Tag Archives: John Coltrane

For Joe Lovano’s 63rd Birthday, A Jazziz Feature From 2000, a Pair of WKCR Interviews from 1989 and 1995, and His “Baker’s Dozen” John Coltrane Selections From 2009, and Three Liner Notes

Best of birthdays to Joe Lovano, who turns 63 today. I’ve been fortunate to have many opportunities to write about Joe and to speak with him, and am sharing a few of these in this post. First is a long feature for Jazziz in 2000. There follow a pair of WKCR interviews, one the proceedings of a Musicians Show in 1989, the second of a 5-hour Jazz Profiles show in 1995 — much interesting information in both. Then comes the an interview conducted for the “Baker’s Dozen” feature on the much missed website, http://www.jazz.com — Joe discusses 13 essential John Coltrane tracks. Then come three liner notes. Joe gave me my first liner note opportunity in 1995 when Blue Note released his seminal date, Quartets: Live at the Village Vanguard. Subsequently, I wrote the notes for On This Day: Live at the Vanguard and the debut recording of his still ongoing group, Us Five, titled Folk Art.

 

Joe Lovano (Jazziz):

He isn’t brash, he doesn’t profile, but Joe Lovano isn’t the type to blend into the background either. When he strolls into the dressing room and exchanges greetings with Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, the mood instantly lifts. Lovano’s last performance with the drummer and guitarist, his partners for 20 years in Motian’s trio, was last together eight months earlier in Rome. Now, they’re about to take the stage at Caramoor, an elegantly landscaped arts center set on a former estate in the middle of Westchester horse country, to conclude a remarkable afternoon of music that’s featured the Sam Rivers Trio and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron in duet.

Lovano has a ruddy tan, his salt-specked goatee-moustache is trim; he’s casually dapper in blue circular shades, a bebopper’s straw beret with alternating zig-zag stripes of white and sea blue, and a silk violet short-sleeved shirt with black markings resembling musical notes draping a burly torso. As greetings are exchanged, he assembles his silver tenor and begins to warm up, effortlessly filling the room from the first breath.

A few hours before, in this same room, Chris Potter, fresh from a turbulent tenor solo with Hilton Ruiz’ band, came upstairs to say hello. I reminded him of a comment of his — that Lovano’s influence on his generation of saxophonists is so pervasive that he, Potter, is making a concerted effort not to sound like him. “That’s absolutely true,” he replied.

“What you said to Chris is funny,” Motian remarked once Potter dashed back to the stage.

“I was just in Manchester, England, and as I walked into the club, I heard a saxophone over the sound system. I said, ‘Oh, that’s Joe Lovano.’ The sound engineer who was playing the CD said, ‘No, it’s not.’ I said, ‘You can’t tell me that’s not Lovano. Lovano has been playing with me for twenty years. I know when it’s Joe. All he has to do is play two notes. I know it’s Joe.’ It wasn’t Joe.” He laughs. “I couldn’t believe it. It’s an English guy. I don’t remember his name.”

“That’s far out,” Frisell said.

“It is,” Motian shot back. “I stole the CD. After I got home, I played it; it doesn’t sound like Joe. But at that moment, I thought it was Joe. And I hear lots of other saxophone players now who sound like Joe, which I didn’t when I first met him. He sounds better now than he did then, but not that much better. He sounded good then.”

Lovano sounds good on improvisational flights to the music’s outer partials with Motian and Frisell, I thought, and he sounds just as good on, say, the inspired and thoroughly idiomatic solo he took on “How High The Moon” for a record with the Ray Brown Trio a few years back. After I said something to that effect, Motian jumped in.

“Do you know why he can do that? It’s very simple. He’s a good musician. He has a lot of experience. He played with Woody Herman and other big bands, with the organ trios, all these different groups, he can read anything, plays all the reed instruments.

“Early when the trio was first forming, we had a gig in Cleveland, and we stayed overnight at Lovano’s home, with his parents. His mom cooked up this great food. I’m sitting on the couch with Joe’s father, who says to me, ‘You know, Paul, I’m an official at the local musicians union here in Cleveland; you have to give me $8.’ So I gave it to him! And he gave me his card, which later I gave to Joe after his father passed. Up on the wall of the living room is a picture of Joe in the crib, a couple of months old, but also in the crib with him there’s a fucking saxophone! So check that influence out. That’s the thing about Joe. It just comes naturally to him.”

“He’s natural, but he works his ass off, too,” Frisell added.

In his alchemical ability to play any style — play it convincingly and retain his unmistakable identity — Lovano is the model of what today’s savviest young improvisers strive to attain. Part of the mystique involves his big, furry sound. It’s a sound that tenorist Eric Alexander, an ’80s student of Lovano’s at William Patterson College, describes as “ultra-breathy, broader and darker just about than any tone I’ve ever heard on the saxophone.” He continues, “A lot of younger saxophonists have been excited and enthralled by that sound and tried to approximate it. It’s very personal, almost eccentric. If it were 1965, and you heard that sound, it would be shocking — you wouldn’t have heard a tenor sound like that. He doesn’t sound like any of the legendary cats tone-wise. Also, the way Joe organizes his notes and phrases and shapes his lines disguises what he does. There’s clarity, but the way he outlines the harmony is almost intentionally nebulous. It sounds like I’m being critical, and I’m not; I hear that rubbing off on a lot of younger saxophonists.”

Ever since he came off the road with Woody Herman twenty years ago, Lovano developed that sound on a wild mix of jobs, not least with Motian’s Trio. He played a vast range of charts with the Mel Lewis Orchestra [1980-1992], Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, and the Carla Bley Orchestra. He worked frequently with Elvin Jones, in a remarkable quintet with Tom Harrell, in a two-tenor quintet with African drums led by bassist Ray Drummond, and, earned widespread visibility in John Scofield’s immensely popular quartet. He co-led a voice-and-woodwinds ensemble with his wife Judi Silvano, played in a European freebop combo with bassist Henri Texier and drummer Aldo Romano, and in a quartet led by Japanese avant pianist Yosuke Yamashita. One night in 1994 he spent an evening scratch improvising a series of memorable duets and trios with Evan Parker and Borah Bergman.

Blue Note signed Lovano in 1990; he’s responded with eleven albums, each different from the one before, all of which have extended his musical vocabulary. Most of these recordings incorporate musicians — Jones, Ed Blackwell, Jack DeJohnette, Al Foster, Lewis Nash, Billy Hart, Charlie Haden, Dave Holland — who, as he puts it, “play beyond technique with a sensibility of freeness.” Lovano also has collaborated with open-minded arrangers like Gunther Schuller and Manny Albam. Axiomatic as it may seem today that improvisers should experience the full range of contexts — from the most functional blues to the most intense abstraction — this was hardly the norm in the mid-’80s, when Lovano began to make his mark.

“I never said, ‘I dig this, I don’t dig that,'” Lovano emphasizes. “I’ve always lived in the different, let’s say, camps in the music. I’ve tried to be free, tried to develop my technique through the years so I could execute ideas freely and to develop ideas within the personnel in the band. I don’t come at the saxophone with one attitude all the time, which has helped develop my approach in playing a lot of different kinds of music.”

You can hear how independent-minded thirty-something tenor players like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake, Chris Cheek, Donny McCaslin and Joshua Redman have investigated Lovano’s capacious timbre and open approach to harmony on their way to finding a sound. “I don’t know any tenor player of my generation who doesn’t love Joe Lovano and hasn’t been profoundly influenced by him,” says Redman, who in June performed in San Francisco with Lovano, Wayne Shorter and Branford Marsalis. Redman was a recently matriculated Harvard underclassman when he first heard Lovano at a small Boston club on the urging of a tenor saxophonist friend. “I was completely blown away,” Redman relates. “You could hear the entire tradition of the tenor saxophone, but he had synthesized it all in a completely natural, organic and personal way, and he sounded completely modern and incredibly soulful and spirited.”

Redman has since shared numerous bandstands with Lovano, whose admiration for Dewey Redman, Josh’s father, is no secret. “Of the group of tenor players who came up in the ’70s,” Redman continues, “Joe completely embraced the modernism that came out of Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and Ornette Coleman, but with a sound which goes beyond that and in some ways reaches further back. There’s a humanism in his sound that maybe was lacking in other guys from the post-Coltrane era. I mean sound in the larger conception — the notes he plays, his rhythmic and harmonic conception, his melody. It’s his personality.”

Lovano’s peers and elders appreciate his willingness to aim for paths untrodden in an era when the weight of the tradition intimidated so many to fall back on the tried-and-true. “What I personally dig about Joe,” says the bassist Christian McBride, who most recently played with Lovano in the initial iteration of Grand Slam, a quartet that the tenorist co-leads with guitarist Jim Hall, “is that he’s not afraid at all. He always plays with what I’d call ‘careful abandon.’ I always have been a little dumbfounded as to why one morning we woke up and Joe Lovano became this really major person on the jazz scene, because I always thought he was one of the best tenor saxophonists of all time.”

Before Grand Slam formed, Jim Hall — a native Clevelander who played with Lovano’s Uncle Carl in high school and hung out in the one-chair barbershop Lovano’s father owned in Cleveland to supplement his income as a musician — brought Lovano onto several mid-90s Telarc dates; these involved complex chord changes and intricate charts. “Joe just gobbled them up,” Hall says. “He dives into things and assumes he’s going to come out on his feet; you can put almost anything in front of him. I first heard him with the Mel Lewis band at the Vanguard, and I was impressed with him the same way I am now. He was completely loose and confident. He just sounded so confident, so completely comfortable when he’d stand up to play his solo, no matter how complicated the chart was. There was no feeling of hesitation; he just would do it.”

“Joe goes toe-to-toe with people,” says Greg Osby. The saxophonist collaborated with Lovano for last year’s Friendly Fire (Blue Note), a well-wrought hypermodern jam session which commingles Lovano’s working trio of bassist Cameron Brown and the iconic New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad, with Osby and pianist Jason Moran. “He’s spontaneous and inventive, and he doesn’t play licks. He incorporates alternate fingerings or choking on the mouthpiece or tonguing techniques to create shadings and colors — he gobbles up the notes. He knows how to embrace the sound. That comes from listening to people play the blues, and listening to singers, how they bend notes.”

It seems each of Lovano’s colleagues finds something different to appreciate in his approach. Cameron Brown has grounded the space between Lovano and Muhammad at least a couple of hundred times in the last two years. “Joe reminds me of Don Cherry,” says the bassist, who worked extensively with Archie Shepp, George Adams and Dewey Redman earlier in his career. “Both of them are always aware that music can be magic, that something special can happen at any moment, which puts the music at a different level.”

In fact, Lovano appears to know how to create a space where personalities can blend and set off sparks in any performance situation. As Motian implied, his father began to teach his oldest son how to crack the codes of such ritual shortly after he began to walk, in a manner not so dissimilar to the way griot families in oral societies pass along information. Lovano likes to emphasize that his projects emanate from personal history, a subject he discusses with obvious enthusiasm.

Lovano’s grandparents were born in Sicily, and settled in Cleveland, Ohio, in the early part of the 1900s. Three of his uncles were working musicians. Uncle Nick, now 85, who was a dance band tenor player (he played in the saxophone section in the Sammy Watkins Big Band, which Dean Martin sang with when he was discovered) and a used car salesman, told him that his grandfather was in the Masons, who encouraged their children to play instruments so they could play for their parties and meetings. Lovano assumes that his father, Tony, got into music from hearing his older brother play. Uncle Joe played “more wedding band style tenor saxophone — all standard songs.” Tony Lovano was next, and he and his younger brother Carl, who played trumpet, came of age during the Bop era — Lovano has a recording of them playing Dizzy Gillespie’s “Dizzy Atmosphere.”

“We lived with my grandparents until I was 5 or 6 years old,” Lovano recalls. “It was a festive atmosphere, with music all the time. I heard reel-to-reel tapes of parties where my grandmother’s brother, Jim, played mandolin and sang arias and Italian folk songs. My Dad would practice in a big bathroom on the second floor; I’d listen to him all the time, and the sound of the saxophone captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. I had my first alto saxophone when I was 5 or 6. A year or two later the drummer my Dad was playing with bought a new drumset and gave me his drums, which I set up in my room. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.”

Lovano’s ideas about playing the saxophone were marked early on by his intense involvement with the drums. “I felt a little pressure playing saxophone,” he says. “My Dad played with me on all my lessons, and I was trying to have him dig me. Then I would sit at the drums and have fun. As I developed more on the saxophone, I heard the solos that Max Roach played with Charlie Parker, and realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies as Bird. As I learned the melodies, I’d practice them on the drums as well. I’d learn all the solos that Philly Joe Jones played on a record. It opened up my awareness to be involved not only in what I’m articulating on my horn, but to try to be part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano, who went by the nickname “Big T,” was the most advanced player in his family; as Lovano recalls, “he was a real hipster; by the late ’40s he was seriously involved in the scene.” He didn’t travel much — Lovano recalls a tour with a trio led by Nat Cole’s brother Ike — but he worked all over Cleveland, playing gutbucket, walk-the-bar saxophone in rhythm-and-blues and jump bands, leading organ trios (by the ’60s, his East Cleveland barber shop, now with two chairs, had a Hammond B3), doing jam sessions, playing in supper clubs for listeners. “He was aware of all music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties,” Lovano says. “That was his generation. Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster were from Cleveland, so were [trumpeters] Benny Bailey and Bill Hardman and [guitarist] Bill DeArango, who he was real close to, and later Albert Ayler and Bobby Few. He was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet and Gene Ammons school of playing, but he loved Lester Young, and had a beautiful ballad approach, too. He played by ear, and he created melody all the time. That was his thing.”

Through his father, Lovano internalized the notion that mastery of function is the fount of invention. “My Dad always had integrated bands with the best musicians in town,” Lovano states, “and the organ players and drummers and bassists and guitarists he played with became my teachers. My main goal was to sit in, so I had to learn the tunes they were playing, sometimes on the spot; I had to figure out how to play in certain keys and maneuver through tag endings. I had to memorize everything.”

Once Lovano could drive, he got his union card, and began to take on weekend wedding and dance gigs that his father got calls for but couldn’t get to, leading bands with musicians Tony Lovano’s age. “That gave me confidence about playing with older guys,” Lovano says. “My Dad taught me to survive out here as a musician, to be able to take a gig and get called back a second time! He always stressed the technical things. He encouraged me to learn clarinet and flute, which helped me later to function in Woody Herman’s band and in the Mel Lewis Orchestra. He prepared me to sit in saxophone sections by bringing me around to hear the bands he played in; soon I was playing in rehearsal bands, trying to read and integrate my sound within the band sound. That prepared me to feed off of people, to blend my tone with other tones so the sound doesn’t stick out — to find other ways to listen.

“Music was my trade. But jazz music was always art to me, too. As a teenager I played on dances in Motown type bands, and I was one of the only cats who could solo. I thought the AM, Top-40 type music at the time was sad! They didn’t play like Sonny Stitt and they didn’t sound anything like Miles. There was no art in the way they played. When I was a kid, I felt I was studying sophisticated, incredible music, listening to Lester Young and trying to execute Charlie Parker’s melodies.”

Lovano earned enough money to pay his tuition at Berklee, where he enrolled in 1971, and immediately impressed his peer group. “I loved the way he sounded then, when he was 18 years old,” John Scofield relates. “Everyone was trying to play jazz and bebop tunes, more modern things, like Coltrane and Miles from the ’60s, even some Bitches Brew type of action and Herbie Hancock kind of fusion, and free music. Coltrane was the pervasive sound on tenor saxophone, but Joe was digging into some other stuff. Joe had the same quality then that he has now, only less developed — great time and a lush sound that echoes the tenor players I liked from older records, a commitment to improvising and swinging hard, and a high standard of musicality, a strength of purpose and focus.”

Berklee became Lovano’s finishing school. He immediately caught the attention of hard-to-please instructors John LaPorta and Gary Burton; in Burton’s advanced ensemble class, he analyzed for the first time the music of Wayne Shorter, Steve Swallow, Carla Bley, and Chick Corea — “tunes I’d heard before but never really played, with different forms and more deceptive resolutions in the harmony, more polychords, different rhythmic feelings within the music,” Lovano says. “That class opened me up to the future.”

Tony Lovano had a heart attack that December; Joe flew home to finish his father’s five-night-a-week organ trio gig, and remained to help support the family. He returned to Berklee nine months later, completed one more semester, then let school slide to join the fray, eventually receiving an Honorary Doctorate in 1998. He spent the next few years shuttling between Boston and Cleveland. In Boston, he would crash “for weeks and months at a time” with friends Billy Drewes and Steve Slagle at a loft atop an office building where well-attended sessions began after work and ended in the wee hours. He did gigs around town with bands like the just-formed Fringe with George Garzone, “playing open, freer, creative music, making enough bread to survive and practice and play.”

In Cleveland he collaborated with local wildmen like DeArango, Ernie Krivda, Abraham Laboriel and Jamey Haddad, and led rhythm sections at a room called the Smiling Dog opposite people like Stan Getz and Pharaoh Sanders. Brother Jack McDuff and Lonnie Smith took him on the road for some chitlin’ circuit hits; his solo on Smith’s “Afrodisia” [Groove Merchant, 1974] became a rotation staple in mid-’90s English Acid Jazz. Both McDuff and Smith frequently came through New York, and the young tenorman spent off-hours making the rounds, sitting in and being seen at rooms like Ali’s Alley, the Tin Palace, Studio Rivbea and Boomer’s. He moved to New York in the spring of 1976, got gigs with Chet Baker uptown and with the venturesome pianist Albert Dailey downtown, and received a call that August to fly to St. Louis and join Woody Herman’s Fortieth Anniversary band.

“Woody loved Joe, because he came up from a real jazz environment as opposed to colleges, where most of the cats in the band came from,” says Bob Belden, who replaced Lovano on tenor in the band in 1979. “He was the first cat I met who had it together as a jazz musician; to me, he was always the essence and the spirit of Jazz. Woody hadn’t had a natural player like that in some time.” Lovano spent the next two-and-a-half years touring the world as Herman’s primary tenor soloist, playing charts by the likes of Ralph Burns, Sammy Nestico, Jimmy Jones and Frank Foster, backing singers like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Joe Williams, Mel Torme, Tony Bennett on occasion.

When Lovano reflects on that time, he remembers the lessons he soaked up. “Sitting in those saxophone sections, accompanying those great voices influenced the way I play lead parts,” he says, “feeling like I’m the vocalist out front, but as the saxophonist. I had a chance to play with and stand next to Zoot Sims, Stan Getz, Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, and Don Lamond. It gave me confidence to find my own voice in this music, to feed off the music I’m playing and the feeling of the players I’m with at the moment, to create something within what’s going on around me, always with my own ideas — not copying the way other cats played, but trying to play in the idiom and in the feeling of the beat and harmonic structure of whatever tune we’re in.”

After a pause, he adds: “A few weeks ago Wayne Shorter told me something that opened some doors, and it’s reverberating in me. He said, ‘Man, don’t let the gatekeepers hold you back.’ There are a lot of different ways to look at that.”

Actually, there are a lot of different ways to experience Joe Lovano’s music. He’s participated in a staggering range of high-profile work during his 47th year. A rundown of the past year’s activity includes: gigs with Herbie Hancock’s Quartet; a collective quintet with McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutcherson and Billy Higgins; another, quartet with John Scofield, Dave Holland and Al Foster; several three-tenor summits with Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman; work with Grand Slam and the Friendly Fire Quintet; touring with a group culled from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra to perform Duke Ellington’s small band music; recording as a guest with Abbey Lincoln and Flip Phillips, two tunes on a festschrift for Roland Kirk, and a pivotal solo in Bob Belden’s forthcoming symphonic suite “Black Dahlia.” Also, in various venues around New York, he worked with a series of trios — Brown and Muhammad; pianist Ken Werner and harmonica legend Toots Thielemans; woodwindist Billy Drewes and trapsetter Joey Baron; trumpeter Dave Douglas (his former student at NYU) and bassist Mark Dresser.

Lovano assembled those trios to frame his full arsenal of woodwinds and percussion for four 6-hour sessions over two intense days in the studio last April, then cherrypicked from them to create forthcoming Trios: Edition Two, a document that blends as-one industrial strength declamations by the working trio, harmonic tone poems with Werner and Thielemans, nuanced free improvs with Drewes and Baron, and finely honed sound exploring with Douglas and Dresser — it places him squarely in the camp of free-thinking improvisers.

The album follows 52nd Street Themes, for which Lovano rounded up an ensemble of first-call New York improvisers with whom he shared long-standing personal histories, and deployed them in configurations ranging from duo to nonet. 52nd Street Themes is an idiomatic paean to Clevelander’s Tadd Dameron, who of all composers associated with bebop most personifies romanticism, and an homage to the “blowing” ethos of Charlie Parker. Willie Smith, a Dameron protege who led Cleveland rehearsal bands that Tony Lovano played in and brought his son to hear, arranged much of the music. Everyone in the band has a tone with personality; in tune with the music’s history, they play with the edgy spirit we associate with the years of innovation that followed World War Two.

Lovano especially, who throws down one passionate tenor declamation after another with that wispy, driving voice and unfailing melodic intent. He offers a beautifully constructed à cappella intro to the title track, Thelonious Monk’s jagged “I Got Rhythm” variation. He soars operatically over a Dameronesque arrangement of “Embraceable You” and engages long-time tenor chums Ralph Lalama and George Garzone in spirited conversation on “Charlie Chan,” a variant on the 1947 version of “Milestones” on which Bird played tenor sax. Lovano makes you hear the spaces between the notes on a vibrato-drenched rubato reading of Billy Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower” in duo with pianist John Hicks; he addresses Fred Lacey’s “Theme For Ernie” at a quicker clip than John Coltrane’s famous 1958 version, yet hews unfailingly to the yearning lyric-blue essence of the tune; he flies like the wind with Dennis Irwin and Lewis Nash on a racehorse reading of Dameron’s “The Scene Is Clean.”

“All the cats in the period between the ’40s and the ’50s had solid footing growing up in their hometowns and basically being the strongest force in their area,” Lovano says. “They were a magnet to players on every other instrument to play with and learn from, but they were also learning from everybody who came through town. Those influences were strong, because during that period everybody was traveling. They did a lot of jam sessions, and their sounds were big and strong, because they had to stand up there and be heard. It was really a nightclub world, and it was an acoustic world.” That’s the world Lovano was born to, and the ethos that sustains him as he navigates the present and looks to the future.

Lovano shares that he’s writing an extended piece called “Mediterranean Waters,” an effort to channel “the feelings and energy from the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe from ancient times.” He notes, “I’m trying to write things that have a Folk feeling, music before swing, without a walking bass. Music that has an openness in it. Oriental music, Balinese music, African music, folk music from Sicily. In a certain way, Jazz is folk music, too. It’s music of the people, of the time. Ornette Coleman’s music is very folky to me. Don Cherry’s music. Old and New Dreams. They played with a certain kind of feeling, not just in one style or another. It’s when players don’t have to play a role on their instrument.”

Back at Caramoor, on a serene summer afternoon in Westchester, the Paul Motian Trio is in synch from the moment they hit the stage. They feel each other out with “Monk’s Dream,” stir the juices on a wild Motian original. Motian pulls out his brushes for an aching rubato version of “Good Morning Heartache.” With Steve Lacy looking on from the wings, Lovano guides his tenor into that distinctive altisimmo range, shaping lines of pure melody that could have come from a soprano horn over Frisell’s sparse, polychromatic chords. Most bands would lift the tempo, but not this one; Motian kicks off a slow, floating blues on which Lovano and Frisell weave a collective ending that makes you wonder how they got there. Then Frisell initiates an abstract intro that morphs into “Body and Soul.” Lovano pulls the iconic tenor tune into time, rocking to an unerring inner clock, ascending again into that preternaturally sweet soaring voice. The audience explodes from rapt silence.

The ritual fulfilled, the generations spanned, Lovano tips his horn, and leaves the stage with his smiling partners, ready for the next encounter…which will be that evening, when he locks bebop horns with James Moody and Phil Woods on “Au Privave,” “My Little Suede Shoes” and “Confirmation” during several hours of inspired jamming.

A few weeks later, before a whooping packed house in the Old Office, in the sub-basement of the Knitting Factory, Lovano joins master drummers Andrew Cyrille and Billy Hart for an 80-minute set of impromptu free improvisation. Shaping his lines in an unfailingly interactive way, carving drum-like phrases, he creates melodies on the spot from the top to the bottom of the horn, avoiding licks almost completely. It’s a stunning performance. Maybe it will be the starting point for Trios: Edition Three.

[-30-]

Joe Lovano (WKCR Profile, 1-22-95):

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman, “Web Of Fire” (1993); Motian/Lovano/ Frisell, “But Not For Me” (1988); Lovano/Petrucciani/ Holland/Blackwell, “Portrait Of Jenny” (1990); Lovano/M. Miller, “Laura” (1993); Motian/Lovano/Haden/Frisell, “My Heart Belongs To Daddy” (1989); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Crepuscule With Nellie” (1994); Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Reflections” (1988); Lovano/K. Werner, “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” (1988); Lovano/G. Schuller, “Peggy’s Blue Skylight” (1994)]

TP: Listening to your music during the first hour, I’m struck both by the range of strategies you use in approaching similar material and the range of situations in which you function effectively and idiomatically. It seems almost axiomatic that improvisers should have this ability, and yet it doesn’t seem that widely practiced.

JL: There’s a lot of mysteries in music, especially in Jazz. For me, I grew up in a real creative musical scene in Cleveland, and played with a lot of different players of my Dad’s generation. My Dad, Tony Lovano, played tenor, and was always playing with great players on organ and rhythm section players, and I learned how to play by playing with all the cats that he was playing with. It really prepared me for what I’m doing now.

As far as material that I play and approach, I let the different people and personalities I play with completely feed my ideas. I just try to react to who I’m around. When I play a standard or a Thelonious Monk composition with, let’s say, Paul Motian and Bill Frisell, there’s a certain atmosphere and a feeling to draw from, but if I play that same tune with, let’s say, Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the tempo is different and the whole energy on the stage is different. It’s really a challenge to play the same material in new ways with different people. The tempos that you play really create that mood, and also the different keys that you might play a tune in from time to time would create a whole different atmosphere for playing.

TP: Let’s talk a little bit about the scene in Cleveland when you were coming up, and your father’s milieu. I guess music must have been imbued in you from the cradle. There’s a photograph in one of your recent albums of your mother tickling your chin, and next to you is an alto saxophone that’s bigger than you are.

JL: I always grew up with the sound of the saxophone around me, and my father played all the time around the house. I used to listen to him practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad. From a kid, I just wanted to create that sound myself. The sound of the horn was the first thing that I wanted to play. Of course, later I started to actually learn about the notes on the horn. My Dad gave me a wonderful opportunity to explore by giving me horns and letting me have his record collection to destroy as a kid — and I went through all his records. I had a lot of favorite players when I was really young. I mean, I knew about Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan Roland Kirk when I was in fifth and sixth grade, and I knew their playing.

TP: Did you also have a chance to see them or meet them when they came through Cleveland?

JL: I did, yeah. When I was a teenager, 14-15 years old, a couple of clubs were happening in Cleveland, the East Town Motel and another club called Sirrah(?) House that my Dad used to play a lot. Alternate weeks, James Moody would come through, or Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Rahsaan, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott with Harold Vick. I had a chance to go to those clubs all the time, because they knew me, and I could go in and just sit in the corner or whatever.

I had a chance to meet Moody and Stitt and all those cats when I was a teenager, but hear them in the room, you know. When I first heard Dizzy in the room, heard his tone, after knowing his sound from the records, man, it really turned me on! So I realized at an early age about the different personalities in Jazz, not just the technique of playing a horn, but just the personality that can come through your instrument, and that’s what I always strived for as a young player.

TP: Cleveland has its own niche in the continuum of Jazz.

JL: Oh, yeah. From the Bebop period, Tadd Dameron, Benny Bailey, Bill Hardman, Freddie Webster were cats my Dad knew and kind of grew up under. Benny Bailey and my Dad were contemporaries, and so were Jim Hall and Bill DeArango, and also the tenor player Joe Alexander, who was one of the legendary figures that I’d never heard or met. He passed away, I think, in 1970 or something. But he was a good friend of my Dad’s, and they used to play together all the time. Bobby Few was from Cleveland, Albert Ayler was from Cleveland.

TP: Was your father open to that as well?

JL: Oh, yeah. Bobby Few played some of his first gigs with my Dad in Cleveland. I had never known that, but I saw Bobby recently in Paris, where he’s been living since the Sixties, playing with Steve Lacy and different people, and he told me that one of his first gigs was with my Dad. That was probably during the early Sixties, I’d say.

My Dad was real aware of all of music, and especially the music of the Fifties and Sixties. That was his generation. He had heard Charlie Parker and Miles play together when they came through Cleveland, Max Roach, heard Lester Young play in Cleveland. He was really on the scene. He told those stories all the time.

TP: What was his sound like?

JL: Well, he was coming out of the Illinois Jacquet school of playing, “Flying Home” and all those kinds of tunes. But he had a beautiful ballad approach, too, and he loved Lester Young as well. So I think his earlier playing reflected that more. As time went on, he got a harder kind of sound. He had a lot of different sides of his playing. But he definitely was coming out of the Gene Ammons approach.

I met Gene Ammons once. In 1970 or 1971, Jug came and played at this club, Sirrah(?) House, and my Dad took me to see him. We went in the kitchen, in the dressing room, and Jug and my Dad embraced like they were old friends. I guess my Dad had played at a jam session with him once or something, years before. It was incredible, man; I couldn’t believe it. I got Jug’s autograph. Hearing him play that night really turned me around. Amina Claudine Myers actually was playing organ with him at the time. Jug had a Varitone saxophone, which is an electric kind of hook-up on your horn, which my Dad had just gotten. He played a lot of organ gigs, a lot of organ trios, and with the Varitone you didn’t need a P.A. system, you didn’t need anything. You had this amplifier that really matched the sound of the Leslie speaker. I’ll never forget that night.

TP: Well, it sounds like your openness towards styles and musical situations is an extension of what you picked up from your father.

JL: Oh yeah, for sure. My Dad was a barber, too. He had a business and raised a family, and never really traveled that much. He toured a little bit. His trio played behind Ike Cole, Nat King Cole’s brother, for a while, and they toured the Midwest, went out to Denver, Colorado and did some gigs. He was on the road a little bit, although that was actually later, in the mid-Seventies. But mainly, he played around Cleveland.

He was a serious fan of the music, too, which really was great for me. I’m a serious fan of the music and the different players, too. I love to go out and hear people play all the time, and I’m trying to always check out everybody.

TP: Was there ever a time when you didn’t think you were going to be a musician?

JL: I don’t think so. No. As a teenager, I was really very involved in trying to get myself together and play. You know, I went to Berklee School of Music after I graduated high school in ’71, and I paid my way to school from all the money I’d made playing gigs in high school. My Dad was always working, five or six nights a week. So he got called for a lot of jobs that he couldn’t do, and he would basically send me. I was playing supper club type settings, weddings, and all kinds of different gigs. But all of the things I did at that time were with rhythm sections and one horn, and basically, I played all the melodies and songs. Very few gigs had, like, a stand-up singer that I had to accompany.

TP: Were you playing tenor?

JL: Yeah, usually tenor. I also started to play flute during those years. Flute became my first real double at that time. The beautiful thing was that I was studying standard tunes, and when I would go to a gig and play with musicians in his generation who were in the rhythm section, I would call the tunes and count the tempo off, and so forth. So I learned how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. I was studying Bebop and those kinds of tunes, but usually we would just play standards when I played those gigs.

TP: So at that time your range of influences pretty much encompassed Bebop, or was it more expansive than that?

JL: I’d say at that time it was completely the Bebop school, for sure. My Dad was listening to records like Kulu Se Mama of Coltrane, he had A Love Supreme and those records, and I was completely into early Miles, and Miles with Coltrane, and Sonny Stitt, and those kind of records. But he never said anything to me like, “Man, listen to this; this is what’s happening now.” He let me discover everything myself. He was really generous with that approach.

Stitt was my first real love on record. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and get next to what was happening. Stitt had a personality that he could play either tenor or alto and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns — and that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Sonny Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But I think he was kind of frustrated in that world. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was great. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I also had a chance to sit in with him a few times in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came in with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my first loves on the instrument, and I loved the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with Coltrane-with-Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, when Sonny Stitt was my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records, and once I started to get more familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas on some of Coltrane’s later records, it was a more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Elvin Jones or Roy Haynes with Trane were playing, like, the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. Hearing that approach to music opened up my concept, and gave my own music a lot more direction.

I also loved Hank Mobley’s playing from his records, the things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first saxophonists whose tunes I really started to appreciate. All his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, and then you realize that trying to create your own music is part of it, too! That hit me. Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, both he and Wayne Shorter, who really influenced me a lot.

The trumpet was another important instrument for me in my young developing, because of its attack and a certain something that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me.

TP: Was anyone else besides your father teaching you any kind of theory when you were in Cleveland? Or did that begin at Berklee?

JL: My Dad really was my main teacher. All the theory and everything that I had studied up until I went to Berklee was with my Dad. I would say that was like the most formal.

Now, there was an organ player, Eddie Bacchus, who is still around Cleveland, a great, beautiful player. I learned a lot from Eddie, just talking to him and hanging out and checking out the harmonies that he played. Eddie is one of those legendary cats, man, who played with everyone who would come through during that certain period when there were a lot of gigs, man, and you could work six nights a week, and play two and three weeks in each town. He worked a lot with Lou Donaldson, James Moody, Sonny Stitt and Rahsaan, and a lot of cats during that one period, and he used to work a lot with Joe Alexander around Cleveland. Eddie is something else, man. He is still very active around Cleveland.

There was a cat named Lindsay Tough. There was another organ player, too, named William Dowland whose nickname was Paul Bunyan. He was this huge guy, like seven foot tall, and he played with my Dad a lot. He was great, man! He told me what records to check out. He was originally a trombone player, and he told me about the Miles records with J.J. and those things…

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Val Kent, a young drummer who was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer around named Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties would play with everybody who would come through town.

And there was Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who passed away this last year. He was a beautiful drummer, man, and one of the first real Bebop drummers that I ever played with, you know, when I was 16 or 17 years old. Jacktown was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. My father told me stories about him, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies. So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Hanging with my Dad’s friends was really like a school. They got me into going out, checking out different records. And I had some friends in my generation at the same time that were always hanging out with me, and coming to gigs and listening to my Dad playing. We would go buy records, man, and check out everybody.

TP: In a lot of ways, your experience hearkens back to an earlier generation, when musicians learned on the gig, when people started working earlier and so forth. And it’s one of the things that other musicians remark upon with you, as combining the spontaneity of an ear player with a command of music theory and an ability to do the heavy reading, such as on the Rush Hour CD.

JL: Well, I learned by ear first, for sure. I never considered myself a great reader, until I started to actually go and play with some saxophone sections in some big bands, and actually sit down and learn about how to play with interpretation, and not just read the notes. That also came from my Dad. He played in some big bands and rehearsal bands that he used to bring me to and I would check out.

There was an alto player in Cleveland named Willie Smith, who was an incredible writer and player — not the famous Willie Smith that everybody knows. Willie lived in Detroit for a while. He wrote a lot of arrangements for some early Motown dates, and did a lot of things. He also grew up with Benny Bailey and everybody, a real Bop player. Willie and I actually went on the road with Jack McDuff together in 1975.

We both played a weekend with Jack at this club called the Smiling Dog Saloon in Cleveland. Jack was traveling with two tenor players, David Young on tenor and Bill Cody, and he was picking up an alto and a baritone player in each town, and they would play. So they came to Cleveland, and on Friday and Saturday night they needed a baritone player and an alto player. Ron Kozak, who lives in New York now, a multi-reed player, was playing baritone, and couldn’t play the weekend, he had another gig — and asked me if I wanted to do it. I had a baritone that my Dad got me, and I was fooling around on it, but I had never played a gig on baritone before, so I was a little reluctant. Then I listened to them play a set and it was swinging like crazy. Joe Dukes was on drums and Eric Johnson was on guitar, a beautiful guitar player; David Young sounded incredible on tenor, he sounded so beautiful! So after their set I said to myself, “Okay, I’ll play; I’ll do it.” So I went home, and I practiced the baritone for two days, and found some reeds, and played the weekend, and we had a really nice time. About a week or two later, McDuff called me to join his band. So I went out to join him in Indianapolis, and I stayed with him for, I don’t know, about six months or something.

This happened right at the same time I was working with Lonnie Smith a lot, and I had recorded a record with Lonnie for the Groove Merchant label in 1974. That was the first time I came to New York and went in the studio. George Benson played on it, and Ben Riley was on drums, and Jamey Haddad was also on drums on some tunes, a real close friend from Cleveland who is in New York now, who is working with Dave Liebman and some different bands — a beautiful percussionist. It was funny, because I was on the road with Jack when Lonnie’s record came out, and it was playing on all the stations — it was kind of a far-out thing. The first times I came to New York to play were in 1974 and 1975 with Lonnie and Jack.

TP: Apparently one track from that session, “Apex,” is a staple of British Acid Jazz.

JL: I was hanging out with Courtney Pine one night in Europe, we’d played a festival together, and he told me that he knew my whole solo on this tune. I couldn’t believe it. He said they’re playing it in all the Acid Jazz clubs, and dancing to it, and everybody sings all the solos.

TP: Let’s do a chronology taking you from Berklee to your several years with Woody Herman in the Seventies.

JL: Well, the very first time I really did any kind of touring was 1973, when I played a six-week stint on the road with Tom Jones, the Pop singer. They were towards the end of a huge tour, like a six-month tour. Now, the saxophone section were all friends of mine from Boston, including George Garzone, a great tenor saxophone player who is starting to do a lot of things today, and recording, and he’s been teaching at Mannes School of Music, he’s been teaching at New England Conservatory in Boston for years. He’s really a fabulous player, and he and I go way back together, to the early Seventies. Something went down, and one of the tenor players split the last six weeks of this huge tour. So I got a call to join the band. So I flew out to Las Vegas, and started at Caesar’s Palace for two weeks, with this big band and string section and chorus, playing behind Tom Jones. I kind of had a little solo chair, so I had to do little solos and stuff. That was the first time I really worked in a large ensemble like that.

I moved to New York in 1976, and got the gig with Woody’s band a couple of months after I came to town…

TP: First, let’s talk about New York in 1976, and what a young musician coming in with some experience could hope to do and find.

JL: I had been coming to New York a little bit with Lonnie Smith, playing some trio gigs around with Billy Hart on drums. And in 1975 I came to New York with Jack McDuff, and we played the Kool Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall, and toured with the Organ Summit with Jimmy Smith’s trio. Also on it were Shirley Scott and Harold Vick and Eddie Gladden, Shirley’s trio at that time, which was really great, man. For me, that was like the highlight of that whole tour that we did. We were on some gigs together in Philadelphia and here in New York. Larry Young had a band at that time, a bigger group that was more of a Fusion type group. Touring and playing with those guys was kind of wild. We did maybe five or six concerts together, with McDuff’s band with the saxophone section. That saxophone section was one of the first ones I played in that was really a Jazz band, where we were improvising and playing a lot of things.

So when I came to New York in May of ’76, I had been here a few times. I had already gone to some jam sessions and met Albert Dailey, and started to meet a lot of the players that I still play with today. Adam Nussbaum, for example; we met back then. Dennis Irwin was playing with Albert Dailey. When I came to town, I got a couple of gigs, and I was playing with Albert and with Carter Jefferson, another great saxophone player, and Harold White was the drummer. When I first came, I was just going around and sitting in with people. Rashied Ali had his club happening, Ali’s Alley down in Soho, and I went down there and sat in with Rashied. I was just going around and trying not only to be heard, but to play with some people that I loved.

TP: Studio Rivbea and the Tin Palace were in full swing.

JL: Studio Rivbea was happening. I went there many times, and heard Braxton play, and Sam Rivers and Dave Holland. It was before I had met Dave or anybody. The Tin Palace was a great scene, and I used to go there and play jam sessions all the time with Monty Waters, a great alto saxophone player. I first played with Woody Shaw there. There was a lot happening in New York then, in the late Seventies.

TP: What was your response when you first heard people like Braxton, or the Midwest musicians who were dealing with extended forms and different strategies?

