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In Honor Of The 91st Birth Anniversary of Cecil Payne (1922-2007): A Liner Note and Full Interview

It’s the 91st birth anniversary of the late baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne, who passed away six years. Despite various physical ailments, he was performing at a high level until into the early aughts. In 2000, I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for a Delmark recording, his fourth, titled Live At The Jazz Showcase, with Eric Alexander, Jim Rotondi, Harold Mabern, John Webber and Joe Farnsworth. I’ve appended first the liner note, and then the unedited interview with Mr. Payne.

Cecil Payne, Chick, Boom: Live At The Jazz Showcase:

“People know what a Mambo is, they know what a waltz is, and they know what a tango is, but they don’t know what jazz is,” says Cecil Payne, who, from the perspective of 78 years on the planet, 60 spent as a working musician, has some wisdom on the subject.  “When you play Jazz, you play Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and Baby Dodds.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.”

On “Live At the Jazz Showcase,” culled from three revelrous evenings in the hospitable ambiance of the venerable Chicago room, Payne and his hardcore unit — all but pianist Harold Mabern are 40 to 45 years his junior — apply that seemingly elementary dictum with a vengeance, conversing with a swinging simpatico that devastates any presumption of a generation gap.  The dialogue began one evening in 1993, when tenorist Eric Alexander came to Augie’s — the Upper West Side saloon that nurtured many of New York’s finest during the ’90s — to jam with Payne, the late tenor giant Junior Cook, and master-of-all-tempos trapsetter Joe Farnsworth.

“I had retired from music,” Payne recalls, “but I would take the bus to New York to play with Junior and Joe, because there’s something about playing with friends where you don’t have to worry about wrong notes.  I was having a great time.  I still am.

“From the first tune Eric played that night, I thought he was going to be great.’  He had style.  He still has.  And everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.  It’s not only the spirit of their playing, but these jokers are like computers in music theory.  I keep learning from them.  We didn’t have any music when we made this date, and Eric created the background harmonies.”

The sentiment is mutual.  “Cecil has a certain economy in his playing,” says Alexander, who along with Farnsworth and authoritative trumpeter Jim Rotondi comprise half of One For All, a cooperative sextet with five records under its belt whose members have evolved into consequential voices during their long association.  “In his soloing and writing he always seems to break down any series of chord progressions or melodies to the true essence of the tune.  I’ve never heard Cecil play anything corny or extraneous or trivial.  Then, his time is ridiculous, and he gets the most pleasing baritone saxophone sound I’ve heard.  A lot of times you hear baritone saxophonists bark or go heavy on the tongue, but Cecil’s approach is very light.  I think it comes from the fact that he was originally an alto player, and in addition he liked Lester Young, and tried to transfer that approach to the baritone.  He is from the era that we all wish we were from, and he is part of that revolution in the music that we wish we could have been part of.  For us, it’s a treat to be associated with him.”

Payne enthusiastically cosigns his passion for the President, manifested here by “Ding-A-Ling,” a modernist reworking of the Basie classic “Jive At Five,” and by the perfectly timed quote of “Taxi War Dance” that he deploys to springboard into the turnback of his solo on “Bosco,” a Latin rouser in B-flat-minor.

“When I was about 13, I heard Lester Young’s 2-bar break on ‘Honeysuckle Rose’ by Count Basie,” the Brooklyn native remembers.  “I told my father, ‘Buy me a saxophone!’  Every now and then I heard Basie at Bedford and Atlantic Avenues, and I stayed by that bandstand all night to watch Lester Young.  His horn was all green in between the keys!  But the sound that came out was something else.  My main influence was listening to Lester Young.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.”

Payne’s father not only bought him an alto, but took him to neighborhood celebrity Pete Brown, the renowned jump alto saxophonist, for lessons at a quarter a pop.  By 19, Payne was “playing alto parts” in a band led by Boys High School classmate Max Roach (personnel included ur-boppers Victor Coulson [trumpet], Allen Tinney [piano], Leonard Gaskin [bass] and, for a short time, Charlie Parker) at Georgie Jay’s Taproom at 78th Street and Broadway for a 9-to-3 shift; he occasionally accompanied Roach to Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem to play the 4-to-8 a.m. afterhours shift.  He caught the ear of proprietor Clark Monroe; when Payne emerged from three years in the Service, Monroe, walking the walk on his determination to “get jobs for all my boys that come out of the Army,” sent the newly decommissioned young saxman to Roy Eldridge, who was looking for an alto player for a fortnight gig at the Spotlite, the 52nd Street club that Monroe managed.

“When I got there,” Payne relates, “Roy Eldridge told me he’d just hired Sahib Shihab to play alto.  I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished, Roy said, ‘Where can I find a baritone player?’  I had a baritone I’d played in a stock band when I was 15, and he said, ‘Bring it tomorrow.’  Dizzy came in to see Roy, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy Ballroom, where he was working.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing, and I put on a uniform jacket and joined them.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and then I took a solo in B-flat, maybe ‘I Got Rhythm’ — I couldn’t play much else.  Everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.”

During Payne’s two years with Gillespie he recorded well-parsed, Prez-inflected solos on “Ow!” and “Stay On It” that cemented his rep as bebop’s first baritonist.  On a Fall 1948 session with James Moody and Chano Pozo he waxed the oft-recorded “Cu-Ba,” kicking off a career as a composer of pungent melodies and protein-rich harmonic progressions whose logic masks a subtle, complex sensibility.  That Payne retains the fire of the nascent bop years is evident in the chopbusting set-closer “Cit Sac” (it’s “Lover” in B-flat, with a sly quote of “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge).  That he has not forgotten the passions that fueled that fire is clear on “You Will Be Mine Tonight,” a lyric champagne before the fireplace ballad of 1999 vintage inspired by memories of an Army buddy bandmate’s amorous adventures in a hotel room while on the road directly after the war.

Payne’s subsequent c.v. includes big band stints with Illinois Jacquet, Machito, Woody Herman and Count Basie, not to mention substantial combo work with the likes of fellow Brooklynites Randy Weston, Duke Jordan, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham, and the indefatigably creative Harold Mabern, a friend and colleague for forty years.  There isn’t much jazz history he hasn’t seen or experienced.

“Cecil knows a lot, and if you want to find out what he really knows, you have to sit down and talk to him and ask him questions,” Alexander notes.  “When he explains how he approaches certain things, it seems so obvious and simple that you can’t believe you didn’t already think of it.  It’s the most obvious way, but it’s also the way that most people never even get to — it’s in front of their face, and they look right past it.  I think that explains a lot about the directness and honesty in his playing.  There’s no B.S.”

You’ll hear that directness and honesty in the declamations of all members on Chick, Boom, a session providing abundant proof that Cecil Payne’s DNA contains no atavistic genes.  Resolutely optimistic, Payne unfailingly wields his memories and experience as a springboard to future explorations and conversations framed by the jazz lifebeat.

Which is neither BOOM-CHICK nor BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  In case you didn’t hear him clearly before, Payne reiterates what it is: “It’s Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s ‘and.’  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s ‘and-one.’ Then you bring it down to the ‘and-boom.’  Chick-boom.  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.”

* * *

Interview with Cecil Payne for Liner Notes:

TP:    This is your fourth record for Delmark, and on each one Eric Alexander has been by your side.  It sounds like you got a lot of inspiration from coming down to these sessions at Augie’s and hearing these guys, and that it’s been a reciprocal inspiration — they’ve obviously been inspired by you.  But it’s like a context or framework to just do your thing.

PAYNE:  What you’re saying is true.  It started in 1992 when I retired.  I was living in Camden, and I wasn’t playing much, just in some of the clubs here.  I ran into a friend, Junior Cook, the tenor player.  I had a Jazzmobile to do in New York.  I called everybody up, but I didn’t have a drummer.  I said, “Can you find me a drummer, man?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ll get you  drummer.”  I said, “Who is it?”  He said, “Don’t worry about it!”  Up to the last minute I was thinking about it, because drummers have to play the right beat and keep the groove.  So here comes the drummer.  He has a blue suit on and a tie, and that was Joe Farnsworth.  I say, “Is that the cat?”  He says, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh my goodness.”  He didn’t look that good.  But when we’d crossed the point where we’d played the first number, I turned to Junior and said, “Where did you find this cat?”  That was Joe Farnsworth.  And he’s a hundred times better now than he was then.

TP:    He sounds like no one else but him now.

PAYNE:  Yeah.  So it was me, him and Junior working at Augie’s.  Every weekend I would go to New York, just to play, because there’s something about playing when you don’t have to worry about wrong notes, just getting yourself together and playing with friends that you know and have the same feeling.  I was having a great time.  I still am.  That’s when Eric Alexander came down to play at Augie’s.  The first tune he played, I said, “Man, this cat is going to be great.”  Because he had style, too.  He still has.  Everybody now is way better than they were eight years ago.  They’ve been keeping me alive, putting fire behind me.

TP:    You just said a word that’s very interesting to me.  You’re able to have a conversation with these guys, and they’re all about 40-45 years younger than you.  That’s an amazing thing about jazz, isn’t it.

PAYNE:  Yeah, with jazz you don’t have to speak a language.  You can go to any country in the world and play with musicians, and you understand each other.  It’s a feeling for the music.

TP:    So what you’re saying is that playing with these guys, because they’ve mastered the fundamentals and they’re such fluent musicians, allows you to be free.

PAYNE:  Yeah, but it’s more than that.  You said fundamentals.  See, these jokers are like computers in music theory.  See, there’s not only the spirit of playing, but they also know everything they play on piano and the chord changes and the notes and everything they do.  They’re very advanced.   So it keeps me learning from them, too.  In the old days sometimes you’d play by ear, and then there were chords you’d play.  But these young musicians, they have computer minds that they can just stand up and talk to you about it ‘and tell you what note.  When we made the record date, Eric was the one who could create the harmony in the background at the date, and we didn’t have any music.  He, Jim Rotondi and Steve Davis all work together.  They’re like best friends.  I feel real comfortable when I play with them…for my last few days.

TP:    And Harold Mabern is also a constant on these records.

PAYNE:  Mabern is my teacher! [LAUGHS] We know each other from way back, since the ’50s.

TP:    He got to Chicago in ’56 or ’57 and then New York at the beginning of the ’60s.

PAYNE:  He moved to Brooklyn.  We lived right near each other.  Mabern is my mentor, man.  He knows that piano.  He’s like the foundation.

TP:    He’s one of the few with a real two-hand approach to bebop language.

PAYNE:  Oh yeah, he knows that.

TP:    Say a little something about each of the tunes.  “Chick, Boom.”

PAYNE:  “Chick, Boom.”  Most people say, “What is jazz?”  Nobody knows what Jazz is.  They know what a Mambo is.  They know what a waltz is.  They know what a tango is.  But they don’t know what Jazz is.  Jazz is Chick-Boom.  It’s not Boom-Chick.  When you play Jazz, you play Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom, Chick-Boom.  That’s Jazz, “Chick-a-Boom, Chick-a-Boom.  It’s not BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM-CHICK.  If you don’t hear that beat, it ain’t jazz.  Chick-boom, chick-boom, chick-boom, and-one, and-two, and… Before you talk, you have to open your mouth.  That’s “and.”  Then before you stomp your feet, you lift it up.  That’s “and-one.”  Then you bring it down to the “and-boom.”  “Chick-boom.”  It’s very easy.  It’s not very hard to understand what jazz is.

TP:    You were born in 1922 and you started playing before Bebop.  Is that the beat you remember from when you were first playing, and it continued in various forms after you played with Dizzy and so on?

PAYNE:  You’re going too far ahead.  See, when I was younger, the only thing I ever heard was calypsos, because my parents are from Barbados.  When I went to public school and was about 13, we moved into a house that had a victrola, and somebody had left a record on there, which was a Count Basie record, “Honeysuckle Rose,” and when they put it on I heard Lester Young make this 2-bar break.  I told my father, “buy me a saxophone!”  He bought me an alto.  There was a musician my father used to hear on Gates Avenue named Pete Brown.  We lived right by this 129 public school, and my father asked him if he could give me lessons, and he said yes.  25 cents a lesson.

TP:    So you studied with Pete Brown, one of the first jump alto players.

PAYNE:  I think I heard Pete Brown play once.  I never heard him play jazz.  But he taught me how to read.  If I came there and didn’t know the lesson, he would say, “Go home, man, and read and study.”

TP:    So he’d embarrass you into learning it.

PAYNE:  That’s right.  He made me… I didn’t know how to solo.  When I went to high school, at Boys High School, I met Max Roach.  I didn’t know I was older than him until recently.  There were some local bands we played with.  I played with some big bands, just reading music from those stock arrangements by Count Basie and the Benny Goodman band.  Max played with another group, and we became friends going to school.

TP:    Did the big bands play in Brooklyn?  Did Basie or Ellington or Lunceford play the Paramount Theater?

PAYNE:  Every now and then, if I was lucky enough, I could hear Count Basie up at Bedford Avenue and Atlantic in Brooklyn.  And I stayed by that bandstand all night.

TP:    So you could watch Lester Young.

PAYNE:  [LAUGHS] His horn was green!  In between the keys, man, it was all green.  But the sound that came out was something else.  Nobody had    a sound like Lester Young, man.  Paul Quinichette tried to imitate him.  But his sound changed after a while, too.  Lester got a new horn, and his sound was different.

TP:    So you’re coming up playing on alto, and switched to baritone.  But that beat, the chick-boom beat, is the beat of jazz and has been since you started playing.

PAYNE:  No, it’s been the beat of jazz from the beginning, from Louis Armstrong and all them.  That’s the jazz beat.  That ain’t from my time.  That’s the start of jazz.

TP:    It’s the continuity.  So the record begins with you stating that this is jazz.  Then “Ding-A-Ling.”

PAYNE:  That’s a Lester Young tune called “Jive At Five.”  I tried to modernize it a little bit.

TP:    It made me think of the way Illinois Jacquet might treat it, then I realized that you’d played with Illinois Jacquet.

PAYNE:  He’s like a father to me, although he’s only one year older than I am.

TP:    You were with him for three years at the turn of the ’50s.

PAYNE:  Well, I played with Roy Eldridge in 1946. That’s when Dizzy heard me.  He came to hear the Roy Eldridge Band, and he was looking for a baritone player.  That was a lucky day for me.

TP:    When Dizzy heard you, you were familiar with him, I guess.

PAYNE:  In 1943, I went into the Army for three years.  I was stationed at Camp Ellis in Peoria, Illinois, for about a year-and-a-half, then I went to Europe.  At first I was in the 520th Trucking Regiment, because I had a license.  I didn’t have any union card.  Then I was in the 1333 Engineers.  When the war was over in Europe, we went straight to Okinawa, and they had a band there that I got into.  When I came out of the Army, I was a Sergeant in the 219 Army Ground Force Band.

TP:    So you were 20 when you went in the Army. [19] Before you went in, you were playing around Brooklyn.

PAYNE:  I played with Clarence Berry’s Big Band, and I played with Max Roach’s group in the 78th Street Taproom on Broadway playing parts.

TP:    Oh, you played at Georgie Jay’s Taproom?

PAYNE:  Yeah, with Allen Tinney and me and Gaskin…

TP:    But you were in the Army when Bird came in and played with them.

PAYNE:  Bird came in one night and played my horn.

TP:    So that’s the first time you met Bird.

PAYNE:  Yes.  But he wasn’t famous then or nothing.  He just came and played it.

TP:    Do you have a memory of that?

PAYNE:  Well, anybody who played solo was better than I was, because I couldn’t solo at all.

TP:    I’ve heard Max Roach talk about that, that he had the gig at Georgie Jay’s, then they’d pack up and go to Minton’s, so they’d wind up playing 12 hours in two different clubs.

PAYNE:  Oh, Max got around a lot.  I got to go uptown.  He got me out of Brooklyn.

TP:    So when you got out of the Army…

PAYNE:  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe, who had an after-hour house where we used to go down… That’s where I heard Bird play.  When I got out of the Army, Clark Monroe said, “I get all my boys that come out of the Army jobs.”  He said, “Go down and speak to Roy Eldridge; he’s looking for an alto player.”  When I went down there, Roy Eldridge said, “I’m sorry, man.  I just hired an alto player.”  Believe it or not, the alto player was Sahib Shihab.  So I sat through the whole rehearsal, listening to all the great players, and when they finished playing Roy Eldridge said, “Where can I find a baritone player?”  I said, “I’ve got a baritone.”  He said, “Bring it tomorrow.”  I had a baritone that I played with Clarence Berry when I was 15, and it was (?) because I only played three notes on it — A-G-E.  Leonard Gaskin said, “It sure would sound good if we had a baritone to play those notes.”  So my father bought me a baritone sax.  $45.  In those days that was a whole lot of money.  Clarence Berry just led the band; he didn’t play.

