Last night I had the privilege of conducting a public interview with pianist Richard Wyands at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. It was a last-minute call, so I had to prepare quickly, and since there is next to information (apart from this leader discography on Michael Fitzgerald’s invaluable website) about this extraordinary pianist, who has been playing professionally since 1944, I had to draw upon an interview that I had the opportunity to do with Mr. Wyands in 2000 for the liner notes to his Criss Cross recording Half and Half, with Peter Washington and Kenny Washington. To rectify this gap, I’ve appended that interview below.
During our conversation last evening, Mr. Wyands, who is 84, fleshed out some points that we’d touched on in our earlier conversation.
He met Mingus in 1944 or 1945 on a job with a prominent local bandleader named Ben Watkins, and subsequently gigged with him not infrequently when Mingus was living in the Bay Area, including a 1949 big band session that produced several tracks. Wyands, whose mother took him to an Ellington concert when Jimmy Blanton was in the band, stated that at this time Mingus was doing things technically, particularly with the bow, that were unsurpassed. He also recalled playing an engagement at the Blackhawk with Billie Holiday, one of the many singers booked there.
He went to hear all the big bands that came through Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco — Basie (his early stylistic model), Woody Herman, Dizzy Gillespie in 1948, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong.
He stated that Ella Fitzgerald — he was her music director on a 12-week engagement (3 in San Francisco, 3 in Las Vegas, 3 in Palm Springs, 3 in L.A.) in 1956 — was extremely shy. If a celebrity entered the room, even a singer who was clearly her inferior, she would feel anxious. She wanted to fire the drummer, but couldn’t bring herself to tell him. After this gig, he decided he needed to get to NYC, and found a gig playing piano at a singers’ showcase outside of Ottawa; 10 months later, Carmen McRae took him on the road to NYC. He loved playing with Carmen, but found it difficult to adjust to her extremely slow pace with ballads.
While in San Francisco, he himself sang from the piano bench; he also was in a bebop group with Pony Poindexter.
Below the text of the transcript with Mr. Wyands, I’ve appended remarks from a phone conversation with Kenny Washington for these liner notes.
Here’s a partial sideman discography — With Kenny Burrell, The Tender Gender (Cadet, 1966); A Generation Ago Today (Verve, 1967); Night Song (Verve, 1969); God Bless the Child (CTI, 1971); ‘Round Midnight (Fantasy, 1972); Up the Street, ‘Round the Corner, Down the Block (Fantasy, 1974); Stormy Monday (Fantasy, 1974 )
Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Trane Whistle (Prestige, 1960); Frank Foster, Manhattan Fever (Blue Note, 1968); Freddie Hubbard, First Light (CTI, 1971); Etta Jones, Don’t Go to Strangers (Prestige, 1960); Roland Kirk, We Free Kings (Mercury, 1961); Charles Mingus, Jazz Portraits: Mingus in Wonderland (United Artists, 1959); Oliver Nelson, Straight Ahead (Prestige, 1961); Gigi Gryce, Savin’ Something; The Hap’nins; The Rat Race Blues (New Jazz); Reminiscin’ (Mercury); Gene Ammons, Nice ‘n Cool (Moodsville, 1961); Gene Ammons Tentet, June 1961; Roy Haynes Trio, Just Us (New Jazz, 1960 w/ Eddie DeHaas); Lem Winchester, With Feeling (New Jazz, 1961); Richard Williams, New Horn In Town (Candid, 1961); Charlie Mariano (Fantasy, 1953); w/ Mingus, 1949; Billy Mitchell (Smash—1963; Milt Hinton, Laughin’ At Life (Columbia); Eric Alexander, New York Calling (Criss Cross—1992);
Harold Ashby, Born To Swing (Epic–1959), I’m Old Fashioned (Stash–1991); Lisle Atkinson, Bass Contra Bass (Jazzcraft, 1978); Frank Wess, Tryin’ to Make My Blues Turn Green (Concord—1993)
Richard Wyands — Feb. 7, 2000:
TP: I’d like to go into some detail with you about your early years and formative years. You were born in Berkeley or Oakland?
WYANDS: In Oakland in 1928.
TP: Would you recount for me again about the beginnings of your piano playing, how you first came to it, and what your progress was?
WYANDS: Well, I began at an early age, around 7 or 8, and I had some friends who I grew up with on the block, and their mother was a piano teacher, so I used to go over to their house, and she had a piano and I used to fool around with. She told my mother to ask me if I wanted piano lessons, because she thought I had talent. So my mother asked, and I said yes, so they got me a piano, and then they got me a couple of teachers. And I studied classics. That was it.
TP: You had a proficiency. You said that you took to it and became good pretty quickly.
WYANDS: Yeah, that’s true. You mean at the beginning?
TP: Or within a couple of years.
WYANDS: Oh, sure. I was very good. Almost a prodigy.
TP: What was your repertoire?
WYANDS: Oh, I don’t remember.
TP: Were you playing like 19th Century repertoire?
WYANDS: Oh yeah. 19th Century.
TP: Liszt and Chopin and things like that?
TP: So you were doing all that as a kid.
WYANDS: As a kid.
TP: Did you have outlets to play? Did you perform?
WYANDS: No, just recitals. Piano recitals along with the other students. But I didn’t perform anyplace. There was no place to perform really. I wasn’t that good.
TP: Then you said that jazz was always around and was always something that interested you. Talk about what was in the air.
WYANDS: Well, the radio, of course. Plus my parents had some old records, some 78s of Fats Waller and James P. Johnson, and had an older Victorphone I guess you’d call it, one of these ancient turntables. And I played Victrola. I had a Victrola, so I played these records on that.
TP: do you remember what some of those records were?
WYANDS: Not the names?
TP: “Carolina Shout” maybe?
WYANDS: I don’t really remember. I have no idea what the names of these tunes were. And a neighbor had a player piano and she had some James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, and the stride piano players — piano rolls. I used to go to her house and put the rolls in and pump it away.
TP: Would you match your fingers on it?
WYANDS: Sometimes I’d try, yeah. The keys were moving so fast it seems like there were three piano players playing on one piano.
TP: When did that start to translate into your playing jazz? You said you were about 12 years old, I recollect?
WYANDS: I was picking things out maybe at that age. I started studying with a teacher who was also a jazz pianist. I guess I was around 14. That was Wilbert Barenco. He gave me about an 8-month course, and that was all. He said, “Okay, you’ve gone through the course and you’ve done very well, and this is as far as I can take you; you’re on your own.”
TP: This is about 1942. What sort of things did his course comprise? What was the jump for you in going from Classical to playing Jazz?
WYANDS: Harmonically speaking, he showed me altered chords to apply, how to take a sheet of music on a simple tune like “Body and Soul” or “Stardust” or whatever… In those days they had the ukelele symbols on top of the chords, so I had to figure out the chords and make adjustments and write them in and play the tunes. In fact, I still have a little record that I did with him. It must have been around ’42. I played “Stardust” and “Body and Soul.”
TP: How does it sound?
WYANDS: Not bad! Not bad at all. He showed me how to run little arpeggios on little chords. Everything I learned, I had to do it in every key, which was a good idea. He taught me how to make fills while I’m playing the melody — make little fills in between. He didn’t actually teach me how to improvise, not really.
TP: But he gave you the tools.
WYANDS: Oh yeah. And I watched him play. He was working in a nightclub, I remember, in those days, every night. He played me some of his recordings of his group. I think Jerome Richardson was in his group. I really didn’t care for the way he played. He was more of a soloist. He played too much to play in a group, and start with somebody. In fact, most of the musicians said that he overplayed. He would play through their solos and everything. But even at that age, I could tell how I wanted to play, and I didn’t want to play like that. He played great just solo piano, but he overplayed in a group.
TP: I’ll take it that by then you were starting to listen to piano players for style and vocabulary as well.
TP: So who were those piano players? When you were 14-15-16, this is before Bud Powell’s records and Monk’s records come out.
WYANDS: Teddy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Art Tatum.
TP: Is that in any particular order of being favorites?
WYANDS: Well, Teddy Wilson and Nat King Cole were my two favorites. I liked the way Teddy Wilson used his left hand. He didn’t overplay. He was very tasty — VERY tasty. And Nat was just fantastic. I had an opportunity to play opposite him in his early trio. I played a couple of dances that he had play; I played with another group, so I got a chance to really check him out. I loved the way he played, and he had such great taste and good chops and good technique. Everything was fantastic. Not to mention his singing, of course, but his piano playing was extraordinary.
TP: Well, that leads me to ask what the scene was like in the Bay Area during the war. I guess a lot of people were away, so that opened things up a bit for you to start playing when you were in high school, which I think is when you said you started to gig.
WYANDS: Yes, I did. The musicians were really searching for piano players especially. There were a lot of horn players around, some who were actually in the Service but were stationed in the area.
TP: Sam Rivers said he was stationed there and used to play all over the Bay Area, jamming.
WYANDS: In World War Two?
TP: World War Two, yeah. He was in the Navy. He was an office clerk, and so he could go off base, and he said he used to go around Richmond, California…
TP: …and San Francisco. He said the place was hopping. And he said his first professional gigs were with Jimmy Witherspoon band in the Bay Area. He also said he heard the Billy Eckstine band when they came out in 1945…
WYANDS: ’46. Yeah, I heard the band.
TP: But if you could digress a bit on the scene in the Bay Area. What kind of gigs were you doing?
WYANDS: Oh, nightclubs and club dates, club dates meaning dances, private affairs. There were plenty of those. I used to work with a guy who used to have about three or four different bands. He was like a Meyer Davis of the Bay Area. His name was Ben Watkins, I never will forget him. He was a lot older than I. He was old enough to be my father. And he was uptight, it was hard finding musicians, so somehow he found out about me. I think he met me in a barber shop or something. I was getting my hair cut, and somehow the conversation got to piano players, so I said, “Well, I play piano.” But I was only about 16 and I didn’t belong to the union, so he said, “Okay, I’ll talk to your mother and see if I can… I’ll sponsor you. I’ll get you in the union.” So she said, “Okay.” She was a little apprehensive about it, picturing me working in some joint at the age of 16. But I’d already done that, though she didn’t know it, working in some tough joints in Richmond at that age. Tough. Very tough. In one of these kid bands, you know; we made $5 or something, if that much. But anyhow, Ben Watkins got me going, and I played in some of his bands.
TP: So those bands would vary in size.
WYANDS: They’d vary in size. Some were at least two horns, and he used a couple of big bands, playing stock arrangements, and I played in some of those. It was good experience. Well, I didn’t have time. I was going to school, still in high school, and then I went to college right after high school.
TP: you get out of high school when? ’45 or ’46?
TP: Then San Francisco State College, and you get out of there in ’49?
TP: With a degree in music.
TP: And you’re gigging all the way through, doing this dual track.
WYANDS: Hell, yeah. I worked my way through college. I was working at night in San Francisco mostly. Some work in Oakland and Richmond, and some of the areas around the Bay Area. In California you can only work til 2 a.m.; the clubs didn’t stay open any longer than that.
TP: But there was an after-hours scene in San Francisco.
WYANDS: Oh yeah. There was Bop City and some other places. But by the time they got started, I was in college or about to graduate. Jimbo’s Bop City was one of the places, and I remember there was a place called Jackson’s Nook. But there were a lot of little places where the musicians hung out, and jam sessions and all of that.
TP: Who were some of the musicians you were affiliated with in San Francisco who people now would know about?
WYANDS: Well, Cal Tjader. In fact, we went to school together at San Francisco State University. Jerome Richardson, who lived just around the corner from me in Berkeley. There was Vernon Alley; I spent a lot of time with him.
TP: Was Brubeck playing a lot around the Bay Area then?
WYANDS: Oh yeah. Paul Desmond. We worked together before the Dave Brubeck Quartet. We played in some bands around San Francisco, small groups.
TP: Then after college you start to become one of the most in-demand pianists in the Bay Area is the sense I got from what you were saying. You became house pianist at the Black Hawk, right?
WYANDS: At the Black Hawk. Well, I was still working with Vernon Alley. He was the leader at all these jobs, at the Black Hawk, at a place called Saks, the Downbeat Club, some other places we worked. He was a big man in San Francisco. He had a big name in San Francisco, not further than that. Vernon was the bassist on the original Lionel Hampton “Flying Home” with Illinois Jacquet — that band.
TP: So the Blackhawk was very important for you, I gather, because you said that’s where you met virtually every musician coming through San Francisco. It was a major stopping place.
WYANDS: That’s right.
TP: Tell me about the ambiance of the Blackhawk and the routine. I think you said they’d play about 5 sets, they’d play 40 minutes, you’d play 20.
WYANDS: 40 on, 20 off. So most of the time I was either playing in a duo, trio, quartet or solo, and opposite these groups. Every now and then we played where we were the main attraction, but usually we played opposite these people. Like I said, I played opposite Art Tatum, and I played opposite Erroll Garner, Dinah Washington…oh, a long list of people. Red Norvo.
TP: Let me digress for a second. When you would be doing intermission piano, what kind of repertoire were you playing? Were you very taken by bebop? Were you playing a pre-bebop repertoire? A bit about how your aesthetic was developing?
WYANDS: Some of all. Some of both. I was paying pre-bebop, I was playing sort of stride piano. I was trying to play like Teddy Wilson, and a little of Art Tatum. I didn’t try to play like Art Tatum when I was opposite him, though. I decided to leave that alone. In fact, he told me, “You can’t compete with me anyhow, but keep it up.” He encouraged me a lot. No one can compete with him, no one in the world! But he was very nice about it. In fact, he was glad I was there, because he would talk to me while he was playing. I’d sit right up there by the piano and he knew I was sitting there, even though he couldn’t see too well at that time, and he would tell me what he was doing and what key he was going into. The audience didn’t have a clue other than the musicians, but the average person didn’t really have much of an idea what he was playing other than the tunes.
TP: Wow, what an education.
WYANDS: So we talked a lot. But when he came off the bandstand, I had to get on, so we really didn’t have much time to talk in between — not really. But just sitting there watching him was quite an experience, and I didn’t feel bad about it, trying to play opposite him. I played what I could play, and that was that. He’d wipe you out in a minute.
TP: Were you ever house rhythm section for people coming through?
TP: Let’s talk about how you got out of San Francisco.
WYANDS: I moved to Canada, and played in Hull, Quebec, which is right across the river from Ottawa, Ontario, a so-called jazz club, but it became a singers showcase. I played for a lot of singers there, including Johnny Mathis… Oh God, I can’t even think of all the singers. There were so many of them. Most of them aren’t around now or they’re not singing. This was around ’57.
TP: I think you said the year before that you were doing gigs on the West Coast with Ella Fitzgerald. Talk about the impact on you of playing with singers. I imagine it must have vastly expanded your repertoire and aided your ability to interpret the songbook repertoire just by internalizing all the lyrics.
WYANDS: Oh yeah. Well, first of all, Ella was a great pleasure to work with. Only unfortunately, we didn’t do too much. She had a certain repertoire she wanted to do on this particular tour which was sort of limited. We did the same tunes every night. Rodgers & Hart; I think that’s what she was doing mostly. Of course, some of her famous things, like “How High The Moon,” this and that. But it was great. We did Vegas and Palm Springs, L.A., San Francisco. But we stayed in each of those locations at least three weeks. That’s how it was in those days. So I was the musical director, and if there was a band I had to conduct the band. Which didn’t amount to much really, because her stuff wasn’t very complicated. It was just start and finish. It was nice. Carmen was a little different, though. She had a vast repertoire. She had more tunes than I’d ever seen.
TP: She played some piano, too.
WYANDS: In fact, part of her act was playing piano. She’d do a couple of tunes a set playing piano and singing just by herself, sometimes with the rhythm section and sometimes just solo. That was part of the routine, though.
TP: She did some nice records at that time when I think Ray Bryant was with her, and she played piano on a few tunes.
WYANDS: Yeah. That’s when I met Ray Bryant. He was playing with her. In fact, I think I followed him with her. Anyhow, it was a great experience.
TP: You were talking a bit about what led you to leave San Francisco.
WYANDS: Well, I got tired of it. It was time for me either to sink or swim. I had it sort of made pretty well in San Francisco. But when you’re the home town, I don’t care how well you can play, they still think of you as just local — the local guy. So I decided I’m tired of being local. If I’m going to be local, I’ll be local in New York. So at least something to listen to, and really to better my playing, my whole outlook, from playing with different… Even though I jammed, played in a lot of jam sessions in San Francisco with the guys who came through, but that’s a little different when you go out… When you play with these people on a regular basis, it’s different. In fact, I worked with Mingus in San Francisco before I left, before I even thought of going to New York.
TP: So he was one of the musicians you met while you were in San Francisco who you hooked up with when you got to New York.
WYANDS: I met him while I was working with this guy Ben Watkins in various bands. Mingus had come up from L.A. with some group; I don’t remember who. But I was really impressed. I was watching him warm up back stage. He had his bow out and he was sawing away. I said, “Wow!”
TP: This was in the ’40s?
WYANDS: Mid-’40s. ’44 or ’45.
TP: Is this when he was billing himself as Baron Mingus?
WYANDS: No, not at that time. This came up a little later, as far as I know. But I made a record with him in San Francisco with a big band, a large orchestra. In those days you just did one at a time. You did two tunes, and it would be on a ’78.
TP: I have a collection of Mingus rareties on an LP. I wonder if you’re included on it.
WYANDS: I have one, too. There are a lot of different groups. They’re all West Coast bands, but some of it was done in Los Angeles and some elsewhere. L.A. and San Francisco.
TP: So anyway, you leave Ottawa with Carmen and come to New York.
WYANDS: Not directly. We played at the Blue Note in Chicago, went to Detroit, and that’s when I first met Barry Harris. He was playing intermission piano . River Rouge Lounge was the name of the place. Then we went to a few other cities, then we finally came to New York and worked around New York, and then I left. We did the “Today Show” with Dave Garroway. I never will forget that, because it was so early in the morning, live, and you had to be there at 6 o’clock in the morning. I think I was asleep actually during the show. But then I worked with her I went down to Philly and worked with her; little places around the area. Then that was that.
TP: So talk about establishing yourself in New York. You said it was lean times the first year or so.
WYANDS: Very lean. The union had me uptight. I wasn’t able to work. Because I came in on a transfer. I transferred from the San Francisco union to Local 802. They had this dumb rule where you had to sit, establish your residence for six months, and they wouldn’t give you a union card til you had been around six months. And you weren’t supposed to leave town. You had to stay. They’d allow you to work a few jobs, but not much. I worked in Harlem and some places in Brooklyn with no union card. The business agent in the area usually would allow me to work; he knew I was trying to hang on. Like a lot of other musicians going through the same thing. So finally I got my card, then things started happening.
TP: Your first record was with Roy Haynes, the Roy Haynes Trio record on New Jazz. Talk a bit about your workaday life the first few years in New York.
WYANDS: I really didn’t work that much. Not too much. I don’t really remember. But it was difficult. I finally decided to go to Philadelphia. I met a friend who booked me into a club in Philly doing a solo piano — on the outskirts of Philly at that. It was sort of a suburb, and it was kind of tough. It wasn’t very nice.
TP: Wasn’t fun.
WYANDS: No-no. The club owner was a pain. He was a violinist, and he wanted me to accompany him after hours for his private guests. I said, “Well, look, I finish at 1 o’clock” or whatever the time was, “and I’ve got to go home.” So I finally got fired. So I went to the union. I said, “Look, this guy is trying to fire me instantly; you know, without a two-week notice.” So they called and told him, “Look, you’ve got to give him two-week notice.” Fortunately, I filed a contract with the union in Philly. I really wanted to leave, but I said, “No, you’d better make these two weeks. This guy’s a pain in the butt, but…”
So I came back to New York after Philly and got a place in Brooklyn for cheap rent, and I started working with this guy rehearsing singers in Brooklyn, the guy I was living with in Brooklyn, in his apartment. He was sort of an agent, so he lined up all these singers. Some of them were good, some were terrible. And somehow I met Gigi Gryce, and he was organizing a band along with Reggie Workman, Richard Williams and Mickey Roker. We rehearsed and we worked at the old Five Spot, different places in Brooklyn, made about three dates on Prestige and one on Mercury — so I made four LPs with Gigi.
TP: Was he important to you? Did that gig help launch you in New York, as it were?
WYANDS: Sort of. I’d been around a while before I even started with Gigi — ’58 and ’59. I was working with Jerome Richardson up at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, with Kenny Burrell. But the group with Gigi was a great group. I really loved it. We had so much fun. It was a happy group. Extremely happy. I’d never been in a group like that before ever, anywhere, where everything was just so happy and musical. Happy musically and otherwise. Everybody got along with each other, there was no arguing and fighting, no egos. One of the best groups I ever worked with. Then Gigi disappeared from the scene and we were all on our own. So I just freelanced around New York.
TP: I’d like to jump to the tunes in the tune order I have.
WYANDS: I composed that tune for my grandson, Kosi. I couldn’t think of a title, so I decided to put his name on it. I wrote it just a couple of days before the recording session. It’s just a blues.
TP: “P.S., I Love You,” by Gordon Jenkins. Your association with it?
WYANDS: I don’t know. I’d never played it before actually. I might have played it with a singer or something. When you work with singers, you play so many tunes.
TP: You’ve probably played thousands of tunes. There must be just subliminally tunes in various parts of your consciousness just burbling up at different times, with all the tunes you’ve played.
WYANDS: That’s true. I never think about all the tunes that I know, unless someone calls it — or requests it, I should say.
TP: Then it just pops up.
WYANDS: Yeah, then it pops up. But “P.S., I Love You,” for some reason I thought of it. I have no idea why. I’d heard it done by Woody Herman with Mary Ann McCall singing, I believe. This was done in the ’40s. For some reason, I looked it up. I looked through all my fake books and I finally found it, because I wasn’t sure exactly how the bridge went. I found it, I thought, “Well, you’re in look; you won’t have to go to the music store to buy a sheet.” So I made a little arrangement of it. It’s always been a favorite tune, even though nobody plays it. I don’t recall anyone calling that tune ever to play, other than perhaps a singer who would usually have a chart or something.
TP: When you’re interpreting songbook material, is the lyric paramount in your mind?
WYANDS: Yeah. Definitely.
TP: I wrote a liner note for Billy Taylor, and asked him, and he said, “I don’t remember the lyrics; it’s always a musical thing.
WYANDS: I remember the lyrics impressed me. It’s very intimate. It reminded me of something in the past, writing to a girlfriend or something – long ago, before I even came to New York.
TP: “Once I Loved,” by Jobim. Is Jobim a steady part of your repertoire?
WYANDS: Yeah. I do some things of his. Quite a few, in fact. When I get a chance… I think I mentioned that I’d heard his record that Wes Montgomery did on “Once I Loved,” and I liked it. And I’d play it quite a bit. It’s one of my favorite tunes actually, and certainly one of my favorite Jobim tunes.
TP: A few words about the characteristics about Jobim that make his music attractive to you.
WYANDS: Well, his whole outlook is very, very intense, but very relaxed. Most of his tunes just fell right into place, all the things, the popular ones that most people know about. “No More Blues” is one of my favorites. I thought about recording that, but it’s been done so many times — forget it.
TP: “Is That So” is that nice Duke Pearson tune. The other person I’ve heard record this is John Hicks. You knew Duke Pearson; he was a contemporary of yours.
WYANDS: I didn’t know him that well. I’d seen him around New York. When I first came to New York I heard this record that he and Donald Byrd and Jackie McLean made together. I have the record but I can’t think of the title. I liked the way he played. I saw him play at various places in Harlem. I ran across the tune when I was working the guitarist Rick Stone, and it was part of his repertoire. I said, “Wow, make me a copy of that. I like it.” In fact, we played it, and I said, “Yeah, I like this.” I was searching for material to do, so I said, “well, I’ll play this.” It falls a little differently. I haven’t played it since, but I hope to.
TP: “Daydream.” Your association with the tune has to be pretty obvious.
WYANDS: Strayhorn has always been one of my favorite composers, he and Duke. I think this was a collaboration. I’m not sure. I don’t have a sheet on it. But I remember the old Johnny Hodges vehicle of “Daydream,” the original one was beautiful – a ballad, of course. I decided to put a little different beat to it. It seems that every trio record I’ve done, other than the one I did with Roy Haynes, I’ve done at least Duke Ellington or Strayhorn tune.
TP: Strayhorn and Jobim are both so harmonically rich. There’s so much harmonic meat.
WYANDS: Oh yes.
TP: The way Teekens sequenced the tape, there are two solo tracks back to back, “Beautiful Friendship” and “Time After Time.” Talk about playing solo. I’m sure you’ve done lots of solo gigs, particularly in New York with all the restaurants with pianos.
WYANDS: Yes, that’s true. A lot of restaurants in New York. Not so many now, but in years past.
I learned “Beautiful Friendship” while I was working with Ella Fitzgerald. That was one of her features every night; she did it every night. I’d never heard the tune before. I loved the way she sang it. Gorgeous. So I kept that in the back of my mind, I’ll do this tune some day. Which I did . I’ve been playing that tune for a long time. And I remember Sarah Vaughan had a nice record of “Time After Time,” and a lot of other singers. It’s one of my favorite tunes. I like “Time After Time.” It’s always been… I didn’t have that in mind to play on the date. It just came to my mind. Gerry said “Well, let’s rest now. Why don’t you do a solo thing?”
TP: You said one thing that you like about solo piano is the freedom it ives you. You can change keys, you can change tempos, you don’t have to worry about shaking the guy in the band, so forth and so on.
WYANDS: Yeah, that’s true. It’s complete freedom. I can play anything. I can play whatever comes to my mind. There’s no particular form or structure, just play any tune. If I want to go back to the bridge, I can do that. If I want to change keys in the bridge, I can do that without having to have signals, which I would if there were some other musicians playing with me. Sometimes it gets a little lonesome, though. You’re playing by yourself, playing at some joint where all the people are running their mouths and talking loud. But usually it can be very rewarding. I can practice. I use a lot of those solo jobs just to practice! I can play tunes I haven’t played in years, and play those verses, all sorts of things. It goes through a lot of different harmonic scenarios. It’s great, whether there’s a listening audience or not — unless they’re just yelling and screaming! Which is quite the case in some instances. A piano bar when they’re sitting right up in your face, and some drunk gets up and wants to sit on the piano bench and help you play the piano. I’ve had to go through that.
TP: You take all the romance out of the music business.
WYANDS: Well, that’s part of it. If you work in a saloon.
TP: “As Long As I Live.”
WYANDS: I think I mentioned that I played that with Maxine Sullivan. Of course, I’d heard the old record by Benny Goodman, the sextet I guess. Some of the older musicians used to play that a lot, especially when I was in California. Because I came up with a lot of older musicians. In the San Francisco Bay Area there weren’t that many young musicians around my age. So I really learned how to play playing with older musicians. Anyhow, I didn’t want to jump from the (?) to that. But Maxine Sullivan sang that tune so great that somehow I… Sometimes I think about these tunes in my sleep. I’m in bed and I think, “Whoa, I can hear her singing now. Why don’t I do that?”
TP: “Half and Half.” That’s the title track and the one that Kenny Washington said busted his and Peter’s chops.
WYANDS: Yeah. They wanted to do it earlier in the date, and I think they were right, because we didn’t save it for last but right near the end. I think we should have done it not in the beginning, but around the third or fourth tune.
TP: What makes it so tricky and complicated, in your words. You said you wrote it 35-40 years ago, and Don Sickler found it when he got hold of some of Gigi Gryce’s material.
WYANDS: Right. Because I didn’t have a sheet on it. I misplaced it, and I couldn’t even remember how the tune went until Don sent me a copy of it.
TP: Was that tune performed by the Gigi Gryce group?
WYANDS: It was never performed by anyone. It’s never been performed before.
TP: But you wrote it then and Gigi had the sheet music.
WYANDS: I don’t know what I had in mind for that tune. I don’t know whether I wanted to do it as a trio thing or what. But I put it in his publishing company, obviously, and that’s why he had the sheet on it.
TP: Then you said you had to relearn how to play it. You had to relearn your own tune.
WYANDS: Yes, that’s usually the case. I’ve got a lot of tunes that I don’t even play.
TP: Have you done a lot of composing over the years?
WYANDS: Yes. Well, not that much. But a lot of tunes I’ve written, I just wrote them for a record date, and then they don’t play them any more.
TP: “I’m Old Fashioned” is the last tune.
WYANDS: It’s an old standard that I really like to play. I’ve played it with a lot of horn players at various tempos. Singers. Slow sometimes. I decided to do it at sort of a walking tempo. It’s kind of difficult to play ballads. Like, you can get away with it on a record, but it’s hard on a live performance because you can’t get the audience’s attention. There’s too much talking. On a concert stage it’s easy, but in a nightclub… But rather than do it as a straight ballad, I did it with a little tempo to it.
TP: A few words about your partners, Peter and Kenny.
WYANDS: Peter is one of my favorite bassists. We’ve made a few things together, certainly not enough — mostly on records. We did a few live things. But unfortunately, we’d work together maybe a week, then that would be it. We wouldn’t even see each other.
TP: He’s a busy man.
WYANDS: Yeah, he’s very busy. So we never really get into anything. Unfortunately, that’s the way the business is now unless you’re with a regular group. But he’s been with Tommy Flanagan and Lewis Nash for a long time. But I think the first time we played together was with Frank Wess at the Vanguard several years ago.
TP: Anything about the dynamics of his style?
WYANDS: He has good feel, intonation is good, he’s aware of so many different things, so many different styles that he can deal with. Like I said, I haven’t known him that long. I don’t know how long he’s been in the New York area.
And I love Kenny. He’s one of my favorite drummers. Very versatile, loose, and he’s very cooperative. He’ll try to do whatever you want him to do if at all possible. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody can’t do everything. There’s certain areas that we all can’t get into. But I know I’m not going to have a problem with him. Good technique, good sense… Well, being a DJ, he listens to a lot of older records. Well, a lot of it he has in his own private collection. I listen to his program on the radio when I get a chance. He’s into the old big bands and all of that stuff. I like his approach.
Kenny Washington on Richard Wyands:
TP: Just to cut to the chase, talk about the dynamics of him as a piano player and the characteristics of his style and approach.
WASHINGTON: Well, Richard Wyands doesn’t have any one set approach. See, Richard Wyands is like a pro. He is the kind of a pianist who has been around for many, many years, and unfortunately, he is sort of-kind of taken for granted. I mean, he has been on so many great recordings… He’s someone who is taken for granted, but then when you really start checking him out you say, “Geez, this guy, he’s an important musician.” Because he does everything right. He’s got the touch, he’s got the sound, he knows how to comp for horn players, good time. He just knows what to do, when he’s supposed to do it, and nine times out of ten no one has to say anything to him about anything. He just knows instinctively what to do. That’s the kind of pianist that he’s always been, and a lot of times people don’t really notice him like they should. In other words, he is somebody like a Hank Jones or someone like that, who just, they come in, they take care of business — they don’t make a big hoopla about it either. That’s the other thing about them. They just go in and do what they’re supposed to do, and it’s plenty-plenty, bye-bye — they’re gone. And then after a while you start saying, “Man, this cat can really play.” Any situation, man.
TP: Well, he’s done just about every situation. He’s been gigging since he was about 16 and playing before that back in the Bay Area.
WASHINGTON: See, I’ve made several trio records with him, but then he was on Eric Alexander’s first record, New York Calling, and he came in, man, he took care of business on that. Like, he can go any direction. He can go in the direction like a Herbie Hancock, or a McCoy Tyner, play modal, and he can play bebop… He can do it all. He doesn’t really say anything about it; he just does it.
TP: And his style isn’t really what you’d call modern or old. It’s just functional.
WASHINGTON: That’s why he’s not noted more than he is. Because people want to always typecast you, he’s a bebopper or he’s this or he’s that. The problem with critics especially is that no one says, “Man, this guy is a great musician who can go in and play with Buddy Tate and Clark Terry, but then again he can come in and play with a young dynamo like Eric Alexander and still take care of business.
TP: What are some of your favorite records that he’s on.
WASHINGTON: He made Straight Ahead, didn’t he, with Oliver Nelson and Eric Dolphy. There’s a Gene Ammons record with…one of those records is Ballads, I think, and he really took care of business on that one.
TP: I think basically you said what needed to be said. Any particular memories about this session?
WASHINGTON: The thing about Richard Wyands sessions, he’s the kind of guy who… They say you’re sort of-kind of like you play. He’s sort of a quiet guy. I don’t know him that well. I mean, I know him well enough, I suppose. But he’s a very quiet person, a very pleasant person. He doesn’t say a whole lot. He just says what he has to say. So he calls me up and says, “Listen, I got this date; can you make it? Would you like to make it?” I say, “Of course, man! Don’t even ASK me that question. Of course. The answer is just yes.” So we came to the rehearsal, and he had some ideas for some music, and that’s when he pulled out that tune, “Half and Half.” He said, “I have something, I don’t know how good it is, it’s kind of old, but let’s just try this.” He passes out the music, and Peter Washington and I just looked at each other, “Unh-oh.” I said, “Right, man, you don’t think this is much, man, do you. Oh yeah, not much.” And he started laughing. At one point he was getting ready to change his mind, and I said, “No, man, let’s do this!”
TP: He said he thought you should have done it earlier in the session, which you’d suggested to him.
WASHINGTON: Yeah, that’s possible. But see, he didn’t want to do it early in the session because that’s a butt-kicking tune. The head of the tune, with all the syncopation and everything. And he had never done that before. He wasn’t… See, those are the kind of guys you’ve got to watch, man, because on all these dates I don’t think I’ve ever played any of his music. He usually just comes in with standards… I think that’s the first time I’ve played a tune that was actually his tune. Maybe there might have been a blues… I’m talking about in general. There might have been a blues or something that he wrote. But I don’t even think so. And he just pulled this one out, and it turns out that he had written it with Gig Gryce… [ETC.] So the thing about it is you say, “Lord knows what else he might have in terms of writing tunes.” So we had one rehearsal. It’s funny, because at the rehearsal he had stuff worked out. I mean, he doesn’t really say much. He plays the stuff down, you ask him a couple of questions. “Well, how about this part? What would you like?” He said, “Well, that’s up to you, man.” Or he might want something like this, and it’s “Okay, no problem.” Peter and I can hear real good, so we had most of the stuff together. That’s when he pulled out the tune “Half and Half.” Then I think for a good portion of the rehearsal we were trying to get that tune together.