JL: Well, I had heard them on record before I came to New York, some early ECM recordings. The first time I think I heard Anthony play was on Dave Holland’s record, Conference Of The Birds, which was one of my favorite records at the time, when it came out. I really loved hearing and trying to learn more open-formed type pieces. That was really an extension of the music that I was used to hearing from Coltrane or Archie Shepp, the first kind of freer playing music, the music that really developed from the Ornette Coleman band with Don Cherry and Blackwell and Charlie, and Miles’ band with Wayne and Herbie and Tony Williams and Ron Carter, Coltrane’s quartet. For me, all those bands, and the players that were in all those groups. was the music that really inspired me to develop a more open concept about improvising.

TP: Let’s elaborate on that a little more. I think one thing that’s not immediately apparent to the audience is that musicians are subject to a wide range of influences that don’t necessarily come out within a given situation, and so it’s very easy to pigeonhole people.

JL: Yes.

TP: So you’re playing these tenor-organ gigs, but you’re also listening to a lot of other things…

JL: …at the same time. Exactly. It was really inspiring to know that these players, like Dave Holland and Paul Motian and Charlie Haden… Man, these cats were on the scene, and I always aspired to play with them. I was trying to get myself together musically, so I could play with them — never dreaming that I would. You know what I mean? And as time went on, I really put myself in different positions to meet them and sit in and play and be heard, and things just developed to a point where I was starting to explore music with them. One thing that’s so beautiful about Jazz is that as a young player, if you’re really open and you listen and you dig all these different things, you can put yourself in a lot of different settings that will really enhance your concepts. So you don’t have to stay in one place. That was my dream, was always to play in a lot of different situations.

Also, my Dad always stressed, “Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.” He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was kind of studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.

TP: I guess the big bands are one of the great teachers of discipline to a young musician, and particularly in terms of playing for a function or a situation.

JL: For sure. I moved to New York in May of ’76; in August I got the gig with Woody, and went on the road, and stayed with him, like, until the beginning of ’79. So for about two-and-a-half years I was on the road. My first tours to Europe were with Woody. It was my first celebrated gig, like, at that level as a soloist. And I had a chance to play for a week with Sarah Vaughan once. We played behind Billy Eckstine once for a week. I played with Tony Bennett a number of times. I had a chance to play within some ensembles and to play orchestrations behind some incredible voices in music. We played with Joe Williams, too. I learned a lot, man, just playing in those settings, not even as a soloist. Just sitting there and playing these arrangements behind Sarah Vaughan was incredible, man.

TP: So the impact of a big band is extra-musical.

JL: Oh, definitely, for sure. And those experiences for me with Woody were incredible. That year was Woody’s fortieth anniversary year as well as a leader. So there was this huge concert at Carnegie Hall that was recorded on RCA that had all the big stars that had played with Woody through the years. So I had a chance to play and stand next to Zoot Sims and Stan Getz and Al Cohn, Jimmy Giuffre, Flip Phillips, as well, as Chubby Jackson and Don Lamond and Jimmy Rowles. I played “Early Autumn” with Stan Getz at the microphone, playing my part with him playing lead. It really taught me a lot about sound, and it gave me a lot of confidence to find my own voice in this music.

TP: After that ended, you played for years with the Mel Lewis Orchestra. You joined shortly after Thad Jones’ departure.

JL: When I left Woody at the beginning of ’79, it was right around then that Thad had left New York and moved to Denmark. So I joined Mel’s band right after Thad had split, and it had become the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Bob Brookmeyer was back in New York and writing a lot of new music for the band, and started to work on some new concepts and different things, and he and Mel kind of added to the whole beautiful history of the book of the Thad-and-Mel band. That was right when I joined the band, in 1980.

TP: Throughout your tenure the band became a sort of laboratory and workshop for some of the most talented writers in New York, building up the huge book that it has to this day.

JL: That it has today, that’s right. I only recently left the band, I’d say in 1992 or something. After Mel passed away, I stayed in the band maybe another year-and-a-half or something. Then I’ve been just getting pretty busy as a leader, and I wanted to open my chair up for other people to experience that incredible music. When I came in, it was definitely challenging to sit in that band and play this incredible music of Thad’s that I had known from records. Thad wrote everything for the personnel in that band; he just didn’t write charts and bring them in. He wrote for specific people and for a specific record date. Brookmeyer did, too. In a way, my concept about writing and recording has developed from that experience playing with them.

Just playing with Mel alone was incredible. He was so consistent, man, and loved to play, and would feed every solo. He would play behind, like, ten solos in a row, and where some cats would be, “oh, no, not somebody else!” Mel would take on all comers, and like, he would start everybody’s new solo with a complete fresh sound — on a different cymbal, on a different energy. Mel was an amazing improviser and a beautiful musician as an accompanying drummer. Not only in a big band setting, even though he’s really most known for his big band work. But Mel played with a big band like it was a quartet. The horns were the piano, bass and drums, and the soloist. Or it was a trio to him, in a way. If it was an ensemble playing, it was like the band was the piano, and bass and drums. So he created this incredible intimacy within a big band in a way that not many drummers do.

TP: In the liner notes for your 1988 release Village Rhythm, Mel Lewis made the comment that your being a drummer, and a rather proficient one, was a great help to you as a tenor player because you’re able to play strings of notes and land exactly where you’re supposed to. Have you been playing drums along with tenor all this time as well?

JL: Well, I started playing drums when I was a kid, too. One of the drummers who was playing with my Dad (I don’t know how old I was, I was maybe 7 or 8 years old), he got a new drum set, and gave my Dad his drums to give to me. He showed up one day with this huge set of drums, like a 24-inch bass drum — a set from the Forties, you know. So as a kid, I had drums around me all the time. I have pictures of me playing those drums. And as I was starting to really learn melodies on the saxophone, I would just practice them on the drums as well. At the time there was no pressure to play the drums — when I was a kid. I felt a little more under pressure on saxophone; I was studying with my Dad, I was trying to learn everything and play and have him dig me. But then I would just sit at the drums and have fun. It was a real release, you know.

So that’s how I first started. As I developed more on the saxophone, and I started really studying records and hearing Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones, Max especially, the solos that Max would play with Charlie Parker, I realized he was playing some of the same phrases and melodies that Bird was playing. So I started to try to practice what I was learning on the saxophone on the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player.

That was kind of the beginning. Then through the years, I’ve always played them. I’ve played gigs on drums. But I would play mainly on jam sessions. I still play every day, and it’s like a part of my day that I just sit down and relax and just have fun and explore things.

TP: That’s your outlet.

JL: Yeah, it’s a real passion. Before “Topsy Turvy” on Rush Hour I had never really recorded like this, in a studio, where I overdubbed the drums. It’s something that I practice at home sometimes. If I’m writing a new tune, I’ll tape myself playing solo tenor, and then I’ll work out rhythm section parts by playing drums with the tune on tape. On “Topsy Turvy” Judi and I played the whole tune as tenor and voice first. We did the head, then she did a solo improvisation unaccompanied, and then I came and did a soprano solo unaccompanied, and then we played the head out. So the whole structure was there, and then I went back and and just laid one track down on the drums, straight across the whole thing, and I laid down the soprano part and the melodies, and then I accompanied her in her solo on the bass clarinet after I had already laid down the drums. So I just kind of played inside it. I had never done that before, but it was a lot of fun.

TP: Let’s explore the the overlap between your tenor style and your drumming proclivities a little more.

JL: Well, I feel kind of free on the drums. I mean, on the saxophone I feel like I can really play what I hear completely, you know. On the drums, I don’t really think. I just kind of play by feel completely. But I’ve had a chance to play with some great drummers, and I’ve learned from everybody I play with. One thing for sure from playing drums, that when I’m soloing on tenor, I have a real awareness of what’s going on around me. And I think practicing drums and playing in rhythm sessions and jam sessions or whatever has opened up my awareness as a soloist on saxophone, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing. I think that way of playing developed from studying drums and playing in rhythm sections as I’ve been growing up and learning, too.

TP: Were the two originals on your two recordings with Ed Blackwell written particularly with him in mind?

JL: Oh yeah. I wrote those tunes for him, and to play with him. I had never played “Strength and Courage” with anyone, or the piece “Evolution” on From The Soul. I wrote them knowing I was going to play with Blackwell, and with the expansive concepts that he plays with. I tried to really write some things that we could just hit on. In “Strength and Courage,” for example, he plays all these overlapping rhythms, and he plays some cowbell; explores all the possibilities of his vocabulary on that one tune. I didn’t really direct him in that, but the way I wrote phrases kind of directed the rhythm to go in those directions. He had the most beautiful concepts, and he had this radar that was unbelievable. He would just hit downbeats with you like out of the blue, like just…

Paul Motian is like that. Playing with Paul, the phrasing and different layers of time that happen are uncanny. I sometimes go back and listen to some of the things I’ve done with Paul that just amaze me, how we’re completely together, but we’re improvising very freely.

TP: Well, the Paul Motian Trio with you and Bill Frisell is one of the longest running groups in all of improvised music. 1995 marks fourteen years.

JL: Yes. We both started playing with Paul in 1981, and recorded a lot of different recordings, you know, playing Broadway music and Thelonious Monk’s music, Bill Evans’ music, as well as Paul’s music, which he writes and has some beautiful ideas. It’s been fabulous, man. We’ve been touring pretty extensively every year since 1981, and we’re actually just about to go to Europe next week, for a few weeks, for about an 18-concert tour all over Europe. It’s so beautiful, man, an expansive improvised setting to play with Paul.

TP: How free is it within the course of each performance?

JL: First of all, we have an amazing amount of repertoire that we do. Paul is very free about what he likes to play. He usually picks about ten to fifteen different pieces that we stay with throughout a tour. Then it’s very free to explore different arrangements and different ways of playing them every night.

TP: Frisell is a guitarist who has really extended the sonic and dynamic possibilities of the instrument. I think that can fairly be said.

JL: Oh yeah, Bill is amazing, man. And he’s really about orchestration, too. He just doesn’t play the guitar. He is so into every tone and every note I play. He voices all my notes in what he plays, which gives me a whole range of sounds to draw from as well. The way we all interact with Paul’s rhythm, and the way Paul’s rhythm changes from what we play — I mean, it’s a complete creative setting. In trios, somehow it’s really clear; the clarity is really there. The thing I love about the trio so much, too, is the intimacy that we play with. Sometimes we play, like, at really pianissimo volumes, and we really get next to what each other’s playing. It’s incredible. Bill really brings that out, too. He doesn’t just play like a guitar player. He plays like a pianist or something sometimes, with that kind of dynamic range.

TP: Well, it seems to give you a chance to explore the full dynamic range of the tenor saxophone.

JL: Yes, it does. I only play tenor with the trio, and it’s really great to go on the road and to just play one horn and to focus on one sound. With some other groups that I play in, with my own groups, I’m trying to write for more expanded sounds, using clarinets and flutes and percussion and different things. Maybe because I play only tenor with Paul, I’ve found it’s really fun and different to explore all these other sounds when I’m writing my own music. I think it’s given me a lot of ideas.

TP: Let’s discuss Paul Motian’s very distinctive sense of time and dynamics on the drums.

JL: Paul is a melody player all the way. All the music that he has experienced through the years, playing with the Bill Evans Trio and the things with the Keith Jarrett Quartet with Dewey and Charlie, those were the first things that I knew from records of Paul. I loved his playing, like, immediately. He was someone that was coming from Max Roach in the early days, but yet had his own feeling, and created his own atmospheres when he played. To play with him was a real dream of mine through the years.

I remember the first time I saw him play with Keith in Boston, I think it was in ’71 or ’72, and it was the quartet with Dewey and Charlie. Man, I went every night! Oh, man, it was the most happening quartet I ever saw live. The music just took off, every note everybody played. They were into what each other was playing. And it was maybe the first time I’d watched cats play that played like that. I was used to hearing Stitt and other groups that just played tunes that they’d known and played all their life. Keith’s group, when they played all their original pieces, the way they improvised together, the tempo changes, and just how they were listening constantly to each other, and shaping the music as a group — that was the direction I wanted to go in, right from that moment.

TP: Speaking of the Keith Jarrett Quartet, you’ve credited Dewey Redman as having had a major impact upon your concept of playing.

JL: Yeah. Well, from that time hearing him live, for sure, but also from some recordings that I had of him playing with Elvin Jones in Ornette’s band. He might have been one of the first tenor players I heard play with Elvin that didn’t sound like Coltrane or play in that kind of rhythmic way. He played longer, more open-sounding things with Elvin. Through the years, I’ve had a chance to play with Dewey a lot. With Charlie Haden’s band was really the first time. In 1987 I joined the Liberation Music Orchestra with Dewey. He’s one of those players that you don’t know what he’s going to play next. There’s a lot of magic in his playing.

TP: Universal Language features Jack De Johnette.

JL: He’s another drummer who has these amazing concepts, and hears everything you play, encompasses and circles around every phrase you play, and spells it right out with you. All the tunes on Universal Language were written for that session and for that personnel, to be played with Jack in mind, and with Charlie Haden, Steve Swallow and the rhythm section.

TP: Again, we’re getting back to individuals and personalities…,

JL: Yes.

TP: …which is the essence of improvising.

JL: For sure, man. Also, I think the records that inspired me to try to write and to give me the confidence to try to put things together were a lot of things that Wayne Shorter has done through the years, let’s say, where each record he made, it seemed like he wrote for the personnel that was on that date, and wrote tunes to be played with those cats, with Blakey’s band, or with Elvin Jones in the rhythm section, or things he wrote for Weather Report. Whatever it was, there was a lot of direction in each recording. It never repeated anything. So for each session I am trying to write for the personnel there, and conceptually it’s really happening. It feels beautiful.

Universal Language, with a front line of voice, trumpet and saxophone, was the most expansive ensemble that I’ve been able to work with so far as a leader, and I tried to write some orchestrations that were going to be free for everyone to contribute their own personality, but yet have some kind of structure and form so we had something to grab onto.

TP: I’d like to talk to you more about the dynamics of your style, the most personal thing for a tenor player, which is your sound — so if I start getting on thin ground, just tell me. But you were talking about your father’s sound as being sort of hard-driving, Illinois Jacquet, hard edges on it. Your sound is very rounded. You play a lot in the altissimo register of the tenor, the upper register, with a full sound — although you play the full range of the horn. Talk a little about the evolution of your sound in your mind’s ear.

JL: My sound has gone through a lot of different changes, let’s say, different periods. I know early on I played with a lot harder sound and a lot more, in a way, one-dimensional type sound. On the early recording that I did with Lonnie Smith, I think my sound was only one kind of beam or something, a beam of light, let’s say — it just was one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles with Mel Lewis, and Woody Herman’s band, Carla Bley’s band, Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, where the music is always changing and there’s different feelings, rhythms and attitudes happening, my sound really went through a lot of changes. Rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That started this whole process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, like, triple pianissimo with the same fullness that I can play a triple forte with. That range of dynamics, I think, was the key to starting to get my sound together.

TP: In 1994, you performed in some free improvisations with British saxophone master Evan Parker in an event sponsored by WKCR. Has that particular aspect of dealing with the language been a significant part of your experience?

JL: Oh, yeah. For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other horn players in duet settings. Billy Drewes and I used to play together years ago in Boston together like that, where we would just improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. Billy played with us with the Paul Motian Quintet, on our very first quintet recorded on ECM, called Psalm, the first recording I did with Paul. Billy is just one of the players that I’ve explored those possibilities with. Judi Silvano and I do that with soprano voice and saxophones all the time while we’re improvising, and trying to really create melodies from what each other plays, rather than just trying to play what you play.

TP: You and Frisell would seem to do that, too.

JL: Sure. I improvise with that conception with everybody I play with. I try to do that when I’m playing with a rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, so that I don’t find myself repeating myself. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so I can really explore possibilities in the music. That’s what improvising really is about for me, is creating something new.

TP: So it’s not about style, it’s not about genre, it’s about dialoguing in a situation.

JL: Exactly. Early on for me it was about style and it was about learning my horn, and this and that. But after a while, it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, and using your technique and the language of your instrument or whatever to create something different all the time.

So to just improvise in a duet setting with Evan that night was a lot of fun, man. I had known him for a while, and had heard him play a number of different times, some solo performances that were incredible on soprano saxophone and tenor.

I recorded a free improvisation with my Dad on Hometown Sessions [JSL], which I produced with him in 1986, where we were joined by Eddie Bacchus and Jacktown on most of the tracks. He was reading a part, and I was improvising all around his written part. So that was a little different concept about playing with two saxophones. Really, it was like a free-form structure. I was kind of, in a way, directing his notes, like the rhythm that he would play, and he was just kind of following me and letting me improvise between all his notes. I had never really done that before, and that was a trip! My Dad was a real open player, and he was into sounds and melodies and stuff. So it was a trip. Playing duets with my father all through the years really helped me develop a concept and get myself together to do things like that duet with Evan.

TP: Experiencing the inner dynamics of how that music was put together. Let’s hear a set of music focusing on performances of Joe Lovano’s compositions. The first track, “Luna Park,” certainly refers to Cleveland.

JL: The title refers to an amusement park that was across the street from where my grandparents had a house in Cleveland which was called Luna Park. I think it was a very famous park in the Twenties and Thirties, and then it burned down, so I never actually saw this place. When I grew up, there was a big projects complex there. But I had always heard a lot of stories about Luna Park.

This piece is kind of a carnival-type piece, and it features an ensemble that’s a working group, kind of a workshop ensemble that has been playing and doing a lot of stuff since the early Eighties. I recorded this for Blue Note in 1992, but this ensemble and this sound is a working group that I’ve been developing through the years. It features Judy Silvano on soprano voice and Tim Hagans on trumpet, Kenny Werner on piano, this track has Jack DeJohnette on drums, Steve Swallow on electric bass and Charlie Haden on electric and acoustic bass.

TP: There’s a lot of doubling going on in this.

JL: Yeah, there are some different approaches. Like, I wrote for Swallow to play within the rhythm section as an accompanist with chordal passages as well as actual bass parts. On this particular tune, he’s playing like a counter-melody in the front line with us that could almost be like a trombone type part.

[MUSIC: “Luna Park” (1992); Lovano/Redman, “Miss Etta” (1993); Lovano, “Emperor Jones” (1989); Lovano/Cox/ Blackwell, “Straight Ahead” (1990); Lovano/Holland/ Blackwell, “Evolution” (1990); Lovano/Schuller, “Topsy-Turvy” (1994)]

TP: We have cued up two earlier tracks. One is the aforementioned session with Lonnie Smith, and a track featuring Joe and his dad on a self-produced date, Hometown Sessions.

JL: Well, it’s a label that I started, basically, JSL Records. This was the first thing that we produced. It was right after I had recorded for Soul Note. I did this record called Tones, Shapes and Colors, my first solo record as a leader. I went to Cleveland and had a party with my family, and got a studio, and went in the studio and laid some tracks down with my Dad, and Eddie Bacchus on organ and Lawrence “Jacktown” Jackson, who I mentioned before.

[MUSIC: Lonnie Smith, “Apex” (1975); Joe and Tony Lovano, “Now Is The Time” (1986)]

[MUSIC: Mel Lewis Orch., “Interloper” (1986); G. Schuller/ Lovano, “Rush Hour On 23rd Street” (1994)]

TP: You had a chance to be paired with him in the 1988 recording, Monk In Motian.

JL: Well, this recording was the first one that we did for JMT Records. Up until that point, the band had only played original music of Paul’s, and then we had a chance to do this record, and the record company wanted to do more of a theme record. Paul played with Monk a little bit with Scott LaFaro; they did some quartet gigs with Charlie Rouse. And Paul was really into Monk, he’s been into Monk all his life, so he had all these tunes he wanted to do, and we started rehearsing. At first we didn’t know if we were going to just play trio, but when we started to rehearse trio with no bass the music was so beautiful. It was really different. It didn’t sound like we were trying to play the way Monk played these same tunes. So we decided to do it as a trio record. Then Paul brought Dewey in for a few tunes to join us, to play with two saxophones.

[MUSIC: Motian/Lovano/Frisell, “Epistrophy” (1988); “How Deep Is The Ocean”; “Turn Out The Stars” (1990); “One Time Out” (1991)]

TP: The next track we’ll hear comes from a forthcoming release on Blue Note, from a session last summer at the Village Vanguard that paired you with trumpeter Tom Harrell, who you’ve paired with on front lines very successfully for quite a while now, Billy Hart on drums, and Anthony Cox on bass.

JL: It’s a working quartet that we’ve been touring with and doing a lot of different things throughout the last few years. We recorded last March live at the Vanguard, and I am recording this week as well, live at the club, with Mulgrew and Christian and Lewis. They’re going to put out a double-CD package set, Live At The Vanguard, ’94 and ’95. So I’m excited about that.

This quartet played mainly original pieces that week. This week we’re doing a wide range of different compositions by other composers as well.

TP: What was interesting to me about this group when I heard it last year was it seemed a very creative extension of the Ornette Coleman-Don Cherry, or even the Ornette-Dewey Redman Quartet formulation. I guess some of this approach stems from your working with Blackwell for those couple of years in 1990 and ’91.

JL: Yes, playing with Blackwell and all the different groups with Motian have definitely influenced my writing. This quartet brings out a lot of those other sides. To play with just bass and drums and two other horns out front is a whole other energy and a different kind of atmosphere that happens in that. Tom is one of the greatest improvisers in Jazz, I think, and he has a lot of dynamic and amazing sides and personalities in his playing as well. In this particular quartet, I think for the first time he really opens up and plays very free and different.

This tune we’re going to hear is called “Uprising,” and it’s an original of mine that I wrote to play with this group. I play on C-Melody saxophone on this particular cut.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Cox/Hart, “Uprising”]

TP: I don’t think anyone has ever quite mastered the technique of circular breathing or overtones the way he has.

JL: He’s phenomenal. He’s something else.

[MUSIC: Joe Lovano/Evan Parker, “Duo” (1994); Joe and Tony Lovano (1987)]

JL: That was a pretty wild piece there. It was exciting to play with Evan. We were into each other’s energy. We were really following each other beautifully. That was pretty far-out.

TP: Well, I think we’ve learned in the last four hours that with Joe Lovano anything is possible, and generally it’s going to work out in an extremely musical form that will then have implications for other activity. We’ve had some sense of the sort of parallel situations that continue to grow, evolve and merge. Thank you for your time, Joe Lovano.

JL: Thank you, Ted. I have to say, WKCR is such an incredible radio station, and all the shows you guys do are really inspiring. I listen to all the shows, and the birthday broadcasts, and the different profiles, and it’s really an honor to have you spend this much time on some of my recorded music.

TP: It’s quite a legacy of music, and I think we have a good three or four decades of creative music-making to come. So we’ll just take this as a signpost of where one of the most creative of the younger group of musicians is at this stage of his career.

[ETC.]

[MUSIC: Schuller/Lovano, “Angel Eyes” (1994); Lovano & Universal Language, “Josie and Rosie” (1992); Lovano/ Blackwell, “Fort Worth” (1991); Lovano/J. Redman, “The Land Of Ephesus” (1993); Yamashita/Lovano, “Kurdish Winds” (1993); Scofield/Lovano, “Comp Out” (1992)]

—-

Joe Lovano (Musician Show, WKCR, 7-26-89):
[MUSIC: Henri Texier/Lovano (Izlaz), “Golden Horn” (1988); Motian/ Lovano/Frisell, “Evidence” (1988)]

JL: I was born in ’52, so I really began playing and being around the music in the Sixties, around all the different records and things that were coming out during those years. I was really fortunate. My Dad played saxophone and was a beautiful musician, and his record collection was pretty wide when I was a kid, so I was able to hear and really distinguish between sounds and different tones on different instruments. I was able to start to recognize different players from their personality and their tone.

Q: He was a working musician in the Cleveland area.

JL: Yeah, sure. All his life. My Dad grew up with people like Bill Hardman, the trumpet player, Benny Bailey, Tadd Dameron. Tadd actually was a few years older than my Dad, but his brother Cesar Dameron was an alto player who was my Dad’s age, and they used to play a lot. Those years were really great for my Dad because he was really involved in the scene. There’s a lot of cats in New York who are from Cleveland that know my Dad, and I meet people from all around the world that have heard him play — or something. He traveled around a little bit, but he was mainly in the Cleveland scene.

Q: Well, in Cleveland and throughout the Midwest there used to be a thriving Jazz scene — Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Indianapolis.

JL: There was a circuit. I had a chance to tour with Lonnie Smith, the organist, and Jack McDuff, and a few different groups that played through that chitlin’ circuit, where you played really from New York to St. Louis, through Indianapolis and Cincinnati and all those towns. There were a lot of clubs. I caught a little part of it in 1974 or 1975 when I was like 20 years old. But throughout the ’50s and ’60s there was a real scene through that area.

Q: Joe’s first selection is one by the master, John Coltrane.

JL: This is from a record actually that came out on a reissue package with Roy Haynes on drums, McCoy Tyner, piano, and Jimmy Garrison on bass. It’s called To The Beat Of A Different Drum.

Somehow, my whole life as a player has developed in a strange kind of way around a lot of really great drummers. In the last three or four years, I’ve been really fortunate to be working with Mel Lewis. I’ve been playing with Mel Lewis’ band since 1980, and we play every Monday night at the Village Vanguard. Mel recorded with me on my first solo record as a leader for the Soul Note label, called Tones, Shapes and Colors, and I have a really close working relationship with Mel. As well as Paul Motian, who I’ve been playing with also since 1981. We’ve done a number of records, of which we’ll get to a few later, and also talk about the first times I had heard Paul play with Keith Jarrett and other people, and immediately wanted to be around that rhythm. Also Elvin Jones, who I toured with in 1987 for a two-month tour in Europe, which really was his last major tour as a leader with his own band. I mean, he’s toured with Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner and a few different groups. But playing with Elvin was just an incredible lesson, man.

Q: You play some drums yourself.

JL: Well, I’ve been playing since I was a kid. Part of my whole thing with my Dad is my Dad was my teacher. We studied, we had lessons, but his lessons were he would give me a lot of things to work on, and when I felt like I was ready to present them to him… And he’d be hearing me practicing anyway. He would sometimes come down to the basement in the middle of what I was doing, and correct me or whatever. But it was a real close kind of thing. When I was six or seven years old, the drummer he was working with bought a new set of small drums, and gave his old set to my Dad to give to me. I mean, it was a huge, big bass drum, and all these drums. I have pictures of me playing these drums.

So since I was a kid I really got into the drums. I learned all the solos, like, that Philly Joe would play on a record or whatever. I would try to really be with the rhythm completely. I think that studying like that when I was that young gave me a sense of time, and studying the saxophone the way I did, the harmonic approach and the rhythmic approach together, just really gave me a lot to work on and to work for as a young player. So I know there’s been something about drummers, since I was a kid.

Now I’m starting to record and do some things on drums myself. Recently, just this last week actually, I went into the studio and did a solo-duo project where I laid some tracks down playing bass clarinet, drums and tenor, and then Judi Silverman came in and put some voice parts on some of the things, too, and we really created some rhythm sections. It’s the first time I ever did it. I brought a tape; maybe we could listen to one thing later.

But getting back to this first record, Roy Haynes has always been one of my very favorite musicians. I’ve never had a chance to play with him, but I heard him play a lot. And I really love this record. It was a real fresh… You know, after listening to so much Coltrane Quartet, this was like a little different twist with Roy Haynes on drums.

[MUSIC: Coltrane/Haynes, “Dear Old Stockholm” (1963); Sonny Stitt, “I Never Knew”, “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” (1962)]

JL: Just a little about what Sonny Stitt meant to me. Stitt was my first real love on record. I used to listen to my Dad practice all the time, and the sound of the saxophone just captured me completely from when I was crawling around the pad, you know. My Dad had a lot of Stitt’s records, too, and I would just practice along with the records all the time, on saxophone and on drums, and try to learn the tunes and try to get next to what was happening. His sound on tenor and alto… He had a personality that he could play either horn and sound like a different player, in a way. He was playing from the same knowledge and wisdom and expression, but he really got into the different sounds that were happening on the different horns. And that influenced me from a real young age.

I had the great fortune of meeting Stitt a bunch of times. He used to come through Cleveland, but not like Coltrane and other cats who really had their own bands. Sonny never really was known as a bandleader. I mean, he toured the world always pretty much as a solo artist, and would play with rhythm sections wherever he went. In his era, he could really do that, and work a lot. But he was kind of frustrated in that world, I think. I had a chance to hang out with him and sit with him a lot of times in clubs on breaks and stuff, and he was a great cat. He was a real teacher. He’d look at you and ask you how many holes on your horn, and how many C’s can you hit. He’d start asking you questions right away. It was an education to be around Sonny.

I had a chance to sit in with him a few times, you know, in different groups in Cleveland, with organ trios. One time he came with Milt Jackson, and they played with a Cleveland rhythm section, I was playing in a group opposite them,, and Sonny asked me to sit in with them one of the nights. It was a real thrill, you know, just to be on the stand with the cat, because he would take you through the changes, boy.

Q: Who would be the rhythm sections in Cleveland, by the way?

JL: There were different guys. The organ player who plays on this CD I put out with my Dad, Eddie Bacchus, would play with most everybody that came through town. But there were a couple of other organ players. There was a cat named Lindsay Tough, and this other guy, William Dowland, who everyone used to call Paul Bunyon — he was a real big cat. He used to be a trombone player, actually, when he was younger.

A few different drummers were around. Tony Haynes, Ralph Jackson, a drummer who plays with Duke Jenkins, who’s an organ player out there. Different cats, though. Val Kent, a young drummer. Val could have… He was offered the gig with Stan Getz and a lot of different people when he came through town. There was a drummer there whose name was Fats Heard who ended up playing with Erroll Garner, I think. Fats Heard in the Fifties and the Sixties, he would play with everybody who would come through town. Jacktown, who plays on the CD, Hometown Sessions, that I produced myself, was from Detroit, and grew up with Elvin Jones and Pepper Adams and Tommy Flanagan and everyone, and moved to Cleveland probably in the late Fifties or so. I mean, I met him when I was in high school. But when he was there, my father told me stories, like when Miles’ group when come through town, Coltrane, Philly Joe Jones, those cats would stay at Jacktown’s house. They were all buddies.

So there were a lot of cats in Cleveland during those days who played with everybody.

Q: Hearing John Coltrane and Sonny Stitt together is a very interesting juxtaposition, and one could say they are two very important people in the formation of your own personal style of playing, your approach to line and your approach to sound.

JL: Yeah, Coltrane and Stitt were definitely two of my really first loves on the instrument, as well as the music they played. I absorbed the two of them throughout their whole careers, all the different records and different periods. I was more familiar with more of the Coltrane with Miles and the Prestige Coltrane for most of my young life, and at that same period, Sonny Stitt was really my favorite player. Then I really got involved with Coltrane’s more modern Impulse records. Once I started to really get familiar with those, it changed my concept of rhythm and the role of not just playing soloist-rhythm section. The way Sonny Stitt played, and in that whole period, I mean, you really played off the rhythm section. Your rhythm section was there to support everything you did. Whereas some of Coltrane’s later records, it was more collective, conversational kind of playing, and everybody fed off each other more. Like we were commenting during this tune, “Dear Old Stockholm,” the way Roy Haynes was playing with Trane, they were playing like the same rhythms, they were playing the same kind of phrasing. When I started to really be familiar with that, it really opened up my concept, and gave me a lot more direction in my own music.

Q: We have something cued up by Lee Morgan.

JL: The trumpet was another really important instrument for me in my young developing. I mean, trumpet had an attack and it had a certain thing that I really loved. I think I would have been a trumpet player if I’d had a different chance to do something. I just always associated with the trumpet and the rhythm. Lee Morgan and Miles were my two real favorite trumpet players. I used to listen a lot to Lee Morgan on all the Blue Note records, and things with Jimmy Smith — a lot of different things. Lee’s sound and his rhythm really got to me. The tune we’re playing is from a record that came out much later, in the Eighties, one of the Blue Note Japanese reissues, named The Rajah. It has Hank Mobley on saxophone, Cedar Walton, Paul Chambers and Billy Higgins.

Hank Mobley, too, was… I really loved Hank’s playing from all the records, different things he did with Coltrane together, all the things with Miles, and his own records. He was one of the first ones that I really started to realize how he wrote so much, man…

Q: All those slick, subtle tunes.

JL: Oh, man, all his tunes were so beautiful. At a certain time as a young player, like, you’re so into just trying to play what everybody else is playing, when you realize that to try to create your own music is part of it, too…! That hit me. And Hank Mobley was one of the first saxophone composers, him and Wayne Shorter both, that really influenced me a lot.

[MUSIC: Lee Morgan/H. Mobley/Cedar/PC/Higgins (The Rajah) “Is That So?” (1967); Hank Mobley/D. Byrd/Cedar/R. Carter/ Higgins (Far Away Lands) “No Argument”; Rollins/Philly Joe, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (1958)]

JL: When I really discovered Sonny Rollins and started exploring Sonny’s records and his music, it opened up a lot of doors for me melodically and rhythmically. Sonny’s such a master of… He can take any melody and stretch it out, and play so many variations of it to develop his solos. He didn’t just try to play the right notes, let’s say. He tries to explore all the possibilities with the melody and the rhythm that’s happening. For me, he’s a real genius improviser. Philly Joe Jones as well…

Q: You said when you were a kid you copied his solos.

JL: Yeah, Philly Joe was my man as far as the melodies he played. Like, he played the same things that Sonny Rollins or Miles were playing. There’s one record, I think it was Miles’ first record as a leader, with Sonny Rollins and Bird on tenor, with Philly Joe — it’s one of his first records. Man, it’s really smoking. I mean, Philly Joe to me was one of the…

Q: “The Serpent’s Tooth,” “Compulsion”…

JL: Right. “Compulsion” is the piece I’m speaking of. But his driving style melodically as well as his swing just really grabbed me completely when I was a kid. The breaks and things he played on that particular tune always have been with me. That’s why I wanted to play that cut. That record also has Doug Watkins on bass and Wynton Kelly on piano. That date has “Tune Up,” “Namely You”…

I’d like to to get to more tunes on that, but I want to play a couple of other things with Sonny on it first. We’re going to play something from Alfie, which has arrangements by Oliver Nelson. We’re going to play “Alfie’s Theme” from this. This is a real important record for me, too. Because it was Sonny completely out in front of kind of a small big band, and the band just plays parts. It’s a great band. Phil Woods is playing, Danny Bank. Frankie Dunlap is on drums who played a lot with Monk, and in later years played with the Lionel Hampton band quite often. But all his playing with Monk was really a great period for Monk’s music as well, with Frankie Dunlap. Kenny Burrell is on guitar on this, Jimmy Cleveland, J.J. Johnson — it’s a great record. We’re going to hear “Alfie’s Theme” from this.

We’re also going to hear Sonny Rollins playing a solo, unaccompanied version of “It Could Happen to You” from The Sound Of Sonny, which also… Sonny’s playing as a solo instrumentalist and accompanying himself as he’s playing, his freedom and concept also, like, really attracted me, and it taught me a lot about how to practice and how to get next to my own sound.

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins, “Alfie’s Theme” (1966); Sonny (solo), “It Could Happen To You” (1957); Booker Little/Flanagan/ LaFaro/Haynes, “Minor Suite” (1960)]

JL: This album by Booker Little is one of my favorite Booker Little records, and this particular cut, which he begins with an unaccompanied intro, I find really fantastic. Booker Little is one of those players that I never, of course, had a chance to hear or see live. Freddie Hubbard talked a lot about him. He said Booker scared him more than anybody just because he played so beautifully technically. I think they were on Africa Brass together; they were the two trumpet players on Africa Brass with John Coltrane. It was interesting talking with Freddie about Booker.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Harrell/Werner/Johnson/Motian, “Birds of Springtimes Gone By,” “Dewey Says” (1988), Lovano/Motian/ Frisell, “Someone To Watch Over Me” (1989)]

“Someone To Watch Over Me” is from Motian On Broadway, Volume 1. This record for me was a real breakthrough in recording, just because five out of nine tunes are ballads on this record, and it was real challenging. Playing with Charlie and Paul together with Bill was really a treat.

Q: You’ve been associated with Paul Motian for just about the whole decade.

JL: Yes, when you think about it, time has gone by so fast. We’ve been playing since 1981 together. Paul was rehearsing a group which included Bill on guitar and Mark Johnson on bass. Mark and I knew each other from playing with Woody Herman’s band, and were really close friends. They had been playing with a few saxophone players. Mark spoke with Paul about me, and hooked it up for me to make a rehearsal one day. I went up and played with the quartet, and we’ve been playing ever since.

It’s been really beautiful, because we did some quartet playing and then some quintets, which included Billy Drewes on saxophone and Ed Schuller on bass, as well as Jim Pepper on tenor with Ed on bass. We recorded some really nice albums. One record on ECM called Psalm, which has Billy on it, and then three records on Soul Note with the quintet, The Story Of Maryam, Misterioso and Jack of Clubs — actually I brought The Story of Maryam to play a tune later, with Jim Pepper on saxophone, who is one of my favorite players, a really soulful cat. Then the trio kind of emerged from the quintet, Bill and I and Paul, which we’ve been recording and playing a lot around New York.

“Someone To Watch Over Me” started out as a trio piece, which we played the verse and then the whole song, and then Charlie enters as the guitar solo begins. On this record mainly it’s quartet with Charlie, but there’s a few tunes that are just trio tunes as well.

Before that we played two tunes from my record that just came out on Soul Note label, which also features Paul on drums. Having Paul play in my band, playing my music, has really been exciting for me. It just kind of tied a lot of things together for me and my music, and for our playing together. I feel our communication was really great.

The next thing we’ll hear is some music by Thelonious Monk from a record called It’s Monk’s Time.

Q: Now, the Paul Motian Trio just recorded an album exclusively of Monk’s music.

JL: Right. We’ve been playing a lot of Monk tunes. It’s really nice, because in the trio, of course, there’s no bass, so we’re playing guitar, saxophone and drums, and we’re trying to really feel this music in a different kind of way.

Q: It’s very interesting, though, because you always stay with the chords and the melody.

JL: Oh yeah, we’re into the tunes. Those songs are real beautiful vehicles, and we want to expand on everything that’s there as well as put our own wisdom into the piece. But that was a really fun record date to do. I’ve been playing a lot with Dewey Redman, and actually this tune “Dewey Said” was dedicated to Dewey. It came from some lines or some feelings that I have felt listening to Dewey play. Some of the melodies in the piece kind of developed from listening to Dewey. He’s one of my favorite people. And he actually has a son that plays tenor who I’ve been hearing a lot about, and I’m sure everyone is going to be hearing at some point soon.

Anyway, from Monk’s Time we’ll hear “Lulu’s Back In Town.” In this particular quartet is Butch Warren on bass, Ben Riley on drums, and one of my favorite saxophone players, and someone who passed on recently, but I had a chance to really hang with a few times at the Vanguard and was a beautiful cat, Charlie Rouse.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Lulu’s Back In Town” (1963); Coltrane, “Naima” (1965), Ornette/Dewey/Garrison/Jones “Open To the Public” (1968)]

That was a really inspired take. Elvin Jones is the truth. I mean, after touring with him and being around him every day on a two-month tour, I mean, he’s so intense and ready to play… He has so much fun! Before each gig he’d be like rubbin’ his hand together, “Let’s hear it!” And you could hear it on that take. On every record Elvin pays on. I mean, he comes there to play. He doesn’t fool around at all.

Next we’re going to play something from an album that I’m on with the Paul Motian Trio with Dewey Redman Monk In Motian. I’d just like to say what a pleasure it is to play with Dewey. And I’ve been lucky enough to play in Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra as well with Dewey. It’s always exciting listening to him compose.

Following that, we’ll hear two tunes from a record of mine that’s coming out early next year, with a line-up of a few people who are playing with me tonight and tomorrow night at Club Visiones at Third and MacDougal. This record, Worlds, features my Wind Ensemble, which has Tim Hagans on trumpet, Judi Silverman, voice, Gary Valente, trombone, Paul Motian, drums, Henri Texier, bass, and Bill Frisell on guitar.

