this.”  And I kept trying.

TP:    You  were in high school, working at Horn & Hardhart, and you’d already been in the drum and bugle corps.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  I started in the drum-and-bugle corps when I was like 11.

TP:    And you picked up your rudiments quite quickly from all accounts.

CYRILLE:  Well, sort of.  Rudiments are something you don’t necessarily pick up quickly, because they’re sticking patterns, and you have to LEARN them. Then you have to continuously repeat them in practice, and then, of course, you put them into parade cadences for drumming, the bugle, etc., and bass drums and tenor drums to be in conjunction with.  So you play those march rhythms, those martial things. For military!  That’s what those drum-and-bugle corps are.  They’re quasi-military bands.

TP:    For the troops to march in time.

CYRILLE:  That’s right. You see what I mean?  We could start talking about that, too, scientifically, a 17-stroke roll and a 13-stroke roll.  Like, when you start it and then you end it on the 13th beat, that takes a certain amount of time for the soldiers to make their steps. RRRRMMMMMP, and that’s when they put the foot down. They hear that, and then they know; this is how you get them to march in unison.  So if you want to get them to march a little faster, you play a shorter roll.

TP:    So you’re in high school studying chemistry and you have an after-school job at Horn & Hardhart, and you start hearing trap drums on these jazz records.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  But let me take you back a little more, too.  See, it all is mixed with other influences.  Many of those people who were teaching me the rudiments to play in the marching band were also jazz drummers. People like Willie Jones, for instance. Then there was Lenny McBrowne at that time, and Lee Abrams, who was working with Dinah Washington and probably had done some stuff with Lester Young. Willie Jones had done some stuff with Lester Young and was working with Monk. But see, the person who came to the grade school to start the drum-and-bugle corps…

TP:    You were saying the people who taught you rudiments were jazz drummers, and the person who started you in grade school was a guy named Pop Janson.

CYRILLE:  Abdulio Janson(?) was his name, that’s right.  He came to the school and resuscitated the drum-and-bugle corps that had existed before I got to the grade school.  I guess this was during World War Two.

TP:    Had your family emigrated from Haiti?

CYRILLE:  Yes.  My mother and father did. My mother came here at the age of 23, and they came here in 1926. My father came here in 1919, you see, and he was born in 1894. They’d been here for a while.  My mother had me at 36, and my father was 46.

TP:    Was there music in your family or extended family?  Were people playing the Haitian folkloric stuff or various Caribbean things?

CYRILLE:  My mother would sing me the songs like “Frere Jacques, frere jacques…” She was always singing to me, and playing those games, the fingers go into the chest and then into the mouth and then the eyes, to teach you how to talk and where the different parts of your body were.  She always did that. We had a piano in the house. I never took any lessons; my sister got the lessons. But see, then, my mother and father separated when I was 4. Had they not separated, I don’t necessarily know what would have happened to me, what they would have done with or for me.  But I remember before my mother and father separated, she gave the piano to a club that she belonged to, the Haitian Alliance, because they needed a piano. She’d say that I was dirtying up the keys and I was biting the wood and all that sort of stuff. I guess I was teething or something like that. Anyway, she gave the piano away, and I… The piano always fascinated me, and I always wanted to play it.

So eventually, when I got a call to join the drum-and-bugle corps… As a matter of fact (I tell this story all the time, and it’s true), when the call came around to the classroom (I was in 7th or 8th grade at the time) that Pop Janson wants to start a drum-and-bugle corps, I remember saying to myself, “I don’t want to join any drum-and-bugle corps because I don’t want to march up and down the street.” Probably if some of my schoolmates hadn’t joined up, that wouldn’t have done it either.  But a good friend of mine at that time, my buddy in grade school, he had gone to the bugle corps, and I had gone over to his house in the afternoon that day to meet, and his mom said that he had gone to the auditorium. So I went over to the auditorium. Now, this is a funny story. Another classmate of mine, whose name was Eli Beans(?), and Eli came out of the auditorium… Of course, at that time there were other kids in the class who were like tough guys, and we’d have to spar with them. Sometimes you would get into fights. Because some of them were bully types, but some were rational and intelligent [LAUGHS], so they joined the corps. I remember one young man named Smith, and as I was walking up to the door of the gym, Eli looks at me, and said, “Hey, man, Smith said if you don’t join the corps, he’s going to see you tomorrow.” So I guess some of it… And it’s not that I wouldn’t have fought with Smith, and gone out there and did what I had to do all the time in order to survive in that environment.  But my friend Bernard was in the corps, there were a few other boys from the classroom, and so I said, “Okay, I’ll join.”

TP:    It was the path of least resistance.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, so to speak.  And, then, too, I wanted to hang out with my buddies who played the drums and bugles, and they asked me what did I want to play, and I said, “Okay, I want to play drums.”

This is how things work sometimes. You go in and put a quarter in the slot machine, and then you hit the jackpot. So I went in there and they showed me how to hold the sticks, and then they said, “Play this” — the roll, mamadada, mamadada, bop-bop-bop-bop, right-right, left-left, right-right, left-left. Then they showed me one that was a little harder. They said, “Okay, you can do this, that’s good; now try this one.” Right-left, right-right, left-left. And not even thinking, I did it, right-left, right-right, left-left. I remember it was Willie Jones, and he said, “Hey, man, look at this kid!  He can play this paradiddle!” They called that a paradiddle. I didn’t know what was going on.  I just did it.  So then they discovered that I had what they called natural hands.  As a result also, I liked doing it, because it was a challenge…

TP:    And you could do it, so you didn’t get bored.

CYRILLE:  I could do it.  So I found a vehicle.  I found a voice for myself in terms of sound and being able to do something that made me feel good and made other people feel good.

TP:    Once you discovered the trapset, though, and were playing, I’m interested in who the voice were that you were emulating.

CYRILLE:  Okay, let me finish the story. People like Willie Jones and Lenny McBrowne were coming down there, helping Pop Janson get these kids together, of which I was one.  Then Willie said there are other ways to play the drums, and got a drumset. So he would invite me and some of the other kids, especially Bernard, over to his house on occasion, and we’d sit at the drumset. So then he started telling me the bass drum does one thing, the hi-hat does another thing, the right hand does this, the left hand does that. Also Lenny McBrowne was saying the same thing. They were older than us, obviously. Then they started talking about these jazz musicians. They said, “there’s music that drums play other than parade music.” So then they started talking to us about Max Roach, they started talking about Art Blakey, they started talking about Shadow Wilson.  And then, sometimes they would take two or three of us to this place called the Putnam Central, which was around the corner from the school we went to where the auditorium was, where Max Roach would be practicing. (Putnam Ave. and Claussen.) So Max would be up in this place, practicing — I say “up” because it was upstairs. We couldn’t go in because they sold alcohol in the place, So we would stand in the vestibule and listen to this guy up there playing, and I mean, I heard this BARRAGE coming out of there, and I didn’t know exactly what it was… They kept talking about these people.

Just to make a long story short, that was my introduction to the drumset and to the sound of jazz, so to speak. Aside from hearing Max Roach practicing, during that same period of time, there was Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich was out there, Cozy Cole, and these people were making hits that were played on the radio station WWRL.  Out here, people liked Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, and they’d be playing that music. So as a result of all of this stuff coming together, I was given a certain kind of ground, I was given a nest that I could go to, and then begin to decide for myself what I wanted to do with my life.

TP:    And then someone like Willie Jones or Lenny McBrowne could show you how Max or Art Blakey or Shadow Wilson constructed a pattern or a groove.

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah.  But you see, it’s not as easy as that. Because drummers… There’s a certain thing called independent coordination. You’ve got to do it over and over and over, until after a while, it becomes something where you don’t even really think about certain things, and it becomes muscle-memorized. Then you go on from there.

TP:    Let’s take things from there to 1964: There are a number of things you’re doing. You’re doing regular gigs where you have to play time, like with Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet…

CYRILLE:  Nellie Lutcher was way before that, like 1959.

TP:    It sounds like you go to Juilliard around ‘60, and there you play at sessions, you get a gig with Mary Lou, with Jacquet, you have to play time and do what you have to do. Then you’re also playing with dancers and you’re getting a multidimensional notion of what rhythm is, and a certain sense of abstraction. Then you’re hearing African drummers, and you get a gig with Olatunji, which is seminal for you, because you’re hearing all these rhythms and having to play them and internalizing them. Then you meet Cecil when you were about 19 or something…

CYRILLE:  I met Cecil when I was 17.

TP:    So it’s 1957, you’re 17, you meet Cecil, and you go to this joint with Cecil…

CYRILLE:  No-no.

TP:    You’re at Hartnett and then go uptown…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, but see, that was much later on. That was six or seven years later. Cecil and I would just see each other. I mean, he was another musician. He wasn’t who he is now. He was just a guy who was practicing and wanted to get his thing together. I mean, he had a sense of direction, I’m sure.  But he’d see me, and we’d wave to each other, like guys see each other on the street and sometimes nod… I’d play, and he’d say, “Yeah, man, sounds like you’ve been listening to Philly Joe Jones.” I mean, Cecil had his ear to what was going down. Yeah, I liked Joe, because I met Joe at the same time, too.

TP:    He hung in Brooklyn a lot.

CYRILLE:  He lived in Brooklyn, not too far from the Turbo Village.  But there were a lot of musicians who worked there. Here’s a footnote for you. The first drummer Freddie Hubbard played with when he came to New York was me, at the Turbo Village. The first musician that John Handy ever played with when he came to New York was me. We played a gig up at the Shalimar by Randolph, in Harlem, across the street from a place called Sugar Ray’s at 135th and 7th, across the street from the Hotel Theresa. I forgot what the organ player’s name was. But that was the first gig John Handy made when he came to New York. We were talking about when he was at Iridium, laughing about it.

What I’m saying is that all of these things, in a sense… See, even before I went to Juilliard, I was playing gigs with people like Duke Jordan, like wedding receptions and things like that. There was a lot of that stuff going on in Brooklyn. Like, almost every weekend, you’d sit by the telephone and somebody would call you up in the morning or late in the afternoon, and you’d get a phone call saying, “Hey, man, there’s a gig uptown on Bainbridge Street’” or “There’s a gig on Ralph Avenue; they need somebody for a party,” or “There’s a wedding going on; are you available” or “Can you do this tomorrow?” Eventually, I didn’t have to work at Horn & Hardhart, or I didn’t have to deliver… I was working in the garment center. I was delivering rolls of textiles from one place to another.

TP:    and you were studying chemistry.

CYRILLE:  And I was studying chemistry. Exactly. That was something I had to make a decision about as to what I was going to do with my life, whether I was going to continue pursuing chemistry or whether I was going to pursue music. The difference was that I liked chemistry, I liked it a lot, but I loved music — so I went with the love.  And the love continues.

TP:    At what point did playing function, playing time, start to feel confining?

CYRILLE:  See, that’s a term that I don’t like.

TP:    Well, when did it feel that you had to do something? Playing with Illinois Jacquet to playing with Cecil is a radical difference in attitude.

CYRILLE:  But see, the thing is that for  me, Andrew Cyrille, there’s not such a bifurcation. For me, it’s about learning how to play music, and music is broad. So even if it was, say, ametrical or not playing certain tempos, time, etc., that was fine, because we were playing another kind of music. It’s like when I was playing in the high school band and playing Dvorak and stuff like that.  It’s what was being asked for.  When I was playing for the dancers, it’s what I heard in my mind that was given to them so that they could do their choreography.

TP:    So you were a professional. You had the attitude of a professional very early on. Was that notion of professionalism innate to you?  Or did musicians teach you that?

CYRILLE:  Hey, look, this is what goes down, man. You look at the dictionary, or at least when I was in school… Willie Jones and all those cats talked about, “You’ve got to be a professional.” I’d see a Gigi Gryce, a Jackie McLean, all those cats at a place called the Continental. They looked professional. So what does that mean?  That means they were working. See, they were in business. So if I also wanted to make some money, like Max Roach… Max Roach was one of the consummate professionals.  You’ve got to do what people do who do the business, who make the money.

TP:    But you turned that into a way of also making art, because you approached each function as creatively as you could.

CYRILLE:  Right.

TP:    At least, you now have all those vocabularies down, and it’s your creative voice.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s therapeutic for me, because I’m one of those people who loves excitement, who loves adventure, who loves to explore. I mean, those things that I did with Milford Graves, playing drums with him, was one of the most exciting things in my life — that record we did The Dialogue of The Drums.  That’s some tough stuff. So anybody, even when it’s with Roswell Rudd, Archie Shepp, Oliver Lake, it’s all still the same thing in terms of being creative and us dealing with each other in terms of the concept that the music presents. So if I’m playing “Hope Two,” that piece Archie wrote for Elmo Hope, I still have to struggle to find some stuff in there that’s going to be exciting and that’s going to be new and different, even though the prescription might be the same.  But it’s how you reinterpret the prescription to make the shit happen.

TP:    Are people interpreting the prescription similarly, or is it a different prescription now than it was forty years ago, when all of you who were on stage at Iridium were feeling your oats?

CYRILLE:  Look, if I’m playing with Braxton, then it’s a different prescription from what it was forty years ago.  If I’m doing something with Muhal, then it’s different, but sometimes it’s the same, because Muhal plays blues a lot of times at the end of his gig, and he’ll say he wants a backbeat.  When I was playing those gigs with people like George Braith and Billy Gardner… I used to sit in with Lou Donaldson from time to time.  You play those organ gigs where you have to go out to those places where Don Pullen also played, like Hempstead, Long Island, where those sleep-in women who would be working at some of those homes out there… On Thursday night or Friday night, they’d have a night off and they’d come to those clubs, where you’d have the blue and green lights turning around, with those filters, where people were dancing and men were meeting women, and a lot of times you had to play those blues so those people could get off, so they could actually feel they were having a good time. You LEARNED how to do that.  That’s part of being a professional.  But as a musician, it’s not something that you deal with from the head down.  You deal with it from the stomach up to the head, and then you FEEL good about what you’re doing, and then those people, of course, feel good about what they’re hearing you play, what you’re giving them.  They’re out there on the floor dancing. It’s the same thing even when I was playing for people at the June Taylor School of Dancers.  You play the music, and then you can watch their bodies move to the way you play the rhythms, how you accent certain things. So that’s the thrill for me.

TP:    It sounds like playing for Cecil was your own time.

CYRILLE:  Well, with Cecil I did what I wanted to. But the challenge then becomes to keep something happening on the same level as it would happen if I was playing the blues, or if I was playing with a dancer who would say to me, “Okay, drummer, make my body move.”