TP:    So you wound up playing baritone with Roy Eldridge because he needed a baritone player.

PAYNE:  We played two weeks on 52nd Street, in Clark Monroe’s club.

TP:    That was the Spotlite, that club that Clark Monroe fronted.

PAYNE:  That’s it.  Dizzy came in to see Roy Eldridge, and asked me if I could come to the Savoy.  He was working up there.  Back then it was rehearsal.  When I got there, they were on the bandstand playing.  Bill Graham was playing.  I was scared.  I was going to go home because I heard the band playing.  Anyhow, Bill Graham said, “If he told you to come down, stay, man!”  When I went on the bandstand, Bill Graham gave me a uniform jacket, and we sat down there.  Thanks to Pete Brown I could read anything, and when I read the music, they were saying, “Oh, man!”  Then I took a solo in B-flat, like “I Got Rhythm.”  I couldn’t play much else.  In those days I wasn’t… You played chords, but you didn’t play chord changes.  Anyhow, I played the solo, and everybody, Moody and all them, just grinned.  They were happy.  But Bill Graham gave me (?).

TP:    So you joined Dizzy after Dizzy debuted at the Spotlite.  The way Moody tells the story, he joined Dizzy in the mid-summer of ’46 when they were at the Spotlite, the club that Clark Monroe was fronting.  You joined Dizzy after Moody had already joined the band, in late ’46, and you took the first solo people really remember was “Stay On It.”

PAYNE:  Well, my first tune, my claim to fame, was “Ow!”  They called me like the first bebop baritone player.

TP:    What do you think of that?

PAYNE:  Well, do you remember Serge Chaloff?  You ever hear him play?  He was playing like that before I ever joined Dizzy.

TP:    You must have heard Jack Washington and Harry Carney.

PAYNE:  Of course.  But I wasn’t playing the baritone then.

TP:    Were there any stylistic models for you on baritone, or were you winging it and figuring it out as you went along?

PAYNE:  The only influence was listening to Lester Young’s solos.  I bought every record that came out.  I learned every note, every solo.

TP:    So you know every Lester Young solo by heart.

PAYNE:  Mostly, yes.  Me and Lee Konitz!

TP:    Then “You Will Be Mine Tonight” is your tune?  It’s a nice ballad.  When did you write it?

PAYNE:  Not too long ago.  Last year.  I was playing with someone, an alto player a good friend who I’d known since the Army days.  He’s the one who got me into the band when I was in the Army.  I heard the band walking down playing “Reveille,” and when I’d look at them… Vincent (?).  He was playing alto in the band and he took me into it.  Anyhow, after we came out of the Army, we played in a band (I can’t remember who), and we went on the road, and he had his girlfriend with him.  We stayed in separate rooms.  They were in the room one night, and you’d hear him chasing his girl around the room.  He would say, “I will have you tonight!  I will have you tonight.”  So when I wrote this tune, I tried to think of him.

TP:    You made it sound much more romantic than that.

PAYNE:  Well, I changed the words.  I said, “You will be mine tonight.”  I couldn’t put “I Will Have You Tonight.”

TP:    On “Bosco”, midway through your solo, you quoted “Taxi War Dance.”

PAYNE:  “Bosco” is my stepson’s name here in Camden.  I got married in 1970, and my stepson’s nickname is Bosco.

TP:    That sounds like some of the things you did with Duke Jordan, like “Scotch Blues” and things like that.

PAYNE:  I played with Duke and K.D. for years.  We played together all the time.

TP:    You were very close to K.D., too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  He lived right there in Brooklyn, too.  He had six daughters.  Miles had five children.  Max has a whole lot of children, too.  And believe it or not, I don’t have any children, man.  I have a stepson.

I started writing way back.  Everybody started getting their own music together.  So I started getting tunes together.  I didn’t actually play them until I went to Europe.

TP:    About how many tunes would you say you have copyrighted?

PAYNE:  I have a whole lot of tunes.  I don’t know how many.  Don Sickler has them.  Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet recorded two of my tunes.  I did them in collaboration with another fellow, whose name I forget.  He’s the one who got me to write the tunes with him.

TP:    Were you playing in Latin bands in the ’50s, or did that start when you went with Machito in the early ’60s?

PAYNE:  It started with Machito.

TP:    Of course you played with Chano Pozo.

PAYNE:  Right, with Chano Pozo.  But Dizzy didn’t play with no Latin beat.  We were just playing swing.  But Machito was when I started playing with Latin bands.  Their beat is unmistakable!  The timbales keep the downbeat, the bass plays 3/4.  You can play the same thing on jazz, but you have to turn the beat around.  They have their own beat.  Jazz is different.  It fits, but you have to change that beat around to synchronize it.  You can’t play a Latin beat with a jazz beat.  You have to play the Latin beat on another beat to make it sound right.

TP:    So you played with Machito for three years, and then Woody Herman.

PAYNE:  I had stopped playing and went into the real estate business, trying to sell real estate.  But I couldn’t sell anybody anything, man.  I didn’t care about it.

TP:    So you did that in the ’50s, and when you decided to get back into music is when you joined Machito and Woody Herman?

PAYNE:  It was 1958 or ’59.  I actually had stopped playing, but I did work with Machito, and then I had this thing with the Broadway production of The Connection with Kenny Drew.  I didn’t (?) into jazz at that time.

TP:    The scene was changing then, too.

PAYNE:  Yes.  Because in 1957 Coltrane changed everything!

TP:    So after “Bosco” we have “Here’s That Rainy Day.” You play flute.

PAYNE:  I’m still trying to play the flute.  But whoever wrote the tune, the last tune he hits is a minor chord, and I said, “If I record this tune, I’m not going to play a minor chord.”  The minor chord makes it sound real down.  It’s the same thing with “I Should Care.”  When I play that tune, if it wasn’t for the last bar, I wouldn’t even have thought about the tune.

TP:    Are you a big fan of singers?

PAYNE:  I’m a big fan of singers, but not playing with them.

TP:    The last tune is those “Lover” changes, with “Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby” on the bridge.  Racehorse.  Great set-closer.  That’s one of the tunes people liked to play.

PAYNE:  Well, Bird played that.

My lucky day was when I got hooked up with those young folks, man.  One thing before you leave.  When Joe Farnsworth was 27, it was his birthday, and he said to me, “Man, Cecil, I’m 27 years old, man!”  I said, “What the heck are you telling me that for?  I’m 72.”

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Cecil Payne, Interview, Liner Notes

For Freddie Hubbard’s 75th Birth Anniversary, A DownBeat Piece From 2001

In 2001, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the late Freddie Hubbard for a DownBeat profile. It took a bit of negotiating, but Freddie met me at the appointed hour, and spoke at length about his life and times. In this case, I have to depart from the  “raw and uncut” policy I’ve followed for the most part on the blog, and will decline to print the verbatim conversation—it’s a bit too real and profane, and he named names. But I was able to distil from it for print what I thought was a reasonably compelling first-person account, which I offer on the occasion of his 75th birth anniversary.

* * *

During his lengthy prime, Freddie Hubbard embodied excellence  in trumpet playing.  He had a big sound, dark and warm, almost operatic.  His breathtaking facility allowed him to play long, melodic lines of saxophonistic complexity; depending on the situation, he’d cover all the changes or navigate lucid paths through soundscapes comprising the most abstract shapes and timbres.  In every situation, Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance that told several generations of aspirants, “I’m Freddie Hubbard and you’re not.”

Hubbard blew out his upper lip in 1992, and has since lived through a hell-on-earth that might make Dante pause and reflect.  The recent recording “New Colors” [Hip Bop] — Hubbard on flugelhorn fronts the New Jazz Composers Octet through well-crafted David Weiss arrangements of seven choice Hubbard originals — makes the problem clear in the most poignant way.  Hubbard’s ideas sparkle, but he plays tentatively, with a palpable lack of confidence, and has trouble sustaining his sound for any duration.

At a conversation in the coffee shop of New York’s Mayflower Hotel last May, Hubbard retrospected candidly on his life and times.

* * *

My sister played trumpet, and I picked it up as a competitive thing. I followed her to Jordan Conservatory, and studied privately with Max Woodbury, who played first trumpet with the Indianapolis Symphony. I wanted to play like Rafael Mendez, able to triple-tongue and so on. My brother played piano just like Bud Powell. He had all the records, the Dial Charlie Parkers and so on, and he got me interested in this music. The record that really turned me around was Bird’s “Au Privave.”

Wes Montgomery lived two blocks from me, across the railroad tracks, and to get to the conservatory I had to pass by his house. I’d hear Wes and his brothers rehearsing, and one day I stopped and went in. At the time, everything I knew was reading, and it amazed me how they were making up the music — intricate arrangements, not jam stuff — as they went along. After that, I was at his house every day, and then Wes started inviting me to a Saturday jam session in Speedway City. The Montgomery brothers didn’t care about keys. At home I was practicing in F or B-flat, but at the jam session they’d play in E and A — the funny keys. Practicing in those keys opened me up, made me a little better than most of the cats.

My brother had the records by Mulligan and Chet Baker, and we played the solos that were transcribed in the books. That motivated me. Then I heard “Musings Of Miles,” with Philly Joe Jones, Oscar Pettiford and Red Garland. That record made me start skipping school. Miles’ style was melodic and simple, and I could hear it. Then I started listening to Fat Girl (Fats Navarro) and Dizzy, which was quite a contrast. Then Clifford Brown. Clifford was a conservatory type of cat, and I tried to play like him. I’d sit with James Spaulding, who lived up the street, and transcribe Clifford’s solos and play Charlie Parker’s tunes.

Indianapolis was a bebop town. It was a filler job for guys on their way to Chicago. Charlie Parker might come through, or James Moody, or Kenny Dorham. I invited a lot of musicians to my house, had my mother wash their clothes and and give them a good home-cooked meal. We had a nice house. My father worked hard in the foundries, and everybody was clothed and clean and had money. Whatever I wanted, my mother tried to get for me. She took me to the music store in downtown Indianapolis for a trumpet. I said, ‘Mama, we’ve got no money for this.’  She said, ‘No!’  She told the guy, ‘Let him take it home and practice on it.’  She was a very strong lady; they KNEW that they would eventually get their money.

While I was going to Jordan Conservatory, Spaulding and Larry Ridley and I formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked gigs all over town, all the weddings and concerts, until I got busted on suspicion of burglary. I was on a date with this white girl, a nice girl — we were just friends. I’d been aiming to be a teacher, but I had to leave school. Hearing Clifford’s music kept me going. It made me say, “Forget it. I can’t let this stop me. The music is forever.”

A friend named Lenny Benjamin, who was from the Bronx and wrote for the “Indianapolis Star,” told me he was going back to New York, and offered me a ride and a place to stay. I’ll never forget coming into the Bronx. It was July, and it was hot. It was like “The Blackboard Jungle.”  I’d never seen so many brothers and different people in the street.  For the first five days I didn’t come out of the house, I was so scared. I just looked out the window. I saw anything imaginable — robberies, cutups, shootups, a couple of attempted rapes.

After a while, I moved into a small pad Slide Hampton had in back of the Apollo Theater. I used to follow everyone backstage — James Brown, Wilson Pickett, even Moms Mabley! — and hang out. At the time Slide was working with Maynard Ferguson. I would watch him write out arrangements without a piano; it helped my reading. Then he got enough money to buy a house on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, and I moved there with him. The house was like a conservatory. Eric Dolphy was in there blowing on his horns; also [trumpeter] Hobart Dotson, and “Prophet” Jennings, a painter.

I was in California with Sonny Rollins when I first met Eric. He was working with Chico Hamilton. He sounded like Cannonball then; it surprised me in Brooklyn how much he changed his style. Maybe he wanted to play like that all the time; in California he invited me to his house, and the music was so weird his mother made him practice in the garage!  Eric could play some Funk and get deep down and play some Blues, but he didn’t want to. He really wanted to get into Ornette’s thing. He was a better musician than Ornette, but he didn’t have that swing that communicates. Some stuff he wrote sounded square, like kindergarten music. But the way he would play it!  He was such a jubilant, happy guy. I liked his spirit. A lot of people wouldn’t give Eric gigs. They thought he was trying to be weird on purpose.

Sonny had heard me at Turbo Village, at Reed and Halsey in Bedford Stuyvesant, where I started playing four nights a week shortly after I came here. Philly Joe Jones lived in Brooklyn; he’d come by the club to play, and he started inviting everyone to come listen to me. One night he brought Bud Powell to sit in; the next thing I know, Sonny was coming by. I stayed there about a year and a half, I met all the other musicians — Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, Walter Davis. Those were the beboppers, and by me liking bebop so much, we hooked up.

Sonny called me right before he quit. He didn’t have a piano, and he was still playing songs like “Ee-Yah” real fast; he played “April In Paris,” which sounds weird without a piano, and I had to learn the chords. I learned so much about being on my own, playing by myself. Sonny’s way of playing is rhythmic. He would practice by going over and over his ideas, and he taught me how to do that — make it stronger. He brought my chops up. Coltrane’s concept was more linear. I’d take the subway to Trane’s house every day he was in town. I had a headache when I left there because he was practicing so much.

I thought trumpet players weren’t able to express themselves as freely as saxophone players. Playing like a saxophone is harder on the chops, but it opens you up; saxophone isn’t so brassy and doesn’t attack your ear. I figured if I could mix it up, it would make me sound different from Dizzy and Miles. I was expecting Newk and Coltrane to play Charlie Parker’s stuff, but they’d learned that, and they were studying books like Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales,” which Coltrane introduced me to. You can’t compare them. They had strength in different ways. But for some reason, I leaned more towards Sonny.

Philly Joe was the first one who hired me to work at Birdland. It was a Monday night session, and we were playing “Two Bass Hit.” I had copied Miles’ solo note-for-note. When I opened my eyes, I saw him sitting down at the front of the stage. I almost had a heart attack!  I knew he was thinking, “Who is this motherfucker playing my solo?”  Anyway, he saw me make up my own ideas, and right there in Birdland he told Alfred Lion to give me a contract. Sure enough the next day, Ike Quebec called me.

I’m the only one from VSOP who wrote a song for Miles — “One Of Another Kind.”  Miles was one of the strangest, most arrogant individuals, but so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything black that pretty. He glowed. That’s the way his sound was to me. He wouldn’t speak to me for a while, but after he heard me with Sonny, we became tight. I’d go by his house, and sometimes he’d let me in and sometimes he wouldn’t. I think he liked me in a funny, uncanny way, even though he started messing with me. Did you ever read that article in Downbeat, ‘Freddie Who?’  When I asked him about it, he’d say, “Do you believe everything you read?”  It was like he wanted to keep me at a distance. Which I can understand. I mean, the man’s been great so long, then comes along a young whippersnapper and all of a sudden he’s going to jump?

When Booker Little came to New York, we started hanging out. He was a nice, clean-cut cat with nothing bad to say about anyone. I’d met him at jam sessions in Chicago around 1956-57 when Spaulding and I would drive up from Indianapolis to sit in. After I heard him play, I said, “I’d better go in and practice before I mess with that.”  He was like a machine. I mean, he had a way of playing so FAST, man. I used to try to play out of the books with him, but I never could play those duets. I wasn’t that advanced!  We ended up working together around town with Slide Hampton’s Octet. Every night it was good to go to work because there was going to be a challenge. We’d try to kick each other’s behind, but we liked each other.

Same thing with Lee Morgan. Lee was ahead of both of us, because he had been with Dizzy, played with Coltrane and Clifford Brown. That boy could play. He had a bigger name, he was from Philadelphia, and he was cocky. I could relate to Lee better than Booker, because we had more of a street thing. Lee knew how to SWING; Booker never got to the swing like Lee. When you’re young and up-and-coming, people start comparing you, and there was a competitive thing between me, Booker and Lee at that time around New York. After a while I thought: Why am I beating my brains up trying to out-do Lee Morgan?  Let me work on MY thing. I took some of Sonny’s stuff, some of Trane’s stuff, put it into my style and made myself different.

I’d go to Birdland every night to hear Lee and Wayne Shorter with Art Blakey. They were blowing so hard that when Art asked me to join, I wondered if I was ready. Art took a lot of younger trumpeters out; the harder you played, the harder he played. Art taught me about uniformity, that the group must be presented as a GROUP. It was like old show business. And he made us all write something. He’s a Messenger, a Muslim, and he said, “Here’s what your message is.”  We’d rehearse a piece, he’d listen and then come up with a drum feel hipper than what you can think of. He knew dynamics from playing in all those big bands. The difference between Art and other drummers is that he could go down and come up. A lot of people think Art was crazy. I mean, he had his periods. But almost everybody I know that worked with that man became a leader. I’m still a Messenger.

