Tag Archives: Ike Day

For Eddie Harris’ 80th Birth Anniversary, a 1994 WKCR Interview

In 1994, I had an opportunity to host the sui generis saxophonist Eddie Harris (October 20, 1934-November 5, 1996), who was performing in town, on my afternoon program on WKCR. Among other things, he spoke at length about his early years in Chicago. The transcript, posted below, has been available on the internet for more than a decade on the Jazz Journalists Association website.

Eddie Harris
June 29, 1994, WKCR-FM New York

[Music: “Freedom Jazz Dance” (1964)]

Q: “Freedom Jazz Dance”  became famous after Miles Davis reworked it for his own uses and recorded it. How did Miles get hold of the tune?

EH: Ron Carter came over to him. He came by and offered Ron more money while I was working at the Five Spot for a month. And I said, “Ron, you should take it. It’s more money.” And he took the tune over there, because we were playing it at the Five-Spot, and the rest is history. Miles recorded it, and all of a sudden I was hip. [Chuckles]

Q: So it was a working band that recorded your first Atlantic dates.

EH: Yes.

Q: You go and Cedar Walton go back to an Army band from the 1950s.

EH: Yes. Cedar and I were outside of Stuttgart, at Vahingen(?), and we had a Jazz band out of the orchestra that had formed. It was quite a jazz band. Leo Wright was head of the jazz band, people like Lanny Morgan, Don Menza was in the band . . . It was a very good band.

Q: Was this a band that was set up for the recording, or had you been working?

EH: No. These days it’s very seldom that you get quintets, quartets, sextets, octets as working bands. You generally get duos or trios as working bands. That’s where the business has gone. So I came in and recorded with this trio, and they had been working together. That made it easier for me.

Q: Were your originals composed for the date?

EH: I wrote two tunes for the date. Other than that, there’s a situation going on in Japan where they have some kind of deals with standard tunes in which they want you to play standard tunes. So I don’t mind. As long as they raise the ante financially, I’ll play all the standards they want.

[Music: There Was A Time: Echoes of Harlem, “Lover Come Back To Me”]

Q: I’d like to talk to you about your background in Chicago, Illinois, where you spent a good chunk of your life and developed as a musician. Your beginnings in the music are what? On piano? Saxophone?

EH: I started on piano first. Then I was singing.

Q: Where? In the church? Home?

EH: Yeah, in the church. The church. I mean, they used to stand me up on a table, because I could sing right in tune, in time, and I was only like five years old. But when I was four, my cousin was teaching me piano. She played for the church.

Q: What church was it?

EH: Shiloh Baptist Church. Later on, I was singing at Ebeneezer Baptist Church.

Q: Which I think was the largest church on the South Side . . .

EH: Well, they were very large churches. And my mother was a big wig there at that church, until she died; and she lived until 1991, and she was 91 when she passed on.

Q: Were your parents born in Chicago or did they come there?

EH: My mother was from down south in New Orleans, and my father was from Cuba.

Q: And when did they come to Chicago?

EH: I don’t know. They met in Chicago. I imagine they came in the teens, or maybe . . . I think they came in like 1913. He worked in the stockyards, and my mother worked in the laundry. And they weren’t particular about me playing music. Of course, my father didn’t really care. He died when I was a young guy.

Q: So your mother raised you.

EH: Yeah, my mother. I really took care of my mother and three aunts.

Q: How did the music develop for you? You obviously had an immediate facility for it.

EH: Well, really, Ted, I wanted to play sports. I was quite a sports advocate.

Q: All sports?

EH: All sports. And I could really play — football, basketball, baseball. To be honestly frank with you, because I was taught at such a young age, as I got older I didn’t particularly care for a lot of the people that played music. Because a lot of musicians were, like, too timid: “Oh, I hurt my hands, I can’t do this . . . ” I ran with the gangs, and used to even box at Nichols’ Gym, and I didn’t think about my hands or my embouchure or mouth. Musicians, I couldn’t really take ’em. I didn’t dig it.

Q: When did you start finding people you could relate to on a musical level?

EH: Well, after I got up in the teens. When you get in the teens, you start meeting guys, like the late Charles Stepney . . . There became a group of us. Muhal Richard Abrams, Raphael Garrett, James Slaughter, Walter Perkins, Bill Lee. There was a small group of us who were on the same wavelength in trying things. And that was interesting to me, to try things, not just sit down and play an Ellis Larkins run or a Duke Ellington run — which could easily be done, because we’d deal with music all day. But these guys, we all wanted to try some different things. You see, most guys didn’t want to try different things. They just wanted to sound like whoever was happening at the time. Now, as young guys, we were listening to the guys that were coming off the JATP, the Jazz At the Philharmonic, which was Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and that group of guys, who was a little older than we were, that was playing some strange type music!

Q: So when did music become a thing that you were doing all day? Because you can’t be playing sports all day and be playing music all day?

EH: Why not?

Q: Well, maybe you can.

EH: [Laughs] When I say playing sports all day . . . What do you do as a young guy? In those days you had clubs on every corner. I mean, you could play somewhere in the evenings. So then you could rehearse, and when you’re not playing with guys, you can play ball. See, it’s not like it is today, where most young guys are trying to lobby for a recording. Well, all we wanted to do was play! Heh-heh. That was a vast difference.

Q: When you were coming up in Chicago, there was also a community of older musicians on a world-class level. Who were some of the people who really impressed you and that you modeled yourself after?

EH: Well, I was quite a pool shooter. I would go into different cities on a bus, go in and collect up some money until they’d get hip to me. And I found, from going over to Detroit, down to St. Louis, over to Cleveland, that Chicago (you don’t realize it when you’re coming up in an environment) had more individualism than anywhere else. Anywhere else. See, in other cities you had great musicians, but the group of guys, they generally played in one vernacular. Whatever that city held, it was like that group of guys produced that type of music.

In Chicago, you could go from one club, and you could hear a Gene Ammons, you had Budd Johnson, and you had Tom Archia, Dick Davis — just dealing with saxophone. Then you had all sorts of piano players that were really. . .really different. You’d go to one club, and the guy sounds like he totally comes from somewhere else. He didn’t sound like a little different from the guy down the street. It was totally different.

You can imagine a guy coming up from Birmingham, like Sun Ra, playing there. People said, “Hey, they got Monk in New York.” We said, “Yeah, but wait until you come to Chicago and hear Sun Ra!” You know what I mean? Chicago had everybody coming . . . They said, “There’s a guy who can really play drums, man, Max Roach, man — he’s bad!” “Yeah. Wait til you hear Ike Day.” “This guy can play all kind of bass man, this guy is terrific playing bass, Raymond Brown.” And I said, “Wait til you hear Wilbur Ware.” See, we had guys like that in Chicago. Like you’re finally hearing Von Freeman, which was outside years ago. And people said, “John Coltrane.” We said, “Well, you should hear Von Freeman.” That’s the way I thought coming up.

Q: What do you think it is about Chicago that produced that type of individualism? Is it just an accident that all these people were there, or is it something about the culture of the city?

EH: I think it’s the latter. Because people came up primarily from the middle south; that’s Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. The train came, and Chicago was the train center, so they’d get off there. You had the stockyards and people could get work, primarily the African-American people of that time.

And the people in general were just regular people. In other words, that’s why it was considered the blues capital. They were regular people there. In other words, when you were playing on the stand, guys would just come up and tell you: “Hey, man, I really liked that. I didn’t know what that was, but it’s all right.” If you’re playing something else, a guy says, “Hey, I don’t like that, man. Why don’t you stop playing that.”

See, they were just straight out. They weren’t like the West Coast or the East Coast. On the East Coast they said, “Let me analyze what this guy is doing.” The guy maybe had just been playing two years, but they’re trying to analyze something — the guy’s trying to put something over on them. The West Coast is just write it out, have it all organized. In the Midwest they said, “Hey, man, I spent my money. Come on, play something for me. That’s nice, you experimented now . . . ” It’s like I’d play with no neck on the horn. “Okay, enough of that. Let me feel something.” And will go upside your head if you didn’t!

So therefore, guys that come out of this particular area were more rounded out musicians. Because you would experiment, then you would stop and learn a song in its entirety, knowing the correct melody or the lyrics. Because other than that, you might wind up getting beat up or have to fight some people.

Q: In Chicago at that time almost every major cross-street had several different clubs, and some, like 63rd Street, were almost wall-to-wall with clubs.

EH: Well, this was true in other cities. It was true in Philly, it was true in Detroit. But the only thing I can be repetitive on, Ted, is to say they had different sounding groups in different venues. That was the shocking part about it. And when you come up in that environment, you don’t realize it until you go elsewhere. You’d walk out of one club, and you just heard the blues, jumpin’ up and down, then go down the street, there’s a swinging jazz group, then go down the street to the next club and say, “What is that?” It’s just like you went to another space or another time. Which I didn’t see in other cities.

Q: You also experienced the very intense teaching methods of Walter Dyett at DuSable High School. Can you say a few words about him, and the DuSable situation?

EH: Well, it was a time in which it was segregated times, and therefore African-Americans primarily only were able to go to, like, five schools. And you could imagine that many people in one area . . . Before they had (what is it called?) the high rises or these lower-income homes, they had kitchenettes. That’s a big apartment with one family in the front, one family in the middle apartment, and another family in the rear apartment. So you were like crammed.

Dyett was an instructor at DuSable High School. He had been a captain in the service. And he had to be rough. Because the guys who came to that school were extremely rough. In other words, say you hit that part wrong. Some guys would just tell you, “So what? Go on and play the music.” And he didn’t tolerate that. He would either go upside your head, have you bring your parents up to school. I remember one time I fell asleep. He kicked the chair out from under me, and I got up off the floor with my clarinet all sprawled everywhere! It was really strange.

John Gilmore was in class with me, Pat Patrick — the whole Sun Ra band, as a matter of fact. He had moved into the neighborhood when he came from Birmingham, and he took us out of Dyett’s band, because we could just read tremendously. Because Dyett taught us like that.

Q: Dyett also had bands that would allow his students to work out in the community, too, didn’t he?

EH: Well, Woody Herman, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton — I got a chance to hear all these guys. They’d come by because they just couldn’t believe the Booster Band was that hip. That was the jazz band. And when you miss a note, you’re out the band. He’d pop his fingers: “You’re out the band. Bring your mother up to school.” And a guy in the back would take out his instrument, he’d come and sit down, and he was just as good if not better. I mean, it was that kind of competition you came up under, which really helped you. And he taught you other things about self-discipline, like do not have on polkadot socks when you have on a black suit. Heh-heh. Little things like that. Being on time, knowing the music, looking at the music to first see if it’s the correct tune you’re playing, then see what key signature it is. Understand where your repeats are. Little things that you should know in music.

[Music: E. Harris: “K.C. Blues,” “Salute to Bird,” “Hey Wado!”]

Q: The first thing Eddie Harris said to me on the phone when we were arranging this was that you had been a professional musician in Chicago for 14 years, I think you said, before “Exodus” was recorded and you were “discovered.” One of these liner notes says that your first actual gig was subbing piano with the Gene Ammons band.

EH: Yeah, that was my first what you’d call paying job!

Q: Do you remember what the club was?

EH: Well, it wasn’t a club. I played at the Pershing Ballroom. The next time I played it was another place, Baker’s Casino. I didn’t play clubs more or less with him. They had a lot of ballrooms around there, the Trianon, the Aragon on the North Side, and like that. I subbed for a guy named James Craig, who later became a policeman.

Q: He’s on the very early Gene Ammons recordings, if I recollect properly.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: The Pershing Ballroom was part of a hotel on 64th and Cottage that was a real center of musical life on the South Side.

EH: I played there a long time opposite Ahmad Jamal. I played there Monday and Tuesday nights, and opposite him on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

Q: As a pianist or saxophonist?

EH: Well, I really wanted to play the saxophone, but I had Charles Stepney working with me, and Walter Perkins and Bill Lee. Then Bill Lee left to go downtown, and Walter Perkins hired a guy from Evanston to play with us — you know him as Bob Cranshaw. So when we worked there, I played piano and Stepney played the vibes, then he doubled to go to piano and I would go to saxophone.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a few of the people that you mentioned, and some that you didn’t. You talked about Sun Ra being active in Chicago He got there in the late 1940s, and did dual duty as an arranger for the Club De Lisa, which included the Fletcher Henderson band, and having his own band of young musicians out of DuSable High School, who as you mentioned, were strong readers, and doing his own music.

EH: Right.

Q: What did his music sound like in 1950 or ’51 . . .

EH: Heh-heh . . .

Q: What was your reaction to playing those type of charts?

EH: I didn’t have any adverse reaction to it, due to the fact that I played in the orchestras; I played classical music. The big thing was looking at the way he wrote them. It was like orchestra music. You had scales, arpeggios, flamadas and like that. He would write a note and make a zig-zag line to another note, and within that time frame you played what you wanted to play. Which is modern writing today, but I wasn’t too hip to that, you know. I would have liked to stay along with him and played a lot longer, but I couldn’t go along with his teachings that he had after rehearsals and after playing, when he said, “I’ve been here before.” Because he was talking about “space is the place” and going on with that. I liked his music. I liked to experiment. But I couldn’t go along with the teaching. So not being with him, that’s when I more or less started playing with another group of guys, who I named earlier, where we did our thing.

Q: You mentioned drummer Ike Day, who was maybe recorded once, and the sound of the recording isn’t so great. A few words about his sound. Because he made an impression on everybody who heard him.

EH: Well, what can you say about an Ike Day? Who can I say that’s playing like he did? He was a combination like Max with his hands, or Philly Joe with his type of swinging. He was just a fantastic drummer. It was just unbelievable what this guy could do with just two sticks, playing on tables, on chairs.

Q: Someone told me they heard him do a solo with his toes.

EH: Well, I never witnessed that. [Laughs] But you can imagine a group of guys playing together like Dorel Anderson and Wilbur Ware, and then you’d have a guy like Ike Day sit in and play the drums. Dorel played drums . . . I mean, it was just extremely talented guys in that immediate area of Chicago, which was primarily the South Side. And I couldn’t understand why they weren’t recorded more, because it was right there. I mean, even though they had little mishaps of drugs and like that, but so did a lot of other people that were recorded!

Q: A lot of people also came through Chicago from other places. For example, Sonny Rollins a couple of times set up shop in Chicago, so to speak.

EH: Sonny Rollins worked there at a day job. In fact, they hired him, “they” meaning Max Roach-Clifford Brown. Clifford had brought me to the band to play at the Beehive, and he felt I was quite a player, that I could read the parts, I could play . . . But Max felt my tone was kind of funny.

Q: In some interviews you’ve talked about your tone. And I think in the interview for the liner notes of Artists Choice [Rhino] you said that you ran into Don Ellis in the Army, and he said that your tone was too light or something. Talk a bit about how you formulated a saxophone style.

EH: Well, the whole point of guys who were more or less envious and guys who were trying to bag on me, trying to bring down my arrogance and egotisticalness . . . Because you have to have this in order to play. You don’t have to be dogmatic about it, but you have to believe in yourself. And they’d say, “Oh man . . . ” This is prejudice times, now; this is the late ’40s or the early ’50s . . . the late ’40s primarily . . . “Oh, man, you sound like Stan Getz,” and that’s supposed to have been a putdown. I even had caucasian guys telling me that, because I played in caucasian bands. And they didn’t realize that really Getz was playing like Lester Young before he lost his teeth. Because if you listen to his old sound, “Taxi War Dance,” Prez and Hershel Evans, he played like that, with a lighter sound. As a matter of fact, any saxophone player that’s trying to play fast or trying to play skips or high notes, he or she becomes a lighter player, because you cannot play heavy and play rapido. But that’s neither here nor there.

Anyway, they put me down. “Oh, man, you sound like Getz.” So I had to live with that. Then finally, I started challenging the guys back because I just got fed up with it. “Oh man, but you know, you did sound like . . . ” See, they wasn’t listening to what I’m playing. People are just hung up in sounds. That’s even today, a person’s sound. They say, “Oh yeah, he sounds like Trane.” But what is he playing? Yeah, but as long as I get that sound, I’m automatically in. But not in as far as I’m concerned. But so many people just go by the sound.

See, I was trying to play higher notes, I was trying to play skips like that. But I was using that timbre of sound, which was really the Lester Young school as opposed to the Chu Berry or the Coleman Hawkins way, and to use that and make articulate playing, utilization of tonguing at least every other note, which I get a brass effect. And quiet as it’s kept, only one guy ever told me, he said, “I see, you’re trying to play like a trumpet on saxophone.” That was the late Pepper Adams, who was playing on a big band. He said, “Man, you’re the first cat that really peeped that I was trying to do that. Now, you see, I can play five C’s now, and you see I can hit high notes, and I do a lot of phrasing — I hit things like Miles and Clifford and them on the saxophone.

Q: And subsequently, of course, you used different mouthpieces, trumpet mouthpieces on the saxophone, or saxophone mouthpieces on the trumpet . . .

EH: Well, I was doing that to get different sounds. I was always trying different sounds. The only reason why I more or less put that on the back- burner was electric came out; then I started dealing with electric.

Q: Your relationship with Muhal Richard Abrams goes back to high school. In 1960 or 1961, you and Muhal organized a workshop band that got together briefly, then subsequently you parted ways. This band was the core of what became the AACM. What events, as you recollect it, inspired its formation?

EH: It was a thing that trying to play around Chicago, you figured there are guys that never played first chair, there are guys that never played on a big band, and there are other guys that never had an opportunity to write for a large number of people, and there are people that wanted to sing, and sing in front of a band — “so let’s form a workshop.” There were three of us. There was the late Johnny Hines, a trumpeter from the West Side of Chicago, and Muhal Richard Abrams and myself. And we just got this together at the C&C, which was a lounge, a large lounge. And the musicians . . . It was surprising that so many musicians came! I mean, it was just amazing. I think we must have had about 100 musicians.

But then you have this class set of the musicians who were more or less our age or older, who were astute musicians, then you had the younger musicians — and the astute musicians were like, “Oh, I don’t want to play with these guys, they’re just learning.” So a guy like myself, I’ll take a few charts and pass it out to the guys, and put guys in precarious positions. Like a guy I know that can play a good first, I’ll give him a third part. Now he’s got to play lower. [Laughs] Then you stomp off kind of rapid, and the guys would be missing notes, and then make the younger kids say, “Damn, they can miss notes, too!” And the guys would be all uptight who can really play. Then that deflates their ego some. Then we can get on with the workshop.

Lo and behold, it was going pretty good. But I had to travel, because I had this hit record, “Exodus.” But I don’t know what happened; when I came back there were divisions. Johnny Hines tried to take the musicians more our age; he wanted to go into the Regal Theatre so he could have a band to really accompany all the stars that come in there. Muhal had taken the younger musicians and let them learn in reading on scales and playing with each other. So that’s how that came about. And Muhal eventually got together with the Association . . .

Q: They chartered in 1965 and set up that whole . . . .

EH: Yes, they set it up. But that’s how that came about.

Q: Let’s hear an extended piece, I guess collectively worked out by the band from maybe around 1970 or ’71. This comes from Excursions, a double LP issued on Atlantic in 1973. The track is “Turbulence,” featuring Eddie Harris on electric saxophone and reed trumpet; Ronald Muldrow on guitorgan . . . ?

EH: That’s right, guitorgan. That was a guitar with pickups under the fret- board to make it sound like an organ.

Q: Muhal Richard Abrams on piano. Rufus Reid, who was living in Chicago in that period, around the cusp of 1970, on bass, and Billy James on drums.

EH: That was a working band.

Q: And you played all over, in many different situations.

EH: All over these United States.

[Music: “Turbulence”; E. Harris/E. Marsalis, “Deacceleration”]

Q: How did this duo album you made with Ellis Marsalis come about?

EH: Ellis and I have played together numerous times down in New Orleans where he lives, so I come down there and I play with him. On other occasions I’ve come down and played with different groups. And this guy I played with several times named Dave Torkanowsky, he had studied with Ellis, and he really enjoyed playing with me. He had an opportunity to produce a record, and he said he thought it would be great if Ellis and I would do a duo. He called me up and had me fly down to Dallas, and we did it on the spur of the moment — no rehearsals, nothing.

Q: Let’s talk about the scene in Chicago as it developed in the 1960s.

EH: There were a lot of guys playing good music around there in the ’60s. There was Gene Shaw who played trumpet, who passed later on. Then of course, there was the guy who had a group called the Pharaohs, which you’d know later on as the Phoenix Horns.

Q: I’m under the impression, though, that the club scene kind of declined and there were a lot fewer opportunities to work around Chicago then — although maybe you didn’t directly experience that.

EH: Well, the club scene was beginning to decline because television was on the rise, and as more television, people were staying at home looking at more of the wrestling matches and roller derby.

Q: You mentioned in an interview that you spent a good amount of time in New York and were working a lot, but you chose to come back to Chicago.

EH: I came here, and immediately, coming up out of the subway . . . After I checked into the hotel, I went and rode on the subway up to Harlem, and I walked up, and I’m looking at the tall buildings of Harlem, because I thought maybe they might be a little smaller in Harlem, because it was residential — that’s what I thought my first time here, in the ’50s. And what happened? I ran into the trumpet man. “Dag,” he says, “you’re lost. Oh man! What are you doing here?! Hey, man, come and play with my band.” I said, “Really? “Yeah,” he said. “If you’re in town here, you can come and play with me.” That was . . . I’m getting bad on names, man. Because see, you’re going back in time on me. He wrote this tune, [Sings the first few bars of “Blue Bossa”].

Q: Oh, that’s K.D. you’re talking about.

EH: Yeah, Kenny Dorham. And I went and played with him, and I walked around town here, and all the guys would hire me, because I played piano, I could play trombone, read, you know. And I can play clarinet, the oboe, bassoon. My flute playing is sad. It’s still sad, because I don’t think that is a double. Of course, I have several flutes at home, and I can make it through an amateur part, but I don’t care to play it. But I worked nine nights a week. I worked afternoons playing piano for some people tap-dancing, and I could play in pit bands. But I never had any money! I was living with Cedar Walton and Sam Fletcher, the vocalist, and I said, “Hey, man, I’m going back to Chicago.” They said, “Man, you’re crazy. Guys don’t come here and work like you.”

I just went back to Chicago. And what happened? That’s how I made “Exodus”. I was scheduled to go back to Europe and play, because Quincy Jones was going to hire me to take a guy’s place named Oliver Nelson, and he had me to play with him when I was over in Europe with his band. He said, “Man, I’m happy to run into you. You can go back to Europe with me.” I said, “Okay.”

I stopped by to see my mother, and she asked me what was I doing, and she said, “I’m going back over to Europe with a guy named Quincy Jones.” She started crying. She just made a big issue out of this. I said, “What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” She said, “I understood you was going to make a record.” I said, “Oh yeah, I can do that when I come back.” She said, “It’s a shame. I’m ashamed to tell people that you play music. Because everybody’s made a record but you.” I said, “I don’t care nothin’ about that. I’m working. I’m playing.” She said, “Well, you ought to make this one record, because VeeJay asked you to make a record.”

But they’d asked me to record on piano, because they wanted me to sound like the guy down the street at Cadet Records which I used to show chords to.

Q: Not Ahmad Jamal!

EH: No, Ramsey Lewis. [Laughs] Yeah, Ahmad was down there. Of course, he’s an outstanding piano player. But this guy had the Gentlemen of Jazz, this Ramsey Lewis, and that was selling. So they wanted me to do that down the street at Vee-Jay. And I wasn’t particular about that, so I didn’t care nothing about making a record. But my mother said, “Oh, please make this one record, then you can go to Europe, Asia, anywhere.” I said, “But won’t nobody want me then if I stay here and make the record.”

So I went down to Chess, and I talked with them, and they said, “Well, we don’t want you to play the saxophone; you’re too weird.” And I told him where to go. Well, there was a guy named Sid McCoy, and a guy named Abner, who ran the company . . . It was actually Vivian and Jimmy’s company, V-J, and Abner was the president, and Sid McCoy was the a&r, artists and repertoire guy. Abner, who had gone down there to college with me, said, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll let you play several numbers on saxophone.” I said, “Okay, that’s fair enough.” I told Quincy that. He said, “One record?! Oh, man.” And to this day, when he thinks about it, he says, “One record” — because that one record turned out to be “Exodus.” Isn’t that amazing? A million-seller.

[Music: “Love For Sale” (1965); “Harlem Nocturne” (1990); “God Bless The Child” (1959)]

Q: Eddie Harris said they used that version of “God Bless The Child” for a TV story of Lady Day’s life.

EH: Yes, yes. It was great. Billie Holiday was very instrumental in trying to get me to understand that I could not only swing, that I played melodically. I was playing at the Pershing Lounge opposite Ahmad Jamal, and played the off-nights. She had a club underneath, which at first she called Birdland, then the people in New York here wouldn’t allow her to call it Birdland, so she changed it to Budland.

She came down one time, when we were rehearsing during the afternoon . . . She came down to all these rehearsals, any time she could, and she directed the rehearsals. “Hey, don’t do that?” “Why don’t you leave me alone?” And she said, “You can really phrase. Your timing . . . ” — and she used a lot of four-letter words that I won’t use over the radio!

But the point is that she encouraged me . . . Because I’m basically a quiet guy, standing back, and all the guys, it seemed like they were hipper than me playing the horn because of the fact they played the Charlie Parker licks, the Sonny Rollins licks . . . well, whoever, you can play the Rabbit [Johnny Hodges] licks . . . And here I could read all these things and play, but when I go to play, I played more phrasing melodically. Of course, you had Gene Ammons around there who played melodically, but he wasn’t tackling the type of tunes we were tackling. We were trying to play like these other guys, but then trying to solo differently than the other guys. In other words, you play a Charlie Parker line, but if you take off on your solo you didn’t try to be Bud, or the bass player didn’t try to be Mingus, and the drummer wasn’t trying to be Max.

So she was telling me I should continue phrasing the way I was. I’ll tell you something, Ted. I’m saying this primarily for younger musicians out there, or people who might have kids that play. Sometimes you can do something that comes very easy to you, and you don’t think very much of it due to the fact that it comes easy to you. As a kid I could always play, and the house would swing, pat their feet. I mean, I didn’t need a rhythm section. I really didn’t. I could just hit a groove, and people would automatically…

But most of my colleagues couldn’t. So I was trying to play like them, playing off-meter, double-time, like that. And she was trying to explain to me, “Just play what you play, and people will just go berserk.” But I wasn’t looking at that, because you have your peers. The majority of the guys double up, run over the instrument, look like they can play faster than you. But they really couldn’t when we stomped off something fast. I could play fast, but I play in meter.

Q: When you play something like that, it almost has the quality of singing, and you said you were singing at a very, very young age.

EH: Oh, yes. But you don’t realize what you have, because you’re just swamped up by others. Because see, most musicians do not and cannot play in meter. And I didn’t realize this until later years. And I mean “in meter,” just have a guy play by himself, and he’s not playing one note, [sings one note sequence], but just trying to play — and you’ll see how his time fluctuates. In other words, a lot of people swing when they’re with swinging people, but are they swinging themselves on the instrument? In other words, you hear a guy phrasing, you can imagine if you were at the control room where you can douse the board and take the rhythm section out and hear this guy play. I mean, it’s nice. He’s making the changes, he’s making the modulations. But why did you stop patting your foot? Because he has no more support from the rhythm. Because he’s not carrying the rhythm himself — or herself nowadays.