TP:    Or if you were “swinging.”

CYRILLE:  Yeah. But see, the definition of swing to some people means Sid Catlett.  That’s who Kenny Clarke told me was his favorite drummer. See, Kenny Clarke told me… And all these things MEAN something to me.  I’d like to BE that if I could.  He told me that Big Sid was a drummer who all of those chorus line dancers who used to do stuff with Duke up in Harlem, when they would have rehearsals… Because sometimes, as a drummer, you need that if you’re going to do certain moves. He said those dancers loved Big Sid because he made them feel as though they were dancing on a cloud. And when you start thinking about it, all of those instruments sit on the rhythm.  They sit on the drums.  They sit on the drums and the bass.

TP:    You were joking about Valerie Wilmer’s comment, and it’s in the liner notes of this FMP date with Cecil, that Cecil gave you the metaphor of playing for a dance along with him, or extrapolating the things you’d done in dance towards creative uses with him.  Is that how Cecil helped to shape what you were doing, or was it something you were prepared to do and came into naturally?

CYRILLE:  See, a lot of times people will say certain things, and then you have to come up with how you’re going to do it. So if that was said to me, then I had to think about maybe something that I played for a dancer somewhere, at sometime, or maybe something that I would play for a dancer now if that were the situation.

The most outstanding thing, in my mind, that Cecil ever said to me was, “Do what drummers do.” It’s very simple. I know what drummers do, because I’m a drummer, and I’m going to do what I do. See?  So in that light, he never told me, “Don’t do this, don’t do that, do this, that or the other.” Maybe twice I remember he asked me to play something specific, like a 3 against a 5, or some kind of metrical situation.  And he wasn’t really that specific about it. He just said, “Play 3 against 5 here,” blah-blah, blah-blah. And I did whatever it was that I thought he was talking about.  But most of the time, and I’d say 99% of the time (if I have to talk about that being 1 percent when he asked me to play this or that), it was always, “do what you want to do, man; you know what to do.”

Even when we were at Antioch and we were with that big band, we had that orchestra of students… There are some tapes around from that period, which is great. But what I was doing with that orchestra and the “percussion section” was whatever I felt like. See?  I would write music out in my way for the other drummers, who were part of the ensemble, and that’s what went down. So when Cecil would do the orchestration and give the notes to the other voices, I would be in the back, and whatever it was that I heard, I would apply the percussion music to whatever it was that was going on with the melodies and the harmonies. So it was always that way with me and him.  And the challenge for me becomes to bring that up the highest artistic level that I could, to bring some kind of feeling, bring some kind of logical meaning to what it is that I am playing or what it is that I am orchestrating.

TP:    Still, the overriding notion is whatever it is.  It’s not a one-sound type of thing. I’m not saying this pejoratively, but when Rashied Ali was playing with Coltrane he was going straight-ahead, and so was Sunny Murray with Ayler.  But I can’t see them approaching each area in the systematic manner you do. What makes you stand out, it seems, is that you’re able to apply systematic logic in a very creative way, which makes you and Braxton a logical mix.

CYRILLE:  That could very well be. That could be the analogy.  But see, I’ve always tried to be open. I can’t say I love everything because that would be a lie. But I have played duets with Rashied, and I have tapes of me and Rashied playing together in a concert at Antioch, and it’s great music. Now, Rashied showed me a lick, which is something I use from time to time when I do solos, that’s something Coltrane showed him — it’s a thing called “Coltrane time.” It deals with a rhythmical concept that’s based on numbers, like 1-2, 1-2, 1-2, and you play it a certain way, and it comes out of what Coltrane was doing when he was into the Indian raga stuff, like “Sun Ship,” when you hear that kind of rhythm. Rashied showed me and Milford Graves that rhythm, and sometimes when we get together and do a collective…or when I do it with maybe other drummers, too… I’ll show them the rhythm, and we’ll play it. So that’s a system, and if you want to call that a certain straight-ahead prescription…

But straight-ahead very often means that you’re playing 4/4…

TP:    I meant it differently. What I’m thinking about with is how many different areas of getting sound and vocabulary and stories out of the drums you seem to be able to weave together into one personality. It’s like Braxton said, you have these thousands of phrases that you can call up at a moment’s notice…

CYRILLE:  You know why?  Because I believe that the more you know, the more you have to say.  That’s the vocabulary. That’s like words. You’re talking I’ve got to come up with a typology.  Well, if you knew all the words in the dictionary, I’m sure you wouldn’t have that much of a problem.

TP:    Which also sounds a lot like what the AACM people were talking about in the ‘60s. Braxton made some reference to that as well. The notion that you listen to everything.

CYRILLE:  Yeah. And I love being that kind of person. Not long ago, Zildjian did a thing for Steve Gadd. They were talking about the greatness of Steve Gadd is that he can go into all of these sessions… And we’re all sitting there listening to whatever they’re talking about, and they’re praising him, all praises due… They’re talking about how he goes into these studios, and then he listens, and whatever these people want, he gives it to them, and sometimes they don’t even know what they want, but they ask him to do something in relationship to what it is they’re playing, and he comes up and he plays this stuff, and it WORKS for them! And obviously, it must work for him.

I am the same kind of person in this genre — or I want to be this kind of person. Max Roach to some degree is that kind of person also — almost.

TP:    He wouldn’t occur to me because he seems to be so unto himself.

CYRILLE:  Well, he played for dancers. He played shows.  He played big band with Ellington. He played in the drum and bugle corps. He wasn’t always the Max Roach that we knew. He just worked hard, found himself in that situation with Bird and those people, and he wanted to be somebody who contributed to that vein of music.

TP:    That applies to your professional life now, because you play in a staggering range of situations. The Finnish cat, Tarasov, the European improvisers, Cecil, the thing with Reggie and Oliver is one sound, the thing with Dresser and Marty is another type of sound, the percussion group with Moye, Tabbal and Obo Addy… So apart from keeping you busy with a lot of projects, the diversity and multidisciplinarity of it must keep you tremendously stimulated.

CYRILLE:  Oh, yeah.  And the point becomes to manage my time so I can find the time to do what I really need to do to to give what’s necessary to all of it.

TP:    Now, the quality you’re talking about, that you’re the type of guy Zildjian was referring to with Steve Gadd, really came to the fore in the second week at Iridium. You have a bamako beat, on another one you’re playing 4/4 spangalang… Each piece had a frame, and within that frame you’re…

CYRILLE:  Yeah, the bamako beat comes out of my experiences with Africans. Olatunji wasn’t the only African I played with. This is interesting. I played with a group of guys, we used to play dances — a guy named Victor N’Kojo Finn and Joe Mensa. There was a saxophonist from Detroit named Wendell Harrison. There was John Gilmore and Marshall Allen in some of those bands. Sun Ra used to come up to rehearsals and sometimes tell Olatunji to play one thing or another. Yusef Lateef even did a couple of gigs with Olatunji. But anyway, all of those people I mentioned to you, including myself, were playing the African stuff. So when somebody like Roswell Rudd comes up with “Bamako,” there’s ten different things that I can do with that!

TP:    Did you ever play with Latin bands?

CYRILLE:  Yeah, you play mambos.

TP:    Or with Haitian bands.

CYRILLE:  No, I never played with any Haitian bands, but you hear the rhythms.  Here’s the point. Even when you’re playing with Latin bands or Cuban bands… I’ve done some stuff with Daniel Ponce — he, I and Milford, as a matter of fact.  The thing is, once you understand what the matrix of that stuff is with this African rhythm, then it can move through anything that relates to that kind of playing, you see, with that downbeat on the 1 and the downbeat on the 1 and 3.  With swing, the inflections are on the 2 and 4, which is another way of thinking about music — and why that is is another thing.  What you play in the middle of it, from one beat to the next is the flavor. But when you play, like, Brazilian music… Now, one of the musics that I did play with some people that gave me a little bit of trouble was Brazilian music, because the inflection of where they placed the beats in the meter was a little different.

Another thing is that a lot of music comes out of the way people talk.  So what’s being played is also how it’s being said in words. It’s just that they’re playing it in sound. Because you take all of those people from the South and the Delta, etc., when you hear them talk and you hear them play, it’s almost the same thing.  What I’m saying is that when you play the African music, and you understand how to move from one place to the next with those sounds, you can play with people from Cuba, you can play from people from Nigeria, you can play with people from Haiti, you can play with people from the Dominican Republic. So anybody who is related to that in any way all can come together.

TP:    The common root.

CYRILLE:  It’s the common root.  It was the same thing with Mor Thiam, who’s from Senegal. On that record, Ode To the Living Tree, on the end there’s a piece called “Water, Water, Water” and at the beginning… Well, Mor Thiam just sat down and started playing. I had some concepts about evolution in terms of playing the swing beat, which is what I did, and we had no problem. Because I understand the genesis of that music.

TP:    Let me ask you a more general question. What do you think about the way drum vocabulary has evolved since you first got in the game?

CYRILLE:  Well, it’s fantastic. Elvin brought another thing to it. Tony Williams brought another thing to it.

TP:    Were you paying attention to Elvin and Tony?

CYRILLE:  Damn right I was paying attention to them.  You pay attention to it because you hear it, and all of a sudden, you hear something that’s kind of the same, but the way it’s being said… We all speak English, but sometimes you hear an orator talk, and he begins putting some stuff together, like Martin Luther King stringing it together in a way that you know is cool, but then again, it’s different — and it’s attractive.

TP:    But in the ‘60s, you were checking Tony out?  You were checking Elvin out?

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  Because when I first heard Tony… I met Tony at a place called the Coronet in Brooklyn. I forgot who he was working with. But he was one of the cats that had come on the scene.  He was working with Jackie. He wasn’t working with Miles yet.  Then I hear this guy, and the thing was that being so young, he was so strong, and then the way he was assigning the rhythm, the way he was playing it, how he was, let’s say, enunciating what he was saying, was very, very strong, and then, at the same time, very, very musical. So then what you say to yourself is, “Damn, how did he hear that?” What is the grid for that? Well, you kind of know what the grid is, but you say, “Damn, this guy…” It’s like looking at a painter. You give him a canvas and somebody does one thing with the canvas and then somebody else uses the same paints or form, but you look at it and say, “Wow, this is really different!” So that’s what I saw with Tony…

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers who emerged after you got your mature voice who you were checking out and paying attention to?

CYRILLE:  I’ll tell you who I like.  Lewis Nash is a good one. Lewis is strong.  Lewis knows the language of playing the drums.  And he’s creative with it, and I can tell that he continues to work at it.  He’s very strong, and so many musicians in the straightahead idiom like him. They like working with him.  He gets all kinds of calls for that kind of stuff.  He’s not so much of a threat insofar as taking them into some area where perhaps they won’t be able to do what they need to do.  In other words, he’s the consummate drummer for people like Tommy Flanagan or maybe Cedar Walton… And he can do so many types of things. He worked with Oscar Peterson and all those people…

Somebody else who is a very creative musician but doesn’t get the same kind of play in the media is Michael Carvin. I’ve done duets with Michael Carvin. Which were superb!  I might do some more of them.

TP:    Where I’m coming from is I want your sense… You’re 64. So you’ve lived through about a half-century of jazz music. Things have changed, and the way drums are approached has changed — maybe. Is that so?  If so, how is it…

CYRILLE:  I teach over at the New School.  So I see a lot of young kids who come in there who are 19-20-21 years old, and they know a lot about what has gone on — and some of them don’t know a whole lot about what has gone on. But they come in with raw talent, you see, and some of them are a little further along than others in terms of their ability to play the music at hand or the music that’s asked for by teachers in the classrooms.  And some of those kids are really excellent. I mean, they’re phenomenal.  And some of them are already playing professionally. So they come in with the attitude that they want to do their thing, and the point becomes that if they’re doing their thing within the prescription of the classroom, of what’s being asked of them, then it works. Very often I don’t tamper with certain things. I might nudge them this way or that a bit, or make them realize certain things that they should look for when they’re playing with a singer or maybe doing something with a bass… Anything that will make them better musicians.  But insofar as them being creative and being able to play certain kinds of rhythms within the tradition, sometimes it’s just amazing.  All you’ve got to do is come up there and check some of them out. We have these what they call listening sessions once a semester, and the classes come together, and each class plays a couple of tunes, and the bands from the different classes get graded by the faculty that’s designated to be there on that day. I might be there, Joanne Brackeen might be there, Reggie Workman has a class there, Joe Chambers, Billy Harper, maybe Cecil Bridgewater, Cecil McBee was there… All of our classes play.  And in some of those classes, some of those drummers are fantastic little students.

TP:    One thing that’s happening is you’re finding a lot of drummers from outside the U.S., like Dafnis Prieto… The term might seem amusing to you, since you’ve brought so many elements into your music for so long, but there’s a sort of bilingualism, where people have an idiomatic command of Cuban music, say, and learn the jazz vocabularies, and blend the cultures into a sort of hybrid.  There are so many musical communities in New York breaking bread with each other. Do you see that having an impact on the sound of the music now?

CYRILLE:  Oh, of course. Because jazz has always been a music that has been evolving.  This is what the United States is. So if we have not done anything, we’ve done this.  We’ve given different cultures another methodology to express themselves within their own cultures.

TP:    I think that’s a great one-sentence breakdown of the phenomenon.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  And all of them love us for that.  That’s why I can go to the Soviet Union and play with Vladimir Tarasov, and we can have a ball.

TP:    So it really has to do with the process.  The process is the most important thing.

CYRILLE:  And if one understands the process, then we can work together.  Now, there is one group of drummers with whom our process does not always fit immediately, and that’s the Indian drummers, because they have another system of counting.  When you begin to base certain things on the Western tradition in terms of how we learn music… For instance, when I went to Russia and was playing with Vladimir… He invited me to go play with him. So I was saying to myself before I went, “What in the hell are we going to play?  What are we going to play together?” So all I could do was prepare myself for what I had.  And when I got over there, I had written the chart. He could read it. He gave me a chart.  I could read it.  Then, from there, he began telling me that where we was born, Archangel, was a port more or less like New York, where you had sailors coming in from different parts of the world. So when he was gigging, like me, you’re 15-16-17-18-19, or however old you have to be in order to get into places that sell liquor, you begin to learn these different kinds of musics from the different people that come through, and for certain things you have to play for people. For instance, I learned how to play polkas when I would be playing barmitzvahs and stuff like that. So I’m sure he more or less learned the same kind of thing.  So when you’d say “shuffle,” he understood what a shuffle was.  When you’d say “backbeat,” he understands what a backbeat is. When I went to his house, there was a picture of him standing with Duke Ellington. See, Duke had gone over there, and it just so happened that he was able to take a picture with Duke.  That’s where his head was.  So when he got with me, we had the same type of methodology, even though his inflections were perhaps a little different because he came from outside the States.  Also, the other part of it with him is that he was dealing with the Ganelin Trio, who were also playing “free jazz.” So in a sense, we had worked together insofar as the processes were concerned.

