Tag Archives: George Cables

Raw Copy of Benny Green’s Blindfold Test from Around 2000—He’s 49 Today

It’s the 49th birthday of Benny Green, one of my favorite pianists for many years. I’m appending below the unedited complete DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me more than a decade ago.

* * *

Benny Green Blindfold Test:

1.    James Weidman, “Bean and the Boys” (from ALL ABOUT TIME, Contour, 1999) (Weidman, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums) – (5 stars)

It sounded like Lewis Nash on drums. It wasn’t?  Wow!  Who is the drummer?  I was positive it was Lewis Nash, by the ride cymbal, the way he was comping on the snare, the way he coordinated his bass drum with his ride cymbal.  I’m actually surprised it’s not Lewis.  The song is a Coleman Hawkins melody called “Bean and The Boys,” which is based on “Lover, Come Back To Me.”  It was an original treatment with a Latin feel, and I enjoyed it.  I liked the way everyone was playing.  By the time of the last bridge, on the final melody chorus, the whole group really loosened up, and that was my favorite part of the song.  But I enjoyed the whole performance.  It felt like the three players were really comfortable with each other and trusted each other, and it was an honest performance.  I have no idea who the pianist was.  It was musical and had a good feel, but I have no idea who it was.  I’m personally not comfortable with the star system, but 5 stars.  It was an excellent performance. [AFTER] All respects to Marcus, who’s a great musician, but I thought he might have absorbed some things from Lewis.  Like, the very first bar coming out of the melody, the way he played the accent on 1 and 2 on both the ride cymbal and the bass drum, that’s like signature Lewis.  I guess that just goes to show, although I still think of Lewis (he’s just a few years older than I) as a young person, that he’s really having an influence on the current scene.  Obviously, I thought it was Lewis, and I’ve played with Lewis, so Marcus has absorbed from him.  And that’s good. It means he’s absorbing from one of the greatest of today.  I should have recognized Ed.  I’ve done a lot of playing with him.  He’s a great musician.

2.    George Cables, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (from BY GEORGE: GEORGE CABLES PLAYS THE MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN, Contemporary, 1987) (Cables, piano; John Heard, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (5 stars)

I think it’s George Cables.  I love George’s playing.  I love his personality and it comes through in his playing.  He’s a very sweet and gentle soul, a very warm person, and clearly the man knows so much music and he utilizes all this knowledge just to paint a beautiful picture when he plays.  My father used to take me to see Dexter Gordon back in the mid-’70s, when George was his pianist.  We always knew George was going to be playing piano, because when
we would arrive at the venue, before the musicians came out on stage, there would be a phone book on the piano bench.  George used to use one; there probably weren’t so many adjustable benches back then.  That was a great reading of Gershwin’s melody, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from “Porgy and Bess.”  I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish.  don’t know who the bassist and drummer were, but it felt like everyone really worked together well.  They were very supportive of him. 5 stars. I thought it was gorgeous.  [AFTER] I’ve never had the pleasure of working with John, even though I’ve met him.  He’s a pro from way, way back, and I’ve always admired his work.  I have had the pleasure of playing with Ralph, especially quite a bit with Freddie Hubbard.  He has played with everyone who’s been alive in the course of his lifetime.  He’s worked with all of them, and it comes through in his playing. He’s a great listener, and his conception is wide open.

3.    Cedar Walton, “Latin America” (from LATIN TINGE, High Note, 2002) (Walton, piano; Cucho Martinez, bass; Ray Mantilla, percussion) (5 stars)

That was really hip.  The pianist had a beautiful touch, and by the pianistic language, it had to be one of two people, either the man whose language it is, Cedar Walton, or the man who’s the greatest practitioner of Cedar’s pianistic language, Mike LeDonne.  Ah, it’s the man himself.  Well, all respects to Mr. Walton.  Mike LeDonne has absorbed so much of his language, that one — at least this one — has to question sometimes which is which.  But it felt like the source, so if it was Michael, it would have been a great tribute to who he absorbed it from.  It’s really refreshing.  I enjoyed the instrumentation, using the congas instead of a drumset.  It’s nice sometimes to hear music played rhythmically without cymbals, like the opening credit music for the new movie “Catch Me If You Can.”  It’s nice on the ears.  Oh my gosh, Cedar is just one of the hippest ever.  The way he touches the piano is completely himself.  he has a lot of influence, as do all the masters, but also, as is the case with all the great masters of the music, all those influences serve the end of his own voice.  And when you hear him, you know who it is.  That piece was beautiful.  For many, many years, Cedar has been one of the hippest arrangers as well as pianists.  And everything he plays, when he’s improvising, when he’s comping, is an arrangement.  It paints a picture.  It tells a story.  He’s one of the finest of all time.  So tasteful, so musical.  It’s an infectious feeling.  Loved the tune.  It sounded like it could have been a standard.  Definitely 5 stars.