One of my dreams was to play with Max Roach. Like I said, my main influence was Clifford Brown; I carried the records he made with Max anywhere I went. I wanted to play like Clifford Brown played with him, stuff like “Gertrude’s Bounce,” but I guess Max didn’t want to play no more of that. Max got me into a thing where I stopped liking white people. I’m basically a country cat, and I think everybody’s nice until they fuck with me. But going back to what had happened in Indiana, I was getting ready to explode!  I was hanging out with the Muslims, and I almost joined the Nation. Being with Max — reading the books he suggested, meeting people like Nina Simone and Maya Angelou at Abbey and Max’s place — gave me a consciousness. We were the guys who were not trying to say that we aren’t aware of what’s happening to us as a race. Max enlightened me as far as life. But I couldn’t work with him because he was too intense. Art could get intense and get loose. He was down to earth, and he knew all the same things; he’d been hit on the head, too, on racial stuff.

I did a lot of avant-garde stuff with Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill and guys like that. They were kind of militant, too, trying to voice their protest. There was a whole movement in the Village. I was a mainstream cat, trying to make some money and get famous. But when they talked to me, I went over to see what was going on. Me coming from Indiana, I knew what they were talking about, and it was a chance to voice my opinion. It was good musically, although I knew some of that stuff wouldn’t work — I don’t care how good they played it. There was no form. I had met Ornette and Cherry in California with Sonny Rollins, before they came to New York. I had no idea where they were going, but their music didn’t seem that avant-garde to me. I could hear melody and form. When Ornette did “Free Jazz,” I think that’s when he wanted to break out. Free. No bar lines, nothing set except what he and Cherry knew. I went to Ornette’s house to practice. The first thing he did when I came in was play all of Bird’s licks. And he had that Bird sound.

I put two tunes on “Breaking Point” in the style of Ornette, and one funk tune that got radio play. I’d brought Spaulding and Larry Ridley to New York, and recruited Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan, and we practiced for about six months until we went out. We went to this club in Cincinnati, and the place was packed. Like a dummy, I opened with a free thing. The people got up and started RUNNING, not even walking toward the exit. I said, “Is there a fire in here?”  I don’t think we got any money for the week. We kept that group together, but made the music more mainstream.

Atlantic was my funky period. That’s when a lot of people got confused with me. One minute I want to do one thing, then I want to jump over and do something else. Then Creed Taylor brought me to CTI. Creed got my recorded sound to my liking, made it stand out. I’ve had people who know nothing about jazz tell me how pretty and clear my sound is on ‘First Light.’  Creed made me more popular to the masses, but I got a lot of flack from the musicians because I jumped out and started thinking about making some money.

I got even more flack when I started making records at CBS. A couple of them sold, “Windjammer” and that stuff. I was at the Roxy, and playing venues in New York that no jazz cats ever played. The money went way up. I was getting ready to get a divorce from my first wife, and she was messing with me, coming to clubs. I decided to move to California. People said, “Man, Hubbard, don’t go out there. Ain’t no Jazz out there. You’ll get fat and die.”  I think it was a mistake. Ever since then, my playing went down. But I was doing movies, making record dates with Elton John, earning good money and living the way I wanted to live, up in Hollywood Hills with my new wife. We’re still together.

During the ’70s Herbie, Tony, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Chick Corea all moved to California. Everybody was trying to include Pop and Fusion. In California, everybody’s spread out; you get projects and see each other in the airport. In New York, you’re close, you can go to somebody’s house. When I went to California, it was party time, and I got hung up in that. Which was cool. I wanted to hang. But it had nothing do with maintaining embouchure and playing good.

In the ’80s, I had together whatever I was going to do. It had become a Freddie Hubbard sound. I was a free agent, sinking or swimming, doing a lot of singles, making dates where I’d play 16 bars and get 3500 bucks. I was making ten a week just myself. I was so busy recording in the studio that I wasn’t practicing as much as I should, and I started playing licks, not trying to come up with no new shit. I thought it was automatic, that I didn’t have to warm up, like when I was young. Though I started thinking like that, I was still trying to play all the high stuff and play real hard. By the late ’80s, I was going to Europe and Japan every month by myself for some all-star group or clinic. I was doing too many different things. I was switching styles so much, one time I woke up and said, “What am I going to play today?”  Keeping that schedule, plus going out to hang — it waxed me!

I saw it coming, but I decided I’d continue and make as much money I could. I should have stopped and got some rest, worked on some new ideas. But if you were getting $3500 for an hour’s work two or three times a week, what would you do?

I was playing so long and so hard that my chops got numb!  They didn’t vibrate. It got so bad that I didn’t think I would ever play again. Now I’m beginning to get the vibe back to want to play. I’m beginning to get a feel. Whenever I pick it up, I’ve got to get over the feeling aspect of it. Is it going to hurt like it did before?  It gets progressively better.

If you want to play like Freddie Hubbard, I don’t know what to tell you. It took me about ten years of hanging out with the people I hung out with, picking up certain ideas and putting it into my thing, to develop that style of playing. Young people will never get a chance to do that. They’re able to jump right in behind a certain style, but they weren’t here when the styles had to be developed. I used to have gigs with Maynard. I’d be trying to blow high notes, acting a fool, and luck up, and hit them!  How would a young cat know what I know from hanging out with Maynard?  Who you going to get to fuck with Maynard?  Clifford?  Miles?  Dizzy?  They were so strong!  Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell were right here, too. Woody Shaw went through it. He was so worried about me, he finally had to break down and say, “Fuck Freddie Hubbard; I’m going to go and do my thing.” I spent half my life trying to develop something to make it me.

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Filed under DownBeat, Freddie Hubbard, Interview, trumpet

It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

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Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.

Yes.

Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.

Really.

When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.

Mmm-hmm.

Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…

Right.

…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!

ROLLINS:  [HEARTY LAUGH]

I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.

Right.

Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…

Intuitive.

It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.

Mmm-hmm.

It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.

Sure.

Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00): Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.

Yes.

Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone

Vernell Fournier on Ahmad Jamal, WKCR, 1990

Yesterday’s Ahmad Jamal birthday posting included a conversation with New Orleans drum master Herlin Riley, Jamal’s drummer of choice during the ’80s. Today I’m sharing an interview that I conducted in 1990 on WKCR with Riley’s famous New Orleans antecedent, Vernell Fournier. I can’t precisely recall the circumstances, but as best as I can reconstruct it, I was presenting a six-hour Sunday Jazz Profiles on Jamal. Given Vernell’s massive contribution to the sound of the Ahmad Jamal Trio—among his many accomplishments, he refracted the Two-Way-Pocky-Way vernacular rhythmic signature of the Crescent City into the “Poinciana Beat”—it seemed a good idea to invite him up, which  I had a chance to do when I ran into him one night at Bradley’s.

One of my big regrets is the disappearance of my cassette copy of a Musicians Show that I did with Vernell around this time on which he spoke about his life and times in great detail—never had a chance to transcribe it. In any event, I’m glad I was able to document this encounter—this marks the first airing of the transcript.

The proceedings began with “Extensions,” a 14-minute track from 1965 that makes full use of Fournier’s extraordinary skills.

* * * *

How much input did you have into the way an involved piece like “Extensions” developed, or more generally, into the way the arrangements were set up through the course of the trio’s life?

Well, as things would progress, you’d have more input.  But in the beginning it was generally Ahmad’s format.  Ahmad laid down the format, then you tried to fit something into that you that you thought would be worth it.

When did you first play with Ahmad?

The beginning was I think in ’56, ’57, somewhere up in there.

How did it happen?

Walter Perkins was his drummer at the time.   Walter was involved with the MJT Plus Two, who were a very popular group during that time.  I think that’s the story… But anyway, I got the call, and at that time I was available to join Ahmad.  Because there was a lot of work in Chicago then, you know, a lot of good groups.  My first gig with him was at the London House, I think.

In 1956.

Yeah.  He was playing off nights there.

Had you been listening to Jamal in the years before that?

Well, of course, his first record, “The Volta,” yeah.  It was very popular around Chicago.  But no, I hadn’t listened to him… Because in the beginning, Ahmad had a string… It was a coop group, with guitar, Ray Crawford, violin,

Eddie Calhoun, I believe.

No, this bassist, he and his wife were Islamic followers.  In fact, I remember him so well because of his wife, because she made beautiful flowers just by hand; she used to sell hand-made flowers.  Anyway, he was the first bass player.  I can’t think of his name.  But it was just strings.  And they were generally working main stage at a place like the Kitty Kat and a few other clubs, but they worked downtown quite a bit, too, in the off-nights.  They stayed busy, in other words.  But that was his first group.

Was that primarily a supper club type of scene?

Half-and-half.  No one in the Jazz world stayed on the supper club scene, because it wasn’t as demanding as the club scene.  You know, when you’re young you’ve got a lot of energy you want to exert.  But of course, the supper club scene was cool also, because you could reach a high level and still be appreciated.   You didn’t have to subjugate yourself to a lower level type of music.  Just softer music and more confining.

What did Jamal ask of you as a drummer?   Rhythm has always been so important to his trio conception, it would seem that the drummer doing the right thing is absolutely essential.

Well, yes.  Well, you see, he hadn’t had but one drummer.  And Ahmad is a master at knowing to draw the ultimate from a musician.  He can fit his entire thing, I guess something like Duke was, to bring out the ultimate, to make you sound really a hundred times better than you would normally sound.  He has that gift.

As a musician, he didn’t ask anything… Actually, when we were playing at London House… I think I remember this; I’m not sure, but it’s in my mind, so it must have happened.  I had just finished setting up my drums, and I hadn’t sat down yet, and he struck out on the tune.  I think it was “Poinciana”; I’m not sure.  And I’m scuffling to get to the drums.  I’m there, but I mean, I’m not quite…you know… Well, from then on, very seldom would he have any input.  But if there was something in particular he wanted, he would repeat it with the piano many, many times until you understood what he was saying, or he might tell you — but very seldom would he speak to you about your playing.  I don’t think he ever told any drummer that was with him to do this or do that, or do anything.

And he used one of the great bassists, Israel Crosby, for many, many years.  Tell us about Israel Crosby and his function in the group.

Well, I say Israel was the rock of the group.  Because Ahmad either adjusted his changes to Israel if Israel came up with some finer changes, or Israel always would adjust himself to Ahmad, because Ahmad always had fine changes.  As far as I was concerned, he was a rock as far as the time was concerned, and he was so pleasant to hear — his choice of notes, his big fat sound.  I think he was the real catalyst, one of the major… I know he affected my life immensely.

He had also played earlier with Teddy Wilson in trio format, and was very experienced.

Yes.

Who, by the way, would you say are some of the influences on Jamal in terms of his concept of the trio sound? — if you feel you can say that.

VF:    Well, yeah, I think I can, because most trios came from the sound of Nat King Cole.  The unity and the way he used dynamics brought about a new phase of playing.  Ahmad just had more difficult dynamics, and so many of them.  That was the thing.  I mean, there were five or six ways he could play one tune.  He might insert something from another tune into the tune you’re playing, and would want that accent with it when he did it.  You had to consciously be aware that he was playing the piano.

[MUSIC: "Night Mist Blues," "This Terrible Planet"]

Ahmad Jamal is a rhythmic innovator in the music.

Yes.  He never did sort of, for the trend of the time, the straight-ahead Jazz thing.  He always intermixed, I guess for lack of a better word, exotic times, or exotic feelings into Jazz.  Rumbas, tangos, believe me, you were able to do all these kind of things and still make it sound like Jazz.  Generally what he did, while I was with him, he’d get the melody, say, for “This Terrible Planet” that was written for him by Bob Williams, he’d get the tune, it was sent to him and he liked it… I remember one day he called a rehearsal.  I think we were getting ready to have a record date, or he was thinking of a record date, I don’t know.   Anyway, we called a rehearsal, and he laid down the line and he laid down the bass line — on “Terrible Planet,” the bassist was Jamil Nasser.  And he and Jamil formulated the sound that Ahmad wanted.  And naturally… Nobody writes for drums.  It’s funny, but nobody writes… They always try to get some kind of an input from you.  And from the rhythmic pattern that was set with the total melody, then the drum pattern was developed.  Not to talk about the drum pattern on this thing, but for the drummers out there, it’s interesting… If you can understand, it was a 6/8 time, but 1, 3 and 5 was on the bass drum, and 2, 4 and 6 was on the snare drum, so it was like a 4/4 fighting the 6/8, which seems almost impossible, but your right foot will always fall out on 1 — so it starts the sequence over and over again.  And once you get used to that, then the rest of it is easy.  And the tambourine was used on the side.  I didn’t know what to do with that tune, and I played the tambourine, and I guess Ahmad smiled, and so I kept it there.  That’s what you look for really — what pleases the guy that you’re working for.

He has to smile.

Yes.  Smile or something.  Smile is good enough.  The tom-tom thing came in with the left hand; that was for something else.  But anyway, Ahmad would set a pattern.  And  actually, the whole rhythmic pattern derived from the melodic pattern that he set with the bass line and himself, and once he set that then you just joined in with the… Until you did something that pleased whoever you’re working with.  If they set up a pattern, then you try to do something… You keep looking for something until you think that that’s what they want.

Jamal also would set up a lot of his lines against the drum pattern and create that type of dialogue.

Oh, yes.  He’s a phenomenal rhythm… I can’t find the word I want to use.  But as I told you earlier, I happened to do a thing with him in Perugia about 1987 or ’88, and it was really one of the high points of my life again to know that I could still play with him — or still try to play with him.  Anyway, now he’s into all kinds of rhythmic pattern things, 7/4, 5/4.  Very seldom does he play straight any more.  It’s always 6/8 or… And it’s very exciting.  He’s gone into another bag altogether.

Another aspect of his playing is just his phenomenal technique.  Harold Mabern refers to his “masterly chromatic runs.”

Well, I’m sure… He never talked much about himself in all those years.  But I’m sure that he had… He did mention his teacher in Pittsburgh, who all the cats from Pittsburgh during that time knew of or came under him.  I think Erroll Garner… Well, all the cats.  Ahmad had a lot of Classical piano.  I have always said, especially now, that he wanted to ever go into another bag, like the concert bag…

[END OF TAPE SIDE]

I’ll tell you, I think Ahmad is really just developing.  Because he always had this.  But you know, you get to a certain age… By that I mean, Ted, you get to a certain age where you figure, “What more can happen?  Let me go on and try a two-bar thing.”  You know what I mean?  And I think he’s at that stage now.  So there’s no telling what direction he’ll… Well, like Miles, the same thing.  Miles takes another thing, but when you listen to it you still know it’s Miles.  One of those things.

We’ll next hear some tracks from Live At The Black Hawk in San Francisco.  What were some of the circumstances surrounding that date?

VF:    Well, the Black Hawk in San Francisco was the last recording date, but immediately after that the trio was disbanded supposedly temporarily.  Well, we didn’t really know whether it was temporary or permanent, but it was disbanded.  Also that was one of Israel’s last recordings. I think he made a couple after that, but that was his last  recording with Ahmad.

Another thing, Ahmad was getting away from the softer sound, and getting more into the stick sound.  I was playing sticks more than brushes, and at one time I didn’t pick up a stick, except for “Poinciana.”  But then he started getting more into that.  He started expressing himself in a more volume-ous [sic] way; I guess that’s the word.  With more… I don’t want to say “loud,” but he became more…

More intensity.

Well, more progressive, more progressive on the piano, and showing what he really could do.  Because you know, for many years they called him a “cocktail piano player,” which was really a drag.  Like the group was a cocktail group, you know.  But I guess he proved to many dissenters (I guess that’s the right word) that his talent wasn’t limited.  And it was a very happy feeling, surprisingly.  You know, right before death…not death, but the demise of the group, this happy feeling was immediately before that.

[ETC.] We’ll begin with “April In Paris.”

VF:    That was a direct take from Basie.

[MUSIC:  "April In Paris," "Two Different Worlds," "I'll Take Romance/My Funny Valentine," "The Best Thing For You"]

We’ll move next to more live material recorded in 1961 at Ahmad Jamal’s own club, the Alhambra, in Chicago.  Where was the club located and what was it like?

It was located on Michigan Avenue, either between 13th and 14th or 14th and 15th.  But it was right above what they call the Loop, a couple of blocks from the Loop.

The South Loop, right below the Roosevelt Avenue…

Right.  Or above, either one of them.  If you’re talking about the South Side, you’re talking about above.  Originally it was a three- or four-story office building, and Ahmad purchased the building.  He had his offices on one floor, and he had two rented out, and the bottom he took and made a restaurant out of — the Alhambra Restaurant.  It was a magnificent place.  The decor and the food and the comfort was well-accepted by the public.  And it was a non-alcoholic place, so that made it able to stay open 24 hours a day.  During the prom season, you would be surprised at the amount of youngsters that would come there at 12, 1, 2, 3 o’clock in the morning, and still hanging, but come in and hear the music and have their dinner or whatever.  It was a wonderful place.