I did something with him last year in Hungary (and I think it was done twice) with a dance company called… The name will come to me. Vladimir and I played music to a piece that was choreographed… It was like a play.  Then there was a film.  We improvised a lot… We talked about how we were going to do it, certain places, certain things we were going to improvise.  Just like I did with Henry.  Here we improvise, here you play this, here I’ll play that, you play this against this, here we’ll read a certain thing, here you’ll only play, there you’ll only play. The dancer is… They live in a place called Kanitza(?), which is right below Hungary, in Yugoslavia. He came to New York.  He’s a big-time guy over there. I think he lives in France, too. Joseph Nagy.

All I’m saying is that with Vladimir, we understand the process, and with that, we can get together. We can communicate.

TP:    You said that your early mentors pounded into that you have to be a professional.  Did they also pound into you that you have to be an individual?

CYRILLE:  Yes. And I’ll tell you why.  I used to hang out with all of them cats. But the cat that I would be with on a physical level more than any of the others was Philly Joe Jones. When we were with Joe and Max and all them people, they would talk about, “Hey, man, you got to play your own shit.” Among the intelligentsia, it’s about “is this cat playing his own shit or is he playing somebody else’s stuff?”  And it’s cool if you’re playing somebody else’s stuff, because it works. It’s been tried, it’s true, and it’s been tested.  But when you can get out there and do something unique, like Elvin or Philly Joe Jones or Max Roach or Roy Haynes… Even Buddy Rich, to some degree. I could talk to you about how I feel about him.  But he was unique in a lot of ways. He played his ass off in some ways. But as far as Joe and Max and those guys, it wouldn’t be true to say they don’t respect other drummers, because that’s not true.  They do.  All of us out here are trying to do what we do.  But the people who shape the music, who cause other drummers to think about what they’re doing and think about those people, are the people who are lionized. I can’t say they’re respected the most, but these are the kings.  Then you have the rest of the world — the princes, the dukes and the earls.

TP:    You mentioned Lewis Nash and Carvin. Can you name anyone else doing what you describe.

CYRILLE:  There are people who are trying to do certain things. I don’t always understand what he does, but he’s in it to some degree in terms of being creative and trying to find something that works — Bobby Previte. Hemingway is another one who’s an individual, who works from his own system as far as tuning the drums is concerned. Of course, Paul Motian is another one.  The way Motian assigns the rhythm is different. I’ll tell you who else is different, though I don’t know if he’s under 50, is Tony Oxley. I don’t necessarily play that way, but he’s got an arsenal of whatever makes percussive sounds, and that’s what he plays.

TP:    I was thinking of people like Tain or Bill Stewart…

CYRILLE:  Those cats are… Stewart is a strong man. I first heard Stewart when he was playing with Enrico Rava in Germany. I had a gig with Spencer Barefield and Oliver Lake at Leverkusen, and I heard Billy Stewart, and he was really quite impressive. He was strong, and he knew what he wanted to play, and he was fast, and he gave the band what they wanted — he was somebody to behold. Tain is another one who is a great person, extraordinary with his talent.

But what I’m talking about is when you hear somebody who comes in, and they’re playing something that is really different. I’m talking about like a Tony. He’d do certain things with one hand, he’d do something with another hand, and the way he was playing those rhythms, you never heard anything quite like that.  That was different! Elvin was different.  See, Tain is different, too, but not AS different. Another one who is like that, to me, is DeJohnette.  See, DeJohnette is kind of like a synthesis.  He is an excellent drummer, but I don’t think he has influenced the legions of drummers around the world the same way like Max or Tony or Elvin or maybe Philly Joe Jones.  Then there are other people who come under that. I remember I liked listening to Frankie Dunlop, and I like listening to Ben Riley.  All these guys are very good.  Another guy who is really unique, but to me he hasn’t diffused what it is that he does within the wider context of the music, is Milford.

TP:    He’s pretty much unto himself, not much of a team player.

CYRILLE:  Right. In a lot of ways, you have to play with him.

TP:    I think one reason why the drumset is such a powerful instrument apart from the noble sound is that the rhythms all embody some sort of story, since the original function was to convey information. I’m wondering if, when you’re dialoguing in rhythm and using independent coordination, if you think of it that way — if you think of it as a storytelling function.

CYRILLE:  Yes.

TP:    Is that explicit?

CYRILLE:  Well, very often it is. Let me go from here. I remember playing with some Africans one time in London, and the guy said to me, “Just don’t think, man; just go ahead and play.  Don’t think; just let it come out.” Now, to me, that’s playing and the music is after the fact. Just play. That happens sometimes when you get on the bandstand. Like, if I’m going to go up and play with Brotzmann or Kowald or something like that, it’s fun, and you let it happen, and then it evolves. You’re listening to each other, see, but you’re playing the music. Now, if somebody says to me, “Hey, man, play something for me like Art Blakey played on ‘Moanin’ because I want a march rhythm…” Oliver sometimes says this, “Yeah, I kind of want to march.”  So you think of a march, a martial rhythm. Now, you might improvise on the martial rhythm, but everybody knows… [SINGS CADENCE] It (?) Because it has a certain cadence that you’re telling a story of something that’s martial. So if somebody says, “Yeah, I want you to play the bridge of ‘Night In Tunisia” with a Latin beat,” so you think of something that tells the story of Mambo or Cha-Cha or whatever, like some of those tunes like Reggie was playing with Roswell and Archie last week.  They had a montuno kind of cadence to them, the one that Roswell calls “Puchi and the Bird.” Reggie plays a montuno on it, and as long as he stays there with that montuno, I can play all kinds of stuff in relationship to it.  But still, there’s a story, so if I play, he goes [SINGS OUT DIALOGUE] — automatically that brings somebody to Africa. It can also bring you to Cuba or Haiti.

TP:    You have a very scientific approach to music within your creativity.

CYRILLE:  Well, yes.  You know why? What does science mean?  Science means that when you do a certain thing, you know you will get a certain result. That’s what all musicians do, I would imagine. I would think that singers in particular, if you want to sing a ballad… “My man don’t love me!!!” Isn’t that a science?  Isn’t that the science of music?  And isn’t that what we teach, or what you learn when you go to the conservatory?  You learn how to do that shit to affect people.

TP:    But different people have different ways… You’re very systematic. It’s interesting, because you’re so methodical but also so creative.

CYRILLE:  Well, we could start talking about what is creativity.

TP:    Yes, we could.  But maybe we won’t.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, right.  See, it’s all fun to me, man. As long as I can make some money, too.

[PAUSE]

Cecil and I did have a couple of rehearsals, with Honsinger and Franky. We played together the night before for quite some time, so we got all our vocabularies together. In other words, we began to feel each other out, and when we went to do the concert, the energy was more or less the way we’d played it.  The thing about it is, sometimes you can’t really prescribe what’s going to happen.  Sometimes that’s what makes it so beautiful, because you don’t know what’s going to happen, and you just get into it, and something fantastic happens. Now, sometimes it doesn’t work, for whatever reason.  But some of the greatest moments I’ve had with a lot of musicians playing creative music is when you just go out there and hit, like doing the shit with Kidd Jordan and William, or even some of the things that I’ve been able to do with Dave Burrell recently. Some of these things haven’t been recorded; just when you get together on stage and play a concert, you say, “Wow!  That was really something else.”

Again, with all of this stuff, it’s a matter of it happening in the moment with whatever we have to bring to the table.

TP:    I wasn’t saying anything one way or the other about it. I was just surprised that that was the feeling.

CYRILLE:  See, what happens is Cecil sits down at the piano, and he begins playing the way he plays, or I’ll begin playing the way I play or the way that I feel right then. So if it’s one of those up-tempo energy kind of things, I’ll do that.  Very rarely does he sit down and start playing very legato, ballad type things. Most of those things are very pointillistic when he starts, jagged to some degree. So you begin that way. You take a step, take another step, take two-three steps, then you sit back and listen for a while, and pace. It’s almost sometimes like a cat. You watch cats, and they go up, and then they see what they want, and they’ll move down to the ground, then they sit up again, and they move and see what they want, and then… It’s almost like stalking sometimes. Sometimes.

* * *

Andrew Cyrille (WKCR, 11-16-97):

[With Muhal: “Drumman Cyrille”]

TP:    Let’s repeat your biography.  A Brooklyn native, and you started playing drums around when?  What piqued your interest?

CYRILLE:  I started playing when I was around 10 or 11 years old. I guess the thing that piqued my interest in the drums is that I found a way to express myself that I didn’t have prior to playing the drums. I found, in a sense, my voice; I could enlarge my voice. That might be a literal explanation

But along with that, I had other young guys with me, who used to play in my drum and bugle corps, and we would get together. It would be like friends who would be playing a game. We would learn these rudiments and these drumbeats, these beats that we would play for parades, etc., and as a result we’d see who would do one or the other better.  If one could do something better than the other, then we’d try to help the other one do what it was that he didn’t know — or I didn’t know.  There was a gentleman named Abdulio(?) Janson — Pop Janson, we used to call him.  He’s the guy who founded the drum-and-bugle corps in the grade school I went to in Brooklyn, St.  Peter (?). When we graduated from that school, he used to come to Brooklyn and get us and take us out to Long Island to play at the C.W.V. Post in Huntington.  So it was an outing for us.  It was something for us kids from the school and in the neighborhood to do.  Like most kids…

TP:    Did you play all the components of the drum within that?  Did you start playing the snare or the bass drum?  Do you remember which implement was the first one for you?

CYRILLE:  It was the snare drum from the very beginning.  Some of the other kids played the tenor drum, which stands behind the snare in the drum line, and then the third line, you’d have the bass drum.  So we had some kids who played the bass drums, some who played the tenor, and some who played the snare. I was one of the kids who played the snare. It was really a great time, in a way, to get us out of the neighborhood and have us do something which was positive.

TP:    In Brooklyn at that time there was an active music scene, and you could see music be played, and you probably had access to watch some drummers.

CYRILLE:  Oh, very definitely.  Some of the drummers who used to come to the Corps to teach the kids were professional jazz musicians.  There was Lee Abrams, who used to work with Dinah Washington and Lester Young. There was Willie Jones, who also worked with Lester Young and Thelonious Monk. Then there was Lenny McBrowne, who worked with Paul Bley and did a show in California with Jon Hendricks –  maybe Blues For Mister Charlie or one of those things that Jon Hendricks had put together. Lenny was the drummer for that, and he also worked with people like Booker Ervin. Of course, all
those drummers were aficionados of people like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Shadow Wilson, and so they told us about those drummers also, and other ways of playing the drums.

TP:    Were you into emulating drummers at that time?  Who were some of the people you’d try to replicate motions and strokes?

CYRILLE:  For the most part, we learned these strokes, etc., so as a consequence, when you start listening to records, you have to imitate somebody… The records I used to buy had Max Roach on them, they’d have Art Blakey on them, or I’d hear Shadow Wilson… There were young drummers in Brooklyn like Maurice Brown and Arthur Trotman, and a few others.  There was my grade school partner, Bernard Wilkinson, who was Max’s brother-in-law.  We would all listen to the professionals. There was Steve Butler, too.  We’d all look at each other, watch each other, talk about the drummers that we liked, and some of us would play more like Max or Philly Joe or Art Blakey or Arthur Taylor or others.

TP:    Let’s talk about your transition from student to professional, and how it became apparent to you that being a musician, being a drummer, would be your avocation, would be your life.

CYRILLE:  Well, that’s a large jump. There were some things that I thought about doing with my life in a professional capacity before I really said to myself, “Okay, I want to go for music.” When I left high school, I had decided to study chemistry for a while, so I was a chemistry major.

TP:    Where did you go to high school?

CYRILLE:  I went to St. John’s Prep, and then I went to St. John’s University.  Then, at St. John’s University, I was still playing at night. I was playing with people like Duke Jordan and Cecil Payne and making gigs.  So it was hard for me to do both, and do both well — and I’m one of those people who, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it to the best of my ability. So I had to make a choice. Either I was going to remain in chemistry and really study that and put the time in as I should, or I was going to be a musician and put in the time to do that. So I had to make a decision between something that I felt I liked and something that I thought I loved. I liked chemistry; I liked it a lot.  But I loved music.

So I went with the music — for a number of other reasons also. Like, for instance, it was teaching me about the history of African-Americans. It also gave me an opportunity to see a direct entrance into employment. Also, I kind of felt like it was a line of least resistance in terms of something that was natural to me. I liked chemistry.  I don’t think I was a natural mathematician.  I had to work at, if you know what I’m saying. I think my brother is more of a mathematician than I am. In fact, his daughter just got a scholarship to Carnegie-Mellon for mathematics.  But I’m not as good as they are. So I went with the music.

TP:    But you were already at a level of proficiency where you were making these type of gigs, and then had to make a choice of what it was going to be. Do you remember your first professional gigs, and what sort of gigs they were?

CYRILLE:  There was always a bunch of young musicians in Brooklyn.  I remember Chris White (the bass player). There was a saxophone player, Jimmy Revis(?).  There was also Bobby Hamilton, who played drums.  There was another trumpet player, Larry Greenwich. We’d get together on occasion and play for dances, parties. We’d get together and have jam sessions. Also, the people whom I really started learning the music with, the language of music, was the piano player, Leslie Braithwaite, and the guitar player, Eric Gale, who went to high school with me. We had a trio, and Eric would play bass on his guitar, and Leslie would play the piano, and I would play the drums. So we started learning those tunes — “But Not For Me,” “Now Is The Time,” “Well, You Needn’t.” This is how we began to develop. As a result, people would hear about us and they would hire us to do various little jobs.

TP:    You eventually entered Juilliard. You make a decision that music will be your life, you make arrangements to enter Juilliard…

CYRILLE:  I thought, well, if I’m going to study music, I might as well go to a music school. Again, with Leslie and Eric, we were saying, “Man, if you want to study music, you can go to Manhattan or you can go to Juilliard,” then we started asking musicians who had gone to both what the difference was.  I decided I wanted to go to Juilliard, so I had to prepare to take the entrance examination.  Believe it or not, I didn’t think I would pass!  The guys who were my examiners were these two great musicians in the European classical world. They were Morris Goldenberg, who was playing for the Metropolitan Opera and also for the NBC Orchestra at the time, and Sol Goodman, who was playing for the New York Philharmonic. I went to take the test, and they asked me to read something which I had prepared, they asked me to play a few drum rudiments, and I played it.  I remember I made a mistake in the part I’d prepared to read, and they said, “Hold it, you made a mistake there!” — and I went back and corrected it.  Then I got a letter saying that I was accepted to the school, and I was very, very happy. As a result, I never really looked back.