This next piece is currently the way I’m playing, trio piano in Europe. I’ve just come back from 36 one-nighters, and playing piano with the bassist, who is Ray Peterson, and the drummer, Norman Fearington.

Q: This is the current working band?

EH: It’s the working band, yes. Ray Peterson is playing with Les and me down there. Of course, Norman had to go to Europe, so we have Ben Riley in place of Norman.

[Music: “Ambidextrous,” “Airegin” (solo sax)]

Q: We’ve heard you establish yourself as a player very much out of the esthetic of the period you came from, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, and that end of it, as a rabid experimentalist, dealing with every type of imaginable sound, and always within a very functional situation. It’s amazing that you’re able to play with the reed trumpet or the clarinet with no neck in front of some very tough audiences and make it come off. And we’ve heard the high standard of virtuosic saxophone playing, some great piano playing, and some singing. We haven’t heard “Why Are You So Overweight,” but I guess we could do that, too.

EH: If you ever get a chance one of these days, try listening to “Oleo” on Excursions, and you will hear me play the saxophone with the trombone mouthpiece, which makes it sound like a valve trombone.

Q: I’ll do that. But just a word about your piano playing, which we’ve touched on. We’ve heard two examples now, one where you play “Our Love Is Here To Stay” in a very expansive, Tatumesque, Nat Cole type of style.

EH: Mmm-hmm.

Q: On the last you were playing a Chicago left-hand boogie-woogie . . . Piano was your first instrument, I take it.

EH: Yes.

Q: A few words about your relationship with the piano.

EH: Well, I was taught by my cousin when I was a very young age, at four, and then I came up playing in the church, and I played and studied piano at Roosevelt College, where I had an awful time.

Q: Why was that?

EH: Because they wanted me to go to Piano 104, not beginning piano. I was taught in a church, and I was slow reading, and I had incorrect fingering — and I wanted to just learn the piano when I was going to college there. They said, “No, you’re not going to take this credit, because you play too well.” And they put me in a class with people running over piano, reading things — [sings fast, dense passage]. They was gone! And I stayed in there for quite a while, because I could listen to people play and I could sit down and play it. That doesn’t mean I could read it that fast, but I was telling them I wanted to learn it. I had an awful time trying to convince people that I was really trying to learn piano in the correct way. But no, they said, “You play too well.” So consequently, I didn’t go take private lessons . . . I didn’t care about the piano anyway. I just was doing that while I was in college. And lo and behold, I’ve made more money playing piano, working, than I have saxophone. It’s amazing.

Q: A lot of your early gigs were piano gigs.

EH: Yeah. Even recently, out in California, I started a club, and I played solo piano, then it wound up a duo and a trio — and now it’s one of the top jazz places.

Q: What club is that?

EH: That’s Bel Age. It’s a hotel, the Brasserie. One time I was here in New York, and I stopped on 23rd Street in a restaurant to get something to eat, and they had a piano there. I said, “Hey, can I play some while I’m waiting for the food?” The guy said, “Yeah, if you can play, man. Don’t be messing with the piano if you can’t play.” I said, “I can play.” I sat down there and played. And this guy offered me a gig! He says, “Oh, man, I like your feeling, the way you played, you know tunes . . . ” I said, “I wish this was where I lived. I live in Los Angeles.” He said, “Really? Well, come on up here and live!”

It’s strange. People like my piano playing. I wish they would like my saxophone playing like that. I don’t know what it is. The piano playing, maybe it’s because I can groove, I get across to the average John and Jane Doe. The saxophone, I don’t know what it is. I’ve never had that happen.

Q: The saxophone seems to me almost a laboratory for you, like you’re always looking for some new effect or new way to get something over so as maybe not to get bored… 

EH: Maybe that’s it. Because at the piano, I just don’t care. I just play, I make a run, when I run out of fingers I cross my hand over and I hit it with the back of my hand!


Filed under Chicago, Eddie Harris, Interview, Muhal Richard Abrams, WKCR

For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.


How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?


You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]


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Filed under Chicago, Tenor Saxophone, Von Freeman, WKCR

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.


There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

* * * *

Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  “That’s Earl, Brother (1977),” “Angel Eyes (1968),” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Our Delight”]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960’s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…


…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950’s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Sprint.”]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

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Filed under Chicago, Interview, Ira Sullivan, trumpet, WKCR

Two Interviews with Pianist Chris Anderson from 1986 on his 87th Birthday Anniversary

A few months after I joined WKCR for what would be a 23-year run, I made it my business to interview pianist Chris Anderson, who, despite the dual handicap of being both sightless and brittle-boned, made an enormous, underground impact on piano vocabulary as a person who famously influenced, among others, Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock, and Denny Zeitlin as young pianists on the Chicago scene. You could still hear Chris play at this time, and he continued to have it together, as evidenced not only by the duo album with Charlie Haden titled None But The Lonely Heart, but also a terrific trio date for DIW titled Blues One with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins that followed a memorable week at Bradley’s in 1991, which was also documented on a 1994 date on Alsut.

Chris and I had two long conversations. The first took place in his apartment; the second  comes from an in-person “Musician Show” at WKCR. In honor of the 87th anniversary of his birth I’m appending the complete transcripts below.

* * * * *

Chris Anderson (3-16-86):

TP:    Chris, let’s start with the basic facts.  Are you originally from Chicago, Illinois?

CA:    Yes, I was born there.

TP:    What year was that?

CA:    1926.

TP:    Tell me about your beginnings in music.  How old were you when you first played the piano?

CA:    It would be easier probably… I loved music, and I listened to a lot of it on the radio, the standard fare of the day, on the Jazz station — it was called Black Music or Race Music in those days.  But I found myself trying to pick out… I found that I could pick out melodies on piano.  And the harmony that goes with it, I knew in my head…I knew what it was — if I could just find it on the piano.  It’s like taking off boxing gloves.  I knew it would take a minute.  Because I knew I had an ear for harmony and melody, particularly harmony.  So I always knew from the get-go that I was going to play, was going to be a musician.

TP:    Who did you hear on the radio?

CA:    Oh, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, but mostly, oh, the popular singers of the day — Bing Crosby, Perry Como, all of them.

TP:    And they’d be on the radio, and that’s how you…

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Did you ever get out to hear live music in Chicago when you were a youngster?

CA:    When I was a kid, no.  When I was really a kid… What got me into going places was when I got involved in music, got playing music, and then it forced me to meet people to play some kind of… I knew some people… They used to have things called tramp bands, with a guitar, bass, stuff like that.  The bass fiddle would be a washtub with a stick and a rope nailed up to it.  You’d turn the tub upside-down on the ground, and you’d nail a stick to it vertically from the ground up, and then you’d pass the stick up around the top, and you’d tie a big knot in the end of the string, and with the hole in the center of the tub, you’d pull it through that tub from the underside, you know, exerting tension on it — like a saw, the same you’d play a saw.  And you had your bass fiddle.

I got to know these people, and some of these people graduated into being professional musicians.  A professional bass player, a professional guitarist, stuff like that.  And they told me about places where music was played.  They said, “If you’re interested in music, you ought to go and hear some people play.”  And they took me.

TP:    Do you remember where they took you?

CA:    Oh!  That’s when I started learning about the… What’s the name of the place that Earl Hines played…?

TP:    The Grand Terrace.

CA:    Yes, the Grand Terrace, places like that.  A place called Old-Timers on 47th and Cottage Grove.  I don’t think there were too many.  Oh, and of course on the West Side.

TP:    What did you remember about Earl Hines’ band in the 1930’s and early Forties?

CA:    Well, see, as far as Earl Hines is concerned, I didn’t get to know a lot about Earl Hines then.  And Swing, as far as black people were concerned, was on its last legs.  Bebop was getting ready to be born.  The Grand Terrace closed for  a while, and that was Earl Hines’ stomping grounds.  And the War, World War Two closed down so many big bands because they couldn’t afford it any more.  Everybody was going away, going into the Service.  Everybody was putting together small combos.

That’s the only thing that gave me a shot at music.  I remember asking my harmony teacher in high school if I could play professionally, and he said, “No, not unless you surround yourself with musicians who can get the jobs.”  But being just a teacher and not a musician, he didn’t understand that the big band… The people in the sections had to read, but reading wasn’t necessarily going to be the most important thing for a while.  So a lot of people got to learn and so forth.

TP:    By the way, I didn’t hear where it was that you went to high school and primary school.

CA:    I went to Douglas Grammar School in Chicago, and I went to Philips High School for a while, and then I also went to Marshall High School.

TP:    Who was the bandmaster at Phillips High School.  I know that’s where Walter Dyett had taught before he went to DuSable.

CA:    Yeah!

TP:    But who was there when you were there?

CA:    Let me see… I don’t remember his name.  He was German.  He was a German teacher.  He was a character, too; he was a real character.  I can’t remember… The (?) was in the band, but I couldn’t remember his name.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

CA:    I graduated from grammar school in ’41, now that I think about it.  So ’41 to…

TP:    Then when you first played professionally, were you still in high school or was that after you graduated from high school?

CA:    I didn’t graduate from high school.  Now, I had one more semester to go, and I got a chance to go on the road with a guitarist named Leo Blevins, who was very much a part of the Chicago scene.  You having talked to a lot of people, people could have told you about him.  He introduced a lot of people to a lot of other people.  Anyway, I got a chance to go to Denver, Colorado, with Leo.. Well, it wasn’t his job.  It was a bass player named Louis Phillips.  And he had a chance to go to Denver.

No, my first gig actually was in Chicago at a place  called the Hurricane on 55th Street, next to the Rhumboogie.  I remember one of my first gigs, next door, a great guitarist who used to play with… I can’t remember his name either.  He used to play with (?)Billy Slack(?), who had a very popular national hit — Billy Slack.  A Blues guitar player…

Anyway, that was my first gig.  Then after that, I went to Denver, Colorado for about two weeks.  We were supposed to be gone longer than that, but the bass player got very ill, an illness that he never recovered from.  I came home.  Leo stayed a few weeks longer, until the bass player’s family could come get him home.

In fact, one of the reasons I left Denver to go back, couldn’t stay out there, I decided, “Well, I’ll go back and finish my last semester of school.”  I got back the first of September, got home, and started over, and decided not to go back.  I decided pretty much that music was going to be my livelihood, and you don’t need any education but music.  [CHUCKLES] You understand?  So I didn’t finish.

TP:    What kind of music were playing in that band when you went to Denver?  Was it Jump band type music?

CA:    Yes…

TP:    Was it sort of precursors to Bop?

CA:    Well, from Jump to Bop… It was quite a thing from there.  It was not like people in New York were doing, see. Because all the musically literate people were in New York, people that really were studying.  Everybody else was just like playing cafes, or parties, or played strip joints.  Just Jump and the Blues.  And most of these people didn’t know many tunes.  They just knew seventeen different types of Blues, and make it sound different, or some “Rhythm” changes, and they knew a few standard tunes — the people that I met in Chicago anyway.  There were a lot of old standards.  There were a lot of old-timers who knew a lot of real old tunes.  These were the ones who knew a lot, the ones who were a lot older and had been around a lot longer, so they were the ones who were more likely to have been locked in the style of the late Twenties and Thirties, see.

That’s why I say making that jump, the music… In Chicago making that jump into Bebop was quite a thing.  The young Turks coming along were… Well, they weren’t quite in the music, just on their way into the music.

TP:    In Chicago in 1943, Earl Hines did have Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, although I know they were traveling and Chicago was just the base.  But did you ever get to hear that band?

CA:    Unh-uh.

TP:    No.

CA:    I was just beginning to get into music then.  I didn’t know anything about Charlie Parker.  I didn’t know anything about Bebop!  I didn’t know anything about anything.  And I hope the point of your question is not “What do you know now?” because I’d have to say I don’t know very much!

See, with Earl Hines… The thing is, the advantage of the big band, you could solo a little bit and you could kind of make it, but the big thing is that all you had to do was learn the discipline of reading, being professional, and they just took care of the business for you.  And the exceptional people that would come along, like Charlie Parker, who were going to make an art in their generation, make a new art form, out of a solo style that doesn’t need… In fact, a big band would get in their way most of the time.  Even Satchmo, as much of an innovator as he was in his time, didn’t play enough notes to get in the big band’s way.  Not that Charlie Parker would get in a big band’s way now.  He’d play across it.  He could play right across it.  But it’s kind of… It was a different thing.  People were beginning to look… Plus, the war years had gotten people used to listening to something else besides the big bands, so soloists had to do more as part of their playing and part of what they wanted to do, too!

I didn’t get a chance to hear any of that… Before 1945?  No.

TP:    When you got back from that ill-fated trip to Denver, Chris, did you begin to gig around Chicago?  What was your process from that to working somewhat regularly?

CA:    Well, the process was cementing relationships, developing relationships.  I knew what I was going to do, or at least I didn’t have anything else to do.  I found myself being with musicians for a good part of my time.  That’s how you make contacts, and if you’re a go-getter and you hustle and do all these things (I never was a great hustler), then sometimes you just …(?)…

Music was developing, people were hearing about Bebop.  The music was beginning to come alive in Chicago.  For instance, there was a place in Chicago on 29th and Indiana called The Hole.  And that’s where everybody would meet, experimenting with this new music.  It was an after-hours joint, and it opened at 12, from 12 until about 7.  So everybody who was interested in music would be there, you know.  And that was where we began to find out about this music.  We already had a feeling before we were there.  But the thing is, with everybody in the same spot, you got to know everybody!  See?

TP:    Who were some of the people that you remember getting to know at that time?

CA:    Well, I had heard of Wilbur Ware, a young bass player who I’d heard around.  This fellow Leo Blevins, that I was telling you about, told me about Wilbur Ware.  Leo introduced me to so many people and introduced other people to so many people.  He was the kind of person who if he would walk in here now and tell me that the most unlikely person that I could imagine was a good player, I’d have to believe it.  It seems that at that time, right then and there, Wilbur was in Milwaukee with Little Jazz; he wouldn’t be in town for another week.  And I waited, and looked forward to it — and he was a person that was part of Chicago, one of the people I was most impressed with all of my life.  That started it.  I’d see many of the people who were going to be the mainstays, people who you’d look up to just as part of the music.

Shortly after that, Sonny Stitt came to town.  He lived there for a while.  I got to know him.  He worked around.  As good as he was, as great as he was… Well, he was one of the pioneers; a pioneer, you know, in Bird’s footsteps.  But there was another fellow there named Henry Prior, and he was great, too, but he met a very untimely death, very early — about 1945 or ’46 maybe.

Anyway, the first gig I ever really had… I worked with Sonny Stitt with other people, in other people’s bands there.  The first gig I had with Sonny Stitt was on an Easter, about ’47, I think.  It was the Bird at the Pershing Ballroom.  And that’s how I got to meet Bird.  I worked with Bird a total of three times.  And that was amazing.

Well, actually, it was Leo who introduced me to Sonny Stitt.  We worked at another gig at a place called the…it was on the West Side…

TP:    You and Sonny Stitt worked a gig on the West Side before you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Yes.  As part of his rhythm section.  It was a famous club, I think on 47th and Western or something.  We worked opposite Jackie Cain and Roy Kral.  I remember that.

TP:    Were you working with a regular rhythm section at the time, and you’d accompany people?

CA:    No, we’d just put the rhythm section together for that particular gig.  It was just two weekend gigs.

TP:    And shortly thereafter you went into the Pershing?

CA:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    I’ve read that you were part of the house rhythm section at the Pershing Ballroom, and you played there with Bruz Freeman and Leroy Jackson, that you were the standing rhythm section to back up the soloists.

CA:    Standing… Try sitting.  Because it just worked out.  You could say that.  People get strange… There were a couple of… The last two appearances I made at the Pershing with Bird, one was with Von Freeman’s group — Von, Bruz and Leroy and so forth.  The other was with a tenor player who used to be there named Claude McLin.

The one with Von wasn’t Von’s gig.  I don’t remember how it came about.  The pianist on the gig was named Prentice McCrary.  I happened to come in, and they let me sit in.  And somebody recorded it.  They had a wire recorder.  In fact, the way they recorded this thing, they had a back room behind the bandstand at the Pershing, and they had a speaker on the wall back there.  They recorded this off the speaker.  And they put this out on a record.  And doing the research for this record, the people were going back in their memory, because this wasn’t… They didn’t try to get the documentation and stuff together.  This was in the Seventies!  They went to Bruz Freeman and a few other people, and they told them I was on the gig.  I was not on the gig!  I just happened to be sitting in.  See?

So what I’m getting at is the information concerning this, because being part of the expanding house band… It was the luck of the draw.  Let me show you how much it is a luck of the draw, things can happen to you.  The third time, the last time I worked there with Claude McLin, this session was recorded, too.  In fact, it was put out in about 1975 or something like that.

I was raised in a foster home.  And I went to school with some kids who became close friends of mine, about three or four of them.  They kicked around in foster homes, too.  And they were brothers.  So for a time we lived together in different spots.  And we figured out… Like, the oldest brother that looked after them, he said, “Okay, I’m working; I’m going to take care of this aspect.  Chris, I want you to take care of his cultural needs.”  They knew I was a musician and so forth, and knew a few things in terms of Black culture, or whatever else there is to learn at that particular time.  They wanted to keep him out of trouble.  You know what I mean?

So this Sunday we were sitting around, we haven’t got any money, and I wanted to go hear Bird so bad!  And I wanted to take him to hear Bird, because he hadn’t heard Bird.  He had listened to his records.  He was a sensitive(?) kid, bright, and liked good music.  He just  liked to move his foot.  He liked to stomp his foot to music.  So anyway, I’m really disappointed, because I told him I would like to hear Bird, and he would like it… It didn’t annoy him that much.  But it annoyed me.  I was getting pretty depressed about it.  And he was trying to make conversation with me, and I’m not listening.

We were living in a rooming house.  So someone came and knocked on the door and told me there was a phone call for me.  I went to the phone, and it’s this guy Claude McLin, who said, “Look, what you doing?”  He said, “Look, my piano player can’t make it.  I’ve got this gig here with Bird…” [LAUGHS]

So that’s how I got on that one.  You know?  There was no standing rhythm section.  They didn’t have no standing… A lot of times you’d work there with different people, then they’d call you standing.  It’s not like the owner of the Pershing would say, “Well, you work every week with this guy and this guy,” you know.

But the people who worked there were people like Von Freeman (he worked there quite often) Claude McLin (he worked there sometimes) and a few other people.  And there not a lot of pianists there!  So that increased your chances.  See?  So everybody was getting a lot of the same events.   You see what I mean?

TP:    Another person you were associated with who was very prominent at the time and not that widely known about, one was the great drummer Ike Day.

CA:    Yes.  The first thing… You’ve heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I won’t be redundant…

TP:    Well, I’ll tell you something.  I haven’t heard a lot said about Ike Day, so I don’t think anything that you say about him will be redundant.  I’ve heard a little bit about Ike Day.

CA:    Okay.  First, Chicago in the Forties, as I told you, before Bebop everything was Blues Swing… Before they called it Rhythm-and-Blues, it was just Blues — Supper Blues, Steak(?) Blues, whatever you wanted to call it.

This had to be about 1943.  I had to still be in school — yes, of course; I was still in school.  And I joined the big band… Because it was like the way… Just take a bunch of musicians in any high school in this land, whether it’s the Music Department, they learn to read, and somewhere in the high school or on the fringes of the high school, someone puts together a swing band.  These musicians aren’t very good.  And then they had this big band that most of the kids would end up in.  A lot of the kids made it out of Phillips High School in the school band and so forth.

We worked a few places, like in community centers and stuff like that.  I remember the first gig I had at the community center; I got paid a whole fifty cents!  One night we got a gig called the Apex out in Robbins, Illinois. It  happened to be Ike’s home base; Ike and his mother lived out there.  And we went into this club.  On the way we heard a strange noise.  “What’s that?”  We heard a drop(?).  “What the hell is this?  What’s going on?”  We’d never heard anything like this before.  The first thing that comes into our head, what’s wrong with these guys… Well, we’re late in the first place.  We’d never been out there before.  The driver didn’t know where we were going.  We were late.  So I said, “Oh, they hired another band.”

We walk in the other door, it’s no other band — just Ike Day.  It turns out they had been running… They had a floor show there, and on this floor show they had this Blues guitar player named Johnny Shines.  He was like Muddy Waters to me.  Pure Blues, you understand?  They had a shake dancer, and for music they had Ike Day playing.  But the thing is, they were all separate acts.  They thought so much of Ike Day out there, and Ike Day was so great, that Ike Day came in there and worked, just playing drums!  And he used to have to play a little solo for about twenty minutes, then he was through for the night.  He might play for the shake dancer if he wanted to.  He didn’t play for the guitar player.  The guitar player played by himself.

That’s how great he was.  It’s as if… Someone once asked Earl Weaver about Brooks Robinson as a third baseman.  You know how great he was.

TP:    Yes.

CA:    Okay.  He asked Earl Weaver, “How great is Brooks?”  He said, “You know, he plays third base as if he came down from another league.”  That’s the way Ike was.  He played drums like… He didn’t play loud drums.  He was just so… Everybody was so awed, in awe of him, he was so great… Everyone was around him all the time, because he was just great.  You know?  He just was!  You see?  And I didn’t know what anything was about yet!  [ETC.]

You think about how you assess things when it first happens to you, and the only thing that may make it valid are the changes thirty or forty or fifty years later; you can look at it, and you seem to still feel the same way.  That was the darnedest thing I have ever seen!  I have never seen anything like this.

This man was… And they had a lot of professional people coming in and out of this club, working at different times.  You know?  But just what was going on then… Man, we used to tease our drummer in our band, our big band — because this was a big band, about 12 or 13 or 14 pieces.  We said, “Well, how long do you think you’re gonna last?” —  we teased him!  “You’ll be playing…”  Or during intermission or something, he’d come back and find a cymbal missing, somebody had taken it and hid it.  We teased him all the time.

In about two weeks, our drummer got the word that we can’t afford to have two drummers.  So Ike wound up playing with our band for a while.  Of course, the only thing our band could play were leaders'(?) arrangements and stock arrangements, Basie band, Jimmy Dorsey and stuff like that.  That was the fare in those days.  The change hadn’t been made yet, see.  That’s why I tell you that ’43-’44 is what I’m talking about now.

TP:    But you knew Ike Day over the years, though, until he passed.

CA:    Oh, yes.  I was in the hospital when he passed.  I had a broken hip.  Oh yes, I was in the hospital.  He died of tuberculosis.

TP:    And you played with him also over the years in any number of situations, small groups and larger groups and so forth?

CA:    Small groups.  I never got to play with him in large groups, no.

TP:    Well, one thing, there’s a picture I’ve seen on the back of a record jacket, a Chess compilation of Chicago tenor players.  And there’s Max Roach and Kenny Dorham all standing right over Ike Day and watching him play, and Max Roach has a look of rapt concentration on his face.  Was this the kind of impact he made on everybody?

CA:    Pretty much.  Pretty much.  Well, you see, people like Max and people who are sure enough great… And there was not only him.  People like Jo Jones, Papa Jo Jones.  When he knew he was going to retire, he tried to get…he wanted Ike to take his seat in the band.  But Ike wasn’t thinking about going out on the road.  Buddy Rich, all the drummers… All the drummers knew about him, and all the other musicians knew about him.  But they didn’t all rhapsodize over him that much, because you took him for granted.

Ike was good with people, too.  See, that’s another thing.


Vernell Fournier had a stool that belonged to Ike Day, a drum stool that belonged to Ike Day for years.  He wouldn’t let anyone touch that stool.  I don’t know if Vernell still has it.  But he revered it so much, he kept that drum stool for years, all those years, because Ike Day sat on it.

TP:    So I guess you were playing around town in these various situations in the late Forties and early Fifties.  Would you go on the road with people for brief periods of time, or were you mainly just around Chicago?

CA:    I stayed on Chicago.  Going on the road… Me being handicapped was a problem.  Besides, it wasn’t something that I wanted to do anyway.  I went on the road for very short periods, two or three weeks at the most.  And that was in the late Fifties.  In the mid to late Fifties I did it for a while, with just one person, a guy named Cozy Eccleston, who had a rhythm-and-blues band in Chicago.

TP:    Cozy Eccleston?

CA:    Yeah!  I went out with him.  In fact, for a rhythm-and-blues band, he had one of the hippest rhythm sections that the world has ever seen.  He had Wilbur Ware and a drummer named Dorel Anderson, who was part of the scene there (he   was a great drummer who died also), and me.   We went out a couple of times.

TP:    That was in the latter part of the Fifties?

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Were you able to stretch out at all in any of those situations you played in?

CA:    Well, he would love to go do his thing, and then he’d go sit at the bar drinking, listening to us! [LAUGHS]

TP:    I don’t blame him.

CA:    [LAUGHS] We didn’t get to stretch out a lot.  It was his band and his program.  He wouldn’t let things get out of hand.  The thing is, the (?) stuff, we found a way to loosen it up.  You know?  We’d take it gently by the hand and make the music a little more endurable.

TP:    There’s another story (tell me whether this is true or not) that you were in the rhythm section at the Beehive during Charlie Parker’s last appearance in Chicago.  Is that correct or not?  That was around February 1955.

CA:    That I was working?  No.  I think Norman Simmons worked that job.  Norman Simmons and Victor Sproles had that job at the Beehive.


TP:    What were the circumstances that brought you to New York?

CA:    I got a chance to come out on the road with Dinah Washington.  Joe Zawinul had just left her to go with Cannonball.  And she had this club that had been called the Roberts Show Lounge; she bought it and changed it to Dinah-Land, and she worked there for a while.  And while they were there, Joe Zawinul handed in his notice, because he’d made a commitment to Cannonball.  So she tried a couple of local pianists there, and nobody really wanted to go on the road that much, and nothing was happening for me.  So Eddie Chamblee and Leo Blevins, again, this guitarist again, told her about me.  This is what I was telling you about.  He’s a person who really helped a lot of people there.  It was really because of him I got that job.

So I came… Let’s see.  I think it was exactly six weeks.  We went to Philadelphia first for two days at Pep’s.  We went to the Howard in Washington for a week, then we went to the Apollo for a week.  Then we went to Town Hill in Brooklyn.  And she was coming back to Chicago, and I decided I wanted to stay here in New York.  Well, everything can’t be perfect, but I don’t want to deal with any negatives now.  Thanks to her, I got here, you understand, and I stayed here.

TP:    Did you have work when you first got to New York?

CA:    No.  But, let’s see, I got work… I went through a very bad period there for a couple of years.  I broke some more bones, and I was kind of out of it for a while.  I had to really get my act together.  I never did do a lot of working in New York until three or four years ago actually.  I’d get a gig now and then, but I only had a few.

TP:    You did record, though, in 1961.

CA:    Oh yes, when I first got here.  Well, see, the reason why that came about, Orrin Keepnews was connected with Riverside at that time, and he happened to be in Chicago.  Johnny Griffin had told him to come hear me.  He wanted him to record me.  And he came by to see me and said, “If you’re ever in New York, let me know, and we’ll do a date with you.”  So I happened to be here.  So I called him and told him, “Well, I’m here.”  So he gave me a date.  So that’s how that came about.  That was through the good offices of Johnny Griffin.

TP:    Another one of your old running mates in Chicago?