[MUSIC: Lovano/Redman/FrisellMotian, “Epistrophy,” Lovano Wind Ens., “Spirit Of The Night,” “Lutetia”]

——–

Joe Lovano’s John Coltrane “Dozens” for http://www.jazz.com (June 12, 2008):
1. Good Bait, (Soultrane) Prestige, w/ Red Garland, Paul Chambers, Arthur Taylor, 100/100.

This was one of the first significant Coltrane recordings, this recording Soultrane, for me, that I lived with as a real young player, and a young listener. That particular tune, Good Bait, was written by Tadd Dameron. I’m originally from Cleveland, Ohio, as well as Tadd. My Dad played with Tadd Dameron. So I learned a lot about music and the whole history of jazz growing up, studying Tadd Dameron’s music, and hearing Coltrane’s incredible, lengthy exploration on “Good Bait” was really inspiring to me, and taught me a lot about how I would have to deal with this music, and learn to play the saxophone. It’s a timeless recording that when I listen to it today, sounds as fresh as when I was a kid.

After studying Coltrane through the years, and being a saxophonist myself, realizing all of the things that you have to deal with to execute your ideas, every stage of the way is a different development period. That period for Coltrane in the mid ‘50s, I think he was probably with Miles at the time, 1956… [That recording was ‘58. And he’d kicked heroin at the time. He did this right after he left Monk.] I see. So that experience and journey to that moment was pretty intense, as far as the study of the music, the saxophone, the people he was playing with. He had come up playing with Tadd Dameron, playing with him in his music, playing with Miles’ band, Dizzy’s band, Johnny Hodges’ band. He was just starting to form a conception about who he was and how he wanted to present himself in the music. There’s another tune on this recording, “I Want To Talk About You,” that he played throughout his lifetime and presented in concert around the world many times. One thing I learned from Coltrane is that he lived with the music that he played, and he was always developing on it throughout his career. [Anything you’d care to say about his style then? Maybe how you see his development with Monk leading him to play those incredibly lucid solos that he did on that record?] One thing, playing with Thelonious Monk got him to be even more articulate than he was doing on his own. His execution, his articulation, his rhythm, his phrasing and ideas were all one. And his tone also, at this period, was really crystallizing. He was fusing together all of the elements of playing music and playing the saxophone. He was a virtuoso on his instrument, and he was really able to communicate his ideas in lengthy open solos, and “Good Bait” is a prime example of him really stretching out and playing through that pilece of music with his own approach.
2. BAGS & TRANE, “Three Little Words” Atlantic, John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Milt Jackson, vibraphone; Hank Jones, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Connie Kay, drums. (1959) 100/100

It’s incredible to hear Coltrane play on standard songs, and to play with a rhythm section like that, where Hank is very free in the harmonic sequence and is feeding him harmonies and voicings, and Coltrane is taking him places that’s giving him ideas and opening up what he’s playing harmonically as well. To hear Hank Jones and Coltrane together is incredible on this recording, and also, Milt Jackson is one of the most incredible lyrical improvisers in the music, and to hear them balance each other and come off of each other, and play on a tune like “Three Little Words,” and not play too many choruses, a few choruses each, just like really play through the tune and sustain the mood of that tune, was a real beautiful journey on their part, and for me, as a young musician, digging Coltrane playing standards taught me a lot about the repertoire to become a musician in this beautiful world of music we’re in. [So it was less that you were checking out Coltrane’s lines, but more that you were getting a feeling for the pathway of doing this? Or were you checking out the vocabulary?] Well, I was checking out the vocabulary of how they were all playing together. But the one thing that I learned about music listening to Coltrane, no matter what he was playing, was the depth of the repertoire that he knew, and how much ballads and the blues were in everything he played, and how it all related in his solos. He was a soloist of the highest order, no matter what he played, and his focus on the material drove him and fed him ideas. It wasn’t just what he was practicing on his horn, even though that was a big part of the way he played. The music that he played and the people that he played with really gave him direction, and you can hear it when you hear him playing on standards.
3. LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD, “Chasin’ The Trane” (master take), Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums

All the different versions of “Chasing the Trane” through the years from the live recordings hit that same incredible level of creativity on the blues. This was one of the first pieces that I heard, and didn’t even realize it was a blues, for a long time. It was a whole side of one of the Impulse records, somewhere around 1961. Eric Dolphy comes in on the last note or something, at the very end. Now, of course, later they released all these other Live at the Village Vanguard takes, there’s other takes of “Chasin’ The Trane” where Dolphy plays and McCoy plays. But this particular version, the original that came out on that recording, was one side of a record, just Coltrane’s choruses. He played from start to finish. The first time I heard that, I listened to it all day. I just kept putting the needle back at the beginning of the recording. Then after a while, I realized it was a blues. I was a teenager, and it was something else, man. The energy, the focus, and the swinging, beautiful exploration of Coltrane’s choruses on that—it was really some magic, man. Then moving to New York, playing at the Village Vanguard with the Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra, and then carrying on into today, presenting my own groups, and recording live there, and feeling the spirits in that room, it goes back to that first time, checking THAT piece out.

[It’s fascinating that he recorded that maybe two years after “Three Little Words” from Bags and Trane, and the sound is so radically different.]

Mmm-hmm. Well, Trane was moving on in his playing and his approach, and becoming a leader, having his own band, focusing totally on what he wanted to play, and that in turn created a lot of ideas of how he was playing. He was always dealing with how he played, as well as what he was playing. He was definitely a dedicated, serious student of the saxophone and of music, but his approach widened through the years on how he was playing and how he was putting things together. We all study the elements in the music, and we all deal with things today that we dealt with on Day One. If you don’t do that, then I don’t think you can really play with the depth of your soul. If it only becomes a technical thing to get around your horn and to execute what you’ve practiced, you’re not really executing your feelings at all. Coltrane went through periods earlier on where he was documented, and was a very technical player. But you hear the evolution of how his feelings came out in his music in every step of the way, and that was a beautiful study also for me through the years. When you study somebody’s whole career on record, someone who recorded as much as he did… He recorded a lot! Hundreds and hundreds of songs through the years. That all came out in his playing at every moment, man, the soulfulness of it all, of his journey.
4. “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes”, COLTRANE’S SOUND

That whole recording is amazing, but “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes,” the form of it, the feelings, the way the rhythm shifted, and his ideas throughout the sequence of the harmonies with the different inflections that Elvin Jones was playing, and the way McCoy comped on that, little pedal points in the bass… It felt like a quartet. It wasn’t just Coltrane soloing over that tune or with a rhythm section. It really was a totally integrated quartet. This is an early record that I recognized that quality of improvising together as a unit. Some of the other things prior to that… Even on “Good Bait,” Coltrane’s playing with the rhythm section. But the interplay and the way they developed ideas and played off each other on “Night Has a Thousand Eyes” was instrumental in my discovery of the approach of playing within the group you’re in, whether you’re playing a solo or not. Also, Elvin’s playing on that. As a young player, I played a lot of drums, and was practicing saxophone and drums at the same time, and playing along with records and trying to hear what was happening. Playing along with that recording on drums taught me everything, man, about form and about following the line and the soloist, and trying to hit a groove, playing ALONG WITH Elvin and McCoy and Coltrane on that recording. That taught me a lot about everything.
5. “Body and Soul” from COLTRANE’S SOUND (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Steve Davis, bass; Elvin Jones), Atlantic, 1960. 100/100

Studying the tune “Body and Soul” from that same recording. Studying Coleman Hawkins’ version. My Dad played Coleman Hawkins’ solo from that first big hit that he had, and my Dad knew it back and forth. I’d hear him play those lines all the time when I would practice. Hearing Coltrane’s interpretation, and his own perspective and view through his different harmonic sequences of “Giant Steps,” development through modulations and harmonies, and how he incorporated that… In that certain period for Coltrane, he was doing that on a lot of standard songs. The whole “Giant Steps” approach developed through his developing different ways of modulation through harmony. The way he put that together on “Body and Soul” was beautiful. It really taught me a lot about substitution chords, and how to incorporate those things as you’re playing through any given tune, and how it related to the blues as well. It’s one of the most soulful, beautiful versions of that tune. [Dexter Gordon incorporated those changes into his own version of “Body and Soul”] Dexter Gordon did that later on, sure. Dexter gave Coltrane a mouthpiece early on. It might have been the mouthpiece that he was playing on a certain early period with Miles. Well, Coltrane was one of Dexter’s disciples, I think, along with Bird and others. You could hear Dexter in Coltrane’s playing at a certain point, and later you hear Coltrane in Dexter’s playing a lot. That kind of mix teaches you a lot about what an amazing music this is. It’s multigenerational, multicultural. We all influence each other in different ways at different times in our careers and personalities.
6. “Vigil”, KULU SE MAMA (Impulse, 1965) (McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums) 100/100

My Dad had this recording, as he did most of these. So I didn’t have to buy it. He loved KULU SE MAMA. He listened to this all the time. Of course, I grew up in the ‘60s, so I didn’t grow up when these recordings were coming out. They were all released. I was very lucky that my Dad had a hip record collection, and had these records from the different periods of Coltrane. He met Coltrane in the early ‘50s and played a jam session with him in Cleveland. Coltrane was playing alto; he was in town with a blues band. [Didn’t Coltrane stay in Cleveland for a little bit with a guy named Gay Crosse?] Gay Crosse was the blues band that he played with. I think he was a Cleveland cat. During that time, you might stay somewhere for a month or two and play every night. Anyway, they were one year apart; my Dad was born in 1925, and Coltrane in 1926. So they came up in the same generation, the same music. My dad played at this session with Coltrane, and he never forgot that, man. He loved Coltrane’s playing, and met him that time. Through the years, he had all his records. So I grew up with Bags and Trane and Soultrane and Kulu Se Mama and Meditations. But Kulu Se Mama was one that my Dad loved to listen to. This piece, “Vigil,” is just a duet with Elvin. It was so well recorded, it was incredible. When you listened to that down in our basement, on my Dad’s stereo, at forte, it was like they were in the room with you. The sound of the drums and the way they played together was so beautiful and organic. My Dad had a nice stereo with speakers all over the basement, so wherever you were down in our basement it was great sound! That piece really captured me, man, just in a duo. It might have been one of the first times I really heard a saxophone-and-tenor duet on a recording. [Speak a bit as to how Coltrane’s music was different in 1965 than 1961.] Definitely in 1965, when this recording was made, his sound… He was playing more majestic, in a certain way. He seemed to fill the room with his tone in a different way. In the early ‘60s, he was playing through his horn and flying around his horn, and he still filled the room… When I say “filled the room,” I’m talking about when you’re listening; I was never in a room with Coltrane playing live. But in the earlier Coltrane, his sound attacked you, it came at you. As he developed more to the end of his life, his tone was much majestic, and had a much more spiritual and open feeling to it—to me. Even though he was still playing some ferocious, incredible things around his instrument, just his sound was more beautiful than it even had been. It was always beautiful. I always thought he had a beautiful sound. But it was even more beautiful. It comes through on this duet as well.

7. “Venus” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Impulse, 1967] Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Rashied Ali, drums. 100/100

That’s another duet piece with Rashied Ali on drums, who plays brushes on this piece. It’s a ballad like, lyrical, rubato piece, and the way they improvise together is so captivating and beautiful. You hit the Repeat button when it finishes. You want to keep listening to it over and over again. It did that to me. Interstellar Space was a recording I brought home and played for my Dad, which then he really dug, because it was a complete LP of only duets. There are four pieces on it, four planets. Moving to New York in the mid ‘70s, one of the first places I went was Rashied Ali’s club, Ali’s Alley. I’d been playing a little with Albert Dailey, and he told me he was playing a gig with ‘Shied down there, and told me I should come. I went down and ended up sitting in with him that night. It was one of the thrills of my life up until that point, calling home and telling my dad I sat in and played with Rashied Ali! That recording, Interstellar Space, was an important record to me.

[This is towards the end of Coltrane’s life; he’d gone to another place than even on “Vigil.”] “Vigil” had a certain energy and a swing to it, and a certain drive that Elvin and Coltrane hooked up on. “Venus” was maybe a year-and-a-half later. Coltrane was dealing with a new approach to rhythm and flow and playing counterpoint within the rhythm. It was still swinging and still moving in a certain forward motion, but it wasn’t a quarter-note swing type beat. It was a very open beat that gives you a lot of room for expression. In a way, Rashied Ali was playing more like a soloist along with the soloist. But they were finding all kinds of common, beautiful unisons within the counterpoint that they were creating with each other. It’s a way of playing that from that moment on I’ve been trying to develop in my playing. Those directions put me in a path to play with Paul Motian through the years. At that same period in the ‘60s, Paul was also exploring playing a very free approach in his accompaniment on drums, flowing with the soloist and not just playing the beat that everyone expects you to play. Feeling the beat and then improvising with it. Throughout my career I’ve had a chance to play with some of the master drummers in jazz, including Elvin Jones and Rashied Ali and Paul Motian and Jack DeJohnette, Ed Blackwell, Idris Muhammad, Lewis Nash and the cats today, Brian Blade, Al Foster… It’s amazing. When I look back, I projected a lot of those things to happen from this early period, discovering all this diverse music and feelings that were executed by Coltrane and the crowd. That crowd. It all stemmed from Max Roach and Bird and Diz and Monk. But that certain crowd of players, and the way they learned from each other and developed a way of playing just captured me, and I feel really fortunate to be on the scene today and trying to execute my ideas within that world and with that crowd.

8. “Chim-Chim, Cheree” (COLTRANE PLAYS CHIM CHIM CHEREE, Impulse, 1965…) 100/100

It was an amazing version of “Chim, Chim Cheree” on soprano saxophone, the groove of it, the whole interplay, the flow of the quartet. Coltrane, coming off of playing “My Favorite Thing” and having such a success on that, and then playing an interpretation of “Chim, Chim Cheree” so wide-open and exploratory, and just, like, SERIOUS. He wasn’t just playing it to play it. You could feel that he was into exploring what could happen off of that theme, and the way they put it together is just a beautiful, joyous journey and piece of music. Also, this certain period… This was maybe ‘63 or ‘64… [I thought it was 1965.] Could be around ‘64 or ‘65. The way he was playing soprano at that time was… The later records after that, he didn’t play soprano. This was one of the later recordings on soprano, in a way—for a studio date anyway. Man, his sound and his whole approach and focus on that horn on that recording is instrumental in giving me confidence to try to play other instruments and explore the possibilities of different tonal energy that comes off of the horn you play. At that same time, for me, I’d heard James Moody live and Sonny Stitt live and Rahsaan Roland Kirk live… Of course, when I say that same period, when I heard that record and heard those cats live, I was a teenager, 16-17 years old. I was in a room with those guys. Sonny Stitt played alto, and then put it down and played tenor. Moody picked up the flute. Rahsaan played all these horns, not only at the same time, but to play as his voice for the moment. The focus of sound and energy from the instrument came through. I really felt that on “Chim, Chim Cheree” from the record with Coltrane, his focus and his sound and the energy that that instrument gave him, and how he executed ideas off that inspiration.

9. “Father, Son and the Holy Ghost” (MEDITATIONS, Impulse, 1965) 100/100.

That melody, that theme, it’s like a very simple little exercise, in a way. If you broke it down and just played it like a scale, it was a simple, little, beautiful meditation on those intervals and those themes. How he played it through all keys. That was another record that my dad really loved, and he listened to it a lot. I heard it a lot without sitting and listening to it myself. I just heard it played in our house from the basement when my dad would be listening to music. At the time, I was dealing with trying to learn how to play the saxophone, so I was more into Bird and Diz and earlier Coltrane and Sonny with Max, but I was hearing my Dad listen to that record, and this piece in particular, “The Father, Son and the Holy Ghost,” and all of a sudden I found myself practicing a different way without even thinking about—just little simple things on the horn that I was working on, but playing them in different keys, and playing them more peaceful, in a way. Practicing them in a more peaceful way, instead of just running through them technically on the horn. Later, when I reflect on it, I realize that it was kind of subliminal something from that particular recording, the way my dad listened to that record a lot. I mean, he would go down to the basement and put that record on a lot. Maybe because it was totally new music to him. He wasn’t that kind of player, really. He was a real bebopper at heart, a hard-swinging player. But he had a beautiful ballads approach. I don’t know. Something about that record my Dad just loved, and listened to a lot. So I learned a certain way of practicing that came from that recording. Also, just the collectiveness of the way Pharaoh Sanders… Also, Rashied was on that record. It was a double-drummers record with Elvin and Rashied, Jimmy Garrison, McCoy, and Pharaoh. There were some things that were in that approach that have stayed with me, and certain things that I’m trying to develop to this day.

10. “Dear old Stockholm” (Coltrane, McCoy, Garrison, Roy Haynes, NEWPORT ‘63) 100/100

I love this live version of “Dear Old Stockholm” with Roy Haynes on drums, and I listen to it a lot. There’s a certain freshness and different feeling that happens when Coltrane plays with Roy Haynes. His ideas take different shapes rhythmically and melodically. Something’s different there. That also just inspired me to realize that when you play with different people, that creates the music, really. The music within the music comes from the people that you’re playing with at the time. I recognized that at a certain point, and through the years developing with the people that I’ve played with, especially drummers, Ed Blackwell, Billy Higgins and Mel Lewis…realizing you could play the same tune, but when you have a different feeling in the rhythm section, you should play with a different feeling as a soloist. The recordings with Coltrane and Roy Haynes were really instrumental for me recognizing that, and this particular version of “Dear Old Stockholm,” the ending, the way they play over the form, the way they explore… They could have played that all day and night. From start to finish, it’s a joyous, beautiful journey.

11. “Expression” (Impulse, 1967, Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, Garrison, Rashied Ali) 100/100

This is from Coltrane’s last session meant to be released. That tune… In a way, the harmonic sequence, the melody…it’s like a beautiful prayer. That’s something we just recorded with the Saxophone Summit on our latest release, Seraphic Light. Just to play that theme, when you’re playing that theme over and over again, just alone, on the saxophone, and implying some of the harmonies and the roots, it’s like the most beautiful prayer, and it’s a continuous melodic flow that is really something. It’s one of the tunes that Coltrane I don’t think ever really explored that much in concert. It was near the end of his life, and he might have just brought it in for the recording session for the whole group, and they recorded it. Now, of course, him and Alice might have been playing it as a duet, which I would have loved to hear that. When Alice came into the band after McCoy and played with a real harp-like approach, where she was playing the full piano in her accompaniment, it seemed to give Coltrane… In a way, he relaxed and played off of more of the spectrum in the harmonies. He was playing a harp-like approach also at that point, the way he expanded… They always talk about sheets of sound. When you slow that down, it becomes very harp-like, very open. Of course, on the duets, Interstellar Space, which was done in the same month or week, he was playing through things very quick, and flurries of notes throughout the harmony, whereas on “Expression” he kind of stretched them out a little bit. I think we would have heard another side to Coltrane if he’d developed during the years after this. Because his execution on his instrument was so beautiful. He could do whatever he felt and heard. When Alice came into the band, especially on these moments with the quartet… Stellar Regions is another quartet recording from right around that time where they explored many tunes, shorter version of them, that were kind of strung together. Expression was one of the songs I think that inspired a whole way of playing, for me, and a way of playing through harmonies in a free-flowing way, without a quarter-note or metronome-type beat. An open beat, but still moving through a sequence of chords. I learned a lot about trying to approach improvising with that aspect of meter. It’s something I’m just scratching the surface on now.

12. “Impressions” THE 1961 HELSINKI CONCERT (Gambit) FEATURING ERIC DOLPHY (Nov. 22, 1961) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet; McCoy Tyner, piano; Reggie Workman, bass; Elvin Jones, drums)

I was just on tour with McCoy Tyner in April, and I found this in a record shop in Basel, Switzerland. I never saw it before. There’s a version of “Impressions” that starts the concert that’s at kind of a slower tempo, almost like the tempo they played “So What” at with Miles. It’s amazing. Coltrane’s choruses are so beautiful, just the way they play the theme together and the way Eric answers and plays in the spaces of the melody. Coltrane plays around 9 choruses, then Eric comes in and plays 9 or 10 choruses himself that are some of the most beautiful Eric Dolphy with Coltrane on record. It’s incredible, because I think this was just released now. I never heard it on any other box set from European live recordings with Coltrane. Then Coltrane comes back in, after Dolphy, and plays another 2 or 3 choruses before they take the theme out. So it’s a short version of this tune with no solo by McCoy. It’s just fantastic. It’s some of the most inspired Eric Dolphy after Coltrane plays, and while Coltrane is playing, you can feel that he’s inspired just by having Dolphy on the scene. He hands it over to him in a way where he’s saying, “Okay, man, what have you got to say?” Then when Dolphy ends his chorus, Coltrane has to come in and play again because it’s at this really beautiful place in the whole structure of the piece.

[TALK A BIT ABOUT COLTRANE DIALOGUING WITH OTHER SAXOPHONE PLAYERS]

Coltrane recorded with a lot of different saxophone players. There was a great record with Johnny Griffin and Hank Mobley. There was some stuff with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims and Hank Mobley as a quartet. There’s some stuff with Paul Quinichette and Pepper Adams, Gene Ammons—Coltrane plays alto. Coltrane came up in an era where you played in bands with other saxophone players a lot. Some of it was documented, but I’m sure through the years he was in tons of bands, and many jam sessions and situations where you shape the music together spontaneously right at the moment with other saxophone players. A lot. Of course, with Miles and Cannonball and quintets with Cannonball. Throughout his career, I think he enjoyed, which I do, feeding off of other people, especially if they have a strong personality and ideas and have their own statement. It was great to hear him with Dolphy and have Eric’s voice, not only on alto, but bass clarinet and flute. We’re lucky that they recorded and did some things, a lot more than we ever heard really that were made for release. The recording Olé was beautiful with Freddie Hubbard and Coltrane together. But something like this, which just came out, from that tour, was so fresh! It was recorded in 1961. McCoy Tyner was 22 years old, maybe 23 on that recording. It’s so great to hear the inspiration of how they played together, and how they played off of each other.

13. “Ah-Leu-Cha” (from ROUND ABOUT MIDNIGHT) (Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Miles Davis, trumpet; Red Garland, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Philly Joe Jones).

The way Coltrane, Miles, Red Garland on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Philly Joe Jones on drums play on that tune, the little counterpoint on that melody… I think that tune is based on “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Scrapple From the Apple”—I’m pretty sure it was derived from that sequence. But the way it was structured with the little drum-breaks and all these little things, and the way Coltrane played with Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers… Of course, we’ve heard many recordings through the years with them together as that combination. That was another feeling in the beat, and the joyous journey in how they were up in each other’s music, and were moving through the harmonies with a certain feeling. They weren’t just playing over chords and playing 32 bars. They were exploring a way of playing together. It was Miles’ group, but this community of players. Someone has to be the leader, to organize things, but it’s really the community of players that make the music. I’m feeling that today in my ensembles, creating situations for the community that I live in. My nonet has a certain repertoire, a certain community of players. We’ve been playing together for years. Now, I’m the leader. I’ve organized and have developed my career to a point to be able to put it together. But it’s the community of players that is making music, too. Each one of my ensembles has been inspired by that particular realization about what is happening on the scene. Miles and Coltrane and Monk and Bird, all their records are about that. It’s a community they were living in, man, and they were living this music together, and you could feel how much they loved to play together. That comes through on this recording, Round About Midnight, with Miles Davis, and that tune, “Ah-Leu-Cha”—but on every tune. For me, that was one of the first records that totally captured me and gave me a lot of ideas, and I wore it out two or three times.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

——–

Joe Lovano (Quartets: Live At The Village Vanguard) – Blue Note:
The two quartet performances that comprise Live At the Village Vanguard represent the latest installment of Joe Lovano’s ongoing dialogue with the Freedom Principle and the Tradition. 42 years old, at the peak of his powers, where vigor complements wisdom, Lovano is as comfortable playing improvised duos with English Free-Jazz-Master Evan Parker as in-the-pocket bebop with an organ trio. His solos display the spontaneity of an ear player, but behind them is the urbane sophistication of a conservatory-trained musician with twenty years experience interpreting difficult charts in big bands ranging from Woody Herman to Carla Bley. Fully conversant with the harmonic vocabulary of Coltrane, Shorter and beyond, he is able to navigate complex structures with an uncannily relaxed rhythmic facility and big furry sound at the most intense outer partials.

Lovano inherited his open, pragmatic attitude from his father, Cleveland-based tenor saxophonist Tony “Big T” Lovano. Papa Lovano worked a day job as a barber and played every variety of gig at night. Coming up in the 1940’s, Big T looked up to Clevelanders Tadd Dameron and Freddie Webster, played around the city with the likes of Bill De Arango, Jim Hall, Benny Bailey, Joe Alexander and the legendary blind organist Eddie Bacchus. Later, as a main man on the Cleveland scene, he knew and played with outcats Albert Ayler, Frank Wright and Bobby Few in their formative years. The likes of Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, James Moody and Roland Kirk considered him a peer, and he took his son to Cleveland spots like the Smiling Dog or the Sirrah Club to hear their live sound. When young Lovano was practicing to Sonny Stitt records in the family basement, his father had John Coltrane’s “Kulu Se Mama” or “A Love Supreme” on the turntable upstairs.

When Big T was too busy to make a booking, he’d often send his son. “I paid my way to Berklee School of Music from all the money I made playing gigs in high school,” Joe recalls. “I learned all the standard tunes, how to lead a gig and pace a set. My Dad taught me how to read an audience, too; if I was playing in a club where there was dancing, to play the right tempos, to find the tunes that people are going to dig. My Dad always stressed, ‘Look, you have to be versatile so you can pay the rent.’ He taught me clarinet, and wanted me to play flute, and be able to play in bands, and to be able to take any gig that came up. He always instilled that in me. So from an early age, I was studying a lot of different dimensions of improvising and playing my instruments with those goals in mind.”

Tony Lovano’s sound spanned a wide dynamic range, from the alligatory roughness of Illinois Jacquet to the expansive melismas of Lester Young and Ben Webster, and he bequeathed that range to his son. “My sound has gone through a lot of different changes,” says Joe, “or different periods. Early on I played more one-dimensionally, with a harder sound. On my first recording with Lonnie Smith in 1975, my sound was only one beam of light, let’s say, just one direction. Through the years, in playing with so many different bands, especially large ensembles where the music is always changing with different feelings, rhythms and attitudes, rather than try to sound the same in each group, I would try to fit in in a different way all the time. That range of dynamics started the process of trying to open up my sound in a different direction. Through the years it’s definitely gotten wider and bigger, and I think I can play now, say, triple pianissimo with the same fullness as a triple forte.”

A drummer friend of Big T’s gave 7-year-old Joe a set from the 1940’s, including a 24″ bass drum, and Lovano has played those drums for serious relaxation ever since. On saxophone, his phrases consist of long strings of notes disjunctively accented in dialogue with the drums, cliffhanger lines that seem fated to hurtle over the edge, but inevitably land squarely on the one. “Playing drums,” Lovano comments, “opened up my awareness of what’s going on around me when I’m soloing, to not just be involved in what I’m articulating on my horn, but try to be a part of what everybody else is playing.”

Tony Lovano also introduced his son to the revelations of free improvising; they recorded a free duet together on Joe’s self-produced two-tenor date with Big T in 1986. “For years I’ve focused on improvising very freely with other players, like Billy Drewes and Judi Silvano, in duet settings, just to improvise and react to each other, and try to create melodies from what each other played. I’m into performance, I’m into playing with the personalities I play with, and I improvise with everybody from that conception. I want to try to feed off of what everybody else plays so that I don’t find myself being repetitive.”

“For me improvising really is about creating something new,” Joe emphasizes. “Early on it was about style and learning my horn, but after a while it shifted into this other place of trying to create something with what’s going on around you, using your technique and the language of your instrument to create something different all the time.”

The March 1994 set features the powerful unit of Tom Harrell, Anthony Cox and Billy Hart, who had worked together off and on for two years. The most explicit antecedents are Sonny Rollins’ various trio recordings and the Ornette Coleman Quartet, but Lovano also cites John Coltrane’s music and Miles Davis’ various bands as inspirations. “Whether Miles’ group was a quartet or quintet or however big it was, it would come down to a trio sound a lot, the bass, drums and horn. I think that’s the essence in Jazz, and there are certain feelings that happen in that intimate setting.” The music was recorded on the week’s fourth night.

“In a quartet like this, with two horns,” Lovano continues, “you have the opportunity to change the orchestration as you play, to play backgrounds, to cut in on each other, to trade, to create a real ensemble sound as four people. I was able to write some new music and orchestrations that gave everyone freedom, a fresh approach to play together. The collective dialogue was unique, with a lot of explosive energy, and everybody’s attitude and personalities shaped the pieces. I think that’s why the chemistry worked. Each musician is in tune with the history of this music and tries to draw from it in a very personal way.”

Tom Harrell and Lovano have worked in each other’s bands since around 1987, when Lovano recorded Village Rhythm for Soul Note. Known for his exquisite improvising in “harmonic type music with piano or larger groups,” Harrell plays with extraordinary force in the freer setting, spontaneously co-composing arrangements with his horn-mate on every song, conjuring poised melodic sequences on every solo. Listen to the way he mimics the multiphonic burst that concludes Lovano’s solo on “Fort Worth” to segue seamlessly into his statement, or his ravishing solo on “Sail Away.”

Though Lovano first knew bassist Anthony Cox from casual sessions in the late Seventies, they established a real connection with John Scofield’s Quartet in 1989; in 1990-91 Cox worked in Lovano’s trio with Ed Blackwell. “Anthony is versatile and can play very freely within structures and forms and harmonic sequences with imagination and intuition,” Lovano states. “He’s a strong melodic rhythmic player who brings a lot of ideas into the tune, but always drawing from the tune itself. That’s the kind of bass player you need in a trio sounding group such as this.” Hear his leadoff solo on Cleveland composer Emil Boyd’s “Blues Not To Lose,” how he meshes with Billy Hart in articulating theme and variation on the tune’s striking melody.

On Joe’s first gig in New York with organist Lonnie Smith in 1975, Billy Hart played drums; they’ve since collaborated in many venues. “I first heard Billy with Herbie Hancock’s sextet in the early Seventies, and the first time I heard him, man, I wanted to play with him!” Lovano remembers. “In every situation Billy is open and inspired. He tries to get into everyone’s personality, plus he brings in his own incredible energy. In this quartet I wrote some tunes to feature him and let him explode and explore, give him freedom to shift tempos and to play however he wants, to listen and react. I think Billy Hart today is playing fresher than ever.” Hart’s dynamic range and command of timbre complement every beat of the set; hear how he complements Lovano’s trademark pillowed, honey sound on the 12/8 treatment of “Birds From Springtimes Gone By,” his impeccable brushwork on “I Can’t Get Started,” the quiet fire of “Sail Away,” and the controlled fury of every stroke on the Colemanesque “Uprising.”

Volume 2, from January 1995, features the dream team rhythm section of Mulgrew Miller, Christian McBride and Lewis Nash, the pianist, bassist and drummer that any bandleader would want on their gig, in a follow-up to Tenor Legacy, Lovano’s two-tenor collaboration with Joshua Redman for Blue Note.

“I wanted to make a counter-statement to the first quartet,” Lovano says, “and not just be throwing some tunes together. For the Vanguard, I wanted to play some classic things in my own way and in the group’s way, how we play together now. We challenged each other throughout the week on each tune. It didn’t matter what the tempo was or what key it was in or what the tune was. We could have played ‘Happy Birthday’.” Instead, Lovano chose compositions by John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus, a standard by Gordon Jenkins, and an original. As on the March 1994 set, the sequencing represents the actual set order.

Many pianists you talk to cite Mulgrew Miller as their model on the instrument; “one of the most elegant, swinging, tasteful pianists today,” comments Lovano, who met Mulgrew around 1974 when both were students in Boston. “He plays with an inner beauty in his sound and whole flow, and he’s one of the most swinging accompanists around. When he comps, he’s so much a part of what everybody else is playing that you’re not really aware of what he’s playing somehow. He’s so in touch with everything.” His ferocious, idiomatic solo on “Little Willie Leaps” marks a profound accomplishment; the duos with Lovano in the opening and closing verse sections of “This Is All I Ask” are lyric wonders.

At 23 years old, Christian McBride already has established his place in Jazz history for the quality of his tone, his deep center-of-the-note beat, virtuosic bow-work and imaginative soloing. He’s already appeared on about eighty recordings. “Christian is an incredible young musician who is deeply involved in the whole recorded history of music. He knows a lot of tunes, and he memorizes things immediately. You can play anything with him. After the first time through he plays it, SNAP, he knows it, he’s got it, he immediately grabs hold of what’s happening and hits a serious groove from beat one.” Listen to his solos on “Reflections” and “26-2” and his rhythmic interplay with Lewis Nash throughout, and you’ll see what the buzz on him is all about.

“The word ‘elegant’ applies to Lewis Nash’s playing, too,” Joe continues. “He is one of the most tasteful drummers, swings so hard, plays with complete precision with a heavy beat that never gets bombastic — he’s not just banging around. He articulates everything like a horn player, and it’s fun to play with him and interact with his articulation, the way he plays phrases at you and counter-phrases. He’s very clear. You can hear everything he plays like you’re snapping your fingers. It’s beautiful to play with a drummer like that, because you can play tight together.” Note the incredible swing Nash generates on “Lonnie’s Lament” and “Reflections” at the top of the set, or the ingenious 12-bar drum breaks between the melodies and solos of “Sounds of Joy.”

The contrasting styles of the two state-of-the-art drummers evoked different approaches from Lovano. “Lewis plays very differently than Billy,” he comments. “Billy plays really loose and flowing and strong and explosive, and takes big right turns and sharp angles. There’s a lot more angles in Billy’s playing. With Billy you’re listening deeply, and the interaction takes a different shape. You have to be very free as an improviser to create a solo that can shift and change with his accents and tempo. The piano quartet is about swing, and it’s about the rhythm section, the soloists, the tradition of Bebop. It’s really about flow and straight-ahead. They say, ‘Straight ahead and strive for tone.’ That’s the essence of that group. We hit a heavy groove and just sailed with it.”

“I played completely differently with the two groups, in two different attitudes, and I think you can hear that when you listen to each recording. My solos in the quartet with Mulgrew are a lot longer and a lot more involved with playing a solo. In the group with Tom and Billy and Anthony there’s more interplay, a lot more dialogue between all of us. I’ve played in both those schools my whole life, and I love them both.”

The Village Vanguard’s legend was built on performances like the two snapshots presented on this double-CD. Lovano’s intense consciousness of the room’s remarkable Jazzcoustics, “its intimate sound and clarity, like playing in a studio somehow,” began as a teenager, when repeated listenings to the Vanguard recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley and Bill Evans helped deepen his sense of how Jazz should sound. His live connection with the Vanguard began in 1976, the year he moved to New York. He drank in Dexter Gordon’s tone during Homecoming week (“I came home and practiced for hours and hours after hearing Dexter in that room”), sat in with Elvin Jones and Bill Evans. Lovano worked there almost every Monday night during the 1980’s with the Mel Lewis Orchestra, worked week-gigs with Elvin Jones, Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra and the Paul Motian Trio. And since 1991, when Lovano embarked on the leader path as a full-time endeavor, his various groups have been a staple of the Vanguard’s roster.

So recording Joe Lovano at the Village Vanguard was a natural. Rigorous and hot, Live At The Village Vanguard is contemporary Jazz at its finest.

—–

Joe Lovano (On This Day: At The Vanguard) – Liner Notes:

“I’ve always lived in, let’s say, the different camps in the music,” Joe Lovano told me a few years back. “I’ve tried to develop my technique so I can execute ideas freely and within the personnel of the band and not come at the saxophone or the music with the same attitude all the time.”

That credo accurately describes the ambiance of On This Day (At The Vanguard), recorded on the final night of a week’s residence by Lovano’s nonet at New York’s Village Vanguard. As Lovano is at pains to note, it documents a working band in a continual state of evolution.

“I don’t want a bunch of horn players repeating arrangements that are rehearsed and set in stone,” Lovano says. “I want a band that creates music, with a structure that is secure and solid, but with freedom for everyone’s contribution to take shape and crystallize as we play. All the cats have played in great bands; they’re mature improvisers and serious ensemble players who shape their approach in the moment. This is how we put together our music for every concert. Each performance stands on its own. This is how we’re playing tonight!“

The core of Lovano’s first nonet album, the Grammy-winning 52nd Street Themes, was that branch of bebop gestated by the singular melodies, voicings and harmonic progressions of Tadd Dameron [1917-1965] as filtered through the sensibility of arranger Willie Smith, once a Dameron associate. Three years later, Lovano and his gifted cohort – propelled by the extraordinarily inventive and empathetic drumwork of Lewis Nash – pick up where they left off and stretch the form. The ensemble renders with heart and precision Smith’s luscious arrangements of Dameron’s “Focus” and the classic noir ballad “Laura,” while all members speak their piece on a rollicking “Good Bait” marked by an ebullient shout chorus. “At The Vanguard” is a Lovano-penned stomp (guess the source) with a Monkish connotation, while the leader offers an impassioned, reflective reading of John Coltrane’s “After The Rain,” and ends the set with a mellow quartet fantasia on Billy Strayhorn’s “My Little Brown Book,” made famous by Coltrane on his iconic 1962 encounter with Duke Ellington.

“I grew up with Coltrane’s recordings of these tunes,” Lovano says. “It’s a challenge to try to make them my own and not copy the way he played them.” That Lovano meets the challenge with such a palpably individual voice is attributable to early hands-on encounters with bebop signposts like Dameron’s “Lady Bird” and “Hot House,” a process that launched him along the same path that his heroes followed during formative years while carving out their own inimitable tonal personalities.

“Playing the inner parts and original harmonic structures of Tadd’s music influenced Coltrane’s early tunes,” Lovano states. “Although Coltrane was always moving forward rhythmically and sonically and in everything else, he always dealt with everything he ever studied. Even on the duets with Rashied Ali, he’s still dealing with ‘Giant Steps,’ still dealing with all these things that vibrated in his body. That simple melody on ‘A Love Supreme’ has the same intervals as on ‘Locomotion’ from Blue Train. With people like Coltrane or Miles, their surroundings changed, but what they played came from their entire lives.”

Lovano fully expresses his penchant for eliciting creative dialogue with the jazz lifeblood on the title track, a free kaleidoscopic journey built on a hymn-like 9-note melody [“on-this-day-just-like-a-ny-oth-er”] over an ametric pulse, and a second 8-note theme that echoes the syllables Bil-ly Hig-gins, the late drummer to whom Lovano dedicated the piece, and whose alert, relaxed essence Lewis Nash channels throughout. In their explorative solos, George Garzone, Steve Slagle, Barry Ries, John Hicks and Lovano develop and elaborate upon the shapes and moods, sustaining an emotional core and creating magic.

They embody the notion that the title of this special album refers not only to a snapshot of a work in progress, but to a philosophy of life.

“This music is honest and true,” Lovano says. “You can’t tell lies when you play it, because it’s already been documented. It isn’t just technical, but exists at a beautiful spiritual level also. ‘On This Day’ is about how cats from the inner circle – Coltrane, Monk, Mingus, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, Don Cherry, Ornette, Keith Jarrett, Billy Higgins, Max Roach, Paul Motian, Art Blakey – played with such consistency every time you heard them. Long before I became who I am as a player, they inspired me to develop that attitude to the art of improvising, and also to play with them. They gave me confidence to be myself, to put together an ensemble like this, with so much trust.”

———

Liner Notes (Us Five: Folk Art):

It is entirely characteristic of Joe Lovano that he would use his 21st recording for Blue Note, released amidst the fanfare of the label’s seventieth anniversary year, to introduce a new ensemble, Us Five, deploying a fresh approach towards exploring his music.

To be specific, Us Five: Folk Art comprises ten compositions. Lovano plays tenor saxophone, straight alto saxophone, alto clarinet, tarogato, aulochrome, and percussion, joined by James Weidman on piano, Esperanza Spalding on bass, and Otis Brown and Francesco Mela on, to use Lovano’s nomenclature, drums and cymbals. He explores a wide spectrum of “colors, sounds, and feelings,” organizing the flow into passages for quintet, quartets, trios, duos, and solos within the unit, fully exploiting the various rhythm section possibilities that the two-drummer format affords. The better to coax the music onto unexpected routes, Lovano offers his collaborators wide latitude to interpret the raw materials “with freedom to take shape and crystallize as we play.” He himself navigates the fluid terrain with utter authority, consistently projecting the vocalized tone, uncanny time feel, and interactivity that mark his entire Blue Note corpus.