In the school then were other young guys who helped in terms of helping one focus as to how one was going to do this music and its business. In the school at the time was Roland Hanna, Bobby Thomas, Addison Farmer, Gary Bartz was up there with me, Grachan Moncur was up there, John Gordon, and a host of other people who aren’t as prominent today.  Herbie Martin, a tenor player, was another one.  We’d all get together, and we’d start talking about what we were going to do in this business!

TP:    Was there any possibility of dealing with jazz in the Juilliard curriculum forty years ago?

CYRILLE:  No.  I actually went to Juilliard to learn how to play jazz, but it wasn’t to be then. So I had to meet people who were learning the music so that I could learn how to do it. There were people like Nellie Lutcher, Mary Lou Williams and Illinois Jacquet. Those were some of my first experiences, while I was still in school. I’d met Morris Edwards, who was a bass player at the school also.

TP:    You were gigging with them at night while studying days at Juilliard?

CYRILLE:  Well, yeah, but it was closer to music. But I’d do those things, and sometimes in the summer you’d have gigs and go off when there was no school.

TP:    How would you evaluate the Juilliard experience?  Was it valuable for you?

CYRILLE:  On a certain level, yes.  It taught me about the literature and materials of music, a lot of the theory, etc. It got me into a music in a way which I hadn’t been before. As far as having a percussion major and playing the xylophone and learning about the timpani… Even though I played timpani in a high school band, but it wasn’t anything like what I was going to learn on the college level, and especially at a place like Juilliard. It prepared a certain foundation for me as far as understanding how music was put together in a literal way.  But if I went back and continued to study now, I’d probably get more out of it.  Because my head was really into jazz, and I really wanted to get that together.  I remember Morris Goldenberg telling me that he would prepare me to work in one of the symphony orchestras, and that was not what I had in mind.  But that’s what he had in mind for me.  Even though he liked jazz, he wasn’t that much of a person who would direct his students in that way.  It was a philosophical difference in terms of what I wanted and what they wanted to give me. So again, I went out and found the people who help me in what I wanted…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Right.  I remember we used to go into the record library, people like Gary and myself and John Gordon and a fellow named Vernon who played alto saxophone.  We used to have to listen to recordings of people like Mendelssohn and Elgar, Bach, Beethoven, whomever, for our literature and materials in music classes.  Then the next day, when we had a class, the teacher would place the record needle on a particular part of the record and ask us to identify the composer and the movement, and so we had to listen to those recordings.  It was just like somebody asking you to read some book and prepare the lesson. This was the way they did it with audio recordings. What would happen is very often we’d be in the library, not necessarily listening to those pieces, but listening to some jazz records.  Sometimes jazz records would cause one to react in a very emotional way, and you’d say, “Yeah! Yeah!” — and it’s supposed to be quiet in the library, and you’d be saying “Yeah,” and you’d have these earphones on, so sometimes you couldn’t necessarily hear what you were saying, you couldn’t hear yourself making these exclamations. Then the librarian would come over and say “Sshhh,” and we’d say, “Oh.” That’s the kind of thing that was going on there as far as us and jazz.

TP:    We’ll begin our chronology with a track from Andrew’s first recording, with Coleman Hawkins, on the Moodsville label…

CYRILLE:  It wasn’t my first recording.  It was my third or fourth one down the line. My first recording was with Walt Dickerson, and we can talk about it later on.

TP:    Were you doing odd gigs with Coleman Hawkins at this time?

CYRILLE:  Not at all. That was a very interesting collaboration, so to speak.  I had been doing some recordings for Prestige with Walt Dickerson. I remember this one particular afternoon, after doing one of the recordings, the A&R man, Esmond Edwards, said to me that he had a recording with Coleman Hawkins in a couple of weeks, and Charlie Persip was supposed to make the recording, but for some reason Charlie had a conflict and couldn’t make it.  So he asked me would I be available.  And of course I could be available!  And I was available.  I had never played with Coleman Hawkins before.  As a matter of fact, I had never heard Coleman Hawkins live. I had heard him on record and on the radio.  But I didn’t know what to expect.  So I showed up at the studio, and we had the rehearsal in the studio. I was shaking in my boots, because I thought I was going to be sent home because I couldn’t make it, but they started the recording, and Hawkins never said anything to me, but just nodded when he liked something that I did, or we listened to the takes and he said, “Yeah, okay, that’s fine” — and that was it. That’s how I met him.

[AC-Hawk, The Hawk Relaxes, “Just a Gigolo”; w/ Walt Dickerson, w/ Bill Barron, w/ Ahmed Abdul Malik]

TP:    That set indicates that you were exploring a wide range of percussion texture, meters, and exploring ways of extending what the drumset could do at that particular point. Maybe we can keep our comments on the particular tracks keyed to that process, because in the next set we’ll be hearing you with Cecil Taylor circa 1966-67. A very fruitful relationship with Walt Dickerson over the years.

CYRILLE:  Walt was introduced to me by Philly Joe Jones. He was coming to New York from California, and he had asked Joe did Joe know of a drummer he could call who wouldn’t mind working in a group he was thinking about putting together. Walt came to New York, and gave me a call, and that began a relationship. That must have been back around 1960-61, if I’m not mistaken. We’ve made a lot of music together. Walt gave me a lot of freedom at that time to play the drums within the context of the music that was being presented, and in conjunction with being musical colleagues, we also became very good friends to this day. Walter had a unique gift for playing vibraphone, and as a result, he expressed it with what you hear, and he would also try to relate to me more or less the same attitude about playing drums.

TP:    It almost seems redundant to say, but his conception of the instrument is quite percussive in terms of an ongoing dialogue with the drummer, an ongoing web of texture.

CYRILLE:  That’s where his head was.  He would play the vibes with such speed and alacrity, and I’ve never really heard anybody duplicate that, the way he would phrase and the kind of technique that he displayed.  Vibe players to this day, when I see people like Bobby Hutcherson or even someone like Brian Carrott, ask me how Walt’s doing, where is he, etc. As a matter of fact, I mentioned him to Milt Jackson a while ago, and Milt knew Walt Dickerson. So everyone who plays that instrument is aware of the kind of vibraphone player he is.

TP:    Did the date with Bill Barron have anything to do with a working group?

CYRILLE:  It’s the dream of most musicians (and at the time, I think Barron was no exception) to have a working band, a band that can go out and get some gigs. So when he told me about us doing this recording, it was also with the idea of making some gigs, having some gigs result from making the recording. So I’d say yes, it was something that we were thinking about.  But the employment scene for musicians, especially who play creative music (even then, one could always say cutting edge. I guess I’ve always been in that genre of musicians), it’s difficult. It was difficult then. So I don’t think we ever really made any gigs with that formation. I made some gigs with Bill afterward at places. I remember at Wesleyan College where he was teaching, and a couple of other things in Brooklyn. But that session was done… We rehearsed, we got the music together, and we did the recording. Yes, we kept our fingers crossed hoping we would get some work, but it wasn’t to come to pass.

TP:    Was Ahmad-Abdul Malik a working situation?

CYRILLE:  Same idea.

TP:    A very ambitious musician, and a unique sound for that time with the meters, colors and rhythms he was using.

CYRILLE:  Right. Ahmad had a passion for African music, and especially the kind from North African, and in particular, for this case, the Sudan. So he wanted to bring that expression, that subculture into the larger culture of jazz. So that’s why he would have a horn player like Tommy Turrentine or a saxophone like Eric Dixon, a drummer like myself or a cellist like Calo Scott, because he wanted to express that kind of music, that expression of music within the larger jazz context.

TP:    This would imply that at this time, or maybe before, you were beginning to expand your sense of possibility on the drumkit. Were you beginning to study African music and absorb it and find ways to absorb it into your concept?  When did that start?

CYRILLE:  That really started when I was working with Olatunji. I was aware of African music, but not the extent that I would become involved in it when I was working with Olatunji and literally African drummers or American drummers who you might call Afrophiles. As a matter of fact, that was at the same time I was at Juilliard, which was in the early ’60s.

TP:    So it is at the time of this recording, which is May 1961.

CYRILLE:  That’s right.  It’s all around the same time.

TP:    What did it do for you to be around the African drummers? I’d imagine it was a big consciousness-expander.

CYRILLE:  Yeah, and what it did was, it gave me an opportunity to learn a lot of those African rhythms and apply them to the drumset. Let me go back for a moment, because you were asking how I learned a lot of these rhythms and did I study this-that-and-the-other. Sometimes, one gets into more of a particular kind of expression when one is introduced to it. This is like somebody bringing the book to you about mathematics, and you look at algebra, and before you know it, you’re into trigonometry or calculus because of the interest. Most musicians who are composers and who might have unique ideas about doing things will ask a drummer to play certain rhythms.  Malik had a very specific idea in mind, in terms of the kind of rhythm that he wanted on “La Ibkey,” he explained it to me, and then, of course, I had to work it out.  I had to work out what he had in mind so that he would be satisifed with the rhythmical foundation for the music that you heard. So once that was introduced to me, then, yeah, I might go out and buy some music that was played by Hamzel(?) Djinn(?) or some other Arabic percussionist, and hear more of how those drummers would play rhythms. Yeah, you learn from that. As a result of working with Olatunji, I had to learn how to play African claves. So as a result of that, yeah, I’d go out and buy some more music that dealt with Africa.

A lot of the times, yes, it is after the fact when something is introduced that one goes out and investigates more.  And of course, too, if one is very serious about what one does, then one goes out and one gets more information so that one can be broader when the occasion arises again.

TP:    As one’s consciousness and philosophy changes, it’s not necessarily apparently until it’s already happened.  But looking back on it, can you discuss how your philosophy of music-making changed, if it all, from 1962, when you made “A Cool One,” and working with Cecil Taylor in 1966. Was there a change in philosophy, or was it the demand of the function?

CYRILLE:  Well, a demand of the function adds to the philosophy, because the philosophy is what it is that you think about the music. So if somebody begins to talk to you about what it is that you think, then you start talking about it. Then they tell you what they think. Then if they want a certain thing, they say, “This is what I would like to have, so can you play this, or try this, or do this or that or the other?” So that adds to your philosophy. So this is, in a sense, how you change.  This is how you absorb.

TP:    I don’t want to say “free music.” But when did your orientation toward the type of music Cecil Taylor was playing begin to happen? Certainly it was all in the air in New York City.

CYRILLE:  Yes, it was all in the air.  And if you listen to one of those tracks with Walt Dickerson, I think “The Desert,” you will hear me playing some free drums. That’s before I began working with Cecil. So that is a documented track that shows I was playing you might say rubato drums on that particular track. So my head was already there.

But you see, I was always one who wanted to make a contribution.  And during this period, too, you’ve got to remember, I was working with people like Mary Lou Williams, and most of us who know about this music know where she came from, and she was, in a sense, a free spirit with an open mind. She worked with people like Andy Kirk way back when to doing duets with Cecil Taylor, so you know she had to have an open mind. I used to say to her, “Gee, I’d sure like to find a way to play the ride cymbal differently.” With her own information and what she knew about the business and the music, she’d say, “Well, if you do, you won’t find anybody to work with.”  But then I did find people to work with, and the main one in this particular instance was Cecil Taylor. I could do whatever I wanted to do with the cymbal or the ride beat or whatever you want to call it. So as a result, yeah, a door was open for me to play “free music.”  And it’s not as free as a lot of people think it is.  But this is how you get into it.  This is what happens.

TP:    Let’s hear what Andrew Cyrille sounded like with Cecil Taylor in 1967 on Conquistador

[CT, “With/Exit”]

TP:    I’ll read from Valerie Wilmer’s liner notes for a solo percussion album that Andrew did in 1969, a year of creative ferment in Paris, entitled What About?  “This is the first recording as a leader by Andrew Cyrille, and it remains a classic. Nothing like it had ever appeared before. Using the Western drumset alone, Cyrille expresses every emotion from a whisper to a scream. Then as now, the drummer’s personal vision lent an unusual angle on his cultural roots. He ignored the trends then being favored by his peers — the total rejection of timekeeping pioneering by Sunny Murray, the more obvious manifestations of an African aesthetic epitomized by people like Milford Graves. Indeed, at a time when the assertion of ethnic identity could be said to have been as important as the need for change in the music itself, his approach seemed curiously purist.  But thoroughness and attention to detail have always characterized Cyrille’s work. He even uses a metronome in rehearsals.”  Still?

CYRILLE:  Sometimes, yes.  When I practice myself. I don’t use it… [LAUGHS] I’m supposed to be the metrnome!

TP:    “In Brooklyn, where he grew up, he was renowned for his control of the ‘rudiments,’ as certain ritualized sticking techniques are known in the drummers’ vocabulary.  “Everybody knew Andrew had hands,” Milford Graves recalls. His first gigs were with pianists Nellie Lutcher and Mary Lou Williams, and in 1964 he met Cecil Taylor who hired him because of his affinity with dancers and ability to approximate their actions with the drums.” What do you recollect about your first meeting with Cecil Taylor and how you moved into that school of thinking and playing?

CYRILLE:  Well, I met Cecil Taylor years before 1964!  And we were playing together years before 1964. I saw Ted Curson the other night, and I refreshed Ted’s memory about how he introduced me to Cecil, walking down the street in Brooklyn, where I was playing in a place called the Universal Temple with Leslie Braithwaite. Leslie and I were playing duets, and Ted happened to hear us from the street — he and Harold Ousley, as a matter of fact.  They came in, and started talking to us about what we were doing. Then the rehearsal was over, and Ted said he was going to New York City at this school called Hartnett, and he had a rehearsal with this piano player called Cecil Taylor, and he said, “Why don’t you come on over? You never heard anybody play piano like this in your life.”  I said, “Okay,” and took my snare drum. We went over to Hartnett, which was located on 42nd Street near Broadway at the time, and I met Cecil Taylor.  Cecil let me sit in at their rehearsal, and then Cecil and I took the train and went uptown and went to a club, which I forget the name of, which was up on Amsterdam Avenue around 154th or 155th Street. I had gone up there, because they used to have sessions there, and I remember a piano player who worked up there named Cecil Young. I knew there was a piano, so I said to Cecil, “Let’s go up there…” At the end of the rehearsal with Ted, Hartnett closed, and Cecil and I wanted to continue playing, so we went uptown, we played some more — and that was our introduction to each other.