Was the band pretty much playing there constantly, week after week?

Well, the general idea behind the whole situation was that we would spend maybe six months of the year, so we could be with our families, and six months for travel — go out for two weeks, come home for two weeks, that type of thing.  And I think he had plans of booking people like Miles and these kind of people into the place, eventually.  We were there for a couple of months to try to get it off the ground, which we did.

Then it was one of those stories after that.  You hear a million stories.  I’ve heard a couple of versions.  But the club could have been successful, would have been successful, but the only way it could succeed was with Ahmad.  Ahmad had to take  up the slack in the lean days to build it, to make it flourish.  You know how Jazz is.  You have to establish it where someone knows at any of the day, the night, seven nights a week, they can go somewhere and have good music, good food — and that takes a while to do.  But I think he had succeeded in doing that.

People say that at around this time in Chicago, the club scene was in a kind of a downswing.

I don’t know, Ted.  Because there was always X amount of work on the South Side.  The phenomenal thing about Ahmad, this didn’t take five or six years to do.  He did this in less than two years, from working the places on the South Side, which paid well, but from hundreds of dollars, you’re talking about thousands of dollars now — and it’s a matter of a year-and-a-half.  And there was still an abundance of work on the South Side.  The South Side didn’t really start to deteriorate until I guess the rest of the United States started deteriorating, after the death of Martin Luther King.  Then the clubs and everything…

But there was always an abundance of work all over town, not just the South Side.  You had the North Side, the near North Side, you had the Gold Coast, you had the far North Side, you had Oak Lawn.  There was many, many places.  Calumet City!, ha-ha, which is close to Chicago.  But the club was very successful.  Very successful.  But it couldn’t make it without Ahmad.

[MUSIC: From Live at the Blackhawk: "All Of You," "Love For Sale," "Time On my Hands," "Sweet and Lovely"]

We’ll next move to the date that brought Ahmad Jamal to  wider public recognition, his dates at the Pershing Ballroom on 64th and Cottage Grove.

Yes.  In the Pershing Hotel, right on the corner.

There were several venues in the hotel, weren’t there?

Yes.  There was the Pershing Lounge upstairs.  And downstairs, I forget the name of the place, but that’s where Sun Ra got his thing together, the first big band together, was downstairs at the Pershing.

Was it El Grotto?

It was called El Grotto…

That’s when Earl Hines had the place.

That was before my time, see.  That was all over with when I got to Chicago.  But there was also a dance hall above that, believe it or not, Charlie Parker used to play for dancers, and Charlie Ventura and Lester Young — they used to play upstairs there.  Would you believe that?  It was great!  The joint would be packed.  Anyway, there was a lot of activity at the Pershing in the late Forties and early Fifties that I saw.

Apart from just the sheer talent of Jamal, can think of  why this particular recording have broken the band out as spectacularly as it did?

I don’t know.  I don’t think we ever figured that one out.  I guess it was just time.  It was just time.  For that recording, I think we did three nights in the Pershing, two or three nights recording us at that time.  It could have been the live thing, with the people clapping.  That could have done it.  But it was accepted all over immediately.  Immediately.

Jamal has always had great acclaim with the public and quite a bit with musicians, but the critical community has always seemed to have a little trouble.  So I guess the public spoke in this case.

Well, like I said, when the Judgment Day comes, I would hate to be some critics!  That’s wrong, I know, to say.  That’s quite a statement to make over public…

I don’t think you’re alone in that sentiment among the musical community…

VF:    Well, generally the critics… Well, it was just like Charlie Parker.  You know, when Charlie Parker first hit the scene, everybody, almost everybody except the youth was against it, was anti-Charlie Parker.  But the youth were definitely there.  And that was Ahmad’s crowd also.  But then he reached not only the youth; he played something for the elderly also, the people that were used to the other kind of music — but with a new feeling.  The same music, but the new feeling.  That’s what Bird did.

As you mentioned before, a lot of what Jamal did comes out of the tradition of the Nat Cole Trio, and there’s Art Tatum sound, and the Erroll Garner sound as well.

Well, to me Erroll is… I hate to say it, Ahmad, but Erroll is my favorite pianist.  And the reason for that is Erroll is the only guy I know who can play by himself and swing an entire audience — by himself.  He’s a one-man band. Ahmad loved Erroll.  A lot of times, he played it.  He could play like Erroll.  Which is very, very difficult.  It takes a lot of stamina and a lot of good timing.  Erroll had excellent timing.

But what made the trio successful, I don’t think either one of the three of us knew.  All of a sudden, there it was.  Because we left home, went out on the road… In fact, our first trip from home with the trio, after the record had hit, was Des Moines, Iowa.  And it was a complete disaster.  Well, that’s a long story.  But it was a complete disaster, because it was held under certain auspices that weren’t sanctioned at that time.  But we didn’t come back disgruntled.  We knew we felt good when we played.  And the next engagement we had, we left and went to Washington, and then boom, that did it — Washington, D.C.

So you’d go to each town and the record would break in  each town as…

Well, no.  The record broke immediately.  I mean, as we were traveling from town to town, the record was breaking way before we got there.  In other words, before we got to California, which maybe was three or four months after we left to travel on the road, the record had become phenomenally big then.  One of those kind of things.  It was an immediate response.  I’m sure of it.

We’ll begin a set of several compositions recorded at the Pershing with a special request from Vernell, “Poor Butterfly.”

When I was looking at the album, it reminded me of Israel Crosby’s wife.  She loved that tune.  So she must have been in the audience that night.  And that’s how spontaneous Ahmad is.  He had certain things that he could  make an arrangement immediately.  We knew exactly what he was going to do.  But Hazel was her name.  In fact, she’s the godmother of one of my older children.  So naturally, when I see the title of this tune, I think of both.  And it came from a famous opera.

[MUSIC:  "Poor Butterfly," "Autumn Leaves," "Cherokee," "But Not For Me"]

As you said before, Ahmad Jamal didn’t make Bebop his whole thing…

No. But of course, he had the technique to do anything that he wanted to do.  And naturally, during that time, all of the younger musicians could really play Bebop.  You know what I mean?  That was the thing to do.  If you wanted to really play music, you had to play Bebop, because that’s the one that called for all your expertise.  So a lot of times if you listen to him, I think you could realize that he was very capable of playing Bebop.  I know it wouldn’t have been any kind of problem for the straight-ahead thing.

Now, Chicago was a real jam session city in the 1950′s.

Yes, it was.

Did Jamal go around and play at sessions?

No, he didn’t.  He was basically a very quiet family man.  But a working family man.  He worked all the time.  I think we talked earlier about his conception.  He was trying to get his conception of what he thought he should do with the piano into the forefront.  But no, he didn’t really hang out.  There was a special restaurant we used to go to, and drummers used to get together, and bass players… Anyway, it was a home for the musicians after we got off from work.  We’d hang til four or five in the morning.  But very seldom did Ahmad hang.

Which place was that?

That was called the Home Restaurant on 63rd and Cottage.  We sort of took over the restaurant from like 2 to 5 or 6.

Was Jamal very popular among the young pianists in Chicago?

Oh, yes.  And amongst the musicians.  In Chicago at that time, they had such a variety of music going on.  The music wasn’t limited whatsoever.  There was Bebop and all the rest of the things happening in Chicago.  So there was a lot of education to be had, a lot of knowledge to be gained.  Because you figured Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons, people like Sonny Stitt, these were staple men in Chicago, they were always around in Chicago.  And drummers and bassists… Well, a lot of your best bass players during that time came out of Chicago.  The musicianship was very high quality.  I think I told you before, the last time we talked, that if a band was leaving New York City going to Chicago minus a man, they didn’t worry too much, because they knew they could pick up someone in Chicago that could fill that spot until whoever they really wanted would come forth and be part of the organization.  But Chicago was a very thriving musical town.

But no, Ahmad didn’t hang that much.  But everyone knew him.  Everyone would go see him, you know.

Another aspect is his great orchestrational abilities within the trio format.  I think Ellington must have been an influence on him there.  And he recorded Ellington compositions and Ellingtonia throughout his career…

Well, I think Ahmad always paid homage to the great musicians.   I don’t care who they were.  Naturally, he paid homage to a lot of composers.  But also what we call cliche licks that different musicians used to make, he’d also pay homage to them on those.  Tatum and Garner… Like I said, he could do the thing just like Garner if he wanted to.

Anyway, whatever the situation demanded, he had the power to come forth and take care of the business.

[MUSIC: "Raincheck," "Squatty Roo"]

This last segment will focus on the drummerless trio that Jamal first recorded, three or four recordings, one for the Okeh label and one for Argo-Cadet.  Do you recollect hearing this particular trio in person?

Yes.  Is Eddie Calhoun on bass on that one?

Actually, it’s Israel Crosby and Ray Crawford.   The LP is Chamber Music Of The New Jazz.

I remember hearing Ahmad many, many times.  Whenever he’d play the South Side, there was a particular place that loved him and the people loved him there.  It was called the Kitty Kat, at 63rd Street.  It was a very small place, but it stayed packed for Ahmad.

Was it a good piano?

A very good piano, yes.  Of course, there weren’t as many grands around as there are now, but most places had well-tuned pianos.  I’ll put it like that.  Sometimes a grand piano would have taken up too much room, some of the joints were so small.

No Bosendorfers in these places.

Oh, no.  I didn’t hear of Bosendorfer until… I  think George Shearing played one when I played with him.   But sitting next to a grand could be very detrimental to a drummer during that time, because if a guy really plays that grand, when he digs into those bass notes, it really can affect your ears — in a pleasant way, but it can affect them.

Another thing about this time, a number of these tunes, some six or seven that we won’t be able to get to, were recorded by Miles Davis around this time with the great quintet.  He collaborated with Gil Evans on “New Rhumba.” “All Of You,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.” “Ahmad’s Blues” and  “Billy Boy” were features for Red Garland.  “Autumn Leaves” and “Squeeze Me,”  too [ETC.] Ray Crawford had a very percussive technique on guitar.

Yes.  He started… Now, I don’t know if he originated it, but he was one of the first, I think, to record the bongo beat on the guitar.  It gave it an extra body, it gave it an extra sound, instead of just strumming all the time.

But to get back to Red,  you know, Ahmad recorded “Billy Boy” and those things much longer before Red Garland recorded those things.  But that’s when the group really started expanding, when he got into the trio thing.  I think Joe Kennedy and whoever else was there left and went back to Pittsburgh, and then he stayed with the trio at all times.  It wasn’t augmented whatsoever.  What was the question…

It wasn’t a question, but more of a comment.   What you’re responding to has to do with Ray Crawford’s guitar and had you seen the drummerless trio.

Yes.  And in fact, at this particular club, the Kitty-Kat that I was talking about before, they’d work on a Monday night when most of the groups were off on Mondays.  And Monday was a big day in Chicago.

They had the breakfast…

The breakfast show was Monday morning, and then you went to the jam sessions afterwards, then there was an evening jam session, then you’d go to the clubs that night.  So it was a 24-hour situation, or a 36-hour situation.

Chicago was  wide-open.

That’s right.  So we’d all head over to see Ahmad, pay him a visit, listen.  But then there were other things that you wanted to hear, too, so it wasn’t a constant thing.  But we always knew he was there.  We’d get full of his sounds, and we’d leave and come back and get replenished with them later on, like guys do today.

[MUSIC: "New Rhumba," "Billy Boy"]

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Filed under Ahmad Jamal, Chicago, Drummer, Interview, WKCR

Ethan Iverson Interviews Henry Threadgill

If you’re linking to this very young blog, you probably know  “Do The Math,” the forum in which Ethan Iverson, best known as the formidably creative pianist in The Bad Plus, expresses his omnivorous interests. But if you don’t, I urge you to spend some time navigating Ethan’s archives, which include, in addition to incisive criticism,  informed, in-depth interviews with musicians ranging from Ornette Coleman to Keith Jarrett to Wynton Marsalis, not to mention Billy Hart, Stanley Crouch…and many more.  Ethan’s latest installment is a lengthy sitdown with the composer and multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill for a BBC3 profile

Haven’t figured out yet how to create hyper-links within the text,  so please find the link in the “Blogroll” section  to your right.

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Filed under AACM, Ethan Iverson, Henry Threadgill, Interview

Gonzala Rubalcaba (Part 3) — WKCR, June 29, 2006

Gonzalo Rubalcaba (June 29, 2006, WKCR):

[Gonzalo was playing at the Jazz Standard with Matt Brewer and Jeff Waits, after two nights performing solo, and a few days after performing three piano duos with Herbie Hancock at Carnegie Hall.  Solo [Blue Note] had just come out.]

TP:   In the liner notes to Solo, you write, “For a long time, people at every event have asked me, ‘When will you do a solo CD?’ Today this work is already a memory for me, resulting from the many hours of listening, observing, evaluating, criticizing, and reevaluating. I have come to the conclusion that although this is a solo album, I have never been more accompanied. My history, nostalgia, memories, affection, faith, and the multitude of the unseen companions of solitude, also from the profusion of signs and sounds coming to me also from these otherwise silent colleagues. I speak in these terms, because when I theorize over music and art in general, I feel the need to go beyond the limitations and restrictions of speech in describing the significance and life of the artist, the artistic process, the act of creation, and its product as it actually exists in the music. When I thought of an organized the music of this disk, I felt the necessity to create an album of secrets, letters and notes and photos, something like an aural diary. Everything has been openly stated in the most classic way. But more importantly, it is an album of intuition and courage, where the important messages are openly stated, but then echoed by murmurs, whispers and suggestion.”

So it has been a long time coming. And if someone had not heard a Gonzalo Rubalcaba record since, let’s say, 1995, they might be surprised at how much space and how much silence and how much restraint is embodied in your playing on Solo. I don’t know if that’s a question or not. But talk to me about the process of concretely preparing to do this date.

GONZALO:   I want to believe that right now I have so much music in my mind than before, just because I’ve accumulated a lot of reference, confrontations, stores, stories, memories. And I cannot put everything at the same time without a real and great organization. So I have to find the right space and form to translate all those memories, and give them the importance that each one has. So that obligated me to create kind of a performance where I had to be very careful in the way that I transmit it. Technically, musically, and in terms of spirituality, I think that this is one of the best moments in my career, where I feel very relaxed. I don’t know how to name it. But I feel very comfortable, very well-trained to do that—especially this record. It took me a long time to do it—partly because there’s a stipulation in my contract that I do a solo record at this point,  following the other records that I was supposed to do.  I appreciate that now, because I think there was not a better moment to do that.  I had now a better vision of what should be a solo record, taking a few factors into consideration. The Cuban tradition. My classical training. My relationship with the jazz idiom. The references coming from different kinds of players—classical players, jazz players, folk players, popular music. And composers from different moments of Cuban history, especially those composers of the 20th century that not many people know about, who were very compromised with the idea of creating a Cuban music not under the patterns that we heard in the music of Lecuona or in the music of the 19th century, but matching with the contemporary music coming from Europe, coming from America, but at the same time very authentically Cuban.

TP:   The composers you’re referring to are mostly early 20th century composers.

GONZALO:   Yes. We are talking about Amadeo Roldan, Alejandro Garcia Caturla… I’m speaking about composers that are part of the record, and others that are not part of the record. Leo Brouwer.  Among others. So that was a challenge for me, because I was supposed to do a record where it’s not 100% or even 90% improvisation, but where you have to create an interpretation of that music. The challenge was to prepare similarly to what a classical player has to do, and combine both worlds—the interpretation, my vision of that music, and at the same time the improvisation, and, on the other hand, my original compositions.

TP:   You’ve said that as a young player you didn’t  have access to the music by the Cuban composers you’re referring to, mainly because of the politics of the time, the way  ideology affected pedagogy and the creative process.  There’s an NPR show that aired last Sunday that’s up on the Internet in which you go into some detail. You said that to do this music, you basically had to deal with scores; it wasn’t possible to hear much of it. How does that function for you?

GONZALO:   What happened is that the program of the classical school in Cuba takes too much time and space talking about European tradition. They bring you  all the information about the different periods of classical music coming from Europe, and you know all about baroque, classicism, romantic, impressionism, avant-garde—all of them. It’s just at the end of the curriculum where they put you in contact a little bit with the Cuban composers, with the Cuban tradition in terms of Classical music. Which is not enough. So if you want to become a composer, you run the risk of being too much influenced by the European tradition, and  not doing the right thing, not putting your roots, putting your tradition to use  in the right way.  Some of the people who used to be part of my department had no knowledge about the Cuban music. They had no knowledge about the traditions…

TP:   You mean the folkloric traditions.

GONZALO:   Exactly. I had an advantage to be part of a large family with a very large tradition, very focused and very related with the Cuban history and the most popular Cuban musical styles. That gave me the opportunity to be in the middle of the essence of the Cuban music, but that was not the reality all the time. So it wasn’t until a few years ago when, thanks to a few people, I got those music parts coming from those composers, and I could see the way that they wrote the music, the way that they conceived the music, the vision of their music, and I could work with that. Not when I was in the school. I always said that was a big mistake, not having that information and that relationship with that music before, when we were part of the school.

TP:   Go into a little detail about your family. We played your grandfather’s composition. Who was he, and which bands did he play with?

GONZALO:   We’re talking about the beginning of the 20th century. So in the ‘20s, the ‘30s…

TP:   Is he from Havana himself?

GONZALO:   No. From Pinar del Rio, which is the western part of the island. He created his own school in this city and this town, because he thought there were a lot of talented people there without the possibility of going to a private school. So he helped them. He created his own band. He was a conductor also of the military band. But he trained young people. He gave them all the access to learn about how to read music, how to write music, and also how to play. He played some of the wind instruments, the brass section, like trombone and trumpet. But his main job was as a conductor.

So he created a big family, and he was a teacher in all his family. He taught my father, he taught all my uncles…

TP:   This is a tradition in Cuba, isn’t it. Cachao comes from that kind of family. Yosvany Terry comes from that type of family. Chucho Valdes. And there are many others.

GONZALO:   Exactly. That’s right. He became a very important reference in the music at that time, not only as a musician but as a professor and  a person that preserved many of the memories of the Cuban music coming from the 19th century. He also wrote some danzons like this one, “La Cadete Constitutional.” I think he wrote a little book about how to read music. So he was working in different directions—as a composer, as a professor, player, conductor. We give thanks to him to be part of that family and be part of that heritage.

TP:   Your father was an important part of the popular music culture of Cuba in the ‘40s and ‘50s. I’ve read that the cha-cha-cha dance comes from his band or was his idea.

GONZALO:   He was part of one of the most important charangas, which is the name that they give to those ensembles that used to play cha-cha-cha and so on. It was the Enrique Morin orchestra. So he became a piano player of this band in the ‘50s, and he was there for about ten years, and then he moved to another very old charanga that specialized in danzon. He became a piano player in this band, and at the end he became the director of this band, and he has been the director of this band until now. He collaborated with different people—with Arcaño, Barbarito Diaz… I know that many of those names mean nothing to many people here. But we’re talking about musicians that define the Cuban music in different styles. He is still working. He is still touring around. He has been part of those later ensembles, like the Afro-Cuban All-Stars, all those bands very well known now in America and Europe and around the world.

TP:   You played in his band as a teenager while you were in the conservatory, studying the European canon. So you would be playing in the conservatory by day, studying your Chopin and Liszt and Brahms and Beethoven, and at night you’d be in the clubs playing drums…or keyboards and drums.

GONZALO:   Yes. My father created a family band with my two brothers and myself (I’m the youngest one), and I played drums in that band. Also a few more friends from the neighborhood who were interested to do music…

TP:   Which neighborhood, by the way?

GONZALO:   The Centro Havana. I was born there. I remember since I was 6 years old, even before, being part of that group. So when I was 9 years old, that was the right time to get into the school. But until that moment, my first reference as a player was being part of that group with my father and my brothers and people from the neighborhood. I had no idea how to read music. I did everything by ear. That drum was a gift, coming from my mother and my father. When I got to 6 years, they asked me what I want, and I said, ‘I want a drum.” It was a difficult situation for them, because it was not easy to find an instrument at that time in Cuba. So we found somebody else, in a very far place… He used to do a very rustic drum! That was my first drum.

TP:   It was a conga?

GONZALO:   No, it was a drum.

TP:   A drum that you beat.

GONZALO:   Exactly. You have no idea how it looks.

TP:   Funky.

GONZALO:   Exactly. But I used to play also some Afro-Cuban percussion instruments, like the timbales, congas, bongos, maraccas. So I went into the music through the percussion.

TP:   So the core of your musical birth is through the drums, not the piano.

GONZALO:   The drums. The piano…it’s too much to say that it was an accident, because it’s not really. But I have to say that when I was of age to apply for a place in the classical school, they disapproved me. They said that I was not rhythmically able to play music.

TP:   What did they mean by that?

GONZALO:   No rhythm sense. That was their argument.

TP:   Did they mean that you didn’t understand the European legato…

GONZALO:   They used to do that apparently simple test where you had to reproduce what they sing and what they clap and things like that. And at the end, they decided that I didn’t pass. So my father and one of my brothers came to the school, and they asked for a meeting with the principal, and they refused the result of the test, and they wanted them to repeat that in front of them. So they did it, and I passed it. Part of the bureaucratic thing that is too long to explain; it doesn’t matter.

The next step was which instrument.  I was looking to be part of the percussion department, and they said, “no, you don’t have the right age; we have for you piano or violin.” That was a big trouble for me. I said, “I don’t like any of that music.” So my Mom was the one that made me decide about the piano. She said, “Piano is a great instrument that will help you in the future to compose, to write music, to have a different view about how to do music. Even if you decide not to become a piano player, it will help you, so you should do that, and we will see in the future if they can move you to the percussion department.” So I said, “Okay, I want to make you happy, and that’s it.” So I did it. The first year was kind of weird and difficult to me. One of the elements is that I didn’t get well-related with the teacher, so they asked to see if they could change the teacher for the second year, and that was the solution. I was very lucky with that woman who put me on the track to love the instrument, and then develop myself as a piano player. When I was in 5th or 6th year, the principal (it was a different principal already)  asked me if I still wanted to be part of the percussion department, and I said, “Yes, but I don’t want to leave the piano.” So they gave me the opportunity to do both things at the same time.

TP:   How does your percussion background filter into the way your piano playing?

GONZALO:   It’s the need to expose myself not only as a piano player but to expose my music as an ensemble. When I am playing the piano, I am not thinking about the piano as a single instrument. I try to put different levels of music and dynamics and texture and message at the same time with that instrument, using pedals, using different kinds of touch, holding some section of the instrument, and doing everything I can to make that music and the result of that music richer. That’s the only way. And the piano provides me that possibility more than any other instrument, because you can play that game with an instrument, getting different kinds of textures and holding the sound here, and playing around here, and using the piano as a percussion instrument but also as a melodic instrument. You can go for a different kind of dynamic. That’s the way that I conceive how to play that instrument.

TP:   Early in your career, you played and recorded with Jack DeJohnette, Paul Motian, Charlie Haden, John Patitucci, Ron Carter. More recently you’ve worked and recorded with Ignacio Berroa, the Cuban drummer who played with Dizzy Gillespie, who plays idiomatic Cuban rhythms and jazz rhythms with idiomatic precision as well. How does the drummer’s style filter into the overall conception of what you play? Would it be possible for you to play the type of music you played on Super Nova, let’s say, without a Cuban drummer? Or a drummer intimate with the codes of Cuban music.

GONZALO:   A good question. I think that music has different doors, and that is the important thing for me, that the music gives me the possibility to go with the same music in different directions, depending who is part of the band and the vision of the musicians as part of the band playing that music. Of course, this is music that contains a lot of Cuban codes, Afro-Cuban elements, and it will help a lot if the people involved are related with that.  It doesn’t mean that they have to do that in a very orthodox way. That’s totally the opposite of what I’m looking for. I’m looking to give the musicians the opportunity to be related with those codes and at the same time for them to apply what they know over those codes.

TP:   Now, you yourself were raised in those codes, because you played drums, and not only did you play them in popular music and dances before large groups of people, but also santeria and religious ceremonies.

GONZALO:   Yes.

TP:   So those codes also contain for you a narrative. If you hear a rhythm there’s a certain storyline or state of mind or state of being attached to it.

GONZALO:   Mmm-hmm. One good example of that is this record, Antiguo, which is based 100% on all the Yoruba culture. I took some of the chants, rhythms, and I speculated a lot with them, using a kind of electronic ensemble with synthesizers, computers, sequencing, but at the same time live musicians playing different kinds of drums, percussion, brass section, singers. I’m sure that music can be played by a symphony orchestra—it’s very possible. We should add to the symphony orchestra some instruments that are not part of the regular structure of the symphony. But it’s a music that was created with that vision of a big-big-big ensemble. So that music would absorb any kind of musician, any kind of player. This is what I’m looking for—a music without limitations, with a very clear starting point, but at the same time with a totally free road to work with.

TP:   Talk about how  your relationship with technique has evolved over the years.

GONZALO:   I know there’s a lot of points of view about technique and how to apply technique and how to use it, and also many prejudices about it. I want to state an example. Even Thelonious Monk, when you heard the latest Thelonious Monk recordings, you can hear Thelonious Monk clean, more clean, more specific about what he wanted to say, how he wanted to say that. He was not going around, but was going exactly to the point where he wanted to go. It was a technique in relation with the music he was doing; not in relation to something else coming from nowhere, but with the music he wanted to do. This is exactly what every musician should do. I mean, depending on the way you think. The music forces you to find different ways technically to express that, and to express that without confusion, clearly. This is probably the process that I have led to.

TP:   Did you study various jazz pianists deeply after emerging on the scene?

GONZALO:   I listened to a lot of them. But I wasn’t the typical student that looks into the book, looking for a transcription or something like that. I never tried to memorize any solo or any phrase or any style, because I thought it was kind of a limitation for me. I would say in the same way you read a book, you cannot memorize phrase by phrase. You memorize the content, the essence of a book. This is what I was looking for in the records. But I hate to go and try to play the transcription and play in the same way that everybody…

TP:   Conceptually, though, who were some of the pianists you paid attention to between 1989 and 1996?

GONZALO:   I can say names that I know influenced me a lot. One of them is Bill Evans. Keith Jarrett. Even before that, Chick and Herbie were two names important as a reference to me, not only as a player but as composers. Art Tatum at the very beginning of my career, along with Oscar Peterson. I remembered seeing Erroll Garner for the first time on a TV show that they broadcast in Cuba—just one piece. I really loved what I saw. Then I wasn’t able to see many people and to hear many of the jazz players. But I had a lot of references coming from Europe in terms of classical music, and also from Cuba. The recordings came from Czechoslovakia, from Russia, from Poland, from Bulgaria, and many of the artists were teaching in Cuba. So I had that mix of reference. Obviously at some moment of my life their influence was more present. It takes a long time to find yourself, It takes a long time to find your own way to say things. Especially when you are very ambitious about music, or you are in relation with many different kinds of music, especially the Cuban music that has many sides—and unfortunately, not many people know about how many sides that culture has.

I am very surprised now by the articles that talk about this Solo record; I feel there isn’t enough reference to talk about what I tried to say with those Cuban pieces, especially the classical pieces that I incorporated in that record. There’s an obvious comparison with the European styles, but there’s nothing deep about the form of those pieces, the language of those pieces, the meaning of those pieces, which are very related with our traditions, with our codes, our music. I don’t see that in the reviews. It’s like they pass that over. They say it sounds a little bit like Ravel, or we can see some of the Debussy influence… It could be very possible. Why not? We are talking about more or less the same times. But they don’t go deep into the structure of the piece, the meaning of the piece.  There’s a lot of elements that we could talk about, and we need the right reference.

[Rubalcaba selected "Cancun da Cuna del Nino Negro by Roldan; "Preludio en Conga" by Hilario Gonzalez, and "Homage to Hilario" by Rubalcaba]

TP:   In the program  notes, Gonzalo writes of Hilario Gonzales that he played his music while still in high school “as an antidote to too much Mozart and Beethoven.” You said that reviews of the new album insufficiently discussed your Cuban roots and the intent of the music. A few words about Amadeo Roldan and Hilario Gonzalez, the dynamics of what they did, and how they inspire you.

GONZALO:   We have to say, first of all, that Cuba has been a country that collaborates with many different cultures. A lot of great musicians from different parts of the world live in Cuba, different composers at different moments coming to Cuba to play their music, to teach, to get in relation with composers there, different kinds of emigration from different parts of the world—from China, from Poland, Latin America, South America. So Cuba  has been open all the time to confront a different kind of vision, a different kind of attitude about how to create arts—not only music, but painters, writers… It’s obvious that  the presence of  European culture was very strong for us in Cuba.

The good thing is that Cuban composers, especially in the ‘30s and ‘40s, took consciousness about what to do with those memories, with this tradition, with this influence coming from Europe, and totally transformed the Cuban music into something at the same level of what was happening in the rest of the world in terms of how to construct the music, especially music at that level—the music that we know as classical music. They took the tools from the European school, but they were talking about their stories, their roots, their traditions.

That was a good example, this one that we just heard from Amadeo Roldan. He took that melody, which is not exactly a folk melody, but his vision of how a folk melody sounds, and he put that into  a musical form very similar to the European form. But when we see the score, we see that the left hand and the way that ostinato is working,  isn’t the way that a French composer or Russian composer would do it. It’s totally against the time, against the beat, in the same way we do the popular music, in the same way we dance, and the same way we talk, the accent—the melody works over that. There’s a lot of elements. If we check the music score, we see that there is a very particular way to do the music. We can feel some ambiance coming from the European reference, especially the Impressionist composers. But the melody, the rhythm conception, is totally in relation with the popular Cuban music.

This is what is not there in the comments and the reviews. I feel unhappy, not about the record and not about me, but that people who have access to the record don’t have exactly the right reference when they listen to that music. Why? Because there’s not enough information about that side of the Cuban music, not only in the United States, but around the world. People know a little more now about Cuban popular music of the ‘30s and ‘40s, because of Buena Vista Social Club, Afro-Cubanismo… But there’s still a lot of things to discover about the Cuban music.

TP:   Do you see yourself as a mantle-bearer of the legacy of these composers whom you’re interpreting on records?

GONZALO:   I’m doing that because I like what they did.

TP:   I mean, you yourself as a composer. Is your aesthetic consciously referring…

GONZALO:   Definitely. Those composers, like Amadeo Caturla and Leo Brouwer, Farina, Roberto Valera, and all of them, I would say that it was the first generation to change the way to produce music in Cuba—with very bad luck. Nobody paid attention to what they were doing. Nobody believed in what they were doing. I don’t think they had enough support to promote the music, to promote their ideas, their conception about how to do music. But I think it is in our hands, my generation, myself, the responsibility in some way to talk about that, to revise that, to check that, to say, “Okay, let’s see what is true, what is the real thing about that, and let’s promote that.” I’m doing that, and at the same time I’m choosing what I like. It’s not that I’m blind about it and saying, “Oh, we should sound that because that’s the way to promote it.” No. I’m trying to combine both things, promote that and, at the same time, I choose to play exactly what I feel in connection with my wish, with my need.

TP:  A few words on the jazz you heard as a kid. Chucho Valdes told me that his father, the maestro Bebo Valdes, gave him a systematic pedagogy. He said, “Learn these things in order chronologically,” and he gave him Jelly Roll Morton, he gave him Tatum, he gave him Bud Powell. He did that. Since he lived in Cuba in the ‘50s, he could see musicians playing in Havana, and even play that music with them. You didn’t have that advantage, but you did have your father’s record collection. I’m wondering what it was in that record collection that made you (I’m assuming this) fall in love with jazz or be attracted to jazz at a young age, when it wasn’t part of your immediate environment in Cuba.

GONZALO:   I think it was the space to improvise.

TP:   Not one person, but the space.

GONZALO:   Exactly. That was the first thing that put me in orbit already with that music, and how much importance they gave to the improvisation. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have the space to improvise in the Cuban music. Every popular music, every folk music is based on improvisation, in that spontaneous act. We had to make a balance on the form of jazz as a music, We see that improvisation is very tied to the main part. I mean, it’s as important as a main section of the piece. That’s a little different than our own structure in our music. But that was the point. When I heard for the first time Art Tatum, I remember he had some record of Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie…

TP:   Benny Goodman with Teddy Wilson.

GONZALO:   Exactly. Charlie Parker. Among others. To me, the most relevant at that moment was the improvisation section, and that interchange, exchange, that interaction in between the musicians, how they interact, how they followed each other, and how they had to create another story in relation with the main thing during the improvisation section. It’s like they composed again another piece—connected with the piece, but in distinction to that. It made me be in love already with that music, even when I know that I was not able to understand many things that were happening in there.

TP:   I’m assuming when you say you weren’t able to understand many things that were in there, you’re referring to cultural codes that were hard to crack because of where you were. What were some of those codes, and which did you crack…

GONZALO:   Well, the first question at that time was how they developed this speech. How they arrived at that speech, and how they developed that imagination and that fantasy about the way they play harmonies and the chords, and how the bass player arrived to the conclusion that this was the line that he should do behind the saxophone player’s speech. All those questions were the first curiosity and secret for me. How is that? How do they produce that? What is the sign that gives them the green light to go in this way and to do that? Then with time, I understood that it wasn’t only about musical knowledge, but it was about spirituality, about instinct, about…as a conversation.

So I put together two things, that experience with the experience I had with a very important musician, a Cuban violin player, composer and teacher, Pedro Hernandez, in Cuba. He was part of the Barbarito Diaz Orquesta, he worked with Arcano, he worked with many great musicians in Cuba, and we were able to see him in person over many years because he was a friend of my family. He was the one that taught me how to read music. He said something from the beginning: “You have to read music in the same way that you read the newspaper. You don’t know exactly what the newspaper is going to say tomorrow. But you get it and you start to read.” So you have to read the music in that way, because the music is an idiom, is a language, and you have to have control of that.

Then on the other hand, I had at the end of my career the possibility to be trained by Roberto Valera, another great contemporary Cuban composer. I remember when we would start our lessons, our meetings talking about composition, he asked me, “What are you looking for here in this school?” I said, “I’m looking to learn how to compose.” He said to me, “I cannot teach you how to compose. That’s impossible. The first thing is that you need to say something. You have to feel the need and the necessity to say something. Then you are able to compose. I will give you the tools, the experience, the rules to get a good balance, instrumentation, a good sound, according to the reference we have. But you have to be able to say things in your own way, and I cannot teach you to do that.”

This is what I found also in jazz. Everybody was able to say at the same time their speech and their own voice, and collaborate as a group. That was the thing that really caught me from the beginning when I heard those records.

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Filed under Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Interview, Piano, WKCR

Roy Hargrove At The Village Vanguard

This evening, trumpeter Roy Hargrove brings his working quintet (Justin Robinson-alto sax; Sullivan Fortner-piano; Ameen Saleem-bass; Montez Coleman-drums) into the Village Vanguard to launch a two-week run. He’s morphed gracefully from young lion to esteemed veteran, is one of most singular trumpet stylists out there, and has incubated no small number of next generation movers and shakers in his bands over the last 15 years, and yet gets less dap from the jazz media than his abilities, conceptual daring, and body of work would merit.

I’ve been following Roy since he hit NYC twenty-plus years ago, and finally  had an opportunity to do a piece on him in 2009, when I was doing a lot of work for the jazz.com website. This Q&A was conducted on August 11th of that year, in the offices of the Jazz Gallery.

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By his own account, Roy Hargrove spends about two-thirds of his time on the road, as was the case over a seven-week summer 2009 sojourn during which he toured all three of his bands—his quintet and big band, both devoted to hardcore jazz, and his crossover unit, the R.H. Factor. Back home in New York for a week, Hargrove was decompressing, relaxing in the daytime and spending his nights jamming at various New York venues—Small’s, Fat Cat, and the Zinc Bar in Manhattan; Frank’s Place in Brooklyn. Still, on this hot Tuesday afternoon, the 39-year-old trumpeter, resplendent in a pink-check jacket, shorts, and a narrow brim, strolled into the Jazz Gallery exactly on time for a discussion framed around his new recording, Emergence [EmArcy], his first with the big band, following strong quintet releases from 2008 and 2006 entitled Ear Food [EmArcy] and Nothing Serious [Verve], respectively, and Distractions [Verve], also from 2006, and his third recording of R.H. Factor.

In point of fact, Hargrove may be singular among mainstem-oriented hardcore jazzfolk of his age group in his projection of an old-school attitude regarding road warriorship, song interpretation, blues feeling, and swing, while simultaneously tuning in to the popular music of his time on its own terms. Which of Hargrove’s peers of comparable visibility would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devotes to the various ensembles that he leads? Which other highly-trained post-Boomer would deliver a lyric like “September In The Rain,” a staple of Hargrove’s sets for at least a decade, with as much brio as Hargrove projects when uncorking cogent, thrilling solos on structures ranging from bebop to post-Woody Shaw harmonic structures? Indeed, in his ability to blend the high arts of improvisation and entertainment with equal conviction, Hargrove is a true descendent of such iconic elders as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly.

How does the big band sound now vis-a-vis when you did the record, after playing quite a number of gigs over the last year?

It’s really tight. I’m trying to get them to the point where they have the music memorized, and don’t have to use the written music any more—being able to play by ear is so important. When I played with Slide Hampton and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I tried to memorize the parts so that I could pay attention to everything that’s going on with the conducting, with the dynamics, and try to make it very musical. It’s getting close.

How big is the book? There are 11 tunes on the recording.

There’s probably 30 songs or so.

In the program notes, you stated. “I always wanted to work in a big band format. The sound is so full and rich, and it provides opportunity for congregation, which is much needed among today’s younger musicians, most of whom have come of age in small group settings.” I’m also thankful for the opportunity to exercise my compositional and arranging skills. Music is such a vast world, and I intend to explore every avenue possible. The cast of players on this project are all guys I met in school and on various gigs and jam sessions over the last twenty-odd years. I think we all share a strong passion for music that comes from the heart.”

Two themes arise which are a common thread in your career. One is this notion of congregation, communication through music, speaking across generations and styles. Then also curiosity, hunger for information. I can recall watching you as a young guy getting your butt kicked by the elders at Bradley’s, and not being daunted or fazed, but taking it in a constructive way and coming back for more.

True.

Now, in the liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that the first day he met you, you told him that to have a big band was an aspiration. You were always interested in that notion?

Yes. I always watched Dizzy’s big band on video, and it was very inspirational to me. When I started to embrace playing jazz as a teenager, the big band format was my training ground, in learning how to read, and learning how to play in a section in a group. For me, it’s kind of going backward. Earlier, there were big bands and then they went to the small groups; now it’s small groups, and I’m trying to bring back the big band thing.

I believe it’s really important that we all have to know each other when we play together. Most big bands, if it’s a great ensemble, the soloists are ok—they have one or two. But this group is a band full of soloists, so it’s challenging for me to try to bring them all together and have them play where the entire ensemble is thinking in the same direction, with tight cutoffs and everybody breathing at the same time—the things that normal big bands do. A few guys work in the Broadway shows, so they have a lot of experience…everything’s by the numbers. So there’s a balance between discipline and at the same time keeping it very loose and spontaneous.

You just mentioned that watching videos of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was an early influence.

Yes. The way Dizzy conducted the band, and the way he seemed to have so much fun—and they were having fun. This was inspirational to me, and I wanted to have a group like that.

Playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band over the last number of years has probably been a great training ground in putting together your own group.

Oh, it’s been great. Especially playing in the trumpet section there, playing the third trumpet part on Slide’s arrangements. The third trumpet part is a kind of focal point within the band, because you get to hear all the different ensemble parts written around the voicings. A lot of times, the third trumpet part, or even the third trombone part, has special notes that make the chord grow. I’m a sponge, listening to everything and taking it all in. It just gives me more information to transfer along to the group.

The program of Emergence contains many flavors—Latin, straight ballads, you sing a bit, exploratory pieces arranged by Gerald Clayton and Frank Lacy. But somehow, the template seems rooted in the mid-‘50s Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; the Ernie Wilkins-Quincy Jones synthesis of Dizzy and the Basie New Testament band, seems to be a jumping off point for the feeling you have in mind.

Exactly.

It’s a nice blend of art and entertainment.

I think that musicians should always have fun when they play. Sometimes it gets too serious. That’s just my opinion. When we play, it has to be tight, but at the same time I like to have the freedom to go outside of the box a little bit.

Talk about the process of recruiting this band.

Now, that’s difficult. With a big band, there’s hardly ever any money to pay guys, so it’s hard to get cats to be available.

It started off as a sort of Monday workshop thing, as often happens around New York…

Actually, the first hit was about 15 years ago, in Washington Square Park, where I was able to pull together a kind of all-star thing, with Jesse Davis and Frank Lacy, and even Jerry Gonzalez in the band—Jerry was playing fourth trumpet and percussion! I was able to do that first hit because the Panasonic Jazz Festival, which was running the event, paid us enough that I could give each one of those guys a grand or something. They were excited. “Ok! You got some more gigs?” But at the same time, throughout the process, the music grabbed them, too, and here it is, fifteen years later, we’ve brought it back, and everybody seemed to want to be part of it.

The other thing is that there aren’t really any gigs out there, and there’s a lot of musicians. People want to play. So it wasn’t that difficult to find musicians to be in the group. But it’s always a different gauge to try to find people who are available. For example, we did a few things here at the Jazz Gallery, and I was trying to find trumpet players. We shifted around a few different people, but we finally got what seemed to be a lineup of ringers—Tania Darby, Frank Green, Greg Gisbert are all very good lead players, too, and Darren Barrett, who I went to Berklee with, is a great soloist—Clifford Brown-Donald Byrd stuff. I guess finding the trumpet section was the hardest part; for a while, we had some mishaps. But we managed to pull it together.

I’m always at jam sessions, like I was last night, so I’m always running into musicians. I just go into my mental rolodex and pull out the people I know.

It takes time to accumulate a book. How did you accumulate repertoire?

I arranged a few of my songs for it, just to begin, then I told the cats, “If you want to write something, bring it in.” For this album, I asked Saul Rubin to write the arrangement on “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and I had written “Tchipiso” and asked Gerald Clayton to do the arrangement. Then, of course, there’s our theme song, “Requiem,” by Frank Lacy, which we’ve been playing. That’s the chop-buster for the whole band; they like to play it, but it’s kind of difficult. It’s very powerfully arranged.

I try to include the music that I learned when I came to New York, from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Larry Willis… Right now, a friend of mine is working on an arrangement for Hicks’ “After the Morning,” which we used to play at Bradley’s all the time. My premise is to try to pass down the information I picked up from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan and Idris Muhammad when I started cutting my teeth in jazz.

Apart from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, what other big bands have you been part of after high school?

I think that’s the only group I’ve actually played in. I’ve sat in with a few, played with some large ensembles here and there, but not anything that happened more than once.

Playing in big bands was a rite of passage for many of the older musicians who were your heroes, who came up before 1955-1960.

That’s why I think the music needs this. It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.

Is that something you learned early on, playing in your high school big band?

No, I didn’t learn that early on. I’m still trying to learn that!

It’s a quality that you aspire to.

Yes, I aspire to it. Sometimes, you have to make the amount of music that is just enough. You don’t have to over-crowd it.

How do you see this band vis-a-vis other contemporary big bands? It isn’t as though the scene is totally devoid of big bands, though there aren’t so many that work steadily.

Yes, there aren’t that many.

Maria Schneider, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Carla Bley…

My group is not quite that streamlined. I’m still trying to get it to that point. My group is filled with hooligans.

No hooligans in those other bands?

No hooligans over there. There’s plenty in my group, though. My vision of that just seems like there’s those groups, and they’re all very clean-cut and organized, and then there’s my group, which is complete chaos. A lot of characters. It’s never a dull moment around those guys. When we’re hanging or traveling on the train, all I have to do is go around them, and it’s entertainment all day.

Does the composition of the band somehow reflect your personality?

Maybe so. I’ve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, probably.

So you’re talking about camaraderie and the jazz culture. This band evolved through this location, the Jazz Gallery, which has served over its decade-plus…

As a breeding ground.

…as a breeding ground and also a kind of communal space for a lot of young musicians from many different communities.

That’s right.

Talk a bit about the interface between the Jazz Gallery and the evolution of this project. Your quintet identity was already long-developed, but the big band identity not so much.

I have to give it up to Dale Fitzgerald, because it was his idea to bring this back into the picture. The first gig we did here at Jazz Gallery, people got really excited. That got the ball rolling. Then I got excited about it. I figured, well, it’s been over ten years; we might as well record the thing now, try to take it out on the road. I guess that’s an uphill battle, considering the economy and everything else going on right now. But still, I think it’s very needed. The kind of conversation you’ll get with it is worth more than money. To me. Because it would help if we can feed jazz with something fresh. It’s difficult right now. People don’t want to swing any more. That dance element is getting buried, more and more and more. It’s got this esoteric sound. People want to be so hip. They want to create the new thing. But the new thing, to me, is the dance. They’ve buried that. I like hearing drummers when they play the ride cymbal. You can’t get drummers to play the ride cymbal any more. They’re always playing like a drum solo throughout the whole song. The ride cymbal, that is your beat. That’s your identity. The way the bass and the drums sound together is a big deal. People just forget about that. Everybody’s on their own program. That’s why I’m doing this whole big band thing. That’s why I’m doing all three bands. Instead of music just being in the background, music should be like therapy for people. When you go to hear music, you should feel better when you leave. Like you’ve been to the doctor and he heals you.

Another flavor of this band which also hearkens to Dizzy Gillespie is your embrace of Afro-Cuban rhythms on several pieces. Two things come to mind. One is that the Jazz Gallery has been an incubator for some of the most creative Cuban jazz musicians of this period…including some of the more esoteric ones.

Excuse me!

But then also, it’s the place where Chucho Valdes entered the New York picture during the ‘90s, and the venue where you first touched base with him and gestated Crisol. Let’s talk about Afro-Cuban rhythms and how they fit into your notions about swing.

It goes back to the dance thing. When I went to Cuba the first time in ‘96, they was partying in there! Here’s people who don’t have anything, they can’t even go to the store and buy orange juice. You’ve got to go to somebody’s house to buy beer, or something to drink. They don’t even have their own bathrooms. It’s crazy. But when they party, when the music starts, it’s like a festival. They REALLY know how to get down. This inspired me…the possibilities exploded in my head. I owe so much to Chucho for turning me on to that world. Before that, I had no idea. Not really. Not like that, before I went down there and saw it for myself. The level of virtuosity with the musicians in Cuba is out of this world! One guy would have five different facets in his realm. For instance, you might have a trumpet player who plays congas and is also a visual artist who can dance.

When I hung out with Anga and Changuito, playing with these guys, even though they didn’t speak English, I was still able to communicate with them through the music, and they showed me so many things. They showed me how to play the different rhythms based on the clave, things that inspired me… But I didn’t really get to dive into it on this album the way I wanted to. We had one percussionist. I wanted to do a bunch of overdubs, but we didn’t have time to get into it the way I really wanted on the big band thing. There’s still some music floating around from the Crisol era that hasn’t been released.

Did the Cuban experience have an impact on your improvising style, on the way you phrase? Is it something you can dip into, go out of? How does it play out for you?

Just being around those guys, I soaked in some of that. I’ve always been into rhythm and movement. When I play, I’m trying to be a part of the dance. I want the music to go into your body, the way you feel where you have to tap your foot and snap your finger, or move your head, or something. Hanging out with those guys strengthened that feeling, made it more prevalent. When I play, I’m thinking about the drums the whole time, and trying to sit in to the rhythm of whatever the drummer is doing. I pay attention to the drummer always. If the drummer isn’t really happening, then I can’t really play. Sometimes I can, but most of the time it’s a struggle if at least the time is not steady.

So it isn’t so much the style or whether they’re playing swing or straight eighth that’s important, but the quality of the beats. Or is that not the case?

It’s a combination of things. It’s the steadiness of the beat and also the way it feels, like if it has an oomph behind it as opposed to it being very quiet, subdued. I prefer to play with a lot of energy. That’s why I liked having all those drums when we were doing the Latin project, because it inspires me to play with energy and force. Drums and brass just go together.

Let’s segue to the R.H. Factor project, which is a much more explicit manifestation of your dance orientation.

In the beginning, I started off trying to do a tribute… My father was a record collector. He had foresight. People used to come to our house to see what we had, so they could go and buy it. They wanted to know what the new thing was going to be, because my father would have it.

So whatever Roy Allen Hargrove was getting, that’s what…

Yeah, they used to come to our house to see what he had in his collection. Every weekend, my dad would buy two or three records, and come back home, and then two weeks later it would be a hit. He just bought what he liked, but apparently that would be what everybody else liked, too—but later. I lost him in ‘95. So I wanted to do a tribute to him in a way that… He always said to me, “I like the jazz, but when are you going to do something a little bit more contemporary, something funky?” I’d say, “I’m getting to it.” He got out of here before I could do it. So I began to collect all of these recordings from my memory, out of what I knew he had. I would go out and get Herbie Hancock with Headhunters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and George Clinton—just reeducating myself. I’d always been doing little home recordings of my own original music, and I decided to take a few of them out of the archives and transfer it into a live setting, which was the beginning of R.H. Factor. We went into Electric Lady Studio for two weeks. Once the word got out that I was doing something different, all the musicians in New York started coming through!

A lot of musicians.

A lot!  I’m saying every day it was somebody new. It’s funny how the world is small. When the word gets out, it gets out. You know how that is, here in New York. We were at Electric Lady, and the first day I couldn’t find anybody. Nobody was around. I didn’t have a bass player, no drummer, no nothing. It was just me and Marc Cary, trying to get it started. We had Jason Olaine calling around, trying to find us a bass player. Finally, Meshell Ndegeocello popped up and brought her drummer, Gene Lake, and that’s how we got started—and the whirlwind of creativity began at that point. For two weeks, cats were just coming… Even Steve Coleman came by one day. There were some people who I actually called to come through, more mainstream entertainers like Q-Tip and D’Angelo and Common, Erykah Badu. These are my friends. It was a little bit difficult to get them, but they still came through. The only problem was that the budget spiraled out of control, because there were so many musicians, and they had to pay all of them. But that first one, once it got off the ground, was a lot of fun to do. I had Bernard Wright there, and my homeboys from Texas —Keith Anderson, Bobby Sparks, and Jason Thomas. That’s the nucleus of what was going on.

Just let me interrupt momentarily. Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, D’Angelo, Common, were all people you’d come to know during the ‘90s. Now, you’re best known as the leader of a hardcore jazz quintet playing swing, in a milieu where the jazz police are serious.

Mmm-hmm. But I never paid attention to that.

Well, you mentioned your father’s question, “when are you going to play something more contemporary?” That made me wonder whether there was a tipping point where you decided…

No-no. I never was satisfied with just staying in one place with music. I get bored. I always try to keep it rounded. When I was in school at Berklee, people thought I was strange because I would hang out with the jazz guys and the R&B cats, and then just sit there and listen to the gospel choir, saying, “they don’t understand.” Because there especially I met people who got into their locked-in things. You’ve got the guys that just play like Bird, then ones that just play like Coltrane. You got the guys who are strictly R&B, and they think the jazz guys are stuck up. You got the jazz guys who think the R&B guys are ignorant and can’t play changes. I never really sank my teeth into being in one of those groups. When I started recording professionally, I chose to do straight-ahead jazz, because that’s where my development was at the time, and I was trying to learn how to do it. I thought there was enough people trying to rap and do all that other stuff. There was enough of that at the time! I’m fascinated by Clifford, Fats Navarro, and these guys who were like institutions.

It was high art.

Yeah. I’m fascinated by that. Once I got locked on to that, I couldn’t stop. For me, it’s a blessing to be able to record jazz in THIS day and age. So I just went with that. But then, when it came time… Actually, it was really difficult for me to try to branch out and do something that wasn’t jazz. When I make a jazz recording, no one says anything. They’re just like, “Ok, take 3. Thank you.” Or “maybe we need another one, just for safety.” But then, when I started branching out into something else, everybody had an opinion. Everybody wanted to try to tell me how to write the songs, how to arrange the songs, do this, do that, “you’ve gotta get this singer, you’ve gotta get that one.” Everybody became an authority. People in the jazz world, they all think, “He’s a bebopper, he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he can’t play that.” But I’m from the generation that hip-hop came from, so it’s going to come out of me, too. I mean, my favorite group was Run-DMC when I was like 13 and 14. I actually bought Kurtis Blow’s first album.

Did your father like hip-hop?

He had one song he liked, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close…”

In his very warm liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that you started playing in an elementary school jazz ensemble in Dallas. Then people started hearing about you when you were 14-15, when you attended Booker T. Washington High School, which had a distinguished lineage stretching back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. During that time, were you working outside school? Blues bands, R&B bands, church situations?

Yeah. Once I got hit by the music bug, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to do it all the time. They had to pull me out of the band room. I was the first one there, and always the last to leave. I’d stay there until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening, because I loved it so much. It was also a kind of deterrent from being in the streets. People talk about South Central L.A., but South Dallas is no joke! Erykah is from South Dallas. We went to high school together. Yeah, people don’t talk about South Dallas. If you picture the ghetto in South Central L.A., or Compton, which they glamorize on TV and have the gangs… Just imagine ten times that. It’s so bad, they can’t even show it on TV. You go to Texas, and the ghetto is crazy. People are just crazy for no reason! I grew up around that in the 1980s, the late ‘80s, when a lot of gangs were beginning, and there was a lot of crack. One time my father told me I couldn’t go outside after 6 o’clock. So being around all that…having music really helped. Having something to do to keep me out of the streets. Otherwise, it might have been trouble. I’m thankful for that.

Did the idea of having a distinguishing voice on the trumpet come to you pretty early? Were you modeling yourself after the cats you were listening to? Did it just naturally come forth somehow?

Being in Texas, you hear blues all the time. Blues all the time. People love to listen to the blues. Every Sunday, my father and his friends would get together and play dominos, and put on Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, and listen to the blues. My grandmother and my aunts and all of them had 8-track tapes of Tyrone Davis. A lot of blues. So the blues gets in there. So when I first started learning how to improvise and took my first solo, it was based on playing the blues. My band director showed me a couple of licks… I guess coming up in church, you learn how to project yourself emotionally through your instrument, if you play an instrument, or if you sing—whatever you do. Texas is the Bible Belt. People know what that is when you go to church, and somebody sings a solo. That becomes a part of you. My grandmother put that in me when I was little. My spirituality has always been what keeps me going. That’s what is coming through.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to hear people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now, hearing Freddie Hubbard pretty much turned my whole life around. Clifford Brown at first, because I had never really heard jazz trumpet like THAT. Clifford’s technique was so good that it sounded like he wasn’t even playing trumpet any more. It went into like a woodwind sound almost, as though he had practiced so much and got so good that his sound went past being just a trumpet—it was just music. But then, Freddie Hubbard really got me,  because he had a contemporary thing in his sound—it reached back to cats like Clifford and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, but it also had a thing from my father’s generation, from the ‘70s. I could definitely latch onto that, especially the way he played ballads. I always liked his ballad playing. Just ballads in general. I like to play the slow songs.

So I started from blues, and then I started learning bebop when I came to New York.

That was right after high school?

Well, I was in Boston for a couple of years.

Didn’t you come to New York before you went to Boston…

Well, yes, I actually did, once. But it was for a competition. I was still in high school. I didn’t really leave the hotel.

But before you came to Boston and New York, there were a couple of national figures who entered the picture for you a little bit, right?

Yes. Clark Terry and Wynton. When I sat in with Wynton that first time, I was really nervous. But I thought, “Ok, you’ve got to step up to the plate now; you’ve got to deliver.” I wasn’t afraid, but at the same time I was really nervous.

Is stepping up to the plate something innate in you?

I’ve always enjoyed when people enjoy. When I’m playing and someone is feeling good from that, I’ve liked it, ever since I was little, when I first started. When I play a few notes and somebody goes, “Yeah!” I’m like, “ok, yeah, I want to do that every time.” so yeah, step up to the plate, make it happen.

Back to R.H. Factor and the first record that came out with Common, Q-Tip, and artists like this, what was their sense of you as an instrumentalist? Were they thinking of you as a jazz player? As a common spirit? Apart from the friendship and the collegiality, what was the artistic relationship like?

Like Herbie always says, “I’m a human being first, and a musician second.” I guess there’s something to be said for a doctor with a bedside manner. You have to know how to deal with people. So when I go to the more mainstream artists, I switch the way I work with them as opposed to when I work with the jazz players. In some cases, they’re used to special treatment, and you can’t be so technical.

Give me a concrete example.

For instance, with Q-Tip, I put him in the booth and let him write to the track, and just have the first 8 bars, or something like that, keep looping over and over, For about an hour I left him in there by himself. He wrote to the track, then we went back in and cut it, and he did it first take. But there’s no formula. It’s different with each person. It depends on their personality. With Common it was a little different. He and Erykah were dating at the time, so I had to pull him out of the studio. Finally, I got him out of there at 5 a.m. or something, and he came down. He didn’t even write anything. He just improvised his thing, which was one take. I couldn’t believe he did it in one, so I was like, “Can you do that again?”—and he did it again! It was great. But then I went through all of this crap with his manager, because he didn’t like the improvised thing. He wanted him to write something. I’m like, “You don’t understand what’s going on. I wanted it to be improvised.”

Does this emphasis on bedside manner represent your attitude as a bandleader in all the different situations?

Definitely. It takes patience and forward thinking. You always have to be thinking for the other guy, thinking what he’s going to do. Is he going to miss that note? Ok, is he going to come in? I’ve got to count him in. It’s like a juggling act sometimes, trying to… Well, not really like a juggling act—I’ll take that back. What I mean is, you have to think forward, think ahead. With the big band especially—conducting and bringing in all the different sections and whatnot—you have to always be at least 2 bars ahead.

I guess you have to be like when you’re leading the small band, too, keeping the crowd in mind, what to play at what time—gauging all those dynamics.

I mean, it’s not that much different from the small group to the big groups. I think that, in a way, the approach should be kind of the same. With the small group, sometimes we play the big band arrangements, pared down, which is exciting for them.

A different flavor. Changes things up.

Changes things up, yes.

So you hit New York in 1990 after two years at Berklee. Was being there helpful to you?

Yeah, definitely. Billy Pierce was there. I did my first couple of gigs with James Williams while I was there. Greg Hopkins, too. At Berklee, I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Ensemble, which is how I learned a lot of that book. Greg had some of the same arrangements, so when I got in the band with Slide, I had played a lot of the arrangements before. That helped me professionally. I already had some training, and I got a lot there, too, though I wasn’t there very long. Not just from being in the school, but from being on the streets. Going to Wally’s every night. I heard a lot of great music there, and I got to know some great musicians as well, like Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Delfeayo Marsalis… Being away from Texas was a culture shock for me, but also very enriching as far as my education in jazz.

Then you get to New York…

Then it got really deep! While I was at Berklee, I was starting to learn a little bit of some bebop, but I was really just trying to learn how to read chord changes. I’ve always played by ear, from when I first started. The first trumpet player got mad at me, because I would play his part, but I’d be down at the third trumpet! I think the ear training is such a big deal, though, especially now. We’re in the information age, and you can get everything at the push of a button. So musicians have to be very complete. You have to be not only good readers and be up on the technical side of playing music, but also be able to play what you hear. That’s sometimes lacking. I know a lot of musicians who can read flyshit, but if you whistle something to them, they can’t play it. Ear training is a big deal.

Anyway, it got deep when I got to New York. I started sitting in with people like John Hicks. I followed John Hicks around New York for a while.

Let’s paint a picture. You were around 19-20, and spending a lot of time at Bradley’s, both playing bookings and sitting in. You were playing with Hicks, and you were playing with Larry Willis, and the musicians who play on the record, Family… I personally remember an occasion when you were sitting in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr. on the second set, they kicked your ass, and then you came back on the last set and hung right in there. I saw similar situations transpire several times. It’s kind of an old-school way of learning, but I think it says something fundamental about you.

I’m very thankful, because people like George Coleman and Walter Davis taught us how to be men on the bandstand—how to be grownups. I never will forget that same night you mention, when I was playing with George and we went through the keys on “Cherokee,” which was like a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm. Then we played “Body and Soul,” and he started changing up the meters—he played in 3 and then in 5, and then BLAM, really fast. [LAUGHS] Then he turns around to me and goes, “You got it.” I go, “ok. What am I going to do after all of that?” But I stuck to my guns and tried to ride it out. Man, they were so helpful to me. That’s why I think we just need something now. Musicians need role models, something so that they can see how it’s done. I’d glad I got a chance to see it in person. Bradley’s was an institution, to me. It was like going to school. It was like your Masters. You go in there, and you’re playing, and then there’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar! What do you do? This is very humbling. Everything I’m playing right now I owe to that whole scene.

Before I interrupted, you mentioned following John Hicks around the city, and you remarked earlier you’ve commissioned an arrangement of his piece “After the Morning” for the big band. Hicks was a musician who is underappreciated in the broader scheme of things in jazz…

Yeah, but he was a true musicians’ musician. My manager, Larry Clothier, told me about John in the beginning. He said, “You’ve got to hear him; he elevates off the piano. Really. He starts levitating.” When I saw him the first time, it happened! I was like, “whoa!” So I latched on to John, and he was like my uncle. He was like family to me. His music was an influence. I was influenced by a lot of pianists as far as how I write and my approach to harmony. there’s John Hicks, then also Larry Willis, then also Ronnie Matthews, Kenny Barron, too—and James Williams, of course. My writing was influenced mostly by James Williams and John Hicks, the use of the major VII-sharp XI chord. That was my favorite chord when I was in college, and I used to use it on a lot of songs. They showed me how to use that chord, and make it very melodic. Sometimes the guys in my band would get tired, because I would write them like inj parallel… “Man, you got some more major VII-sharp XI chords?” A lot of my tunes had inflections from John or James or even Larry Willis, and they still do today.

One thing that I think shone through at Bradley’s was your ability to play a ballad. At 19 you could have been called an “old soul,” but we can’t really say that now, since you’re turning 40 this year.

I think that’s just my upbringing. I’ve always gravitated towards the slower songs. Ballads have an emotional quality to me. You slow it down, and you hear everything, all the nuances… Maybe I’m a romantic as well. I guess I believe in love! I like the slow songs. I like when it’s broken down. Sometimes that’s where the beauty is, when you bring it in the slow tempo. And I always listened to singers. Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan is my favorite. Of course, I owe a lot to Carmen McRae. I got to hear her live a lot, and she used to let me sit in with her all the time. Her delivery… I heard Freddy Cole at Bradley’s as well.

There’s a vocal element in my music. I try to play like a singer. I try to sing through my instrument like a vocalist would sing. I’m always thinking about the lyrics. I was told by Clifford Jordan that you have to know the words of the song, because then you really understand what it’s about, and when you play the melody you really understand the mood you’re projecting. Also, it helps your phrasing.

It sounds like there was never any generation gap for you.

Man, I have extreme respect for my elders. I believe in that. Somebody who’s been on this planet longer than me, I have to respect them. Even if they’re dead wrong, I’ve still got to respect them! There’s something to be said about the fact that they’ve been here longer than me, and they’ve survived. When it comes to musicians, it even gets deeper.

Another thing that’s interesting about how Bradley’s played out for you is that, because your business arrangements turned you into a leader quite quickly, it became the primary venue for your apprenticeship. You never did the sideman thing too much, if I recall correctly.

No, you’re wrong about that. I did a lot of sideman things, but it wasn’t anything steady. I started off playing with Frank Morgan and the Ronnie Matthews Trio, and  it went from there to Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, and Vernell Fournier, and then Charles McPherson.

Were these one-offs or were you touring with them?

I was touring with them. I would do a week here, two weeks there with different groups. Most of them were veterans, with me, the young kid, as the special guest. They were so encouraging. Whenever I showed up on the scene with my trumpet, the older guys, like Clifford Jordan, would be like, “Man, come on and play.” Nowadays, people get very protective over the bandstand. You want to go sit in with them, it’s like 2 o’clock in the morning, and they say, “We’re going to play a few songs, and then we’ll invite you up.” You can’t do that at 2 o’clock in the morning, man! It’s too late for all of that. Let’s have some fun! But people get very protective. I think the reason is because there’s no gigs. That creates a thing where when somebody gets a gig, even if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, they want to play all their original shit and they want to speak their piece.

But the older cats were very welcoming, even though I couldn’t really even play changes that well. “Hey, come on and play.” Sometimes, when I didn’t want to play, they’d be like, “Get on up here.” Like, Kenny Washington one night, we were at Bradley’s, and he was playing some fast, crazy tempo. Kenny was known for playing 220! I went to go sit down, and he was like, “Unh-uh, come back up here.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me go. “Yeah, you’re getting some of this, too.”

But even if my premise is wrong that you didn’t do so much sidemanning, pretty much you were leading groups from…

I didn’t have my own quintet until ‘93-‘94, with Greg Hutchinson, Marc Cary, Rodney Whitaker, and Antonio Hart. I tried to create a couple of bands before that, but nothing really stuck. I had different projects. I had one group with Walter Blanding, Chris McBride and Eric McPherson early on.

I’d like to talk about your development as a trumpet player over the years. What your weaknesses were, how you worked on them.

Trumpet is a beast! When I was in high school, Wynton referred me to a guy named Kerry Kent Hughes, who was a trumpet professor at Texas Christian University. He was my very first private instructor on that level. I’d been studying at school, and pretty much teaching myself, for the most part. This was the first time I actually had someone who would come to my house and work with me. Man, I learned so much. I couldn’t pay him. We were poor. But he did this out of his heart. He was a classical player, but he also did musicals and shows and so on, and he was very versatile. Actually, he came to the Vanguard the last time we played there, and it blew my mind, because I hadn’t seen him in so long. But Kerry Hughes would come to my house every week or so, and show me little things to help me with endurance. We worked on Cichowicz flow studies and stuff like that, and also the Arban method. This really instilled in me the importance of an everyday routine on the trumpet, certain rudimental things that you do just to keep your chops up. With a hectic schedule and touring when you have to go to the airport and so on, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice, so you have to develop a daily routine to keep your chops up. I learned a lot from him in that respect.

I’ve picked up things as I go. A few years ago, I learned something called the Whisper Tone that really opened me up, helped my range a lot, helped me to be able to play more around the horn. I’m still developing, trying to learn as much as I can about the trumpet. It’s a beast. Dizzy says, “It lays there in luxury, waiting for someone to pick it up, so it can mess up your head.” [LAUGHS]

Dizzy Gillespie sure messed up the heads of a lot of people. You don’t hear too many who can emulate him.

I was just listening to something last night, “Birks Works” with Milt Jackson.

At what point do you feel you got past influences?

I’m still not. I’m still there.

Were you transcribing trumpeters? Were you doing it more by feel?

When I was at Berklee, I had to transcribe some Fats Navarro. Jeff Stout was my teacher, and he had me transcribe a couple of Fats Navarro solos. But I never got into transcription as far as writing it down. I don’t think that you get much from that. It’s better if you transcribe by ear and learn it, because some things you can’t really write down all the way—certain inflections and the feel that comes from someone’s conception. But I transcribe a lot by ear, not even really trying to. If I hear something more than three times, I’ve pretty much got it memorized.

That’s a gift, to be able to do that.

Yes, I think so. Thank God for that. But it’s also training. Because if you listen to music all the time, which I do, then it becomes part of you. It becomes part of your breathing. It’s just like drinking water or eating. I listen to music all the time. Even when I’m not listening, it’s still in my head.

So the quintet is your longest continuous entity.

Yeah, I like the quintet format. It has everything there. I have tried some other formats, though. That’s why I like coming to the Jazz Gallery to play, because I get to do other things—like the organ trio is fun.

You’ve also paired off with other trumpeters on various gigs here. Back to the notion of camaraderie and collegiality, it seems that you like to have another voice to play off of.

Yes, I like it.

It doesn’t seem that quartet would be your favorite format.

Well, it depends. With quartet, I would probably play more ballads. But it’s hard to play ballads now, because the young guys don’t know the American Songbook. They don’t KNOW the songs. It’s difficult. I go to jam sessions a lot, and when I start calling tunes, nobody knows anything. You either get “Beatrice” or “Inner Urge.” That’s it!

Gerald Clayton, who was your pianist for several years, has command of that…

He does. He knows the language of it. If he doesn’t know the tune, he can figure it out. For his generation, he’s one of the better ones. But then, his father is John Clayton, so he’s getting it honest. But I could stump him, too. He didn’t know “After the Morning.”

But in any event, you’re always bringing new young musicians into the band. Is there a disconnect for you with that generation?

I miss being able to hear some music that I just can’t get enough of! I’ll give you an example. Just two nights ago, I went into Smalls, and we were hanging out, jam session, everything’s pretty straight line, and then my friend Duane Clemons gets up and plays—and I was so happy! It was like touchdown! Know what I’m saying? It was like throwing a pork chop into the middle of a hunger-starved place. I felt so good just for that little bit. Man, if I could just have a LITTLE bit of that all the time. I was telling Duane that, “Man, you should really play more, because that’s FOOD.” He was playing the real language. He was playing bebop. He was playing the real New York stuff. The real fabric of the language of the music. When you hear it, you know what it is.

You do some workshops and clinics, too. You’re in touch with younger musicians.

Sometimes. I did a thing with Roy Haynes at Harvard not too long ago. It was real cool.

What do you think is alienating musicians from that way of playing? Is it lack of information, or…

Lack of information.

…is it attitude?

It’s both, One feeds the other. First of all, I think people sometimes come into the arts for the wrong reason now—because they want to be famous and rich and have a nice life, instead of trying to reach people’s consciousness and make a difference. Doing something for someone else besides yourself. People come into this, and, “Yeah, I want to be rich, I want to have a car, I want to have people waiting on me,” and so on. It gets weird when that’s your main focus. So you get the jazz musician who learned how to play in school who already thinks he’s learned it all. I like to meet musicians like that, because then I like to challenge them. That’s why I started this big band. I wanted to challenge the peacocks, musicians who think, “Oh yeah, I already know everything.” But you don’t!

They don’t get it. But if you love this music, you’ll go out and find what you need. That’s one thing I like about Jonathan Batiste, the new piano player who’s been playing with me. He seeks out cats like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones. That’s different than the guys in his generation, who are more into McCoy and Herbie—Jonathan checks out the REAL thing. I have to say, he did a great job on this last tour. I was really excited, because he came out and took care of business. This cat played in all three groups.

Jonathan Batiste is out of New Orleans.

New Orleans. What are they feeding them down there?! I don’t understand. Them New Orleans piano players. I had two of them in the past months, Sullivan Fortner and then Jonathan, and these guys are so complete. There was nothing I couldn’t throw at them. I’ve been working towards having the type of group where if I wanted to show them a new song, I could sit down at the piano and play it, and then they’d hear it—I don’t have to write it out or anything. Now is the first time I’ve ever had a group like that; with Jonathan, I could sit down and play it once, and he’d pick it up. Something about New Orleans.

So the present group is either Sullivan Fortner or Jonathan Batiste on piano…

Yes. Amin Salim is playing bass. Montez Coleman is on drums. Justin Robinson on alto saxophone.

Is the quintet a more open-ended format for you than the big band or R.H.  Factor?

“Open-ended.” What do you mean?

In your current bio sheet, you remark about the big band, “There’s not much left to chance.”

Yes. With the quintet, it’s always up in the air. The book is so vast with the quintet right now (excluding the new members, like Amin Saleem, who doesn’t know the whole book yet—but he’s learning it) that we can go in any direction you want. I can actually do the Big Band and R.H. Factor set with them, too. This version of the quintet is probably one of the more versatile units I’ve had. When we play the Latin thing, it’s real Latin. When we play some funk, it’s real funky. When we play straight-ahead, it’s tippin’. We can go anywhere. That’s basically my whole premise. I believe in variety, and also I believe in spontaneity. There’s no rule book. As soon as it starts to get to be in a rut, then I change it right away. With the quintet, we never play the same thing. Each night I try to change up the repertoire a bit so that everyone stays focused. We never get bored.

Being a bandleader is very interesting and challenging in that way. You have to keep everybody focused, and also motivated. Even outside of the music, trying to keep morale up is a balancing act as well. When you’re on the road and nobody’s slept for a few days, people get tired of looking at each other and it gets real dark. So I try to keep a very positive energy around everyone, so we keep it going.

You yourself must get tired, too.

Yes. I get tired. But I’m ok. My spirituality is what keeps me going, for sure.

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Filed under Interview, Jazz.com, Roy Hargrove, trumpet

Artie Shaw’s 101st

To recognize the 101st birthday anniversary of Artie Shaw, here’s a piece I wrote for Jazziz in 2002 in conjunction with his self-picked box set, SELF-PORTRAIT (RCA).  Because of the allotted word length, I had to distill down two long phone interviews (I’ll save the raw transcripts, which are a hoot, for another occasion or forum).

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“Artie Shaw was to me the hippest clarinetist in that he played it straight.  His ideas would come straight out. He didn’t sound like he was studying from the book.” – Wayne Shorter

“I would occasionally play for black audiences,” says Artie Shaw, hearkening back to the 1930s, when he became a mega-celebrity. “It was always very liberating. You could do anything you want. They were much hipper than white audiences, much more musically aware.  That’s why Ellington and Lunceford and Chick Webb could get away with a lot that white bands couldn’t.

“Musically, we are an almost illiterate people. Audiences respond like apes; they get up and applaud after every solo, good or bad. The people who run the business do not insist on having any sort of dignity. Woody Herman would say, in the middle of the chorus, ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, Joe Miff-Miff played the trumpet, and this is so-and-so.’ I’d say, ‘Woody, why the hell don’t you wait til it’s over, tell the audience to sit down and introduce the soloists one-by-one?’  He said, ‘Well, this is what they want.’ I said, ‘What about what you want?’ He couldn’t understand that. Or didn’t want to. It’s very important that the leader of the band set an example, if he wants any kind of dignified response. Can you imagine a symphony audience applauding after each cadenza? But you can’t have a band if the audience won’t help you pay for them. So you’ve got to face the fact that you have to give them what I call ‘three chords for beauty’s sake and one to pay the rent.’”

Truculent and blunt, Shaw was never so cranky as to bite off the hand that fed him; now 92, out of the music business longer than he was in it, he pays the rent on royalties, residuals and investments from his glory years. Famously married to and divorced from actresses Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Evelyn Keyes, to Jerome Kern’s daughter, and three other women, he continues to possess what market researchers call a high name recognition quotient. That’s why last year’s SELF-PORTRAIT [RCA] — a 5-CD retrospective for which Shaw cherrypicked 95 performances from his vast storehouse of studio and remote recordings — stirred up as much attention as it did.

During two lengthy phone conversations last April, Shaw was loath to discuss oft-trod biographical territory, referring me to his books The Trouble With Cinderella and The Best Of Intentions rather than talk about how he came to earn $175 a week with a mediocre dance band as a 17-year-old in 1927, what it was like to sit in with Earl Hines and Jimmie Noone at the Apex Club in South Side Chicago and with Willie the Lion Smith and Billie Holiday at Pod & Jerry’s in Harlem, how he came to organize his first band, or the impact of his harrowing experiences during World War II. A staggeringly well-read autodidact and well-armoured misanthrope, he had plenty else to discuss. We excerpt the following comments.
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“The only thing worse than utter failure is unmitigated success.  I sure had that for a while.  And it was almost fatal. I lost my mind.  I lost all sense of purpose.  I didn’t know what I was doing any more. For the audience to stand up and applaud everything, how are you going to know what’s good or not? Then the War came, and that was a bath of cold reality. When I came back to so-called civilization, I went into analysis, five days a week, every morning, on the couch. First I did it in California. When I went to New York, I found that the West Coast analysis didn’t work on the East Coast!  I went to Abram Kardiner, a very famous man, one of the early cultural anthropologists, who trained Margaret Mead, etc. You’d come in in the morning and he said, ‘What happened?’ You’d tell him.  He’d say, ‘What do you mean by that?’ You’d say it, and he’d say, ‘Well, that’s not what you said.’ You’d go on and on, dissecting everything you thought. I learned a very important lesson. It can be summed up in three words. ‘Maybe it’s me.’

“I have a great distrust of authority.  That came I think out of my father telling me that the instrument I played was silly.  He called it a ‘blowzer.’  It means a blower, a thing you blow into.  Like a kazoo.  He classed it with nothing.  And he made his contempt for it very plain to me.  I’ve often thought since then, whenever some signal honor has been bestowed upon me, ‘If you were here, Pop, you’d learn what a blowser is.’ He was a frustrated inventor, artist, and ended up as a tailor.  His name was Arshawsky, and he came from Odessa. It took me fifty years to learn that. He left when I was 13, and I didn’t much care. I have no regard for antecedents or precursors. I have no family sense.  I feel as though I came out of whatever I came out of, and I managed to get to where I am in spite of anything.  There’s a line I cherish that George Bernard Shaw said.  He said, ‘Looking back at my life, I realize that whatever success I achieved was done in spite of all the good advice I received.’

“I got my name ‘Shaw’ from Robert Louis Stevenson, a book called Kidnapped, which I read when I was 7 or 8.  Kidnapped had a man living in the House of Shaws.  Shaw means a thicket of trees.  So I took the name when I went into show-biz.  When I decided to become a saxophone player and play in bands, it was easier to say ‘Art Shaw’ than Arthur Arshawsky.  Plus, in those days there was a great deal of anti-semitism, just as there is today.  But it was more overt in those days.

“I don’t know what being Jewish means. I certainly don’t believe in Jehovah, I don’t believe in the stone tablets, I don’t believe in the Burning Bush, and I don’t believe in any of the myths.  And I don’t know what it means to have a seder, because I don’t think it’s particularly interesting.  I mean, why is this day different from any others?  Well, Jesus, why is July 4th different?  They’re all different.  I don’t really care about these concretized myths that we deal with, called religion.

“I became Artie Shaw, and Artie Shaw leading a band was hardly Jewish.  I was on the ‘Tonight Show’ one time, and the question came up: What did you want to be when you were young?  What was your ambition?  When it got to me, I said, ‘I wanted to grow up and be a gentile.’  And the audience cracked up, and so did the band.  There were a lot of Jews in the band.  And then, the laughter died down, and I said, ‘And I made it.’ It was like a big trick on the world, and I was the only guy who could laugh at it.

“I think the family is a series of cannibals eating each other. My view is that if we had a reasonable society, we would pay people to take care of the raising of children. Four 6-hour shifts, and that’s it. They’d be totally devoid of all this subjective, sentimental flesh-and-blood horseshit that we get with the average family. There’s no reason why a society can’t raise children in a fairly reasonable and dispassionate and objective way.”
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“I think there were about five great bands in those days — Goodman, me, Basie, Ellington and Lunceford. Tommy Dorsey had a great band, but they weren’t playing jazz. Lunceford at his best was awfully good.  He had a lot of respect for what he did, and he imbued the men with that. And Ellington at times was very good.  He was interesting, a very smart guy. But he’s been hyped. In the last ten years, he’s become like the avatar. The long form things he did weren’t long forms; they were just pastiche, a lot of short forms put together. But the audience bought it. The band was like the little girl with the curl on the forehead.  When they were good, they were very good; when they were bad, they were horrid. He chose the personalities. It’s like saying the newspaper was a good newspaper, but the people couldn’t write. It’s under a rubric. Sometimes Ellington’s rubric worked, other times it didn’t. When I quit, he said, ‘You’ve got more guts than any of us.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about? You could do the same thing if you wanted.’ He said, ‘I wouldn’t know what else to do.’

“The band was my instrument; I played the clarinet with it. I tried to make the guys play better than they thought they could. I tried to be reasonable with them. But on the other hand, there’s an old saying, and I believe it’s true: Nothing of any lasting value is ever achieved by a reasonable man. I do know that if you were really reasonable, you’d go down the road and be a good insurance man. But if you’re unreasonable, you’re quarreling with everything that is, and you’re going to make it better. We rehearsed all the time. If one guy did something wrong one night, I’d call a rehearsal the next night and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to fix that.’ The guys didn’t mind. They liked the idea of the quest for perfection.

“Like everything else, jazz has had a crescendo and a decrescendo. It was an efflorescence. We grew and grew and grew, we finally reached an apogee, and now it’s gone downhill. I was interviewed by a guy who was doing a book on Sinatra. At the end, he said, ‘Are you in agreement that he was a perfect symbol of the decadence of the last half of the century?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I think that says it very well.’ We took a plain, ordinary singer, a good singer, and we made him into an icon. We made him a crony of Presidents, and then when he couldn’t get along with the President because of his propensity for gangsters, he went to Spiro Agnew.  He was a man with utterly no principle.  That’s a form of decadence.

“When Ava was living with Sinatra, she asked me whether sex had been okay when we were together, because she said with Sinatra it was hopeless. Later Ava developed this great, peculiar thing about standing by her man.  So she’d make remarks like ‘he weighs 105, and 95 percent cock.’ I know damn well that wasn’t true, because I’ve heard it from other women.

“Once I worked with Tony Bennett on a series of half-a-dozen concerts, the big tents, those great big musical extravaganza places. My orchestra was rehearsing with him, and after they did ‘I Left My Heart In San Francisco,’ he came over to sit with me.  He said, ‘The band is great’ and so on. I said, ‘Good, I’m glad you’re happy with it.’ Then I said, ‘Tony, what goes through your mind when you sing ‘I Left My Heart in San Francisco’?’  He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well, that song expresses at most a meager philosophical statement. Don’t you ever get a little bored with it?’ ‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m very lucky. The audience…’  I said, ‘I’m not talking about money or success. I’m talking about your inner view.’ He didn’t have one. I began to realize that this guy was intent on singing, like Goodman was intent on the clarinet. The philosophical basis for this was totally lost. They were not aware that there was such a thing. I think it denotes a lack of depth to thinking. A surface view of life. Things are not what they seem, and it’s the duty of any person who pretends to be aware to try to understand what it really represents in its deepest sense. What does it say about the human condition? The point of the words ‘human condition’ I think is lost on a lot of people. Also, people use language so imprecisely that their thought is imprecise. We say ‘jazz.’  What are we talking about? What is it and what isn’t it? I mean, the name of the magazine, Jazziz. Jazz is what? It’s like saying ‘Bird Lives.’ Well, in that case, Beethoven lives. What they mean is some of the music lasts.

“Language is wiser than the people who use it. Language has been used for a long, long time by a number of people in different ways. We are the heirs to that, and if we use language precisely, we have a little better chance of making ourselves clear and making other people understand what we’re doing than if we use it sloppily, as people do. We have three languages. There’s the oral-verbal one. There’s music. And there’s mathematics. I don’t know of any others.”

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