“I’ve always tried to be very free with inside approaches, and to be really in there on freer music, what they call ‘outside,’” says Lovano, noting that the unit, which first convened in the fall of 2007, honed their collective perspective during a week at Manhattan’s Village Vanguard directly before the recording session.

“The music comes out of our individual roots, and the combinations emerge. Francesco Mela is from Cuba; Otis Brown is a real New York drummer; Esperanza has a beautiful lyrical approach; and I love the way James conceives jazz music with blues, gospel, and freer forms. It’s an ongoing study on how to play together with mutual respect and an egoless approach.”

Except for Weidman, whose c.v. includes long stints with Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson, Lovano’s new partners are “people who aren’t my generation, haven’t totally developed their approach, are experiencing things for the first time. Everyone has fresh eyes and ears, and this gives me compositional ideas that I had never played with anyone else before. Everybody is on their toes.”

They have to be to keep pace with Lovano. The composer describes the opening track, “Powerhouse,” as “an original harmonic structure that combines things I study and work on all the time—trying to combine the turnarounds and resolutions of Bird and Coltrane in my own way, and working with Ornette Coleman’s harmolodic ideas, changing the meaning of notes as you play them by shifting color and key as you move along.”

Consider how “Folk Art” develops—Lovano states the theme on straight alto saxophone over a polytonal vamp, evolves the flow in configurations that shift from quintet to drum-duo and back to quintet, switches to tenor saxophone as the harmonic material takes a more straightforward direction, and moves to more open-ended polytonal exploration on the final theme. “That approach for me is what jazz is,” Lovano says. “It’s a real folk music, and you can play a multitude of influences from your experiences in the world of music in your improvisation and composition.”

The ebullient ambiance of invention never stops. The spiritual aura of late Coltrane permeates the ballads ‘Wild Beauty’ and ‘Song for Judi,’ the latter—dedicated to Lovano’s wife (“and inspiration”), singer Judi Silvano—containing three different key signatures that prod Lovano to extend and elaborate while also living within the lovely melody. Lovano plays tarogato (he describes the Hungarian folk instrument as “half-clarinet and half soprano saxophone, with many colors and a human voice sound”) on “Drum Song,” and aulochrome (a double soprano saxophone with one keyboard down the center) on “Dibango,” a funky line dedicated to Cameroonian saxophonist-vibraphonist Manu Dibano. He plays alto clarinet on the stately, folkish “Page Four,” and launches the open-form “Ettenro” (“Ornette” spelled backward), on alto saxophone before switching to tenor for a summational statement after Weidman, a force throughout, says his piece.

As do his twenty previous Blue Note albums, Us Five: Folk Art illuminates Lovano’s unique position as an artist who authoritatively deploys the tradition as a tool to point directly to the future.

“Alfred Lion and Frank Wolff wanted cats to find themselves and to realize that they had beautiful original music,” Lovano says of Blue Note’s founding fathers, expressing a sentiment equally applicable to Bruce Lundvall’s quarter-century at the helm. “Carrying on in that tradition of being a player-composer is the legacy of Blue Note for those of us who record for them today.”

[—30—]

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Jazz.com, Jazziz, Joe Lovano, Liner Notes, Paul Motian, Village Vanguard, WKCR

For Steve Kuhn’s 78th Birthday, a Verbatim Interview Conducted for the www.jazz.com Website on July 29, 2009

Best of birthdays to pianist Steve Kuhn, who turns 77 today. For the occasion, I’ve pasted below an unedited version of a rather lightly-edited conversation that appeared on the www.jazz.com website in the summer of 2009, when ECM released Mostly Coltrane, with Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, David Finck on bass, and Joey Baron on drums.

* * *

Steve Kuhn (July 29, 2009):

TP:   How did this album come together? How did you arrive at the notion of revisiting repertoire by Coltrane that you played and also material that you hadn’t played?

SK:   I’d never heard it either. Every year for the last five or six years, around John’s birthday, which is September 23rd, we do a week at Birdland commemorating his birthday—Joe Lovano, myself, and Lonnie Plaxico (sometimes Henry Grimes is added), and Andrew Cyrille, sometimes with Billy Hart. Some nights it’s a sextet with two drums and two basses; some nights it’s just a quartet. The repertoire was the earlier Coltrane as well as the later Coltrane, and the later stuff I really had no idea about. I didn’t listen to him that much once he started just getting out there, for lack of a better phrase. I also had moved to Sweden around that time…

TP:   You moved there in ‘67, I believe?

SK:   I moved there then, and he passed in ‘67. But I had not been listening much to the later stuff that he did, maybe from ‘64-‘65 on. Anyway, Joe Lovano is responsible for bringing in the later pieces.

Every year, we would do this tribute to John. Then last year, pretty much a year ago this month, I had a tour in Europe with my trio, with Joey Baron and David Finck, and one of the stops was the Baltica Festival in Salzau, in Northern Germany. Joe was going to be there. It was a saxophone theme last year, and he was sort of the artist-in-residence. So they arranged it that the trio would do a concert by itself, and then there would be a concert with Joe that would feature essentially the music of John Coltrane. That’s the genesis of that particular quartet.

A little bit before that concert, I met with Manfred Eicher. He’d heard about the annual Birdland thing, and very surprisingly, he said to me that he would like to record this music. Now, knowing Manfred as I do for the last thirty years or more, I’d think this would be the last thing he’d be thinking of. But he said he’d like to record the concert at Salzau, or go into a studio in Germany right after the concert, which was impossible for me, because we were on tour, and it was impossible for Joe as well. So it was decided that we try to do it in New York, and it just all came together in mid-December of last year, 2008. We went into the studio for a couple of days, and did this repertoire, which consisted of some earlier Coltrane stuff and a couple of standard songs  that I had played with him but were not written by him—“I Want To Talk About You,” Billy Eckstine, and “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes,” which was a movie theme. The rest were Coltrane songs except for two solo pieces that I did. One I did spontaneously, called “Gratitude,” which is an homage to John, of course. Manfred also asked me to do a song of mine that I wrote many years ago called “Trance,” which I had never recorded solo. So I just sat down and did a version of “Trance” and “With Gratitude,” and other than that, everything else—except those two standards—were Coltrane songs.

TP:   Prior to 2004-05, when this annual performance of Coltrane’s music began, had you been performing Coltrane’s music or any of the tunes…

SK:   No, other than “The Night Has A Thousand Eyes” occasionally—very occasionally. After I left John and went with Stan Getz in 1961, and he would feature the trio every set, usually, in clubs we’d play or concerts (at the time, the drummer was Roy Haynes and the bassist was Scott LaFaro, until Scott tragically passed; after that, there were a number of different bass players—Tommy Williams, John Nieves), I would play “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” quite a bit on those featured solo pieces within each set. But other than that, and occasionally with the trio in years since, I haven’t played any of John’s music. I’ve been asked to do that, but for some reason, I don’t know… Maybe I’d do a solo on “Naima” or something like that. But I just didn’t do it. Then this annual Birdland thing came along, and it started from there.

TP:   So the Birdland thing seemed attractive to you at the time that it was proposed.

SK:   Yes. In a way, it seemed like a chance to thank John, or be part of something that I was briefly a part of, in terms of the history of his groups, and at the same time revisit songs that we had played. When I was with him, we were doing a lot of the repertoire from Giant Steps and some other songs from around that time. But as I said, I never played any of John’s later compositions, so I had no idea how they sounded, how he recorded them. In a way, it was probably just as well. I just brought whatever I brought to it, and no frame of reference really.

TP:   Was the sequencing and arc of the album something you were thinking of from the beginning? Did Manfred Eicher have a fair amount of input?

SK:   Manfred did it all. He’s great at that. When he’s into the music, and he really likes the project, he’s an incredible producer, I think. The best I’ve ever worked with, really. He has a sense about these things. So he put the sequence together. He put together one preliminary sequence, and then he spent some time with it in Munich, and then sent me a CD test pressing with a sequence that he had thought of, and he asked if I had any strong objections to anything. It seemed to work fine. It was all his.

TP:   How about the sonics of the record? Coltrane’s quartet from 1960 to 1965, after you left, apart from the energy and the contents of the music, had a very specific sound. In the matter of interpretation, particularly with the songs you’d previously played, was there any sense of the prior versions, or your prior interpretation, hanging over you? Then also, I’m interested in how Manfred dealt with the group sound in the final product.

SK:   For me, no. Whatever frame of reference was deep in my subconscious, for sure, and John has been a big influence on me, of course, over the years. But also, it’s been since 1960, so it’s almost fifty years ago, that I worked with him, and although his influence carries over to this day, and always will, of course, really there was no conscious effort to emulate or to avoid certain things. It’s just the way it came out. Joey Baron to me did not… It’s tempting to fall into the Elvin Jones rhythmic feeling, which I don’t think Joey did at all. He plays the way he plays, which is incredible, I think. David Finck may not be as versed in that particular era. He’s a little bit younger. But essentially, he just was in the ground of it all, and I thought he did extremely well. Joe Lovano is obviously influenced by John, but also he plays the way he plays. So to me, the homage was there, but in terms of style or conceptually, there was no plan to do anything to emulate.
TP:   I don’t have a comprehensive knowledge of your recordings, but I have a lot of your records and I’ve listened to most of them, and I can’t remember too many things on them that resemble the late Coltrane repertoire that you perform here. Can you speak to your relationship to that approach to music, and setting up a perspective, a point of view, an interpretation of those pieces?

SK:   The first I’d been aware of “free playing,” without any harmonic basis, just more or less getting sounds on the piano without any key centers… I’d been playing around with that for years, and did much more of it when I was much younger. Probably prior to the time that I worked with John, and afterward, to a certain extent, I was certainly influenced by the music of John Cage, and the post-12-tone composers. It was part of my growing-up, as it were. In later years, I’ve come back more to the standard songs that I grew up listening to when I was a kid, yet playing them in way that I think has my imprimatur—if that’s the word—on it as much as I can, not consciously, but playing them over a period of years. It’s a pretty wide repertoire, but just to have a specific way to approach these standards. Then there are also a bunch of originals of mine, some of which can at times reflect that kind of freer playing. I have some songs where the harmony just is stagnant for just as long as the solo lasts, or, there is no harmony, and then that kind of playing comes into effect, more or less. With some of John’s later things, I was able just to play those kind of freer things, without any harmonic ties whatsoever, just kinds of effects and the interaction between the bass and the drums—and with Joe as well. It’s just part of the way I grew up and was influenced by a whole bunch of different kinds of musics.

TP:   I’d like to talk about those things a little later. But let’s stick with the recording. Right before I came here, I pulled out Lewis Porter’s biography of Coltrane…

SK:   He came over to the house yesterday. For a lesson, of all things.

TP:   Some people in 1995 did an interview with you about your years with Coltrane that he cites in the book. I know you’ve been asked this 8 million times, but take me through how you came to join the group. We can refresh your memory, if you like, by…

SK:   No, it’s a story that, as you’ve said, I’ve told a lot. There isn’t much to it. I came to New York in the fall of 1959. I graduated from Harvard—miraculously, I don’t know. I got a B.A. in Liberal Arts. Then I was given a scholarship to the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts for three weeks during that summer, August 1959, and had a chance to just hang out, really. It was a three-week hang. George Russell, pass his soul, who passed yesterday, was on the faculty. The MJQ was on the faculty. So were Gunther Schuller, Bill Evans, Kenny Dorham, Herb Pomeroy. It was incredible. And the students! Ornette Coleman was a student. Don Cherry was a student. Gary McFarland was a student. I get to meet all these people, and “study” with them. I remember spending a couple of hours just talking music with Bill Evans, and he had some specific things that he wanted to talk about, and that was very helpful to me. Max Roach was there. In any case, each of the teachers had splinter groups, and the group I was assigned was Ornette, Don Cherry, myself, Larry Ridley was the bassist, and a trombone player named Kent McGarrity (if I’m not mistaken), and a drummer named Barry Greenspan (I think he opened a drum store somewhere). I’ve not seen Kent or Barry in ages, but Larry occasionally, and I have seen Ornette in just the last year. Of course, Don has passed. But that was the student group, and our leaders were John Lewis and Max Roach. So there was a real first-hand exposure to Ornette, and frankly, I really didn’t know what to do when he was soloing. So I just laid out, which seemed the most logical thing to do. John Lewis, bless his heart, said, “You can’t play chords.” I said, “I know. That’s why I’m not doing anything.” He said, “Why don’t you do sort of what I play behind Milt.” He was playing these single-finger, single-note little counterpoints behind Milt. But I never really cared much for that. I just thought Milt swung his ass off all the time, and it was sort of counter-productive to that. So I did it a little bit, just to placate him, but I wound up just not playing, sitting on my hands, while he and Don played. To this day, I would probably do the same thing. I would enjoy listening to him, but I wouldn’t know what to do behind him. Now, if it came time to my solo, then that’s another story.

But that’s how I got exposed to that. Then, a month or so later, I really was reluctant to come to New York. I was intimidated by the whole thing, but I really felt this was something I had to do. My father, bless him, from Boston, which is where I was living, drove me to New York and checked me into the Bryant Hotel on 54th and Broadway. I proceeded to call everybody I had known prior, who I’d met while I was a student at Harvard and at high school in the Boston area, and then called the different people I had met at Lenox just a few weeks prior. As it turns out, Kenny Dorham was one of the people I called, and he needed a piano player, and he hired me maybe two or three weeks after I got to the city. We worked in a club in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, called the Turbo Village, which was a funky-ass club with an upright piano, but I was delighted. I was completely happy about that. It was a quintet with Charles Davis, playing baritone at that time. Kenny. The bassist was Butch Warren, who is an extraordinarily gifted bassist who has had some issues over the years. The drummer was Buddy Enlow, who was passed, I believe.

TP:   That group recorded for the Time label.

SK:   Yes. That was the first recording that I did when I came to New York. I had recorded a couple of other things prior to that, but basically that was the first recording-recording that I had done as a sideman in New York when I got there.

So I was with that group, and then during that period of time, which was late 1959, I had heard that John was leaving Miles’ group and was looking to put a quartet together. Now, of course, I am basically kind of quiet and shy, but I got his number somehow, and I called him. I said, “I know you don’t know who I am. I am currently working with Kenny Dorham. I would love it if we could maybe get together sometime, or just talk about music, play a little bit, and meet,” and like that. After maybe a week or two passed, I got a call from him. He’d apparently called Kenny and asked around, and heard that I was supposedly this talented new kid in town or whatever. So he called me at the hotel, and we met in a studio in midtown Manhattan about three or four blocks from the Bryant, on 8th Avenue somewhere, a studio the size of the postage stamp. It had an upright piano in it, a couple of chairs, and that was it. We sat and talked and played; we played some of his songs from the Giant Steps recording and talked for a couple of hours, and that was it. I went back to the hotel, nothing was said yea or nay about working together.

Then maybe a week or two later, he called me again at the hotel and asked me if I would come out to Hollis, Queens, take the subway where he lived. He was living with Naima at the time, and their daughter Sayeeda, I guess. So I did that, went out one afternoon, and we essentially did the same kind of thing, just sat and talked about music. Nida, as he called Naima, cooked dinner, and then he drove me back to the Bryant Hotel. Again, said nothing, nothing really of any kind of commitment, yes or no. Again, a week or two passed, and the phone rings in the room, and I answer, and he said, “Steve, this is John. Would $135 a week be ok to start?” Now, at the time I was making $100 a week with Kenny Dorham, so just for that alone it was… But the fact that he wanted to hire me, I was just over the moon as far as that was concerned. So that’s how it started.

He had I believe a four-week engagement at the Jazz Gallery down on St. Marks Place, the old Jazz Gallery on the Lower East Side. So at the beginning of May we started to work there. It was six nights a week, and he kept getting extended two weeks at a time. I think eventually he was there 24 to 26 weeks straight, which is unheard-of. You never hear of that any more. Business was so good, and everybody was talking about him. I was with him for probably 8 weeks, and then McCoy joined. But that was the genesis of how it all came about.

TP:   When did you become cognizant of Coltrane?

SK:   Certainly when I was in high school. Yeah, when I was living in Boston and going to high school in Newton, Massachusetts. I had bought records that he was on, the early Miles quintet records… That was probably it.

TP:   They came out when you were a senior in high school.

SK:   not before then?

TP:   He did those records in 1955 and 1956.

SK:   What records did he do before 1955?

TP:   Very few. With Johnny Hodges then. He did a few things with Dizzy, playing alto.

SK:   Well, then, I was a senior in high school, and through college. So I stand corrected. But I had heard all the stuff he did with Miles, and thought he was… Even at the beginning, when I could hear the reeds, the squeaks, and all that, I could see that this man was incredibly talented, and was different, and had… He just captivated me completely. So I listened to everything that came out with him on it, and also some of the things he started to do as a leader. So when I came to New York, I had a pretty good knowledge of the stuff that he had done recording-wise up til then.

TP:   He’d been with Red Garland, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Mal Waldron on some Prestige things…

SK:   Yes. Kenny Drew also, on Blue Train.

TP:   What were the challenges for you in playing with Coltrane at the time? You were 22, and you were fairly experienced. You’d played clubs, played piano for a number of major soloists, like Coleman Hawkins, Vic Dickinson, and Chet Baker, a well-seasoned, well-schooled pianist with a jazz sensibility. So the challenges for a pianist as up-to-date as you—you knew modern classical music, you’d done the time at Lenox School, and also straight-ahead jazz—dealing with this information in 1960.

SK:   I was looking for my own voice, of course. I was somewhat cocky in those days, because I’d had a lot of press when I was living in Boston. The wunderkind. I was playing when I was 13. I was working at Storyville, up there, playing solo piano. Then I was working at a club in Boston called the Stable, which had the best of the New England musicians, and some great people came through there. I was working there with Herb Pomeroy’s sextet at times, and playing intermission, or solo piano, as it were. So I’d gotten some good press when I was up there, and I came to New York sort of full of myself, which is the way it was. I was brought down pretty quickly. In any case, as I said, I started working with Kenny Dorham, and then to work with John, part of my ego just couldn’t…I couldn’t resist going along with that.

But then I started to work with him, and I really didn’t know what he wanted. In the more  or less straight-ahead music, I was comping behind his solos, but then he was also starting to do things like “So What,” where there was one or two harmonies through a whole song, and then there was a chance to stretch out a lot harmonically. At times, instead of comping, or laying down the carpet for him, I would get out there with him, to try not to challenge him but just to make him push himself further, and maybe stimulate him, musically speaking. That probably was not what he wanted, but he could not articulate that to me. I asked him from time to time, because I had a sense… I wasn’t happy with my own playing. I was looking for my voice, and trying just to find a way. So from night to night, one night I was more pleased than others, but generally I was not too thrilled with what I was doing. So I would ask him periodically, “John, is there anything you’d like me to do that I’m not doing, and vice-versa?” I’ll never forget this as long as I live. Every time, he said, “I cannot tell you how to play. I respect you too much as a musician; I cannot tell you how to play.” That’s all he would say. I mean, he never spoke much anyway; he was very quiet. So I tried and I tried.

A couple of times during that 8-week period, I wanted to give my notice, because I really just was not happy with what I was doing. When the time finally came that he told me he wanted to make a change, despite the fact that I had thought about leaving, when it actually came to it and he told me, I was crushed, more for my ego than anything else probably. But I had not known at the time he hired me that he wanted McCoy right from the beginning, and McCoy had a contract with the Jazztet, with Art Farmer and Benny Golson, and he couldn’t get out of that until the time when John said to me, “I want to make a change. Had I known that before, it would have been fine. Any chance.. If I could work with him one night, it would have been worth it. And we were working six nights a week, so it was pretty intense.

TP:   Three or four sets a night probably, back in 1960.

SK:   At least three. I don’t remember. But it was a lot of playing. I remember during those weeks, Ornette would come on intermissions, and John and he would hang out. Or Sonny Rollins. It was just a hive of activity of great players coming in, and the energy in the room was unbelievable. What I remember, I had never experienced before, on the bandstand, was he would solo, and after his solo, people would literally get up out of their seats as if it were a revival meeting in church or something. The energy, the reaction was just extraordinary, and just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was really quite something. I’d never experienced that, up to that point certainly.

TP:   This was with Pete LaRoca and Steve Davis.

SK:   Yes. I was the first of that quartet to leave. Then Elvin joined. Then Jimmy Garrison came on.

TP:   Can you describe the milieu in New York. A lot of people now are writing about 1959 for press marketing reasons, as in Miles Davis did Kind of Blue and Ornette hit New York that year, and so on. On the other hand, a lot of things were percolating in 1959 and 1960. So you arrived at a time of confluence of activity in Greenwich Village. In addition to Coltrane and Ornette, Mingus was doing all sorts of stuff, Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian spent two months in a club before recording Waltz for Debby, and Lennie Tristano was at the Half Note, and Max Roach was doing things. All the poets, all the dancers. So many things were happening. Give me a sense of what it was like.

SK:   Every night, I remember going out to clubs, just to hang out. Occasionally, I was asked to sit in. But it was every, every single night. At the Bryant Hotel, I was just across the street from the original Birdland, so I would be in there quite a bit, going in, and they got to know who I was after a while, so they didn’t charge me at the door. I would sit in the bullpen area or stand at the bar, and had a chance to listen to a lot of people, and wound up working there a bit, too, with Kenny Dorham and Stan Getz and different people throughout the years. But it was a very intense musical time, I think, in the jazz world, as you described it. It was something that no longer exists, unfortunately, for a lot of young players who come to town. I bemoan the fact, for their sakes. We used to have sessions every night. There were loft sessions. There was a baritone saxophone player, Jay Cameron, who had a loft. Every night of the week there was a session there. So you could always play. You could always go up there and play, you’d meet all the guys who were in town, the new people coming in. That’s how you networked and connected. It helped me a great deal. Plus, wanting to play all the time, every day, when you were that age. So there were these outlets, like Jay’s loft and other places, and those, to my knowledge, don’t exist any more, and I just feel badly for the young people who come to town.

Also, just to touch on it, I never felt any black-white racial kind of thing at all. I think John hired me because he thought I could play. Kenny Dorham hired me because I could play. There was no real line there at that time—which unfortunately changed in the mid ‘60s, after the revolution, or whatever you want to call it. But when I came to New York, if you could play, fine. The temptations and the other things were always there, too, more so than they are now, with the substance abuse. I managed to stay fairly clear of that, but I did have some issues with that, but for the most part managed to avoid that. But there was a lot of camaraderie with people who were strung out at the time, and those people hung out together, and they would get high together and all that. I was sort of on the periphery of that, although I got into it just briefly at different times. So there was a lot going on there. But I think the myth that you needed to be high to play, to create your solos…I found that to be completely fallacious. I tried playing high a number of times, and I thought I sounded like shit—and I’m sure I did. The tendency to play chorus after chorus after chorus, and it gets really boring, not only to the musician (perhaps—unless he’s so stoned, he doesn’t know), but certainly to the listener, I would think. Over the years that has dissipated to a great extent, I’m sure.

But it was this very, very special time. And as I was living at the hotel, 54th and Broadway, I was really in the middle of the midtown activity, and then I would be in the Village a lot, too. So there was a lot of stuff going on, good and bad, but mostly productive.

TP:   Do you feel you were a different player at the end of your time with Coltrane than you were before joining him? Or is it hard to ascertain that given how brief a time it was?

SK:   It really is hard. I’m sure it helped shape whatever voice I have today. It definitely impacted that. But for that, I couldn’t really say… I certainly was thinking about where I was dissatisfied with John. I was working Kenny prior to that, and after I left John I went back to Kenny for another year, and those questions never came up. But with John they did, because there was a lot of searching, trying to stretch the parameters of the music, and that’s where my insecurities or whatever came into play. With Kenny, it was basically the meat and potatoes. I learned a great deal from him in terms of how to comp, and voicing chords, and just getting the exposure in the different venues that we played throughout the country. But the repertoire was pretty straight-ahead. With John it wasn’t. That was really the main difference.

TP:   Then you were with Getz from approximately 1961 to 1963.

SK:   It was two years all told, but there was an 8-month hiatus in between when he broke up the band. Originally, it was Pete LaRoca, Scott LaFaro, and myself. Then Scotty wanted to leave, and Stan said, “Why?” Well, it had to do with he wanted another drummer. Scotty was something else. So Stan said, “Who do you want?” Scott said, “Roy Haynes.” So, P.S., that’s… Stan was a big fan of Stan’s anyway.

TP:   Well, Roy was on those 1950-1951 Roost recordings.

SK:   I think so, yeah. So that was the group until Scott was tragically killed in the summer of ‘61. Then Stan hired John Nieves, a bassist from Boston, whom I had known, of course, growing up there…

TP:   Playing with Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes in a rhythm section, were you able to be interdependent in a similar way as Bill Evans and Motian were with him?

SK:   We played more straight-ahead, I think, with Stan, but we did some trio stuff. He opened up my ears a great deal in terms of rhythm things. Rhythmically, Roy was and is unique in his approach to the drums, and he’s an incredible soloist as well. So it was different. When Stan had come back from living in Sweden, he called Scott and asked him to put a trio together—he wanted him to join. Scotty said, “if I can get the trio I want.” Initially, it was Pete LaRoca and myself, as I said. So we met Stan at the Village Vanguard afternoon and played with him, and he hired us all just like that.

But working with Scotty and Roy was different, but within the parameters that I felt somewhat comfortable. But it was very enjoyable to play with them.

TP:   You used the phrase “meat and potatoes.” Since these days standards comprise a consequential component of your musical production, I’m wondering who your early pianistic influences were as far as jazz. You were coming up in the ‘50s…

SK:   For me, Art Tatum is God, as Fats Waller said. But to this day, there’s nobody who comes near what he did—for me. Certainly, the way I play, it’s probably hard to hear the tie. At times, maybe it isn’t. What he was able to do… His sound, his harmonic sophistication, and his swing was unparalleled. By himself. He didn’t need a rhythmic section. In fact, he was better off alone. The recordings that he did by himself, to this day… Just a few weeks ago, I heard something I hadn’t heard in a while. It was just astounding, what he was able to do. He really grabbed my attention big-time, and moreso over the years.

Fats Waller was an influence. The boogie-woogie pianists—Meade Lux Lewis, James P. Johnson, Pinetop Smith. I used to play boogie-woogie years ago, and I loved it. It was a welcome relief from playing the classical repertoire that I grew up playing, when I started studying, when I was 5 years old, I guess. So the boogie-woogie pianists, some of the swing pianists, and then I was influenced by a while by Erroll Garner, who I thought was incredible, to do what he could do. Bud Powell was a big influence. Lennie Tristano, to an extent. I appreciated intellectually what he was doing, but he never really touched my heart the way Bud did. Red Garland was an influence. Wynton Kelly was an influence.

Bill Evans was an influence. In a way, the first time I heard Bill play… I was at Harvard at the time, and he did a concert with George Russell at Brandeis University, and that’s the first time I had heard Bill play, and I heard what he was doing, and I said to myself, “Oh, shit. He’s doing what I’m trying to do, but he’s got it together.” That really caught me by surprise, and it took me a bit to get past that.

TP:   Can you describe that?

SK:   It was very thoughtful playing. It was fairly sparse. He had a great sound on the instrument. It was more of an intellectual approach, but it touched my heart at the same time. So it really was a combination of both. Once I got past that, when you listen to him play, it’s the heart. That for me is the bottom line to communicate music, is about touching the heart. It’s not about how fast you play or how slick you do this, or how you reharmonize that. It’s not about that at all, as far as I’m concerned. But there was a similarity in our playing before I had ever heard him, and then I heard what he did. I think maybe I swing more, or swung more than he did, in that I was more influenced by the Bud Powells and the Wynton Kellys and the Red Garlands, but I appreciated what he was doing, and it was certainly in my DNA, as it were, things that he was doing that I could relate to.

Those are the main people. After Bill, I think that was it, in terms of influence. Bill was an influence in other ways, too, because I had a chance to meet him, and when I came to New York he was like a big brother to me. He was very helpful and encouraging, and times when I was depressed, and woe is me, and why me… When I came, as I said earlier, I was the wunderkind, and now I no longer was. I had the experience with John, which was great, but I was let go (even though he wanted McCoy from the beginning). It was a hard. It’s a hard life. To this day, it’s a rough way to live.

TP:   You have to have a very thick skin.

SK:   Absolutely. You’re putting yourself out there, and you just have to accept it. Whatever. Try to get work, and you don’t have a big enough name… You just have to persevere. If it’s in your heart of hearts to do it, as I tell kids all the time, then go for it. You’ll know at some point whether this is what you want to do, or you’ll capitulate and do something else—which is fine. But if it’s in your heart of hearts, you’ll do it.

TP:   Now, the prior ECM recording, the strings recording with Carlos Franzetti’s arrangements, got quite a bit of press at the time, and apart from Franzetti’s remarkable orchestrational abilities, it presented you in a way that represented another aspect of your formative years, i.e., your extensive classical training as a young and being taught by Margaret Chaloff as well. Since your years with Gary McFarland, and certainly since the ‘70s, you’ve brought forth both aspects of your musical personality.

SK:   Sure. It’s all part of the package.

TP:   You’ve stated that Margaret Chaloff had a tremendous impact on who you became as a musician.

SK:   Absolutely. Apropos of that, that’s what Lewis Porter came to me for yesterday. Lewis was perplexed, because as a pianist, he can play a 7-foot piano, let’s say, but when he was exposed to play a 9-foot, concert grand piano, he was having problems. I said, “Lewis, it doesn’t matter whether you’re playing a Wurlitzer, an upright, or a 20-foot—it’s the same approach.” Then Ia tried to go through the Russian school of technique, which is what she taught me, and it took me any number of years before it got into my subconscious, where I didn’t have to think about it. So I fed him a lot of information yesterday. But basically, what she taught was basically getting a sound on the instrument, a piano sound, and explaining how that happens, and the genesis of all that, and then, if you understand that concept, it will enable you…in terms of how you approach it and things that you do, it will enable you dynamically to play as soft as you want or as loud as you want, or anywhere in-between, and slow speed-wise, slow or fast. It’s all to do with this kind of technique, which is about relaxation… It’s too involved. I’m not qualified to teach it, but I know the general parameters. Ultimately, you get a sound on the piano, and you really don’t scuffle that much in terms of fast or slow or in between. It enables you to do all of that, if you really understand and apply what she did. When I started with her, she told me that basically all the great Russian classical pianists have this technique—Gieseking, Horowitz, and so on. They all understand this, and this is the way they’re schooled. I came to believe her after a while, but it took me… I started studying with her when I was 13, I think, when I moved to Boston, and when I finished high school at 17, I stopped studying formally with her. But still, through college, while I was in Boston, she was like a surrogate mother to me. We were extremely close, and I would spend a lot of time, when I could, at her apartment, just talking about music. She was a big fan of mine, which I’m forever grateful for.

TP:   Your years at Harvard came directly after her son died as well.

SK:   Yes. But through Margaret, I met Serge, and was able to play with him when I was 13-14 years old, which was a great education for me, musically speaking. There was never anything else involved; it was just about the music. Serge was an extraordinarily talented guy who, unfortunately, had a substance abuse problem which killed him. But he came back to Boston in those last years, because his money was gone, he wasn’t doing too well with his health—and he stayed with his mother. But he was working around his Boston, and his mother recommended me to him. Some of the jobs he got around town were just trio jobs. It was drums, piano, and baritone saxophone. Working like that, of course, I had a chance to work without a bass, which was strange, but I learned how to not overcompensate, just to forget about there not being a bass and just play. Then things he taught me harmonically, and playing a vast repertoire of standard songs, which I had never done before. He had a hair-trigger temper, perhaps because of the substance abuse—I don’t know. If I made a mistake, or if something bothered him, he would think nothing, in the middle of a tune, in front of an audience, just to turn around and start yelling and screaming, and, “No, motherfucker, it’s this and it’s this, or it should be that.” I guess some people would have just wilted under it. I sort of thrived, in a way, and it was a challenge. I thought, “All right, goddammit,” and I did it.  I learned under those kind of situations. Some people wouldn’t have been able to do it. But I reacted the way I did. It was challenging to me, but I learned a great deal from him. He was very, very special, and his mother, to this day, is my mentor. She had incredible energy. She was ageless. When she passed, I guess she was in her eighties. She had more energy than I’ve ever had in her life. She didn’t look her age. Just an extraordinary woman, one that comes along once in a generation. Her life was devoted to her students. She taught, whether they could afford it or not. Some students she taught for nothing. Some fairly wealthy Bostonians came to her for whatever reason. She would charge them accordingly, but she was a sliding scale. Some kids had no money whatsoever. It didn’t matter. So I learned a great deal from her, in many ways.

TP:   You mentioned playing with Herb Pomeroy during those years. Perhaps because it housed to many music conservatories, Boston had a pretty powerful scene then, with very advanced musicians.

SK:   I would think so. There was a wonderful pianist, who passed away, Dick Twardzik, who was from Boston. Peter Lipman, a drummer. Both had problems with substance abuse, which killed them both. But they were on the scene. Also Joe Gordon, a wonderful trumpet player from Boston. Charlie Mariano came out of Boston. Quite a few people who eventually became well-known outside of the area. I was able to play with these guys, and also learned a great deal.

TP:   You dedicated the recording with Franzetti to your parents and grandparents. You’re of Hungarian-Jewish descent. Were your parents born here or born there?

SK:   My mother was born in Budapest, but she came over when she was 2 or 3 years old. My father was born here. But both sets of grandparents were born in Hungary. This was just a tribute to them, the fact that they came to this country and enabled me to express myself, just to play music in a society where there was no repression or oppression, where I could do whatever I wanted. Unfortunately, both parents passed away before this music came out.

TP:   That recording is comprised of entirely original music. You’ve made a number of records, many for the Japanese market, where they give you a theme and give you a list of tunes, and you select…

SK:   They give me a list of songs. If I want to play one of them or all of them, that’s fine. If I don’t want to play any of them, that’s fine, too. But in a way, having recorded a lot, and used… in terms of repertoire, unless I’m writing new material…and they like standards there… I’ve recorded a lot of standards. So it’s helpful each time we have a project to do, that I get a list of songs, and I choose from them. It makes it easier, in a way, in terms of the repertoire. The challenge is that some of these songs have been recorded a zillion times by different people, so I need to find a way to play these songs that’s interesting to me and the trio with whom I’m recording.

TP:   How long does it take to find a point of view?

SK:   Generally, I’ll have a three- to four-week notice before he’s coming to New York. I get a list from Todd Barkan, who generally co-produces these recordings. Two of the recordings in recent years have been classical music themes, some that I grew up with. But I got hold of a classical fake book—I didn’t even know these existed—and went through page-by-page, playing melodies. “Oh, this sounds familiar; let me see if this has a ring to it or something that I can relate to, or takes me back to when I was playing when I was a kid.” I would hunt for those kinds of songs. The first recording I did, called Pavane for A Dead Princess, was easier. There were 9 or 10 songs on there of classical themes. The second one, which is called Baubles, Bangles and Beads, which is the one I did most recently for them, has more classical themes, but it was harder to find themes that I could relate to, because I’d used up the ones that I really liked. That in itself is challenging, to try to find… He wasn’t specific about which classical themes he wanted.  But in standards he is. Sometimes I do a good number of them, and sometimes half. It varies.

TP:   But you’ve done perhaps ten recordings for this label, and others with a similar feel for Concord, Reservoir, and other domestic independents. Last year, ECM reissued Backward Glances, which contained of your ‘70s recordings, including your excellent solo record. These dates are very different in flavor than the things you did in the ‘60s with Coltrane, Stan Getz and Art Farmer, and presumably even the first recordings you did in the late ‘60s after you moved to Europe, one with the Palle Danielsson-Jon Christenson rhythm section, and then in 1969 with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. What were you thinking about during those years?

SK:   I was living in Sweden between 1967 and 1971, and while I was there, perhaps in 1969 or 1970, I’d heard about Manfred, that he was starting up a record company in Germany and that he was sort of interested in recording me. But nothing ever happened until I came back to New York in 1971, and we communicated maybe in 1972 or 1973.

TP:   By then, he’d begun to record Keith Jarrett and his first solo recitals.

SK:   I guess so. My first recording for ECM was 1974, which was Trance, a quartet recording with Steve Swallow, Jack DeJohnette, and Susan Evans on percussion that we did in New York. A couple of months after that, he wanted to mix the recording in the studio in Oslo, Norway, and  I flew there, and in the course of the day that we were mixing the Trance recording, he said, ‘If the studio is available tomorrow, I want you to do a solo recording.” Without warning or anything. I had no idea what I was going to do. P.S., the studio was available, and I stayed up most of the night, just churning, “What am I going to record?’ I wound up doing originals that I’d written, but never thought of doing solo, and there was one spontaneous improvisation called “Prelude in G.” As I said earlier, when Manfred is into the music, he’s a great guide and a great producer, and he led me through this. I would do one piece, and he said, “Ok, that’s fine. Now, the next piece, start with a little more motion” or “a little less motion,” or try this, try that. He really led me through it, and in three hours, I had done it. He was ecstatic about it. At that time, he said it was the best solo recording that he’d done, and to this day he’s very complimentary about it. I’d never done anything like it before, and it was quite challenging, but apparently it worked out ok, as far as he was concerned.

TP:   When did you begin to compose in a serious way?

SK:   In terms of any consistent of volume of songs, it happened in Sweden. I was living with [singer] Monica Zetterlund, and I had recorded everything that was in my trio repertoire on that 1969 BYG recording in Paris with Steve Swallow and Aldo Romano. That was actually Swallow’s last recording on acoustic bass. He’d already given away his acoustic basses, so he borrowed the bass for that date. After the date, Swallow, who is like the brother I never had, said, “Ok, now it’s time; you’ve got to start writing. Seriously.” Monica got on my case as well. “You’ve got to start writing.” I realized it, too—what else am I going to play? So that was the moment, the epiphany part of it. I went back to Stockholm. It was the summertime. We had a house on an island right outside of Stockholm, and I sat in a chair in the yard… We had three boxer dogs, and I was sort of in charge of them, and they were running around the yard. Of course, summers in Sweden are like spring and fall, not very hot and very little humidity, so it was comfortable to sit aside—you don’t get sunburned and all. And I started writing music. Some of the songs that I wrote, I put lyrics to as well, some stream-of-consciousness, some more serious. But in a period of a month or two, I wrote 12 or 13 songs, which is the most prolific I’d ever been up to that point and probably since. But then I had some material.

TP:   These recordings don’t particularly reference things you’d been doing in New York during the ‘60s, and they’re not particularly dissonant or referential to the avant garde, there’s a lot of lyricism, a song-like feeling. So looking retrospectively at your career, the ‘70s seems like discrete interlude, and the impression is that over the last 25 years—and this is a gross generalization and reductive—you’ve integrated within your approach to the trio the different attitudes to music-making explored up to then.

SK:   I’d say so. Of course. As I said, I’ve spent a lot of time with the standards. I grew up listening to the standard songs, played a lot of them on commercial jobs I’d done over the years, had a good knowledge of the standard songs, and a lot of them resonated for me. The question was how to play them and have my stamp on it, so to speak, where it became interesting, and interesting for the trio as well. So that was part of the repertoire, and then also to play these originals.

Working with Manfred at ECM, almost every recording I did in the ‘70s and early ‘80s for the most part was original music. That’s what he wanted, and that was the discipline I need to write. Some guys I know write every day. They sit down at the piano or wherever they do it, and write. Sometimes they come up with nothing, sometimes… Gary McFarland was great at this. Every morning, maybe between 10 and noon, he would sit down at the piano and crank it out. I admire that greatly. I was never able to do that. I can do it when I have an assignment. Like, Manfred said, “We’re doing this album; you need to have 8 pieces.” So I would just at the piano, and perspire, and stare at a blank piece of manuscript paper, and try a little something at the piano, and have an idea about what kind of tempo it is or what kind of song it’s going to be, and go from there—and gradually stuff would come. But it’s labor. It’s arduous for me. I don’t wake up in the middle of the night with “Oh my goodness, this is a melody in my head,” and I have a piece of paper on the side of the bed and I write it down. That happens very infrequently. Most of the time, it’s just sitting and grinding it out.