From that time, we had more or less a spiritual kind of relationship in terms of people who were attracted to each other in a chemical way musically. I used to see Cecil on the scene from time to time, and he’d see me. The opportunity to begin to work with Cecil when he had actually begun to develop the Cecil Taylor identity with what he was doing with the music…

TP:    How would you describe the Cecil Taylor identity?

CYRILLE:  The way that he plays the piano.  Nobody that I ever heard played the piano that way, again, with that kind of speed, alacrity, the information that he had about what he was doing, the way he would notate his music, the passion that he had for the music.  Also the way that he would have the rehearsals, what he would ask from each of the musicians who was playing the music. I guess that identity on the drums, as far as I was concerned, was that he’d let me do anything I wanted!

TP:    You had total trust that whatever was done would knit.

CYRILLE:  Yeah.  He trusted my integrity, and of course, I trusted his integrity.  We talked about the history of the music.  That was something that we talked about all the time. There was never a time when we did not acknowledge our predecessors, from Louis Armstrong to Joe Oliver to all of those people.  We always talked about that, and that was the foundation, to a large degree, for what it was that we were doing.  We were very clear about that. So yeah, we trusted each other, and as a result, we decided that we were going to play this music a certain way.

Cecil would always say to us it wasn’t just his music, it was OUR music, and we were all making contributions, so it was true.  He would say things like, “Look, all of us are geniuses.” Not just to throw around a term like that loosely, but he was just talking about the creativity and what we were doing in relationship to what Valerie was saying.

So just to get back what you were saying about the dance, etc., and how I met Cecil… See, all of those years between ‘57-’58 to ‘64, when I really started working at Cecil… That happened up at Hartnett, too, because Sunny Murray was involved, and drummers were being changed, so he asked me did I want to do this with him up at Brandeis. Those are the details. But prior to that, all during that time, I was working. I was getting my education together as far as learning about jazz, and I was learning it from the masters.  I was going to classes with people like…I’m saying this not in the academic sense of being at an institution…

TP:    Extracurricularly.

CYRILLE:  Extracurricularly, with people like Illinois Jacquet. Mary Lou Williams. I was working with people like Kenny Dorham.  I was learning from people like Hank Mobley. I was making those gigs. Also with all of that happening, Olatunji was in there.  I was also playing dance classes at the June Taylor School of Dance with people like Jamie Rogers, Michael Bennett, Claude Thompson — these great choreographers.  Michael Faison used to come in there.  All kinds of people.  And a lot of these people were also Juilliard people — Juilliard dancers. See, I was introduced to that aspect of drumming, which is a whole other thing (we could talk about that perhaps, about dance and the drums) by Bobby Thomas, who was playing clases. I used to go up there and sub for Bobby sometimes, and then eventually I got my own classes.  That taught me a lot about playing drums in an independent manner, and making music from the drums.  That’s how I was able to make a couple of solo percussion records, just because I was able to play music that the dancers would say… For instance, I remember Herman Howell would say to me, “Okay, make my body move.” Then I had to come up with something that would make his body move, that they would like and that they could do their exercises and choreography to. So as a result, when I began working with Cecil, he would ask me what would inform my playing.  And one of the things I said was that dance did — and it was true.  So that’s what Valerie is talking about.  So it’s a very concrete reference.

TP:    Let’s hear the solo recording to which Andrew referred, and of which Valerie Wilmer wrote.

CYRILLE:  “From Whence I Came” was a conceptual piece, and you’ll hear me breathing and you’ll also hear me playing mallets on the tom-toms. My idea at the time was the fusion of body and soul together, which talks about from whence I came. In other words, as human being, we’re spirit and we’re also flesh, so the flesh has to do with playing the drums and the spirit has to do with me breathing. So this is what you will hear.

[AC: “From Whence I Came”; AC/Milford, “Nagarahl”; AC/Lyons/Lee, “Nuba 1”]

TP:    The first two hours have given us a 360 of musical color and sound. It’s astonishing to think of the ground Andrew covered between the 1961 recording with Coleman Hawkins and “Whence I Came.” A few words about what we heard. First, The Dialogue of the Drums with Milford Graves. You and he are often mentioned in the same breath, along with Sunny Murray and Rashied Ali when people talk about the drummers who came to the fore in the new music of the 1960s.

CYRILLE:  This session was part of a larger session at which Cecil Taylor was present with the larger ensemble we had been teaching at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. It lasted several days, if I’m not mistaken, and at one part of the concert in one of those days, I had suggested that Milford and I do a duet. As a result, the concert was recorded. Actually, these are just excerpts from the total concert. I forget how long it went.  But there used to be a guy there named Fred Siebert, and Fred was the person who helped us edit the larger tape, and we got it down to about 40-45 minutes. We decided we’d give titles to certain parts of the concert and make tracks. That’s how Dialogue of the Drums came about.

TP:    When did you and Milford become associated?

CYRILLE:  It must have been back in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s. I first heard of Milford at a class that I was having at Hartnett, and Giuseppe Logan came in with this recording, and he asked the teacher if he could play this recording to listen to him and his drummer — and the drummer was Milford.  But I had met Milford before that, when Milford was playing timbales. I was playing a gig in Long Island, at St. Albans Terrace, and there were two bands. I was working with John Gordon, the trombone player, and Milford was working with a dance band, and he was playing timbales. That’s the first time we laid eyes on each other.  Then as time went on, I began hearing his name, doing the “free jazz,” and then I heard of him in association with Sonny Morgan, the hand drummer, who was also working with Olatunji as part of the drum ensemble at the time I was there. Then I heard Milford in association with Don Pullen. I remember doing a concert, if I’m not mistaken, at the Harriet Tubman School in Harlem with Sam Rivers; I was doing a gig with Sam, and Milford was up there with Don Pullen. He checked me out and I checked him out, and eventually we got together at my suggestion; I suggested we get together and play, and document some of the things that both of us were about at that period of time.

I was always under the impression, and I think legitimately so, because Max and Philly Joe would say to me that each generation should come and make their contribution to the music, and see what they had to say.  Not only them, but that’s also an African tradition. So I thought that I was on firm ground. I knew I was doing this kind of music with Cecil, and I was the drummer, and I knew Milford was doing the same thing with Albert Ayler and Don and the New York Art Quartet, etc. — and I thought we should get together and do what we do together in order to say, okay, this was our time, and we were an offshoot of some of the things that had gone before…

TP:    An outgrowth, organic development…

CYRILLE:  Right. That’s the way I felt, and I’m sure he felt the same way, more or less. So we got together, and we started doing these duets, keeping, of course, Africa in mind, as you hear — and during that time there was a very large consciousness about “black is beautiful,” with all of the things that made Black beautiful in our minds. Then, of course, I knew Rashied Ali was doing these things with Coltrane, Interstellar Space, etc., so he was also a natural choice in terms of a larger drum ensemble.  So we called that ensemble Dialogue of the Drums, and we did a number of concerts together, and we even did a TV show on the NBC program Positively Black.

I think Milford is a drummer that everybody should check out at least once, because he’s unique. He’s different in his approach to the drums and how he thinks about making music from the drums. I think his contribution simply has to do with the approach he has to let other people know that they can do a lot of things that are outside the “metered time” aspect or technique of playing.  It can be done.  He’s done it.  And that’s something I can say I appreciate him for.

TP:    I’m going to step back to the question about picking up information, particularly in regard to African music, which requires not only a command  of meters and patterns, but a philosophy of playing and interacting with other musicians. So throughout the ‘60s and I’d imagine as you began to travel more, you’d see more African musicians and picking things. A bit more about your exposure to African music and conceptualizing it into your total approach.

CYRILLE: Well, I used to play a lot of gigs with African musicians. This is one great thing about being on the New York scene, because so many people from so many different cultures come, and if they like you and they want you to be part of their program, and if you’re willing, then it kind of happened.  There used to be a guy up here at WKCR who had a program named Joe Mensa, on The African Show. Joe Mensa played guitar. Joe Mensa also used to play a lot of African dances, African parties. I started working with Joe Mensa.  He liked me, I liked him, I wanted to get more into the African way of thinking about rhythm in a literal way, and Joe Mensa was a very good conduit for me. We started working. He showed me how to play African Highlife, etcetera, how Africans would assign rhythm to the music with the drumset.

TP:    Elaborate on “Africans would assign rhythm to the music.”

CYRILLE:  It had to do with playing space.  Also playing certain emphases that would accentuate certain parts of their music. Also a way that they think about the music and dance, because you hardly ever hear any African music without visualizing or seeing some dance component. So the way of playing on the 1 and the 3 of the bar, which are supposedly the strong beats of the bar, so you think about something like the African 6/8, which goes 1-2, 1-2, and you can also count 1-2-3-4-5-6, click… You hear me clicking; I’m clicking on the 1 [click], 2… There are different ways of approaching that. But how you flesh out the meter with the rhythm makes the feeling different from the 1-and-2-and, when you get a march… [SINGS THE FEELING] That’s what I mean when I’m talking about how they assign rhythm to a certain kind of mathematical meter.

I learned that from Joe, I learned that from Olatunji, and I also worked… This is interesting, too.  I worked with a band called Victor and Kwesi Finn.  They were two guitar players; one played guitar and the other played bass.  They had a band which included me, John Gilmore from Sun Ra’s band, Marshall Allen was in the band, Wendell Harrison, who’s a saxophone player from Detroit, Danny Thompson also. I’ll tell you something else.  Sun Ra used to write music for Olatunji.  So we’d get all these interconnections, and we all felt that this stuff was legitimate in terms of the large part of what jazz was founded on — African music. That it was a legitimate and positive and real heritage to what we were doing. We felt no pain.  It was great.

TP:    No pain.

CYRILLE:  Right. It was fantastic.  And we were being liberated again, or at least being given more information. The other thing, too, that a lot of people don’t realize about Africa and Africans: Even since the slave trade, from the slave trade until now, Africans have always come to these shores and have reinforced the music that we play. I play with Africans today.  I did a duet not long ago at Dale Fitzgerald’s Jazz Gallery with Obo Addy from Ghana. Did he reinforce me?  You’re damn right he did.  So there we are.

TP:    We also heard what you described as a conceptual piece for solo drums, and something which sounds like an extension of that, Nuba, with Jeanne Lee and Jimmy Lyons. Talk about the evolution of bringing your experiences in dance and theater and drama into your musical presentation. Not too dissimilar to things the AACM was doing in Chicago at that time.

CYRILLE:  When I and, I would imagine, a number of other people who compose music need inspiration, we can get inspiration from anywhere.  You can get inspiration from an orange or an apple or a tree, and you can also get it from the dance.  And since I’d had a lot of experience playing with dancers, I thought… Then, the philosophy which tells us we’re both body and soul. I thought with that piece, “From Whence I Came,” it had only to do with the body and the soul coming together, and then you have this life form which is made.  And human beings starting off, you know, flesh, spirit, then growing and becoming what we all are, human beings as a species, and doing what we do in life. Now, yes, a lot of it was abstract, but a lot of it wasn’t abstract either.  If you start thinking about some of the repetitive rhythms I play within the context of the whole piece, some of the ostinatos, which one could say, “Yeah, Baby Dodds could play some of this.” Then of course, I would go off and play some things which were rubato, ametrical.

The way I think when I’m doing these kinds of things is that… We move, and we don’t have any kind of real prescription in terms of how we’re going to move our arms or when we’re going to get up.  We don’t get up at a count, we don’t sit down at a count, we don’t move our arms to a count. We do it.  If we want to get a glass of water, we just go and get the glass of water. So if you have to try to imagine how to replicate or reproduce something like this in an art, then you have to take what you do, that is, with the medium that you do it in, and try to give a reasonable facsimile in terms of somebody making a move.  A move might be [SINGS A PATTERN] rather than another…

TP:    It’s a sort of artificial grid to keep everything ordered and together.

CYRILLE:  It’s a matter of choice. Cats are out on the football field right now, today, on a grid, and that’s part of the game.  So it all depends on how you want to make your “game,” or how you want to have your prescription, or make your music. See, you could do more or less whatever it is that you want. People will listen. Either they’ll get it or they won’t.  They’ll like it or they won’t.  But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do it.

TP:    The next set will focus on groups Andrew Cyrille led up into the early ‘80s. Andrew Cyrille & Maono.

[AC & Maono, “Metamusician Stomp”; “That Life Can Endure”; “High Priest”]

TP:    A few words about your compositional concept for ensemble, two-horn, no piano, one-horn and piano… Beginning a band.

CYRILLE:  I met David Ware when he was part of an ensemble that Cecil had together for a Carnegie Hall performance.

TP:    He played with him in ‘75-’76…

CYRILLE:  Yes.  I met David, and I liked him, and I wanted to form a band and put something together.  There was a trumpet player, I think his last name was Gray… I forget his first name. He was part of a group that Cecil had, too. He had gone to Japan with Jimmy Lyons and this guy.  Anyway, I thought about Ted Daniel in putting this work together, and I had done some work with Ted some years before over at the Washington Square Church, so I knew about him. I needed a bass player, and actually Nick was recommended to me by his brother Gene, who was studying with me back in the mid-’70s. So I just felt that I needed to explore some other avenues of whatever talent I had and I thought it would be a good idea to do some writing and try to have this played by some musicians of my choice.

TP:    Your comment on the liner notes of Special People is: “A lot of people say that the tunes come out of the drums, which in a sense, they do, because I think like a drummer.”

CYRILLE:  I think what’s meant by that is that drummers have rhythm. A lot of composers… I’m talking about guys who do some of the great music that we know, like Ellington.  A lot of the music that they write is structured on some drum rhythm. They get a rhythm, and then they layer it with melodies and harmonies. So if a drummer has rhythm first, if you get the rhythm, that’s usually the first element of music. Then you get melody and harmony. If you have the rhythm, then you have to find melodies, notes which express that other part of music, melodic motion… So I think that simply what is meant… For drummers sometimes it’s a bit difficult because we don’t deal with pitched notes in terms of the diatonic scale — the piano, etc. — so you have to develop some knowledge about composition and about the piano, and have some idea about what you want to put these rhythms to, or what you would like to put to these rhythms. That’s in a sense how I write.  Not all of the time do I think of a rhythm first. Sometimes I think of a motif and then I try to expand on it. It’s not an easy thing for me to do, but sometimes I am able to struggle and get through it and have something which I can offer and people like to hear, and will play, or will buy.