4.    George Shearing-Jim Hall, “Street Of Dreams” (from FIRST EDITION, Concord, 1981) (Shearing, piano; Hall, guitar) (5 stars)

I love this song, “Street of Dreams.”  It was a beautiful rendition.  A really telling moment in the performance for me was when the bassist dropped out during the guitar solo, and the pianist walked the bass line in his left hand.  Because the pianist’s time feel was so strong with that left hand, it was clearly someone who has done a lot of solo playing.  I know very few people that have that relaxed a time feeling when it comes to playing a bass line in their left hand.  So I’m going to take a wild guess at who it might have been, based on the fact that he played the bass line so well.  One of the only people I can think of who is that adept at playing a left-hand bass line is Dave McKenna. [By the way, there's no bass player.] I love it!  See, it felt like there was a bass throughout.  There again, an incredible left hand. I’m clueless as to who it was if it wasn’t Dave McKenna, but clearly someone who’s very masterful at using their left hand for time playing.  The guitarist’s sound was very familiar to me, but I was never able to pinpoint it.  To be honest, of the guitarists who are out there today, there’s only a small handful who I’m well aware of.  So it could have been someone who’s outside of my realm of familiarity.  But of the people I know of, the one it sounded closest to was Howard Alden. 5 stars. [AFTER] Well, that explains the left hand.  Yet I didn’t recognize George by the lines he played in his right hand at all.  Beautiful!  George has one of the finest touches, and it’s been that way throughout his career.  I would have especially recognized him when it comes to playing a solo ballad.  I’m a huge fan of his ballad work.  He’s really one of my favorites when it comes to playing solo unaccompanied ballads.  Honestly, I haven’t really investigated as much of his time playing as I have listened to him playing the ballads.  And Jim’s sound has gone through several stages of evolution over the years.  To be honest, I’d probably be more familiar hearing one of his older recordings sound-wise, like “The Bridge.”  But he’s a great master of music.  I’m always thankful to hear a good melody played with a good feeling like that.

5.    Roland Hanna, “Afternoon in Paris” (from MILANO, PARIS, NEW YORK: FINDING JOHN LEWIS, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)

If that wasn’t Lewis Nash, then I don’t know what.  And I thought it was George Mraz on bass.  If it’s Lewis Nash and George Mraz, that would suggest that, since a lot of what I heard from the piano made me think of Tommy Flanagan, and that’s a Tommy Flanagan rhythm section, it wouldn’t be that far off to think it’s him.  But there some clusters in the left hand that weren’t Tommy’s. But it sounded like someone who had something in common, either had absorbed from Tommy, listened to him a lot, or maybe a fellow Detroit pianist.  None of the other Detroit pianists that I’m aware of ring true with who it could have been.  But there are definitely some Flanaganisms in the phrasing.  But moving on, it was a great tune, a jazz standard, John Lewis’ “Afternoon In Paris.”  I especially enjoyed a lot of what Lewis was doing behind the bass solo.  He played something of Philly Joe Jones’ during the bass’ first bridge, and then during the last eight of the bass solo he was listening so closely to what the pianist was doing.  They played some nice things together.  But gosh, I don’t have a clue who the pianist was. 5 stars. [AFTER] So it was a Detroit guy!  Well, they had so much in common.  Roland Hanna’s passing is a tremendous loss.  He knew so much music, plus he got such a beautiful sound from the instrument.  I remember going to see “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway when Roland Hanna was playing, and the feeling and sound he got from the piano… I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to hearing Duke in person.”  He so captured that spirit. The solo piano record he made at Maybeck is a real gem.

Tommy Flanagan had such a wry sense of humor.  One of the first conversations I ever had with Tommy Flanagan, I told him that I thought I heard a kinship between he and a couple of other Detroit pianists, Hank Jones and Barry Harris.  And he sort of looked at me blankly, and said, “No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything to that.”  He was pulling my leg.  He had a great sense of humor.  That was a magnificent performance.

6.    McCoy Tyner, “Blues For Fatha” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano)  (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure that was my very first pianistic hero, McCoy Tyner.  By the time I was 13, I owned every McCoy Tyner record.  He was the first pianist I heard who I really wanted to play like.  It took me years to realize you can never learn to play like anybody else.  But he’s one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice that, in this case, you could tell who it was before he even finished that first chorus of blues. There’s very few people you can recognize in a very few notes like that.  I want to get this recording, because it’s beautiful to hear the way he gets dynamic contrast from the piano using the pedals, and he brings so much sound, so much color.  When I started playing with Art Blakey, one thing I didn’t realize until I was on the bandstand with him was that from the outside looking in, you’re aware of all the power, which is the case with McCoy Tyner; but when you’re actually up on the bandstand who has that much depth, you realize that part of what brings the effect of the power are the dynamics at play.  It’s not that everything is big or everything is loud, but there’s a lot of shape to the music.  It’s really beautiful to hear McCoy in a solo setting, and it’s so very exposed — all the beautiful color he’s able to bring from the instrument.  Any time I’ve ever heard McCoy Tyner play, any recording, any performance, there is never the slightest air in the expression that he’s thinking about record sales or what kind of review he’s going to get, or competing with someone.  It’s such a spiritual offering from McCoy. Every note he plays, he’s playing straight from his heart, and through this honest offering, you can understand that without even knowing the human being.  He allows you to feel who he is.  And I feel that’s the greatest thing that any musician has to offer, beyond technical ability or style, is to know who you are, away from the arena of music, and then to bring that to your music, as McCoy does. 5 stars.