But Manfred was very responsible for me doing this, because he wanted original music. I always thank him for that, because I probably wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

TP:   I guess Swallow will be part of your next New York engagement, in mid August at the Jazz Standard, along with Al Foster, with whom you also perform a good deal. You go back to which band with Swallow? Art Farmer? You must have known him earlier.

SK:   Yes, I did.

TP:   He’s a Yale man and you’re a Harvard man.

SK:   I think he was there for two years, and he dropped out. He couldn’t stand it. He’s a sweetheart. I adore him.

In any case, I had done some trio work with him and Pete LaRoca before Art Farmer. It had been them and Jim Hall with Art’s quartet, and then Jim left. So Swallow and Pete recommended me. Instead of the guitar, Art hired me, and it was the piano. That was for a year, and it was great to play with those guys. Art was an extraordinarily talented trumpet player as well. So it was a nice year. Then we started to work a bit more as a trio after that period, before I went to Sweden. But I’d met Swallow. We played in different situations since probably 1960 or 1961.

TP:   There are several different trios. For ECM, you’ve recorded with David Finck and Joey Baron. You’ve also done a number of things with David and Billy Drummond. Perhaps fewer projects, but still some in the 90s with Swallow and Aldo Romano. Then also, occasional things with the All Star Trio with Ron Carter (also an Art Farmer alumnus) and Al Foster. Do you find yourself playing differently with the different bands? Do the differences in the band sounds have more to do with the personnel, or do they put you in a different space?

SK:   I sort of play the way I play. When I work with Ron and Al, for example, we’re of an age, so we’ve got a very similar frame of reference in terms of growing up, listening to certain things. So there are certain references we each do, and it triggers a response. The trio sort of runs itself, in a sense, but it doesn’t make it better or worse—it’s just different. When I work with David and Billy Drummond, for example, or Joey Baron, they’re twenty years younger than I am, so they bring what they bring, and I learn certainly from them, and hopefully they’ll learn something from me. I’m probably more “leader-like” in that sense. With Ron and Al, since we are of an age, it’s just common experiences that we share. In terms of the music, it’s different. Not better or worse, as I said, but it’s just a different experience. So it all works. It’s just depending upon the personnel.

TP:   A more general question. Do you get to listen to much music by younger musicians? Do you find yourself listening less these days? Listening more?

SK:   Much less. When I first came to New York, every night, as I said, I was out, listening-listening-listening. Then after a while, I’ve just had it up to the eyeballs. I know there are a lot of young, talented people out there. People send me CDs.  Some I listen to, some I don’t, some I skim through. It depends. But I don’t listen as much as I used to, certainly.

TP:   Back to Coltrane’s music, which you hadn’t played or listened to for forty-plus years, and then you’ve since revisited…how does it strike you now… Well, first of all, in the ‘60s, the music Coltrane was playing at the time of his death, seemed radically different to people who liked Coltrane in the period when you were playing with him. That period was already classic; people’s ears had caught up by then. But the recording, which consists of repertoire from both periods, sounds very much of a piece. Do you have any general statements to make about Coltrane’s music in the broader scheme of things?

SK:   As it’s reflected on the record?

TP:   I’ll rephrase the question. Your personal involvement in Coltrane’s first wave of originality, what he was doing right after Giant Steps and during the Atlantic period, allowed to assimilate it in your DNA in a way that no pianist other than McCoy Tyner had an opportunity to do. You didn’t listen too much to the later music. But here you are revisiting this music, after forty years of dealing with it not so much. What impression does this music make upon you now?

SK:   It’s part of my growing up. As I said, not having heard the later stuff, when playing this music now, I approach it the way I approach it. I had no point of reference other than my own development as a musician. I’m in my early seventies, and it’s reflective of how I’ve evolved over the last fifty years. It’s amazing to me that when I worked with John, he was just a dozen years older than I was, but he could have been a hundred years older in terms of where I perceived him to be musically. The gap in development was extraordinary. To think about what he did, and that he passed away at such an early age… You tend to wonder whether he’d said all he was really going to say, and that perhaps he would have become a parody of himself, had he lived, were he alive today. We’ll never know, of course. But it’s interesting to speculate on that, whether he may just have run the course. I remember seeing him from time to time after my time after him, running into him on the street or maybe hearing him somewhere, and I’d say, “hello,” and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” He was very interested in Xenakis, for example, because of the mathematics in his composing. I knew a little bit, though I’m certainly not an authority. But he’d always ask me about contemporary composers, the 20th century composers, and what they were doing. He was very much interested in whatever was going on at that time.

So his influence on me is undeniable. It’s there. But what I bring to it now is what I bring to it, and hopefully I have some sort of voice that is my voice, more than it’s been, and continues to evolve. That’s pretty much all I can say.

TP:   Have you now gone back to Coltrane’s later records?

SK:   No. I really have no desire to either. Just having played them at Birdland for the last five or six years, just to play them the way I play them. I’m really not that interested, frankly. I’m interested in what he wrote, but the curiosity ends there, pretty much. So I think what I recorded is reflective of whatever it is of John’s, of course, but it’s reflective of what I am doing these days. I brought whatever voice I have.

TP:   Do you have a new big project in the works?

SK:   What I’d like to do—ad within the last year a couple of people have approached me with a “Why don’t you?”—is to do a recording with Claus Ogerman. I’d forgotten, but I heard a recording he did with Danilo Perez last year, and just to hear his writing made me recall how special he is. I don’t know if this will ever happen. I spoke to Manfred about it, and Manfred being Manfred (they both live in Munich), said, “It sounds like something that is possible, but we need to talk about it.” I guess he has certain reservations about what Claus does. So we haven’t really talked about it specifically, but that’s something that might happen. I don’t know. I’d like to do some original music of mine with him, and maybe some classical themes. Or some of the older stuff. His writing, I think, is extraordinary. But he’s approaching 80 now. I just don’t know. But in recent months this has been brought to my attention, and I listen to that recording and something he did with Michael Brecker. So I’m focusing on Claus’ writing now. He did something with Bill back in the day, too.

Other than that, ECM is planning to reissue three more LPs, Trance being one of them, and a live recording at Fat Tuesdays that I did when I had the group with Sheila Jordan, and a quartet recording with Steve Slagle.

Also, in 2003, I had a quintuple bypass operation, which I’m only mentioning as a point of reference. Five weeks after the surgery, I had a concert in California, the music of Gary McFarland from The October Suite, which has never been played outside of the studio since we did it in 1966. Mark Masters, who is affiliated with Claremont College out there, has been reviving things from back in the day, different composers, and he’s a big fan of Gary’s. So I flew out to California with David Finck, and we did this recording. For me, Gary’s music holds up; it sounds as lovely as it did back then. My playing on the original recording I could have done a helluva lot better, I think. So that night at Claremont College was recorded, and I’ve just gotten hold of the recording. There was also a trio segment with Peter Erskine on drums. So we did some trio songs and did “The October Suite” with musicians from Los Angeles. My playing is a helluva lot better than it was on the original recording, so I’m going to see if I can get someone interested in putting it out. I’ve been listening to this within the last week or so. I hope this happens. It’s extraordinary to think what Gary was doing back then. He was an original talent. Very special.

TP:   So when you tell students to decide whether they can handle this for the long haul, you know what you’re talking about.

SK:   Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS] But for me, it’s a raison d’etre. If I don’t have the music… I’ve said this to the love of my life. I’ve been involved with a woman, Martha, for the last 9½ years, the longest relationship I ever had. I told her, “when I go, carry me off the bandstand.” Otherwise, I don’t know what I would do. I do some private teaching, and I enjoy it. But playing with the trio or in other contexts—but especially the trio—is it for me. That’s what keeps the blood flowing. I’ll never retire, certainly. So that’s the way it should end.

TP:   You’ve probably led a more interesting life than many of your fellow Harvard-‘59 graduates.

SK:   It was the 50th reunion this past June, so I went up there. But I can’t stand these kind of gatherings. I’m shy, and you look at people who you haven’t seen in 50 years, and you’re looking at their name tags, and you don’t know… They have a vague ring of familiarity, but fifty years has gone by. So I booked a night at Sculler’s, the jazz club up there. The night before Sculler’s, there was a little party of people that I’d gone to school with, and then some people I hadn’t seen in fifty years. It was done by a friend in Newton, Massachusetts, and it was really quite lovely. So to reconnect with these people… Then the following night, we did this night with the trio with Billy Drummond and David Finck at Sculler’s, and a lot of classmates came. It was really quite nice. I didn’t go to the commencement, I didn’t take any pictures, but that party the night before and Sculler’s, was my 50th reunion of the class of 1959. It’s unbelievable how fast those years go by.

TP:   At Harvard, you must have been considered a very interesting student.

SK:   I was a maverick in the department. At the time, they didn’t recognize anything after Stravinsky. So jazz was a complete waste of… It was not music, certainly. It was heresy. The only professor I had at Harvard who accepted it and was lovely, was Walter Piston, and he was about to retire the year I graduated or the following year—I don’t remember. He taught a course there called Techniques of 20th Century Music. Every week he would assign a small class of us to write something in this style, write something in 12-tone, and so on. He was very relaxed. He knew I was involved in jazz, and he was very nice, very mellow. But every other professor I had during the time I was there, I had problems with. I was somewhat of a rebel, and I wasn’t shy about expressing that. But they really did not recognize anything much into the 20th century at all.

TP:   But you were performing. They couldn’t have been had much power over you.

SK:   It didn’t matter. The music was heresy to them. It was nonsense. I didn’t go there for that. I was fortunate enough to be accepted, which blew my mind at the time, but I didn’t go to Harvard for the music. In the four years I was there, I took six music courses—four theory courses and two history courses. Every undergraduate has to choose a major, so I chose music, but I didn’t go there for the music. I was fortunate to be accepted, and got a B.A. in Liberal Arts, and studied English and Psychology and some science courses, and different kinds of things.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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A Downbeat Profile On Benny Golson and Several Interviews, On His 83rd Birthday

To  honor Benny Golson’s 83rd birthday, I’ve posted a DownBeat feature piece that I had the opportunity to write in 2000, and the proceedings of two mid-’90s encounters on WKCR — two 6-hour Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show from 1995, on which Mr. Golson was present and chose the selections, and a Musician Show from the following year, on which he played recordings by his heroes and contemporaries, and spoke about them in his inimitable manner.

Benny Golson (Downbeat):

The first question to decide in an account of Benny Golson is the proper sequence of his job title.  To wit: Is he a tenor saxophonist-composer or a composer-tenor saxophonist?

Either description works; Golson, now 71, is an icon in both arenas.  Several dozen of his tunes — he holds full copyright on most — are essential signposts of modern jazz.  During the ’70s he broached the mainstream, writing scores for shows like “M.A.S.H.”, “Room 222,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Mod Squad,” for numerous made-for-TV movies, and for a host of national advertising spots.  Instrumentally, Golson’s sound — an immense tone, by turns airy and burly, informed by a harmonic knowledge wide as the heavens that grounds stories replete with lyric detail and operatic flourish — is singular on the tenor tree.

Golson is an avuncular, erudite conversationalist, whose narrative deploys polysyllabic words in correct context.  He continues to carry himself with the seemingly unflappable aplomb and no-nonsense professionalism that allowed him to flourish and keep focus through a half-century of music business encounters high and low.  He’s seen chitlin’ circuit juke joints, tobacco warehouses, TOBA theaters and inner city lounges that defined “funky” before the word became a musical category; moved comfortably in sophisticated nightclubs and posh concert halls in the capitals of the world; performed his famous requiem “I’ll Remember Clifford” on an enormous organ in the aerie of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as kapellmeister 300 years ago.  But even Golson’s cool was challenged when Howard University, where he matriculated from 1947 to 1950, called a few years back to inform him that they were instituting a scholarship in his name.

“This was unreal,” Golson exclaimed during a late-December conversation in the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side highrise.  “I almost cried.  During my third year at Howard, I became a rebel, and took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.   Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want?  Why must the dominant always go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back came one day in class when the teacher played our composition assignments on the piano.  When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, then she made another red X at the next resolution.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  She didn’t get to the end.  She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt.  I stood up with my hands in my pocket, and rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to, put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, ‘That’s the way I heard it.’  I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and drove off into the sunset.”

As we speak, Golson is conceptualizing separate commissions for March festschrifts in Switzerland and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a symphonic piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation.  He’s just finished mixing his fifth album for Arkadia Records, “One Day Forever,” which is distinct in his oeuvre, tempering the longueurs of nostalgic retrospection with the spiritual imperative of relentless inquiry.  It includes a lively 1996 session with the front line of the Jazztet (Golson’s musical soulmate Art Farmer, who died in 1999, and trombonist Curtis Fuller), the well-wrought band that established Golson as a leader at the cusp of the ’60s, and relaunched his performing career in the ’80s.  Shirley Horn oozes sophisticated weltschmerz on Golson’s world-weary lyrics to the title track and “Sad To Say.”  The date ends with a crystalline performance by the classical pianist Lara Downes of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings,” a melodically redolent opus that evokes the ambiance of Chopin and the 19th Century masters who fueled Golson’s imagination as a pre-teen piano aspirant in Depression-era Philadelphia.

No matter how mean times got, Golson’s mother — a “country girl” from Mobile, Alabama who came to Philadelphia in her teens — kept an upright piano in the house; two of his uncles played it with regularity, and the youngster became fascinated with it as he emerged from toddler years.  Eventually she hired a piano teacher, one Jay Walker Freeman, for the then-substantial fee of 75 cents a week.

“After a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Golson recalls.  “Of course, that was aberrational in my neighborhood.  All you heard there was the Blues!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea, and got very good at it.  My mother used to buy records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d say, ‘How can she listen to that horrible music?’  I was somewhere else with the European music.

“I changed after I heard Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle Theater.  The curtain swung open, the lights came up, the bandstand rolled dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody was dressed alike, the lights played on the instruments, and the sound of the music live came forth.  The icing on the cake came when Arnett Cobb stepped to the microphone and played that solo on ‘Flying Home.’  From that moment, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, the saxophone took over.”

Golson’s mother supported his new obsession with alacrity, buying him a saxophone as a birthday present when the family was “two years off welfare.”  She even took a singing job (“I’ll Get By,” “Evil Gal Blues”) with him and childhood friends Ray and Tommy Bryant.  Golson listened to records by Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller (“one of my favorite bands in the war years, with the clarinet on top”), by Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller; he memorized Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” Ben Webster’s solo on “Raincheck” and Lester Young’s solo on “D.B. Blues.”

Then, Golson relates, “Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.  I couldn’t believe the velocity with which he moved over that horn, and his huge sound was overwhelming — so natural, not strained or manufactured.  Don’s articulation was amazing.  He played wide intervals, jumping over the notes like skipping up or down a pair of steps.”

One day Golson speculated ten cents (“I figured I couldn’t lose anything”) on a fresh-from-the-jukebox Savoy disk with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce.”  “It was the strangest music,” he recalls.  “Had I wasted my dime?  But the more I played it, the more I began to like it.”  Soon after, Golson went with his friends John Coltrane and Ray Bryant to a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music by a sextet featuring Byas, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig on piano, Slam Stewart on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.

“My life’s first beginning was when I was born of my mother and father; the second was after that concert,” Golson declares.  “Charlie Parker was wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him, like he was going to explode!  When he bent over to make that 4-bar break in ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ John and I were grabbing at each other; we almost fell out of the balcony!  He was playing alto then like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to play like Arnett Cobb.  This wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  What was it all about?  How could we get close to it?  When the concert was over we went backstage and got all the autographs.

“Then we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and onto Broad Street.  He was walking to the Downbeat to play with a local rhythm section — Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.  John carried his horn for the four blocks, and I asked him what kind of horn he played, his reed and mouthpiece — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us.  We were too young to go inside, so we stood outside the club all night, dreaming; when they finished, we walked all the way home to North Philadelphia.”

By the time Golson entered Howard, he was, as he puts it, “trying for all I was worth to play bebop.”  He gigged on the vibrant D.C. scene, violating the school’s curfew (“I had a agreement with the door monitor to let me back in; when the door was locked, I jumped over the wall, which wasn’t too high”), and frequently made the three-hour drive to Philadelphia for weekend jobs.

After his dramatic departure from school, Golson returned to Philadelphia, and some months later, on Ray Bryant’s recommendation, landed a gig with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders in Atlantic City.  “It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer,” Golson says.  “So I took the cup of tea.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it.  On the first night I put on my kilts, and I had to walk the bar.  All the ladies were pulling up my kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on, but nobody told me I had to wear a bathing suit until after the fact.”

It wasn’t all fun-and-games; Grimes, who had been Art Tatum’s guitarist for the first part of the ’40s, took from that experience a penchant for playing any tune, without warning, in any key, keeping everyone on their toes.  And although Golson spent the first half of the fifties playing a succession of similarly functional jobs, he gleaned consequential information from each of them.

“I saw John Coltrane stepping over drinks on the bar,” he relates.  “We all did it.  But none of it was a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  You function according to the situation; if the situation changes, then you change to meet the situation.  No sesquipedalian words in the Rhythm-and-Blues!”

Golson dates his interest in composition to the realization that his home-grown symbology for transcribing solos was insufficient.  “I became pretty good at writing down what they were playing, and realized that if I could do this, then maybe I could write music other people could play,” he says.  Duke Ellington was an early hero; so was Tadd Dameron, whose arrangements Golson played as a teenage member of a well-drilled 17-piece orchestra in Philadelphia led by the young Jimmy Heath.  Later, during 21 months on the road with the popular R&B singer Bull Moose Jackson, Golson became close to Dameron, the band’s pianist; soon he was allowed to recruit serious Philly brethren like trumpeter Johnny Coles, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

“We started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits,” Golson relates.  “Moose enjoyed playing these pieces more than the things he was making his money at, although we never recorded any of them.

“Tadd showed me everything he knew.  Once he was doing an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and let me copy it, which I did for nothing, because I was able to eviscerate what he did, lay it bare, and look at its component parts.  He taught me to be a dearth writer.  He didn’t make two horns simulate a large band, but it didn’t sound abbreviated either.  With two or three horns, you draw upon each instrument’s outstanding characteristics.  The trapset has the bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal; the piano is really three instruments — the high end, the mid-range and the low.  You have to be selective about notes, and pick the two outstanding ones.”

In June 1953, Dameron hired Golson for an extended summer engagement in Atlantic City with his Dameronia nonet.  Then Golson briefly worked with a Lionel Hampton unit that included Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, and Jimmy Cleveland.  He toured with Johnny Hodges (Coltrane and Richie Powell were in the band), then joined alto saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic (“the technician of all technicians”) from August 1954 until June 1956.  Bostic afforded Golson many opportunities to write, including a kaleidoscopic modernist arrangement of “All The Things You Are” that the leader so enjoyed digging into that he doubled Golson’s fee.  During this time Golson penned tunes like “Out Of The Past” and “Whisper Not,” distributing lead sheets “all over the country” to general indifference.  Then he moved to New York.

“I hadn’t recorded anything, but I was no stranger,” Golson states.  “When I was in high school, one of my uncles was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I visited him a lot!  Teddy Hill would let me in because I was his nephew.  And the various Rhythm-and-Blues groups I played with always came through New York, whether to play the Apollo or meet for rehearsals.  I’d stay over, see the bands, get to know musicians.  But New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  When I moved, things started to pick up.”

Specifically, John Coltrane presented Miles Davis with “Stablemates,” Davis recorded it, and, as Golson puts it, “people retrieved my tunes from under the rug or out of the trash, and started recording my stuff.”  Meanwhile, Golson, who was “getting restless” with the tedium of Bostic’s repertoire, took to detuning the leader’s electric guitar on Delta and Panhandle gigs, escalating the mischief until one night in Seattle, during a Bostic clarinet solo, he raced to the front of the stage, tenor in hand, and pretended to hurl it into the crowd.  A week after Bostic let him go, Dizzy Gillespie hired him to replace the departing saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins, another Golson influence.

“People associate Dizzy Gillespie with the high notes and fast velocities, the force and the power — but he was a compassionate trumpet player,” Golson emphasizes.  “He and Art Farmer were unique in being able to play unexpected notes that were so beautiful and fit so well that your heart intuitively would say, ‘Yes, yes!’  It’s always good to know for whom you’re writing; the rewards are so much better if you write for personalities, as Duke Ellington did or Count Basie’s arrangers.  You know they’re going to do your music justice, and often enhance what you’ve written, which is one of the real rewards.”

In 1958-59, Golson worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he found a perfect template on which to stamp his sensibility.  He recruited Philly heroes Lee Morgan (from Dizzy Gillespie’s band), Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, and incorporated Blakey’s extraordinary four-limb independence and command of drumkit sonics in new compositions like “Blues March,” “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real?”  He established the orchestrational sound that defined every subsequent iteration of the Messengers.

Conversely, playing with Blakey irrevocably altered Golson’s attitude towards his instrument.  “One thing that Art taught me to do — painfully — was to project,” Golson notes.  “During my early gigs with him, he might play one of those drum rolls he was famous for four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along, so loud that it drowned me out, and I would stand there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  One night he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done, and then, to make doubly sure I got it, he screamed across the bandstand to me, ‘Get up out of that hole!’  Then it all sort of came together, and I started trying to play more forcefully.

“One night during my first week with Art at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in.  When I came off the bandstand, he said to me, ‘You play too perfect.’  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  Art Blakey was standing on the side, snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said, ‘You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.’  I thought about that.  The next night I came in, and played like a man taking leave of his senses, trying to get away from the well-worn patterns I’d fashioned for myself, like mathematics — and music is anything but that.  I was jumping off cliffs and bridges, standing in front of trains!  That started to move me out of where I was before — ‘mellifluous,’ ‘sweet.’  ‘charming’ are words people used.  I wanted more fire and articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, where your tongue doesn’t touch the reed much, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue also has to work, to define, to separate notes and ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.”

In 1959, Golson decided it was time to venture on his own, and formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer, a companion on numerous ’50s projects.  “What attracted me to Benny was the warmth of his ensemble writing,” Farmer recalled in a 1994 interview on WKCR.  “He writes melodies that sing and stay in your head once you hear them, and constructs a harmonic framework that the improviser feels very comfortable with — not that it’s always easy — to construct their own melodies during their improvisation.  I don’t know where I would be without his tunes.”

Piggybacking off a high-visibility debut at Manhattan’s Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman’s quartet in its first New York appearance, the Jazztet had a successful four-year run, playing numerous engagements and making six records before it disbanded in 1962.  With a young family to raise, Golson became more involved in New York’s commercial scene; in 1967, at the urging of Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, he moved to Hollywood, shed “tenor saxophonist” from his c.v., and after a humbling initial rough patch became a profitably busy studio freelancer.

“For seven or eight years I didn’t play my horn at all,” he says.  “I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.  I did not like my sound or my style, what I was playing wasn’t reaching my heart, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I was studying composition privately, I wanted to do some things I hadn’t done before in composition; once I moved I put all my energy into that, and the playing fell aside.  But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I finally picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about ten years before I felt comfortable again.  I had to get my imagination oiled up.”

Golson emerged from improvisational hibernation in 1980 fully committed to hardcore jazz.  “I take more chances now,” he says.  “I don’t know if I can jump over the hurdle, but I’ll feel compelled to try.  To move ahead you have to take chances, otherwise, you’ll level off, and time, in its indefatigable forward course, will relegate you to history.  ”

Golson and Farmer hewed to the freedom principle when they reconstituted the Jazztet in 1983, and that spirit underlies every Golson album and performance from then until “One Day Forever.”  “We used less written music the second time around,” Golson says.  “Let’s allow the personalities to express their inner thoughts rather than see how they can play as an ensemble what I’ve written.  Jazz is all about improvisation.  Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus.”

Speaking of melody, Golson has tickets for a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore,” and our conversation is winding down.  Before we part, he offers a few final words of wisdom.

“Schools teach the rules, and we should know them,” he offers.  “But I concern myself with ‘Why?’  And ‘Why not?’  ‘You can’t because the rule says you can’t.’  ‘Why not?!’  I do what I do because I want to do it.  And at this late date, I want to get better at what I do.  I’m not a young man any more.  But why should I be satisfied with what I’m doing?  I’ll never be satisfied.

“I often use young players.  Many of them are innovative, and are ascendant when they join me.  Hearing them keeps my mind sharp; I don’t get jaded with the music that surrounds me.  That helps me retain the spirit of adventure that all jazz musicians should have — walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown, waiting for things to jump out at you, to free things from the confines of your imagination, things sometimes you didn’t even know are there.  After I left Howard, I drove a furniture truck.  Jazz is so much better!”

[-30-]

Benny Golson Profile (10-15-95):

[MUSIC:  Messengers, “Are You Real” (1958-Olympia)]

TP:    I’d like to start with the third degree right away and take you back to Philadelphia and your early days in music.  You were born in Philadelphia in 1929.  Was music always part of your background?  Was your family musical?  Was it something you took to right away?

GOLSON:  No, I didn’t take to it right away.  I had two uncles who played piano, and at that time I fancied that they were absolutely extraordinary.  But as time went on, I realized that they weren’t very good at all.  What used to amaze me… It seemed like we always had an upright piano wherever we were, and before school, pre-school age (I guess  I was 3 or 4 or something like that), I used to hear them play this piano, and when they would finish I would go over and look at the keys and wonder how did they get those keys to say all of the things that they were saying musically.  As I got older, I decided that I would try to see what I could do.  I think I was even worse than they were.  But I kept at it; it fascinated me.  Finally, my mother asked me, “Would you like to take piano lessons?”  Well, I’d never thought of that.  And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”  Well, that was quite an investment during those days.  I mean, the piano teacher would come to the house, like they did during those times, 75 cents a week for the lesson.  Which was quite an investment.  I mean, at that time things were a little mean.

I really got into the piano, so much so that after a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist.  Of course, that was quite an aberration in the area I lived.  All you heard was the Blues there!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea…

TP:    So your reading skills were well developed as a child, I’d take it, if you were going in a Classical direction.

GOLSON:  Oh, yes.  I’ll tell you about that in a minute.  My teacher used to give piano recitals.  This was the time to show off all the students and let the parents know that they’re not wasting their money.  I was scared to death every time these things came up, once a year.  But I got very good at it…until I heard Lionel Hampton’s band, live at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and a fellow named Arnett Cobb came out to the microphone and played that solo on “Flying Home.”  And from that moment on, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, because she wanted me to learn to play the piano and play the organ in church, and I had agreed to all this because it sounded okay at the time.  But she let me off the hook.  The piano just sort of fell by the wayside, and the saxophone took over.

TP:    I guess the hormones were starting to rise, and the saxophone was a more charismatic instrument.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, I was into it by then.

TP:    Had you had any experience with wind instruments prior to hearing Arnett Cobb?

GOLSON:  Absolutely not.  That was all foreign to me.  It was all piano as far as I was concerned.

TP:    The name of your piano teacher.

GOLSON:  Jay Walker Freeman.  Nobody ever asks me that.  He left me after about five years, I guess, and he went to teach at a university.  By the time I got to college, though, I didn’t really want to pursue the piano.  I wanted to pursue the saxophone, but piano was mandatory for the first two years — so I’d had a little head start.

TP:    As a kid, what sort of repertoire did he have you playing?  I take it you were at a point where you were able to play certain pieces in the repertoire.  What interested you and what were you performing?

GOLSON:  I remember, I guess at the height of my brief career as a pianist, on one of the recitals that I’d rehearsed quite… Everything we had to commit to memory for the recitals.  There was a piece called “The Bumblebee.”  Not “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but it was certainly reminiscent of it, and it moved along quite swiftly.  The night of the concert… Sometimes when you hear your name called, it strikes fear in your heart.  “And now, Benny Golson.”  And at that moment, I forgot everything.  I couldn’t even remember how it started!  And as I was walking up to the stage, I was thinking, “So this is how it ends.”  I couldn’t even remember what note it started with.  It was incredible!  But as soon as I got to the piano, I put my hands over the piano, and it was sort of automatic.  I was so scared that I played that piece faster than I have ever played it.  And my teacher marvelled at it.  That was my high point.  Then after that I took a dive.

TP:    Concurrently, playing Classical piano, were you listening to Jazz and vernacular music on the radio or records or whatever?  Was that part of your experience?

GOLSON:  I used to hear the Blues.  My mother used to buy these records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy and things like that, and I used to say, “How can she listen to that horrible music?”  No, I wasn’t there.  I was somewhere else with the European music.  I changed later.

TP:    After hearing Arnett Cobb, I guess, or around that time.

GOLSON:  Yes.

TP:    What brought you to the Earle Theater to hear Lionel Hampton if you were so exclusively interested in Classical music?

GOLSON:  Young curiosity.  That was it.  I mean, Earl Bostic was in that band at that time, the technician of all technicians.  He came out and he played, as we said, snakes.  He played everything playable on that darn alto saxophone.  And I just sat there and listened.  But when Arnett Cobb came out… See, I wasn’t prepared for any of this.  The whole thing got me.  Watching the curtain swing open, the lights come up, the bandstand roll dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody dressed alike, the lights playing on the instruments, and the sound of the music coming live… I’d never seen anything like this.  I was overwhelmed by it.  And the icing on the cake was Arnett Cobb coming out playing that solo.  I became a groupie.

TP:    On Arnett Cobb, huh?

GOLSON:  Sort of, yeah. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So did that then start taking you into studying other tenor saxophonists, the major stylists of the time?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Let’s talk about the process of your development as a tenor saxophonist.

GOLSON:  Arnett Cobb was my first influence.  He was the one responsible for my going in that direction.  Quite naturally, being an aspiring saxophone player, you start buying saxophone records.  Believe it or not, I listened to Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller, and that was one of my favorite bands at that time, and Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  But somehow, Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.

TP:    Which of his performances did you hear that affected you?  Perhaps you could go into detail, taking yourself out of being an aspiring 14-15-year-old saxophone player, and talk about Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and what they were doing in the 1940’s.

GOLSON:  Well, I heard Coleman Hawkins before I heard Don Byas, his classic solo on “Body and Soul.”  It was so popular that it was on all the jukeboxes in our neighborhood — and it was a Black neighborhood.  You could walk down the street any day and hear Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul,” which is quite unusual today, to go to neighborhoods and hear anything like that.  But eventually, I heard Don Byas play on a recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “52nd Street Theme.”  I couldn’t believe it, the way he got over that horn.  He became my idol at that moment.  Of course, I continued to like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but Don Byas to me had something a little special.  His sound and the velocity that he had when he moved over the horn.  It didn’t sound strained or manufactured.  It sounded quite natural, the way he did it, and I was straining like I don’t know what to try to do that.  I was a neophyte then.

TP:    Were you going around to hear a lot of bands at that time?  When the big bands would come along with a tenor player, would you try to catch them in person?

GOLSON:  I was a little too young to go to the clubs.

TP:    But at the Earle Theater you’d go to hear bands?

GOLSON:  Oh, yeah, whenever I could.

TP:    So did you get to see Don Byas with Count Basie, let’s say, coming through?

GOLSON:  No.  By the time I got to see him live, I got to know him as a friend… No, during that time I didn’t, unfortunately.

TP:    I heard a story from Jackie McLean where Charlie Parker had come back from Europe, Jackie McLean was maybe 19, he said, “How was it there?” and Bird said, “I had a wonderful saxophone lesson over there.”  Jackie McLean thought it might be Marcel Mule, the great Classical saxophonist, but Charlie Parker said, “No, it was Don Byas.”

GOLSON:  Absolutely.

TP:    Did this interest you very much then in Bebop and the new music coming up in the 1940’s?

GOLSON:  Oh, definitely.  It changed my life.  Dizzy Gillespie changed my life.  My life had two beginnings, Ted.  When I was born of my mother and father and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie.

TP:    When was that?

GOLSON:  1945.

TP:    Earle Theater?

GOLSON:  No, it was Academy of Music, a concert.  Elliot Lawrence’s band was there, featuring a young new trumpet player at that same concert, 17 years old, named Red Rodney.  Don Byas was there with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart on bass, Al Haig, I’m not sure who the drummer was.  But the rhythm section hadn’t really caught up to what Charlie Parker and Diz were doing.  John Coltrane and I and Ray Bryant were there, and when we heard them play this music we just couldn’t believe it.  John was playing alto like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to sound like Arnett Cobb, which is completely different.  Ray Bryant was sounding somewhat like Eddie Heywood and other piano players of the time, I guess.  When we heard them play, for example, a song that was so strange, it was quite aberrational to us then, John looked at me and said, “It sounds like snake charmer’s music.”  I looked at him and agreed, “Yes, it does!”  It was “A Night In Tunisia.”  We’d never heard any Jazz like that.  It was foreign!  They played an interlude, and Charlie Parker made the 4-bar break where he doubles up.  We almost fell out of the balcony!  We’d never heard anything like that.  It wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  I mean, our blood must have been boiling in the veins, we were so effervescent.  We were so taken by all of this, that when the concert was over we went backstage (and of course, as kids; I think I was 16 and John was 18) and got all the autographs.

But we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and into the street.  Now, Don Byas was my idol.  But what Charlie Parker was doing that night was so completely different than I had ever heard, I had to try to find out what it was about.  So we proceeded to walk up… He was on his way over to another club about four blocks away called the Downbeat, where the local rhythm section was going to be playing with him.  The rhythm section was Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.

TP:    In 1945?

GOLSON:  Right.  They were just a little older than us, and they had a jump on us.  While we were walking on Broad Street, John asked him could he carry his horn, so he was carrying his horn for him, and I was asking him what kind of horn did he play, and what kind of reed, and what number reed, and what did he do — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us! [LAUGHS] And when we got to the club, we were too young to go up there.  The club was on the second floor.  So we just stood outside all night, until they finished, dreaming, “What if?  Suppose.”  When it was over… We were in South Philadelphia, where the club was. We never had any money.  So we walked from South Philadelphia back to North Philadelphia.

TP:    A dangerous walk sometimes.

GOLSON:  Oh, it wasn’t dangerous at that time.  We weren’t aware of anything but the music that we had been hearing that night, and we were dreaming, forecasting… We were trying to be some kind of harbingers.  We wanted to be a part of what this was.  And we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t know how to even start.

John called me a little bit later, and he said, “Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was telling us?”  I said, “yeah,” like what kind of horn and the reed and the mouthpiece.  He said, “Did anything happen?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Me either.”  We didn’t even realize it wasn’t those physical things; it was what the man had in his mind, his concept!

TP:    I take it you subsequently took every possible opportunity to hear Charlie Parker play, when he’d come through Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  Not only Charlie Parker.  Whoever it was.  Whoever it was, I figured it could help me, as it were, to climb another rung in the ladder, to wherever.  And we didn’t know wherever we were going, but wherever it was, we wanted to try to go anyway, and find our way along the way — searching.

TP:    What was your studying process?  Would you listen to his records, transcribe the solos, or did you have a teacher in high school?

GOLSON:  You bet.  All of the above.  I had a teacher.  We would listen to the records.  In fact, that’s how I got interested in writing.  Writing the solos out.  I had my own crude way of doing it, because I didn’t know the syncopation, so each note that they played, I just made a circle, a goose-egg.  So I had the right notes, but I was the only one who could play it.  I was the only one who knew the syncopation to it.  But I realized later that that wasn’t good enough; I had to actually learn how to write it the way they were playing.  Then I got pretty good at that, and then I realized, “My goodness, if I can do this, then maybe I can write music so other people can play it, and groups of people can play together.”  That’s when I started to become interested in arranging.

TP:    This gives me an opportunity to combine two questions, your arranging and your contemporaries and peers in Philadelphia.  You just mentioned some very heavy names, John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Red Garland I guess had come to Philadelphia after his time in the Army… Talk about your coterie, your circle of friends, the types of situations you performed in, and where you were musically at the time.  Well, you told us that you were into Bebop.

GOLSON:  I was trying to get into it, but it was quite hard for us.  It wasn’t like it is today where the musicians from my time period try to encourage the young ones coming along.  It was just the antithesis of that.  When I was coming up, the older musicians who played the other style, the other style being the style before Bebop…I hate that name, but before that style…tried to discourage us.  They would make very disparaging remarks, like:  “Where is the beat?”  “Where is the bass drum?”  “Where is the melody?”  “You guys sound like you’re playing with a mouth-full of hot rice.”  They didn’t understand.  They put us down.  And the more they put us down, the harder we tried to find out what it was all about.  Jimmy Heath, he was there; he was playing alto at the time…

TP:    He and John Coltrane were a few years older than you?

GOLSON:  John was two or three years older than me, and Jimmy about the same.  Percy Heath wasn’t even a musician then.  He was a pilot in the Air Force, I think, he came home, and he learned how to play quickly.  It was amazing how quickly he learned how to play.  Then he became a part of the scene.  Then other musicians you probably wouldn’t know about, if I mentioned.

TP:    Well, name some names.

GOLSON:  Calvin Todd was a trumpet player there who had a big band.  He was young, a teenager or in his early twenties, and he had a big band that was pretty good.  Jimmy Heath had a big band, and John and I were in that band.  Nelson Boyd ended up being the bass player, Specs Wright…

TP:    That’s the band that tried to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangements.

GOLSON:  You bet.

TP:    That’s very advanced for a group of teenagers.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  All the seats in that band were coveted.  I’ll tell you, everybody wanted to be in that band.  But John Coltrane and I were fortunate enough to be in it, somehow, and we were so happy about it.  And it wasn’t about the money.  We weren’t making any money.  But we were having a lot of fun, and then we were learning as we were going along.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the band because he liked the idea that these kids were trying to do something of value, trying to move ahead.  Another arranger named Johnny Acea wrote some things for us.  Leroy Lovett.  These were all professional arrangers.  Then Jimmy was trying to write some things, I was trying to write some things.  So they helped us.  It was like giving birth.  Every time you’d write something, you had a chance for somebody to play it, and you’d sit there hoping that the baby turned out to be normal.

And our parents encouraged us.  We’d go down to Jimmy’s house, and his parents were so sweet and loving… We would push the furniture to the side, and make enough room for 15 guys, and have a big band rehearsal.  We’d rehearse during the summertime, the windows were up, and the whole neighborhood would sit out on the steps and listen to the band.  And the same thing at my house.  Just move the furniture out, move everything into the kitchen.  We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the support of our parents.

TP:    A lot of your contemporaries playing saxophone were captivated by Lester Young, and their styles went in that direction, and you haven’t mentioned him in your list of influences.  Did you admire him at that time?

GOLSON:  I loved Lester Young and I love Lester Young.  But I can’t be two people at the same time, so I had to make a choice.  And it had to be the school that I chose — Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and later Dexter Gordon.  Lester Young was fantastic, but I chose not to go in that direction.  Unfortunately, people overlook Lester Young, I guess because he was laid back the things he played.  But I heard him play things that were fast!  Incredible.  He knew what he was doing.

TP:     You entered Howard University at age 18, which would have been 1947?

GOLSON:  It was ’47.

TP:    Did you go there as a music major, with the intention of developing your musicality in the academic environment?

GOLSON:  Yes, with those things that you mentioned.  But the curriculum that I found myself in was one wherein I would wind up being a teacher.  Which was a little discouraging.  Because I stepped back and looked at it, and I said to myself, “These teachers had someone teach them what they’re teaching me.  They’re going to teach me what they have been taught, and I in turn will teach someone else what I have learned from them, and they will teach someone…”  I said, “When am I going to get a chance to use it?”  There were a lot of rules, you know.

My third year there, I became a rebel.  They would say things like “the fifth, the dominant has got to resolve to the tonic, this note has got to resolve here,” and I thought to myself, “Well, suppose it resolves somewhere else instead of there?”  “No, no, no, you can’t do that.”  That discouraged me a little bit.

So I took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could do them.  Why do them any other way.  I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went to class one day, and she put the assignments on the piano and played them.  The classes were small, maybe 10 or 12 of us in the class, and she’d play.  “Ah, Neapolitan 6th, Mrs. Brown.”  “Oh yes, deceptive cadence here; oh, very good.”  Then she’d play the next one.  “Oh yes, I see you’ve done this.  Oh, very nice.  But you must not use fifths.  Ah, no parallel…”  Then she got to mine, and she played the first chord.  But the first chord had to resolve to the second chord, and that red pencil made a big X, then she went to the next one and she made another red X.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  Finally, she didn’t get to the end of it.  She turned around, almost disgusted, I guess, and looked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?”  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. So I stood up and my hands in my pocket and I sort of rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to do, and put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, “That’s the way I heard it.”