CA:    Yeah.

TP:    Can you pinpoint when you were first aware of Johnny Griffin, when you first heard him play?

CA:    My memory of first hearing him is kind of vague, because the music was in the midst of change, and I was hearing a lot of other people.  But he was fresh out of high school, came out of Captain Dyett’s band, like so many great people, like Jug, Gene Ammons, and like…

TP:    Well, your friend Clifford Jordan came out of DuSable.

CA:    Clifford Jordan.  And what’s this great bass player…?

TP:    Richard Davis.

CA:    Richard Davis.  Victor Sproles came out of there, too. And Gene Ammons, as I said… Anyway…

TP:    Von Freeman also went to DuSable.

CA:    Von Freeman, yes.  Von, Bruz, George — the whole family.

Anyway, you asked me about him being called Little Giant.  My memory failed me; I didn’t connect it at first.  I consider it apocryphal.  But there may been a reason for it.  I can trace it to a time… And I heard about this more.  I didn’t see it happen.  But I didn’t know… When he… The thing that brought Johnny Griffin to the attention of the world, he got a chance to go with Lionel Hampton.  And that was a time when Arnett Cobb was with him.  Arnett Cobb was big.  And that’s back in the days when you had these saxophone battles, the same way as in those days they’d have these big band battles.  Johnny Griffin happened to join Hamp during an engagement at a place called the Rialto Theatre.  The Rialto Theatre was a strip joint, but they changed it to a theatre.  And Lionel Hampton was the opener; he opened that place.  By the time Lionel Hampton and these two cats, Arnett Cobb and Johnny Griffin… They excited people so they threw people out, three fell out of the balconies… It was a riot!  They closed that place after about two or three performances — the place couldn’t stand it!  They turned it back into a strip joint!

And the clash, the battle between David and Goliath… See what I’m getting at?  And out of this, I think Johnny Griffin got the name the Little Giant.  Well, everybody wants to go for the underdog, you know.  The new music was just beginning.  But Griffin, he was into everybody else’s thing, Arnett Cobb honking and playing… But Bebop, the new music hadn’t filtered through.  They’d play a few notes, but the new music hadn’t been born.  But as far as sound was concerned, he held his own with Arnett Cobb!  Everybody goes for the underdog.  But he was the underdog only in size, so they called him the Little Giant.

TP:    You played with Johnny Griffin quite a bit, though, around Chicago — yes or no?

CA:    Not a lot.  No.

TP:    But at any rate, he of course knew you and you’d known each other a while, and that’s why he referred you for this date.

CA:    Yes.

TP:    I’d like to ask you about some of the tunes you did on the date.  I don’t know if you remember it; if not, I’ll refresh your memory.

CA:    Oh, yes, I remember.

TP:    Were these tunes that you’d been playing for many years?  Is the material on Inverted Image representative of the type of set you would play in Chicago?

CA:    No.  No, because… Well, the title of the album was decided upon pretty much before we… I don’t remember who came up with the idea for it.  I think it was Orrin Keepnews who came up with the title, and the idea of the Rorschach thing.  He said, “Okay, this should have a song for it.”  So I wrote a kind of upside-down Blues; half the changes were upside-down, or inverted — I turned them around.  So it all sounded like the Blues, but the (?) bars go in different directions, and you don’t know what it is until the last two bars.  So that’s the inverted image.

Now, I wrote that, but Bill Lee wrote most of the rest of it.  He wrote the ballad called “Only One.”  There were   a lot of standards.

TP:    There’s also a collaboration called “See You Saturday.”

CA:    No, that’s no collaboration.  That’s Bill Lee’s tune.

TP:    And everything else is a standard.

CA:    Right.

TP:    “Lullaby Of The Leaves,” which Johnny Griffin did a great version of once on a record, “My Funny Valentine”… These were tunes that you’d been playing for quite some time, that were part of your standard…

CA:    Yes.

TP:    Von Freeman, when I interviewed him, said that you had the greatest harmonic ear that he had ever heard.  Do you feel that you had any impact on other pianists who came up in Chicago during the Fifties?

CA:    There are a couple of people who I influenced in Chicago, I know for sure.  But I don’t think anybody else I influenced at all.  They were going their own way and doing their thing.  Because to really be influenced… Well, what I mean by influenced, a pianist to influence another pianist, you’ve got to spend time with him.  Or if he plays something a little bit like you, in a song he finds a change or finds a way to voice something, that’s okay, but it’s not no big thing.

But to influence somebody, what I call influence, is maybe… As far as piano is concerned, there is only one pianist in Chicago that I have influenced, and he doesn’t live there any more.  His name is Billy Wallace.  The reason being we spent a lot of time together.  We got into each other’s heads.  I know what he knows, he knows what I know.  And we know why.

TP:    Billy Wallace played with Max Roach for some time…

CA:    Yes, he did.  And there was a bass player there named Bill Lee.  He can play the piano and he arranges.  But I’m talking about influencing him not so much on piano, but  musically, in terms of every facet of it.  People like John Young, Jodie Christian, Willie Pickens, the piano players that were there?  No, I didn’t influence them at all.  Muhal Richard Abrams?  No.


There was something I wanted to tell you about this album, Inverted Image.  It really didn’t sell very much.  In fact, for a while, everybody I knew had got the album, they went by Riverside and got a free copy!  I didn’t know anyone that ever bought it.  It didn’t sell well.  They didn’t promote it, of course.  And to my mind, it’s not indicative of the thing I do the best.

And lately, the last four or five years… There was a thing we went through in the Seventies where there was no pianos to play, so you had to buy an electric piano, or even worse, before that, you had the organ in the Fifties and so forth — and they had such lousy pianos.  Now they’ve got good pianos in most places, they have a grand piano.  And more than a bebopper, I’m a sort of painter, in a sense.  My friends have put me in the kinds of situations that allow me to do what I do best.  Some people say I’m trying to be a Classical pianist, and that’s a painter, you know.  Or you can call me a house painter!  I’ll accept that.  I’m still painting.  Sometimes I like to play by myself.  I like to paint around singers.


* * *

Chris Anderson (4-9-86) – (WKCR):


TP:    In the first part of the show we’ll focus on musicians Chris was involved with in Chicago, where he was an active member of the scene for about a 15-year period, wasn’t it, between 1946 and 1961 or so.

CA:    Yes, that’s about it.  Actually a few more years than that.  But professionally, yes, you could say fifteen years.  But I started playing around in the mid to late Forties.  So it’s really more like twenty years.  But yes, 1945 to 1961 professionally.

TP:    Chris, tell us about working at the Pershing Ballroom.  You played there quite frequently and different people would come in.  What was the set-up like there?

CA:    Well, the Pershing Ballroom was just that.  It was a ballroom, a dance hall.  They gave dances.  But the thing is, in dealing with Jazz, dance halls were just used as a place for people to stand.  People really began to listen more… Jazz was changing from something to dance to, to a music to listen to.  You’d have a place like this with maybe, oh, twenty-five hundred people, nothing but wall-to-wall people.  It was quite a thing.  It was a dance hall in name only, because there was no room for anybody to dance in most cases.  And even when they were, it was just… A stand-up nightclub, that’s all it was.  That’s the best way to explain it.

TP:    The Pershing also had an upstairs and a downstairs room.  They would book two different bands at one time.  Is that not right?

CA:    Yes.  Well, they had a place called Budland in the basement.  Well, they had something there every week.  That was dealing with the local musicians more than having big names come in.  Big names would only come in once in a while, you see, so it wasn’t really quite the same thing.  And there was the Pershing Lounge, so really there was three places in the same building.  And that’s where Ahmad Jamal would hold fort for a long time, and put the Pershing on the map.

TP:    Tell us about this date with Bird.  What were the circumstances of that evening?

CA:    You want to go through that again.

TP:    Well, we went through it before, but that’s all right.

CA:    Remember we were talking about the fact that I was supposed to be part of the regular house rhythm section there, and I explained to you that it didn’t happen that way at all.  The saxophone player, Claude McLin, his piano player couldn’t make it for some reason.  And I wanted to go so bad, I didn’t know what to do.  I was sitting around the house depressed.  And I got this call from Claude McLin, who asked me to come, and I got to hear Bird, and not only hear Bird, but to play with him.  Of course, I had heard him before I played with him, once before, but at least it got me in.  I had to work a little, but it was a pleasure.  That’s about all there is to that.

[MUSIC: JUG-STITT, “Saxification”; JUG, “Down The Line”]

A strange incident happened to us once when we were working in Chicago.  I teased Jug about it for years!  I have to explain to you first, Chicago is known for the Blues, and there was a time that Blues was much more alive as Jazz than it was Rock-and-Roll before Rock-and-Roll came in.  This was before Blues players made a lot of money.  They made no money.  So the Blues players were in a certain section of Chicago, called the West Side.  They stayed on the West Side, while we stayed on the South Side.

TP:    The Jazz musicians stayed on the South Side and the Blues musicians on the West Side.

CA:    Yes, and never the twain shall meet.  So a gig came along, and Jug having a name, we went over there.  A friend of ours, a guitarist I’ve told you about, was very important in my life.  His name was Leo Blevins.  Now, he came from a Blues background… What I mean as Blues, he came from that genre, he could fit in just as well with Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, anybody who played Jazz… In those days musicians did some of everything, and they did it with feeling.  Whatever was going on, they did it with feeling.

So we had this gig.  It was a Blues house.  There was not many people in the house, oh, maybe ten people.  It sounded like three, the way it was scattered around.  And we went into playing the Blues, what I mean, the Shuffle Blues.  The rhythm was like ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK, ta-CHONK.  It would be like what Memphis Slim was doing or something like that.  Back in those days, guitar players would get down on their knees, I’ve seen bass players lie down on the floor and play their bass.  They were required to be very entertaining.

So we finished this number.  And everybody said, “Hmm, so this is a Blues house, huh?  This ought to take care of them.  That ought to fix them.”  All of a sudden we heard a voice way in the back: “When you gonna play me some Blues?!”

And we stood there just dismayed, just stupidly!  We hadn’t done a thing.  And I teased Jug about this for years.  I never would let him forget it.  Sometimes people have a little antipathy toward each other anyway, and I teased him with that from now til Doomsday.  I always think of that when I hear Jug play the Blues.  But he was a wonderful Blues player; it was just a different thing.

TP:    When did you start playing with Jug?  How did you meet him?

CA:    I don’t even remember how I met Jug.  That’s something I could not tell you.  See, I was not close to Jug.  I was not close to Jug in the least.  He had a name.  He was in and out of town quite a lot.  He was not a part of the Jazz scene when I got into it — or a regular part of the Jazz scene.  He was in New York and traveling and stuff like that, so I didn’t get to know him that well.  See?  Just in the latter years that I was there I’d see him occasionally, work with him or something.  But I don’t have a memory of when I met him.  I don’t.


CA:    There is something that has always bothered me, it’s annoyed the hell out of me! — excuse the expression.  When Joe went with Count Basie…  This ties up a great deal with what I was saying about Jug and the Blues, and so forth.  When he went with Basie, all of a sudden I was hearing this reputation coming back.  I would hear it from disk jockeys, establishment disk jockeys; I presume critics wrote it up that way; “The greatest Blues singer in the world.”  So when I think about Blues singers, I think about Blues singers.  Joe Williams, as far as Jazz is concerned, singing, I guess he’d have to be the greatest Blues singer, because that’s all they knew about him from Basie.

But the thing about Joe, the reason why I’m annoyed by it… The first time I had the pleasure of having an exchange with Joe… A singer named Joe Evans called me to accompany him on a gig in a little after-hours spot in Chicago.  I had never been there before, I had never seen it — I didn’t know the place existed.  Sometimes you think you know all about your environment, you think you know where everything is, you think you’re pretty hip.  Okay, I go down to this club and go in there… Remember, I don’t know this place exists.  Who’s there?  Joe Williams, Duke Ellington, Al Hibbler, Dinah Washington was there, another famous singer in Chicago whose name was Lillian Hunter, and a few other people that I can’t think of.

Okay.  They asked Joe to sing a song with me, put me right on the spot.  He says, “Look, can you play Pagliacci for me?”  Well, the famous…the part of Pagliacci that everybody would know, the part that was written for Puccini, it was written for a tenor.  Okay, he adapted to it, because he has a bass voice.  And he gave it beautifully!  He scared me death!

And I hate the thought of anybody thinking of him as a Blues singer.  He’s just a wonderful singer.  And as a ballad singer, he has no peer.  I picked this particular track to give you an example of what he can sing like without a large orchestra.  “Young and Foolish,” I think it is.

[MUSIC: Joe Williams, “Young and Foolish.”

TP:    We’ll hear next some music by Von Freeman, another person Chris was associated with for quite some time.

CA:    Mmm-hmm.  I probably worked longer with Von than… Probably!  I know I worked longer with him than anybody I have ever worked with.  I spent five years in and out of his bands.

TP:    Tell us about the band.

CA:    Well, the band consisted of Von, his two brothers George and Bruz… George is a guitarist.  In fact, he’s the guitarist on that album with Bird you played.  Bruz Freeman was a drummer.  And we worked at different clubs around Chicago, and went on short tours to nearby states, and so forth, maybe for one-nighters.

TP:    What was the repertoire of the band?  What sorts of things did you play?

CA:    Back then we played practically all standard tunes, some things that were written, new lines to old chord progressions, things like that — but pretty standard.  All the new Bebop tunes weren’t on the scene yet.  See, we’re talking Forties.  We’re talking ’47, ’48 and ’49…’51.

TP:    Can you talk about what Von’s sound was like in the late 1940’s?

CA:    His sound was very much like Ben Webster’s.  You could always hear the air coming the side of it.  You could always hear that.  That’s one description.  It was pre-Bebop.  It fit Bebop, but… It fit then and it fit now.  It fit Bebop the same way Don Byas or Paul Gonsalves would fit Bebop, so correct and so right.  So when Bebop came in, all he had to do was alter a few lines; he’d do that, too.  The basis for it was there already.  Or he doesn’t have to do that.  Because if he’d deal with Bebop and think of it as such, he’d wind up playing certain cliches and lines, and it’s hard to get out of it sometimes.  It’s not really thinking; it’s doing what you hear, and what you hear is quite often what you’ve heard somebody else play, not something that you’ve put together.  You may think you’re putting it together; I guess you could say you are.

But Von wasn’t just a wonderful instrumentalist, he was a wonderful musician.  He knew a lot!  He could sit down at the piano and play things, so I knew he knew about harmony.

If I go on about him, it’s because we have a mutual admiration society going for sure.

TP:    I know that, because Von has said about you that you have the greatest harmonic ear he’s ever heard.

CA:    He’s one of my favorite people.  He knows it. [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Von, “White Sands,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Sweet and Lovely”]

TP:    Chris says that Von has been playing “White Sands” since 1946 or 1947.

CA:    Yeah, that’s true.  As I said before, back in those days they were just really starting to write new melodies to old changes.  Well, that’s not true either, I guess, because they were already doing that to “I Got Rhythm” and writing different melodies to Blues.  But they hadn’t extended out much further than that.  They hadn’t taken too many standard songs with a lot of changes and so forth, and redoing them.  At least not in Chicago.  Chicago’s another place…

TP:    Well, how about the younger breed?  How about someone like Henry Prior, a young alto player in Chicago, who passed away too young, but…

CA:    Now, see, I was talking about Henry Prior being one of the… I remember I told you that most of the people had to wait for Bird to make the next record, because they didn’t know what to do.  And I was saying that Henry Prior was one of the few…one of the people that had the light.  But I forgot to add, he was from New York!  He brought the message from New York.  He was not born in Chicago.  He moved to Chicago.  He knew what it was all about, as far as Bebop was concerned, the technical aspect of it.  He just died too soon.  He died too soon.

TP:    That’s the case for a lot of musicians of that generation.  There were a lot of perils involved, and it was not the safest time for a lot of people.

CA:    No, it wasn’t.
TP:    But the people who survived came out very, very strong.

CA:    A friend of mine gave a birthday party for me a couple of years ago.  His toast was, “We’re celebrating Chris just because he’s still here.”

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll hear now “Two Bass Hit” by Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  I know Chris has some things to say about it.

CA:    I certainly do.  When Dizzy had his big band, it was the first time I really… For bass players… This was before I met Wilbur Ware.  But in the earlier years, the great bass players were Oscar Pettiford, Jimmy Blanton and so forth.  But this is for their solo work, keeping in mind the technique of recording back in those days was not too good, and the music was such that…the music the bass players played as a background, playing behind people, you didn’t hear very well, and there wasn’t much to be said for it, I assume.  But when music changed…

Well, the short of it (never mind the lecture), when I first heard Ray Brown, it hit me… I even remember the thought that I had.  I had this thought three times in my life — “that’s how bass should be played.”  And it just fit so well with the band.  I’m not talking about his solo work.  That’s phenomenal.  I’m talking about just the way he sounded with the band.  It just threw me completely.

And Dizzy… I never had the pleasure of playing with Dizzy, doggone it, but you know what he is to music.  I keep thinking what makes Dizzy so different than the rest of the trumpet players — the fact that he’s such a great musician, or is it his personality, or what it is.  And it hit me.  He has music down… I heard him in an interview where he was explaining about him and Bird.  The interviewer was trying to put Dizzy up as having a great personality as such, a good style.  He explained that Bird was the one that had the style.  What Dizzy, in all his humility, would not say (you don’t say this about yourself) the fact that he could arrange, he could write — he brought the music to everybody.  In his first band, he used to teach everybody what everything was about.  The trumpet players, the arrangers, so they would know what it was all about.

All the great trumpet players, coming down from Fats Navarro, Dizzy, Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, they have to take the music so serious, they all had something to prove, being the greatest.  It’s quite a thing when you don’t write and can’t see the whole picture.  And I had never heard any of them once… Dizzy is the only one I ever heard approach music with a sense of humor, and it’s no joke.  He can have fun with the music.  It’s so right, he can do anything with it.  He will always be the boss.

And this record here was one of the first records that I ever heard that really impressed me.  I am putting that wrong; they all impressed me.  But this is the first record that I was really impressed by.  Just his writing and Ray  Brown’s playing, it pinned it down for me.

[MUSIC: “Two Bass Hit,” Griff, W. Ware, “Woody ‘n You”]

TP:    Listening to Johnny Griffin and Wilbur Ware brings up a host of memories for Chris Anderson, who played with both of them pretty extensively.

CA:    Yes.  That’s asking me to tell you about a lifetime.  Listening to Wilbur… Wilbur was not only a great bass player, he was good with people.  He was good with kids, he was good… Everybody loved him.  He had a laugh that you’d never forget.  And don’t let him get to know you well, know your weak spots, he will get to you one way or another.

I remember an incident, he was working down at Pee-Wee’s, at a place on 11th Street, a club.  The owner used to be the emcee at Birdland for a long time.  Keep in mind, any family where you deal with each other all the time… I say “family” because that’s what we were.  So we were making a fuss about something.  I remember a time when I had a grievance against Wilbur, real or imagined.  It wasn’t much.  To show you how little it was, I went down to the club to hear him, which I don’t do that often.  I decided, “Okay, I’m not going to even talk to him.  I’ll ignore him.  I’ll talk to everybody else.”  He yelled at me, “Hi, Chris!  Hey, Chris!”  I wouldn’t say anything to him.

The bandstand was about three feet off the floor, so he was up there.  He said, “So you’re ignoring me.  Okay.”  And after a while he called me again; I wouldn’t say nothing to him.  He was coming at me from the other direction.  So what he did, he took the bass and put it on the floor.  And the bandstand maybe was 7 or 8 feet from the tables where I was.  And he put that bass… All that music went out of the bass down through the peg, across the floor, through my shoes, up my legs, and through my body… Maybe I could tune out my ears if I wanted to, but… That’s the wonderful thing about acoustic bass.  When it was played right, it felt right, and you could not ignore it.  I must have looked up and said, “All right, I give.”  I said, “I got it!  I got it!”

TP:    Wilbur Ware had one of the most distinctive sounds of any bass player around, I think.

CA:    Yes, indeed.

TP:    Again, this may be an impossible recollection, but do you recall the circumstances of first meeting Wilbur?

CA:    There’s something I was telling you in my interview, Leo Blevins telling me… There was this place in Chicago called the Hole, where all the Jazz musicians would meet…

TP:    Where was it?

CA:    29th and Indiana.  And Leo was telling me about this great bass player, Wilbur Ware, that was coming to town, and he wanted me to hear him.  Leo turned me on to everybody I ever met, and also was responsible in some way… I mean, he introduced me to somebody that introduced me to, at least!  He was only twice removed from me meeting them, at least — not directly responsible.

Wilbur was in Milwaukee.  He was in Milwaukee with Sonny Stitt.  And when Wilbur came back, Wilbur and Sonny Stitt came to town for the first time, too, and lived there.  I didn’t remember that before when we were talking about it.  So I got to meet Sonny Stitt at this time.  Wilbur lived in Chicago, of course; he was just out on the road.  And when they came back, Sonny resided there.  This would have to be ’47, ’46 or ’47.  Let’s say ’47.

TP:    You mentioned in the interview also a time with a Rhythm-and-Blues singer who liked to go to the bar and hear the rhythm section.

CA:    Cozy Eccleston, yes.

TP:    Would you do a lot of those type of gigs, not just Jazz, but Rhythm-and-Blues singers and Bluesmen and so forth?  Or was it never the twain shall meet?  What was the environment for you as a working pianist in Chicago?

CA:    Listen.  Remember, I was saying a while ago, musicians, they worked a weird assortment of gigs.  You’d never know what was… The same thing I was telling you about Ike Day. He had this gig playing drums, no band, no nothing.  Well, musicians, whatever there was to do or play, they did it.  And Wilbur could play drums, he was a dancer, he was a drummer.  He learned the entertainment business.  He just happened to be a great bassist, that’s all.  He played rhythm-and-blues gigs, he played Blues gigs, Blues gigs, b-l-u-u-z-s gigs.  He played for singers, he played some… Everything that could be played, he played it.  And to think someone like him graduated from a tub, a stick and a rope.  That’s what he learned on.
TP:    His foster father built him a homemade bass, I believe.  Isn’t that right.

CA:    Yes.  That’s what we’re talking about.

TP:    The Reverend Turner.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, wait a minute.  Yes, I do.  I only got to know about him shortly before Wilbur died.  We were talking about it, but I’d forgotten about that.

TP:    The music we’ll hear next features Wilbur Ware in company with another tenor player who spent not that much time in Chicago, but the time he spent there seems to have been quite significant for him, Sonny Rollins.

CA:    Yes, he was there a couple of years, I think.

TP:    I think it was late 1950, early ’51, and then 1954-55.

CA:    I think it was ’54 or ’55.  Because he had a gig at the Beehive in Chicago.  That was his last gig, then he left and came back to New York.

TP:    I also read that he was there in 1950-51, and he played with Ike Day and jammed with Johnny Griffin and so forth.

CA:    Oh yes.

TP:    Anyway, what do you remember about Sonny Rollins in Chicago at that time?  Anything in particular?

CA:    He was warm.  He was a wonderful musician.  And being who he was, he helped the musicians out to learn.  But he worked all the same kind of gigs that we worked.  He worked gigs that you wouldn’t believe he’d be on, for his stature.  But he was in the salt mines.  He worked the Blues gigs, rhythm-and-blues gigs… There was even a place… There was a place outside Chicago called Calumet City that had a bunch of strip joints.  We worked those even; we had to.  He worked them, too.

TP:    So Sonny really blended into the scene, and became part of the community.

CA:    Exactly.  It had to do with doing what you had to do.  That’s a fact.

[MUSIC:  S. Rollins, Wilbur Ware, Elvin Jones: “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” and “All The Things You Are”]

Incidentally, that’s the second time I had the thought that that’s how bass should be played.  Whoo!

TP:    Wilbur Ware is such a heavy figure to talk about, we forgot to discuss Johnny Griffin, whose playing we mentioned before.

CA:    I don’t know how I could forget to talk about Johnny Griffin, because he was responsible for me getting to record, too, as well as having many other jobs in Chicago, and a lot of things.  I haven’t had a chance to see him much since I’ve been in New York.  In fact, I’ve only seen him twice since I came to New York in ’61.  But he wasn’t in town a lot…

TP:    He lived in Europe, and didn’t come here for more than a decade.

CA:    Yes.  In fact, I think it was about ’79 or so, he did a concert at Carnegie Hall.  I remember Wilbur and his wife Gloria went, and Wilbur was so debilitated at the time, he had to go up in a wheelchair.  It was so difficult; I remember that.  And I think I was ill or something; I didn’t get to go to that performance.  So I didn’t get to see him then.  And he was at the Grant Park once, and we were supposed to go…

TP:    Grant Park in Chicago?

CA:    No, not Grant Park.  I mean, Grant’s Tomb in New York.  He was finished playing, and I got to see him just for a second.

TP:     I guess I keep asking you the same tired question…

CA:    That’s because I don’t answer it.

TP:    No, I’ll ask you one more time, as I have for various other musicians we’ve played, what were the circumstances by which you first met Johnny Griffin in Chicago?

CA:    I don’t remember.  It’s just like I’ve always known him.  I can’t remember my first meeting with him.  For the life of me, I’ve tried.  Because you asked me in that interview, and I haven’t been able to come up with any more. It’s like Jug.

TP:    What do you remember about playing with him?

CA:    Oh, that I enjoyed it.  It was fun.  I can’t remember any particular incident that stands out.

TP:    Did you ever hear Griff play alto sax?  He started off as an alto player.

CA:    I don’t remember… Yes, I did see him play the alto.  There was a club called Swingland; there used to be a Cotton Club in Chicago, and they changed it to Swingland.  Now, that was during the late Fifties.  Now and then he would switch to alto.


[MUSIC:  Sonny Stitt, “Casbah,” “Idaho”]

TP:    Did you play with Sonny Stitt on sessions?

CA:    Yes, I played with Stitt, I worked with him… The  first time I played with Sonny Stitt was Easter of 1947.  We were supposed to work a gig at the Pershing Ballroom with Bird, the first time I worked with Bird.  Sonny Stitt was supposed to be on that gig, but he got sick, and we worked some gigs…

Sonny Stitt by then was part of the local crowd, the same way we talked about Sonny Rollins.  Sonny Stitt was in that same situation.

TP:    In ’47, ’48, ’49?

CA:    Yes.  I worked a lot with him.  I worked as much as any other piano players with him.  I could say I worked a lot, as much as there were gigs.

TP:    What was a standard set by Stitt like?  A lot of standards, substitutions, Bop tunes?

CA:    Well, there were a few originals, like “Ray’s Idea” that was coming on the scene, some things written on Blues and some things written on “Rhythm.”  But there were not a lot of complete originals, with completely different chord changes yet.  So they played things like “Idaho.”  This is one they played back then.   I haven’t heard anyone play this tune in maybe over twenty years now.  They don’t play it any more.  Things like “Fine and Dandy” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” those were the standards that they used in those days?

TP:    Was he playing any alto at that time, or was it exclusively tenor in the late Forties?

CA:    Oh, no.  He played alto a lot.  In fact, he played alto mostly.  It would depend on which one he wanted to play, which was most convenient for him to play at the time.  He had horns in different places.  He might have used an alto last night, and it might have been too inconvenient for him, or he’d forget the tenor so he played alto — or vice-versa.  Rarely did he switch.