TP:    The next set will focus on your associations with some of the musicians who emerged in New York in the ‘70s from Chicago and St. Louis. You’re still playing with many of them, like Oliver Lake.  They infused fresh blood into the New York scene. You’ve made  numerous recordings with Muhal Richard Abrams, five or six. How would you describe his take on things and its effect on your thinking.

CYRILLE:  Muhal is a true spirit. Muhal is one of the deep thinkers. And again, I have to say this:  He comes out of the tradition.  There is never a time when we get together where he isn’t talking about some of the great piano predecessors like James P. Johnson and Fats Waller. He just knows all about that stuff.  And Muhal, of course, has a lot of information about composition.  He is a great composer.  He knows how to put those voices together.  In other words, an orchestration comes out, and it comes out beautifully, and he has some very original ideas.

Just to give you a little bit of background, I met Muhal, again, with Cecil.  We were playing a gig in Chicago. I remember Muhal coming to the concert. I remember Henry Threadgill being there. I don’t remember if Malachi was there; I kind of have an idea in my head… Well, Malachi could have come to that concert, but Malachi and Roscoe and Lester I met years ago, way before the ‘70s, back in 1967, in Palo Alto, California.  I’d gone out again with Cecil, and I was living at the house of a fellow named David Wessel, who is a drummer, and now a doctor in psychological acoustical sound. I remember Roscoe and Lester were in town, and they were living in a facility that was not too far from David’s house. It was a building…

TP:    They were bivouacking.

CYRILLE:  They were bivouacking!  But the stuff is something when cats are true believers, true spirits.  You get out there and you do it the best you can, and you realize it.  I was living at Wessel’s house, and I’d get up in the morning, and I’d hear Lester and Roscoe and Malachi over there practicing. It would be 7 or 8 o’clock in the morning, and these cats would be tootin’!  So eventually, they came over and we introduced ourselves to each other.  There’s a recording actually of the first time that we met of me and Roscoe and Lester. I have it at home on a tape.

TP:    In the history of the music, what the people in Chicago were doing has often been counterposed to what was happening in New York in a variety of ways.  They were dealing with a different method of organizing their music. What was your impression? How do you regard that other path, if indeed there was one.

CYRILLE:  You see, I think that was great, what they did. What I got from all of those people is that there’s no particular formation to play this music. So if I want to play a gig with a cello player, I would do that.  As a matter of fact, I’ve done duets with Leroy Jenkins; not here in the States, but in Austria we’ve done duets. Different kinds of ways to make the music.  A lot of people feel that “jazz” has to have two horns, piano, bass and drums, and if the formation is outside of that configuration, then it ain’t jazz and something is wrong with it. That is not the case.

Those musicians from Chicago came to New York… They’d been doing it out in Chicago.  But when they came to New York, they knew that they had something which worked, and whatever the configuration was, it happened with the music. So you listen to something without a piano or without a bass, or sometimes even without drums. On occasion, I was part of those configurations, and I appreciated that kind of cultural perspective.

Just to say more about Muhal and myself: Muhal gave me an opportunity to participate in his concepts about music and composition, and I had a number of opportunities to play with large ensembles, big bands with Muhal, to take the information that I had accumulated up to the point where I met him, and introduce that to his music in my style. Of course, there was a lot of reading of charts, which is also something that I was told by my predecessors, people like Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones and Frankie Dunlop and Charlie Persip — drummers have to know how to read. That was very important at one point. Sometimes they’d say if a cat couldn’t read, that meant he was lacking in some way. So I went and learned how to read music.  Which I’m so glad I did, because I use it to this very day.  So many of the more modern forms of jazz are extended pieces, it’s just impossible to remember everything if you can’t read. That’s something I can appreciate. And Muhal  had a number of pieces which went in many different directions. So that and the opportunity to bring to life a lot of the scores that he wrote, for me to bring to life via the drums in conjunction with many of the other voices, was something that I’ll never forget and will always appreciate.  Just his general knowledge.  Also, he showed me a lot of compositional techniques. So I can’t say anything but right on, Muhal.

[AC/Muhal, “Seesall”; w/ L. Jenkins, “Albert Ayler: His Life Was Too Short”]

TP:    A few words about your association with John Carter and the suite, which was a bit overlooked at the time, and is out of print.

CYRILLE:  Eventually it may come back. I think the young people who are interested in this music should go out and research it… [ETC.] I had a wonderful experience with John Carter. Working backwards, I remember the last time I spoke with John. He wanted me to go to Japan to do a duet with him. That would have been fantastic, but fate did not allow it, and John passed on.

TP:    He was an innovator in clarinet techinque and concept.

CYRILLE:  I liked the clarinet. I’d listened to people like Benny Goodman and Johnny Dodds, and I heard Jimmy Hamilton, and I knew about Alvin Batiste. But when I had the opportunity to listen to John Carter, and then hear and play with him, he really did something else for me with the clarinet. I met him on a gig at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam. I had taken the train from Spain the night before, and I had to make this gig at the Bimhuis with John… I was in Spain with my own group, Maono, and after that I had something to do with John. I remember getting into town right before the gig started, and I remember walking into the Bimhuis, and there was John on the stage with Santi DiBriano, and we introduced ourselves, had a rough rehearsal, and played the gig.  I must have gotten there at 7:30 or something like that, so we must have had an hour, and then we made the gig.  From that period on, John and I formed a relationship. He liked the way that I played drums.  He liked the way that I played his music.  Then he started hiring me to do any engagement that he had on the East Coast and New York.  He told me, “When I come to New York, I want you to be the cat to work with me.”

Through John I also met Bobby Bradford, and formed an association with Bobby, and have been doing some work with Bobby in conjunction with David Murray over the past couple of years.  Bobby has introduced me to several players, notably Chris Fagin, who is one of John’s students.

Anyway, John had this vision to do the recordings you mentioned, starting with Castles of Ghana, and when he put that together, he wanted me to play drums. John was an interesting composer. He’d come to the rehearsal not with everything formed in detail. He would have these ideas and he would have notation.  He would know what he would want to do in special places.  But more or less, we would put the arrangement together and the segues right at the rehearsal, and sometimes even in the recording studio, depending on how much time we had to get it all together and when the date was.

Conceptually, John was very close to me.  As I continue to write, I’d like to do some things, more or less, in the same way John did them, just in terms of how he’d use certain fragments of the music and link them together in a kind of loose but at the same time very focused and direct way. For instance, you can get a theme, then he’d say, “Work this theme a certain way,” and you can do this or do that or the other, then when we get to this section you can do a certain fill or fill-in so we can move from this section to the next part of it, which might represent something conceptual in relation to what the music is. Like in Castles of Ghana, you have the castles of Ghana as it begins, and then the next… He’d get these different themes, and link them together one to the other.

TP:    It’s an episodic concept.

CYRILLE:  Yes.  Also the way he’d play lines with Bobby, how at some point they’d be in unison and then split off into some dissonant harmony, and then come back again, and play maybe the same line but just about echoing each other, maybe a fraction of a beat behind. At the same time, even though it had this feeling of freedom; this kind of elasticity that would be overriding some kind of fundamental rhythm, but it was still free, and you would get this feeling of being something that was breathing in and out, but not necessarily contained by a BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM, and then you’d have to do whatever melody you had in relationship to the meter exactly. So you could have a rubato kind of theme that is placed on the musical bed of an ostinato rhythm or something else.

[AC w/ John Carter, “Capture”]

TP:    The next set will consist of duos, and speaking of pregnancy, it’s the most intimate form of musical communication. The first will set Andrew with long-time partner Jimmy Lyons.

CYRILLE:  Again, I try to think of a shape, a rhythmical shape that I can make music with the voice of the drums, or the voices of the drums. I lay that down, and either I will have some kind of a melodic line or a theme that I ask the other voice to play, or I let them play what it is that they hear in relationship to the rhythm that I present. So more or less, that’s how I play duets. Then, of course, too, you have to listen very closely to the other person and try to make a musical marriage that will be beautiful, that works.

TP:    A few words about Jimmy Lyons. Working with him so consistently over 10-11 years, and many subsequent encounters. The dynamics of his style and the place it put you, performing with him.

CYRILLE:  Jimmy was a real aficionado of Charlie Parker. Sometimes when I would look at him playing, the stance he would assume and the way he’d play the saxophone, in other words, how he looked while he was playing… Bird never moved, as far as I know.  I never had the opportunity to see Bird. But I don’t think he moved back and forth, to and from the microphone, or would be bending, etc. He would just stand up straight and blow. That’s the way Jimmy was. He would stand up straight and start blowing. I would listen to him, and sometimes listen to that tone he had, which was very reminiscent of Charlie Parker. Even some of the excerpts that he would play while we were in our improvisation, sometimes, marathon as they were, you’d hear him quoting some lines from Bird, some of those tunes, and maybe even some of the things that Bird would play in a solo.  But of course, Jimmy was extending or elaborating more and trying to go further with his improvisational perspective, with the kind of music that we were playing.

Again, Jimmy Lyons was another true spirit in the tradition of this music, a very dedicated being who took nothing for granted as far as the practice of this music was concerned. I never felt a letdown from him.  I never felt that he wasn’t trying or that he wasn’t giving his all in relationship to playing. When I was with him. as with so many of the others; I’ve been very fortunate this way… Whenever I was with him and I was playing with him, I always had a ball.

TP:    We’ll excerpt from Burnt Offering, a release of a 1982 concert in Allentown, PA., May 15, 1982…

[AC w/Lyons, “Burnt Offering”; AC w/Tarasov, “One Up, One Down”; AC w/ Kowald; AC w/ Crispell]

TP:    Any other thoughts on duo performing after the series of performances we just heard, which contained such great variety of material, concept, information, colors, rhythm, sound…

CYRILLE:  It’s just another manifestation of what one can do with music. You have to conceptualize what it is you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and then you have to do it. If you have a very willing partner, then, of course, the sky is the limit. I love playing duets. I love playing duets with any of the number of voices that we have with musical instrumentation, from drum duets… Sometimes I do duets with the great drummer Michael Carvin; he’s another one I love to play with. Sometimes you have to not think about the fact that there’s not the conventional instrumentation around you, and you just go into… I go into the drums and try to find as much music within the instrument as I can, so that I can make myself feel good, and of course, feed the person I’m doing the duet with and hope that they feed me in return, which is usually the case.

TP:    Seems you really thrive on the sound of surprise and being surprised by the other person’s locutions in the performance.

CYRILLE:  That is another tenet of jazz principles. What I think most of us like about jazz in its broadest conceptions is the element of surprise.  When the element of surprise is not there, then it seems like there’s not too much happening.  To hear Elvin Jones playing, and to hear one of those riffs that come out of nowhere, and you say, “Wow, what is that?” That’s what made Charlie Parker so great, when he would take a phrase and how he would develop it and where he would end up with it.  That’s something which I always try to remember when I’m playing, and which I try to incorporate as much as possible — as much as my creativity will allow, sometimes even thinking about its limitations. So I try to remove as much of any barrier as I can, and I aim for the heavens and always try to have something of a surprise, not only for myself, but for the musicians I am playing with and for the audience who listens.

TP:    One of the great things in jazz is the quality of aiming for the heavens within the most grounded, functional situations, and I think that Shakill’s Warrior by David Murray is a great example…

[AC w/D. Murray/Pullen, “Live At The Cafe Centrale”; AC w/Hannibal, Oliver Lake, Steve Colson, Reggie Workman, “Where’s Nine?”]

TP:    A few words about My Friend Louis, more the traditional drummer’s record than your earlier Maono recordings. Those featured primarily your compositions; here you’re working a variety, and interpreting them with an all-star ensemble.

CYRILLE:  That was a band I put together to play at Condon’s, the club on 15th Street, and had the opportunity to record for DIW/Columbia. I wanted to do something for my musical colleague, Mr. Louis Moholo, the South African drummer, whom I had an opportunity to do a duet with in England back in 1980, and wrote “My Friend Louis” for him. As a result, since I had this all-star lineup and I had these excellent musical minds, all of whom compose, I asked each of them to contribute a few, which they did.

TP:    Later we’ll hear an album called Tribute To Bu, and this gives me an excuse to ask about some of your drum influences. You mentioned drummers that you heard and drummers who are your contemporaries, but you didn’t mention the drummers who thrilled you as a youngster and perhaps continued to as you became more experienced as well. First a few words about Art Blakey and his impact on you.

CYRILLE:  One of the first records that I ever bought had Art Blakey as a drummer.  That was a record with Miles Davis called Tempus Fugit, a 10” Blue Note LP, and with that, I heard Art for the first time on record.  Then I went out and bought Dig with Miles and Art. Then, of course, I used to listen to Art Blakey play at the Cafe Bohemia on Barrow Street, way back when. I used to hear him there with Johnny Griffin, and also with Bill Hardman and Jackie McLean and Spanky DeBrest, Wayne Dockery. So I’ve been an aficionado of Art Blakey from way back when I started playing drums. Also, with my solo percussion ventures on record, of course, I was given entree not only by Max Roach, who did (?) and Drum Conversation, but Art Blakey, with his Message for Kenya and Freedom March. So I wanted to pay respects to a mentor, one of the elders in my heart and in my mind as someone who has given me so much — and so many.  Not just drummers, but horn players, piano players… I thought it would be fitting to play something that was kind of reminiscent of him, but at the same time more or less my interpretation.

[AC w/James Newton, “Tribute To Bu”; w/ Mor Thiam, “Ode To The Living Tree”; AC/ “X-Man”]

TP:    The X-Man date, Andrew, brings in explicitly folkloric Haitian rhythmic and melodic themes, with a different connotation.

CYRILLE:  We won’t have time to play two compositions with Alix Pascal, “Lydia” and “Answer Me.” I would like to do more of that kind of exploration with Alix and other Haitian musicians, if possible, and bring that subculture more into the “mainstream” of jazz, like so many of the other Caribbean rhythms and melodies, to be filtered through our experience here in the United States with jazz.

[AC w/Lake, Workman, “Shell” [excerpt]

TP:    Words about Oliver and Reggie.

CYRILLE:  I met Oliver many years ago in Toulon, France. He was there with the Black Artists Group, Bobo Shaw and Joe Bowie. Over the years we’ve been able to collaborate. I used to see Oliver play at the lofts, the Ladies Fort and Studio Rivbea. We had an opportunity to play in Europe — he, I and Leroy Jenkins.  Then Reggie got us together to do some things with his Synthesis group — Crispell, myself and Oliver. Then Oliver called me to do some work with him on  CDs called Edging and The Other Side. I called Oliver to do some things with me.  And so forth, and here we are.