7.    Hank Jones, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (from ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM, Concord, 1977) (Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmie Smith, drums) (5 stars)

I hope I’m right about this one.  I’m pretty sure that’s from the record with Hank Jones and Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith.  Thank God.  I wouldn’t want to get those guys wrong.  What was interesting is that’s actually a record I own, and hadn’t listened to for a while, and I was listening from a whole different perspective, rather than from the onset putting it on, knowing who I was hearing.  So it was very interesting how I gradually actually realized who it was.  I wouldn’t have been able to recognize Jimmie Smith specifically, but once I thought it was Hank and Ray, I remembered that they’d played this.  First of all, Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is such a great song.  Now I can remember having heard it when I originally listened to the record, and at the time I appreciated the authenticity with which Hank played Duke’s harmonies on the melody.  But I swear, I was listening from a whole different place this time.  It was very interesting.  I didn’t recognize Ray until he played his bass solo, and at the time he played the bass solo… When you’ve around someone that much… For four-and-a-half years he stood 2 feet away from my left ear.  So that’s a sound and feeling that’s entered my body.  So I thought, well, if this isn’t Ray Brown… It’s like when I heard Cedar Walton earlier and thought of Mike LeDonne.  I said, “Well, the greatest practitioner of Ray’s language is John Clayton, so it’s got to be one of these two guys.”  But I still wasn’t sure until I thought about it.  Then I thought, “Man, this just reeks of Ray Brown’s DNA, so it’s got to be him.”  Then I realized what record it is.

Anyway, it’s beautiful.  Actually, the first thing that reached me about the music was the drums.  Such a beautiful and relaxed quarter-note from Jimmie Smith, when he was playing on the hi-hat, when he played the ride cymbal.  Very rare to hear that, especially today.  This recording is about 25 years old now.  Beautiful music.  Again, with Hank Jones, I didn’t recognize him at first, but the pieces started to fit together.  And the first thing that reached me that made me think of Hank was his left hand — the voicings and the rhythmic placement, and the way he actually connects one chord to the next.  Hank is one of the greatest masters of the pedals in history, and he uses those pedals to get the widest palette of sound of different colors from the instrument I’ve ever heard, and also just to make connections smoothly.  In fact, to me, that’s what technique is, moreso than the ability to play fast.  Technique is the ability to play smoothly.  And Hank’s the greatest, as Oscar Peterson would attest. 5 stars.

8.    Donald Brown, “The Sequel” (from SEND ONE YOUR LOVE, Muse, 1992) (Brown, piano; Charnett Moffett, b; Louis Hayes, drums; Mulgrew Miller, composer) (5 stars)

The melody was so beautiful.  You know something that made this really pleasurable to listen to for me was the way the three musicians worked together.  It’s so refreshing to hear the pianist and drummer were not afraid to take a lot of chances.  The bassist supported them.  The bassist had their back all throughout.  So there were a lot of times when the time feel could have gone haywire potentially if the bassist had stopped supporting them.  But he didn’t.  He had their back throughout.  So it was really nice to hear the pianist and drummer really going for things, and you had the sense that they didn’t necessarily even know where it was going to lead, but they were playing as they felt in the moment, and that made the performance a joy to hear.  It felt like it was a bit of an adventure.  The melody seemed rather familiar, but I don’t know specifically what it was.  I’ve heard the melody before.  Sounds like a pianist could have written it, because of the orchestral nature.  The only person who would come to mind as a composer…it has a quality that reminds me of Ahmad Jamal, but I don’t know who actually wrote it. Help me out.  Oh, it’s Mulgrew’s song.  I didn’t recognize any of the players, but I enjoyed them. 5 stars.

9.    Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 1998) (Hancock, piano)

Definitely Herbie.  That’s another one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice.  This is probably from the Gershwin album.  “Embraceable You.”  5 stars.  Beautiful song.  Herbie Hancock is someone I have to be very selective about going to hear in live performance, because if I have a show coming up in close proximity, he can give me nightmares.  What he does is so beautiful, yet for a pianist, it can be almost overwhelming to experience that in person — the expansiveness of Herbie’s imagination and just the freedom and abandon that he brings to his genius.  He puts so much thought and soul into every note he plays.  He’s a true inspiration to all of us.  He’s one of those rare individuals who comes along and opens music up for all the generations to come.  I’m very grateful for what he’s done for music.  It’s a rare treat to hear a solo piano performance from Herbie.  Boy, if I had any say in the matter, I’d love to hear him record an entire solo album sometime in the future, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish.  It would be so beautiful to listen to and learn from for all time.  He’s one of the geniuses in our midst.  We’ve lost so many great masters in the past few years, and it’s wonderful that we have Herbie Hancock with us.

10.    Teddy Wilson, “My Heart Stood Still” (from THREE LITTLE WORDS, Black & Blue, 1976) (Wilson, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) (5 stars)

That was beautiful!  I love that song, “My Heart Stood Still.”  I could tell it was an old-timer right off the bat, because clearly the pianist knew the melody so well.  He sounded like someone who grew up with the song, not someone who learned it after the fact; someone who grew up with the song as a pop tune during that generation.  Another way I could tell it was an older player is I felt so much life and humor in the performance.  Clearly, this is someone who has done a lot of living.  I’m not sure who it was.  The only element of vocabulary that I recognized was that it sounded like someone who enjoyed Teddy Wilson. But outside of that, I definitely don’t know who it was. The bass and drummer are great. The drummer is a master; he’s very responsible with the time at that bright tempo.  5 stars. [AFTER] Okay!  Well, I would say Teddy Wilson enjoys Teddy Wilson.  This must have been a later performance.  Teddy’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t listened to a lot of his later work.  I’ve mostly heard his earlier recordings.  He’s one of the people that really brought what had come before his generation pianistically into a more contemporary kind of focus through his use of subtlety and touch and pedaling.  Both Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole were largely influenced by Earl Fatha Hines, but each took that influence and personalized it, and became two of the formative voices of modern piano.  All the greats we know today, people like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, owe a great deal to Teddy Wilson along with Nat Cole and Art Tatum, for laying the foundations of modern jazz piano.