TP:    He was also playing baritone at the time in Gene Ammons’ band and other situations, I recall.

CA:    Yeah, for recordings.  But generally speaking, he didn’t do it too much.

TP:    Do you have a preference for his alto or tenor?  Or is that not a fair question?

CA:    It’s a fair question.  I prefer him on tenor.  This medium, Bebop, to my ears, fits the tenor better.  The only people that I ever heard fill up an alto, I mean sound-wise, were Bird and Cannonball.  And alto players, despite their technical achievements out of the horns, I get a picture of a little-bitty horn when you play alto.  But the tenor, it fits the medium a lot better with the things that they play on it.  Most people, if they get a real big sound, it sounds like the sound is bigger than the horn to me.  It seems to me like Bebop was made more for a tenor.  It takes a special person to play it easily and get a big sound on alto.  That’s just my opinion, that’s all.


CA:    I would like to put in a disclaimer here, so that I don’t get shot.  Now, I know quite a few alto players still.  Some of my best friends play alto, and they play it well and they do the job.

TP:    There’s a wonderful record you’re on by Frank Strozier, for instance.

CA:    Yes, indeed.  And there’s C. Sharpe; he really plays.  George Coleman switches from alto to tenor.

TP:    And many others, and I’m sure they all know who they are if they’re out there.  No offense intended.

CA:    But they are the exceptions.  That’s my feeling.  More tenor players are going to sound good playing Bebop than alto players.  That’s what I think I’m saying.

TP:    [ETC.] A lot of what Sun Ra was doing in Chicago in the late Forties and Fifties is obscure, but I know he had a rehearsal band in the late Forties and early Fifties, and he was doing arrangements at the Club De Lisa, I think, and in the rehearsal band were people like Von Freeman, Red Holloway, Wilbur Ware… What do you remember about Sun Ra at the time?

CA:    You see, before he got into this experimental music, doing things, Sun Ra was an arranger for the De Lisa Club band.  This was a big show club, they had dancers…

TP:    Red Saunders’ band was there.

CA:    Red Saunders’ band, exactly.  And he did his arranging with that band.  But he did not have his rehearsals and stuff over there, to my knowledge.  He rehearsed down in Budland, in the Pershing Hotel, where the Pershing Lounge was.  That’s where they had the rehearsals.

TP:    Do you happen to recall any of those rehearsals, what was happening in them?

CA:    Well, first, to show you how experimental and how out he could write, one day I was talking to him on the telephone, and he played a tape of something.  It was called “The Devil Dance.”  And it scared me over the telephone!  It really did.  I had never heard anything like this in my life.  But as far as his big band, it was quite a band; in fact, everybody would be in it at one time or another.  Wilbur Ware and Victor Sproles would be in it, for bass players — I think even Israel Crosby did it for a minute.

TP:    Von Freeman said that having played with Sun Ra made it possible for him to play any type of music anywhere.  He wouldn’t be daunted by anything!

CA:    Yes, that would do it!  That would do it.  We had the most wonderful exchanges, because we were into different kinds of music.  And he’d have these rehearsals, performance rehearsals on Sunday afternoon.  At this particular time, I was living in the Pershing Hotel.  I came in one day, and he turned around and said to me… Because he’d been asking me to come down, but  I’d never managed to get down there, because I was doing something, or not doing, or too lazy to come down.  And he turned around, and he said… Everybody was looking at me.  He said, “Well, you finally decided to come down, huh?”  I tried to think of something to say: “Yeah.  Well, I heard you were going to walk the water today; I thought I’d have to come down and see this.”

But he could really write.  And one of the wonderful things about him, he took some musicians who couldn’t read too good, and taught them how to read, and made them stand up and be men.  And he had a lot of these people in his bands for years.  So he’s contributed a lot to the music.

TP:    Some for thirty years, and the band is still going strong, except for Count Basie and Mercer Ellington, I suppose.

CA:    That got to be quite an organization.  Because even now, they… They all stay together.  They’re a very close-knit group.  He owns a big house up in Philadelphia, and most of the band members live there.  So he has a way of keeping a band together.  And that’s what you must do if you’re going to have any longevity as a bandleader.  Because things aren’t going good all the time.  Because he kept the band together, but that doesn’t mean that they worked all the time in this country.  Sometimes they go to Europe, sometimes… They’ll work anywhere.  But he still manages to keep them together.  Keeping a band together, it gives the implication that they worked all the time and they worked regularly.  This is not the case.  He had other things going for him, and he found a way to keep his band together.

TP:    And I hear that band rehearses like crazy.  They rehearse all day long, every day to keep that discipline going.

CA:    Yeah!  Not only did it keep the discipline going, it kept a lot of people out of trouble, which was very important during those early days.  That’s very important.

TP:    “Young and Foolish,” as the song goes.

CA:    Yes.  What in the world were we thinking of?

TP:    [ETC.] …Barry Harris’s record For The Moment, on Uptown Records, recorded live at the Jazz Cultural Theatre.

CA:    Let me say one thing about this album.  I didn’t know Barry  had made this album, but I knew he’d made a lot of live albums.  So I heard a cut one day on the radio, and something told me… I was listening to the cloud sounds, and something told me this was made at the Jazz Cultural  Theatre.  I don’t know whether it was wishful thinking or what it was.  But when it turned out that it was, I was shocked.  I have quite a thing about ESP and the supernatural and stuff like that.  Anyway, it really surprised me.  Maybe I think everything’s at the Cultural Theatre, because that’s been a home for me.  It’s a place where I’ve been able to hold forth, thanks to Barry and… Well, I’m not going to talk much more about this, but…

TP:    The piece we’ll hear is “To Monk With Love.”  Barry Harris spent much time with Monk in the last years of Monk’s life, and absorbed a great deal, after having absorbed the vocabulary of Bud Powell.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Barry Harris, “To Monk With Love,” C. Anderson with B. Harris & Choir, “Come Sunday.”]

CA:    Barry Harris is so wonderful.  He’s a great player, he’s a great arranger, and talking about good with people… He’s a wonderful teacher.  He had these classes that they started at the Jazz Forum.  And putting this thing together was something amazing to watch.  There were days when we didn’t think it would work, human beings being what they are.  The choir consisted of professionals, semi-professionals and so on, all the musicians were professionals.  I had done some Symphony Space concerts with Barry before, but doing something in Town Hall was something special to us.  And the feeling about the whole thing, it was amazing.

One of the reasons I wanted to play this, forgive me, this was one of the greatest nights of my life, bar none — and I have Barry Harris to thank for it.  And I want him to hear it publicly.  I’m always thanking him, but it will never be enough.

TP:    [ETC.] The next two selections will focus on two tenor players who are very important to Chris, George Coleman and Clifford Jordan.  Both LPs feature Billy Higgins on drums, and he’s a close friend of Chris.

CA:    He certainly is.  He’s one of my very closest friends.  I remember asking him one day, “How many records have you made?”  He made an attempt to answer, and he scratched his head, and he said, “This is ridiculous.  I don’t know!”  He didn’t have the faintest idea he’s made so many, because he’s recorded with so many people.  But in the 1970’s he’s been the main man in Cedar Walton’s trios and quartets and quintets and so forth, but he has recorded and played with other people.  He is just the greatest drummer… He has so much taste.  He’s the personification of taste.  There’s not enough I can tell you about Billy Higgins.  And as a person… He’s the kind of person you go up to Grant’s Tomb, and people from all over show up from different facets of his life.  He’s another one of those people that just attracts people.

George Coleman?  Now, he’s one of the greatest phenomenons I’ve ever seen in my life on the saxophone.  I met him when he came to Chicago from Memphis, him and Booker Little and Frank Strozier — two of them came together and one came later. I don’t remember how it was.  I think Booker Little and Frank might have come first, and then George (I’m not sure) shortly behind.  It was a case of saying, “You go ahead; I’ll be right behind you,” I’m sure.

But George, the first gig we had the Roosevelt College in Chicago, I remember thinking, “This man is going to go somewhere; he’s really going to go somewhere.”  And he has so much talent.  Sometimes I think one of the only things that may have slowed him up when he was getting off the ground… He has such phenomenal technique, I’ve had people tell me… You know, he practiced a lot.  Like, Sonny Stitt in his early years was a practicer.  Every time you’d see him, he had his horn in his hand.  He didn’t have a natural talent for technique; he acquired it.  But George seems to have this natural technique, and understanding of harmony and the melodic line.  He understands it all.  And he’s become a great arranger.  He’s a complete musician.  He’s just not a saxophone player.  He’s just one of the most phenomenal men I’ve ever met.  And he stands tall, he knows how to take care of business.  He’s what he is.  He’s always been the same.

And he’ll be standing tall fifty years from now.  He’s the kind of musician (which is unusual for a musician), he gets up and runs in the morning.  He gets up at five o’clock.  He’s always been like this.  So you got a health nut that’s a great artist, too!  So he can sustain himself.  He got involved in circular breathing along the way.  So he had to keep himself in good shape.

[MUSIC: Eastern Rebellion (GC), “5/4 Thing,” “Clifford Jordan, “John Coltrane.”]

TP:    Chris, you say Bill Lee is the third man who makes you think “That’s the way the bass should be played.”

CA:    Yes.  And I said a lot more, because he got to be quite a part of my life.  All the great people that you know that play, there’s somebody you identify with more than others.  It has nothing to do with greatness.  See, he got to be a part of me.  I know what he’s about and he knows what I’m about.  I have to say he’s my favorite bass player in the world.  He has some albums out on Strata-East, big band things.  He’s a great arranger.  He’s just a great musician.  Poet… He does everything.  I could be talking all night about him, so we’ll have to skip that.

TP:    Clifford Jordan you’ve played with quite a bit.

CA:    Yes, quite a bit.  Cliff Jordan lived in Chicago, too, but I didn’t get to know him really until I got to New York.  I got to know him starting in the Seventies, and played with him a lot.  I’ve used up all the superlatives on George Coleman, but they apply to Clifford Jordan just as well, just as evenly.

TP:    One of the most distinctive sounds in all of Jazz.

CA:    He doesn’t just play Bebop.  He doesn’t play cliches.  He plays.  I’m proud to know him.  I can’t say much more than that.

TP:    [ETC.] We’ll close the show with someone who comes from a similar line to Chris Anderson, but took the music in a different direction in Chicago, and was responsible for fostering a whole school of creative music, improvised music, Jazz if you will, in Chicago in the 1960’s.  I’m speaking of Muhal Richard Abrams.

CA:    He taught musicians how to write their own music, arrange, arrange their own concerts, take care of their business.  He made complete musicians out of men.  He brought about a new breed of musician.  He really did.  That’s what this generation is about.

[MUSIC: “J.G.”]


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Filed under Chicago, Chris Anderson, Interview, Piano, WKCR

Andrew Hill’s 80th Birthday Anniversary

Two years ago to the day, not long after I’d started this blog, I posted a piece I wrote for DownBeat in 2000 on the  pianist-composer Andrew Hill (1931-2007). I’m augmenting that post today with four interviews that I conducted with Andrew (below the text of the story), two  on WKCR (1996, 2000) and three in 2000 for purposes of the article. As you can read in the section of 1996 interview that addresses Andrew’s encounter with Charlie Parker at Detroit’s Graystone Ballroom in 1949, and in a few other spots, Andrew was playing along with a 1937 birthdate attributed on the liner notes  of his Blue Note recordings in the ’60s…but 1931 is what it was.

* * *

When I was a child, I was able to write music without hearing  it,” Andrew Hill told me in the spring of 2000, during one of several conversations for a DownBeat article that ran later that year.  “I’d write it at the piano, and then reshape it away from the piano by looking at it—lines, counterlines, and different things. I was in the streets, hustling, and and people began to notice. The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized notation.”

Individuality was the defining trope of Hill’s career. Born in Chicago 80 years ago today, and a South Side resident until 30, Hill—who died on April 20, 2007—blossomed creatively during the ’60s, recording a series of sui generis recordings—Point of Departure, Smokestack, Black Fire, Judgment, Compulsion—on Blue Note, animated by the likes of Joe Henderson, Eric Dolphy, Sam Rivers, Freddie Hubbard, Kenny Dorham, Roy Haynes, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, and Richard  Davis.

“To me, it’s more like an alternative approach,” Hill had said of his attitude to music during a 1996 conversation on WKCR. “In Western civilization, melody is the major voice. Rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory. Though many things have changed traditionally, that dynamic hasn’t changed.  Always check the rhythm to hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s retrospective or trying to go ahead.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.”

Hill’s music contained extraordinary rhythmic nuance—in the manner of  Charlie Parker, he stacked rhythms, morphing time signatures from measure to measure in his pieces, and, when comping, altering the beats in every phrase. This is one reason why Vijay Iyer, one of Hill’s numerous acolytes amongst creative musicians under 45, could write for the now-dormant webzine www.jazz.com that what had always drawn him to Hill’s music was its innate sense of mystery. “It challenges your sense of what music is,” Iyer stated. “You can’t really listen to it as style, like, ‘Oh, this is a great example of hardbop, or postbop.’ To me, it just explodes all those categories. It’s something much more fundamental about existence.”

In the aforementioned DownBeat article, posted below, Hill spoke of the context in which he developed his ideas.  (Please also see David Adler’s fine 2006 profile in Jazz Times.)

* * * *

At Birdland on the Saturday night after the United Nations Millennium Conference, Andrew Hill’s Point of Departure Sextet concluded a ferocious 90-minute first set to raucous applause from an audience that included a generous percentage of dark-suited men wearing wires up their sleeves.  Moments later, prompted by what the pianist-composer later informed friends was a Presidential request, Hill and alto saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, played “Summertime” as an impromptu encore.  Well, the bartender later burst the bubble by noting that it was the wife of the President of Ecuador who popped the question.  But it didn’t seem such a stretch to imagine Bill Clinton — who attended jazz camps as a teenage saxophonist when Hill was recording the 8 or 9 Blue Note sessions by which many people still define him — taking a break from various off-the-record meetings to hear the composer-pianist on whose classics “Black Fire” and “Point of Departure” tenor hero Joe Henderson appeared.

Hill began to revisit the sonic terrain of Point of Departure — which blended the sounds of Henderson, multi-reedman Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, bassist Richard Davis and an 18-year-old Tony Williams — two years ago, not long after returning from a two-decade West Coast residence spent teaching and sporadically performing.  Expecting to find a scene where “everything is a retrospective,” he instead discovered what he describes as a “golden age” defined by an intense cadre of improvisers intent on “creative contact with older musicians” working toward the end of “reclaiming a lot of things that had been lost.”

“There hasn’t been as much young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s,” Hill states.  “Life has been breathed into the music.  I’m seeing young musicians who understand the traditional musical vocabulary — the free playing, which has been out for forty years, and the magic of Bebop — enough to be able to use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process that will fit into this period.  They aren’t playing things they heard off records; they’re not looking at anything as old and new.”

Inspired by his young cohorts, Hill “got the writing disease,” producing a flood of new work, a smattering of which he recorded on Dusk [Palmetto], in September 1999.  The music is sui generis — mysterious, elusive, soulful, rich in mood and character, expansively written, replete with beautiful melodies and counter-melodies, complex intervals, unique voicings, intense vamps and ostinatos, each section tailored to the tonal personalities of the musicians, morphing in a nonce from keening rubato passages to long lines propelled by churning counter and cross-rhythms that define the overall motion.  “Each piece inhabits its own musical world,” Ehrlich says succinctly.  “Andrew is using a lot of different compositional devices in them, but what’s consistent is a sense of musical poetry and lyricism.”

Dusk is the capstone of a very good year for the 69-year-old pianist-composer.  He engaged Bobby Hutcherson, David Murray, Andrew Cyrille and Archie Shepp in well-publicized duos.  After spending most of the summer in a wing of a well-appointed castle courtesy of an Italian artists’ colony, he performed on a showcase night at the Chicago Jazz Festival that included a reunion with Von Freeman (they played “Stardust”), who appeared on Hill’s debut recording in 1956, for Ping, a Chicago independent operated out of the back of a record store at 47th and Cottage Grove.

“Andrew’s music is very heavily mental,” says Hutcherson, who first recorded with Hill on Judgment (1964) and on Dialogue (1965).  “You go into rooms you wouldn’t normally enter.  There’s always a little story in the melody, a reason why this tune is being played; it’s your own story, what you’re seeing as you play.  He’d give you melancholy, long notes, you’d think, ‘man, how long can you hold this note so that there will be this texture?’ — then all of a sudden it burst into a chant, a hope within the note.  Religious, I guess you can say…well, the religion of the bandstand…of someone’s thoughts.  It was very challenging, just because of its openness; the melody could be loose as a rubber band.  But just remember that it’s going to come down; the bar line is still moving at the same pace.”

“Andrew’s writing and playing sound like geometry to me,” notes Greg Osby, a Hill alumnus and vociferous acolyte who employed the pianist and guitarist Jim Hall on this year’s well-received The Invisible Hand.  “He builds his lines and melodic development and motives and themes in small fragments, and breaks those down into even smaller fragments.  It’s like building a pyramid, and setting that off with TNT, then building another pyramid based upon the smaller rock chunks or fragments, each one being more important than the structure itself.  And he has total elastic time, not your metrical, militaristic four-four predictable time feel.  It’s akin to that Dr. Doolittle animal, the pushmi-pulyu, which was like a two-headed llama who goes in both directions.  You have to really be game to push in the beat and pull it back — compression-expansion I call it.  Otherwise, you’ll get tossed.”

Scott Colley, Hill’s bassist of choice for the past two years, says: “No matter how much you’ve internalized the material, you have to be ready for the unknown.  More than anybody I’ve ever played with, Andrew is a true improviser.  If he feels you’re starting to formulize the music, he’ll take bits of a composition from one part of the form and put it somewhere else.  Though he writes simple bass parts for me, I have to look at the score because so much is going on that defies traditional harmony, that can’t be notated traditionally in terms of chord changes.  It sounds logical and beautiful, but when you analyze it, you realize it’s amazingly different.”

The unorthodox was norm in the blues culture of postwar South Side Chicago, Hill’s home town, where the overriding imperative was to establish an individual sound.  Hill’s parents, who had migrated to Chicago from the South, bought their son an accordion when he was 3; a few years later they acquired an old foot-pedaled player piano.  “I would match the keys as much as I could,” Hill recalls.  “I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever sound suited that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.”

Hill’s family was poor, and by age 12 he was a street musician, playing blues-style accordion and tap dancing “with his hustling companion,” guitarist Leo Blevins, who had a washtub with a string on it.  “It was safe at the time,” Hill remembers.  “I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street and State, which was a good block.  Across the street was the South Center department store, a little further down was the Savoy Ballroom and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing, and the Regal Theater was right next to that.”

An almost mute child with above-average intelligence, Hill enrolled at the University of Chicago Lab School in what would today be called an off-track program that allowed him freedom to follow his muse.  By his teens, he was working weekends at sorority house dances, at rent parties, even after-hours sessions.  Hill’s first taste of the latter occurred one early morning at the Macombo Lounge, an all-night joint at the intersection of Oakland and Drexel Boulevard owned by the Chess Brothers.  Trumpeter/bandleader King Kolax and tenorist Claude McLin were playing “Idaho” with bass icon Oscar Pettiford and the drummer Ike Day.  “The piano player didn’t show up, and Kolax knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so he invited me on the stand,” Hill remembers.  “I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, ‘Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!’  They were nice enough to gently ease me off the stand; they told me what I did wrong.

“Ike Day had this incredible feel, and the way he played opened up my concept of rhythm out of the rigid 1-2-3-4.  It was a live rhythm, a rhythm you could feel with your whole body.  He played over the entire drumset, like Roy Haynes does, incorporating everything into a rhythm, creating a floating rhythm sound in the African manner almost.  He did amazing things; he’d come off the bandstand into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.”

Hill cites Albert Ammons as an early local influence (“his boogie-woogie was a living thing; he created with it”).  As a teenager delivering the Chicago Defender he met Earl Hines, and “bugged him to death until he decided he would let me play something on his grand.  I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had a technical facility for not having really studied.  What I liked about Earl Hines was that he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate and play something creative outside the structure; when I talked to him he said, ‘Well, that’s what we call concertizing.’”  Hill also admired the lesser-known pianist Willie Jones (“he used to play with ninths in the bass and had a nice single fingering, even though he was known around Chicago for his exciting block chord Milt Buckner approach; I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer”) and Sun Ra.

“Sunny had a basic Chicago approach,” Hill remarks.  Even on a Blues you would go Out and you would go In.  A lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others, but to an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  There wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or about what someone else was doing; it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But it was category-less.  It was organic, like an African modal situation, in which the performer would play in all the different voices.  Jazz wasn’t an art form; before television and integration got strong, it was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  The music was coming from the streets.  Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.”

As his teens progressed, Hill also soaked up recordings by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk as they came out, plugging his turntable into a guitar amplifier “so I could almost hear them the same way that I heard the live artists.”  He found someone to show him Czerny technique to get the fingering necessary to grapple with Powell.  He and a gifted friend named King Solomon, “used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift Monk’s stuff off the records when I was 16 years old — it came natural to him because he was a church pianist; after he taught me the church perspective, Monk’s concept became more accessible.”

As the ’50s progressed, Hill became “mesmerized” by the environment around me,” and established himself as a professional musician in Chicago.  “I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing,” he recalls.  “I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.”  He sidemanned at the Beehive on 55th Street and the Crown Propellor and Stage Lounge on 63rd Street, backed the likes of Charlie Parker, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young at various venues, played at Joe Segal’s bebop jam sessions, and from 1955 to 1959 became house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge, where national acts like Sammy Davis and Barbara McNair would come through.  He summer vacationed with Dinah Washington in 1954, who took him to New York for the first time; he subsequently returned to the Apple with singers Johnny Hartman and Al Hibbler and with the comedian George Kirby.  He did supper lounge gigs on the Gold Coast with a steady trio comprising bassist Malachi Favors and drummer James Slaughter, became the pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band, and began to explore his voice with hardcore Chicago progressives like Nicky Hill and Ira Sullivan.  And he never stopped playing the blues.

In 1961, while working a mundane job on the West Side of Chicago, Hill decided it was time to come to New York.  “I saw that if I stayed in Chicago I would descend morally because everything had a type of sameness,” he says.  “Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!”  Hill found work with Kenny Dorham, Jackie McLean, and Walt Dickerson, and went to Los Angeles in early 1962 on a job with Roland Kirk.  There he met his first wife, Laverne, a talented organist; the couple moved back to New York in the spring of 1963.

Freed of Chicago’s artisanal cultural matrix, Hill found in New York a nourishing environment.  Opportunities presented themselves.  He eschewed sideman gigs that might pigeonhole him as a “blues pianist” or “singer’s pianist,” and instead pigeonholed himself as an artist, forging aesthetic commitments with a cadre of like-minded generational peers like Joe Henderson, Joe Chambers, Sam Rivers and Bobby Hutcherson.  Through a job with Dorham, Hill met Joe Henderson; they woodshedded and gigged, and Henderson hired him to play on “Our Thing.”  During the session, Hill recalls, “Alfred Lion said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera, that he liked the way I played and wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  The next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.”

The rest is history.  At Birdland, 36 years after the original “Point of Departure,” and a year after “Dusk,” working from a book that now constitutes about 40 new compositions, Bill Clinton, if he was there, heard music by — in Ehrlich’s words — “a master composer at the height of his powers” performed by an ensemble (Ehrlich and Aaron Stewart, reeds and woodwinds; Ron Horton, trumpet; Colley, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums) at ease with its intricacies.

“It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder just to continue playing,” Hill concludes.  “The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  To me it’s terrible to play without the passion of music.  It’s the passion that connects, not the academic correctness.  The passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  It was inspirational to discover that things aren’t static; it’s led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.  The spirit of jazz is supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.”

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR) – (6-26-96):

[MUSIC: “Monk’s Glimpse” w/C. Jordan-Reid-Riley]

TP:    “Monk’s Glimpse” features you with a fellow Chicagoan, Clifford Jordan, who I imagine you knew during your days in Chicago.  Did you?

AH:    Yes, I knew Clifford Jordan and John Gilmore, later on Leroy Jenkins, a few other what you would call precocious kids all my life, because when we would run into each other when we were quite young, and each one of us would have our instruments and different things that economics would allow us to do during that period.

TP:    The three people you mentioned all went to DuSable High School on the South Side.  Is that where you went?

AH:    No.  I was one of the first children admitted to the University of Chicago pilot program.  At that time, intelligence was based upon a certain middle-class standard, and if a person didn’t fit into certain this middle-class standard they wouldn’t have so-called “intelligence.”  But for some reason I appeared to be bright.  I was semi-autistic, but as they called me, bright.  So they took me in and brought me to the point where I would be sociable.

Chicago was a very interesting place when I was growing up.  I used to call it the University of the Streets, because on the tip of Oakwood Boulevard you had the Macombo where I could listen to people like the late Oscar Pettiford, George Duvivier, I even saw Fats Navarro one time playing tenor, quite a few others.  They had this class where I would miss school… Well, I didn’t have to miss school.  I was brilliant and kind of eccentric, even then.  So we would meet up.  And Jazz wasn’t an art form.  These were the days building up to the zenith in Jazz in the ’50s and ’60s.  So every block would have a band in the area… I grew up in somewhat a Red-Light District, not Red-Light defined as…well, yeah, Red-Light, where you would have music available.  Then they also had after-hour parties that I could attend, because musicians would come and get me.  So I would mentor under Albert Ammons, Earl “Fatha” Hines, all these type of influences.  I wasn’t musically literate then, so I didn’t categorize of classify things, so here I had this rainbow collage of music available at every turn — and so did all of us.

TP:    The years you’re talking about now would be directly after World War Two until the early 1950’s?

AH:    Well, the years I’m talking about is consciousness; you know, when consciousness first hit me and when I started accumulating childhood memories.  My memories go back to, we’ll say, 1941 as a baby almost, to the Regal Theater, which was part of the chitlin’ theater for Black artists, where I experienced such phenomenons as Fats Waller playing the organ and different things.  Then in 1945 there was a bar right down the street from me called the Savoy, where they had people like Hot Lips Page, and I would be chaperoned in these places.  There’s a joke about that.  I took up the northeast corner of 47th Street, because on the corner where the Regal and the Savoy was (what they called South-Center) that was the spot for me to play accordion Blues style and tap dance.  So I’ve in a sense been organically part of the scene since I was a little kid, because it was inclusive of me, and older artists would give me what I needed.

TP:    It sounds like music has been part of your entire living consciousness and memory.  Do you remember a time when you weren’t playing music?

AH:    No, not even recently.  Because a lot of times, when you’re not visible on the New York scene, there’s this theory that you’re not functioning.  Even off the scenes, I’ve written string quartets, performed with 40-to-100-piece choral groups.  It’s an interesting life, because music it has always been with me.  The crowd comes and goes.  At one moment it’s the mode, you’re not; the next moment you’re not so hot.  So now I’m back in New York again, and now it looks like everything is a retrospective.  But even in the retrospective I’ve begged to come back on the scene, because in a retrospective some things are missing, some things have never been captured, and if the person really don’t come back and give them a guideline to what was going on… Because it might just be the link to creativity itself, but if only the academic situation is available in a mausoleum type learning process, that means something could be lost.

TP:    I’d like to step back again to your days in Chicago.  You mentioned people like Albert Ammons and Earl Hines.  Some capsule impressions of them, and other pianists who influenced the way you approach the piano.  Albert Ammons first.

AH:    Albert Ammons, because he played boogie-woogie, and the way I played accordion, boogie-woogie was accessible, because you would approach it rhythmically, not harmonically, which after he taught it to me made me ambidextrous, which gave me complete independence between the hands.  And then Fatha Hines was interesting because, as you know, he started the single finger approach to Jazz.  And then there were so many other followers around the area with these individualistic approaches to music.  This was the difference between Chicago and New York for a long period of time.  In New York you would have one person who would be a great innovator, and a lot of imitators — which it’s all common property.  But in places like Chicago, after the music left New Orleans and came to Chicago, then people had the freedom to be flexible and not have to sound like anyone.  Their only rule was that they had to fit into the Tradition itself, the Tradition coming from, we’ll say, the beginning of the oral Protestant tradition.

TP:    Who were some of the other pianists in Chicago who had an impact on you?

AH:    There were so many.  There was a fellow named Vernon Griddle(?).  I don’t know if he ever made it; he was phenomenal.  Then there was Chris Anderson, who had and still has a unique approach to harmony, similar to Willie Jones.  Willie Jones played like Milt Buckner, but then he was into the new music aesthetic where he used to listen things like Lukas Foss 1950s’ music and stuff, so I would call him an early Cecil Taylor, someone who would place their style on a 20th Century composer.  Then there was Sun Ra, or Sonny Blount.

The amazing thing about Chicago was that there wasn’t anyone lettered or intellectual about the music, or what someone else was doing, because it was a venue big enough for everyone to flourish and do their thing.  But Sonny’s approach was a basic Chicago approach even on a Blues, where they said we would go Out and we would go In — which a lot of people cried when they first heard Ornette and a few others.  To an extent that style really developed in Chicago.  But like I said, Chicago was category-less, so people would come out to hear the music, so it was just an organic situation, like an African modal situation, which would put on the performer to be able to play in all the different voices, not a monotone where it’s a stylistic supported by an academic element who are more lettered than oral.

TP:    Ahmad Jamal followed Earl Hines’ path from Pittsburgh to Chicago in 1949, and was also a child prodigy and performer.  Did he have an impact on the way you approached the piano or the piano trio?

AH:    No.  In retrospect, what I just said is there were so many brilliant people, known or unknown, and we would exchange ideas.  But any time you go to mimicking or idol worship, you cancel creativity, because you negate the openness that you need to have creative contact.

TP:    Besides Clifford Jordan, John Gilmore and Leroy Jenkins, who were some other people in your peer group that you associated with?

AH:    I mentioned those, but there were a lot of others.  There was always Johnny Griffin, who was a little ahead of us.  But a lot of the others developed.  They had more of an academic approach than a natural talent approach, with a  continuous learning process.  There are people who are born with a talent for music.  The more you listen to something, the more available it becomes, and when it’s readily available in your environment, your aesthetic, your sense of harmony, rhythm, etcetera, develops that much faster.

TP:    When did you start working on the professional music scene in Chicago as a pianist in rhythm sections or as a trio pianist in various venues?

AH:    Almost from the start.  I remember at 12 years old an alto saxophonist named George Lee came and got me and took me on my first job.  It was at a sorority house.  From then on I was working every weekend.  Then I found out about the night circuit where the rent parties were still going on.  The pianists who were working that circuit used to get too much work, or they’d have a job where they couldn’t get there until 12 o’clock.  I had no curfew, so I could go and play the piano from around 8 o’clock until 12:30 in the morning.

TP:    I gather that your first recording was on a very obscure date with Von Freeman in 1952?

AH:    Yeah.  I had Von Freeman, Pat Patrick, Wilbur Campbell, and Leroy Jackson.

TP:    Was Von Freeman one of the people you were working with?

AH:    Well, Von Freeman used to work all the sorority gigs, he had some high school dance jobs, so he was always a presence because he and George and Bruz would always play those type of affairs.

TP:    Outside of people in Chicago, who were musicians on the national scene that had an impact on you.  We began with “Monk’s Glimpse,” and there’s always seemed to be a certain affinity to Monk’s approach to music in what you do.

AH:    Well, retrospectively, Monk to a lot of young pianists my age in 1949 was very accessible, in terms of understanding what he did and following his music.  That’s why now, when I talk about the periods of Jazz, I talk about the period when it was a popular music and when it became an art form.  Like, I came on the end of the period when it was a popular music, so that way someone from another lifestyle or another area in life could look at it as experimental, when it was very organic, which comes from people like Monk.  Before Television and Integration got strong, Jazz was the spiritual element that kept the community together.  So certain things we heard all the time.  It wasn’t even called Jazz then.  I remember up until 1949, Downbeat used to have pictures of Negroes (as we were called during that time) talking about how we play the flute, but my lips are too big… So when I think about Jazz, then I think about the first Jazz recording by a group who sounded like Spike Jones, and the Creoles were supposed to have the first recordings, but then they excluded the Blacks from Uptown, even though their music goes back to before Slavery…  I’m only saying that to say that ever since they took the drums away from us in this country, the music has been flourishing, and then 1917 is where Jazz came in, which isn’t very inclusive.

So a lot of people have had an influence on me, and then I’ve had an influence on quite a few others.

TP:    The next tracks we’ll hear come from a few of the extraordinary series of recordings Andrew Hill made for Blue Note when he hit New York from Chicago in the early 1960’s, and took the jazz world by storm through the originality and distinctiveness of these recordings.

[MUSIC: AH-Hutcherson-Davis-E. Jones, “Siete Ocho”; A. Hill-J. Henderson, “McNeil’s Island”; A. Hill-KD-Dolphy-Williams, “Refuge”]

TP:    Listening to those tracks raises several questions.  I asked you while the music was playing whether these were working groups, groups that performed live and played this or other music in performance.

AH:    Well, the group with Bobby Hutcherson, we worked the University of Toronto and Montreal.  We had an incredible college tour…

TP:    Did you set up drum parts in this music, or was the drummer free to create their own…

AH:    Well, it was basically drafts written off my interpretation of someone else’s playing, so that really was the catalyst.

TP:    Was all the music on Judgment set up for Elvin Jones’ style?

AH:    Yes, it was set up for his style.

TP:    Was the group with Joe Henderson, Richard Davis and Roy Haynes a working band?

AH:    Yes, we were really getting ready to work, but the only wrench that was thrown in that was right after we did a few nights at Birdland and a few other places, Joe joined Horace Silver.  So that was the end of that for a while.

TP:    Did you write the music for Black Fire with Roy Haynes’ style in mind?

AH:    Yes, I really loved the way Roy Haynes played during that time.  I still love his playing, but I was really enthralled during that period.
TP:    The front line of Point of Departure, indeed the whole band, reads like a who’s-who in the history of Jazz.  Was this a group that got to work for a while?

AH:    Well, we did a few things before Eric left for Europe, mmm-hmm.  During that period I was lucky enough to get quite a few college concerts, so there was always an opportunity to play with some of the great ones from that period.

TP:    Again was that music written with Tony Williams in mind?

AH:    No, actually Tony surprised me and gave me a little more than I was looking for — which I enjoyed.  Because you really couldn’t hear his whole style with Miles Davis, even though it was a great group, but it still didn’t cover all the areas that Tony could go into.

TP:    One of the characteristics of Andrew Hill’s groups is that always dynamic drummers are featured, and the drums and rhythm seems to be a major component in both your improvatorial and compositional sensibilities.

AH:    Well, I researched that while I was at Portland State, and then I came into this phrase “African retention” (all this after the fact).  To me, it’s more like an alternative approach to music.  In Western civilization, melody is the major voice, and rhythm and harmony is just an accessory.  I’ve always, especially since emerging on accordion with the Blues groups and the Boogie Woogie, approached rhythm as the predominant voice, with harmony as an accessory.

TP:    It’s almost as though rhythm is part of the dialogue that emerges among the musicians in improvisational situations.

AH:    It is.  And though many things have changed traditionally, that hasn’t changed.  That’s how you can really hear the integrity of the music then and now, whether it’s a retrospective or people trying to go ahead.  Always check the rhythm to see whether it is static.  If it’s static and stagnant, that means the music is dead, because they have such an academic approach, and they learned all the melodies but they have no rhythmic interaction.

TP:    One thing you seem to do to insure rhythmic dynamism is change the rhythmic signature from measure to measure within the compositions.

AH:    Well, between one and one in a space of time you can have 5, 7, 12 or 4, but it’s always imposed upon a strong four like the heartbeat.  Still, in between, so many things can be done with it rhythmically, even thinking in terms of strong and weak accents.
TP:    Let’s talk about some of the drummers you played with in Chicago, stepping back 40 or 50 years.  Ike Day is one of the legendary drummers of all time.

AH:    Oh, I cut my teeth on Ike Day.  Only three people had a profound musical effect on my life, and those were Charlie Parker and Ike Day and Thelonious Monk (I’d always heard Monk play but when I saw him play, it had a profound effect).  Ike Day was amazing.  As a kid, I didn’t know who these people were, but I used to see people like Buddy Rich, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, all of them would come to Chicago for a glimpse of Ike Day so they could prepare their respective styles.  He was the most incredible drummer I’ve ever seen in my life.  The only one today who comes close to him in soloing is Andrew Cyrille.

TP:    What made him so special?  Was it his interdependence?  His command of the timbre of whatever surface he was striking?

AH:    To really explain that, I have to bring in the sociological connotations.  Because in that period the community and the musician was close, because it was all a part of a sociological aesthetic in the community.  Tap dancing was strong.  The rhythm you played wasn’t like a dead rhythm; like you hear drummers play, and you say, “That’s dead” or “that’s alive” or “that’s great” — whatever one says.  But it wasn’t a dead rhythm; it was a live rhythm, one that you could feel with your whole body.  When I was in Chicago there was a place called the Macombo where the bandstand was perched up high, and Ike Day came down off the bandstand, like you’ve seen Gene Krupa and all of them obviously do, but there’s something about when you see the Master do it… He was the master.  You get involved.  It had an emotional impact.  It wasn’t just a static, visual experience.

TP:    Let me pin you down a little more on Ike Day.  Was he someone who was let’s say dealing with a different line with the right hand, left hand, right leg, left leg, like Max Roach developed and Andrew Cyrille?  Was he doing that functionally?

AH:    Well, you asked me about Roy Haynes.  The one similarity between him and Roy Haynes is that when he played the drum set, he played all these things over the entire drum.  He incorporated everything into a rhythm, so you had this floating rhythm sound instead of him stacking just doing a parallel…

TP:    So Ike Day was stacking rhythms on top of each other in the African manner almost.

AH:    In the African manner almost.  It’s true.

TP:    I commented that within “Refuge” that you’re constantly changing the rhythmic backing of each phrase, and this was something Charlie Parker would do this in his solos.

AH:    And I was saying I was surprised you knew that!  It’s really evident when you’re dealing with a music that’s really built off the rhythm, not the tonic dominant harmony, and that’s what I learned from playing with Charlie Parker. That’s why he had such a profound effect on me.  Some tunes I was too young to know, and Barry Harris took my place on a few numbers.  Well, I tried to get Barry to take my place, because Barry was one of the older Detroit guys at the time.  Anyway, before I played with Charlie Parker, he said, “Well, you play good and you do this well, but place more emphasis on the rhythm than the lyrical approach.”

TP:    Do you remember what year this was and the venue?

AH:    It was June 1949 at the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit.  Illinois Jacquet and Bullmoose Jackson were on the bill.

TP:    You were 12 years old at the time, playing with Charlie Parker.

AH:    Mmm-hmm.

TP:    The third you mentioned was Thelonious Monk.  Do you recollect when you first heard his records?

AH:    Oh, I heard his records as a kid, me and another pianist who we used to call King Solomon.  We used to dissect things like “Hackensack” and stuff like that on the piano, which came easily.  But then the dynamic of seeing him play in person… I’d heard his sound all my life, but to see that he played with two hands, you know, to maintain a certain type of volume, and the way he would hit the piano, it was just profound.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first saw Monk in person?  He did perform at the Beehive in Chicago…

AH:    Oh, I didn’t go to that, because I didn’t like the milieu of the situation because they didn’t give him the respect he was due.  So I really heard him at the Five Spot in New York when he was having this long run, and I would take the train or the Greyhound out and hear him, and get on it again and go back satisfied.

TP:    Did you perform at all with the great Wilbur Ware in Chicago?

AH:    Yeah, Wilbur Ware, the great one! [LAUGHS] I did a few things with Wilbur.  I enjoyed him.  But then, fortunately or unfortunately, being a retrospective of what I said around 40 minutes, there really wasn’t any great ones, because then you had Israel Crosby in Chicago and all these incredible bassists.

TP:    Richard Davis was up there as a young bassist as well.

AH:    He was coming up with the Ahmad Jamal trio, and this fellow who used to play Classical music.  He was hot for a brief moment, nationally and internationally.

TP:    What circumstances brought you to New York on the eve of your series of recordings for the Blue Note label?

AH:    Well, it was just like what brought me to New York to reside in this period.  My life seems to be based upon intuition, discernment, the ability to know when to go and when not… I don’t know, I just had this urge…

TP:    So it wasn’t a gig that brought you here; you just decided to come here on your own.

AH:    Yeah, that’s my life story.  Once I found out as a young kid that to get away from poverty all I had to do was walk out of it, I’ve been walking into different situations following my mind!

This weekend with Lonnie Plaxico and Pheeroan akLaff, in an environment where the only thing they can feed me is myself and my soul consciousness escapes in an occasional flurry, I say to myself, “I might as well…”  In the old days people didn’t really get carried away with what they sounded like.  The emphasis was on never playing the same thing twice, to create.  And I figure this weekend I can go for that.  I won’t be with people who are jaded, who go in different areas.

TP:    No repeater pencils, as Lester Young would say.

AH:    Oh, no.  No pencils! [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC: AH-Davis-Khan-Haynes, “Smokestack”; A. Hill, “Sunnyside”]

* * * *

Andrew Hill (3-22-00):

TP:    First things first.  Let’s talk about current events, about the record, about Dusk.  You recorded “Ball Square” in 1986 and “15/8” is on that solo record.  Did you do a lot of composition for this?  Has this been a fertile period for you writing?

HILL:  Yes, a very fertile period, where I’ve written new things that, as you said, went over older things and added different sections to it for… Let’s see, from ’97 to now it’s like I’ve had the writing sickness.  I find myself writing music all the time.

TP:    Talk about accumulating this personnel.  It’s the same instrumentation as Point of Departure.  I don’t know you’ve done this since.

HILL:  I’ve never done this sextet since.  I’ve done other sextets and septets and 10 pieces for Blue Note during that period that they haven’t yet released. They have enough backlog on me to bring out for ten years.

TP:    Another Mosaic box.

HILL:  Yeah, of unreleased compositions.

TP:    But here, was most of the writing done for the date?

HILL:  Most of the writing was done for the band.  We didn’t actually record all the compositions for this period, because when I recorded this there were 20 originals and it keeps on growing.  Now there’s more. [October ’99]

TP:    You’ve talked about writing for personalities.  Talk about the band as it’s constituted, and how you see each person as being applicable to what you do.

HILL:  Well, Marty, when the band was first formed, he brought a certain excitement to the band in his solos.  Ron Horton has improved drastically on trumpet, and he’s also helped me by copying the music and counting it out in strange situations where the bandstand won’t allow him to see me.  Greg Tardy, he’s like a fresh young talent, a star on the rise.  And Billy Drummond is a very musical drummer.  And Scott Colley has this incredible technique with this sensitivity to where he doesn’t overpower you with technique; he just overpowers you like a second left hand.  So I’m really happy about the last year because we worked some quality concerts, and the group was able to record intact, which is very unusual when I think of the caliber of the participating artists and their talent, and the fact that they’re working all the time.  Scott is very generous.  A lot of times he turned down jobs or other situations where he asked not to get paid… So to have this type of fellowship to the extent where everybody makes rehearsals, it’s just like a musical spirit that’s extended.  Like I was telling Howard, that’s why I was happy to have documented it, because sometimes it’s dependent upon economic expediency of some sort, where you get the band to work more, and the band has been generating work on its own, but it’s been sporadic, but at least maybe two or three concerts every two months, but that’s not enough to hold quality musicians.  So I’m glad we could stay together and partially document the music.

TP:    You came back in ’97?

HILL:  I left the college, Portland State University, in ’96, and I arrived in ’97.

TP:    Did you have any particular focus in mind for what you were going to do when you came back East?  Did you envision this…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t see anything, because at the time I came back for love, not my career.  I remarried in Portland, and my wife was part of the dance faculty, and they dissolved the dance department, so she was offered and received a position as the educational director at the Joyce Theater in New York City.  Her name is Joanne Robinson Hill.  So from that, I started navigating here.  The college was extremely generous to me, and they let me go… It was a good situation.  I came back for love, and I’m amazed by the venues that I hadn’t dared to dream of in decades.

TP:    Why hadn’t you dared to dream of them?

HILL:  Well, it’s good to be a rumor in your own mind, in a retrospective.  But with life in its current situation, one knows the impossibilities available to them.  If they dream from the reality, that’s one thing…

TP:    What you’re saying is that people tend to identify you with the records you did in the ’60s and less so the current things…

HILL:  No.  I’m talking about the venue.  It’s good that people think anything of you, good or bad.  But the reality is that you can tell whether you’re lukewarm or not from the activities that you’re participating in.  Because it’s till a supply-demand type situation.  So I was in a university out of the music milieu, and was completely… I could run off concerts and colleges and a few trips to Europe, but I really wasn’t in the business.  I was an educator, and I really couldn’t think about other things, because even if I hustled, they were obviously not available to me at the time.  So I came back here, and all of a sudden these unlimited things are… Like I said, things that I dared not dream of because it would be beyond my reality to envision my being accepted back on the scene like I have been.

TP:    In Portland talk about the scope of your performing activity, and also the way you organized curriculum and your aesthetic of teaching.

HILL:  Well, in Portland, a friend of mine was food and liquor manager at the  Salishon Lodge there, which is a resort.  After my deceased wife died in 1990, he invited me there for a few months to just relax on the grounds and shape my vision that spring.  So when the Fall came, it was time for me to pick a bigger city, and Portland was the biggest city there, so I arrived in Portland, and they presented me with information on all the colleges in Oregon to bring me into the circle.  Then I got a commission… While I was there I got every commission that Portland had to give, and received a tenured teaching situation at Portland State University as Associate Professor of Music.  So I could have stayed and gotten full professorship and all that.

But anyway, my classes were similar, in a sense, to the way I learned how to play in Chicago.  The only thing is it had texts with it.  But the way I tried to organize the curriculum was so one could make evolutionary type of advances.  Like any aesthetic, the more you introduce the students to certain things at a certain period, and all of a sudden they become more familiar and make the text their own.  I accepted students only through the audition process.  So I had these workshops where I tried to teach the students how to hustle, or I should use the word “market” themselves [LAUGHS], so they understand the mechanics of the business.  If you’re good, you can… But other than that, no matter who you are, you have to reach out.

TP:    But there was more to it than teaching students about marketing themselves.

HILL:  I had these ensembles that were created.  I created jam sessions for them to participate in.  In other words, I made a pedagogy out of my approach by having different aspects of musical training, like jam sessions, playing the tune in class, so different classes can get together and have a jam session on the material.

TP:    Were you mirroring your own experience as a young musician?

HILL:  I would say mirroring my experiences, plus taking advantage of the knowledge that I learned about teaching in, Pittsburgh, California before, where I was teaching special children, teaching advanced school…what they call in California key classes.  I was in K-to-12.  I started the Jazz Department at the New College of California in San Francisco when I first got there.  But anyway, all this accumulative experience helped me in teaching my students and giving them a sense of self-esteem.

TP:    Were you taking them also through the tradition in a step-by-step-by-step way?

HILL:  Well, I would have a question there where they would tell me their interests, what inspired them.  Because I want them to be grounded in text and situations and areas they weren’t interested in.  Because I figured if I could get their interest and work with them in their areas of interest, that they will evolve themselves the more they develop.

TP:    For you, in terms of writing your music and turning your music into text, not necessarily on a printed page, but maybe in a more general sense… When did you start writing music, composing music?

HILL:  Well, I always haven written music.  That’s what attracted great composers to me, because they figured with my imagination…composition… When I was a child I was able to write music without hearing music.  I was just writing symmetrical…

TP:    Oh, you could write it without being at the piano, out of your head?

HILL:  Yeah, write it at the piano and then reshape it by looking at it and have lines and counterlines and different things about it.  That came natural, and that used to amaze…

TP:    You can do that intellectually without sitting at the piano.

HILL:  Uh-huh, without sitting at the piano.

TP:     How old were you when people started noticing you could do that?

HILL:  About 10 or 11.  Because I was in the streets, hustling.  When you’re on a stage, you never know who your audience may be that day.  So everyone I met used to tell me, “Well, you’re writing it right, but that’s not…”  The only thing they didn’t agree with was my own personalized way of notation.  After I explained it to them, they told me the notation had to become more homogeneous.

TP:    Let me set a scene, and let’s start talking about Chicago.  You’re born in ’37 in Chicago.  Your parents had a piano in the house?

HILL:  Well, at the age of 2 or 3 I received an accordion.  First it was a toy accordion, then it was a regular accordion with the buttons on the side.  Then when I was around 7 or 8, we got this old player piano in the house, where you use your foot to pedal the rolls.

TP:    And you would match the keys?

HILL:  I would match the keys as much as I could.  Because I found out that a lot of those player piano rolls were built for two piano players.  So I could experiment, roll it, stop it, keep the notes down, turn it off, and play whatever the sound for that particular recording — which was really enough to keep one busy almost all day.

TP:    So by the time you were 7 or 8 you were playing piano all the time.

HILL:  Yeah.  Well, any chance I could get to it.  I developed my social skills late, simply from the fact that I enjoyed the piano so much.

TP:    There’s a published story I think that you won a turkey at the Regal Theater?

HILL:  Yes, for playing the piano and accordion when I was around 6.  They used to call Black Chicago Bronzeville, and in those days they had a regular Thanksgiving party for the “Defender” newspaper boys.  So every Thanksgiving they would have this amateur contest where the winner would receive a turkey.

TP:    And you played the accordion.

HILL:  Yes, and sang.

TP:    When you talk to people who grew up in especially in black neighborhoods in the ’20s-’30s-’40s-’50s, they say music was everywhere, and all kinds of music was everywhere.  Where was the music coming from for you?

HILL:  Well, the music was coming from the streets.  Like, my first jam session was at a place called the Macombo on Drexel Boulevard, where Oakland and Drexel come together at 40th Street.  It was owned by the Chess Brothers, the ones who later owned Chess Records.  But I didn’t know about that at the time.  I was just a young kid, 12 years old, at one what they called “blue morning” jam session.  King Kolax was playing, a tenor player named Neal Green, and Oscar Pettiford was there on bass and Ike Day was on drums.  So I was sitting there… They were playing “Idaho,” and King Kolax kept telling me when the bridge came, “A-flat!  Go to A-flat!”  I was young enough where they weren’t vicious; they delicately eased me off the stand after I played one number.  But I said, “Well, shoot, I was able to play with Oscar Pettiford.”

TP:    But when you were 4-5-6, you were basically picking up music…

HILL:  Picking up music hustling.  Hustling on the streets with my hustling companion Leo Blevins.  He used to play a washtub with a string on it.  And his brother Bobby Blevins and somebody else.  It was safe at the time.  I needed money.  I found out that when you played music, you got money.  I’m glad I learned that from playing music money comes, not poverty, because poverty is a lack-of.  There were these record stores you could just go in… And my hustling block was a good block.  My hustling block was the northwest side of 47th Street.  Across the street was the department store, South Center.  A little further down the block you had the Savoy Ballroom, and the Hurricane Lounge, where Albert Ammons and his son were playing.  Even though I wasn’t old enough to go over there, but it was still…

TP:    The milieu.

HILL:  The milieu.  And the Regal Theater was right next to…

TP:    When you were coming up, that was the center of entertainment on the South Side.

HILL:  Yeah, that was the cultural center.  They had stuff from the Lafayette Theater, you know, visiting places in other areas, but that wasn’t my area of interest…

TP:    So this is all happening from when you were 5-6 years old?

HILL:  Yes.  The moment I could get out of there.

TP:    What did your parents do?

HILL:  My parents were people who suffered from the oppression, who were basically trying to keep a family together and raise a family.  The best thing I can say about them is that they worked and found a way to work.

TP:    And they were able to get you an accordion and a player piano.  Were they musical?

HILL:  As I started playing, other relatives not in my direct family said they played, but my parents didn’t play any other instrument.

TP:    Were they born in Chicago or did they come from the South?

HILL:  My mother came from the South.  My father, it’s rumored that he came from Alabama.  But he was a strange…a very dark man… They say he may have been what they call Geechee.  Other things I’ve been trying to find…

TP:    Find out for yourself.

HILL:  Well, not really.  But now, the older I get, the more some of my relatives that I’ve never known before are trying to enter my life, so I guess the information is available if I get friendly!

TP:    You also said that you got in the University of Chicago Lab School.

HILL:  Well, most people during that period thought I was talented but autistic.

TP:    You weren’t verbal?

HILL:  No, it wasn’t anything verbal.  So they took aptitude tests on me and found out that I had an over-average intelligence.  So I was one of the second group of people accepted in this off-track type educational process.  I hear about off-track education now.  But then it was like an off-track situation.  Because from my background and stuff, tracking me… If it was just a situation where they would put me within certain types of rules and regulations of places, like things I was supposed to… I seemed retarded.

TP:    But then you were writing music.

HILL:  Yeah.  But in other areas… So a lot of times, I found out later, as I began to investigate myself, sometimes being autistic is just a refusal to enter society at a certain point.

TP:    When did you start to study the piano with someone?

HILL:  Well, I would take musical lessons with people, but sometimes my teachers were so boring, I just let them know after they played something one time that I could play the same thing that they could.  Then an old preacher liked me for some reason, so he was trying to tell me… He said, “Wouldn’t it be better for you, whatever you want to learn, learn that?”  That’s the way I approached the students.  He said, “What do you want to do?”  I said I wanted to build chords.  He said, “Well, find a teacher who can teach you that.”  Then at a certain point I needed technique.  So one teacher took me to the (?), but she couldn’t take me all the way because… It’s almost like what they call master classes today by me starting to participate in the jam sessions early, because I wasn’t stopped after that.  I didn’t go and put my head in the sand.  I just kept on participating, and through that, even though everyone… You know, you had these Classical pianists actually playing jazz better than the 25 cents and 50 cents teacher who needed the money who was located at these different community centers.  You had people who really… So they helped me out.  I would ask them how you do this, they would show me, and then I’d make a project out of it.  So there were so many different flowers in Chicago, especially in the period when jazz was popular music before it evolved to classical music.  You could almost learn in the street, which is where I tried to achieve different projects.  Instead of giving people a lot of material that they really can’t study, just…

TP:    Up to the time you were 14 or 15, when you do those early records and join the Paul Williams band and all this stuff, you’re taking lessons, you’re participating in various jam sessions with older master musicians and with your peer group, and you’re also listening to a lot of records as well…

HILL:  Well, I didn’t start meeting my peer group until I was around 17-18.  Because all of them, the ones who could play, went to DuSable.  And a lot of them hadn’t advanced harmonically to the point where they could play according to the form.  In other words, they first arrived at free music, and then regulated themselves to become musicians.