I’ve known Reggie since Reggie lived on New York Avenue in Brooklyn, and he was working at the Muse Museum and running the music program there. Of course, Reggie Workman, Cecil and me did something at Town Hall in the late ‘60s with Jimmy Lyons.

[AC w/ Mor Thiam, “Water, Water”]

* * *

Andrew Cyrille Colleagues (Henry Grimes, Reggie Workman, Cecil Taylor):

TP:    Well, there’s the things with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Yes, we did a lot of playing with Cecil together.

TP:    But before playing with Cecil, you hooked up on jobs in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

GRIMES:  Yeah. I remember one job specifically just in Brooklyn. It was Harry Carney’s group, and we were both there playing with him.

TP:    What was that gig like?

GRIMES:  It was fantastic. We did a lot of swinging and enjoyed that kind of swinging thing with Harry Carney.  It was beautiful, just that inspiration of improvised music.

TP:    Do you remember which club in Brooklyn?

GRIMES:  I don’t remember the name.

TP:    What things at that time struck you about Andrew’s approach to trapset?

GRIMES:  He had a definite flavor. Like, you look at Kenny Clarke; he has that definite flavor thing. Certain musicians have a charisma that comes out in their music, and he reminds me of Kenny Clarke.

TP:    In the sound or in his attitude and process?

GRIMES:  In the sound that he makes musically.  And rhythmically. He does some rhythm things… Sunny Murray and him are on par together, but that’s the degree of power that Andrew has.

TP:    They have very different approaches to playing drums, though.

GRIMES:  Very different.  They are both avant-garde, but one is like a swing player — that’s Andrew.

TP:    Are you saying that Andrew embodies more vocabulary out of the timeline, that he absorbed the drummers before him and builds on it.

GRIMES:  Yes, I think so.  It probably is so, because he knows a lot about percussion and who’s playing.

TP:    So you played with him with Harry Carney, and probably not long thereafter with Cecil.

GRIMES:  Right.

TP:    In 1963 or 1964, was playing with Harry Carney and playing with Cecil two aspects of the same sensibility, or did you have to have a real different mindset?

GRIMES:  Well, it’s the same in that it’s demonstrating that all musicians tend to this one thing, and it’s about “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Jazz musicians had that swing. Sunny Murray was one of them even though he’s vastly avant-garde; and so is Andrew very avant-garde, but he’s also one of them.

TP:    You played with Cecil, and then it was probably close to forty years before you played with him again. So it must be clear to you how Andrew’s playing has evolved. What are your impressions of the type of musician he is now vis-a-vis the Andrew you knew in ’67?

GRIMES:  Well, the thing is that he always has made a certain progress, and I think that’s his power — of understanding music and drums.  He always makes this progress.

TP:    Do you mean a methodology of playing, or do you mean that he is always accruing new vocabulary and building?

GRIMES:  It’s always a new vocabulary that he accrues, and that’s a very interesting thing about his playing

TP:    Everything has changed in the interim, but some things are very similar. Apart from the growth that any musician will experience as they mature and gain wisdom, what are some things Andrew is doing now vis-a-vis then that strike you?

GRIMES:  Well, he’s always the same Andrew today.  It strikes me that he demonstrates that power that he has time after time after time.

TP:    It seems Andrew is always playing ideas.

GRIMES:  Yes.

TP:    A constant stream of ideas. Never patterns. It’s really ideas. It’s fascinating to focus on, and it must be fascinating to play with him.

GRIMES:  Oh yes, it is. He’s a very interesting player.

TP:    Talk about how you’d set things up for him. He said a lot of sets would start from a blank slate, you’d start with an idea or he’d start with an idea, sometimes it would be a unison, sometimes it would be a call-and-response, but it was often from a blank slate

GRIMES:  Well, I think the important thing you’d like to remember is that we both played with Cecil Taylor doing that. Playing with Cecil Taylor and learning things with that, you never forget those kind of things.

TP:    Could you describe some of those things?

GRIMES:  Cecil brings out the best in his players, and Andrew is one of them. I was another one.

TP:    What is it that he does?

GRIMES:  It’s the sheer force and power of music. The dynamic power in music, and the progress of jazz itself. But that’s something that’s hard to convince you of just talking about it.

TP:    But watching the two of you next to each other, anyone with any knowledge of how the timeline works is going to think here are two people who have played with just about the whole aesthetic spectrum of jazz. You and he both played with the people we think of as the great straight-ahead players of the time, and leapt into the next thing as well.

GRIMES:  Well, we were working together at the Iridium, and by the time we stopped working, I was just getting warm. That’s the way it goes.  But I’m looking forward to working with him again.

TP:    I’m sure it will happen. You seem to have infinite possibilities in what you can get done. Is there anything you’d particularly want to express about him that I’m not eliciting with these questions?

GRIMES:  Just that it’s form-fitting. Not like a suit, but like… We develop forms playing with each other.

TP:    And you seem to fit hand-in-glove.

GRIMES:  Oh yeah. He’s always working things out that way.

TP:    It sounds like you listen in the same way that he does.

GRIMES:  I think so. I think we do listen in (?).

TP:    He described it at the end of the conversation. He said Cecil used to have a lot of cats, although now he likes dogs, and he followed that by making the analogy of playing with Cecil as being like a cat looking at the prey, and taking a step, then standing back and thinking about what he wants to do, and then…

GRIMES:  I know what he means.

TP:    It seemed to fit the experience of listening to the two of you.

GRIMES:  I know what he means by that.  He’s a very sharp-minded individual.  And accurate. Deadly accurate.

Reggie Workman on Andrew Cyrille:
TP:    When do you recall first playing with him? He recalls a concert with Cecil at Town Hall in ’69.

WORKMAN:  Yes, that could possibly be it. I seem to remember running into him at some jam session at some place in Brooklyn before then, though.

TP:    Do you have a memory of what he sounded like in the jam session?  Were the building blocks of what he does in place when you first heard him?

WORKMAN:  I wouldn’t say anything, except I could hear that he had a unique approach to the instrument. I wouldn’t say anything was in place at that point, way back there. By ’69, he definitely had started shaping himself. But when I first heard Andrew, I think it was at some session somewhere in Brooklyn.

TP:    In your words, what’s unique about Andrew’s approach to the drums?

WORKMAN:  Well, once Andrew decides to go inside himself and deal with the music the way he likes to deal with it instead of fitting the need, which he can do very well, he has a very fluid style of approach to the rhythm and the time. A very fluid approach.

TP:    He seems like a real master of theme-and-variation in the way he articulates his ideas. He always seems to be on a track, and develops his ideas to logical conclusions.

WORKMAN:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    You’ve been playing together quite a bit at least 15-20 years. How did that start? What brought you together?  Was it settling out in New Jersey?

WORKMAN:  Well, not really.  Basically, Andrew and I, because of seeing one another and knowing one another over the years, we’ve always had a mutual respect for one another’s music.  Therefore, we come together whenever we can. So when we have a gig with somebody else here and there, that’s part of our honing our musical relationship, and then we found that as we all try our individual projects, we were on the same page, and so we often were at the same place, with him and Oliver and myself.  If it was not their band, it was one of my bands or one of Andrew’s bands. So we would end up running into one another often. It turned out that as we approached the business arena, since we were often with the same band or with the same person, we looked at the difficulty in booking projects, so we decided that we should try to get together one project where we would work together only under that circumstance — and it was a compatible circumstance, because all three of us had a compatible musical direction.
TP:    You also were working with Mal Waldron for a chunk of time. What do you think are the attitudes that you share in common? You seem to function very comfortably alongside each other.

WORKMAN:  It’s a hard thing to pinpoint.  But basically, it’s the aesthetic of the music.  The other part of it would be just the idea that we have the same concept as far as time is concerned. We understand one another’s strong points and weak points, and we compensate when necessary without any recourse. There’s a musical compatibility as far as understanding where one another are coming from, and therefore it makes it possible for us to make the music whole as a unit.

TP:    You were talking about sharing a similar approach to time. Can you go into that in a little more detail?

WORKMAN:  Well, Andrew’s approach to time is very fluid, and so is mine.  Therefore, we find a matrix there. He knows when he’s working with me that he shouldn’t expect to hear things the way they usually are coming at him, because I usually don’t play that way.  I know the same thing about him. And at the same time, I know that he understands where it always is, and if he deviates, and it doesn’t affect my thought pattern. I imagine over a period of time that we’ve both come to understand that about one another. At the end of the day or at the end of the chorus, we’re all in the same place at the same time.  It doesn’t affect our creativity as to how we get there, but yet it turns out to be a harmonious venture.

TP:    Was the recent week at Iridium a satisfying one? If someone had seen you a lot that week, would it be hearing the two of you on your highest level together?

WORKMAN:  No.  I don’t think you can say it’s a highest level when you’re satisfying a need for a situation.  Because your highest level is when you’re doing what you do the way that you want to do it, and then you have to compromise certain things with certain people according to their whim if you happen to be dealing with either some kind of a coop group like Archie and Roswell have. Andrew and I are featured guest artists, but it’s not our program.  It’s their program. Therefore, we satisfy the need as far as that’s concerned.

TP:    So the group with Oliver would be…

WORKMAN:  More compatible, because we each bring something to the podium.

TP:    Is there anything you want to say about him that doesn’t fall under the response to a question.

WORKMAN:  Well, the only thing is that Andrew is a very brilliant musician. He’s not just a drummer. He’s a very brilliant musician who has real strong ideas about the music, about the aesthetic, about the history, and he puts a lot into his music, and he’s very serious and sincere about what he does.  And you hear that in the way that he approaches a groove. I know each project that I’ve had with Andrew, it’s been… All of that is apparent in the music when you work with Andrew, when you know who he is and what he’s doing.  And therefore, whenever I get the opportunity, I recommend him for whatever situation that I’m in, if it’s compatible with the way that he thinks. All are not, of course. There are many different situations. So each situation has something that’s compatible with each person. Like, there are many situations that are not compatible with me, and I would rather not be there.  That’s one of the democratic things about this music: You find your own level, and that’s where you function best and that’s where you seek to be. With Andrew, he has found his own level, he knows what he wants to do, and now he does it well.

I am very glad you’re doing this. Because Andrew has been around for a while.  He’s been putting a lot in.  And he deserves some recognition.

Cecil Taylor on Andrew Cyrille:

TP:    When was the last time you played with Andrew?  Is it the record from ‘99 that’s on FMP?

TAYLOR: Well, I think it just came out this year. That was interesting, because Tristan was on that, and this guitarist Franky Douglas, and man, it was really funny and it was really wonderful. For many years, I’ve felt that Tristan was really my right-hand musical personality. But on this date, I believe it was the first time Tristan had played with Andrew. Andrew started playing, and Tristan’s reaction was…well, he just started dancing while he was playing!

I’ve been very fortunate in the percussionists who I’ve played with over the years.  And Andrew had a secret. You could take Mr. Cyrille wherever you wanted, and he had the ability to distill whatever the structures were, and to go with you there, and react in the most musical way in any situation. So he understood—and understands—about the joy of accompanying, and feeding, and being fed. He is meticulous as well as exquisite. He is the epitome of the logical, but beyond that, he’s magical. The logical world could be painfully objective, but he is magical in the sense that he understands what the sound perimeters are, and because of his exquisite taste, he makes a transition from being logical to being a spiritual healer. And plus, his personality is… He’s a fine human being to work with.

TP:    It’s interesting that he stated that his choice around the age of 18 or 19 was to be a chemist or to be a musician.

TAYLOR: [LAUGHS] That I did not know.

TP:    But he was working as a musician, so he could make money.  But that would have been around the time when you first met him. He says you met around 1957. You were rehearsing with Ted Curson at the Hartnett School. He went up there with a friend named Leslie Braithwaite, he sat in, and then (I may be conflating several encounters into one thing) you went uptown to a place in Harlem where there was a pianist named Cecil King, and played—and that began things. What do you recall?

TAYLOR: Well, the first time I remember meeting him, although it’s very possible that he has another take on it… I do remember at the Hartnett School; that’s where I met Earl Griffith. What I remember about Mr. Cyrille was at a… They were having sessions at a place on 158th Street called Branker’s. That’s where I met Mal Waldron. I think this was 1958. I think it might have been Mal’s gig, and he allowed me to sit in.  Then at one point, Andrew sat in with me, and played a rhythm that I just stopped playing and looked at him, and I looked at him and I asked him, “And what is that?” And he gave me that wonderful Haitian smile and said, “Well, you want me to try it again?” – or something like that.

It was a very fascinating experience to hear Reggie, Mal and Andrew, play those three consecutive nights, and I was there when they were playing at the Blue Note. I went three nights, because it was an experience in what mature musicians… I imagine their three ages built up to maybe 180 years, and to hear these gentlemen play… Mal, as you know, besides being to me one of the really fine human beings, but one of the most subtle pianists. By that I mean he really understood the magic of how to make music below middle-C – among other things.  But one of the most outstanding things that happened, besides they all played beautifully together, was that on one occasion Mal, who wrote the most musical organizations of sound, you know… When it came time for Andrew to make his drum statement on that, I felt I was actually hearing the music transposed from piano to Andrew’s instrument. The Maestro, of course, said, “The drum is a woman.” Other people say the piano is but a drum with 88 keys. His intelligence: You could actually hear the material in Mal’s compositional form being developed by Andrew, and you could actually see the slices of the structure being transformed by Andrew’s playing.

TP:    Did Andrew embody that quality when you first began to play together regularly?

TAYLOR: Well, I don’t know. What I know is that… That’s very interesting, because there was a drummer from uptown I played with, a very nice man, I think his name was Jack Williams. Then the wonderful Dennis Charles. At that time, when I ran into Andrew, it (?), but in the meantime, in 1960, I played with the Whirlwind, James Marcellus Murray, right on Christopher Street. In terms of my own development of the music that I was about… You see, in meeting Jimmy Lyons, and by ‘62 it was obvious we were going a certain place. When Murray left… Of course, Murray, who… That’s something I could talk about on another occasion.  But when I first played with Murray, Murray could do Elvin Jones, you know, perfectly. But we all were living in a loft on Bay Street, where the Trade Towers were, and man, I remember Murray saying, “Well, what do you want me to play?” I said, “Whatever the music suggests to you.” Well, whatever it suggested to him, he told the wonderful (?), “That MF Cecil, I could have been the world’s greatest bebop drummer.” But as time went on, you see…

But then, on the other hand, Andrew’s personality was different, you see. That’s what I mean about his understanding. Wherever I want him to go, Mr. Cyrille understood that and supported and complemented that.