11.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino” (from PLAYS CARLA BLEY, Steeplechase, 1991) (Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums; Carla Bley, composer) – (5 stars)

I enjoyed that.  That was a different kind of painting!  That’s a very pretty melody.  I’ve heard it before.  Is it a pop song? From the simplicity of the melody, it sounded like something that would have words to it — like it was a poem.  Gosh, I don’t know who wrote it.  “Ida Lupino”?   I’ve heard it before.  I don’t know who the musicians were.  The drummer had the most familiar sound of the three musicians.  But they worked together so well, I wonder how much discussion there was about an approach or direction to the song, or if they just let it happen.  There was this mood, this dark feeling from the very beginning, and they really stayed with it.  At first, it was a beautiful sort of suggestion of a sort of undefined mood.  But they stayed with that train of thought and let the idea sort of blossom throughout the whole performance. 5 stars because it was an honest performance. By “honest” I mean that I felt the humanity of the musicians coming through. It was lovely.

[-30-]

Leave a comment

Filed under Benny Green, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Piano, Uncategorized

“The Bradley’s Hang” (DownBeat 2006): For the 86th Birthday Anniversary of Bradley Cunningham

In observation of the 86th birthday anniversary of Bradley Cunningham, the founder and animating spirit of Bradley’s, New York’s premier piano saloon from 1969, when he launched it, until October 20, 1996, when his widow, Wendy Cunningham, closed its doors, I’m posting a piece I wrote about the room—where I spent many memorable late-nights, including the one cited in the first paragraph—in 2006 for DownBeat.

The Bradley’s Hang
……
By Ted Panken

On a sleety Wednesday in February 1992, there wasn’t a large turnout for the 2 a.m. set at Bradley’s. The room’s soft amber lighting revealed perhaps 20 patrons on the barstools and in the armchairs surrounding the tables in the dining area at the rear. Halfway down the rectangular room, a Baldwin grand piano stood in an alcove along the wood-paneled south wall, positioned directly underneath a photo-realist painting of Charles Mingus and a caricature by pianist Jimmy Rowles of a devilish Bradley Cunningham, the room’s late proprietor.

Pianist Stephen Scott, then 22, could not have asked for more seasoned partners to help him navigate his first Bradley’s leader week than bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Ben Riley. Nor could he have hoped for more discerning—or demanding—listeners, who on this evening numbered fellow pianists Tommy Flanagan, Kirk Lightsey, Ronnie Matthews, Don Pullen and Cecil Taylor.

Fourteen years later, Scott “vaguely” recalls the evening. “Maybe I blanked it out of my memory,” he said. “In 1992 it would have been overwhelming to have all those wonderful people in the audience. But it wasn’t unusual for the older masters to come out and show support. There’s a fundamental understanding of jazz and its history that comes from being in the trenches, and having to come up with the music at 2 a.m. because Tommy Flanagan and Kirk Lightsey are sitting in front of you and want to hear some music.”

For week after week from the early 1970s, when Cunningham, with Cedar Walton as his consultant, purchased the room’s first acoustic piano, a Baldwin spinet, until October 1996, when Cunningham’s widow, Wendy, faced with insurmountable debt, closed Bradley’s for good, “the world’s most elite and classic piano players,” in Larry Willis’ phrase, fulfilled Scott’s prescription. One of them was Lightsey, a regular since 1977, who, joined by trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and bassist Cecil McBee, had propelled the festivities during the Monday-to-Saturday previous to Scott’s engagement. Following him on Sunday night was a trio led by John Hicks—who first worked Bradley’s in 1976 in duo with bassist Walter Booker—with Booker and tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman, then fresh on the scene.

“When you played at Bradley’s, you had to come up to a brilliance or they’d make so much noise you couldn’t be heard,” said Lightsey, whose 2004 release, Nights Of Bradley’s (Sunnyside), culled from three January 1985 duo nights with Rufus Reid, captures the room’s ambiance. “But when you were on, they were on your every note, sound and emotion. It was always a real charge to know that you were accepted by the people who might have been ahead of you in the pecking order of pianists in New York.”

Like all the pianists in the regular Bradley’s rotation, Lightsey thrived on the bacchanalian atmosphere of the 2 a.m. show, when basses were parked in all the corners and anybody—Tony Bennett, Placido Domingo, Joni Mitchell, Phil Spector, Arthur Herzog, Alec Wilder—might come in for a snack and a sip before going home. Writers and media types had Elaine’s, artists had the Odeon, punkers had CBGB, and the pop and fashion bourgeoisie had Studio 54 and Nell’s. For jazzfolk and hipsters, there was Bradley’s.

“Everybody would leave the Vanguard or the Blue Note and gather at Bradley’s,” Lightsey said. “If you’d been out of town, you’d go just to check in, and tell everybody you’re there. This was the meeting place, and somebody might be looking for you for a record date or a rehearsal.”

“It was like business and pleasure at the same time,” said Riley, who sees Bradley’s as a cross between such gray flannel suit East Side supper clubs of the 1950s and ‘60s as the Embers and the Composers, the creative attitude of the Village Vanguard, and such back-in-the-day Harlem musician haunts as Connie’s, the 125 Club, the Hotel Theresa Lounge and Minton’s Playhouse.

“It was an office,” saxophonist Gary Bartz affirmed. “When I first moved to New York, the hang was Beefsteak Charlie’s on 50th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue—although it was more a daytime hang. Everybody came there—I saw Billy Strayhorn. Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Tadd Dameron—and bands would gather there to go on the road. You’d meet there to get paid. Bradley’s became that sort of place night-wise. I’d do a gig somewhere else, and if the money hadn’t come through, I’d say, ‘Just drop it off at Bradley’s; I’ll pick it up one night.’”

Other sorts of business took place as well. “You could buy a house in the men’s room,” Lightsey said, whimsically.

“We took a lot of substances back in those days,” recalled Roger Kellaway, who played Bradley’s on a yearly basis between 1984 and 1992, and hung out there during its early years. “I remember playing with Red Mitchell in 1986, when I was no longer doing drugs, and I called the midnight set the neosenephrin set, because I could feel the vibe. People I knew would come in who I thought were coming to hear me, and they’d walk right by the piano to the back, be there for 10 or 15 minutes, and leave.”

Mostly people came to listen and socialize, and as spirits took effect, animated conversations ensued. “At Bradley’s, everybody drank, sometimes people sat in, sometimes people argued, sometimes people had interesting debates on the right chord change [of] a tune,” said Fred Hersch, a fixture between 1978 and 1989. “It was democratic—you were mixing it up as a young kid with the legends of the business, some of them not on their best behavior, but all of them with something to say.”

Despite an official “quiet policy,” the resulting cacophony challenged performers, as Mulgrew Miller put it, “to test your powers to bring an audience in.”

“The louder they talked, the softer I played,” said Larry Willis. “I learned that from Hank Jones. I would not let the crowd frustrate me. Pretty soon, I’d get everybody’s attention, and the room would get quiet.”

To keep it quiet, pianists played music with which everyone could identify, and tunesmithing was de rigueur. “You wouldn’t play ‘Out To Lunch,’” said George Cables. “You could play originals, but basically it was bebop songs and show tunes—chestnuts, standards, some obscure songs. Repertoire that maybe Art Tatum played, songs you could hear Ella or Sarah sing.”

Veterans were not shy about offering advice on how to address such material. “Sometimes they would give you directions as you played,” Danilo Pérez said. “‘Yeah, go, Danilo. Go there. That’s the way. Right there. No-no, not that chord, the other one.’ On a ballad, ‘Keep it there, keep it there.’ You would come out all bruised, but there was something special about having the older guys tutor you. They did it sometimes directly, sometimes not very nice, but it didn’t matter—you were in a class, but you were not in a classroom. I started picking up unusual standards like ‘I’ll Be Around’ and ‘Time On My Hands.’ Sometimes I didn’t learn the bridge correctly, or played one note that wasn’t part of the melody. Then somebody like Ronnie Matthews would say, ‘That was good, but on the bridge, the melody goes like this.’ On my first gig there, I was 10 minutes late. Kenny Barron was sitting at the table right next to me at the piano. He touched my back and said, ‘Look, man, you were late. You don’t leave the cats waiting here.’”

Young horn players would frequently receive impromptu bandstand tutorials. “Once I played ‘Delilah’ with Junior Cook, and after I played the melody I forgot the bridge, so I started improvising over the chords,” said Roy Hargrove, who played his first New York gigs at Bradley’s in 1989, closed it in 1996 and convened some of his veteran mentors there to play on the 1995 CD Family (Verve). “That’s where the tenor plays the melody, so I was stepping into Junior’s spot. He went off on me: ‘If you don’t know it, then don’t play!’ I usually felt challenged when I played Bradley’s, because I was aware of who was listening. There’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar. ‘OK, what am I going to play?’”

Even seasoned pros might receive admonishment, as Lightsey did from Flanagan for his treatment of Thad Jones’ “A Child Is Born. ” “It keeps progressing until you get to the turnaround at the end,” said Lightsey of the form, “which to me stops the song’s forward motion. I’m sure Thad had a reason for doing that, but I had my reason for taking out two bars. Tommy Flanagan came in when I was playing it, and he focused and he listened. When we finished the set, he rushed over to me. I called him ‘Father,’ so he called me ‘Son.’ He said, ‘Son, you owe me two bars.’ I don’t think he ever collected the two bars.”

The late set also encouraged the time-honored function of sitting in. “When Hank Jones played, all the pianists came out, and he’d have everybody come up,” Walton recalled. “It would go past 4 a.m. because 10 or 12 people were sitting in.”

Such occasions could turn competitive. Several witnesses describe an evening when George Coleman, at the end of a Cables gig, asked Cables to play “Body And Soul.” “I told him sure,” Cables recalled.“We usually do it in D-flat, but at the last minute George said, ‘In D-major, Trane changes.’ I said, ‘I’m game.’ But I’d never played it in that key, and I was tripping over these chords and notes, trying to work it out, especially in the bridge. I was ticked off, because it was my set and I’d let him embarrass me, and I was mouthing off.”

A physical altercation ensued.

The spirit of the cutting contest was also rampant on an evening when Dorothy Donegan, in her 70s, came in with an entourage near the end of Miller’s final set. “Out of respect, I called her up,” Miller recalled. “Man, she played the whole history of the piano. She wowed the audience so much that they didn’t want her to get up—on my gig. Finally she went back to her table, and I heard her say to her friends, ‘Did I get him?’”

On other nights, batons were passed, as on Pérez’s first Bradley’s performance. “Barry Harris was playing with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and someone introduced me to Barry,” Pérez remembered. “He said, ‘Tonight we have in the house supposedly a young talent.’ He played ‘Cherokee,’ burned it, and then called me to perform. I was so nervous. Everybody at Bradley’s was like, ‘Da-nilo! Da-nilo!’ But I got up, and guess what he did? He played a tune I didn’t know, a tune of his. I followed. After a while he followed, and said, ‘Yeah, you got some great ears, man; I like that.’ I played a little, then he’d play, and we hung out all night.”

“Bradley’s was like home,” said Barron, whose exalted status in the piano rotation is the point of Live At Bradley’s and The Perfect Set (Sunnyside), which document three nights with Drummond and Riley in April 1996. “If I was working in Boston or Philadelphia, soon as I finished the gig at midnight, I got in the car and I wanted to get to Bradley’s for the last set. I’d only hear maybe a couple of tunes, but I was still there to hang.”

The Bradley’s hang became an institution that outlasted the lifespan of its founder, whose outsized personality and Rabelasian habits matched his 6-foot-5-inch, 220-pound frame. Raised in California, as a Marine Cunningham worked in combat intelligence and became sufficiently conversant in Japanese to convince remnant troops on Saipan Island to emerge from their caves at the conclusion of World War II. In the early ’60s he bought the 55 Bar on Christopher Street, and he opened Bradley’s in June 1969. He launched a music policy five months later with an electric Wurlitzer that had belonged to singer Roy Kral.

During his first two years on University Place, Cunningham primarily hired pianist Bobby Timmons and guitarist Joe Beck, interpolating one-shots to such fusionists as Larry Coryell, Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul, Hermeto Pascoal and Don Preston. The writer Frank Conroy (Stop-Time) played Monday nights. By the middle of 1973, with the Baldwin spinet in place, the booking esthetic moved toward mainstream duos. Walton and Sam Jones, known familiarly as Homes, appeared at regular intervals, Al Haig played Sunday nights, and Flanagan made his Bradley’s debut that Thanksgiving week with bassist Wilbur Little. Two weeks into 1974 Jaki Byard became the regular Sunday pianist. That June, the Los Angeles-based pianist Rowles, who had begun hanging out at Bradley’s while in residence for two months at Barney’s Josephson’s Cookery, moved up the block for a three-week run. A month later he embarked on a four-month residency and inaugurated Bradley’s golden era.

“I came to town in November ’77, and my first job was playing duo for a week with Jimmy Rowles,” Drummond recalled. “Sam Jones called me, and said, ‘I want you to go in.’ ‘Who are you sending me in to work with?’ I had seen Bradley and been introduced, but that was it. He always would give me this scowl; this perpetual scowl that Bradley had. On the first night, I’m unpacking the bass, and Bradley wandered around, looking at me, like, ‘What is this about?’ Didn’t say a word. Then Rowles comes in, and we play. I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m playing with Jimmy Rowles.’ He knows all 10 million tunes in the world, tunes that were cut out of previews of shows. He was kind to me; everything he played, I knew.

“It was obvious that Homes hadn’t told Bradley that I was going to sub for him one night, let alone the whole week—but he figured it out. At the end of the second set, he walked by me. He looked me dead in the eye without changing the facial expression. He said, ‘You know, kid? You’re all right.’ Then he walked away. That was my initiation.”

Drummond adds, “Of course, after coming to New York, you determined quickly that Bradley’s was where you want to go, because everyone playing is a guy you want to hear.”

By the end of 1977, “everyone” included pianists Barry Harris (then nearing the end of a two-year run as Sunday night house pianist), Walton, Barron, Walter Bishop, Walter Norris, Roland Hanna, Dave McKenna, Dick Wellstood, Bob Dorough, Cables, Hersch, guitarist Jimmy Raney, and bassists Jones, George Mraz, Michael Moore, Major Holley and Buster Williams. There were several appearances by Hank Jones, who had retired from his New York studio sinecure in 1975, and frequent ones by Flanagan. All were playing on a Baldwin grand piano bequeathed to Bradley by Paul Desmond, who died May 30, 1977.

“It should be on Bradley’s tombstone, ‘He tuned his piano every day of the year,’” says Wendy Cunningham. “The piano tuner would have fits about the condition of the piano he’d seen just 24 hours before. So he who broke too many strings wasn’t usually encouraged to come back. It wasn’t just a piano. It came from his best friend.”

“Bradley didn’t like people who pounded the piano, which is why his two favorite musicians were Jimmy Rowles and Tommy Flanagan.” said Stanley Crouch, a newbie at the Village Voice, whose offices were across the street from Bradley at 11th and University, when older colleague Jack Newfield, the political journalist, brought him there for lunch in 1975. “I saw Mingus’ picture on the wall and all of that, and that was the beginning. Bradley’s was a place where one could be guaranteed to get the feeling that people like in jazz. Not a style, but a certain feeling. Bradley appreciated people who had a wide repertoire of tunes with different harmonic and rhythmic identities.”

“It was extraordinary to meet all those guys, to be playing late at night with whoever was playing a horn, relaxed, sitting on a chair, nothing to prove,” Hersch said. “I remember a Sunday night when Jimmy was playing duo with Bob Cranshaw. He started to play a ballad, and when he got to the end, he segued to the melody of another ballad, then got to the end of the second one and he segued to the melody of a third. I was 21 or whatever, sitting at the front table, and Jimmy could tell that I was waiting for the jazz. He leaned over the table, because I was within earshot, and he said, in that gravel voice, ‘Sometimes I just like to play melodies.’ It was an eye-opener for a young guy that sometimes it’s enough to play a song, and not do anything with it.”

Hersch recalls an after the morning moment, perhaps in 1979, when he, Mraz and Cunningham, relaxing after a gig, heard a knock on the door from Flanagan and Rowles. “They decided that they were going to play Stump the Piano Player with each other,” Hersch said. “For the next hour-and–a-half, maybe two, they called and played these obscure tunes. Jimmy and Tommy had played with every singer known to man and could play them in any key. I can’t remember who stumped who. I wish I’d written down the titles on a napkin.”

Indeed, Bradley Cunningham liked to play “Stump the Pianist” himself. A self-described “sandlot pianist,” he locked the doors after 4 a.m., moved the patrons off the bar, sat at the piano bench and traded songs and conversation while imbibing until daylight and beyond with fellow night-owls like Mingus, who then lived around the corner on West 10th Street.

“Charles and Bradley were two potentially volatile people, and when one volcano is sitting across from another, it tends to keep the other one from erupting, because you know your match is waiting,” Wendy Cunningham said. “Mingus was generous about helping Bradley with his piano playing. I sat with him once when Bradley was playing, and I said, ‘Charles, this is the fourth tune he’s done, and they all sound alike.’ He said, ‘I know, but let’s encourage him.’”

Crouch recalled another after-hours occasion with Flanagan when Cunningham demonstrated that he was no musical dilettante. “Bradley came through with a tall one in one hand, smoking a cigarette,” Crouch recalled. “He looked like one of those comic figures that W.C. Fields played who went out to play golf, with all the alcohol in the golf cart. Flanagan was there, and Bradley sat down and said, ‘Tommy, I always thought that Thelonious Monk could have been an architect whose slogan would have been “we build better bridges.”’ Then he sat down and he started playing a number of Monk’s tunes, and played the bridges on each one.”

Cunningham was also not averse to displaying his inner Paul Bunyon when dealing with obstreperous patrons. Late one night in the early ’70s, Wendy Cunningham, walking towards the club, saw her husband “tussling with somebody” under the club’s canopy. “Suddenly, this figure goes flying across the sidewalk and lands on the hood of a car like a sack of potatoes, and Bradley was wiping his hands as if to say, ‘Well, that dirty work is done,” she said. “He had thrown out Miles Davis. Miles could be serious bad news in those years, and he also felt that he could come in and order anything for himself and his friends and that he should not be obligated to pay for any of it. He fast learned he wasn’t going to do that again.”

On another evening, Elvin Jones,“seriously 86ed” for two to three years for volatile behavior, showed up on the Sept. 9 birthday he shared with Bradley. “Bradley got up, and met him midway at the bar,” Cunningham recounted. “When he wanted to look impressive, somehow he could swell up. Elvin was determined to get past him and Bradley was determined that he wasn’t going to, and it was coming to physical and loud verbal stuff. One of the bartenders got scared, because he knew these two had a history, and he called the cops. Three cops dragged Bradley out. Elvin’s still turning the place over, Bradley’s pleading, ‘You’ve got the wrong guy,’ and meanwhile the cops are trying to put the cuffs on Bradley out on the sidewalk. That took a minute to get straightened out.”

After three stints in rehab for alcohol and substance abuse, Cunningham was diagnosed with cancer in May 1988. He died five months later, on Thanksgiving weekend, at the age of 63, leaving his wife and teenage son with a mountain of business and personal debt.

“His brains were starting to go scrambled, and I was spending way too much time on Tuesday correcting what he’d messed up on Monday,” Wendy Cunningham said. “He would double-book, and then there would be a week blank—starting tomorrow. Even before he died, my lawyer and accountant both told me that I probably was going to have no choice but to sell the place. Bradley never looked at a book; he lost the 55 Bar due to sales tax, and still owed money on it. It was the same at Bradley’s. The interest and penalties compounded hourly, and it became monumental. And it took me until 1993 to finish paying his medical bills. I wanted to keep the place going, but that seemed like a fantasy, so my focus was to be able to stay open, build up the business and take care of the debt to the point where I could sell it and not have to hand all of it over to Uncle Sam or the bank.”

If Bradley’s finances were a shambles, the roster was as strong and diverse as ever when he died. As the ’80s progressed Hank Jones and Flanagan appeared frequently, often with bassist Mitchell. Hicks, Willis, Ray Bryant, Joanne Brackeen, James Williams, Harold Mabern, Richie Beirach, Hilton Ruiz, Walter Davis Jr., Stanley Cowell, Bill Mays and Jack Wilson augmented the roster. In 1987, so did tenor saxophonist George Coleman, who, after three Sunday trios that spring with either Ruiz, Hicks or Willis and Ray Drummond, played the first-ever trio week at Bradley’s on Labor Day, and returned for another three such engagements and several Sunday nights before Bradley’s death. Over that 12-month span, he booked another dozen drummerless horn-led trios.

It was possible for Cunningham to try these experiments because, in 1986, New York’s Musicians Union won a suit intended to strike down the city’s Cabaret Laws, passed in 1926 to clamp down on social dancing in Harlem’s interracial cabarets. These statutes made it illegal for an unlicensed venue serving food and drink to present music by more than three persons—who could not be horn players or drummers—in an area not zoned for that activity, and was amended in 1978 to stipulate the presence of sprinklers and other provisions as a precondition for that license.

Cunningham was eager to take advantage of the new playing field and to bring in horns and drums. “Bradley was a piano-and-bass guy, and he was fearful that the Cabaret Laws might go out the window, and he might be forced to have to deal with trios,” she said. “I wanted to broaden the format. I intended to keep the tradition of quality, and to continue to bring in a lot of musicians who had played there before, but it was unfair for people to assume that things would be the same.”

In truth, things were pretty much the same during 1989. But during the month of June, Cunningham presented the New York debuts of 19-year-old trumpeter Hargrove, on the back end of a week by Hicks and Booker, and 18-year-old Geoffrey Keezer, helming a trio with Booker and Jimmy Cobb. The press paid attention, and over the next few years Cunningham wove Keezer and Hargrove into the regular mix, along with such young talent as Mark Whitfield, Pérez, Jacky Terrasson and Cyrus Chestnut and veterans like Bartz, Donald Brown, Belgrave, Chris Anderson, Andy Bey and Eddie Henderson. She booked a series of piano duos, brought in drummers like Riley, Billy Higgins, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and Billy Drummond on a regular basis and encouraged experimentation beyond the “$50 tunes” favored by her husband.

Reaction was mixed. For one thing, many missed the duo focus. “The drums and horns took the room to a whole other space—not necessarily a bad space, but different,” Miller said. “Bradley’s was a piano duo room where I heard most of the pianists at their best. Something about the duo experience afforded you the opportunity to do all the pianistic things you might not do in another group setting.”

“The introduction of horns and drums changed the character of the performances and the dynamic between the musicians and audience in a subtle way,” said Ray Drummond, whose counsel Cunningham cites as key in helping her through the transition. “We had differences of opinion about it, not artist-specific, but conceptual. I thought young pianists and bassists were missing a certain apprenticeship experience; when they played duo, the drummer was in their mind—but that’s precisely what you didn’t hear back in the day. There’s an understanding about the time and the beat, not just where it is, but the deep groove that doesn’t need a drummer.”

With a woman at the helm, it was inevitable that sexism would rear its ugly head. “Bradley’s tight friends seemed not to like ‘the widow,’ as they called her,” Lightsey said. “When Bradley died and they saw that she was going to run the place, they didn’t help her. They stopped coming. But the musicians owed it to Bradley to help her try to run this place properly, because it was our home. We told her about people who were available, or who could be with other people, and advised her on certain policies. She was amenable, but she learned good, she had her own idea about things, and she was the owner of the place.”

The differences seemed picayune as Bradley’s moved inexorably to insolvency, its fate sealed after a kitchen grease fire forced a four-month closure in the middle of 1995. “I was starting to see my way to sunlight,” Cunningham recalls. “But the building was built in the 1880s, and now it had to accommodate 1995 building codes. There was a domino effect. The reconstruction costs were enormous, I had no cash flow for four months and I had creditors. All I could do was try to get the place in shape to be able to sell it. More than 50 percent of the mortgage payment came from Bradley’s, so we were unable to make mortgage payments when we were closed. But instead of trying to help us find a way out and stick with us, the bank just foreclosed on the property, and I had to find a buyer immediately. I was unable to sell Bradley’s. I had to close it.”

It can be painful for former Bradley’s habitues to walk past 70 University Place, where a pool table sits in the spot of Paul Desmond’s Baldwin, now housed at the Jazz Gallery, and several televisions show sports. Conspiracy theories abound as to why Cunningham did not sell to various purported sugar daddies—a Japanese mega-millionaire recruited by a cocaine dealer; a Swiss tycoon pulled in by James Williams—who would have preserved the room’s character.

“I was talking seriously with two men from England, who were legitimate, which nobody is aware of,” Cunningham said. “The rest is rumor. The truth is not known, and it ain’t nobody’s business but mine. This was my mess.”

Still, a decade after its closing fortnight—which began with an epic week by Chucho Valdés, and ended with a penultimate three-night Hargrove-led extravaganza, and a final tasty quartet evening with Scott, Joe Locke, Ed Howard and Victor Lewis—people not normally prone to sentiment or nostalgia feel a pang when it’s time to leave the Vanguard at half past midnight. The deaths in 2006 of Hicks and Booker compound the feeling that there is no place to go for that last set, that nothing has come along to take the place of Bradley’s.

Which is why under-40 pianists like Scott, Pérez and Keezer all count their blessings for having sat up-close-and-personal with the lineage.

“How can you play jazz piano and not acknowledge Hank Jones and his touch?” Scott says. “How can you play jazz and not acknowledge the subtle fire that Tommy Flanagan played with?”

“Learning first-hand through a teacher-student relationship has incredible value,” Pérez says. “Nothing compares to being in an environment where the people who are listening to you are the masters, who have lived the music, and are passing along that experience first-hand. To learn to listen, not to think that I have the answers to things, to learn to play with humility, because anybody can come and kick your ass on rhythm changes. What a challenge it was to play there. You heard Tommy Flanagan last week playing all these incredible things, and now you’re sitting in that chair. I miss it.”

So does everyone else. Last May, Hicks expressed his sentiments in a poem composed for Cunningham on the occasion of a surprise 60th birthday party that she was not able to attend. Three days later, he was dead.

WENDY:

THERE WAS A PLACE … University
Just Enough Space with … Diversity
THO’ ne’er intended, That song has Ended
FROM HEARTS Through Fingers
The Melody, still Lingers.

J.H.
In Love

7 Comments

Filed under Article, Bradley's, DownBeat, Piano