TP:    So you mentioned on our radio show that Albert Ammons and Earl Hines were the first two piano players who influenced…

HILL:  And Count Basie, when he first came…

TP:    Talk about all three, and how they entered your world.

HILL:  Well, Albert Ammons entered my world because when I was a kid he was at the tail-end of when Louis Jordan was hot, and boogie-woogie was popular.  But I noticed that Albert Ammons played his boogie-woogie differently.  It was a living thing more than a novelty.  He just created with his boogie-woogie.  He wasn’t just in one space.  That interested me, because his approach kind of freed me to really try to play the blues.

Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, what I liked about him was he played AB-AABA form, but at a certain point he would deviate from the form and play something creative, not within the structure of the music itself.  I like that.  When I talked to him he said, “Well, that’s what we call concertizing.”  It’s what they do now, you know, when they take extended solos off… But it was called “concertizing” then, because jazz had… You know, they had these black jazz musicians at Carnegie Hall, and Israel Crosby was telling that when you played with Benny Goodman then you didn’t play like you did with… If you were a black band, you had to alter it to concertize.  And Willie Jones, I liked him because most people during that period, known and unknown, were playing the piano voices like the (?) bass and the seventh up top in the left hand, and D in the right hand, A and D octave… He dealt with some variation of that.  And Willie Jones used to play with ninths in the bass and some really incredible things, and he had a nice single fingering even though he was known around Chicago for his block chord Milt Buckner approach because it was exciting, but he always had this terrific band playing with him — so he was a wonderful experience.

And Basie, when I was a man and heard “April In Paris” and so on, I didn’t associate that with the same Count Basie I’d heard when I was a kid.  Because when I heard him as a kid, he was a really exciting stride piano  player — and he had hair.  Then it took me years to realize that this sophisticated big band leader is this person whom I used to love hearing play those exciting stride piano solos.

TP:    A lot of people your age and up to a few years older than didn’t have a whole lot of connection to what they call prebop players.  Someone like Barry Harris was mainly inspired by Bud Powell.  But you from an early age were inspired by people who preceded that and then came to it from that perspective.

HILL:  Well, sometimes, when you’re living instead of studying, preparing to-be one day, it has a more natural evolution.

TP:    So you’re saying because you were performing this whole time, your ideas developed organically.

HILL:  Organic.  You ask questions, and there’s some memory work, and a little text, whatever the people give you.  I discovered Bud Powell and Monk as an adolescent, but before them there were people in the neighborhood.  So it wasn’t an outside influence that captured me.  The music itself captured me, and I acknowledged different other artists as they came that was true to form perhaps, it wasn’t real… Even though I devised a way to make me a music system out of a guitar amplifier at that time from the turntable so I could get the actual sound… A guitar and one of these turntables that would plug into the guitar amp for the sound of the records.  That’s how I heard Bud Powell, on records, but never live; that’s how I set it up so I could really hear him, so I could almost hear him the same way that I heard the live artists.

TP:    Did you transcribe Bud Powell or did you just apply it?

HILL:  Well, I listened to it and a lot of things I could hear.  What I couldn’t play naturally… Someone showed me Czerny, so I could get the fingering necessary to play that.

TP:    To play like Bud Powell, the Czerny technique.

HILL:  For piano fingering, mmm-hmm.

TP:    Again, the same thing about Bud Powell and Tatum.

HILL:  Well, before Bud Powell had the shock treatments he was the most exciting piano player I’d ever heard.  After he had the shock treatments he was a different person.  But he was an exciting approach to me on piano, because hearing stride piano in Chicago, those who didn’t play well, it sounded like BOOM-CHANG, but he eliminated that in such a way where he could play like a horn, in a sense, pianistically.  It was exciting, and it was an extension, in a sense, of what Fatha Hines was doing.  It was just a different approach, different music in the evolution.

Art Tatum was interesting, because… A lot of people love his technique, but I love his harmonics and the voicing of his chords and his contrasts, which was as strong as Monk, but more romantic whereas Monk is more rhythmic.

TP:    As far as understanding harmony, was that innate, or was it through developing your ear on the bandstand with people?  Hearing Tatum, you were able to comprehend what he was doing?

HILL:  Well, by the time I really heard Tatum, I had heard it before from pianists around Chicago, a lot of them unknown, who played like him.  Then they had this piano book on him that they released in 1944 or 1945, with “Body and Soul” and all these things transcribed.  So he wasn’t the first, but he had taken it to a more polished level than a lot of the stuff I heard in Chicago.

TP:    I want to talk about Monk and Bird and Ike Day, maybe Ike Day first, since you recollect sitting in with him when you were 12 years.

HILL:  He had this incredible feel of rhythm.  It was rumored that everyone from Buddy Rich, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke and got what he was doing.

TP:    Did he affect your sense of rhythm?  How to play against the drummer…

HILL:  The way he played, even back then, opened up my concept of rhythm.  It took me from a rigid 1-2-3-4… Because even before that time, with him playing between swing and bebop, he did so many amazing things.  When I heard him at the Macombo he was at the height of his powers before he got ill.

TP:    You said he was playing all over the drum set all the time.  You made an analogy to Roy Haynes.

HILL:  Well, it was similar to Roy Haynes, but not, because he had approached it a different way.  Not only did he play on the drum set; he would come off into this exhibition where he’d play on the walls.  He was doing that when he was 19 years old, and that was decades ago.  Lionel Hampton and a lot of people got… He was just incredible.  I never have heard anything like that since, which really leads me, every time I talk about him through the years, to say how important he became.

TP:    You said he played all these things over the entire drum, and incorporated everything into a rhythm so you had this floating rhythm sound.  And there’s something of that in the way you play over the drums.

HILL:  Well, a lot of times I would really like to play with them.  But sometimes that type of synergy isn’t available.  The main thing, you try to have this creative contact that seems to fit in certain situations more than (?) playing with someone… Especially now with everyone concertizing, they establish a certain a certain space as a rhythm.  So the only way you can exist is like a counter-rhythm.

TP:    You said you heard Monk’s records as they came out, when you were 10 and 11 years old.

HILL:  Me and a friend of mine, who was another prodigy, we used have a challenge to see who could play Monk’s compositions.  It came natural to my friend because he was a church pianist, so he was approaching it from the church perspective and play everything on a different degree, but still keep it… So after he taught me that, Monk’s things became more accessible.

TP:    Monk’s impact on you had more to do with his rhythmic concept?

HILL:  Well, Monk’s harmonic concept, the way he heard the harmonies, but still he kept it basic.  Even though he borrowed, his whole concept was very unusual, but then part of it traditional if you approach in from a church perspective from that period with modern harmonies.

TP:    What do you mean by “a church perspective”?

HILL:  Not the Baptist Church.  The Holy Roller; a certain church perspective.

TP:    You’re talking about getting the spirit, spirit-chasing…

HILL:  Well, that’s that type of musical approach, like the Prayer-Masters, which they call the piano and these religious situations that developed naturally in the community.

TP:    Were you in a church situation?

HILL:  Well, no, I really didn’t get into a church situation until I was 30.  So that’s why my friend was such a resource, because he played church piano and he could show me what he hear.

TP:    And one thing Monk and Charlie Parker had in common is that they were both dance musicians.

HILL:  Well, most music for the period up until 1960 was… Well, not dance music.  People had a more developed sense of rhythm than they have now, for some reason, maybe because the music and dance had split, became categorized and separated.  But from that, it wasn’t like commercial, homogeneous dance music.  People did unusual steps.  It wasn’t so much of a formula as it is now.

TP:    People were creating steps.

HILL:  Creative steps.  That’s before television took control and stuff.  Where I played with Charlie Parker was a dance hall, and they had dance halls across country, where they…


TP:    [BIRD AT GRAYSTONE WAS ’51 OR ’52] You’re 14 or 15 and you’re going to Chicago, but you’re going to Detroit for a gig.  You also said that when you came to New York, you’d already had a full career in Chicago.  You’re 25-26 with a fully developed aesthetic.

HILL:  Bruz Freeman came by my house and told me that he had a job for me to play with Charlie Parker.  He said that Bird had asked for me, to play with me.  I have no idea how he knew me.  Like I said earlier, I was playing at the jam session.  I was really young and visible on the scene, and it was noted that I had certain natural things and I was a better supplement than a lot of other people who had evolved from the swing period or people who listened to the records…

TP:    So you knew the new harmony.

HILL:  Yes, I knew the new harmony better than people who could play just like Bud Powell or any of them, but it was like an artificial music because they weren’t flowing, they were just playing like the classical music, which it would be one day, but what really gave it the vitality for that earlier period was people being able to express themselves.

TP:    So to put it in my own terms, you knew the language of Bebop and you knew the phrasing of it, and yet it was a natural organic thing for you…

HILL:  Well, it was natural to a certain extent, but then there were things I had learned.  But at least I did have a learned approach that was partially creative at the time.

TP:    Which was the jam session at the Macombo, and you were doing that from the age of 12 to…

HILL:  Well, it evolved.  At first, Pat Patrick was rehearsing this big band, and I went to him and he showed me what the standard harmonies were, the popular harmonies that everybody was playing.  Because I could chord and I had a harmonic concept, but it really didn’t fit into the sound that people wanted to hear during that period.  So he gave me the basics, and I was able to go from there.

TP:    So that was from rehearsing with the Pat Patrick Big Band.

HILL:  Yeah, Pat Patrick and (?).

TP:    does that mean that you were hearing Sun Ra then, too?

HILL:  Well, Sun Ra was always around, but I had a different approach to him, because I asked him to sit in and he refused me as a kid.  So then as I got older he said I should support him, you know, and he really didn’t mean that much to me.

TP:    So Bruz Freeman comes by and has the gig for you, and you drive to Detroit and there you are with Bird.  When did you start making a living as a musician?  Were a professional musician then?

HILL:  Yeah, taking gigs.  Like I said, it was still a popular music; it hadn’t become an art form.  So I could look forward to being employed all week or all weekend.

TP:    If there was such a thing as a typical week, what would it be?  Would you be playing the same type of program?  Different functions?

HILL:  Well, there were so many various jobs, because it was before television.  There was weddings, funerals, dances, social clubs, blues jobs and jazz jobs…

TP:    Miss High School, 1958?

HILL:  Well, I missed those high school things.  I missed my chronological counterparts during that time, because I didn’t do that high school thing.  I might appear at an after-hour place somewhere.  My parents generally approved, because at least I was being productive.  I had my warnings on dope and alcohol and stuff.  But it was all type of… You could play a stage show. I played with a variety of singers.  It was just anything.  There was just work all around.

TP:    So you played the full spectrum of functional situations that a professional pianist would do.

HILL:  Yes.  Then they had places like Roberts Show Lounge, where Sammy Davis, Barbara McNair and all them were coming through, and I was the regular house pianist there.  I had a trio.  That was from around ’55 to around ’59.

TP:    Willie Randall, the old Earl Hines alto player, was the manager there?

HILL:  He was the bookkeeper.

TP:    So you were basically backing all the major acts coming through Chicago, and did a lot of playing with singers.

HILL:  And then at the Beehive also a few years before that when I was 16-17.

TP:    Then Norman Simmons did that later.

HILL:  Well, Junior Mance started with Buddy Smith and Israel Crosby.

TP:    At the Beehive you’re playing with the national jazz musicians coming through and you’re playing…

HILL:  And I played at Joe Segal’s sessions.

TP:    Did you back Lester Young ever?

HILL:  I never did back Lester.

TP:    Coleman Hawkins ever?

HILL:  I went to Milwaukee in his band as a kid.  They had a jazz club there.  I was invited to his house.  Then Sonny Stitt.  Almost anyone…

TP:    Ben Webster.

HILL:  Ben Webster.  Oh, I did play with Lester.  I played in a place called the  Stage Lounge.

TP:    So you’re playing rhythm sections, and you do that first trio on Ping.

HILL:  Right, where I had Wilbur Campbell on drums and Leroy Jackson on bass.

TP:    I have the one on Warwick with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter.

HILL:  That was ’59.  I made the ’45 for Ping in ’56.

TP:    I’m trying to get to the development of your concept and sound.  Because nothing I can remember on that Warwick record in ’59 sounds anything like, say, Smokestack or Black Fire.

HILL:  Well, that was designed for the supper clubs I was playing at the time.  Like, in Chicago you weren’t pigeonholed into one situation.  You could participate in multi-situations.  But here in New York, they just seemed to pigeonhole you into where you started working.  In Chicago, you could play the blues, you could play jazz, you could play behind a singer or in the various supper clubs that existed on the Gold Coast at that time.  So if you make a name and people dig whatever you do…

TP:    So each function was one function and there were other functions.

HILL:  That was one function.

TP:    It’s almost as though you got pigeonholed into being an artist in New York.

HILL:  Well, when you’re young and you first come to a city, you find your way.  If you’re disciplined, you’ll find something to get occupied with.  But here in New York… Like, I came to New York with Dinah Washington as a kid and Johnny Hartman, and I could see after that, when I got back to Chicago, the singers, like Al Hibbler…all of them would want me.  So if I came here…which is quite a bit… The only thing that would be available with me would be as an accompanist.  Regardless of what else I did… I was offered a job with Paul Butterfield, but then if I started working that job, I would be polarized again as a Blues pianist.  It was offered to me in New York, and that was why I couldn’t accept it, why I didn’t accept it even though I was moving at the time.  But I’m just saying that to say that whatever you participate in, you become part of.  Now I’m above all that where I’m doing it for my leisure and my sanity at this age.  But earlier, when I was younger, it was just polarized areas.  If one did one thing, he was drafted(?)…

TP:    Let me get you from 1959 to 1963, from the Warwick record where you’re doing supper club music, to Black Fire and Smokestack, which don’t sound like anything else anyone else is doing!  Was the music that you were doing on those first records music that you’d written and conceived of and performed in Chicago?  Or was it project-oriented?

HILL:  Well, the one on Warwick had some standards and originals I wrote, but it was conceived for a certain situation, as were things for other situations, but they were never recorded at the time.

TP:    So the music on that early Blue Note record were things you’d conceived of but never…

HILL:  The things on Blue Note were written especially for that session.

TP:    Did you perform music like that when you were in Chicago?

HILL:  Oh yes, especially with Ira Sullivan’s band before he left Chicago… We had a great band with Ira Sullivan, Nicky Hall…

TP:    Not Malachi.

HILL:  No, not Malachi.  Malachi wasn’t progressive; you know, at that time.

TP:    It almost seems to me, the way you’re describing your function as a musician in Chicago is almost artisanal.  Everything is according to a function and then you create art within that parameters of that function.  I can relate that to writing.  In this article, there are certain limits to what I can do, but I can try to make it as substantial and rich as I can.

HILL:  You have to compartmentalize.

TP:    When you came to New York, did you stop having to compartmentalize?

HILL:  Well, other opportunities were available here from people having seen me in Chicago.

TP:    Who were people you met in Chicago who you linked up with when you came to New York?

HILL:  Well, actually a lot of people I met in Chicago, I didn’t link up with.  Like Art Farmer, Charlie Mingus, who I refused to play with… So everyone I played with who were useful in Chicago weren’t useful in New York, but life has a certain way where you can flow on.

I played with Dinah Washington in ’54.  In the period they said I played with Dinah Washington I was with Johnny Hartman.  Then George Kirby, the mimic, I was his pianist for a while during that period, and I traveled for a short period of time with Al Hibbler.

TP:    Is that how you got to L.A.?

HILL:  No, I got to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, and stayed over and played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    What gig got you to New York?

HILL:  I just paid my own way here.  I was working somewhere on the West Side of Chicago, and the way I looked at it then is I’ll be doing this all my life, even though I wouldn’t… The way things turned out, all of that evaporated.  So I just decided it was time to come here.

TP:    Chicago started to dry up a bit?

HILL:  No, it didn’t dry up for me.  I was doing fabulously.  I was working with Red Saunders doing stage shows at the Regal, getting all the jazz gigs, and getting… I really was pretty active.  But after ten years of it, it began to get boring.

TP:    So you thought you could find some fresh ways of expressing yourself in New York?  What was the pull?

HILL:  The pull was just the fact that it existed, and I wanted to see what it was, because I knew what I had in Chicago.  What I had in Chicago was nice and great, but it wasn’t satisfying at that point, and I saw to myself that if I stayed there I would have condescended morally because everything had a type of sameness to it.  And then in New York, once I got there, I discovered it had a certain type of environment that nourish me, nurture me.

TP:    And you came at a time when… At the time you got there, you and your peer group, the people you recorded with, Joe Henderson and Bobby Hutcherson all had… I mean, in terms of a distinction with a difference, you not such dissimilar sources and influences, and were looking for something new and for different ways to articulate it.  So it was this wonderful convergence.

HILL:  that’s the way I looked at it, to sustain me, and opportunities presented themselves.  It’s almost like this period now; it’s like coming full circle.  Even though the names and the faces have changed, it’s almost the same situation where there are some younger musicians on the scene, a lot of them unknown, but they exist, and the music can be played on a higher level.

TP:    Because they’ve mastered the tradition in some ways, or have a command of the fundamentals.

HILL:  Yeah, enough where they’re participating academians(?) where they might be able to enter the music.  A lot of them can… It’s just exposure.  In other words, that type of natural resources is here with the talent where one can be catalytic to the music, moving the music ahead.

TP:    Let me ask you about some dates and some of the personalities.  You and Joe Henderson had a real linkup… Through him you got the Blue Note…

HILL:  I did the Our Thing session with him.

TP:    Did that come out of a working situation?

HILL:  When I first came back to New York in ’63, my first job was with Kenny Dorham, and Joe Henderson was playing with Kenny Dorham.  Then the (?) thing started.  Joe had a session and he asked me if I would participate on it.  Then while we were playing the session Alfred said he would like to know if I had any songs, etcetera.  He really liked the way I played and he wanted to make me his piano player for the period.  That’s the type of person he was.  So next thing I know, I was recording under my own name with no strings of any type.

TP:    How did you know Kenny Dorham?

HILL:  I’d played with him in New York before I left to go to California.  I played with Kenny Dorham, with J.C. Moses, with Jackie McLean.  Anything else between ’61 and ’62 was a situation where I worked out of New York.

TP:    Talk about the affinity you and Joe Henderson had.

HILL:  Well, it wasn’t that close like relative fellowship.  During that period there were so many musicians, and everyone was feeling the music and had a different unique approach to the music.  Some people later defined it as it was recorded and worked, and others didn’t.  Because they had such a variety of artists there.  Blue Note was looking for a certain type of artists, like records companies are looking for a certain type of young artist now.  Each period has its similarities.  They were looking for someone who played in the tradition, but who could write music and had some type of direction.

TP:    You played with Walt Dickerson, too, that first time in New York.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  And I loved the way Joe Henderson played, but there were so many scholars to hear at that time.  The way he played excited me.  But then I still enjoyed hearing Von Freeman at the time.  So it wasn’t to me anyone greater or lesser.

TP:    This question isn’t about who’s greater and who’s not…

HILL:  No, but they were all an equal influence, because any other way would become too centralized.

TP:    Sam Rivers mentioned that he was playing in your band for a while, i think.

HILL:  Well, Sam had recorded for Blue Note, and I had this job in California where I had written something for 7 pieces.  Sam did a library job at Lincoln Center, I think, back then, with something for the Musician Fund, and I liked what he did there.  So I heard him and asked him to go to California to me.  He said he was leaving the Miles Davis band and that he wasn’t going with Art Blakey, so we had a certain period of time together.

TP:    Did you play in his bands at all?

HILL:  No.

TP:    And he did one record with you of all your music.  You said that the Point of Departure band was actually a working group for a while.

HILL:  Yes, we had a few concerts.

TP:    With Tony Williams.

HILL:  J.C. Moses was the drummer for things that weren’t recorded.

TP:    Did you ever in performance have Roy Haynes or Elvin or Tony in your band?

HILL:  Well, it was in ’71 when I was doing encounters with Roy Haynes and Richard Davis and Billy Harper.

TP:    But they never got recorded, though.

HILL:  They never got recorded.
HILL:  In Chicago the audience seemed to have the (?) with the artist, those who really liked the music of a different sort.  A lot of things that people in later years approached as experimental was almost like a natural evolution of the music itself.  You could approach music in various directions, like playing in two keys at once, or playing certain things and having an audience were a certain synergy existed.  That’s why a lot of people say, “Did they have approach this as such-and-such?”, etc., or some type of musical terminology that’s applied to it after the fact, after the actual… But these were just a natural evolution in that period, even to the extent of the New York… Like, with Ira Sullivan I had written things that evolved differently, like tunes with 10 bars and stuff like that.  A good part about that in Chicago is it wasn’t for just a situation where you would go to a coffeehouse or something and say it’s new music; it was something that the people felt.  That was why you could have somebody like Coltrane, who represented a certain musical period.

* * * * *

Andrew Hill (4-21-00):

TP:    At one point in our conversation you mentioned that this seems to be another golden age in jazz, not unlike things that happened in the ’60s when you came to New York.  Could you elaborate on that?

HILL:  Well, you have fresh young musicians on the scene who are not coming from the same aesthetic as the older musicians.  They’re coming because it’s economically expedient to play music.  They can make a career out of it, come college on.  Then on the other hand also, you have the younger players playing with older players, so that means a lot of things that were lost during what I call the retrospective period shortly before this period now have been acquired by the younger musicians through creative contact with older musicians.

TP:    Are you saying that musicians within the generations before this, maybe 1980-95, weren’t sufficiently in touch with older musicians?

HILL:  Well, they weren’t.  Because when the resurgence occurred, it occurred with what I call retrospective bebop.  In other words, good young musicians… Like you always have had good young musicians who copied other people’s music, and could play without achieving any type of creative contact with each other.  So you had that, which is the normal process for younger musicians to go through.  But now, I’m beginning to see young musicians with concepts where they’re not just playing things that they heard off the record, even though it’s still homogeneous, where Coltrane is still the main influence you hear out of a lot of them… But the music is changing again, going its own way, and then you have all this volume of jazz…all these jazz clubs for almost every genre of jazz here, and all of them have a capacity crowd.  Then you have another thing, that jazz all of a sudden seems to be a middle-class or upper-middle-class music.  Because it’s so expensive, a lot of people don’t hear it unless they hear through, you know, Wynton Marsalis, which is a service because it’s like a music appreciation lesson.  Even if one don’t agree upon the text, you can agree that he is bringing the music to young people who never heard it.  And other people have done it, so I can see there’s a wide flurry interest in jazz where people are trying to find not promoted hype, but the truth on the Internet and stuff like that.  Then most of the audiences, you have your chronological cross-section.  You have your older fans, but you have young fans, too.  Because where there’s younger musicians, there’s younger fans.

TP:    You’ve said a few times in these conversations that when you were coming up, jazz wasn’t an…I think the word you used was “art music.”

HILL:  It wasn’t like an art form.  It was still like a people’s music, but from the change of direction that Jazz has taken… Most people talk about Blue Note like it was a philanthropic institution!  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t that.  It carried the heartbeat of the popular music in the black communities!  They were more in tune to Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk… I heard him with a piano player friend of mine.  We used to pride ourselves on the fact that we could lift his stuff off the records when I was 10 years old.

TP:    This was King Solomon, huh?

HILL:  Yeah, King Solomon.  Oh, I told you about that.  Well, the art form was in the neighborhood even before television.  In almost any neighborhood that you wanted to go into, you could hear the music.  It was just coming out… I remember one time when I was 5 years old, I walked down the street and I could hear Billie Holiday coming out of every apartment blasting.  So it was like a people music.  That’s why people could really play by ear in those days, because it was so accessible.  It hadn’t become an expensive art form for social climbers and jazz connoisseurs.

TP:    But of course there was a group of connoisseurs, though not necessarily social climbers.  I just finished a story for Downbeat on Barry Harris, and he was talking about that time sitting in with Bird in Detroit when you drove there with Bruz Freeman.  But he said that when he was coming up (and he’s older than you), he and his friends got together, they listened to every record when it came out, they absorbed the solos, they took the things off the record, they slowed the records down until they had absolutely internalized all the solos that interested them.  They had their lessons, but they basically taught each other.

HILL:  Oh yes.  But then Chicago was definitely…it seemed to be further away…not further away… But it seemed to be geographically further and culturally different.  There wasn’t an emphasis on everyone being homogeneous.

TP:    Oh, you think the Detroit cats were homogeneous?

HILL:  In their approach to music.  Because you had all these older piano players who played different ways in Chicago.

TP:    you were mentioning Willie Jones.

HILL:  There was Willie Jones.  A slew of fine pianists.  They weren’t, you know, hip-hip-hip, or they weren’t the currently fashionable as the new jazz thing in the black community, but they worked all the time, and each one of them could play.  So you had all these variety of styles, from ragtime piano players who were in the church who were playing with Thomas Dorsey, the one who allegedly created gospel music…

TP:    Or commodified it anyway.

HILL:  Yeah, commodified it.  To all the fine pianists who were coming through town, which one could jam with; which I could jam with when one of the mature pianists was in there.  That’s how I got the job with Bird.  He asked for me and Bruz drove me there.  In other words, we had people like George Eskridge, who could take Bud Powell and Charlie Parker note-for-note off there, but there was no emphasis… Naturally, a lot of the alto players played like Bird.  But then you had Porter Kilbert and other older musicians who played like Willie Smith.  So there was such a cross-section that there was no…

TP:    Everybody was playing everything, is what it sounds like.

HILL:  Yeah, it wasn’t codified or marginalized.  You could work at supper club jobs; there jobs on the North Side, jazz gigs… In other words, there was an emphasis on people being well-rounded instead of polarized.

TP:    I understand.  Let me throw out another question.  How did you meet Hindemith, and what was the nature of your interaction with him?

HILL:  When I was a kid, I used to hustle on the corner of 47th Street with Leo Blevins, who at that time had a bathtub with a board with a G-string.  Me, Leo and Robert Blevins, I would bring my accordion and tap-dance, and we would just play on the corner.  That was our corner.  It was 47th Street and State on the northeast corner.  Because across the street was the cultural heart of what was called Bronzeville.  You had the Regal Theater, where they had a stage show and a movie, the Hurricane Lounge where Albert Ammons and later Gene Ammons played, the Savoy Ballroom, where Hot Lips Page and all… Then adjacent to that from where that was, there was a department store called South Center, which was the biggest… In other words…

TP:    The hub.

HILL:  The hub.  That was the hub of Bronzeville.

TP:    And your corner was in the hub of Bronzeville.

HILL:  Was in the hub of Bronzeville.  So when people didn’t show up, I used to go to South Center and just get a brown paper bag and allegedly call myself writing music.  And Hindemith came — I wasn’t musically literate as far as who’s supposed to be what in classical music and stuff — and he asked to see what I had written.

TP:    You mean he just was down there and he saw you doing it and said, “Little boy, let me…”

HILL:  It wasn’t “little boy.”  He was a very nice man.  We had a little conversation, as much as the age barrier would allow, and he asked me.  He said who he was, which I didn’t know.  But he said what I was writing was musically correct, but people who played, professional musicians, would have another type of notation.  And he showed me how I could do certain things without any type of musical instrument, like writing notes down and arranging them symmetrically and asymmetrically.  Things like that.

TP:    And you said that you had an innate ability to do that, to hear music without a tangible sound in front of you.

HILL:  Yes, I could do it without a sound in front of me.

TP:    But continue with Hindemith.  You wound up sending him something and he gave you a critique?

HILL:  No.  It was just when he was town he always arranged for us to get together and talk.  Later some people would call it a master lesson.  But the way he dealt with me is the way I tried to deal with my students in later life.  He didn’t try to change anything I was doing, but just enhance what I had naturally.

TP:    What about Bill Russo?

HILL:  Well, I bought a few lessons from him.

TP:    how old were you when you met Hindemith?

HILL:  I was around 14.

TP:    So that’s around 1951, and this relationship continued through the ’50s, to your being an adult?

HILL:  For a few years.  Once you get into your adolescence, different things change, and I became more mesmerized by the environment around me.

TP:    Elaborate.

HILL:  Well, I was getting to the point where I was making…you know, playing jobs.  Like, in ’54 I went out with Dinah Washington as her pianist, just a summer vacation.

TP:    She was covering tunes that were already hits.

HILL:  Yes.  “This Bitter Earth” and stuff like that.  That was right before she did her Emarcy sessions.

TP:    Are you saying that your performing career in Chicago subsumed your composing aspirations?

HILL:  Yes.  Because I had a career in Chicago as an adolescent and young man before I came to New York.  In Chicago there were so many things to do.  There were singers to play with, musicians to jam with — not to mention trying to stay in school.  So consequently, all my working time was in functional activity and trying to correct what needed to be correct so I could be more proficient.

TP:    And you were house pianist at the Beehive in ’53 and ’54?

HILL:  No, I played there.  Aside from the Beehive, they had the Crown Propellor and the Stage Lounge.

TP:    You sat in at all those places, but you were never house pianist as such.

HILL:  Well, I played…was almost house pianist at the Stage Lounge, which was on 63rd and Stony Island.  Then you had the Crown Propellor right before Cottage Grove.

TP:    And that was part of that 63rd Street strip.

HILL:  Yes, that 63rd Street strip.

TP:    A lot of musicians who were around then describe 63rd Street in awestruck tones.

HILL:  Oh, it was similar in a sense to what people said 52nd Street was.  On Cottage Grove you had the 6310; that’s where Willie Jones and his band played.  Then they had a disk jockey named McKie Fitzhugh, who had a club directly across the street.  And on 64th was the Pershing Lounge, where Ahmad Jamal was playing, and downstairs you had the first Cadillac Bob’s, where Sun Ra’s band used to play.

TP:    And they had a ballroom in there, too.

HILL:  Yeah, the Pershing Ballroom, where Gene Ammons, Tom Archia, Illinois Jacquet and people like that used to play all the time for the kids.  So the strip went up… They had a gay place a little further down on 63rd Street near South Park.  This was in the latter part… This was from ’54-’55.  Then before that, they had Nob Hill.  That’s where the Beehive was.

TP:    That was on 55th Street.

HILL:  Yes, in the Woodlawn area.

TP:    So you basically worked in all those places, and you said that you were de facto house pianist at the Roberts Show Lounge.

HILL:  Well, I did have the house trio at the Roberts Show Lounge with Malachi Favors and James Slaughter — and Teddy Thomas for a while.

TP:    So that formed the core of your activity in the ’50s.  You’re performing, you’re doing tons of jobs, you’re finishing school, you have your compositional fires sort of fueled by meeting Hindemith, but you’re not really doing it because there’s not time and not really opportunity, except for some things you’re doing with people like Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill at certain concerts, and maybe some jamming.

HILL:  Oh, you know the names.

TP:    Well, I know a lot about the Chicago    music.  But when I asked you if there was any analogue to your Blue Note work, you mentioned that you had done some things like that with Ira Sullivan and Nicky Hill.

HILL:  Yeah.  And Red Lionhart(?). There was a bunch… Because Saturday mornings… Ira and the gang was on the North Side, and I was on the South Side, but I would occasionally go on the North Side to play with them.

TP:    And you said you played some of the North Side, Gold Coast supper clubs.

HILL:  Yeah, supper clubs, and they had a jazz club over there, too.  I forgot the name of that place.

TP:    And the Warwick record is ’59, not ’55.

HILL:  Yeah, ’59.

TP:    So you leave Chicago on your own, you get to New York, you know people I guess from their having met you through coming into Chicago, and you work with Johnny Hartman, you work with Walt Dickerson, you leave for Los Angeles with…

HILL:  Al Hibbler.

TP:    Al Hibbler.  Then you go to Los Angeles with Roland Kirk, where you meet your wife.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.  We played at the Lighthouse.

TP:    And you do that record [Conflict] with Jimmy Woods.  Then you get to New York and settle back in.  So if I cite that as your chronology, I’m accurate.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    But just tell me one thing about playing with singers.  Was that something you liked doing?  Was it valuable?

HILL:  It was very valuable to me, because instead of voicing the chords which were popular then, which were sevenths in the right hand and, and thirds and sevenths, you know, like that…or fourths, bass on the seventh in the right hand… I could really go into the harmonics of the tune.

TP:    With the singers.

HILL:  Yes, with the singers it called for not the voicings so the horn players could play, but to play the harmonics of the tune so you could embellish and bring out what the singers were doing.

TP:    Did playing the accordion so young have an effect on your sense of time flow at the piano?

HILL:  Well, I played accordion very much like a harmonica.  Because with those bellows and stuff, you would get the same type of sound, just like a blues accordion player or zydeco…

TP:    All that vocalized timbre.

HILL:  Yes.

TP:    So it didn’t really have that much to do with your conception as a pianist, you don’t think.

HILL:  Well, in a sense it did, because you have the buttons, or stops, on the left hand.  But on the right hand, you had to deal with chordal clusters, not the chord itself.

TP:    In Chicago, did you see yourself as a Jazz pianist as such, or did you see yourself as a pianist who could play a variety of functions, including Jazz?

HILL:  Well, then I saw myself just as a pianist.  Because there was no need to polarize myself in one corner.  Because unlike New York, or maybe… When I came to New York, that road to supper clubs and the singers… I used to play with comedians like George Kirby.  So when I came here, I was more interested in playing jazz jobs than being well-rounded.

TP:    Did you come here with the intent of playing your own music also, or did that sort of happen…

HILL:  Well, that just came on its own.  Because everyone was to me writing so many interesting things, I found out I could evolve myself harmonically by participating with the others instead of stagnating for a certain style.

TP:    So in other words, through playing the original music of Joe Henderson and other people, it kind of spurred things that had been welling up in your mind over the years and music just came pouring out?  Was it that type of thing?

HILL:  Well, I always was a prolific writer.  But like most writers, you need new material to keep from becoming passe in your approach to writing, unless you market yourself to some institution where it’s necessary for you to have a certain almost commercial approach to writing.

TP:    Without going into a lot of detail about… Oh, Bobby Hutcherson asked me to ask you about coming back on the D-train early in the morning from Brooklyn.

HILL:  [LAUGHS] I’m not going to tell you about the D-train.  That’s not for public consumption.

TP:    But you mentioned sort of offhandedly that the friend you did the transcription with was a church pianist, and you learned a lot of the techniques of church music…

HILL:  Oh, that was afterwards.

TP:    You said you learned a lot from him, but you didn’t have your own church experience until you were 30.

HILL:  Oh, it was a her, not a him.

TP:    Oh, so it wasn’t King Solomon.

HILL:  That was a lady named Oveal Warren.  She was the choir-master at the First Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, California.

TP:    So that happened when you moved out…

HILL:  Well, when I left New York in ’76, first we bought a place in the Mariloma(?) Park section of San Francisco.  But I couldn’t take that because San Francisco at the time was trying to be just like New York, and Pittsburgh was kind of country, but it had the nerve to have its own identity.

TP:     Why did you start to get sick of New York?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t get sick of it.  My deceased wife was becoming ill, and once I moved there the condition was described as terminal.  So rather than run back to New York, I decided that I would just stay there because she would need me to be with her.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the present and talk about Dusk.  I don’t want to ask you anything so trivial as to talk about the genesis of the record.  But you said you’d been doing a tremendous amount of writing since you came back east in ’97, that it kind of opened up… Not everything on the record is from the last few years, but I gather most of it is.

HILL:  Well, maybe two or three.  Because when the sextet first started, we had a different repertoire, but the two or three tunes I kept in the book.

TP:    Well, Ball Square you played with Clifford on that Spirits record.

HILL:  Yes, but I just put more sections on it.

TP:    And “15/8” you might have done solo.

HILL:  Yes, I did on a French record.

TP:    Were you writing music for the qualities of the musicians in the sextet, or was it more them just dealing with your conception?

HILL:  Well, there was a combination of both.  The first compositions I wrote, that I took out the book literally wasn’t changed for the sextet.  But they really didn’t fit the sextet, so the compositions became more personalized the longer the group stayed together.

TP:    And the group going into the Jazz Standard is slightly different.

HILL:  Yes, we changed the bass player and drummers from last year.  Ratzo Harris is taking Scott Colley’s place, and Nasheet Waits in on drums.  The tenor player is Aaron Stewart, plus Marty and Ron…

TP:    And since this record I think you said you’ve done 20 more tunes.

HILL:  Yes, 20 more tunes.  But then some tunes were shaped around Greg Tardy, because he plays clarinet and bass clarinet also.  With Aaron Stewart we’re starting off with 7 tunes, and we’ll possibly rehearse every day we can during the job, so I can try to get a repertoire that fits his personality.

TP:    And then you’re going to record again?

HILL:  I think I’m recorded out for the moment.  The reason I did this recording, between you and I, is I was talking to Howard and telling him that I was thinking about disbanding the sextet, and he said, “Well, it would be good if you did a recording before you do that.”  Because the sextet is good, but it has a life of its own; it seemed to have a synergy that connected with the people.  So it created its own life.  Even though at times I wanted to stop it, but you know, it has a life of its own.

TP:    So it fulfilled a function and maybe now it’s not fulfilling its function and it’s more of an obligation.

HILL:  Well, I really don’t know how I feel about it, because time the people change, the music changes.  It’s a situation that I have to see how it goes at the Jazz Standard.  I know when I changed to Nasheet Waits it improved for me, because I had a more sensitive and open drummer.  Billy is wonderful, but he played like a leader drummer instead of a sensitive drummer.  Which was good, because the band before I started changing it around was like a machine that would just play on its own.  But then what I hate about big bands is the stagnation that comes from repetition.  So this was like a little big band, and it started getting to the point where it could easily become very repetitious from the way some people approached it.  So by making the change, sometimes it became more interesting.

TP:    Do you see your composed music as infinitely mutable material?

HILL:  Well, at the time I really write, I see my composed music as an outlet for my emotions.  Sometimes life is just life, and it has its frustrations for everyone, or problems or whatever, and I can use it as a vehicle to soothe my emotions, and I notice that every time I write when I’m emotional, or even when I write when I’m not emotional, something new and good to me will come out of it that expresses those emotions.

TP:    What’s the role of improvisers within your music?

HILL:  I like to try to get people who are sensitive, like I said before, and who love the music.  Actually the music is just a blueprint for, in most spots, the way it develops, for group improvisation.

TP:    So you see your compositions, at least within an improvisational sense, as templates for group improvising and group creation.  I guess the phrase you like to use is “creative contact.”

HILL:  Yes, for group improvisation.  Because some parts they play as written, but then what’s written sometimes is just a theme to expand on together.

TP:    Lately you seem to be doing a lot of concerts and special appearances.  I don’t know if the thing with Bobby was a singular event or one of a series you’ve been doing, but I know you’ve also done duos with David Murray…

HILL:  Yes, and last week I did a duo with Archie Sheep in London.

TP:    I guess Archie Sheep is your age, but one thinks of you as being from different generations for some reason — maybe because you were on different labels and didn’t at least historically interact during the ’60s anyway.

HILL:  Mmm-hmm.

TP:    And you see to be distinct from the “free” school of players.  Particularly in that time.  Did you see a distinction between you and, say, some of the players who were around Coltrane, or as you said when you called me while I was playing your record and Greg Tardy was soloing, “it sounds like Albert Ayler.”  Did you have any contact with that group of musicians then?

HILL:  Oh yeah, when I was in the Black Arts period, I produced Albert Ayler, the drummer Milford Graves and Don Pullen… On the streets of Harlem, I had three concerts a night(?) of free music.  But as far as myself, the only reason I was catalogued as an avant-garde is because they had no category to put me in.  Which they explained to me when I asked about it.  They said, “Well, we can’t say that you’re a Bebop drummer or a post bebop piano player or a solo piano player or avant-garde.”  But for marketing purposes, they put me under the classification of avant-garde, which seemed to have… It gave me life in the catalogue.  Because if I was classified as a post-Bebop piano player, that only had a certain duration on the jazz market.

TP:    I remember reading a review which I xeroxed of you doing a concert in Chicago in ’67 of your group opposite Roscoe Mitchell, I think it was.

HILL:  No, Roscoe Mitchell came up and jammed with me.

TP:    I realize you were out of Chicago by that time.  But did you have any contact with the nascent AACM, or its antecedents in the Experimental Band, or did you ever touch base with them…

HILL:  Well, I gave them one of their first jobs out of Chicago.  Because John Sinclair, who was in Ann Arbor, asked me to name some musicians who were with the new avant-garde, and I mentioned the AACM, particularly Joseph Jarman and Roscoe Mitchell.

TP:    And subsequently they got a lot of work through him.

HILL:  Yeah, he really gave them a big push.  That was around ’67-’68.

TP:    Do you remember your early contact with Joseph and Roscoe?

HILL:  Well, I first met Roscoe when he sat in with me.

TP:    What did you think of what they were doing when you first heard it?

HILL:  Well, I didn’t really know what they as a group were doing.  I just played with Charles Clark and Thurman Barker with a trio, and it was good, you know, but people have been playing like that in Chicago before Ornette Coleman hit the scene.  In Chicago we used to play what we would call “in” and we would play what we would call “out.”  So that was really nothing new for Chicagoans when it got promoted.  That represented a situation where we had Marshall Allen and a few people unnamed.  So when music was… Popular music.  I’ll go back to that.  The audience’s ears was more developed, so you could have a type of synergy…


So people had been playing like that.  It was just…

TP:    I guess there’s a certain element of that that goes into blues playing as well.

HILL:  Well, it really goes into blues playing, because the true blues musicians really don’t cater to so many bars, let’s say.  Where people might say it should be a 12-bar blues, and it may be a 15-bar blues.

TP:    It’s whatever they feel at the moment.

HILL:  It’s like choir music, where you have the refrain before you start again, and all that.  Even though it’s based on some type of rhythm, what’s on top may not really fit in with Western harmony the way people think Western harmony should be.

TP:    You also mentioned that Israel Crosby told you that black musicians would play differently, say, with Benny Goodman than in a black band — that they had to concertize.  Which was the thing that impressed you to Earl Hines.  So we can even trace that way of playing Earl Hines in a very stylized show situation.

HILL:  Oh yes, playing something simple like “Sweet Lorraine” or whatever the repertoire, but he would take it out of the context of the standard form, even though it was in the mode of chords of that period, and do certain things… A musician like King Kolax would talk, and they would say… When they crossed over then, they would use that term, that they would concertize their music, put it in almost more of a concert form where the soloist would elaborate a little more than they would just playing together…just playing with each other.

TP:    When you’re talking to me about the range of sources that you can work with, it sounds like the way Muhal Richard Abrams talks, or Anthony Braxton, or Joseph Jarman — that almost any form of music, any genre of music, whether it’s Hindemith, or whether it’s the Blues, or whether it’s Charlie Parker, is grist for your mill, is something you can express yourself with in the most natural way.

HILL:  It is.  All material that you hear… A lot of things have been recycled or expounded upon.  Like, the rhythm may change over the decades or certain elements may change but the basics remain the same.

TP:    Going back to the idea that this is another golden age in the music, do you think this particular group of musicians at this particular moment is ready to seize upon all those possibilities in a way that they haven’t for a while.

HILL:  The ones who aren’t literate.  And by literate I mean those who aren’t so well read that they associate the music with European Art, the part of European art which has been adopted into Jazz, where people think they either have to compromise or live in poverty to play creative music.

TP:    Elaborate on that.

HILL:  By compromise, sometimes it’s not a compromise… They feel that because of the venues available and the visibility available from the institutional position of jazz when you’re in places like Lincoln Center, and the repertory used…that they either have to play like that, or they’re afraid to expand on their talent, because either they’re not open enough to receive it or feel that they won’t work.  To me, both camps, the retrospective camp…and the Free camp is retrospective also, because that’s over forty years old.  But then I see the young people using the entire vocabulary instead of one aspect of it to move the music forward.  Because when I first came back here I thought, like everybody else, “Well, ain’t nothin’ happening.”  Then I started playing with people and I thought, well, something is happening.  The music has moved already, even though it’s imperceptible to those who are loyal to the different camps… But the music itself, the way it’s being played, is totally different from what it’s been.  Now you have those who depending on what school they went to will dictate whether they’re playing allegedly Free or Bebop — because that was the text.  But those who have got past the academic approach, who have gotten into the sound, are taking it somewhere else.

TP:    Did that inspire you when you got back here and you found that out?

HILL:  Yes, it was really inspirational to find out that things aren’t static, which led me to the point where I don’t have to become the person I was 30-40 years ago, which is impossible.

TP:    You don’t have to recreate the things that you put down in the spur of the moment… You don’t have to be those three or four years of Blue Note recordings.  You can be who you are now, and progress and grow within a community of people.

HILL:  Yes.  And that’s always rewarding rather than isolated in a retrospective view of yourself.  Or I can express it better.  It’s easy to fall back upon what you’ve done, but it’s harder to just continue playing, because when one plays, either… The audience is fickle anyway.  It will either be with you or it won’t.  Then those who compromise can have a longer tenure of playing.  But it’s terrible to me playing without the passion of music.  Because that’s what I hear a lot of times, people playing without even a passion.  Because it’s the passion that connects; it’s not the academic correctness.  Because the passion brings out the magic, something that draws the audience into you.  But to be playing without any passion but playing correctly seems like people just make a career out of it instead of following their passion.

TP:    What music do you like to listen to these days?

HILL:  Well, now, other than newer things, I like Steve Coleman, the things I like…

TP:    Another Chicagoan.

HILL:  With his own… Yeah!  Then I liked the duo record that Frank Kimbrough did with Joe Locke, Saturn’s Child.  I listen to a variety of things.  Because what I do is, everybody is giving me CDs… I try to tell them not to give it to me.  So the things that I like, which is around 3% of what I get, I keep and listen to sporadically, and other things I just put in care packages and send them out to friends.

TP:    How did you like The Invisible Hand?

HILL:  I enjoyed doing it because Greg gave me the… I didn’t approach it as a sideman.  I just did it because Greg expressed to me sincerely how disappointed he would be if I hadn’t done it, and I have a feeling for him, so… I first met Greg ten years ago when we did Eternal Spirits, and it was good to see where he had progressed to and where he was at this point.

TP:    And in Classical music?  What do you listen to?

HILL:  Yes, I listen to Classical music.  I never have grown tired of Bartok’s string quartets — and other things.  I listen to a whole mixture of different music, but the composing I don’t really listen to it that much.  It seems like I’m able to draw a lot of things from the inside, even though I do go to concerts of all types — Classical, Jazz and stuff.  I have a preference myself for live music, because recorded music to me is like representational art.  That people hear so much… Even though most abstract things can be hung.  And the spirit of jazz is not on the repetition, but it’s allegedly supposed to be built upon playing something different every time you play.

TP:    And I think we have a good concluding question.  So you’re optimistic.  You’re seeing enough young people in this generation who embody that spirit going forward.  It sounds like you’re pretty optimistic about it.

HILL:  Yes.  I not only see the spirit; I see the outlet for that spirit, where someone, one who commits himself to the music, the rewards will be greater than someone who just approached the music career-wise.  I see where an outlet for creative music is bigger than the outlook for those who can confine them to a certain music simply because they found one formula that they can work or gain a professional image with.

TP:    One other question.  In the program notes to the Mosaic box, Cuscuna says that in the late ’60s you invested wisely in real estate and were able to support yourself comfortable and get away from the vagaries of the existence of being solely a performing musician.  Is that right?

HILL:  Well, from my beginnings, what made me play music was the desire to play, but also it was motivated by the fact that I got paid.  So I never associated music with poverty, because I found that when I played, no matter what my skills may be or how I may attempt to be the Renaissance man, that my rewards were greater even financially than they were by my being a tenured college professor.  But then I also realized that for me to have any duration I would have to get away from the music for certain periods so I wouldn’t be jaded either by my contemporaries or by my having a musical formula which I considered successful.

TP:    So you looked for outlets so you could keep your juices going.

HILL:  Well, when someone says they’re an artist, that’s not a poverty thing.  To be a true artist, you have to have a certain economic freedom.  And if you weren’t born with that, you can give it to yourself.  Because by working, you have escaped poverty.  So it’s just a matter of what do you spend your money on.  Do you need all the new technological toys or do you want a good life?

* * * *

Andrew Hill (WKCR, 5-5-00):

[MUSIC: “Dusk”]

TP:    Let’s talk about the genesis of this record.  The instrumentation comes from one of your most famous recordings, done for Blue Note in late 1963, called Point of Departure, which featured some of the legends of jazz in an ensemble oriented situation articulating your music [ETC.].  I guess the idea arose a few years ago came to revisit the aural timbre of that event for a Knitting Factory festival a few years ago.

HILL:  To revisit the aural timbre and try to reset the state of excellence.  Because there was a certain artistic excellence with that album which wasn’t uncommon for musicians when they got together for that period.  But for this period I figure we’d try to create a band that had the same type of synergy with the audience and who loved the music.

TP:    That brings up two questions.  One is, what qualities, in the general sense, distinguish the musicians who performed on Point of Departure from the generation that appears on Dusk, and what they need to interpret the music with the sensibility that it demands.

HILL:  What I’m trying for now is to be more open and not deal in comparisons.  Because the social and economic situations that created the artists of 20 and 30 years ago isn’t prevalent today.  Because now it’s economically expedient to be a jazz musician.  So you’re dealing with a vast majority of younger musicians who went to college to study jazz (bebop probably was the text) who can make a career out of music.  For me, when I discover musicians in that chronological age with a passion for that music, that’s what gets my attention.  Because I really can’t say what happened (it would seem like a contradiction of what I just said) can’t happen today, but it is happening, seems to be happening in a different way.  Because before I got more involved in my writing and playing, and the interchange with various chronological, 3 or 4 generations from… I discovered that something is happening today.  Because the usual look is that Jazz is something unique that happened in the 20th Century and went its own way and died, and is being preserved.  But now I look at some of the younger musicians and I say, “Well, they really don’t need anything but to play and to play with a certain type of openness.  Like, in any subject, they say, well, once people forget what they studied, then it all becomes organic and instinctive and something great arrives.  But I’ve seen those qualities in quite a few young, middle-aged and older musicians where I say, well, the music really doesn’t need anything.  Because those type of human resources are still available, and the cream of whatever always will find a way to rise to the top, regardless of the obstacles.

TP:    I guess a lot of the musicians who can sustain themselves in the contemporary scene will have to have internalized the styles of many different periods to be able, as you put it, to forget it — forget what they learned and play, in some sense.

HILL:  When I was at the university, the way I approached it was it’s good for a musician to transcribe and have a certain model for entry, and then once they discovered that formula they have something to study and make various improvements on the improvisations.  So it’s a matter of a student nowadays, moreso than everyone who’s been before them, is just to be able to apply critical thinking to the subject matter.  It’s good to go back, but if one really can’t go back and get the feeling out of it, I wouldn’t recommend it.  Because music is not just based on the academic approach, like tonic-dominant harmony and stuff, but it offers a certain magic when people play together and get a creative contact.  So if one can listen, like any aesthetic…listen gradually and get the emotional content out of their music, and in some kind of way figure out how it fit into the sociological mores of the time for the period when jazz was a popular music, not an art form.

TP:    Well, what is your relationship to this older music?  You began your recording contract for Blue Note in 1963, and by ’65, certainly by ’66, you had recorded 8 or 9 albums that stand out as individual documents and classics of the time — over about a three-year period.  To a lot of people it was like you’d come out of nowhere.  Well, that certainly wasn’t the case, because you’d been an active working musician in Chicago for more than a decade before that.  But most people define you by this music from 35 years ago.  So what’s your relationship to it in putting together a body of work for a group of contemporary musicians with that instrumentation, your relationship to that older body of music.

HILL:  Well, for my selection process, I would like a musician who partially understands everything that has gone on before, like the free playing which has been out for forty years, then the bebop, the retrospective, then the magic of Bebop… Just have an understanding of the traditional musical vocabulary that has happened before them enough where they can participate, use critical thinking in terms of the timbre, the sounds, able to associate a certain sound with a certain creative process, to say, “Well, this will fit into this period.”  Not looking at anything as old and new.  Because it’s all common property and always been recycled with a different beat.  But I look for people to have a knowledge of what has gone on in the past, because the freedom I will give them, I want them to make good musical choices.

TP:    There’s an explicit reference in this… The title track is inspired by a section of Jean Toomer’s Cane.  Talk about how your impression of the text set off the musical impressions we hear on the CD.

HILL:  Cane is basically a bunch of short stories linked together which is built on his experience in the South, when he went down South to teach and was drawn into what I call a native environment.  Prior to that period he was raised as mulatto gentry from that time, a Washington, D.C. background with his family… But what links it is these different things, like they say “her skin was beautiful, it was like dusk…”  Everything emphasizes dusk.  Dusk to me is the period between day and night.  Each one has a different dusk.  One could smell smoke, the baby burning… That was kind of a dusk.  Not dealing with it chronologically in years, but dealing with it chronologically by the season.

[MUSIC:  “Sept”]

TP:    When people in the band talk about playing with you from night to night, they describe an attitude on your part towards the music that it’s kind of like a work in process.  The musical texts seem to be infinitely mutable.  You change the form of the compositions from night, occasionally without much warning or on the spur of the moment.  Has that been your philosophy?

HILL:  Yes.  The sextet is nice, but then when you have arranged things it can become as boring as a big band.  Because some of the most interesting big bands I have heard, the musicians who play in them regularly are bored to death.  So I figure, well, maybe if you can change the form and context of the material and get the soloists involved where they can go into group improvisation on a theme or on a rhythm, you can keep the music alive.  Because other than that, everyone who would probably sound incredible from playing the same thing over and over again… But there’s a certain magic of creation.  Because I would rather have the magic of creation, which is success, rather than perfection of an academic approach where everything is perfect but meaningless.

TP:    Did you ever lead a big band or write big band music?  Am I correct that there is one unissued big band record in the Blue Note archives?

HILL:  There’s actually three big band things I started, with a tentet, with unorthodox arrangements, then I have two or three with 12 to 14 piece instrumentations, which to my memory isn’t like a standard orchestra.  But I always have enjoyed writing for almost any group.  Writing seems to be my passion.  I was amazed today… Two days ago I was working on a tune, and today it just revealed itself as a futuristically incredible composition.  So I’ve written for big bands, orchestras…

TP:    And you’ve been writing since before you knew it was writing, in a certain sense.

HILL:  Yes, I always have had that.  When I grew up, everybody would say it was weird, because the young kids my age were playing baseball, hitting each other in the head with the bat, the little things that came with childhood in the neighborhood I grew up in.  But I preferred, in a sense, to hustle.  I had two or three street corners where I would stand and play my accordion.  Leo Blevins, who was ten years older, had a bathtub with a board and a G-string.  So we would liberate a corner and play there.  During the intermission I would go to the department store and allegedly write things down on a brown paper bag, which I found out in time was correct… I was told that my method of notation… Because when you write, you try to make things a little more homogeneous so people can read it.  But my music didn’t have any mercy for the musician who would read it, but it was correct.  I always loved to write music.  Then when I got to the point where I could hear the music back, I loved it that much more, just… I notice that whenever I’m troubled or whatever, it’s like an…it’s amazing that from your creative outlets, something is born.

TP:    The neighborhood you grew up in that you’re referring to is the South Side of Chicago, which was a center of enormous cultural ferment in the time when you were growing up, after World War II and during the 1950’s  And the person who let you know about what you were writing, if I’m not mistaken, was Paul Hindemith.  Not necessarily the person you’d expect to encounter on the South Side of Chicago.

HILL:  Well, across from the corner where we were playing, you had such cultural attractions as the Regal Theater, where they had the stage shows, part of the black theater circuit, then you had the Savoy Ballroom where great artists would come in who people would dance to.  Then you had the Hurricane Lounge, where first Albert Ammons was playing, but then Gene Ammons and Tom Archia played… It was just a hub.  Not to mention 47th Street itself.  As you walked down 47th Street from east to west you would run into a few places that had blues bands.  So you would find a lot of people going through that strip because it was safe and there was a lot of, in a sense, material available.

TP:    So Hindemith just heard you, saw what you were doing, and took an interest.

HILL:  Yes, he took a partial interest.  I think he was going to the Regal Theater.  I think one of Fats Waller’s last performances was there, and he played organ.

TP:    So you were 6 years old when…

HILL:  Hmm-hmm. Anyway, he stopped… I guess I was a sight, a little raggedy kid who could play the accordion, and when I played it, it was like a harmonica almost, where it sounded like a mouth instrument, because you can  have those waves of air.  So that was interesting.  It looked like the stage show was getting ready to start…

TP:    And you were more interesting than the stage show.

HILL:  Well, everybody put their instrument down.  So I sat down and wrote something on some music paper.  I was calling myself writing, because I could hear the sound from when I was a baby… In hard times they had rent parties, and you had some of the finest pianists coming by your house playing stride and boogie-woogie and some modern.  So music was always available, and from my ears I could separate the various sounds.  I’ve always been talented at that.  At first it was like a game, but then the game grew into another type of reality.

TP:    I guess through playing on the street is how people like Albert Ammons or Earl Hines would have heard you play — you’ve mentioned both as early mentors.

HILL:  Well, Earl Hines, a few years after that he was at the new Grand Terrace.  The old one was at 35th Street.  In ’49-’50-’51-’52-’53, it moved to Oakwood Boulevard, which was on Oakwood and South Park, which is now King Boulevard.  Anyway, from being at the Regal as I got older, I started selling the Chicago Defender.  The way that worked was, you would go to the distributor and buy so many newspapers yourself.  Part of my route where I would go was these hotels and buildings, and sometimes it was the Grand Terrace.  I stumbled upon Fatha Hines.  Because at that age I didn’t know who was supposed to be who or what, but I was just happy that when I ran into an older artist, they would be supportive and maybe give me a…you know, explain something musically to me.  So I bugged him to death. [LAUGHS] Then he decided he would let me play on his grand.  So I played on his grand, I played something in D-flat, and he was amazed not only that I could hear, but I had an unlimited technical facility for not having really studied.

TP:    It’s something that couldn’t be duplicated today.  You mentioned to me that at 12 years you sat in for one tune at a breakfast session at the Macombo Lounge…

HILL:  Yes, they were playing “Idaho.”  They gently eased me off the stand because I didn’t play the bridge in A-flat.  Oscar Pettiford was playing bass and the legendary Ike Day was playing drums.  King Kolax, who was an older musician who had been in all these various big bands… The piano player didn’t show up, and he knew that I could play some wonderful choruses in F, so they invited me on the stand to play “Idaho” with them.  I got the F part right, but on the bridge he kept hollering, “Go to A-flat, go to A-flat!”  But after that, they were nice enough to generally ease me off the stand, but they told me what I did wrong.  They said, “On the bridge, you go to A-flat.”  Then years later…well, not that many years, when I discovered who everyone was, I was overwhelmed.  Which I think really created my personality now.  I said, “If people of that magnitude can be generous and gracious and giving, let me try to be like that.”  I know there was others who turned their back to the audience.  I’m not saying anything is greater or lesser.  But from my experience, I also try to be supportive.

TP:    Through the ’50s, you finished school, and also played rent parties, did various gigs around the South Side, which meant a range from supper club things to hardcore jazz to playing with singers — and blues.

HILL:  And blues.  Then all of a sudden I became a pianist at the Regal Theater with the Red Saunders band.

TP:    You played at the Beehive, where national acts would come through.

HILL:  Played the Beehive when it was in Nob Hill.

TP:    Subsequent to that, the Roberts Show Lounge, where major entertainers came in, North Side supper clubs, different clubs on the 63rd Street strip.  So by the time you got to New York in 1961, when you were 24, you already a decade’s professional experience, which puts into perspective the splash you were able to make once Blue Note allowed you to unleash your creative juices on the scene you encountered in New York City.

HILL:  The (?) had become polarized, in a sense.  Sometimes I’d say to myself, well, since I played all these clubs and so on in Chicago, why wasn’t I drawn to that in New York.  But when I arrived, what got my attention was all the various flowers, known and unknown, was were available.  It was just a big potpourri of musical talent.  It was thrilling to be alive.  Music wasn’t economically expedient at that time, but there was a certain type of fellowship and certain information and certain…you know, the joy of musicians really having a social work style where they were liberally given information all the time, and you were able to play… No one had gotten big enough where they couldn’t refuse certain situations where they got together.  Before I left, things had changed.  I knew it was time to go, because people were charging me for rehearsals.  I said, “The scene is changing.”

TP:    Dusk has a programmatic component to the recital.  There are sextet pieces, piano with a three-horn orchestration type of thing, and some solo tracks as well, of which we’ll hear one, which is called “Tough Love.”

[MUSIC: “Tough Love”; w/ Osby, “The Watcher, Vol. 2”; POD, “Flight 19”]

HILL:  I really enjoyed Freddie Waits.  He was a incredible drummer.  He was like Ike Day to me, one of the great masters who never really got their due.

I love playing with Marty because he’s always fresh and he always inspires me.  I can’t remember when he played the same thing twice on any different occasion, which I love.  Ron Horton is a nice person, a person I like who I’ve seen develop his own style, really coming into his own.  I heard Aaron Stewart last year with Marty Ehrlich’s group playing Julius Hemphill’s music, and I was impressed with his sound.  I was also mostly impressed with the fact that at the time he didn’t sound like anyone but himself.  Nasheet Waits is a person who has won my heart.  To me, everything is built of the spirit of the drums and where the drums goes, so to me, he’s the spirit of drums at this moment.  And Ratzo Harris is a very magnificent bassist.  I’ve been playing with him for years, since he was 17 in San Francisco, and he was spectacular then, so it will be interesting to see…

TP:    You spent a good chunk of the ’80s and ’90s on the West Coast.  There’s always been a bit of mystique about you, people wondering whether such-a-such a fact is accurate.  I guess you were away from New York for 20 years or so.

HILL:  I left in ’75 and returned in ’93.  I’d make runs in and out, but then at a certain point I felt New York was the place.  Because I could see New York coming alive again, things changing, a different space but the same place.

TP:    You’ve said that you think we’re in a sort of golden age, and the group of musicians who are sort of entering their prime now and defining the next stage the music will take… You describes it as almost analogous to the period when you first made your big creative splash.

HILL:  There hasn’t been as much new, young, fresh talent as is on the scene now since the ’60s.  But I see the music is well in their hands as evolving to something else.  Then I see the concert stages more available, not really comparatively… But Classical music has lost much of its audience, and it’s been sustained in a lot of areas with the orchestras contracting jazz artists for a collaboration.  I see where Jaazz is just going to flower.  The reason I say it’s going to flower is because of the creative young artists that are still alive, who… If they were all dead, it could really be looked at as a retrospective.  But I see life has been breathed into the music.

TP:    The way information is passed down is a lot different than when you were coming up, isn’t it.

HILL:  Well, now information and misinformation… Like, everything is… Now it doesn’t have the substance.  When it was passed down to me, like before television and stuff, it was, in a sense, more accurate.  You heard about Coltrane, and in New York they heard about me… Different people were..> it was more of an accurate assessment than it is now.

TP:    But I was referring to the way vocabulary was passed down, musical information.

HILL:  Well, it was more of the oral tradition, where they would show you… Depending on the instrument, you would show the instrument… And the ears were more sensitized or… I can’t compare it.  But you could play the most complex figure for someone two or three times and they would have it.  Whereas now everyone is reading 100% synthetic, so one really has to have compositional skills to write it down.  Because there is a great chance that if you try to share it through the oral tradition, it will really take more time.

TP:    [Re Shades] Did you used to gig with Clifford Jordan in Chicago?

HILL:  Yes, I used to gig with Clifford off and on when he was available during that period.  Clifford could play every instrument — bass, drums…

TP:    Speak foreign languages…

HILL:  Oh, he was an incredible person.

[MUSIC: “Ball Square” from Dusk]

TP:    I’m going to take you back about 40 years.  In the years before you left Chicago, which was in ’61, what if any was your connection with the people who comprised the AACM in Chicago directly or indirectly?

HILL:  Well, I had a talk with Richard Abrams…Malachi…

TP:    He was part of your working trio.

HILL:  He was part of my working trio.  But other than that, I had no working connection.  After I had moved to New York, I came back and played at a concert they presented at the University of Chicago, and introduced them to John Sinclair, who was at Ann Arbor at the time, and through that introduction they were able to expand into other areas.

TP:    Next week, how much is new repertoire and how much old?

HILL:  We’re starting with the tunes on this album, but we have about 7 compositions we’re going to work into the repertoire.  By the end of the week, I’m hoping to have a new repertoire of 25-30 tunes.  Because I’ve written a few things before, but I really can’t write for the group effectively until I’ve played one or two nights with the musicians.  Then I can write music that would fit their strengths.

TP:    So for you, writing is as much personality-based as it is…not abstract…

HILL:  Well, in certain situations… Extended compositions are different.  But in these groups, improvs where you put different sections of music together depending upon who is playing.  I’ve noticed through the years you may give an artist material that really may not fit their mindset for the period that they’re in.  This way, everyone can… Like the old jam session, even though it’s a little more rehearsed.  You can find a common denominator, a common level to play on.

TP:    You’ve also been doing a bunch of duos in recent years, as with Bobby Hutcherson recently, duos with David Murray and Archie Shepp.  Are these very satisfying performances for you?

HILL:  I don’t know if “satisfying” is the word because I approached them with apprehension, and then when they’re over it takes me two or three weeks to figure out whether they were successful musically, but they are challenging.

* * * *

Andrew Hill (6-22-00 & 6-23-00):

TP:    I’d like to speak about your relationship to your history, to your past.  I’ve seen you play several times now this year, with your current group, but also situations that bring you back in touch with past associations.  The concert last week with Jackie McLean and Bobby Hutcherson reaffirmed something I knew about your music, which is that you operate with a very specific language and vocabulary, and it seems that to be articulated in an effective way, it needs to be done with all appropriate detail, which it didn’t seem you had time to rehearse enough to make it come out in the concert.

HILL:  That’s partially true.  The problem with this job and the job coming up at the Chicago Festival, most of the promoters want to book me with past associations, because they say it will bring a better house.  But the other side of the coin is, everybody hasn’t kept up.  Musicians come to me with a desire, as they say, to play in the big room, which is defined as playing open, and they really haven’t developed their skills.  That’s why in my band I have a preference for… I can cross racial, chronological and different lines, and find open people who are open enough to have developed these skills to the point where we can go onward with a series of workshops and reprogramming.  Like I was telling Howard, this coming Festival, the only way I can see myself surviving is to cancel and redo it with musicians who I feel I can play with this decade, who may have been wonderful for me 20-30 years ago.  But like I said, everyone hasn’t really kept up.  I’m versatile enough to play other people’s ways.  But the unfortunate thing is, most of the older musicians… With the so-called success or whatever it is, the promotional visibility that I’m getting now, they figure they want to cater to me to the extent that they can play with me.  But then, it’s not about anything retrospective.  We’re talking about current skills.  Because the younger musicians have an encyclopedia from the so-called “avant-garde,” which isn’t avant any more, or bebop… So they have an encyclopedia where they can go into certain aspects of certain styles, and develop a new sound and even an identity.  But then if someone has been out there for years and really hasn’t upgraded their skills, in a sense they’re back at point one.

TP:    Or at the very least, their skills may not have gone in parallel with where you’ve gone in your own music.  Like, Jackie McLean’s skills are immense, but he’s a leader, and he hasn’t been a sideman on anything but Charlie Parker’s music and the tradition for a long time.

HILL:  Well, he wasn’t supposed to be a sideman.  It was supposed to be a collaboration where we went through new material, nothing so hard that anyone would have to go to school for it.  Just little things that were supposed to be natural, natural enough where people could just get together and get into the sound.  But for sound, it would be better for people to play the way they play.  That was my objection to the concert.  I figured it would be stronger if people didn’t try to get with me and allowed me to get with them.  That way I could accompany them, and bring them out.

TP:    I thought for that concert that a more effective way, if you didn’t have a day or two to rehearse…

HILL:  We didn’t.

TP:    …would be maybe to do trios or quartets or break the thing up.

HILL:  It was supposed to be broken up like that.  But they didn’t give us the space necessary for trying to adapt.  That’s the way it was arranged.  But we had bass, drums…everyone was supposed to be in different combinations.  But for some reason it didn’t happen.  Because for the performance, everyone really kind of reverted back to their first nature.  So this type of space was very new.

TP:    The concert needed a producer.

HILL:  It had a good producer.  Everything went well.  The problem was the same aspect that people couldn’t really relax, and when they couldn’t relax they were like a bull in a china shop.  Nothing bad.  But if they had relaxed, and just let everything float and had come in floating, they would have found that space and no one would have noticed.  But then people get used to becoming a dominant soloist, so much so that they feel they must fill up all of the space in certain areas, but they’re not equipped to fill up the space without listening and capturing what’s going on around them.

TP:    So in the ’60s, when this music was all fresh, people weren’t so set in their vocabularies, weren’t so set in their ways.

HILL:  Yes, that’s it.  Just like a young aspiring player today, or anyone creative.  To be creative, you can’t… Everyone can find a formula where they  can sound good, and they can sound good for decades by applying the same formulas.  But when someone says that there are more, then it is their responsibility to themselves that they keep on listening and evolving.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which your sense of composition has evolved over the years.  How do you hear your older music now?  How does it sound to you?

HILL:  The older music brings back the moods of certain periods.  I can almost experience my life during those periods by listening to the music, and enjoy it.  But as far as my having any established formula… I just write music every day, and there’s 10 or 12 ways that I try to get to a new creation.  But I can become analytical only when I’m inside the creation, as to which ways the melodies or fragments of melodies lean towards.  Some things lean towards voices.  So my sociability is my music composition.

TP:    Is the 4-5-6-piece combo sort of your natural metier?  Is that what you hear most naturally?  Or is that a pragmatic choice to write for?

HILL:  Well, I figured I’d get a sextet, get in and write some compositions.  It can be an outlet, but it’s not what I hear or all that I hear.

TP:    What are some other things you’re hearing?

HILL:  Oh, I hear voices, big bands, string quartets, two-basses.  Quite a few things.

TP:    Apart from the unissued tentet stuff for Blue Note, have you done big band…

HILL:  There’s 12 or more in the can.  And I did a big band composition for Harvard University and a few colleges.  I wrote for big bands and orchestras when I was an Associate Professor at Portland State University.  I’m marketed in such polarized areas that there’s really not that much interest in that aspect of me here.

TP:    Can you talk about how your style of piano playing and your individual technique of playing the piano inflects how you hear and compose?

HILL:  Well, it’s almost two different things.  On piano, I go through certain periods where I seem to be very dexterous, and then periods when I’m more into the content than the quantity.  These are things that I don’t analyze, but I try to…

TP:    They happen.

HILL:  Well, it’s not like a gift from God where I just sit down and play.  I have to keep on refining my skills to see how I want to play.

TP:    Tell me something analytically about the pieces on Dusk.

HILL:  Basically all I can say is that the various compositions are constructed in sections.  Different sections where I’ll put certain sections together with the versatility of the musicians.  Each section can have a different sound.  Then as a result, I can bring out different aspects in the various sections.  But as far as my approaching it analytically, at the moment I’m not… I haven’t really been analytical since I left the college.  I have the skills, so I want to apply the skills in almost an organic manner.  In approaching a composition in general, I generally don’t want to talk about something so that I find myself trapped within that for my interpretation of a certain type of creative… I’m happy that the sound means different things to different people.  But for me, as long as I have an activity…in writing, I just would rather pursue it naturally, instead of it being natural or retrospective about what I have done, to keep from having a series of repetitions. TP:    Let me ask you about your range of activities this year.  What are you doing in Italy?

HILL:  In Italy I have a fellowship to retreat for creativity and clarity.  It’s in the vicinity of Tellunueri Castle in Umbertide, Italy, right outside of Perugia.  There will be some writers, poets and painters there also.  I’m the only musician.  I’ll have a wing of the castle to myself a studio and an apartment.  They’re providing transportation, lodging and food, and a car and bicycles.  It’s kind of like the McDowell Colony.  The purpose, they say, is just to give creative artists a chance to reflect and, for consideration of their generosity and hospitality, maybe mention their name.

TP:    You’ve done a lot of duos, special projects. Hutcherson and David Murray are the ones I know about.

HILL:  I did one with David Murray, one with Andrew Cyrille, one with Archie Shepp.

TP:    How were they set up?  In an informal way?  Were they playing your compositions, compositions by both…

HILL:  No, in situations that I try not to be academic about the approach, to try to approach it seeing that there’s two people where I feed into their strength, or their style of performance, trying to create something that’s not specific… My approach to their different individual solos isn’t specific.  I just tried to play with someone and achieve some type of creative contact, no matter what approach I may have to use.

TP:    But which approach did you use?  Did you play your compositions…

HILL:  No, I played their compositions.  I’d try to make them feel completely comfortable.

TP:    With Hutcherson you have a much closer relationship, so I’d imagine the dynamic of performing together is very different.

HILL:  Well, with Hutcherson what happened is, I went to his house for three days and we just had an intensive workshop.

TP:    How is it different for you playing in let’s say the duo as opposed to a situation where there’s a drummer?

HILL:  Well, the drummer is still the basis of jazz, really.  When you’re playing jazz and you’re playing without drums, it’s kind of artificial, but it’s the mood of the time.  It’s artificial because jazz is another aesthetic.  Even though it’s European as far as tonic-dominant harmonies, it’s still a music where Western culture, the emphasis on the melody and harmonics, and rhythm is an accessory.  In African music the emphasis is on the rhythm, and the harmony and melody are accessories.  So basically, it’s been an osmosis of those things.  But still when you get past the rhythm, the beat, the feeling of the heart, all of a sudden you’re dealing with a situation where the guidelines between classical music and jazz are dissolved.  So maybe because people have two artists they call it jazz… It’s still spontaneous music.  It’s really spontaneous music then, because you two are relying on each other to feed each other.  But as far as the tradition, you take the drums out (like, I hear the drums being taken out of James P. Johnson’s music), and you have something else entirely.

TP:    Of course he made up for that with what he did with his left hand, but I take your point.

HILL:  I mean out of his written music.  He has operas and string quartets also.  But for all those things the rhythm has been taken out of the music so you have something completely different than what he wrote.  But like you said, on the piano itself… When they took the drums out of America, the piano because the spiritual master, where you have an evolution of church music in this country.  Especially in the black African-American Negro tradition, the piano has been evolving as a rhythm instrument, even going back to 1850, when they used to play the rolling piano, which was boogie-woogie.  So boogie-woogie came before ragtime.

TP:    I didn’t know boogie-woogie went back that far.

HILL:  They used to call it the “rolling piano” style.  It was known in the West, the same approach that boogie-woogie had.  These things were nourished in the subculture, even though it wasn’t predominant in the greater society.  Because in that period, from the free Negroes and the slaves, they wanted Coon music.

TP:    This record is extremely rhythmic, with amazingly complex and dynamic rhythms.  In the sextet with Nasheet Waits, you have an incredibly dynamic young drummer.  How much of a blueprint do you give the drummer?  Are you very specific about the rhythms that they have to articulate?

HILL:  First, I get drummers, again, who love the music.  The ones I’ve select, I select because of their abilities to play counter- and cross-rhythms.  So from that alone, I give everyone in the band the freedom to be themselves (it’s not a dictatorship) to the extent where they can utilize and develop their creative voice.

TP:    Greg Osby said that with your music, you have to disregard the page.  The page is just the blueprint and you can’t follow it literally.  If you follow the notations and rhythms just as you wrote it out, it won’t have the right sound, that there has to be a real experience of hearing the music.

HILL:  I understand what you’re saying.  With different musicians I use different approaches.  I have to, because everyone has their…soloists have their certain rhythmic priority, places where they can go and places where they can’t go.  Like, the younger musicians aren’t supposed to be as creative as the older ones, even though they’re developing that, but they have something special in the fact that they can read anything you put in front of them.  Even though I’m humble, but most people don’t realize that having been an Associate Professor for year, I am very precise.  Like, I can write for strings and do things for strings that most people can’t do.  They said in the old days that you couldn’t write for strings because they really couldn’t swing or capture the magic of jazz.  I’m skilled enough to communicate with anyone.

TP:    Do different musics that you write have different functions?  Does the music for the performing group have one set of parameters and the string music has another?

HILL:  Well, each song you write has to me a life of its own once you’re developing it.  It itself will tell you according to one’s own references what area or genre you think the music would fit best in.  So you develop it from that point on.  It’s not a thing where you sit down… Quite frequently melodies come to me in the head.  But then other things… Even they have a form of their own.  So when you write music, you try to capture the form, and when you’re playing with other people you try to capture the essence of their presence and not control them.  So with Greg, I give him the liberty that if he hears other things, he plays other things.  I don’t write it so set that if a person goes contrary to what I thought, that I’m offended.  I give it to the artist.  Some prefer to read it with the dynamics and stuff written in, like the sextet…

TP:    So in other words, the flow of it goes according to the personality of the artist and where they’re willing to go with what you give them.

HILL:  Yeah, and the things that I have completely written, like extended compositions.  Well, you’re supposed to be dealing with the creative music.  In the old days they used to take standards and bend them to their interpretation, so that they can take music and bend it to their interpretation and style where… If it’s natural to them, I honor it.  I don’t say, “Well, you have to play this note.”  Because what the sextet brought out is it shows the players how to play rhythmic counterpoint against each other in the group improv.  So I see from my having done that on the scene, it’s become popular on the scene.  But now the older musicians cater to me, but the younger musicians have been hearing me so long that I’m natural to them no matter what way I go.

TP:    With someone like Nasheet, his responses are based upon having heard you for a long time and kind of intuitively knowing what you need.  And of course, that’s his own predisposition to play like that.

HILL:  His response is to play.  Like I said, the sound may sound natural to him.  But to play and not be hemmed in.  Whoever you are, present yourself, moreso than the call-and-response… It’s a term that really is not completely appropriate, even though it’s used on certain occasions.

TP:    Now, Bobby Hutcherson said that the main thing about your music for him is that every song makes him think of a story.  There’s always a little story in the melody, and there’s a reason why it’s being played.  Do you write music abstractly, or does a work always have to correlate to some sort of story or some sort of mood or some sort of color.

HILL:  Well, those are two questions.  On the first question, about Bobby Hutcherson’s impression of my music compared with Greg’s impression of my music, everyone who performs with you looks at it a different dimension of your music, according to their understanding and how they connect with you.  But it has nothing literally to do with the composer himself.  I’m glad, as we said earlier, that the music can be interpreted by other artists in various ways.

Question two: I write because it is as natural to me as breathing.  I just write music.  I write all the time.  Like I said, that’s my relaxation and my sociability.

TP:    You made a comment a few years ago about Point of Departure, that Tony Williams surprised you in some ways in everything he did, and that there were areas he couldn’t go into with Miles that you were able to bring him into in some of the thing you did.  That’s how I’m interpreting what you said.  If you could be specific, what areas would those have been?

HILL:  Well, playing with Miles was an egocentric, demonstrative situation.  For a professional musician that the epitome, because from that other things are coming, and the more demonstrative you are, even musically, the more you’ll be seen.  But with me, he could go into calmer rhythms and deal with the music not in volume but in rhythmic intensity.

TP:    Also stepping back to the ’60s, you said that during that time in particular you were extremely enamored with Roy Haynes’ playing, and what you specifically liked was a quality you said also Ike Day had, that he incorporated every component of the kit into the rhythmic flow, so that there was therefore a floating rhythm rather than a stacked rhythm.

HILL:  What attracted me to Roy Haynes, when I first came to New York he was playing with trios all the time.  And I loved the way… Like you said, it’s a floating rhythm, it’s a relaxed rhythm… Playing with him, he relaxed the beat, i a sense.  Philly Joe Jones and them were playing precise metronome, like 1-2-3-4, and everything was pyramided on top of that.  But with Roy Haynes, he left space and he left the soloist, whoever it may be, a space where they could be precise but they could still float in.

TP:    What is the synergy between you and Nasheet Waits?  He seems to be an extremely effective drummer for your music.

HILL:  With me, being homogeneous, I’d say, well, my blessing is through these various decades to play with the best artists available, young artists, being able to interact with them, interact with anyone… Through the decades… I’m not going to say, “Well, such-and-such is the greatest,” but I will say that I’ve liked people who love the music… I mean, Billy Drummond, what he did is phenomenal, and I like Billy Hart.  I’m not so polarized on one person.  All I ask a person to do when I get together with them is play.  If they can play, I like them.  If they can’t play, I don’t like them.  I see people develop certain instinctual skills.  So if I’m lucky enough to be in an area where there are still some great budding artists, it means jazz isn’t dead, that it’s still evolving.

TP:    You said before that this is a golden period.

HILL:  Well, in more ways than one.  In the artists that’s available at any time… You have younger artists, you have young audiences — that’s a given.  So you have to have a chronological cross-section who love the music, and that will pick up the volume demographically.  So there are opportunities for things to happen that haven’t happened since the ’30s, and will go further than what happened in the ’30s.  It’s just the laws of general dynamics.

TP:    Everyone I’ve talked to has said that your voicings are totally distinctive, that if you write a standard chord change you can’t really play it as written because other notes are implied that aren’t in there.  I guess that’s maybe for them to say and not for you to say at this point.

HILL:  Well, that’s just a leftover from the old days.  People didn’t play the same chord the same way all the time.  They took certain liberties that gave the soloist liberties.  That’s just an extension of that.


Filed under Andrew Hill, Article, Chicago, DownBeat, Interview, Piano, WKCR

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I’ve interpolated a few of Von’s remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.


But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930’s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930’s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: “It Could Happen To You” (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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