TP:    That’s a quality he’s always possessed.

TAYLOR: And that makes him, you see, in the time where there are many drummers who seem to have a hearing problem, an inverse problem, you can hear them and no one else, you see… But he knew how… Well, he is one of the preeminent percussion forces for me.

TP:    To what extent do you think his being there in ‘64 and ‘65 and ‘66 molded the shape of your music in those years?

TAYLOR: I mean, it’s a trip that, once started, does not end. My parents’ temperament were perhaps diametrically opposed.  Well, different. So Mother, of course, took me at the age of 5 to the Apollo to hear Chick Webb and his new singer, Ella Fitzgerald. The next year, when I was 6, she took me to the Paramount to hear the Benny Goodman band, where I heard the extraordinary Teddy Wilson and this monumental Lionel Hampton, as well as Gene Krupa. And hearing Papa Jo Jones at the Roxy Theater in 1944 with the great Basie Band, and Lester, you see, and the quality of… And then hearing the Lunceford band with Crawford – all of those drummers. And of course, the Maestro with Sonny Greer, you see. And then hearing Buhaina, you see, with THAT kind of… And Philly, you know.  And of course, Maximilian Roach, that shit that he did with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown in the years ‘54 to ‘56.

But, you see, when I heard “Poco Loco” – ha-ha-ha… I was attending New England Conservatory at the time.  And by the way, I noticed there was an article about Richard Twardzik. It’s a matter of chance, you know. I knew Dick Twardzik while I was in Boston, you see. As a matter of fact, we went to Symphony Ballroom to hear Bud Powell, and …(?)… playing in a club in Boston, and I would go there and listen to that, and nothing very interesting. [BLOTTED OUT] …think of the percussionist …[BLOTTED OUT]… As you probably know, I met Lee Konitz when he was a salesman at Sam Goody’s in 1948. So I knew all about… I mean, Tristano was one of the people that I really listened to.  Then it finally came out… Just three years ago, I was sitting with Tony Oxley in this hotel bar where we were staying, and in walks Lee Konitz, only to find out that Lee Konitz had played with Tony Oxley.

When I think about all the …[BLOTTED OUT]… the masters, really, you either hear them or you ….[STATIC, BLOTTED OUT]….

So the idea is that once you become aware in the deepest part of your being that the music has chosen you, then you don’t have the choice but to just surrender to it and you will ….[STATIC]….

TP:    But you and Andrew for eleven years were playing together a lot, even if a lot wasn’t publicly. You started your last comment in response to my question on how Andrew might have molded the way your music sounded over those years. Now, one thing he said is that he only remembered two times when you told him what to play, that once you wanted a five-beat pattern, another time something. Whatever you have to say. You seem to think so alike. There was something different about that group.

TAYLOR: Listen, when I started playing with Jimmy Lyons, whom I met in 1960, it went on for 26 years. And with Andrew, we would still have a …(?)… It was a continued crescendo of the evolvement of an idea that we all agreed about. As a saxophonist, Lyons ….[INAUDIBLE]…. waiting for those notes, but he of course had the liberty of writing the notes any way he chose. Because that was one of the compositional ideas, to give players the ultimate choice in the transcription of an idea. So it became obvious that there was another voice emerging, there was a group emerging.  That’s why it was called the Unit. It was a specific idea about where we were going, and those two gentlemen who played with me the longest, you know, helped solidify an idea. So one has to be forever grateful for the generosity shown.

TP:    How often between ‘75 and ‘99 did you and Andrew share a bandstand?

TAYLOR: Let me see.  I went to Antioch in probably ‘72, and Andrew and Jimmy came out, and then Andrew left when I came back to New York in ‘72. We played… It was funny. He was going to Israel, and I said, “Well, I’ve not been to Israel.” I was going to Nickelsdorff, and he said, “I’ve never been to Nickelsdorff.” I said, “I’ll take you to Nickelsdorff if you take me to Israel.” Now, Andrew can probably correct me on this. I believe we went to Israel in the summer of ‘88. Because I think it was the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s independence. Then I took him to Nickelsdorff, where he introduced me to… Oh, that wonderful pianist. I have his picture on my bathroom wall, along with Don Pullen. Horace Tapscott. So I met some of Tapscott’s musicians in Nickelsdorff. Then Andrew, the next time we played together I guess was for Jost Gebers in ‘99. The record has just come out this year, I understand.

TP:    I’m interested in your perspective on the quality of his tonal personality now vis-a-vis when you were playing with him then.

TAYLOR: Well, you know… Ha-ha…

TP:    Is it just a matter of maturity?

TAYLOR: Well, we all do that.  But when you play with musicians, they will let you know that they will follow you.  And I was obsessed, you see. And these gentlemen…we all agreed that the path that I would like to go was comfortable for them. So the contribution was shared by all, you see. Now, my personality was shaped by many things, and you bring that into the proscenium whenever you play, as certainly all musicians bring their personality as nurtured by the environment they live in. So what I’ve found (and I only want to speak for myself) as you grow older, you have a finer appreciation of the camaraderie that exists between musicians, because then you realize that these gentlemen do not have to play with you.  And there are times when some of my rehearsals have been 6 and 7 hours long, and it isn’t so much as telling people what to do. You don’t do that. You let the music speak, and if a passage or the shape of the musical design…if I am required, I can play it over as many times as possible, so that the musician can hear it, you know, and then decide what they want to do with it.

TP:    The other big piece I’m writing right now, as it turns out, is an appreciation of Bud Powell on his 80th year.

TAYLOR: Oh, God!! My God!

TP:    So, Cecil, would you like to put in your own two cents?

TAYLOR: Well, I can tell you two things about Mr. Powell. When I heard “Poco Loco,” in the store in Boston which was right on the shoulder of Symphony Hall, they had a booth in there where you could take a record out and you could go in the booth and listen to it. And when I heard “Poco Loco,” I said, “Well, he’s gone.” And Maximilian is holding on for dear life. You probably know what Bud said about that.

TP:    “You’re supposed to be Max Roach.”

TAYLOR: But the other thing is… You see, the other loving information I got was from Walter Davis. You see, Walter, who could play “Poco Loco,” and told me this wonderful story when he took Bud to meet THE Thelonious, and Thelonious sat down at the piano and said, “Oh, I know about you, young fellow; let me show you, I can play a lot of notes.”

But the other thing about Bud, I was sitting under him (as I did graciously and felt very fortunate to be able to do this) when he was playing at Birdland, and when I heard him play “Glass Enclosure,” my attitude was, “You mean, that’s possible?”

TP:    Was he part of your learning process? Did you study his compositions? Did you emulate his style?

TAYLOR: Well, you know me. I’m not that gifted. What I do is, I simply listen, and if it touches me, that’s what I go with. I mean, I heard… I mean, that propulsion!!

TP:    Well, there are many times when it sounds like you’re inspired by that sense of propulsion.

TAYLOR: Well, now, I’ll tell you a funny story. The wonderful Dexter Gordon, whom I really will always love, said to Woody Shaw, on two occasions, “Woody, who is my favorite bebop pianist?” And Woody, who used to tell me, “Eric Dolphy told me about you, Cecil – and you look like my uncle.” I said, “Fine, Woody.” So I mean, the wonderful Dex said to Woody, “Hey, Woody, who’s my favorite bebop pianist?” So Woody just looked blank. And the wonderful Dexter said, “Well, he’s standing right next to you, Woody.” He did that twice. But Dexter was a very clever… I would say if Andrew Cyrille is a model of human behavior on one level, certainly for me, Dexter was a model of human behavior on another – before I even get to the magnificent Mr. Jones.

TP:    Could you elaborate a bit on the model of behavior?

TAYLOR: Well… Ha-ha-ha! We could always do this for another time. Oh God, there’s a wonderful word I’d like to learn, and it has to do with (oh, I’ve got to get this right) the adoration of women.

Let me put it this way. When I saw Cabin In The Sky and then saw Stormy Weather, I said to my father, “I’ve got to go see her.” She was going to make her first appearance on the Capitol Stage, and the great Ellington band was there.  And Dad, who never raised his voice, he looked at me and said, “Well, son, she’s pretty, but she can’t sing. You’d better listen to Ethel Waters.” Which was so… Dad was so… Because Dad, of course, had five favorites. Coming from Kiawah, North Carolina, the same place that Mingus’ long-suffering drummer came from. It was Danny who said, “No, you don’t pronounce it ‘Key-a-wah,’ it’s “Ky-a-wah.” Because Dad’s father was a full-blooded Kiawah.

Anyway, when I go to the Capitol Theater… Oh, I could tell you a lot about Lena. Jesus Christ. When Lena came on that stage, Ted, it was like she was floating on air, and the people said, “Ooohhh!” The other interesting thing was, Luther Henderson, who was related to Fletcher, was her vocal instructor, and she had a jazz septet, you see.

Now, that was ‘42. One of my relatives… My Dad was the head chef at the River Crest Sanitarium, and he said, “You never go into Howard’s room.” I said, “Okay, Dad.” But Dad went to sleep, you know, and I watched him go to sleep, and I walked down the hallway… By the way, River Crest Sanitarium was in Astoria, and Dad was the head chef. Tony Benedetto comes from Astoria, so Dad knew Tony, you see, because the family… I mean, Dad was the head chef. Anyway, I go down to the end of the hallway, and there in Howard’s room the lights were…

By the way, my mother had a living room. She had crocheted all these doilies and shit, you know, and said, “No, you can’t go into my living room unless… You’re not dressed appropriately.” So she had… The feeling in the room I’ll always remember, because… You met Syeeda, haven’t you? Syeeda was the five-foot woman who used to carry drinks to the bar at the 55. Well, that was my mother. My mother was five feet tall, 90 pounds, and her foot size was 3.

Anyway, I go down to the end of the hall, and the first thing I see, the lights in Howard’s room were like coefficiently in tandem with the lights in my mother’s living room. And then I see a picture of a blond sailor on the wall, then I see Marlon Brando in Streetcar, and I say to Howard, “What is that music you’re listening to?” “Well, kid, it’s Billie Holiday.” I said, “I see.”

So I say to my Dad, “Well, I’ve got to go see Billie Holiday.” “No son of mine will ever go to see that woman!” So I get… He gives me the money, and I… This is in ‘42. Billie is working on the street, and I go down there. In those days, they had these gentlemen who seemed like they were seven feet tall, they had on the uniforms with the cap on, the epaulettes.  And I put my foot in the door, and this guy looked at me and said, “Kid, where do you think you’re going?” Well, Mother ran the family. When she got mad, the whole house shook. Whatever I said to that cat, I remembered Mama!  And he looked at me and he laughed, and he said to me, “All right, young man, will you follow me.” He took me to the end of the bar, he called the bartender over, and he said, “You give this young man any soda that he wants.” And I’m standing there, and this vision comes and starts singing.

And it’s very interesting. Hildegarde, the German chanteuse, was at the Waldorf, and there are pictures of this blonde Hildegarde. For some reason, she had on white velvet gloves that went up over her elbow.  And here is this woman named Billie Holiday, with a gardenia in her hair on the left side of her face, dressed all in white, abundant but not even chubby. She had on white velvet gloves. And when she sang, her right elbow moved toward the center of her stomach and her left leg dipped, and I said, “Jesus Christ, where am I?” I said, whatever that woman did to me when I was 13, if I ever grew up, that’s what I would like to do to an audience.

I saw Billie through all of the years. The last performance I saw Billie was the last one that she gave at Town Hall, where we had to wait, you know. The wonderful Mal Waldron was playing with her, which is another tribute to Miss Holiday – because Holiday’s pianists were stride pianists. And when Billie came out… Oh, man, I could tell you so much about these ladies! Boy!

Because when she came out the first time, that’s when I understood about the spirituality of the music BEYOND the appellations they were giving it, you see. Because I mean, I stood out in front of Carnegie Hall, and I watched these people, all kinds of… It’s like when Ellington was buried, I’m at this big church up there, and two women who happened to be of different ethnicity, they are talking about what the Maestro has given them. Those are the kinds of things that you say, “My God, it is, it transcends…it’s not even about the womb; it’s about the gene.” It’s not about… Well, anyway, Billie’s last performance, of course, her face had changed…

If I might be so bold as to say, send her to Dr. Fu Hsieng, down at 369 Broadway. He was raised in China, I believe. He’s an acupuncturist. And many of his patients have gone to chemotherapy. And a lot of his patients have been told to go down and see him. He is listed.

TP:    Back to Bud: Did you get acquainted with him?

TAYLOR: No-no-no.

TP:    In Paudras’ book, he writes about you visiting him and spending time with him when he came to New York, that you and Ornette were spending time…

TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Oh, oh-ho-oh-ho!  Hey, but if he didn’t mention Bill Dixon, because Dixon was there, and that was something! Ornette and Bill Dixon. Of course, Paudras, if I remember correctly, was sort of a pianist who was supposedly shepherding Mr. Powell. But as you know, Powell had had a lobotomy.  And man, oh, boy, you know… When he came back, I was sitting in my usual place right under him at Birdland. I heard the first note, and I ran from the place.

Another thing I can tell you about my experience with Bud: I was in Birdland one night, and he was playing with a trio, and he got up there before the bass player and the drummer, and he started playing a piece. David Rose wrote this piece. David Rose, I believe, was Judy Garland’s second husband. It’s a beautiful piece called “Our Waltz.” And Bud started playing it, and the manager of Birdland said, from the middle of the floor: “OKAY, BUD, STRIKE IT UP!!” – and the master went into strike up the band.

And of course, the last time I saw the great, and… I mean, for me, THE figure after 1940 was Charlie Parker – and Diz, of course.  But Charlie Parker.  And I’m there, and Bud is playing with Bird, and I could tell you that shit was something.  And Mingus.  And for some reason, Mingus left the bandstand, and for some reason Bud got up and left the bandstand, too. I can still see the Master saying, “You guys are destroying the music.” Charlie Parker said that. No, Mingus could never play with… Mingus, I mean…oh-ho-ho, the stories I could tell you about Mr. Mingus. Well, we all have to deal with our parents.

I hope you found something of interest, because Cyrille is just a marvelous… And give him my very best.

TP:    I hope to see you play in New York one of these times.

TAYLOR: Well, that is something else.  But anyway… It’s so much about the pianists that I grew up listening to. I could tell you about Erroll Garner and all of those beautiful people that kept me alive, really.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Anthony Braxton, Cecil Taylor, Drummer, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR