Tag Archives: Ella Fitzgerald

An interview with Richard Wyands for the Liner Notes for Half and Half (Criss-Cross) — Feb. 7, 2000

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 [1978])

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?

WYANDS:  Right.

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…

WYANDS:  Yeah!

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?

WYANDS:  ’45.

TP:    Then San Francisco State College, and you get out of there in ’49?

WYANDS:  ’50.

TP:    With a degree in music.

WYANDS:  Right.

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?

WYANDS:  Singers.

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.


Filed under Liner Notes, Piano, Richard Wyands

A 1994 WKCR Interview with Ed Thigpen, (Dec. 28, 1930-Jan. 13, 2010 )

In observance of master drummer Ed Thigpen’s birthday, I’m posting the proceedings of an interview that we did on WKCR a few weeks before his 64th birthday, when he  was in NYC to play a week at Bradley’s with the late Memphis piano master Charles Thomas and bassist Ray Drummond.

(Some eight years later, he offered his memories of Ray Brown.)

Ed Thigpen (WKCR, 12-14-94):

[MUSIC: Thigpen Trio: “Gingerbread Boy,” “Denise”]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is in residence at Bradley’s this week with top-shelf trio that features pianist Charles Thomas from Memphis, Tennessee, and bassist Ray Drummond, gracing the small space with a mind-boggling variety of sounds and textures and rhythms from his drum kit. Let’s talk about your recent CD, Mister Taste, on Just In Time, which received five stars in Downbeat.  You’re joined on it by a bassist you’ve worked with frequently since moving to Europe twenty-odd years ago…

ET:    Yes, 22 years ago, as a matter of fact.  Mads Vinding, who is probably one of the finest bassists you’ll ever hear.  Denmark has a penchant for putting out good bass players, Niels-Henning, and we have another young man named Jesper Lundgard, who is also fine — but Mads is special.  And bringing Tony Purrone and Mads together, it was pure magic.

Q:    You comment in the liner notes on particularly the resonance and nuance of the sound Mads Vinding brings to the bass.

ET:  Well, for one, he’s so in tune, and quite inventive.  I am particularly pleased with the interplay between he and Tony — well, the whole group, actually.  Like I said, it was magic.  It was one of those magical dates that came together.  We had done a television show, and like many Jazz endeavors that come about, you don’t have too much time to rehearse.  I brought some tunes in, and it was just… The only thing I can say is that it was like magic, the things that happened, their response, and it was so open…

So when I heard it, I said, “I have to record it.”  So we went into the studio.  We had another one-nighter in Copenhagen, and then a day off.  So we laid down about seven tracks, and I used it as a demo.  Then Just-In-Time was interested in putting it out.  So I brought them back over again, and went into the studio another evening or two, and had a couple of rehearsals — and that’s the result of it.

Q:    Ed Thigpen’s father was one of the  prominent drummers of his period, really, in defining what’s called the Southwest Sound and that way of playing drums.

ET:    Well, a Swing drummer, yeah.  He was great.  Swing.  Swing, that was Ben Thigpen.

Q:    Ben Thigpen, who played with Andy Kirk for many years.  And your birthplace is Chicago.  Did you live there for a number of years, or…?

ET:    No.  Actually the band was on the road, and that’s where I was born.  But the band was actually stationed out of Kansas City.  So I guess when I was old enough to travel, we traveled to Kansas City, and then my mother took me to California, where I was raised from 1935.

Q:    Tell me about your musical tuition.  Was your father your first teacher, or how did it happen?

ET:    No, he wasn’t my first teacher.  Actually, I started in grade school.  You know, all the kids… We had church choir, tap dance lessons, some piano lessons, and we had rhythm groups, and a little orchestra in grade school!  Then in junior high school I did my first drum contest.  We had people like Buddy Redd, who was Elvira Redd’s brother, a young man named Jimmy O’Brien.  Then naturally, the concert band.  Then getting into high school with the swing band, which I think sort of kicked things off, because that band came out of Jefferson High School.  Art Farmer was in the band, and Addison, Chico Hamilton had come out of the band, Dexter had gone to that school as well — so it was quite rich.

Q:    And the band-master at Thomas Jefferson High School was Samuel Browne, a famous teacher.

ET:    Samuel Browne.

Q:    Describe him a little bit, his methods…

ET:    Well, complete openness as far as exposure.  All styles of music.  We had arrangements by Fletcher Henderson, by whoever was popular — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Boyd Raeburn.  Dizzy Gillespie, they had charts from that band.

Q:    At that time.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Oh, yes.

Q:     So he was fully open-minded.

ET:    Oh, totally.  And you were allowed to go as far as you could.  It was totally open.  We had great arrangers in the band, wonderful singers.  Mister Browne was just very encouraging to all of us.  He was a very dedicated man.

Q:    Were you basically a born drummer?  I mean, is that your first instrument?  Or were you studying other instruments…

ET:    No, I’ve worked hard at it.  I still do.

Q:    I don’t mean that it was a natural talent.  I mean, was that the first instrument that you…

ET:    Gravitated towards?

Q:    Yes.

ET:    In some senses.  Actually, it was the piano at first, but the piano lessons, instead of… I think in the old days it was, like, I used to get stomach-aches because I didn’t know about this fourth finger being tied, and the concentration on being a concert pianist, and I didn’t have the facility for that.  I sort of wish… Now when I teach, I teach young people to enjoy the music.  It’s not about being Horowitz.  It’s about enjoying the music.  But now I’m studying again!

But it was piano and dance.  We took dance; we did tap dancing.  And singing in the choir and stuff like that.

Q:    You went to school with and were roughly a contemporary of a number of musicians who became very well known in the Jazz world.  Were you performing outside of school in teenage groups, ensembles?   If so, what sort of things were you playing, and what was the ambiance like?

ET:    Well, no, I wasn’t playing outside of school until I became a senior.  I just had graduated from high school.  My first professional gig was with Buddy Collette, as a matter of fact.  He hired me to do a gig.  We’d have dances, you know, at the YMCA and the YWCA.   Then the Swing band, of course, we did a lot of touring around the city.  We played all the high schools and so forth.

Q:    The Jefferson High School band.

ET:    That was Jefferson High School, but we played other high schools in concert.  We had… Well, who else had a Swing band?  I think Dorsey(?) may have had a band.  But our band was quite known, so we traveled all over the city, doing concerts and so forth.

Q:    As far as emulating a style, I guess your father would have been an obvious example to you.  But who were the drummers you were trying to model yourself after?  Was it by records?  Were you able to go to the theaters, hear big bands coming through, and hear those drummers first-hand?

ET:    As I said before, we had drummers who came through who were there.  Chico Hamilton was quite helpful to me.  As a matter of fact, he taught me how to play paradiddles.  I enjoyed his colors.  Then, like all kids at that time, Gene Krupa was a… You know, you went to the movies and watched Gene Krupa for the show business and all that stuff.  Then I started hearing records, and when I heard Dizzy, it was little subtle things that I liked very much.  “Ow!” was a big influence, that particular piece.  I found out later it wasn’t Kenny, but it was Joe Harris.  But also Max Roach, Art Blakey — all of the masters playing.  Just people who played well.

Then, later, after I had moved to St. Louis, I had the opportunity to see Jo Jones, Papa Jo, as they call him now.  Once I saw him, that was it.  He was a symphony on drums for me.

Q:    What was the event?

ET:    Well, actually I was in St. Louis, and I was going to see Buddy Rich at the Jazz at the Philharmonic, but Buddy didn’t make the show, and there was Jo Jones.  Well, I hadn’t seen him before, and I was just mesmerized.  I couldn’t believe what I saw.  Just everything that he did was so musical, and the touch and the swing — and from there on, that was it for me.  That was the one who I more or less patterned a lot of my work from.

Q:    Did you speak with him then?

ET:    Oh yes.  He and father were very close, and I obviously spoke to him, but it wasn’t about drums.  We talked about tennis, as a matter of fact.  When he came to L.A., when I first him, he didn’t even know I played drums.  I introduced myself, and he knew my Dad, of course, and we were out on the tennis court together.  But that was it.

Q:    What was his tennis game like?

ET:    Fine!  He was a good tennis player.  Yeah, he was fine.

Q:    Talk about the elements of his style that you were able to incorporate, coming from another generation and dealing with somewhat different demands that were placed on a drummer.

ET:    Well, what I liked first of all was the swing.  You know, you popped your fingers.  It was his cymbal beat, his hi-hat patterns.  Then when I saw him pick up brushes, which I hadn’t used before really… And his touch.  It was the musicality of his approach to playing.  It was the instrument… It wasn’t just drums when he played.  He used to tell me later, after I got to know him, that the hi-hat became his brass section.  He was one of the first ones I saw utilizing a certain amount of independence, subtle independence, and colors and things of that nature.  It just floored me.  So I think it was the overall musicality of the swing, the epitome of swing.

Q:    Were you working professionally right after graduating high school?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I started working with a group called the Jackson Brothers.  It was sort of a show group. It was Pee Wee Crayton, you know, Rhythm-and-Blues.  Most of us started with Rhythm-and-Blues.  Then when I moved to St. Louis, it was Peanuts Whalum.  Miles came home one time, I had a gig with him.  And then I went on the road with (we had territorial bands) a gentleman by the name of Candy Johnson.  In that band was Jack McDuff, believe it or not, and Freeman Lee and James Glover.  So you traveled around the Midwest and the South.  Then I wound up in New York, and my first job here was at the Savoy Ballroom.

Q:    Was the Candy Johnson band dealing mostly with jump band things, rhythm-and-blues, or was it a wide repertoire?

ET:    No, it was Swing.  It was a wide repertoire.  I think the closest… Candy played tenor, alto, clarinet, baritone; he played a lot of baritone at that time.  Jack was playing piano.  We weren’t playing organ; playing piano.  There was some Bebop, there was some Swing, we had a lot of stuff Charlie Ventura type with that group that he had with Bennie Green.  It was just good music, just swing.  Basie charts.  The standard things.  He was a wonderful player.

Q:    So you really had a ton of experience by the time you came to New York, working in all sorts of situations, I guess.

ET:    I would say so.  Then when I got here, you know, it started again, working with Cootie Williams.  That band was my first exposure to doing the tobacco warehouses doing what they call the Chitlin’ Circuit.  We traveled with people like the Ravens, the Dominos, the first Doo-Wop groups, the Orioles, then with Dinah Washington — it was wonderful.  That’s when I met Keeter Betts and Jimmy Cobb and Wynton Kelly.  That was the rhythm she had.  Then, when I saw Jimmy Cobb, that floored me again.

Q:    Talk about that little bit.

ET:    Well, I have to go back before Jimmy.  I mean, when I first came to New York in late 1950 or early 1951, the first person I looked up was Max Roach.  He was playing at a place called the Palm Garden, I think, down the street from the Apollo Theater.  I had heard Max on record.  He, again, was so musical.  You could just follow the melodies when he soloed.  I couldn’t believe someone like that.  And his descriptive playing, total… Again, he had a great influence in the sense… I didn’t have the technique that he did, but it was the musicality of the drums.  That was the thing that really got to me.  I met him, asked questions and so forth.

Q:    Max Roach, of course, was tremendously influenced as well by Papa Jo Jones.

ET:    I think everyone who came up had to be influenced by him.  He was a great innovator, let’s face it.
But anyway, when we were out on the road with Cootie, we were traveling with Dinah Washington, and as I said, they had Wynton Kelly and Keeter Betts and then Jimmy Cobb.  Then I was really flabbergasted, because here was a guy who was sort of like out of Max, but his solos and time, and he swung so hard… He had such great technique, too.  I just said, “Wow!”

All these guys were nice.  That’s the beauty, for me, of the business, is the camaraderie of the men who are involved in the music.  They’re all such great men, such wonderful people.  So from that, you just try to make your little niche and participate in this wonderful music.

Q:    You worked with Bud Powell and Billy Taylor, I guess, in the mid-1950’s.

ET:    Yes.  Well, I went into the Army from Cootie Williams.  When I came out of the Army, I was discharged in Chicago.

Q:    I’m sure you were in a band in the Army?

ET:    Yes.  I was at Ford Ord, California, for almost the first year.  I was the instructor in the Army band.  I really got the gig as an instructor because I could play a good Samba, and my Master Sergeant had a band outside of the regular duties, and he wanted me to play with him, so they stationed me there.
Then I went to Korea, and I was in the Sixth Army Band, Maxwell Taylor, you know, the Armed Guard Band.

Then when I came out, I got out in Chicago.  Cootie had another drummer, and the guy who was his road manager said, “I don’t think you’re going to get this gig back.”  Anyway, Keeter Betts told me that Dinah (he called her the Queen)… he had heard that the drum chair was open.  So I spoke with her.  She was coming into St. Louis two weeks after I was discharged.  I went down to the dance, played with them, and she said, “Why don’t you come and go to Kansas City?”  So the next thing I know, two weeks after the Army, I’m with Dinah.  And from Dinah, I’m back to New York, and then it’s Birdland — and you’re exposed to here.  Then my whole thing began again.

Q:    Began to blossom.

ET:    Yes.

Q:    Talk about playing with Bud Powell.

ET:    Oh!  Playing with Bud Powell.  Again, that was a thrill.

Q:    Did he have on nights, off nights?  Was he fairly consistently?

ET:    Well, some people say he wasn’t… You know, he had been ill for so long, so there would be evenings when I guess those who knew him when he was at his peak would say it was off.  But for me it was always on, because again, he played so much music.  I wasn’t real…with the sticks… Like, I said, I could swing and I was good with brushes, and he liked what I did with the brushes.  So just playing with him, just being on the stand with him was wonderful.  And all of that obviously came in.  I tried to find ways to accompany him.

Q:    Would he have pretty much set arrangements?  Did you have any input into the shape of his performances…

ET:    Oh, no-no-no.  At that point there was no actual conversation going on.  Everything conversationally was done musically.  He’d look over and smile, and he would just play.  So you know, the ears had to have it.

Q:    And then you worked for several years also with Billy Taylor’s trio, which was a popular trio.

ET:    Oh, that was a delight.  That was my introduction to… oh, to so many things.  Billy introduced me to so many things.  Number one, he’s such a fine person.  Again, he gave me total freedom.  With Billy I think prepared me to work with Oscar, in a strange way.  The appreciation of a ballad.  No one plays a ballad like that for me.  Then, I was able to experiment with him.  We used to talk about the story-line of a piece, “Titoro,” or what we wanted to get out of it.  That was also my introduction to general Jazz education.  He’s so knowledgeable.  We used to go out and do a lot of freebies, and do clinics and workshops.  I gained a great deal from Billy.  Still do, as a matter of fact!

Q:    We’re in a straight line here, and I guess that will lead us to your joining Oscar Peterson.

ET:    Oh, 1959.   Yes, January, 1959.

Q:    That was six years?

ET:    Six-and-a-half years.  ’59 to ’65.

Q:    Ed Thigpen will select a set of favorite performances over the years with Oscar Peterson, and we’ll be back with him for more conversation.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: OP/Milt Jackson “Green Dolphin Street” (1962), “Tin Tin Deo” (1963) “Thag’s Dance” (1962)]

Q:    In the previous segment we were encapsulating Ed Thigpen’s life up to joining the Oscar Peterson Trio.  I’d now like to ask you a little bit about your years with that group, and the demands of playing with a trio of such incredible musicians, both as improvisers and in terms of their general musicality.  Talk about playing next to Ray Brown for six years.

ET:    Oh, a total delight.  Ray was a big brother to me, in many ways.  You know, we almost lived together on the road for about six years, and rehearsing every day, playing time, playing golf…just having a good time.  It was a delightful experience in most ways; it really was.

Q:    He has one of the most distinctive sounds in Jazz.  He’s one of these people, one note, you pretty much know it’s him.

ET:    Oh, yes.  Well, I used to like to have him just lay down a groove.  Nobody lays down a groove like him.

Q:    I’m going to ask you a bit about the strategies of the group.  Were the performances intricately worked out beforehand?  How much improvising went on on the bandstand in terms of shaping the arrangements, apart from within the arrangements?

ET:    Well, as you can see, they were highly arranged as far as the compositional things.  Oscar was a genius in how he wanted things to be; after he had shaped the outside parts, how he wanted… Except when it came to things where we’d just play things spontaneous, like when we did eleven albums in two weeks of that whole song-book series, with no short takes.  Well, those things are just spontaneous, you know, doing the melody, the groove, have little interludes, and you had to be quick and just make it happen.  Of course, as you know, with Jazz music, so much of it is improvisation, so the skills have to be there.

But with the group, we would have rehearsals, and we’d learn the pieces in sections.  When it came to things like West Side Story, which was probably one of the most difficult ones for me at that time, because some of the things were quite intricate, you had to put blinders on, not  sing somebody else’s part, and play yours.  It was quite intricate.

I just enjoyed listening to the trio.  I felt every night I was at a concert.  I wasn’t just participating.  I was also part of the audience, listening to them play.  But outside of that, I think one of the biggest things I got out of that whole thing was the idea about being consistent, keeping at a very high level.  That was his credo.  We were supposed to sound better than just about anybody on our worst night.  That was the whole idea, was that you never cheated.  I mean, every song was an opener and a closer, whether it’s a ballad or whatever.  You just went out and go for broke, the whole thing.

Q:    Well, it’s certainly a group which gave new meaning to the phrase “split second timing.”

ET:    Oh, yes.  It was something else.

Q:    Was the reason for leaving that six years on the road was too much, or…

ET:    No, it was time.  Oscar was hearing other things.  I began to hear other things.  I think in any type of situation like that… You know, you watch Miles’ groups, he changed.  There comes a time when that period of whatever you’re going through, has to end, and you move on to other things.

Q:    Well, he certainly put the drummer in a situation where I guess just about every possible sound you could out of a drum kit would be incorporated within at least several performances by the group.

ET:    Well, I wouldn’t say… To be honest, not every sound.  Because that’s why you move on.  You know, you’re working for and with a person who is a very strong personality, who is a stylist as well.  He has ideas about how he wants things to go, and they are absolutely right.  It would be the same if you were working with Erroll Garner as a stylist, or someone else.  There would be certain things that… When you’re working with one particular group over a long period of time, and it’s almost exclusively with that group, there are many things you don’t get a chance to play, you know, a lot of repertoire — you can’t cover everything.  There were things I would do with Billy that I didn’t do with him.  There were things I did with Tommy that you didn’t do with Billy or you didn’t do with someone else.  Over the years, you find yourself in other situations, and each individual, or each group that you work with will give you other areas of your personality… You know, you continue to grow, so you experiment.  It’s constantly evolving.  You’re not really one-dimensional.  I guess that’s the best way I could put it.

Q:    I guess the next major gig for you was several years with Ella Fitzgerald, in the late 1960’s.

ET:    Yes.  That was another thrill.

Q:    Which has a whole other set of demands for accompanying a singer, and as formidable a stylist as Ella Fitzgerald.

ET:    Well, she was a total orchestra.  You know, you have some soloists… Her voice was the instrument, let’s face it.  And she instinctively… When she sang it was orchestration.  It almost commanded that you do certain things.  You find certain soloists… Benny Carter is another person who plays that way.  When they play, it’s like an orchestration.  It leads you to something.  So it’s not really as difficult to play with them, because they know so much about what they want, and what they’re going to do without even saying it.  It comes right out.  If you react to that, then it’s almost automatic.  It’s just a big thrill to be in that situation.

Q:    Our next set of music will focus on an aspect of Ed  Thigpen’s European experience, which has been ongoing for twenty-two years.  You live in Copenhagen.  Has that been your residence since moving to Europe?

ET:    Oh, yes.  I was married and we had children, and I stayed there and raised my kids.  And Copenhagen was a nice place to be at the time.  For a period there, we had Dexter, Thad, Kenny Drew, Horace Parlan, Idrees Sulieman, Sahib Shihab, Richard Boone — it was a nice community.

[MUSIC: Ernie Wilkins Big Band “Sebastian”; Thad Jones, “Three In One” (1984)]

Q:    Ed Thigpen is working this week at Bradley’s in a trio featuring the strong Memphis-based pianist Charles Thomas, who has influenced several generations of Memphis piano players, and bassist Ray Drummond.  Is this your first time playing with Charles Thomas?

ET:    The first time.  James Williams called me, the wonderful pianist, and said, “I have someone I would really like you to play with.  He would like to play with you.”  Because Charles had been a big fan of Oscar, myself, and so forth.  He said, “You’re really going to like him.  He taught a lot of us from Memphis.”  Meanwhile, I spoke with Billy Higgins, and he raved about him too.  Charles is a wonderful pianist, a wonderful musician.  People really should come down.

Q:    You were mentioning the breadth of his repertoire.

ET:    Oh, the scope of his repertoire.  He knows… We’re playing everything from Christmas carols to the height of Bebop, so tunes that you don’t hear, some compositions I’m beginning to learn right on the bandstand.  It’s pure magic.  Again, one of those situations when you have someone who plays so well and knows the music so thoroughly, and it’s just a treat to be there with him.

Q:    He’s a very elegant and incisive soloist.  He never plays too long, and always with a little different twist to what you might expect.

ET:    Well, I like his harmonics.  He swings his head off.  We went into some Blues last night, and it was deep.  It was really something!  So I am looking forward to every night.  You know, it’s a long gig when you do 10-to-3 in the morning, but doesn’t seem long to me, because you know, Ray is playing so beautifully… When you’re playing with great guys like this, and the music is so interesting, and the treatment of the music is nice, so it’s stimulating for both the audience and for us as players.  So it’s a nice place to be.

Q:    We heard you backing Thad Jones.  You mentioned that you played with him quite frequently over about a seven-eight year period…

ET:    Well, seven years anyway.  The last seven years of his life, really, or until he went with Basie, I was doing a lot of work with Thad.   I hooked onto him when he came over.  Because this man, just coming out of a rehearsal under him made me a better father, the way he handled people and he was encouraging to everybody…

Q:    An anecdote?

ET:    Just love.  Love, love and perfection, and just creativity, a lot of it — and caring.  This was a man who cared about his musicians.  I think the thing that I gained most was that working with Thad… Other musicians attest to the same.  What he wanted was you to be the best you you could be.  It wasn’t a matter about comparing.  It was the idea about individuality and being the best you, and he would just encourage you to be the best you that you could be.

Q:    Talk a little bit about what’s distinctive about his compositions for a drummer.

ET:    Well, for me, again, we’re talking about total musicality.  Orchestrating the rhythmic aspect of his music was perfect.   Tommy used to tell me, “It’s simple.”  He would start at odd places, but once you got into it, it was just so logical; it was so logical you wouldn’t even think about it.  It’s just right.  Unique.

Q:    Talk about some of the other musicians you’ve had close associations with.  Mads Vinding, obviously, is your partner on bass.

ET:    Jesper Lundgaard.  We have a couple of pianists now in Denmark who are wonderful.  Now I have this new association with a sort of American-German-European, but sort of like more esoteric and descriptive, but wonderful.  I’m having a ball with this new group, After Storm, with John Lindberg and Albert Mangelsdorff and Eric Watson.  We all come from different backgrounds, one Classical, two of us Jazz, older and younger men, this mixture of young and old, and mixing some Classical aspects to the improvisational things that we’re doing, so some of it is like descriptive music, but you know, with a beat behind it.  Just interesting to play.  Free.

What’s happening now, you may not be playing just the Blues, but it will have the feel of it, you know.  You might not be playing just “Rhythm” changes, but it all has rhythm.  All music has rhythm.  Breathing, walking, everything has  rhythm to it.  As I said before, it’s not a matter of being in a box.  I call it descriptive.  It’s an opportunity to… Maybe you want to paint a picture.  You might depict rustling leaves, for instance.  So it can be very theatrical. It’s like theater music, in some ways.  Descriptive music is the best way I can put it.

Q:    Do you paint pictures for yourself while you’re playing, regardless of the situation?

ET:    Yes.  I try to relate to some type of story form, an idea you’re trying to communicate, a feeling, a picture, a story, whether it be the ocean, or whether it be something lyrical.  You try to be… It is a matter of communication, you know, telling a story.

[MUSIC:  Thigpen Trio, “E.T.P.” (1991), Thigpen Group, “Heritage” (1966); Thigpen/ Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson, “Punchin’ aPaich Patch”]

Q:    You said that the Mangelsdorff/Lindberg/Watson group has some tours set up for next year.

ET:    Yeah, we have a couple.  We have a short one when we record again in February, and in March we have a tour.  So I’m looking forward to it.

Q:    That’s the type of group that if you were feeling a little stale or in a rut, it seems like you would never have any problem finding fresh ideas.

ET:    No.  It’s very stimulating.  I enjoy it very much.  As I said, it’s descriptive.  I enjoy descriptive music.  And they’re interesting to play with it.  I really enjoy it.

Q:    When you came to Europe one thing that was either a cliche or not is that it was hard to find good rhythm section.  So of course, if a strong drummer arrived, there would presumably be a lot of work.  Was that the case with European rhythm sections?  If so, how has that evolved over the years?

ET:    I think that’s changed now, obviously.  Jazz is a world music now.  It’s always been.  It’s encompassed it, because this country represents the world.  I think you have to be here, you have the… There’s something unique about this experience in the United States that figures in everything.  It is a United States art form made up of all the peoples and cultures in the world.

But we have some wonderful players over in Europe, really.  As far as… I used to hear about… I understand it was that way at one time about rhythm sections, because you know, the essence of the music is here.  It’s like, if you’re going to deal with Opera, you have to deal with Italy.  Everybody has to have something, right?!

Q:    Conversely, how has your European experience shaped you, and made you a more, let’s say, expansive improviser or given you a more expansive palette?

ET:    Not necessarily.  These are the things that I’ve always been interested in.  As I said, a lot of people don’t realize how diverse the United States is.  There is a very interesting article quoting Max.  Every time I think of something, he’s already said it.  He’s so observant!  And the fact that this country represents…brings in cultures.  You know, it’s a mixture of various cultures.  So most of us are exposed to all types of things here.  I mean, you turn on the radio… Well, it’s different now, in some ways.  But I was introduced to Brazilian music when I was ten years old in Los Angeles.  I play good Country-and-Western music.  So it’s all here.

Q:    You said you got in the Army band because you played a good Samba for your Sergeant.

ET:    That’s right.  If there is a difference in Europe, I don’t think the European fan is as fickle.  Everything is marketing here, and it’s like what’s new rather than necessarily what is classic.  We don’t really honor…it’s even about honor, but just even respect our own uniqueness sometimes.  Sometimes I have a problem if people don’t realize that we do have a very rich heritage.  I just wish they would support it more.

Q:    I think that the stretching boundaries and “experimentation” was represented on the middle track, which is from your first album as a leader, Ed Thigpen’s Out of the Storm from 1966, on Verve.  That one featured Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Ed Thigpen.  That track featured your pedal tom-tom.

ET:    Well, it was a pedal miazi(?), pedal tom-tom, an Italian drum.  It works somewhat similar to a tympany.  I was actually able to do melodies on that drum.
Q:    And sing.

ET:    Oh yeah, that was another thing.

Q:    The call-and-response effect you were able to get there.

ET:    Yes, between that and toms and so forth.  You know, years ago, we had one of the first what I guess you would call Avant groups with Gil Mellé, who was very advanced.  We were doing things on…like, he was very much into Bartok, you know.  But it’s just playing music, man, making you feel good and having a good time!


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