TP:    To which she responded?

GOLSON:  I didn’t go over big at all. I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and left — drove off into the sunset.  No, I wanted to do something else.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.  Why should you do everything always the same.  Music is an adventure.  It should be an adventure!  It’s not just something that happens when you walk down a corridor of time.  You want to find doors when you walk down that corridor.  You want to open those doors and find some surprises.

TP:    Well, before we send you off into the sunset, I want to find out what Washington was like for you, because there was a very strong musical community there.

GOLSON:  Oh, it was great.  Absolutely.

TP:    Were you gigging after classes, on the side, let’s say?

GOLSON:  Yeah, and that was a no-no.  But I had a agreement with the monitor on the door at night.  He would let me in.  And when the door was locked, the wall wasn’t too high; I’d come over the wall.  I was even going to Philly doing gigs on weekends.  I was playing at a club about six blocks from campus called Little Harlem that was frequented by a lot of people.  I came up to do a set, and there was one of the theory teachers sitting on the front table.  We’re not supposed to be doing that!  I said, “Oh, man, this is a drag.  They’re going to kick me out.”  It was over.  I had to play.  And he sat there.  He was cool.  Sterling Thomas; I’ll never forget his name.  After the set was over, he said, “Can I see you a minute?”  I said, “Yeah, this is it.”  I went over, and he said, “That was a nice set.” [LAUGHS] That was it.

TP:    What sort of music were you playing?  Was it a Bebop set?

GOLSON:  I was trying for all I was worth to play Bebop.

TP:    Who were you playing with?

GOLSON:  A trumpet who’s dead now, from Cleveland, Ohio — Carl Fields.  A piano player who later became Billie Holiday’s pianist, Carl Drinkard.  Fats Clarke was the drummer.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  But we were trying as hard as we could to do that.  Whatever the risk was, I had to do it.

TP:    Also in Washington at that time… Well, John Malachi had left Billy Eckstine and not gone back out…

GOLSON:  He was there during that time.  And subsequent to that he went out to play with Al Hibbler.  Leo Parker was still around, in and out of town during that time.  Charlie Rouse was there.  We looked up to him, because he had sort of “made it.”  Wesley Anderson, the trombone player, he was pretty good; he was in and out of town.  There was a tremendous saxophone player there named Carrington Visor(?).  He lives in Los Angeles now.  Oh, that guy could play.

There were a lot of good musicians there, and there were a lot of clubs.  During that same time, there were a lot of clubs in Philadelphia.  It was like they’d found a new way to life as far as Jazz was concerned.  Then unfortunately, they died.

TP:    Also in Washington and Philadelphia you had the theaters, and still throughout the ’40s the bands were coming in; in Philly, the Earle Theater and Academy of Music, and in Washington primarily the Howard Theater.

GOLSON:  Well, there was more than that in Philadelphia.  There was a theater out in West Philadelphia that was called The Fay’s, then they later changed the name to the Fans for whatever reason.  The Earle Theater was the main one; that lasted the longest.  But earlier on, there was one called the Nixon Grand, which was only three blocks from my house. Duke Ellington came there, as did Slim and Slam; those are the only two I remember seeing there.

TP:    Were you simultaneously a fan of any of the big bands that were coming through, or were you more exclusively into the Bebop combo aesthetic.  I’m talking about apart from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Did Duke Ellington thrill you as a 20-year-old, or the Basie band, or the other top bands  of the time?

GOLSON:  Ted, you have to understand.  I was young, I was aspiring and therefore I was highly eclectic.  I was trying to get it wherever I could.  Fats Waller came there with a band, and yes, I went to hear Fats Waller with Al Casey on guitar.  I never saw Duke Ellington’s band there.  He was there, but I didn’t see it; I was too young to know what it was all about, I guess.  There was a local band, Jan Savitt, who played there.  Georgie Auld came through there.  I’m trying to think of some of the other bands.  But I went to see a lot of them.  Some of the music I didn’t particularly like, but I thought I should know what it was about, so I could be broad enough what this thing called music, and Jazz in particular, was all about.  So I listened to lots of people and lots of music.  As I told you, during the war years one of my favorite bands was Glenn Miller, with the clarinet on top, and the way Tex Beneke used to sing and the way he played.  That appealed to me at that time.  I didn’t try to play like that.  But I loved it.

TP:    So in 1949-50, you’re driving off into the sunset from Washington, and where did you land?

GOLSON:  I landed back in Philadelphia, on my feet, thank goodness.  Right after that, the fellow that used to play with Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, the guitar player, had a group.  Ray Bryant was already in that group.  Now, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer.  So I took the cup of tea, and went out with Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it, the whole thing.  I remember the first night with them, we were playing Atlantic City, and I put my kilts on.  Nobody told me anything.  And I had to go step out on the bar and walk the bar.

TP:    In kilts.

GOLSON:  In kilts.  I wasn’t prepared for what happened.  And all the ladies were pulling up my skirt, this kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on.  Nobody told me.  And the guys were laughing.  I think they purposely didn’t tell me.  But then they said, “Benny, you’ve got to wear a bathing suit under it.”  I said, “Well, thanks for telling me after the fact!”  I mean, I could hardly play.  It was incredible.

TP:    Well, it sounds like you played some very entertaining venues during your formative years.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    Any others that are particularly memorable you’d like to speak of?

GOLSON:  Well, I did some other gigs like that.  I worked with Bullmoose Jackson.  Now, you might laugh and think what a waste of time, but none of it was a waste of time.  You have no idea how those jobs helped to broaden you and help to spread your appreciation for the whole scope of what jazz was about.  I played gigs where I had to sway from side to side with funny-looking ties on, and singing “Rag Mop” and things like that.  We all did it.  I walked in one day and saw John walking on the bar and stepping over drinks.  We all did it.  We had to survive.  But it wasn’t a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  Even the Gospel stuff.

TP:    In relation to what you’re saying, I gather that in the Bullmoose Jackson band, Tadd Dameron was briefly apart of that, Philly Joe Jones as well… Very strong musicians.  Was there any working out of let’s say higher musical ideas off-hours, on the road?  Talk a bit about the climate within the band, the attitudes and interactions.

GOLSON:  Okay, I’ll tell you about it.  Tadd Dameron was there, and it was a complete aberration, an anomaly.  Tadd Dameron and Bullmoose Jackson, whose name was Benjamin, were both from Cleveland, Ohio, and they knew each other as kids growing up in Cleveland.  Bullmoose ran into Tadd one day in New York and just happened to say, “Are you working?”  Tadd said, “No, I’m not working right now.”  He said, “Look, I need a piano player, and I know this is really not your kind of thing, but come down, make a few gigs and make some money with me, and when you’re ready to leave, you can leave.”  Tadd thought about it and said, “Well, okay.”  I’m so happy he did that, because when I joined the band he was the piano player.  Oh, you have no idea!  Because he was one of my idols as far as the pen is concerned.

Now, someone told Bullmoose Jackson about me, and he approached me about joining the band.  He happened to be Philadelphia with his group, and he’d been asking about tenor players in town.  I might have taken Frank Wess’ place.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, Bullmoose and the road manager, who was also the alto saxophone player, wanted me to come to their hotel room to play some music with them — they wanted to see if I could read music.  So I went down, and we did, and they liked it, and they said, “Hmm, do you happen to know of any trumpet player who might want to play who can read?” — because they had a lot of written music.  I said, “Yeah, I know one.  He’s an excellent reader.  Johnny Coles.”  They approached John, who didn’t have to take a test because they took my word for it; he could read really well.  They said, “Do you know a bass player?”  I guess he was revamping the whole band.  So I recommended Jymie Merritt.  Fine.  And they wanted a drummer.  I said, “Okay.”  “Has he got any experience playing this kind of music?”  “Yeah, he used to play with Joe Morris; he’s played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates.” (That was before Rock-and-Roll.)  That was Philly Joe Jones.  Philly could play anything.  We used to have a gig locally, and Philly used to be the singer!  You never heard him sing, but he sang great.  And he played bass, and he played piano, and he was a comedian, too…

[END OF SIDE A]

We had some arrangements that he had written that belied the sound of the rhythm-and-blues band we were a part of.  Then Tadd had showed so many of his things to me that I began writing some things sounding like Tadd.  He would pull my leg a little bit and say, “It’s really a drag; people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was a great arrangement you did on such-and-such, Tadd,” — and it was an arrangement I had done.  He said, “what a drag.”  But he didn’t really mean that.

TP:    Would he sit down with you first-hand and show you how he was constructing things?

GOLSON:  Absolutely, he showed me.  This guy was great.

TP:    What were some of the devices that made Tadd Dameron specific for musicians out there that were the trademarks of his style?

GOLSON:  He taught me how to be selective about notes.  When you are a dearth writer… A dearth writer is when you are writing for a small number of instruments.  It’s much easier to write for a larger array of instruments.  Not easy, but easier.  Because you don’t have to approximate, you don’t have to simulate, you don’t have to try to sound like something — you’ve got the sound there. But when you’ve got two horns, you’re not going to sound like a 15-piece group with 15 musicians.  So you have to try to simulate, you have to try to give the impression.  Then doing that, you have to draw upon all the outstanding characteristics of all the instruments — really.  The bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal, the piano — which is really three instruments, the high part of it, the mid-range and the low.  And picking the best sounding notes.  If you’ve got two horns, you’re only going to pick two.  You’ve got to pick the two outstanding ones.

I learned those kinds of things from him, and I went on to develop my own kinds of things, too.  But he gave me a jumping-off point.  I remember while he was in the band he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and he let me copy it.  I copied it for nothing, because I got a chance to sort of eviscerate what he had done, and lay it bare, and look at it in its component parts there, and that was helpful.  I did that, Quincy did, we all did those things.  We would get arrangements by people we liked, and look at the score, and tear it apart, and see how did they arrive at this.  We had already heard the recording; “so this is how they got that sound — mmm-hmm,” and you file it away.

Then you come up with your own things, too.  Walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown is healthy, because in doing so you will always discover things awaiting your discovery of them.  They’re there.  You just have to find them.  And when you find some of these things, you can make them your own.  You don’t always have to be eclectic and copy other people’s things.  That’s a beginning.  But as you advance, you come up with things of your own.  And the next thing you know, people are trying to find what you’re doing.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron/Clifford/BG, “Theme of No Repeat” (1953); Dizzy Gillespie, “Birks Works” (1957), DG Octet, “Blues After Dark” (1958), DG/E. Wilkins, “Left Hand Corner” (1958), DG Octet, “Out of the Past” (1958), Diz BB, “Whisper Not” & “Stablemates” (1957), Diz BB at Newport, “I Remember Clifford” (1957)]

TP:    Listening to those right now, what’s your assessment of these recordings?

GOLSON:  I am reminded all over again what a genius Dizzy Gillespie was.  I mean, he plays with such compassion.  On the opening of “Stablemates” he played that melody with such compassion that one might have thought, if they didn’t know the melody, that it was another kind of song.  When people think of Dizzy Gillespie they usually think of the high notes and all the fast notes, and the force and the power — but he’s a compassionate trumpet player.  And the thing about him (Art Farmer has it, too) that’s so unique, they’re able to play what I call other notes when they play.  Some people play and they play predictable notes.  But trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer are able to play other notes, unexpected notes.  That does something to you emotionally.  The notes they play are so beautiful and they fit into the scheme of things so well that your heart is intuitively saying, “Yes, yes.”

TP:    I’d also imagine that, as a composer and arranger, it spurs you to fresh thinking when you hear such imaginative soloists interpreting your work.

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I’ve always contended that as a writer… I don’t like to use the word “arranger,” because an arranger as such does more; he composes and all of these things.  I call them a writer.  When people write, it’s always good to know for whom you’re writing, if possible.  The rewards are so much better if you write for personality.  Duke Ellington did it for his band.  Whoever did Count Basie’s arrangements knew who the personnel was at the time.  They didn’t come and go too quickly, so you could plan things around certain people, and you know what to expect before you write it.  Otherwise, you’re writing vague and hoping that things come off.  But if you write certain things with people in mind, you know that they’re going to do your music justice, and many times even enhance what you’ve written — and that’s one of the real rewards.  Dizzy was like that.  Art Farmer is like that.  John Coltrane was like that.  They bring so much to it that it helps to elevate what you’ve already done, to make the spotlight a little brighter.

TP:    Well, it was a long road from 1953 and your Rhythm-and-Blues experiences up to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1956, and in this conversational segment we’ll seek to explore some of those pathways.  Someone called shortly after we began the music in that set, and asked me to ask Benny Golson about Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, which he said John Coltrane also played with.  He wondered about your memories of that situation.

GOLSON:  Now, whoever made that call is somebody that really knows something.  They’ve got the inside track on it.  I don’t think I would have mentioned that group by name.  But yes, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats were from Philadelphia, and John Coltrane was a part of that group.  They used to wear these funny kind of clothes, the funny ties and rock from side to side and sing things, and the little cocktail drums with the foot pedal that hits up underneath of it, and the singing… It was an entertaining group; that’s what it was.  But like I said, the rent-man didn’t care about aesthetics.  All he wanted was his rent.

TP:    What were the rooms like you’d play in with those bands, the milieu and the layout?

GOLSON:  People came there to drink and to be entertained.  A group coming in there to play some fantastic jazz wouldn’t have made it.  They had to have an entertaining group.  People were buying the drinks and clicking the glasses, and not only did they want to feel good from what they were drinking; they wanted to feel good according to what they were hearing.  And I worked in places like that, too.  The same person might remember Jimmy Preston, who was an alto player, and he sang — and it was an entertaining group.  We worked every weekend in Lawnside, New Jersey, at a nice place, indirect lighting, state-of-the-art furniture — and we came there to entertain the people.  That’s exactly what we did.  Jimmy used to get off the bandstand and walk around, and while he was playing with one hand he would take the other hand and drink anybody’s drink.  They didn’t know that he was serious about that.  That really wasn’t part of the act; he liked to do that! [LAUGHS] That’s what we did. We must have stayed at that place two or three years.

I’m just driving a point here.  There were many groups strictly to entertain the people.  What’s interesting is that what entertainers do is second-guess the public.  In other words, they do what they think the people want to hear.  Now, there is nothing wrong with being an entertainer.  But the primary difference between an entertainer and an artist is that an entertainer’s first  obligation is to play what he thinks the people want to hear.  On the other hand, an artist’s first obligation is to do what he feels in his heart.  Not annoy the audience, but hoping that they like it.  But he has to answer that thing inside of himself first, and that’s the primary difference.

TP:    It’s interesting, because let’s say twenty years before that there wouldn’t have been such a distinction between entertainment and art where instrumental jazz was concerned.  No?  The big bands, the dance bands were playing very creative music, and it was the popular music of the time.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  But they pulled apart somewhere.  After Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, the road sort of divided, and they got further and further apart.  But each music is still consequential.  There is nothing wrong with the music that’s played when people are entertained.  That’s a certain kind of music, and who is to say that kind of music shouldn’t exist.  It should.

TP:    And it does.

GOLSON:  [LAUGHS] And it does.  Absolutely.  No one should decry anybody’s efforts when it comes to creativity.  Creativity is a global phenomenon.  It doesn’t belong to any one person or people, and we all share in it on one level or another, whether it’s taking a safety pin when you lost your button and fastening something or building a rocket that goes to the moon.  We all share in creativity.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some other stops along your developmental path.  You and John Coltrane both worked with, at one time or another (and I’m not sure if it was at the same time), Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.  Discuss the circumstances and the personalities of both those incredible alto saxophonists as leaders.

GOLSON:  I think John played with Earl Bostic first.  He was the one who told me, although I sort of intuitively knew by things I’d heard Earl do in person with Lionel Hampton… He told me what a technician Earl Bostic was.  I didn’t join right after him, but when I came in a few saxophone players later, I discovered that Earl Bostic is probably one of the best technicians I have ever heard on the alto saxophone.  There were others who are very good.  Al Galadora, Rudy Wiedoft, Marcel Mule in Paris, Dick Stabile is another one… These names are popping into my mind as I talk.  Great.  But none of them could best Earl Bostic.  This guy was incredible, like a machine.  I was in awe of his technique.  I’m not talking about style, now.  I’m talking about raw technique and ability to get over the horn and do things.  He was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who’s gone beyond him technically, not even John — because John used to rave about him.

TP:    Just another question about Bostic as a leader.  Was there ever room for, say, creative and modern jazz within his set, let’s say on late sets and whatnot?  Was he interested in that?  Was he up on the new music of the early 1950’s?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  He afforded me many opportunities to write.  I remember I wrote an arrangement one time on “All The Things You Are.”  It changed keys, it did all kinds of things, and he loved it.  One night in particular he really got into it, and it was just fantastic.  He was so taken by it… I remember after it was over I knew he was taken by it, because he came to me, reached in his pocket and said, “How much did I pay you for that arrangement?”  Whatever it was, I quoted the price.  He said, “Well, here’s some more,” and he gave some more money — and I don’t remember the amount either.

Oh yeah, he liked other kinds of music.  We played Baltimore once, and we had to play a matinee.  During the course of playing a matinee, he showed up on the bandstand with his clarinet, and he played fantastic clarinet.  We played “Cherokee” or some tune like that, and we played it through the keys — and he chewed it up.  Chewed it up.  He was a fantastic musician.  I asked him, “Earl, do you have just natural talent?  What happened?  How did you come to put all this together?”  He said, “When I was Oklahoma [I think he was from Tulsa], I knew I was coming to New York, and I had to get ready.  So what I did, for years I went to work.  At 8 in the morning I started playing, I took a lunch break, and I stopped at 5.”  He said, “I did that every day.”  And he when he came to New York, believe me, he was ready.  Because people like Sweets Edison, Don Byas, they told me when he came, boy, he was awesome.  He didn’t have to apologize to anybody.

Now, you asked about Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane.  When I first met John, he was playing alto, and his idol was Johnny Hodges.  One of my high school chums, who also played alto, told me about a new person who had moved into the projects, and it was John Coltrane.  He said, “He’s fantastic.  He plays just like Johnny Hodges.”  I said, “What?!”  This was before Bird and Diz.  The music was somewhere else.  If I can meet somebody who plays like Johnny Hodges, this will be fantastic.  And he’s our age, 18… So he said, “Well, I’ll bring him by your house tomorrow.”  So he did.  The doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and there was Howard, and standing down on the sidewalk was John, sort of like a country bumpkin, biting the side of his thumb.  He came in the house, and we just sort of stood there.  Kids are so stupid.  He was standing there by the couch with his horn in his hand, and his hat and coat on — [LAUGHS] and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Play something!”  He was waiting for it.  He took his hat and coat off, whipped his horn out, and went into “Sunny Side of the Street.”  Well, my mother happened to be upstairs, and after he finished playing she said, “Who was that?”  I said, “It’s a new fellow I met named John Coltrane.”  After a while we started having sessions at my house, and sometime during that session she would holler down, “Is John down there yet?”  He would say, “Yes, Mrs. Golson.”  And we knew what that met.  We would have to stop and let John play “On The Sunny Side of The Street.”

TP:    A small price to pay for rehearsal space.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.  I was a little embarrassed by it, so I said to her one day, “Mother, it’s kind of a drag.  We try to get together and do some things, learn some new things, and you holler down for these requests, mainly on ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’…” She didn’t let me finish.  She said, “This is my house; I’ll ask for what I want.”  I guess she was right.

But it turns out that John Coltrane later joined his former idol, Johnny Hodges.  He was playing tenor then.  I asked him, “Did you ever tell him that at one point he was your idol?”  He said, “No, I never said anything about it.”  It was like Charlie Parker.  He was playing somewhere, and Charlie Parker came in.  John was still playing alto at the time, and he was playing so much, Bird said to somebody, “who is this guy?”  Of course it was John Coltrane.  I heard the story, and when John came back to Philly, I said, “But did you tell him we were the two kids who were walking down Broad Street with him?”  He said, “No.”  Well, he wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

TP:    What was it like being on the road with Johnny Hodges in his own group?  Was it all a vehicle for him, or…

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  He gave other people a chance to play.  You know, as you’re coming along and you meet people, that’s one thing.  But when you meet them and then you play with them or in their group, it’s like little dreams coming true.  And here I was with Johnny Hodges.  I used to listen to him with Duke play all these great things, one of which was “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and then I’m in his band.  But how I got there is, John was already there, and they were enlarging the band to go on a special tour with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown and a group called the Clovers.  So they needed to enlarge the band.  Johnny wanted another saxophone player, and he asked John, “Do you know of any saxophone players?”  He said, “Oh yeah,” and he told them to get me, and that’s what happened.  So I got there.  So I did this tour with him.

TP:    Was it mostly blues and ballads and things he was famous for?

GOLSON:  That kind of thing, yeah.  Billy Eckstine sang his ballad, and Johnny did “Castle Rock,” and he had other things he played, and we played the Clovers’ music, and we played “Mama, Treat Your Daughter Mean” with Ruth Brown, and those kind of things.  It was a show.,

TP:    So you’re in your mid-twenties, traveling around the country on the Black theater circuit primarily and in the clubs, garnering a really broad range of functional experience.  When your first recordings came out, you were not known to the broader public, but you developed a range of contacts around the United States within the jazz community basically.  Fair to say?

GOLSON:  True.

TP:    The events that led you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

GOLSON:  Fortuitous.  I was with Earl Bostic, and we were out in Seattle… Well, let me back up a little bit before that.  Because something was happening to me, my mental state I guess you could call it.  We were playing the same tunes every night, and for the large part they featured Earl.  We played on certain tunes, but the tapestry really was Earl Bostic.  I sort of got tired.  I wanted to do something else.  But I had a job, I was making money.  When we went down South, he would bring this electric guitar of his on the scene, and he would play things that people liked in Texas and Mississippi and Oklahoma and wherever.  I did some terrible things.  During the intermission I would tighten one string and loosen another string, and tighten another string.  Now, when he came up, he never did re-tune it.  He would just pick it up, turn around and call the number, and kick it off and start playing.  I did that one night, and he started to play, and it sounded just terrible — and it was trying to tune it while he was playing it.  I guess he didn’t know what happened.  It would have been all right if I had let it alone, but I did it again some other night.  He started to suspect something.  But he still didn’t know it was me, see.

Another night we were playing somewhere.  I was getting restless.  I guess I wanted to be fired or something.  We were playing somewhere, and boy, he really had the crowd… He really knew how to get the crowds.  Some of the people were dancing, but most of the people were standing at the foot of the stage.  He really had them going.  I remember seeing Illinois Jacquet do something with his horn, and I thought that I would do it while Earl was playing his solo.  This is what got me fired.  He was playing his solo, and he got the crowd going.  I went to the back of the stage, behind the drummer, and I took the saxophone loose from my strap, and I came running from to the front of the stage with my horn back like I was going to throw it, then I flung my horn forward like I was going to release the horn — and the whole audience ducked.  They ducked down.  It was distracting.  That bothered him.  Well, I guess he had every right to be bothered.  And after the show, he said… He called everybody Partner, “Part-noh.”  He said, “Part-noh, I think I’m gonna have to let-cha go.”  Well, that was in Seattle.  He said, “I think you’ve had your time here.”

I understood, and I guess I was kind of happy.  But it came at the right time.  Because Ernie Wilkins, who was writing for Dizzy’s band and had been playing saxophone, was leaving that same week, and somebody mentioned me, and they said, “Well, I think he’s with Earl Bostic, but give him a call anyway.”  I had come back to New York, and they called me, and I was home — and I got the gig.  I’m glad I got fired!

TP:    You said you’d moved to New York by this time.

GOLSON:  Oh yes, I’d moved to New York.

TP:    When did you come to New York?

GOLSON:  I came to New York around ’55.

TP:    Had you making regular trips to New York?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, definitely.

TP:    Did you go to 52nd Street, let’s say?

GOLSON:  No, that was before my time.  But my uncle used to be a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I would come over to visit him.  Oh, I visited him a lot. [LAUGHS] And he would take me around.  Because I was his nephew, I could go in there.  I mean, they don’t allow kids in there, but Teddy Hill would let me in.

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

GOLSON:  It was before I got out of high school.  The mid-’40s, I guess.  I was a kid.

TP:    What are your memories of Minton’s?

GOLSON:  Well, when you came in, there was a place where the bar was in the front room, like, and I can’t remember if you went up some steps to where the band was playing, or you went down or it was on the same level.  It seems to me like you walked up some steps.  But this is where the bandstand was, and it was a little more intense back there than it was out at the front bar.  This is where the musicians were, and this is where the people came to really hear the music.  The people that sat out in the front I guess were just concerned with having conversation and drinking, which is fine if they made the distinction, because otherwise they’d be going on concurrently with the other people who were interested.  So it worked out all right.

,    And I got on that bandstand once.  Eventually I did.  I can’t remember that tenor saxophone player’s name… Jackie McLean called his name a couple of years ago, and I’d forgotten it.  When he called the name, I jumped up.  I don’t think he ever recorded, but boy, this guy could play.  Anyway, I played there once.  Gildo Mahones I remember was there; Joe Guy, a trumpet player, Lockjaw… I can’t remember all the different people there.  Some of them, I didn’t know who they were as a kid.  I just knew this guy was a trumpet player, or this guy was a saxophone player; I didn’t know their name.  But later I found out how famous the place was, after the fact.

TP:    Did you continue to see Charlie Parker play, or go out of your way to do it when he was around?

GOLSON:  I didn’t know Charlie, didn’t get to know him personally, unfortunately.  But I got to know just about everybody else.  Sometimes people escape you knowing them.  Once I said to somebody who we all know (I can’t remember who it was), “Why is it that we never met?”  Just circumstances weren’t that way.  But mostly everybody else, I did.  All the pictures that I had, all the photographs I had down at the foot of my bed on the wall as a teenager growing up, all those idols… Max Roach and I laughed.  I said, “Look, you occupied a very prominent place on my wall at the foot of my bed for years!” [LAUGHS] As did Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.  You lay in bed, you look at their pictures and you dream.

TP:    Then you play with Dizzy Gillespie and arrange a piece for Coleman Hawkins and…

GOLSON:  Yeah, you get to know them all.  Don Byas gave me a box of reeds after I got to know him, and it said, “To my man Benny, from Don.”  I kept that box until it was falling apart because it was from him.

TP:    When you got to New York, a number of your contemporaries were living here, such as Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Tadd Dameron.  So I imagine it wasn’t huge adjustment for you on settling here to begin establishing yourself amongst the very elite group of New York musicians.  Or was it?

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  I was no stranger.  Because when I was playing with various Rhythm-and-Blues groups, we would always come through New York.  We would play the Apollo, we would meet here for rehearsals or whatever it was, and I’d stay over, I’d go see bands, and I got to know musicians, so I wasn’t really a stranger.  But I was a stranger at the same time to the scene, certainly to the recording scene.  I hadn’t recorded anything.  But I had to be here.  New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  So I decided I should move here, and I did — and things started to pick up.  When you’re here, people pick up the phone, and you’re wherever they want you in 15 minutes or whatever it is.  You don’t have to get a bus or a train.  You’re here.  And that worked to my advantage, I think.

TP:    Was this when your real heavy period of writing began?  A lot of compositions from this period, ’55-’56-’57, you’ve performed ever since in various ways?

GOLSON:  Actually, the heavy period of my writing began before anybody knew about me.  But it’s a strange thing about talent.  Talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything unless you have opportunity.  You can be the most talented guy, but you might be stuck out in Wacannomock(?), Wisconsin, and nobody ever knows about you.  You do need the opportunity, and I didn’t have the opportunity.  When I was traveling with these bands, Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, I was passing out lead sheets like they were calling cards.  Nothing ever happened.  I think James Moody recorded one of my things, a blues, and there was a long period before anything else happened.

John Coltrane was playing so great, and Hank Mobley was leaving Miles Davis.  Philly Joe had already left, gone to join Miles, and Miles asked him, “Do you know of any tenor saxophone players?”  Philly said, “Yeah, yeah.”  Miles said, “Can he play?”  Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He said, “Yeah, he can play.”  As though, “Well, I guess, you know…”  So Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “John Coltrane.”  “Well, see if he wants to join the band.”  We found out about it, because we’d been rehearsing and playing jobs together and playing in various bands, and we used to be together all the time, almost every day.  So we all found out that John was going to join Miles Davis, and vicariously we all took the trip with him.

I saw him about two weeks later on one of the main streets in north Philadelphia, where we lived, Columbia Avenue, and I said, “John, how is it going?”  He said, “Oh, it’s great.  But you know, Miles needs some new tunes.  Do you have any tunes?”  I thought to myself, “Do I have any tunes?!”  But if you give people too many, it becomes confusing.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  So I didn’t send a whole lot of tunes.  I sent one tune.  And I didn’t think any more about it, because I’d been giving tunes out half my life, it seemed, and nothing happened.  I ran into him about a month later, and I said, “Well, how is it going now?”  He said, “It’s going great.  You know that tune you gave me?”  “Yeah.”  “Miles recorded it.”  I said, “What?!  He recorded my tune?”  He said, “Yeah.  Man, he dug it.”  That was “Stablemates.”

Now, a strange thing happened.  All these lead sheets I’d been passing out all over the country, people must have heard the tune, seen my name on it and said, “Wait a minute; is this the same guy that gave me such-and-such?”, and maybe they went and got it wherever it was, from under the rug or in the trash.  They started recording my stuff.  That’s what got me started.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane are responsible for getting me started as a writer.  If it hadn’t happened that way, it might have happened some other way, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.  You need opportunity, Ted.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie certainly provided an opportunity to record a number of your tunes in the big band situation, like “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates” and “I Remember Clifford”, to be specific.

GOLSON:  That came later, though.

TP:    In ’57.  But I was going to try to get to…

GOLSON:  Lead in, huh? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Yeah, you know how it is.  But I wanted to talk to you about the experience of being part of the Dizzy Gillespie band and how he functioned as a bandleader with you, and some of the personalities you encountered in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956-1957 big band?

GOLSON:  Mmm-hmm.  You want to know it now?

TP:    Right now.

GOLSON:  Yeah, I can tell you.  Dizzy gave all of his men so much room to express themselves, those who were soloists.  Of course, we didn’t express ourselves individually when we came to play.    We had to become a composite person as it were.  We were given a greater expression as a group, so we had to strive for that, of course, but when it came to soloing and things like that… Now, Lee Morgan was in the band at the time, 18 years old, young upstart, and yet Dizzy featured him.  Some of the songs that he used to play, he gave to Lee to play.  He let him play on “Night In Tunisia.”  You have to take pride, insecurity and all that stuff, and throw it aside.  Apparently, Diz wasn’t affected by those things.  He recognized talent when he saw it, when he heard it, and he gave Lee free rein.  And he never tried to tell us how to play or what to play.  We were our own person when it came to playing the solos.  And we had many opportunities.  After he broke up the big band, for example, he formed a sextet, and lo and behold he chose me.  I thought he was going to pick Billy Mitchell, because Billy had more of the solos, but he chose me and a trombone player from Atlanta named Silly Willie.  We did that for just a little bit, then that was the end of it.

He was good, and he was fair.  Now, we didn’t make a lot of money.  But I learned so much.  Diz was one of those didactic kind of people.  He was a natural teacher, especially when it came to rhythms.  Boy, he had that rhythm down!

TP:    For instance, in the arrangements we heard earlier of “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not,  were Charlie Persip’s drum patterns Dizzy’s idea or something Charlie Persip worked out?

GOLSON:  No, that was Charlie.  But other things, like “Tin Tin Deo” and “Night In Tunisia” and “Begin The Beguine”, he told them how to play it, the beats, how to do it.  Charlie admitted that.  We learned a lot from Dizzy, from the way he played, and just listening to him talk and recalling things that had happened.  You pick up a lot like that, you know.

TP:    Well, the band was also a clearing house for some very talented arrangers apart from yourself, like Ernie Wilkins, who I know you wanted to say some things about, Quincy Jones, and some others.

GOLSON:  I learned so much music from Ernie Wilkins as far as big band writing.  It’s too bad that people like Ernie don’t get the credit that they deserve.  This was one of the finest arrangers on the scene.  He happens to be ill at the moment, and he’ll probably never be himself again.  His time is probably limited now, unfortunately, his wife told me.  But when he was going, boy, this guy’s music…his voicings was like plugging in to an electric outlet.  It was electrifying, almost physical sometimes, the sound, as though you could close your eyes and reach up and touch it and grab it and hold it.  That’s the way the music was.  And it was fresh.  His concept wasn’t dated, even though he was a little older than me.  He wasn’t afraid to take chances.  He had multiple things going on sometimes.  If you looked on paper you’d say, “Hmm, that might not work,” but it worked.  I learned a lot from him.  I’m sure Quincy did, too.

TP:    He seems to be one person who can work effectively in what might at first glance seem like different genres, such as the Basie band… Well, in your mind, in the 1950’s how distinct was the Dizzy Gillespie big band concept from what Basie was doing at the time?

GOLSON:  Different, but not necessarily better.  Just different.  I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that just because we were having so much fun, and it was modern, and it was so hitting and forceful and electrifying that it was better than anything else.  It was just different.  It was different than Basie.  It was different than Ellington.  It was different than the late Jimmie Lunceford.  Yet each one of those names I mentioned was consequential, and they could stand side by side with one another, and exist and give pleasure to a lot of people.  Good music.

[MUSIC:  Lee Morgan, “Domingo” (1957); BG, “Whisper Not” (1958); J. Cleveland, “All This and Heaven, Too”; BG, “You’re Mine, You”; BG 6, “Out Of the Past”]

TP:    The next segment will focus on the relationship that in a sense catapulted you from your initial prominence coming to New York and also catapulted Art Blakey from being a well-known drummer to the leader of the Jazz Messengers.  Benny Golson had only a year-long relationship with the Messengers, from spring 1958.  I’ve heard you tell the story many times, but like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” it’s endlessly entertaining…

GOLSON:  Boy, I’ve told it so many times.  I had just come to New York, and I decided that I didn’t want to travel at that particular time.  This was after Earl Bostic, after Bullmoose Jackson, after Dizzy Gillespie.  I wanted to stay in town a little bit so I could establish myself.  You’re peripatetic, you’re running around, you can’t get any roots.  You’re ubiquitous.  You’re everywhere at the same time.

TP:    Parenthetically, did the “New York Scene” and the early Riverside recordings from late ’57 happen before or after you left Dizzy?

GOLSON:  After.

TP:    So you’re starting to record and get your stuff out there.

GOLSON:  Right.  But this is even prior to that.  I got a call one evening from Art Blakey himself, asking me could I come down to sub at the now-defunct Cafe Bohemia.  I said, okay, I’d come down.  I went down, and we played.  They didn’t have a lot of things that were difficult as far as arrangements; it was just a little better than a jam session.  At the end of the night he asked me could he come the next night, because he was still having problems with whomever it was, something…a police car or something.  I enjoyed the first night so much that I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the second night.”  When I played the second night, he asked me, “Do you think you could make some gigs with us?” — which meant that I would have to go out of town.  I told him, no, I was sorry, I wanted to stay in New York and be kind of settled.  He said, “Okay, but can you finish out the week?”  That was my mistake.  I said, “Yes.”

I finished out the week.  But during the week, I had the occasion to sit down with him.  I knew during that time, he wasn’t making as much money as he should have been.  I don’t know how I found that out.  I said to him, “Art, you should be world-famous.  Have you been to Europe?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “You should have been to Europe many times.  You should be making a lot of money.  Your name in the jazz annals should be a household word!”

At any rate, at the end of that week he said, “I’m playing Pittsburgh next week.  It’s just one week, just six days; can you make it there?  I won’t keep you away too long.”  Well, now, I’ve already played a week with him.  Now I’m of a different mind than I was before because I’ve got a taste of him.  So I wanted a little bit more, intuitively, I think, because I said, “Yes.”  I must have.  So I went to Pittsburgh.  And as we neared the end of the week, he said to me, “Now, next week we’re in Washington; do you think you could make that with us?”  Now I’ve had two weeks of him and now I’m really digging it.  I’m really not speaking with the same mind now, because I said, “Yes!” again.  Besides, I went to college there; it was like my second home.  And after that I  never said anything about not wanting to leave New York again.  I became a member of the Jazz Messengers.

TP:    Who was the band?

GOLSON:  Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Houston from Philadelphia on piano, Spanky deBrest and Buhaina.  So we talked some more about the band. I said, “Art, you really should be in a different place than you are musically.”  and he looked at me with those big, sad cow-eyes, and said… I never expected this, really, because nobody knew who I was.  I was a young upstart in town.  He said, “Can you help me?”  My goodness, I never expected that from Art Blakey.  And I never expected what I said in return.  I said, “Yes, if you do exactly what I tell you.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I can’t imagine… The nerve of me!

TP:    Well, you’d seen maybe a thing or two during your years on the road with these various groups.

GOLSON:  A thing or two.  Not more.  And he said, “Okay.  What do I do?”  I said, “Art, you need a new band.”  He said, “Okay, tell them they’re fired.”  I said, “You tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  Anyway, I don’t know who told them, but he said, “Who are we going to get if we get rid of this band?”  I said, “Well, I know a young trumpet player.  He plays pretty good.  He was with Dizzy.  He said, “Who is he?”  “Lee Morgan.”  “Can he play?”  I said, “Yeah.’  He said, “How old is he?”  I said, “He’s 19 now, I think.”  “19!?  Well, can he really play?  Can he come up to what we’re trying…”  I said, “Believe me, we can.”  And I added that he was from Philadelphia; I don’t want to leave that out.

“Okay, who can we get on piano?”  “There was a guy who used to play with Chet Baker and various other people.  He plays nice piano.  His name is Bobby Timmons.”  “Do you think he could do this?”  I said, “Yes.”  “Where is he from?”  “He’s from Philly.”

“What about the bass player?”  “Oh, there’s a guy who played with us with Bullmoose Jackson.  He also played with B.B. King.”  “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute!  We’re not playing that kind of…”  I said, “Trust me, Art.  This guy can play.”  “What’s his name?”  “His name is Jymie Merritt.”  “Where is he from?”  “From Philly.”  He said, “Wait a minute!  What is this Philadelphia shit?!”  So I said, “No, they all just happen to be from Philly and I know them, but you won’t be disappointed.”  So I called each one of them in turn, and they said, yes, they’d like to be part of the band.  We put the band together and I wrote some things for them…

TP:    Did you have a sound for the band in mind?  The band on Moanin’ has a distinctive aesthetic, where you take advantage of his ability to do a shuffle  and put his own imprint on that, or a march, or various styles.  It had a cohesion that may not have been evident in earlier versions of the Messengers from the past couple of years.  Did you have that sound in mind when you were writing the book, or did it just come out that way?

GOLSON:  I’m going to be monosyllabic to what you just said.  No.  I didn’t have anything in mind other than the music.  It just happened to turn out like that, fortunately.  But what I did say to him was, “Art, you need something that really features you.  I’ve heard you play, and you’re just like any other drummer.  After everybody else has played and said what they have to say, they leave the trimmings for you at the end.  You need something where you start playing at the very beginning.”  Then we were sitting there, thinking.  I said, “Now, what could you do?”  Then I thought about that introduction he played on “Straight, No Chaser,” where he showed his independence, two hands, two feet doing something entirely independent.  I said, “You’ve played everything there is to play, Art,” and I started to play.  “Except the march.”  Oh, how we both started laughing.  I said, “Wait a minute.”   And he said, “No!  You’re kidding!”  I said, “No, I’ve got an idea.  I’m not talking about the military.  I’m talking about with a little funk and soul in it, like Grambling College.  You know how they play, how they jazz up things and make it funky and syncopate.”  He said, “No, man, this is a jazz band.  We can’t play a march!”  I said, “Trust me.”  Somehow I used to say that to him all the time — “trust me.”  I couldn’t even trust myself.  I said, “Let me go home tonight and see what I can come up with.”

So I went home and came up with this thing and called it “Blues March,” because it’s a blues and it’s a march.  So we got to the rehearsal, and he said, “Okay, how do we start it?”  I said, “You start it.”  He said, “What do I do?”  I said, “Play like you used to play when you were in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Just play some rudiments.”  “How long should I play?”  “Play as long as you like.”  “How are you all going to know when to come in?”  I said, “Play the roll off?”  “What do you mean?”  “JUMP-DUMP, JUMP-DUMP, DURRRRHHH-RUMP-DUMP.”  When you do that, we know we’re supposed to come in.”  He said, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is going to work.”  I said, “Let’s try it.”  So he did it and he gave us the roll-off and we came in.  The structure of the melody is a little different than just the ordinary blues.  but don’t worry about that.  After we play the melody, we’ll go to the regular blues.”  So we did.  And it kind of worked out nice, and he put kind of a shuffle feeling in it.  He said, “Yeah!  Maybe it might work.  And it did.  The rest is history.

[MUSIC: Art Blakey, “Blues March,” “Just By Myself,” “Drum Thunder Suite,” “Along Came Betty”]

TP:    I’d like to discuss your style as a tenor saxophonist and the evolution of your style.  In the liner notes to the St. Germain CD from 1958 you say that the experience of playing that one year with Art Blakey had a huge impact on your approach to the tenor.

GOLSON:  Yes, it did.  Before I joined Art, I didn’t have much articulation.  On some of the things, it’s still not as much there as it is now.  But one of the things that he taught me to do, painfully, was to project, to play a little more forcefully.  When I went in to sub that night with him at the Cafe Bohemia, and some of the weeks that followed, he would play some of those drum rolls that he was famous for.  It might be four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along.  Well, right in the middle of that drum roll, it would get so loud that it would drown me out, and I would just be standing there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  I guess he thought I didn’t get it.  He did that a couple of weeks, and one night he did the same thing again, but he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done before that.  And to make doubly sure that I got it, he uttered some words.  He screamed across the bandstand to me, “Get up out of that hole!”  And when I heard the words, it all sort of came together and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am in somewhat of a hole.”  Because when he does those drum rolls, I just disappear, as if I’m in a hole.  So I started trying to play more forcefully.

And someone else helped me.  While we were there, when I was subbing that week at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in one night, and after the set… If you knew Monk, you would appreciate this story more.  But let me try to describe it to you.  He was standing, when I came off the bandstand, with his hands behind him, and rocking from side to side slightly.  He said to me, “You play too perfect” — sort of dry like that.  When he included the word… You’ve heard people say, “You play perfect” or something similar.  But when you hear the word “too,” that means an exaggeration, a caricature, superfluous, or whatever.  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  And while I was standing there, stewing, Art Blakey was standing on the side (he knew Monk so well, I guess he knew what he was talking about), snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for about 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said to me, “You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.”
I thought about that.  Mmm, bingo!  The next night I came in, Ted, I was playing like a man taking leave of his senses.  I was playing so crazy, trying to get away from that well-worn that I’d fashioned for myself, knowing that this works and that works, and I can do this here and do that there, like mathematics (and music is anything but that).  I decided to take chances.  I was jumping off of cliffs (metaphorically, of course) and jumping off bridges, standing in front of trains!  I was doing some crazy stuff.  But that started to move me out of where I was before; that was the beginning of it.  Of course, I stopped for a while.  But over the years, I’m of the conviction that you have to take chances if you want to move ahead.  Otherwise, you’ll just sort of level off.  And time, in its indefatigable course, moving always forward, has a way of relegating you to history.  You know?

TP:    I have to say that listening to things you recorded before Art Blakey, you sound like a very dynamic tenor player with a modern vocabulary, a distinctive approach for people among your generation for your assimilation of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.  But you in your liner notes were describing your sound as “smooth and syrupy.”  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Are you being overly self-critical, or is that an objective way of describe how you played pre-Art Blakey?

GOLSON:  That’s the way I felt.  Other adjectives.  “Mellifluous.”  “Saccharine.”  “Sweet.”  “Charming,” some people have said.  But after a while, I wasn’t satisfied with that.  I wanted a little fire into it and get more articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, your tongue doesn’t touch the reed too much, the notes just kind of flow on your fingers, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue has to do some work sometimes, too, to define, to separate things and separate notes and separate ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.

TP:    It sounds like you had an impact on Art Blakey’s conception of himself as a drummer-bandleader.  Because it sounds like your compositions oriented him to focusing on certain sonic components of the trap drum set, and that you got him into presenting his different techniques on the drumset as part of the whole performance rather than just the straight-ahead, more unformatted playing than  before.  As evidenced particularly on “Drum Thunder Suite,” on which you said to him, as you were telling me off-mike, “don’t pick up the sticks.”

GOLSON:  Right. [LAUGHS] I wanted him to use the mallets.  I said, “You use the sticks and the brushes all the time.  Let people know what you can do.”  Let them know that you can play mallets, that you can play no your tom-toms.  Do other things.  Don’t always just do the same thing.  Of course, the mallets are not tools you’re going to use all the time.  Sticks are what you use most of the time.  But it’s good to color with other things sometimes.

You can’t do the same thing all the time.  People want to hear “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe” and “Blues March” and those things, and I appreciate it.  But you can’t just keep doing that.  I have a new thing I’ve written called “Lenox Avenue Soundcheck.”  When I first moved to New York, I lived one block from Lenox Avenue, on 7th Avenue.  But when I was going to take the IRT, I used to have to walk down to Lenox Avenue.  So I was down there a lot.  And being on Lenox Avenue, you’d hear certain music coming out of different places, the jukebox, and you’d hear people saying different things, some nice, some not so nice, and the police sirens… You’d just hear a multiplicity of things.

TP:    Urban sounds.

GOLSON:  There you go.  And I decided to write a tune dedicated to all of that.

TP:    Next up is a version of “Stablemates” on United Artists from Benny Golson With the Philadelphians with your old friend Philly Joe Jones, who you recorded with a number of times.  You mentioned hearing him as far back as 1945 in the clubs of Philadelphia.

[MUSIC: “Stablemates”, “Blues On My Mind” (1958)]

TP:    You mentioned that after you left the Messengers it was hard for you to play with another drummer for a while.

GOLSON:  Absolutely true.

TP:    You’ve played with great ones.

GOLSON:  You can get used to playing with people, just like you can get used to wearing your favorite suit, or go to the Chinese restaurant and order the same thing all the time because you like it.  It sort of grows on you.  You’re not aware of it until it’s not there any more.  That’s what happened to me.  Art Blakey is one of those drummers, Kenny Clarke is another… In fact, both played with us at a concert in Paris.  But Art Blakey swings so…how can I put it… His sounds don’t only reach your ear.  They reach your heart as well.  His style is motivational.  What he does makes you do things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally do because of the impetus… He said, “You stand out there and play, and if you’re not doing something, I’ll give you the bass drum.”  “What does that mean?”  “Every time you hit that bass drum, you’ll grab your rear end and say, ‘Oooh!!'”  But it’s that kind of thing.

It’s more than the bass drum, of course.  It’s the whole kit that he plays, and the way that he plays it.  He’s able to reach inside of your emotions.  There’s nothing cursory about him.  There’s no wasted effort.  There’s nothing wasted about him when he plays.  It’s meaningful, it’s logical, it’s reasonable, and it sounds fantastic.  And when you get used to playing with this kind of a drummer, even though you play with other kinds of drummers, and they might have even been great drummers, his style was such that you didn’t want to hear any other style.  I’m trying to make this up as I go along, because I’ve never had to formalize it into words; it was just feelings before.  when you hear him play, that’s it.  That’s the epitome of SWINGING.  What is there?  You’re already in heaven.  Where are you going after that?  So when you play with another drummer, it’s not that that you’re hearing.  Not that the other drummers are not good, but you’re not hearing what you’re used to hearing.  And that was the problem.

I happened to mention this to Freddie Hubbard, just in passing, as an aside.  And he looked at me and said, “You too?”  He had the same problem.  I found myself turning around, looking at drummers, which is very  unprofessional, and I don’t like doing that.  But it was almost irritating.  It was almost like the drummers were tuning up, preparing to play all night.  Because I wanted to hear them go into what Art used to go to!  But of course, I got out of it. [LAUGHS] I can play with other drummers.

TP:    One thing you mentioned in a liner note is the way Art Blakey would shape your solos, and the way his accompaniment behind you would almost make your statement take a logical course of its own with him.

GOLSON:  Very logical.  You’re very observant.  Absolutely true.  That’s why I said it.  He’s motivational!

TP:    And he’d set up something different for everyone in the band.  I remember a number of years ago he was forming a new band, and he had a big band at Sweet Basil that was being pared down.  You’d hear him set up behind everybody a different solo, and as the week went on, you could hear him settling into what he was going to do behind each person.  More about Philly Joe Jones and his inimitable style, the great precision and expoobidence with which he would boot you.

GOLSON:  Highly inventive, courageous and daring.  He would do things that were unexpected.  He would do unorthodox things.  We were playing once, and he played paradiddles between the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal, rather than play them with the hands and the sticks on the snare drum.  I mean, he did all kinds of things.  One thing I liked about Philly, he was a listener.  Some drummers will close their eyes, turn their head sideways ride that cymbal, and it’s all about how they feel about what they’re doing at the moment.  But Joe would listen.  You would play a phrase, and leave a little breathing space, take a little breath before you set up the next phrase, and he might play a drum ruff — FRPPHHH!  Just that.  It’s perfect, and it sets up the next phrase.  Or he might go, BANH-BANHH-BAM-BAMM!  Or whatever it is.  It’s so logical, so right.  And these things just carry along.  It’s like flying a plane.  You just put your seat back and relax.  You can lean on that kind of a drummer.

TP:    Take us back to the 1940s.  You may not be able to recollect this specifically because you were so young at the time.  But you recollect Philly Joe performing in 1945-46, when you were 16 and 17.  What can you tell us about his sound then.  Had he assimilated Kenny Clarke and Max Roach by then?

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you that, Ted.  It was too early in my development.  I don’t know what I was listening to.  I just know I like what he did.  I couldn’t define it and break it down into its component parts.  All I knew is that I liked it.  I didn’t have enough experience.  That came later.

TP:    The great eye for detail that marks his compositions also marks his story-telling.  He’s been writing liner notes for some young tenor players, like Dan Faulk and David Sanchez, which are worth reading for an education in aesthetics and spinning a narrative.  Let’s move now to a couple of wild card tracks, one featuring an Benny Golson with Eric Dolphy, alto sax, Gunther Schuller, french horn, Herb Pomeroy, trumpet, on John Lewis’ composition “Afternoon in Paris” from an Atlantic release entitled “The Wonderful World of Jazz,” from 1960.

[MUSIC: w/ John Lewis, “Afternoon in Paris” (1959); w/ Betty Carter, “Isle of May”]

TP:    We’ll hear some collaborations between Benny Golson and Art Farmer for United Artists between 1958 and 1959.  Your comment about him is that he plays with tremendous integrity and sound selection and intent, concentrated consciousness… It sounds as though he’s the ideal improviser for you.

GOLSON:  Quintessential.

TP:    A couple of words to describe his improvisational personality.

GOLSON:  He’s a bright person, first of all.  He’s one of the thinkers.  He cogitates.  He does the same thing when he plays.  He thinks about what he’s going to play.  But he doesn’t think so much about it that it becomes an intellectual encounter with the music.  No.  He thinks enough to give it meaning and direction, and coupled with experience, he usually comes up with a nice bill of fare musically for what he’s doing.

TP:    That sounds like a textbook recipe for what is an improvisation.  How about for yourself?  Over the years you’ve made very conscious changes in your style and approach in your sound on the tenor that you want to project for  yourself.  I was complimenting your solo on “Afternoon In Paris,” which was reminiscent of the way Coleman Hawkins played in one of my favorite periods for him, and you said, “Ted, I don’t play that way any more; that’s in the past; we must move forward.”  What is that mixture of forethought, intent, intellect… I guess bringing to bear the intellect on improvisation and the direct flow of thoughts that make a successful one?  How do you assess that balance in your own process?

GOLSON:  Well, we all have to think to a certain extent when we play.  Some players think more than others.  Some players don’t quite know how to think.  You have to know what to think about when you’re playing.

TP:    What do you think about?

GOLSON:  I think about whatever satisfies my needs.  When we think, we should think about what satisfies our needs.  What is it that we need at the moment?  Do I need something for my sound?  Do I need something for my melodic concept?  Do I need something for my rhythmic perception of things?  Or do I need them all?  And if you do, you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  But experience makes it easier as you go along.  The more you do a thing, the easier it gets as it goes along.  Mind you, I didn’t say “easy.”  The easier it gets.  And me, I feel that I have certain needs.  I have a lot of them.  Beginning with my sound.  I am so critical about my sound.  I am going through a phase right now where I am talking with the reed manufacturer, and they are making special reeds for me, and when I go back out to the Coast in December I am going to meet with them again.  It’s getting close.  But there’s just one  element I want to get out.  That’s me.  People say, “Oh, it sounds great to me.”  And that’s fine. But I have to satisfy myself first.

TP:    You may never get satisfied.  It may be that’s what keeps you going and searching for new challenges.

GOLSON:  You know, that’s what Sonny Rollins.  He said, “No musician ever dies who is completely satisfied with himself.”  And I believe that.  If I get to like my sound, it might be something else that I’m not happy with.  That’s the way it is.

TP:    Some musicians will set themselves a challenge on a given night, like a particular tenor player will say, “I’m going to be Lester Young,” and then another night will try to be Coleman Hawkins, or taking it farther… Setting up that type of challenge to spur interest and play something different night after night.  Did that have anything to do with your approach?  Or was it purely about developing musical ideas?

GOLSON:  That was never part of me and it never will be.  I don’t set out to sound like anybody.  I’m struggling hard enough to try to sound like what I want to sound like.  Why would I waste time trying to sound like somebody else and put banners up for them?  That’s testimonial to them!  I’m not trying to set a testimonial for myself, but I am trying to play things that at least satisfy me and my needs.  I can’t waste… I use that word advisedly.  I can’t take time trying to sound like Lester or somebody else.  There’s enough of that going on now.  So many people sound like John Coltrane.  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  That should be left where it is.  Who is going to best John Coltrane?  Maybe the next century.  But we should spend more time trying to sound what we want to sound like, expressing our own feelings and revealing our own musical personalities.  We don’t need any carpet paper around.  We should try to sound like ourselves.  And the litmus test is applying ourselves, trying to find out what it is that we want to do, and trying to optimize whatever it is we’re trying to do at whatever opportunity we have.  Rather than to walk through anything (I don’t think anybody does that nowadays), we should put forth our best effort, like our lives are on the line.

Case in point.  Tom MacIntosh had a group called the New York Jazz Sextet, trumpet, tenor, trombone and rhythm section.  At one point, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player.  I hadn’t thought much about it.  But every time we had a rehearsal, when it came time for Freddie to play his solo, he played like he was at Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on a Friday night with a full auditorium.  That’s the way he played.  Me, before that, I would just kind of walk through the changes.  This is just a rehearsal.  I used to laugh and say, “Hey, it’s only a rehearsal.”  But he played like his reputation was at stake.  He really did.  And I learned something from that.  You do the best you can whenever you get a chance to do it.  And if you do that, it can become a part of you.  But if you spend part of the time minimizing it and throwing it away, then that is time taken away from a good effort that you could be applying to yourself in the direction that you want to go.

[MUSIC: Golson-Farmer, “Fair Weather,” “Like Someone In Love,” “Five Spot After Dark,” “I’ll Walk Alone,” “Minor Vamp”] [MUSIC: “Blues March” (1983)]

TP:    We have to cover about 35 years of music, so compression is of the essence.  We ended the last show with one of your most famous compositions, and one which took crossover context, “Killer Joe,” performed by the Jazztet, a group that lasted in its first iteration from 1959 to 1962.  Let’s talk about the formation of this group and the early personnel.  It got you together with Art Farmer, for one thing, on a somewhat permanent basis after several years of musical flirtation, as it were.

GOLSON:  That’s absolutely true.  Art and I met in the summer of 1953, right after Tadd Dameron’s band broke up in Atlantic City, which included Clifford Brown and Gigi Gryce.  They went on to join Lionel Hampton, and the condition that we could all leave was that I would stay  there and make sure that whoever was coming in to replace us would play the music right.  So they left and I stayed.  Then a few weeks later, I joined them in South Carolina.  In the band at that time was Art Farmer.  In fact, that’s where I met him.  Quincy Jones was in the band.  That’s where I met him.  Monk Montgomery was there, Jimmy Cleveland, and of course Gigi Gryce came along from Atlantic City, and Clifford Brown, who was also there with us.  There’s no else I can think of right now who people would readily know.

That’s when Art and I began our relationship, and when we went our separate ways from Lionel Hampton, we wound up in New York doing different things, making ends meet, and we were thrown together many times — radio commercials, TV commercials, jingles, various record dates for different people.  Although we already knew each other, we got to know each other even better because we saw each other in between socially many times.  So I guess it was inevitable that we would want to do something else, and it just so happened that we decided we wanted to do something different at the same time, without either having knowledge of the other.

So I picked up the phone one day and called him.  I said, “Art, I’m thinking about putting together a sextet.”  Not a quintet.  So many other people had quintets.  A sextet with that other horn would make it just a bit different; there are not so many sextets around today.  He started laughing.  I said, “Why are you laughing?  Is this idea that absurd?”  He said, “No.  You know, I was thinking about putting a sextet together, and I was going to call you later today.’  I said, “Well, why don’t you come by, and we could talk about it.”  And he did.  He picked two of the personnel and I picked two.  He picked his twin brother, Addison Farmer, who was alive at that time, for bass, and he picked Dave Bailey, who now heads Jazzmobile here in town, as the drummer, because they had worked together with Gerry Mulligan.  I picked Curtis Fuller.  Well, there was no disagreement there.  But when I came up with the name McCoy Tyner, he said, “I’ve never heard of him.  How is he?  Can he play?”  I said, “Oh yes, he can play.”

TP:    Before you continue, how did you know about McCoy Tyner?  Now, there’s an obvious Philadelphia connection.  Were you keeping the ties to Philadelphia?

GOLSON:  Keeping the ties had nothing to do with it.  It was the talent.  But the important thing is that I met him in Philadelphia.  I went to do one of those Sunday afternoon concerts, and the rhythm section was there, awaiting my arrival.  He played so well!  So I said, “Let me see what he can really do.”  So I played something in a strange key, and he just romped through it.  He was only 19 years old!  So I kept that in the back of my mind, not knowing if anything was going to happen or if I was going to do anything where he was involved.  But the Jazztet came up, and obviously he was the first person in mind.

TP:    Were the germs of McCoy Tyner’s mature style present when you first heard him at 19 or 20 or in the Jazztet?

GOLSON:  Oh, sure.  That’s what appealed to me.  Of course, after that he built on it.  He didn’t just stay here.  He migrated ahead to other things, which is logical for a truly creative person.  But it was interesting, so funny because when I approached him about the job on the telephone, it was like he had been awaiting my call.  “Yes!”  But then I reminded him that Philadelphia was 90 miles from New York, 180 miles round trip every day.  “McCoy, can you do this?  Are you up to it?”  He said, “Well, I really want to move to New York; I’ve been thinking about it.”  So as it turned out, to make a long story short, Art and I found an apartment for him and got it.  So he and his wife were on their way over, and a friend was bringing them over in a car, and the car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He called me.  He said, “Benny, we’ve broken down; can you come out and pick me up.”  I said, “McCoy, I don’t have a car.  Call me back in an hour and let me explore and see what I can do.”  So I found a friend who had a car, and we went out and picked him up, sure enough, and loaded him into this person’s car, and we took off.  I don’t know what happened to the person who was bringing him there.  It was terrible.  I guess we drove off and left.  I don’t quite remember what happened.  But as it turned out, the person who took me out to pick him up was John Coltrane, because he lived just a couple of blocks from me!  And about a year or so later, McCoy joined his band.  So the next time I saw John, I said to him (I knew him very well, of course), “A fine friend you turned out to be.  You stole my piano player!”

TP:    I’ve heard the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that McCoy Tyner at an early age told John Coltrane he wanted to play with him.  And he was friends with Lee Morgan, a young colleague of yours from Philly.

GOLSON:  I don’t know if the story is apocryphal, but it’s probably not.  At 18 or whatever age that he approached John, he probably did want to play with him, and he let it be known that he did.  But I’ll tell you, in the intervening time between when he asked him that (if he did in fact ask him that) and when he joined him, he wasn’t sitting still.  He was moving forward in high gear.

TP:    I’m sure the challenging compositions and arrangements and the high degree of professionalism required within the Jazztet had a lot to do with McCoy Tyner’s development during that interim period.

GOLSON:  It might have had some.  But I think he developed more with John.  John was going in a better direction for where McCoy’s concept was.  I have to be honest about that.

TP:    I was just trying to give you a nice segue to talk about the Jazztet.  Talk about what you wanted to achieve with this group.  It immediately took on a very distinctive identity.

GOLSON:  That’s it exactly.  That’s the first word.  I figured we had to have an identity.  Otherwise, we were just another sextet thrown together to do various musical things.  To give it that identity, I tried to bring complete organization to what we were doing.  Of course, later I abandoned that, because I thought it was too much organization, and the second time we got together it was much looser.  It was just a bit too organized the first time out.  Too preconceived.  I felt we needed to be a bit looser.  And for me, and I think for Art too, it worked a lot better when it was looser.

TP:    What I gather is that your initial performance was at the Five Spot opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet in their New York debut.  Which sounds to me like quite a scene.  So I’ll ask you to use your considerable descriptive powers to give your first-hand impression of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959 at the Five Spot.

GOLSON:  I’ll never forget it.  Ornette had created quite a controversy about himself and about his music.  He had a lot of supporters, people like Leonard Bernstein and John Lewis, even Dizzy Gillespie.  Well, Dizzy Gillespie had perspicacity anyway.  He was able to look ahead, and he probably saw this music going in another direction that had some validity to it.  But not everyone really felt like that, and it was a big question mark.  So it was like someone going to a new restaurant.  Here you had two new groups, two bills of fare, so to so speak, under the same roof, and the place was jammed.

TP:    Very different approaches to music as well.  Were you familiar with his early recordings that preceded his New York appearance?

GOLSON:  Yes, I had heard some.

TP:    But you were somewhat familiar with the compositions and the group.  What did you think?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t sure.  Later, as I got to know Ornette, I called him up and sort of made an appointment, if you will, and I went down, and we talked about it.  I wanted to find out what he was doing before I had… I figured I had no right to an opinion until I actually knew what he was doing.  So I made it a point to go find out what he was doing.  Interesting.  Right after that, we started… In fact, the Jazztet played one of his songs; I can’t remember one.  We tried to interpret it the way he was interpreting it.  And it worked out okay.

Everyone has a right to speak and to have his own voice.  No one should be deprived for what they do.  Whether we choose to like it or not is up to us.  But everyone should have the privilege of speaking.  Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”  That’s how I feel.  No matter how this person or that person who even I feel about it in a negative way, they have the right to do it, and they should go ahead.  That’s the way we move ahead.  Otherwise, everything stays the same, and it becomes more predictable and more predictable.

TP:    But there you were at the Five Spot with a kind of factionalized audience, two new groups, a packed house every night…for how long?

GOLSON:  Both of us stayed there for two weeks, I think it was.  Or a month.  I can’t remember.  But it was longer than a week.  It was interesting.  We had all kinds of people coming in there.  I mean, Leonard Bernstein himself came in.  I don’t think Dizzy came.  John Lewis might have come.  And some other people would have given him support, I guess, by the nature of who they were themselves, showing up there.  And we had people come to see us, too.  It was great.

[MUSIC: Jazztet, “Park Avenue Petite,” “Round Midnight,” “Bean Bag”]

TP:    Coming up are more albums by Benny Golson from 1961 and 1962 while the Jazztet was still working.  The band had a fair amount of success during their couple of years.  I imagine you were booked quite a bit and did a fair amount of travel.  Talk about the course of the group.

GOLSON:  Yeah, in the beginning we did have quite a few bookings, because, honestly, we were new, and with the albums coming out at the time, people were able to hear us, and if they really liked what they heard, then they wanted to see us also.  So we were booked in quite a few places around the States.  We never did go to Europe, though.  But with any group that’s ongoing, things happen indigenously [sic], and it brings about changes sometimes from within the group.  For whatever reason.  It’s inevitable, most of the time.  And we had a change of our trombone player, we changed bass players, drummers and piano players.  The only two that didn’t change were Art Farmer and Benny Golson, I guess!  But everything else around us changed for a certain period of time.

TP:    Did the band begin to open up somewhat?  Certainly on the live album we can hear the format opening up and freeing up some?

GOLSON:  Yeah, it was a bit looser, and Art and I felt a little better.  It was just too organized the first time.  It was all right, and it made its mark, I guess, because it was organized and it was different, and hopefully, it was consequential enough that people thought we had something to say that they wanted to listen to.  But then, you know how it is.  You get used to hearing the same thing, and you feel that you have to make a change.  Everything should never creatively always be the same.

TP:    Is this a conscious thing for you?

GOLSON:  Yes!

TP:    Do you see yourself getting into a rut and say, “I’m going to do something different.”

GOLSON:  Yes.  Not just for the sake of just being different, but for the sake of fulfilling a need within me.  If you just change to change, that’s arbitrary.  But if the change comes about, it should come about in a natural, creative way, just as the substance of what you’re doing comes about in a natural way.  So the changes come about likewise, or the desire for a change comes about in the same natural way.  That’s usually what happens with creative people.  You don’t wear a blue suit one day, and then the next day it’s, “I think I’ll wear a red suit just to attract attention.”  You’ll buy a brown suit because you’re tired of the blue one all the time — that kind of a thing.

TP:    What do you remember about the circumstances of Take A Number From 1 to 10?

GOLSON:  Wondering whether or not the idea was going to come off.  It wasn’t my idea.  It was someone else’s idea.  And yet, I thought it might have possibilities, which is why I did it.  After we finished it, I thought it was consequential enough to have been recorded and to put it out for the public to hear.  It was okay.  I don’t know if I’d do it again.

TP:    Well, it seems like an ideal vehicle for someone whose interests lie so strongly in the areas of composition and arrangement, and who is so serious about your personal sound on the saxophone.

GOLSON:  You’re right.  Starting out with myself, just playing unaccompanied, the spotlight is purely on me, and eventually it lines up to the other part of me, that is, the writing.

TP:    In my brief acquaintance with Benny Golson he’s never expressed any real satisfaction with his tenor saxophone sound, and I’d like to read a comment you made to Nat Hentoff in 1961 from the liner notes.  It may sound familiar to you 35 years later in its sentiment.  You say, “We all go through stages.  There are, after all, so many roads to take.  Now I’m on the right track for myself.  I know what I want to do.  I’ve been working hard during the past year, for example, on an even bigger tone, with more roundness and warmth, even in the extreme high register.  I want to make the whole horn sound warm.  I also want to play melodically instead of just running over the horn, as I was at one time, but I’d still like to have a command of velocity at my fingertips when I need it.  I feel very much better about my playing these days.  At one time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but I guess it was necessary to try different ways to be sure of my own.”  It sounds like you’ve been consistent in your sentiments over time.

GOLSON:  How long ago was that?

TP:    It’s a 1961 recording.

GOLSON:  I mentioned something about being on the right road.  But you know, roads have a way of wearing thin.  Roads can become a rut.  Really.   I’ve found that out since then!  So even if you’re on the right road one day, you might want to get on another road another day.  And we have to remember, too that today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  So things have to change.  So I said that then, but I wouldn’t say it now!

[MUSIC: From Take A Number From 1 to 10, “The Touch,” “Time”]

TP:    Benny Golson expressed about as enthusiastic a comment as I’ve heard from him on “Time” — that doesn’t sound too bad.  You said you hadn’t listened to it for 25 years.  We’ll hear some quartets from 1961-62.  At this point, in addition to the Jazztet, were you doing a lot of singles, either with a working rhythm section or travelling around the country with pickups?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t doing too much.  We were primarily concentrating on the Jazztet.  But when we signed with Mercury, they signed the Jazztet, and then they signed Art and they signed me as individual artists.  I don’t remember how  many albums we did with the Jazztet, but in addition to that we each did one or two albums — I’m not sure.  One of the notable things about Turning Point is that the rhythm section with me was Miles Davis’ rhythm section at the time, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.  I felt I was stealing just a bit!

TP:    How was it different for you to play as a solo voice than in the more arranged format?  Do you approach your improvisations differently?  Is it simply a matter of having more time to stretch out?

GOLSON:  You hit it right on the head.  If I’m playing with a quartet (not even with a trumpet, which would be a quintet), much more freedom abounds.  If I’m not playing with an arrangement of other instruments around me where I have to fit into slots here and there, if I don’t have backgrounds that have to stay out of the way of me, or I have to rise above them, then I have complete  freedom.  And in a quartet I do.  I can play a melody any way I want to.  If you play it with another instrument, then you both have to play it the same.  So you have to decide how you’re going to play it.  When I’m playing by myself, I might play it this way tonight, I might play it that way tomorrow night.  I might add a little something to it one night… Just complete freedom.  That’s one thing I enjoy about the quartet.  Within reason! [LAUGHS] Provided you’re up to it.

TP:    On Turning Point you have the sublime rhythm section of this period, which brings me to the question of what you’re looking for from the different members of the rhythm section.  In a piano player what are the ideal qualities?

GOLSON:  It’s different things, because individuals have different things to offer.  It’s a matter of what you want to hear.  Do you want to hear what this one is offering.  Do you want to hear what that one is offering?  It’s a terrible thing when you hire a person and you tell them you want them to sound like somebody else.  You hire him because you want to hear what he does.  Either it’s something that you have in mind and he meets your needs, or he has something that appeals to you that you feel you would like to have.  So when you hire them, you hire them with these kinds of things in mind — intuitively. It’s not anything you have to go home and turn off the radio and pull the windows down and think about.  Intuitively, you know these things.

First in a piano player, I am concerned about his feeling for the piano.  A piano is not one instrument.  Literally it is.  But it can function as three different instruments.  It has a distinct sound at the top.  It has a distinct sound in the middle, where most piano players are.  And it has an even more distinct sound at the bottom end.  That bottom end of the piano cannot be duplicated by any of the other instruments in the repertoire of instruments.  He’s down there.  He’s got that to himself.  Solitary air space.  Now, a good piano player knows how to use all of that according to what’s happening at the moment, and can make you feel good and can urge you on to try to best yourself — that’s the kind of piano player you want.

When he’s functioning in these different areas of the keyboard, he has something to say that’s going to not only support you, but encourage you because it sounds so good to you.  I just had that last week.  We were down at Sweet Basil.  These three guys, they had something to say.  And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like playing every night, every set.  That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.  Because I had three guys who knew what to do.  They knew what to do as individuals.  They knew what to do as a group.  I mean, the things that they did together was as though they had gone out and rehearsed without me, and decided what they were going to do to support me.  It was so together, it was incredible what was happening up there.  And if you can get this, if you can find these kinds of qualities in individuals that you select to be your rhythm section… And the things that I said for the piano basically are the same for the bass and the drums.  It’s just different instruments.  But it’s a matter of having affinity for the instrument, having affinity for each other as a rhythm section, and having affinity for the soloist who is out front.  And if you can get all those things to spark and jibe, if you can get that kind of potential to cross paths with reality, then you’ve got something that’s really noteworthy.

We’re going back in time now.  This rhythm section to me was quintessential.  It was the best, the essence of what one would expect in a jazz rhythm section.  That’s why I chose them.  And Miles had no objection, I must say.  Very nice.  Because he knew what I was going to do!

[MUSIC: “Turning Point,” “Little Karin,” “I’m Afraid the Masquerade Is Over,” “The Best Thing For You Is Me,” “Shades of Stein”]

TP:    “Shades of Stein” refers to Gertrude Stein, and in your conversation we hear many references to philosophy and literature.  Is there any direct relationship you can discuss in terms of your reading vis-a-vis your playing?  Your liner notes are eloquent and very much to the point.

GOLSON:  I’m not an avid reader.  Actually, my wife Bobbie reads more than I do.  Anything that comes from what I read is just casual.  Gertrude Stein happened to appeal to me because of the way she took a phrase and used it over and over, “a rose is a rose…”  I tried to capture that in the melody, because you hear the melody over and over.  It got a little boring.  To make sure it didn’t get too boring, to break away from it, I made the bridge as far out as I could that time.  You could hear where it was going, like up a flight of steps, and the chords were going along with it, and it was a little difficult to play on.  But I think we needed a contrast from that Gertrude Stein influence in the beginning to sort of let it stand out by itself.  The more you do a thing, the less it means, so I broke away from it.

TP:    Is there any implied narrative or story in your compositions, or are they just musical ideas?

GOLSON:  Most of them are just musical ideas.  But what I do try to capture is a meaning in my titles.  I think the title should give one who is about to listen privy to what it is going to be about.  Now, with few exceptions, I’ve done that.  A few times I fell on my face.  I can write a song maybe in a day or two, or in a week, whatever, but I agonize over a title sometimes for two or three weeks or a month, trying to come up with the appropriate title.  When you hear a title, it should be more than a title.  You should be able to step inside, just a little bit — if not into the house, at least into the vestibule, to get out of the cold.

TP:    Improvisers seek their individual voice, and of course the common phrase is to tell your own story, and your antecedents on the tenor saxophone all had their various ways of telling their story.

GOLSON:  Playing your own ideas.  Most of us play our own ideas as best we can.  The reason I say that is because sometimes, intuitively, and depending on where we are in our development and how much we are influenced by the things that surround us… Intuitively many times we will play things that “belong to other people.”  It’s their kind of thing.  It might be a lick.  It might the way something is played, a certain inflection.  The way Sweets Edison takes a note like he’s milking a cow, the half-valve kind of thing.  That’s associated with him.  And the moaning and groaning that he does with the horn.  When I hear it, the first person I think of is Sweets Edison.  But for the most part, most people, with a few exceptions, try to play their own thing.

TP:    Another aspect of this is that for many years (I guess it’s still true, although the way information gets passed along has changed so much) is oral tradition, of listening to people you admire and trying to grapple with their ideas and coming up with your own conclusions based on that, a continuing, ongoing narrative, many voices converging.  You described your process of learning as similar, that you would take solos off records, and study and transcribe.  So I wondered if there were any analogies we could draw between the verbal and musical arts of storytelling.

GOLSON:  It’s very much like storytelling.  Sometimes the words differ, but the essence or meaning is usually the same.  Sometimes extra little words creep in so that the story begins to enlarge and unfold in a different way, so that down the road maybe it doesn’t even resemble the first or the original story.  We do that in our playing sometimes.  Sometimes we modify things that we’ve heard.  Sometimes what we come up with are mutations, if you will, of what we’ve heard.  And sometimes they are merely jumping-off points.  I wouldn’t like to think that people stay there.  The only exception I hear to that now is some tenor players.  John Coltrane has really gotten into their blood, and we don’t always hear their personal voice — we hear shades of John Coltrane.  That’s a great testimony to John Coltrane, but it doesn’t say much for their own development and for their own possible or potential voice.  I think that’s regrettable.  Because it takes away what they would be as a creative source.  We all have something to say, and we say it differently.  And it should be different.  We don’t walk the same, we don’t eat the same kinds of food.  Our habits are different.  The life is different.  So why should we try to clone or become a clone of someone else when we pick up the instrument?  And when we talk about John Coltrane at this point… My goodness, who at this point is going to best John Coltrane, who had years in which to do it?  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  Sit back, listen to it and enjoy it.  Why try to become John Coltrane?  The time could be spent in a better way.

TP:    These quartets mark the last performances by Benny Golson as a solo saxophonist, apart from a few cameos, that we hear from about 1963 to 1980.  It was a real loss to the jazz world not to be able to hear your voice and your story through almost two decades of writing and orchestrating and establishing yourself as a very busy and commercially viable writer and arranger.  The next two tracks show more of the expansion of what you were doing then.  This is called Pop Plus Jazz Equals Swing, and it’s a sort of stereo gimmick album arranged and orchestrated and conducted by Benny Golson from about 1960.

GOLSON:  It was originally recorded on Audiofidelity, which was a label that prided itself in coming up with things that sounded authentic.  They would come up with versions of sounds of trains passing by, glasses breaking, people hammering nails, somebody tap-dancing, firecrackers, those kinds of things.  And a fellow named Tom Wilson, who had the Transition label in Boston, eventually gave it up and settled in New York, and began to produce for different companies, and at the time when we did this, he came into the fold of Audiofidelity.  Stereo had just come out then.  So he came up with a gimmick whereby the stereo could be optimized, and helped people to see really what it was.  And he decided that it would be a good thing to use jazz to do it.  So the way he figured it out, the rhythm section would always sound in the middle, which meant that it was a little each to the right and the left; on the right side it was little to the left and on the left it was a little to the right side.  So it sounded in the middle.  On the right side, I think, he would have a jazz group, and on the left side he would have what’s called a “legit” group with french horns and flutes and a few strings and things like that.  What we would do was come up with standard tunes to be played by the group with the strings and flutes on the left, and on the right side the jazz group would play the figures that had been written on it.  On the song “Whispering,” the legit group would play [SINGS ORIGINAL MELODY] but on the right side, the jazz group was playing “Groovin’ High.”

TP:    A subversive way to hip people to the mechanics of bebop as well.

GOLSON:  Exactly.  He showed what stereo was and how tunes are based on standard.  Same thing with “How High The Moon” with the legit group, and “Ornithology” on the right.  “Moten Swing” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”.  “Out of Nowhere” and “Nostalgia.”  With “Stella By Starlight” we gave a different treatment on the left and the right, but the same song.  We did a blues with the jazz group and “St. Louis Blues” for the legit.  It worked out.  It was an adventure; it worked out.

[MUSIC: “Groovin’ High”/”Whispering”; “Stockholm Serenade,” “Swedish Villa,” “Out of This World,” “Stockholm Sojourn”]

TP:    Here we’ve come from your early arrangements with Dizzy Gillespie to these very involved, multi-layered arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra.  Would you talk about your studies in composition in the eight-year interim?  Was it all pragmatic?  Was it all empirical?  Or did you do some formal study at this time?

GOLSON:  I set out to do some formal study when I went to college, and I was all geared and revved up for it.  But when I got there, it was a little  disappointing for me, because I saw what the students who had gone before me were doing, and I was saying to myself, “Gee, that’s not really what I had in mind.”  I think I mentioned to you last week that when I get to my third year, I had become somewhat of a rebel.  Because when I was studying, we learned all the rules.  All the rules!  The dominant has to go to the tonic.  And I’m saying to myself, “Why?  Why?”  When I did “Killer Joe,” that wasn’t it.  So I started to do things that I knew were wrong.  I’d get the assignment, and I’d break all the rules and take the stuff in — and boy, they’d pull out the whip like Zorro, and just X my assignments in front of the class.  I was belligerent then.  I’d stand up and simply say, “That’s the way I heard it.”  It’s amazing how things can happen like that.  And I have to question: Why does it always have to be the same?  Why can’t it be different?  Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want to?  Why does the dominant always have to go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I mean, I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

TP:    These are the kinds of questions that could only someone who had assimilated the lessons rather well would be inclined to ask.

GOLSON:  So a lot of it was empirical.  I’ll tell you, I got absolutely nothing from there that you would hear in my writing.  It was all empirical, trial-and-error, a priori, from observation, things like that.  Now, I’ll tell you, I had some good teachers.  I listened to people like Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington, and doing more…

TP:    How was Duke Ellington a teacher?

GOLSON:  Oh, the voicings.  Voicing those chords.  Take that baritone off the bottom and put him up at the top there, you get a different sonority.  People think of the baritone as low.  It doesn’t always have to be low.  You can do aberrational things with instruments if you’re familiar with individual sounds and familiar with blend of sounds.  You can get all kinds of things.  Then there are things that you try sometimes that might seem crazy, but you try them anyway.  All you can do is fall on your face.  I mean, no one is going to kill you.  So hopefully, you’ll have a chance to do that again.  Well, I fouled up that time, but the next time… The ballplayer loses the game.  Wait til the next time.  Every day we open our eyes as creative people.  We have to think, “I’ve got another shot at it today.”

TP:    What qualities did Tadd Dameron impart to you?  Of course, you knew him rather well from roadlife with Bullmoose Jackson.

GOLSON:  He was a great dearth writer.  He knew how to use few instruments and get the most out of them to maximize whatever it was they were doing.  With Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse… I said, “How can he get two horns to sound so full like that?”  He got them to sound full because he maximized the instruments who were playing with them, the piano, himself, how he voiced the chords.  Making use of the full drum set.  Not just TINK, TINK-A-TING on the cymbal and the bass drum here and there, but using all of the set.  Because the drums are functional enough to accomplish many things.  The tom-toms accomplish one thing, the snare drum, the hi-hat the ride cymbal, the sticks, the brushes — all of these things make a difference.  The bass.  All these things work.  Then I finally got a chance to meet him, and this guy was an open book.  He didn’t hide anything, and he shared what he knew.  I remember he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington once, and he let me copy it.  I didn’t charge him anything.  Because I was getting a lesson!  As I was copying, I was taking information in.  Well, what did he do here with the third alto?  Or how did he use the baritone?  Well, how did he use the reed section with the brass section?  And how did he voice the trumpets with…? Hey, this was a learning process for me.  So I did a lot of listening.  I eviscerated some things.  I took them apart, laid them out, looked at the component parts.  Why do they work?

And another one that helped me a great deal (he wasn’t even aware of it) was Ernie Wilkins.  This man knew what to do with a big band.  I kid you not. The people don’t know about Ernie Wilkins.  I ran into him in Aarhus, Norway, a few years ago, when he had 12 pieces — he called it his Almost Big Band.  We were on the same bill.  We went to the hotel and we were in the corridor, and I said, “I should let him know this,” and I told him that, and he was astounded.  He said, “Really?”  I said, “Yes, indeed.”  I said, “You have no idea of the times that I took your scores, and looked at them and broke them down.”  This is how you learn.  I didn’t learn it in college.  Today it’s possible.  But during the time I was coming along, it just wasn’t possible.

TP:    Did you take apart the scores of European composers at that time?

GOLSON:  Of course.  It was nothing that would change the cosmic balance of the universe.  But they did know… Everybody talks about Verdi when you talk about opera.  But Giacomo Puccini, he was a much better orchestrator, for my money.  And besides, I found out just a couple of years ago, he used to go around to some of the jazz clubs, so you know he had to be all right!  His orchestrations had much more involved sonorities.  The concept of how he’s using the orchestra.  Background for some of the things, but strong backgrounds.  Verdi was a little flowery for me.  But Puccini sort of rolled his sleeves up and took that pencil up very seriously when he went to work.  Good orchestrations.  They’re using a lot of chords, I-III-V, VI maybe sometimes, minor VIs.  But the way they used them and the sound they got when they used them, you see… When we got to jazz, we just built on things like that.

TP:    Your fondness for opera is something you share with your stylistic mentor, Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  Well, I’ll tell you, I used to hate it until I met my wife, Bobbie.  I really learned to appreciate it through her, as I did ballet and some of the other things.  It’s beautiful.  Some is more beautiful than others.

TP:    What’s becoming apparent is that the musical components that comprise the totality of what you do range from the most functional music that you played for years on the R&B circuit and with Earl Bostic to the very progressive music of the ’40s and ’50s to classical music — all in the pot.

GOLSON:  It gives you insight.  You listen to something like “La Traviata,” and they can almost make you cry, they’re so beautiful, when you hear those voices.  You go from there to rhythm-and-blues to jazz.  She taught me to appreciate Country-and-Western.  Those Country-and-Western tunes will make you get on your knees and cry!

TP:    Well, this is what makes music the magical entity it is, that it can evoke that range of emotion.

GOLSON:  Thank goodness.  Thank goodness that it’s open-ended.  It goes on and on and on.

TP:    But for all those years, you applied all those skills to very functional purposes, in Hollywood and the studio.  You didn’t bring any of the music from this time…

GOLSON:  I thought it would be too boring!  Really.  Episodic music.

TP:    But you were quite successful at it.  You wrote for most of the top Pop singers of the ’60s and ’70s.  The EOJ of the ’70s says you wrote for Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Diana Ross, O.C. Smith, for M.A.S.H. and other television shows.  Is there some separation?  How do you go about writing something for these very specific, project-oriented assignments?

GOLSON:  I guess there is a line of definition there.  But sometimes, if you’re adventurous enough, you can blur the line.  You can cross over.  That can be exciting.  We were doing a show once at Universal, maybe It Takes A Thief or Run For Your Life or something.  Tom Scott was in the orchestra; the contractor had called him.  I took the melody of “Stablemates” and I just permutated it a bit, gave it another harmony and lingered on certain notes, and if you didn’t know “Stablemates,” you wouldn’t know what it was.  After the take, Tom was laughing, because he knew “Stablemates”!  You can get away with it.  Music is music.  It doesn’t always have to be the same.

TP:    What’s some of the music that emerged from that which you’re proud of?

GOLSON:   They publish the things, so you don’t come away with them.  I wrote a lot of songs when I was out there, and Universal published them or 20th Century published them.

TP:    You were on salary and they owned the rights…

GOLSON:  No, I wasn’t on salary.  I was for-hire.  I came in and I did the job.  But it was a known fact that they would publish it.  You never discussed it.  the only two people who published their own material were Earl Hagen, who did I Spy, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, and Henry Mancini.  They were the only two that kept their publishing.  To this day, I don’t know how it happened.  But if I had come out there as a newcomer with my foot in the door, talking about I wanted my publishing…out of town.

TP:    What chain of events led you to Hollywood and putting the saxophone away for as long as you did?

GOLSON:  Quincy Jones.  My ex-roommate in Dizzy Gillespie’s band.  He went out there first, and he told me that Henry Mancini had been trying to make the way open for him.  Then he left.  (We used to live in the same building.)  After he got out there, eventually he called and said, “Well, this is happening, that’s happening, you ought to come out.”  His agent was Peter Faith, who was the son of Percy Faith.  I wasn’t sure.  I took a trip out there,, my wife and I went out, and looked around to see what was going on.  I think we stayed about a week or ten days.  It looked pretty good.  So I came back, and packed up myself, and went out there.  I wanted to be very sure before I pulled up roots here.  I got a little studio apartment.  And I went to work right away!

I got a call from the Goldwyn Studios.  Alex North was doing The Devil’s Brigade with William Holden, and he wanted someone to do some source music.  Alex had called my teacher who had been teaching me weekends, who was at Bennington College, and wanted him to do the source music.  He told him he couldn’t do it, but that one of his students had just moved out there.  That was me.  He wanted me to write some period music.  The source music is not the underscoring for the picture, but if somebody puts a record on, or if there’s a band playing in the place when people come into the club or the restaurant.  That’s period music, but not the underscoring for the action and emotions and drama of the film.  So there was quite a bit of period music.  I think I wrote a gavotte; for some reason, it went back that far.  I had to do a Dixieland thing.  And I did a George Shearing type thing and some other things.  This was known as source music.  And many times, depending upon the stature of the composer, he will assign the source music to other composers and just concentrate on the music for the film.  Well, I had just gotten out there.  What could I demand?  No, I don’t want source music; I want a feature film!  This was a way of getting people to know you and know your work, and so I did it.

Eventually, through Quincy, I got into Universal.  As a matter of fact, I got the same agent, Peter Faith.  He was really in at Universal, so Universal is the first studio I began to work at.  At the time I got there they had just put together a new show with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief.  Now, Dave Grusin was already there, and he had written the theme for the show, but he was busy doing some other things, and they needed someone to write the music for the show.  He had done the first one, which they premiered, and I started on the second show.  And it worked out all right.  They said, “Do you want another one?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I did the third show… It went on like that.

TP:    It keeps building up.

GOLSON:  Yes.  Eventually I went out to 20th Century Fox, who had a new show starting out.  Jerry Goldsmith, who became a good friend, had written the theme for it, and they didn’t have anybody to do the show.  They asked me if I wanted to do it.  So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  So I did Room 222.  And Johnny Mandel had already done the theme for M.A.S.H.  Now, they had had some composers from before, but they wanted something a little different.  I was out there with Room 222, so…

TP:    So you were a new sound, which was why producers wanted your services.

GOLSON:  Maybe so.  Anyway, I went to work also on M.A.S.H.  I did Room 222 for two-three years, and M.A.S.H.  I did for three years.  That was a great show.  And I got to know the people on the show, like Alan Alda.  They’re real people.  So it was really nice working out there.  They didn’t put any pressure on me.  At Universal, the pressure was always  on.  I was beginning to feel like a humpback in the back room, working from early morning until late at night.  You’d get to the middle of the show, and they’d call you: “Do you have Reel 3 done yet?”  You’re on Reel 2, you haven’t gotten to Reel 3.  “But we need it.”  The pressure was always on.

TP:    Why did you put down the horn?  Or did you entirely put it down?

GOLSON:  Yes, I did.

TP:    you didn’t play it at all.

GOLSON:  I didn’t play it at all.  I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.

TP:    It must have hurt you.

GOLSON:  No, it didn’t.  Because at that time I did not like the way I was sounding on it.  So it wasn’t too hard for me to put it down.  But a strange thing happened.  In those 7-8 years I didn’t play it, the thinking process was working, and strangely enough, when I did finally pick it up again, I did not sound the way I sounded when I put it down, though I had not actually been playing it.  So the thinking process does help sometimes, along with the practice of playing, of course.

TP:    What caused you to pick it up again?  We’ll hear records from 1980-81.

GOLSON:  That’s around when I picked it up again.  It was a little frustrating, though, because I picked it up and I didn’t sound the way I sounded before, but I did not know how I wanted to sound then — not entirely.

TP:    Had you been listening a lot to music in the previous decade?

GOLSON:  Constantly.

TP:    And what was your impression of the music in the ’70s?

GOLSON:  Interesting.  Interesting and moving forward.  It should always move forward.  Because we had new blood coming.  We had people who you never heard before, coming out from Wokonomac, Wisconsin, and from Iron Mountain, Michigan, places you never heard of, coming onto the scene, and they had their own voices and things to say.  And some of them represented great potential.  Since that time, many of them have gone to become big names in jazz.  This was all happening.  It was fertile.

TP:    What impressed you of the electric music, the fusion of the period?

GOLSON:  Some of the things impressed me.  But all in all, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.  But I didn’t decry it.  I didn’t put it down.  I didn’t vilify any of the players.  It just wasn’t for me.  Some of the things were interesting.  To this day, I like some of the things.  I like some of the Rock-and-Roll, some of the Rhythm-and-Blues.  Oh yeah.  Consequential things.

[MUSIC: BG-Fuller, “California Message”; w/ Bu, “City Bound,” “Just By Myself,” “I Remember Clifford”]

TP:    Do you remember when you first heard Clifford Brown?

GOLSON:  Yeah.  It was in a club in south Philadelphia, Broad and Lombard Street.  I remember the name of the hotel above the club — the Douglas Hotel.  I don’t remember the name of the club, but I remember one of its features.  It began with a matinee on Monday, 4 to 7.  You opened with a matinee, and then you played that night from 9 until 1, four sets.  I heard him there with an entertaining group, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames.  They sang these little songs and had their choreography, even if it was only moving from side to side and the music had a beat that kind of appealed to the people — it wasn’t a swing kind of thing.  The aberration was Clifford Brown.  He joined in, he was a part of all this, but when he started to play his solo, he stepped out there in solitary air space by himself.  High above the circle of the earth; that’s where he was.  It was so distinct and it was so good, even the people who liked the entertaining quality of the group were aware that this fellow had special ability.  And he did.

TP:    How would you reconstruct his sound of the time?

GOLSON:  Like Fats Navarro, but more Clifford Brown.  I mean, he wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Fats Navarro, but he was out of that school.  It was more than Fats; it was different.  He had a fat sound.  He was maybe a bit more fiery and a bit more daring because he came after Fats, so some of the things he did were based on newer things, and he was searching for things in the chords and how to put things together.  So it was very exciting to hear him play.  What eventually happened with that group, not only did people come to hear Chris Powell sing those songs and what it was that they did; they came to wait for these solos by Clifford Brown.  That’s when he started to be known, while he was with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames.  It was a complete anomaly, his being with that group.  That’s how he began to be known, with that group.  Of course, he soon left after that.

He lived 30 miles from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware.  So we weren’t together, oh, every day and through the week like John and I were.  But he would come to Philadelphia quite often, because compared with Wilmington, Philadelphia was the place to be.  South of Wilmington, the next place further than Philadelphia, was Baltimore and then Washington.  So Philadelphia was a lot closer, and there was actually more happening in Philadelphia.  So he was there quite often for the jam sessions and gigs and whatnot, and we got to know each other pretty well.  Later, of course, in 1953, we both joined Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, and we were together almost every day there.

TP:    Was he consistently creative player from night after night?

GOLSON:  I’m sure in his own mind he had his inconsistencies.  But as a listener, yes, he was consistent!

TP:    You’ve told the story of your friendship with John Coltrane in many places, and two weeks ago you spoke of meeting him in 1945.

GOLSON:  I was 16.  He had just gotten out of the Navy.

TP:    You spoke of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in one of the Philly theaters in 1945, and he brought “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in 1955.  But This is For You, John is a tribute recording, and in the liner notes you relate some telling anecdotes about his practice habits, about his passion for the horn.  You recollect the first time you heard play saxophone, on a job with Eddie Vinson where the tenor player walked off…

GOLSON:  Eddie Vinson had come to town, and he was working the Eastern Seaboard — New York (and probably Chicago), Washington, Baltimore, maybe even Philadelphia.  At that time, he decided he would get a band from the East Coast.  John was one of the players playing alto saxophone.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player.  I can’t remember who else was in that band.  But they were all from Philadelphia.  They were playing a job in Philadelphia or Delaware or someplace like that, and Louis Judge, the tenor player he’d hired, had an argument with Eddie.  He was pretty fiery.  Right after the argument, they went on intermission, the half-hour intermission.  Then it was time to come back (it was a dance type of thing), and Louis, pouting, did not come back.  He wasn’t going to come back right away; he was going to punish Eddie.  And all of the musicians left their horns laying on the chair when they went out.  They came back, John picked his alto up, and Louis was nowhere to be found.  So they began without him.  Eddie had this particular song that had a tenor solo.  Eddie played alto himself and John played alto; the only tenor player in the group was Louis.  And for some reason, he wanted the tenor solo!   The tenor solo was coming up, and still no Louis.  So Eddie looked over to John and said, “Play Louis’ horn.”  John was a little reticent about doing that.  Eddie said, “No, play his horn; I want a tenor solo.”  So John picked the horn up (this was the first time he’d ever played tenor, you know) and he began to play.  Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like an alto player.  He sounded like Dexter Gordon, or from that school.  And it sounded so good, he was playing so much stuff, wherever Louis was, he came running to the bandstand.  “Give me my horn!”  He didn’t want anybody playing like that!  He would really lose the gig!

And John liked it.  I remember he told me,  “I tried it, I liked it,” and the next thing you know, he had gone and bought a tenor saxophone.  The tenor sax was kind of a novelty to him.  He ended up working with a former member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, from Philadelphia also, named Johnny Lynch, a trumpet player, and they were working at a skating rink every week in South Philadelphia on Broad Street.  It might have been the E-Lite(?) Ballroom.  It was a three-hour concert every Sunday afternoon.  John would bring the tenor, and he might play one number on it.  He was primarily an alto player.  Then as time went by, he was playing more numbers on it.  And after a while, he was playing tenor and lot equally.  As time went further on, he was playing more on the tenor and less on the alto.  And finally, he sold the alto.  He was a tenor  player.  He loved the sound of the tenor saxophone.  So that’s how it got started.

He went through phases, just as Picasso went through his periods of squares and cubes… He went through phases on the saxophone, trying to find out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to sound like.  So Dexter disappeared.  I ran into him when he was working with a fellow named Gay Crosse out in Cleveland, Ohio.  I was with another rhythm-and-blues band, and I went by the hotel room where he and Specs Wright were playing.  Specs was practicing on the practice pad, keeping the rhythm, and he was playing his horn.  I noticed he sounded a little different.  Each time I heard him, he was a little different.  Because he was finding himself on the tenor saxophone.  I think he was constantly doing that, right up until the end.  At the same time, he was putting all these things together, the chords and… He was a person who practiced all the time, that Spartan-like practice, like a person who had no talent — and he had an abundance of talent.  So you hook that up, a person who had an abundance of talent and who practiced all the time, you’re going to get something pretty redoubtable!  And he was.  And he became that.  As I heard him, boy, he was awesome.

One thing led to another, and eventually, Philly Joe left town to join Miles, and Hank Mobley was leaving at the time, and Miles asked Philly did he know any tenor players in Philly.  Philly told him, yes, he knew a tenor player, and Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “His name is John Coltrane.”  Of course, Miles had never heard of him, so he asked him (he wanted to be sure) “Can he play?”  And Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, he can play.”  John joined the band, and… Did I tell this two weeks ago?  Anyway, he eventually brought “Stablemates” to him and Miles recorded it.

TP:    Let me take a detour here, and ask about your good friendship with Jimmy Heath in the 1940s.  He was perhaps the most advanced of you in the 1940’s, with the big band.

GOLSON:  He was, definitely.  Jimmy was only 19 years old and I was about 16, John was 18.  And this guy, Jimmy Heath, had the ability to play chords.  We were still struggling, still spelling, A, B, C… He had the ability to play chords.  Until this day, I don’t think I’ve heard Jimmy Heath play a wrong chord.  He is fantastic with those chords!  Anyway, he was into it!  And John came to town, and he heard about Jimmy, because they were both playing alto at that time.  John was sounding like Johnny Hodges.  Jimmy had heard Charlie Parker, and he was trying to sound like that.  John eventually met him, and when he came to my house again he said, “Oh, I met Jimmy Heath; boy, he’s a crazy cat” — which meant he was all right, he was really on it!  Eventually, Jimmy formed a big band, a 15-piece band.  Boy, I’ve got to tell you, those seats were coveted.  But somehow, John and I made it. [LAUGHS] Because we weren’t playing that great.  We finally made it.  I was playing fourth tenor.  A fellow named Sax Young was playing second tenor.  He had most of the solos.  I was coming along.  John was playing third alto, and a fellow named Duke Joiner was playing lead alto.  I forget who was playing baritone sax.  Then we had some other guys in the band.  Jimmy was writing some of the music, then I started trying to write and John started trying to write.  Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  Hen Gates (James Forman) was playing piano.  Specs Wright was playing drums.  It was really sounding great.  Everybody wanted to be in that band.  We were so happy because we were in the band.  To this day I call Jimmy “boss” whenever I see him, because of that band.  Whenever I call him, I say, “Hey, boss!”  We were talking about that the other day.  I called him on his birthday, as a matter of fact, about three or four days ago.

We rehearsed a lot.  We had a vocalist.  But we didn’t work too often.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the group.  Because these were young kids, and the band was sounding good.  Johnny Acea, who was an arranger living in New York, was from Philly, and he wrote some things, and there was another arranger from Philly named Leroy Lovett, big-time arranger, writing stuff for Nat Cole and everything, and he was writing things and giving it to us.  We were in a privileged position.  But the band never really took off.  We were trying to get a booking agent like Shaw or ABC or Glazer or somebody to take us, but it never happened.  I guess people just didn’t have faith in these kids.  Eventually the band broke up.  But it was a good experience.

TP:    Had we another hour or two past 7, I’d quiz him more about Philadelphia in the ’50s, but we don’t.  The next recording pairs him with Pharaoh Sanders.  This is the only “tenor battle” I can think of.

GOLSON:  I’ll tell you how this came about.  I knew John at the beginning.  At the very beginning, we became good friends.  Now, Pharaoh met him later along, when he became the John Coltrane.  And for me, Pharaoh is the one who comes closest to what John Coltrane was all about.  We’re not talking about the velocity and running all over the horn.  I’m talking about the sound and the way he projected and the way he could play one note, like John, and lay you out.  One note!  I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a tribute to John, play a couple of the tunes that he played, with me as one who knew him early on, and Pharaoh, who knew him later in his development.  We put the date together, and we came up with This is For You, John.

[MUSIC: BG-Pharaoh, “Times Past: This Is For You, John”]

TP:    Were you listening to John Coltrane’s music throughout the ’60s?  Did you keep up with everything he did before he died?

GOLSON:  Well, not everything.  But I listened to him, of course.  He had a lot to say.  We had to listen to him.

TP:    Did you keep in touch personally throughout?

GOLSON:  From time to time.  Not as much as we did earlier, of course, because our paths were going in different directions and our music wasn’t the same either.  But we did see each other from time to time.  We would always recall some of the things that happened earlier-on as young teenagers.  He came down to see me at the Five Spot.  We were on intermission.  I saw him coming across the street, and he had this cigar, and he’d put on a little weight.  I said, “Wow!”  He said, “Man, I’m taking Metrecal but nothing is happening.”  I didn’t think much of it.  Then finally I said, “Well, how are you taking it?”  He said, “Well, I eat my meal and then I drink a Metrecal.”  I started laughing!  No weight loss.

TP:    We’ll hear recordings from 1986 and 1988, one for a studio date with Freddie Hubbard and one with the reconfigured Jazztet.  You mentioned earlier that for the second incarnation of the Jazztet, you made the arrangements less restrictive, more freedom for the soloists.  Did this inspire new writing for you?  Was it a project you could devote new energies to?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I came to appreciate that less means more.  Or, to look at it from another view, the more you do a thing, the less it means.  So that’s what I did, and we felt better about it.  Writing evolves just like playing does, or any other creative thing.  My writing started to take a turn.  I did a thing on one of those sessions called “Vas Simeon,” which had no form to it at all, no form whatsoever, but yet we had to blow on it.  So for the blowing part, I constructed a little area of chords that we would blow on, and once that was over, we went back to this nondescript kind of thing as far as form was concerned.  It was so different than what I had written theretofore, that the piano player, Mickey Tucker, said to me, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”

[MUSIC: BG-Freddie, “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing”; Jazztet, “Vas Simeon,” C. Fuller 5, “Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere”]

TP:    The next recording is a special project, based on the Brandenberg Concertos.

GOLSON:  I didn’t defile Bach at all.  I have to say that.  Because the solos are not based on things he wrote; those things were added.  It’s another project that wasn’t my idea, but a very interesting one.  When they proposed it, it seemed like a challenge, which I accepted.  I had heard Bach all of my life.  But this time I had to eviscerate him.  I had to really look at what he was doing.  Because I knew I had to come up with things in addition to what he had written, and yet these things couldn’t sound arbitrary, like they were just picked up and tacked on to it.  They had to sound like part of the whole tapestry.  So it had to be in the style or concept or feeling that he had.  When I wrote these things, I remember, for the first person I played it to, it went into a section I had written, and they mentioned Bach, as though he had written it.  That let me know that I was on the right track.  I said, “No, that’s mine.”  But it had to be that way, otherwise it would be neither fish nor fowl.

Now, he had a certain number of instruments when he did the Brandenberg Concerti.  This CD represents about half of them.  I added some horns he didn’t have, and I added some female voices which he didn’t have.  So I had to write original parts for the voices that would go with his things, and I had to assign these additional instruments things to play, and it had to be in keeping with what he had done, and the transitions going into the jazz had to work, too.  So all these things represented a challenge.

[MUSIC: Brandenberg #1 w/ Mulgrew, Art Farmer, Rufus Reid, Smitty]

TP:    Here’s another selection from the private archive, dedicated to Bessie Smith.

GOLSON:  This is from last April.  NPR called me and asked me to compose a composition in tribute to Bessie Smith for her 100th birthday.  It didn’t have to be too long, and for solo piano.  I told them I thought I could do it.  After about a week I came up with this.  We hired Bill Mays, who was my pianist while we were in California, to do this.  They played it, and they sent me a copy.  The voice you hear will be Odetta, who narrated it.

TP:    You mentioned last week that you listened to a lot of blues as a kid, that it was played in the house a lot, and that some of your earliest experiences may have been listening to Bessie Smith and the classic blues.

GOLSON:  I had no choice.  And two of my uncles played piano similar to what you’re going to do here.  Not quite as well, though. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  “Bessie and Me”]

TP:    Now some selections for the Benny Golson Quintet for Dreyfus, an in-studio date with new arrangements of previously recorded material.  I’d like to talk about reprising and reworking older material.

GOLSON:  “Domingo” is what we’ll hear.  I wrote it for a date for Lee Morgan, maybe his first or second.  It’s one of those tunes that was recorded and never even played again; it continued to live on the album.  Many years went by, and I never thought about the tune any more.  Many years later, Phineas Newborn recorded it.  Geoff Keezer played it for me, and I went, “Hey, how about that,” but I still didn’t think about it.  Then Mulgrew Miller knew about it and he said, “Hey, you ought to start playing this tune again.”  Then James Williams said the same thing.  I said, “Well, maybe I should!”  The style didn’t change too much.  The concept, the solos may be a bit different because time has moved on.

TP:    Is that how it is with most of your older material.  You have so many classics of the jazz lexicon, so I’d imagine just to keep yourself interested… Do you try to put little twists and turns in and update arrangements, or do you hew to the older version?

GOLSON:  No.  Even as a composer, they’re not sacrosanct.  I feel compelled to do something a little different.  I’m of the opinion that things should not always remain exactly the same.  In classical music they do, and the only difference is the quality of the performance, the conductor and the tempos.  But jazz is different.  We can express the same thing in so many different ways.  It’s a real adventure, and I’m privileged to be a part of it!

[MUSIC: “Domingo”]

TP:    A woman called as that was playing and asked me to ask you: If you were listening to yourself blind over the air, how would you know it’s your tune?  What are the distinctive characteristics by which you recognize your compositions?

GOLSON:  I don’t know if she meant if I’m playing it or if it’s just my composition?  If I’m playing it, it’s just like hearing my own voice.  I know my style.  But if it’s my composition and someone else is playing it, there are lots of parallels.  It’s like hearing your mate’s voice.  When you hear that voice, you know it’s his or hers in a crowd.  You can pick it out.  Sometimes you even know the smell of your mate.  He or she can cough in a crowd, and you can identify them by the cough.  You can see a bunch of children playing, and they’re making lots of noise, they’re rambunctious, and yet, with your back turned you can tell whether or not your kid is there if he’s joining in with his voice.  There are lots of parallels.  You can tell the way a person walks from the rear that it’s him or her, if you know them really well.

It’s the same thing with music. The structure, as you said.  Yes, you know the structure.  You know the very nature of the song.  You don’t even have to hear the melody.  Before they get back to the melody again, you know it’s yours.  It might sound complicated, but it’s extremely easy.

TP:    I think an implication of the question is, what are some of the salient aspects of the Benny Golson writing style and, perhaps also, the improvisational style, since you function as a composer-improviser?

GOLSON:  Saliently, it would be the structure, the very nature of the tune.  What chord follows what chord.  Which determines the structure or the concept of the tune.  The melody is the same thing.  You have one note, you have nothing.  You have nothing of any consequence until you get the second note.  You’ve got the beginning of a melody.  The first note doesn’t mean a thing.

TP:    So it’s how you get from Point A to Point B that makes Benny Golson Benny Golson.  Do you see your identities as composer and improviser as separate, as related, as sometimes separate and sometimes… Certainly, there’s sometimes an element of spontaneous composition in the act of improvising.

GOLSON:  Always separate for me.  When I’m playing, I don’t think about the writing.  When I’m writing, conversely, I don’t think about the playing.  The two never meet.

TP:    Do you have to clear your head, or is that just the way it is?

GOLSON:  No, it’s just natural.  I pour myself into each aspect, totally.

I got a Guggenheim fellowship last year, and under their aegis I will be writing another symphony, a second symphony.  The first was a combination of the jazz thing and this, but this will be straight-out classical.  Don’t know where I’m going.  I have my premise, I’ve done my research, and all I have to do is translate these things into music.  Haven’t written a note, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading a lot of books, and when I get ready to put pen to paper, hopefully things will happen.  And I’ve been commissioned to write a new ballet by a ballet company in Columbus called Ballet-Met.  I’ve been out there, I’ve talked with them, they have great facilities.  They’ve got two studios that look like airplane hangars.  It’s incredible.  Their facility takes up a whole block.  People in New York would kill for that. [ETC.]

[-30-]

Benny Golson Musician Show (2-7-96):

TP:    When we started running down the musicians on whom we wanted to focus, the first you mentioned was Lucky Thompson.  Most of this show will be devoted to tenor players from the Coleman Hawkins school – Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Hawkins — who are the people who pulled you in when you were beginning and feeling your oats on the tenor.

GOLSON:  Lucky sort of grew out of Don Byas, that school of thought Don seemed to come up with, a former alto player.  Lucky’s approach was even smoother.  He tended to flow one thing into another.  He would come at melodies from different angles; he had a good knowledge of chords.  Though he’s still alive, I have to say “had,” because he is no longer playing.  What we’re about to play is one of the last things he recorded before he bowed out  It was so good, it’s one of the best things I ever heard from him.  I heard it a few months ago, a friend had it, and I was taken aback.

TP:    When did you first hear him play, become aware of him?

GOLSON:  It had to be ’53, or something like that.  I heard him after I heard Don Byas.  And although the styles were similar, oxymoronically, they were different at the same time.  He says some of the same things that Don used to say, but in a slightly different way.  They’re from the same musical neighborhood and concept, so to speak.

TP:    You referred to Don Byas a converted alto saxophonist.  Do you feel that his having played alto saxophone first had a significant impact on his style as a tenor saxophonist?

GOLSON:  I’m not sure, but I suspect that he did.  He sings in his melodies when he plays like a lead alto.  If you listen closely on his ballads, he sings those melodies like Charlie Parker used to sing the melodies.  Singing in the sense that he’s pouring out his heart, almost vocally, through the saxophone, through the sound of the saxophone.  That’s what we used to call “singing.”  That’s the way Don played his melodies.  Now, Lucky didn’t play his melodies quite the same.  If you played them back to back, you might be able to hear that.

TP:    Eddie Lockjaw Davis said in an interview that Don Byas was able to incorporate the ideas that Art Tatum was playing in his left hand on the saxophone, and was one of the very few who had the technique to be able to realize that.  What do you make of that?  We know he was very influenced by Tatum and had tons of Tatum records?

GOLSON:  Well, I’d have to say he was ambidextrously talented, because he not only played what he played in the left hand, he played quite a bit of what he played in the right hand, too.

TP:    Well, it’s a literal quote.  But he did have prodigious technique, and was a saxophonist from the ’30s who was really respected by the young generation who came up after World War II.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Let me tell you, I happened to be talking about him with Harry Sweets Edison, and Sweets said to me, “When Chu Berry was in town we used to have jam sessions, and Chu would always want to get with Don.”  I said, “What was the outcome when they’d get together?”  I can’t repeat verbatim, but he said Don did him in each time.  And Earl Bostic used to tell me about him; he would go to the sessions, and nobody could keep up with him, I guess other than Earl Bostic himself, who was really quite the technician.  Oh yeah, he could play.

TP:    And also in 1944, when Dizzy Gillespie went on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was in Kansas City, he hired Don Byas for the front line.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    When did you first hear Don Byas?  I believe you saw Dizzy and Bird in  person for the first time in ’45 in Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  It was ’45, yes.  We were sort of getting into that… When I say “we,” we who were aspiring professionals.  Ray Bryant was at that concert.  John Coltrane and I went together.  I think Jimmy Heath was there in the first row with some other piano player from Philly, locally.  When we heard this concert, it literally changed our lives.  We could feel something happening to us inside that we’d never felt before.  Because not only were we hearing a fantastic performance, we were hearing a kind of music that we had never, ever heard before.  You have to imagine the impact on 16- and 18-year kids.  That’s what we were.  All the way home, we were “supposing” and “if.”  We were looking into the future.  We wanted to know what that music was all about, really.  And I am still trying to find out what it’s all about.  Because music is open-ended.  You never really complete it.  You never finish it.  It’s malleable, you reshape it and you put it here and you put it over there and you add something to it, and it continues to grow.  Even the styles… How can I say it?  Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  That’s because Jazz in particular has such a forward motion to it, it’s always evolving out of itself and it’s moving forward, so that the styles that are great today might be a little dated tomorrow, but it doesn’t go into obscurity.  You just move it over on the shelf and make room for the newer things.

TP:    And the day after tomorrow, it may be fresh again.

GOLSON:  Well, the future is always a second away or so.  So as we move forward in the stream of time, and making time our confederate, we indefatigably move ahead with it — if we are truly creative.  And that’s what we do.  No musician that I know of is ever completely satisfied.  I mean, I’ve heard Dizzy play, and Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane.  And when you’d talk to them, you’d always hear, “I think I could do it better if I had done so-and-so.”  And you’re saying, “What?”  It’s a relative thing.  No matter where we are, what strata, what level we’re at in ability, we’re always stretching.  We’re never satisfied.  We’re always reaching.  That’s part of the adventure.

[MUSIC:  Lucky Thompson, “When Sunny Gets Blue,” “Blue and Boogie” (1970)]

GOLSON:  Unfortunately, on “Blue and Boogie,” the sound was not quite right.  He must have been a little disappointed with that.  But the performance was good, what he was playing was fine, but the sound was a little constricted.  That wasn’t really his sound.  I know his sound.  It’s one of those things that’s happened to me; it’s happened to many of us from time to time.

I guess the next thing you’re going to play is “52nd Street Theme” with Dizzy and Don Byas.  When I heard this, during that time the saxophone players were playing kind of smooth and mellow and flowing.  The tongue didn’t touch the reed too often.  It was just the style.  So here comes Don, with great articulation… You notice the way he plays, especially when he goes into the bridge, and you notice that he’s playing wide intervals.  The notes are far apart.  He’s not going smoothly, like going up a pair of steps or down a pair of steps.  It’s tantamount to skipping steps, jumping down steps, jumping up steps, over the notes.  He knew his horn that well, you’ll notice, as he plays what he does.

[MUSIC: Byas-Diz, “52nd Street Theme”; Byas, “Candy,” “How High The Moon”]

TP:    That reflected in many ways what was happening on 52nd Street at the time, the mixture of musicians of different sensibilities and eras, and playing a song that was the anthem of the young beboppers… Benny pointed out that he wanted to hear Don Byas’ break when he went into the bridge.

GOLSON:  That “52nd Street Theme” is notable because it epitomized what was happening musically at that time.  You’ll notice, as you listen to some of those things, the rhythm was kind of boom-changy, which was sort of a reflection from the past.  Keep in mind that when this music started…oh, whenever they started… I’m not sure exactly when it started but I heard it in 1945.  When I say “they,” I’m referring to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  And when we first heard them in Philadelphia live, we weren’t even sure who Charlie Parker was when they first started to play.  But they had Slam Stewart on bass, I think Big Sid Catlett was on drums and Al Haig was playing piano.  We didn’t realize then that the rhythm section hadn’t caught up with what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing.  On some of those early things, Bird and Diz were hitting it hard, in this new direction, but the rhythm section was lagging a little bit behind.  Later on they got with it, with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and some of the others.

TP:    What exactly were they lacking?

GOLSON:  they were lacking the spirit of the new concept that Bird and Diz had come up with.  Of course, jazz had existed before Bird and Diz were playing what they played, so they were playing  what they knew best, what they used to play before Diz and Bird came on the scene with this epochal music.

TP:    What did they add rhythmically?

GOLSON:  Well, on that tune you hear the bass drum on every beat.  BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  That doesn’t happen so much now.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  Now when the bass drum is played, it’s played a little lightly, and when you accent certain things, then it means something.  But if you have it BOOM-BOOM’ing all the time, then you really  have to hit it hard, and it would be overwhelming.  Things like that.  The bass selection of notes, the notes then on the bass were thumps, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.  You played them, and they died immediately.  I call it the rubber band sound.  You hear Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid, they play those notes like they don’t want to die.  They ring fully until the finger touches the string to play the next note.  They ring.  They fill up.  It gives you a different feeling when you’re playing with these kind of players, too.  And it makes the music sound different.

TP:    Now, when you were a kid, listening to this for the first time, going to the Earle Theater to hear Bird and Dizzy, what kind of records  were you listening to and assimilating?

GOLSON:  I was listening to Lionel Hampton.  Arnett Cobb, he was my hero.  He was the one that was responsible for me picking up the tenor saxophone.  That’s where we were.  If anyone knows about the Lionel Hampton groove on “Flyin’ Home,” to me, that was the epitome of saxophone playing.  That was the epitome of what a big band could do other than Duke Ellington.  I didn’t understand everything he was doing, but I knew it was something unusual, and I liked it.  But I liked Lionel Hampton better at that time.  It just had a certain spirit for me.  I was coming into it not really knowing much about jazz, and it was one of the things that first struck my fancy.

TP:    How did you pick up on the new bebop records?  Was it word-of-mouth among your peer group?  You heard it on jukeboxes?  On the radio?  How did you become aware of it?

GOLSON:  It was the strangest thing.  By accident, really, there was a place in Philadelphia that sold used records, records which had been played on the jukeboxes.  It was 78’s.  Though they were only 37 cents brand-new, you could go and buy these used records for a dime apiece!  I saw this thing, the very first one was “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time.”  I’d never heard of Miles Davis.  I’d never heard of this fellow called Charlie Parker.  Only 10 cents!  I figured, after all, I couldn’t lose anything.  So I bought it.  And I took it home, and I put it on, and I listened to it — and it was the strangest music.  Had I wasted my dime?  It was quite unlike the things I had been hearing before.  But the more I played it, the more I began to like, not really understanding what it was all about.  So in the middle of all of this, I got a chance to hear Bird and Diz, not even really knowing who Bird was.  This guy dressed in a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him — it looked like he was going to explode in it!  And when he bent over to make that 4-bar break in “A Night In Tunisia,” I almost fell out of the balcony.  John and I were grabbing at each other.  We’d never heard anybody play like that before.

TP:    Did he have a big-big sound, Charlie Parker?

GOLSON:  Yes, he had a big sound.  And the things that he played… John Coltrane was playing alto at that time.  He was into Johnny Hodges!  That’s where he was.  I was into Arnett Cobb.  And to hear Charlie Parker come out and play that 4-bar break by himself… Man, we were going crazy!  What was this all about?  How could we get close to this music?

But there was another fellow who came along.  I had been into Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb.  He was such an aberration.  He was so different  that he drove me out of my mind, too, and it was the next recording you’re going to play by Diz — “Blue and Boogie.”  When I heard him play…I’m repeating myself.  Inside I was going crazy, my emotions.  Because it sounded so great, so good to me… it’s like meeting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life or something like that.  It got me, and it started to change my concept about the saxophone.  It helped me to move on.  I told him that once.  He laughed.  I said, “It’s true!”

TP:    Talk about the advances that Dexter Gordon brought to the tenor saxophone vocabulary.

GOLSON:  It was just his approach to it.  Actions speak louder than words… If you just put it on and let the audience hear it… Some will already remember it anyway.  But they will hear that what we’ve just played is totally different.  He’s going in another direction, and I wanted to go along with it.

[MUSIC: Diz-Dex, “Blue and Boogie”; Bird-Diz, “Dizzy Atmosphere”; Bird-Diz-Byas, “Sweet Georgia Brown”]

GOLSON:  When Dexter Gordon came along with that style… Oh, it doesn’t amaze me about him any more, so much has happened since then.  But at that time, no one had played like that before him.  So it had quite an impact, first of all on the musicians, and maybe even some of the people who listened to it.  But it affected so many musicians… Let me tell you what happened.  John was playing alto, and he had begun to play like Charlie Parker after that concert I told you about, in which he and Dizzy were playing together.  He was playing I think in Eddie Vinson’s band.  In that band, there was a tenor player.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player, because Eddie had come to the East Coast for a string of dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and he used all Philadelphia musicians to do these jobs with him.  The tenor player and Eddie had a falling-out, so when the time came for intermission, he laid his horn on the chair (as all of us did for the half-hour intermission), and when it was time to come back, everybody came back except the tenor player, who I guess was pouting.  Nobody knew where he was.  Well, Eddie had to go on playing, so they played whatever this tune was, and in this tune was a tenor solo coming up, so Eddie told John to pick up Louis’ horn.  John was a little reluctant.  He said, “No, pick it up and play it!”  So John picked it up.  And when he picked it up and started to play, who do you think he sounded like?  He sounded like Dexter Gordon.  Not Charlie Parker.  He adopted a new mental attitude for the tenor saxophone.  It sounded so good… I wasn’t there, but Johnny Coles told me about it.  Wherever Louis Judge was, he came running up to the bandstand.  He felt that his career and his job was in jeopardy, and he said, “Give me my horn!”  But John had had a taste of it, and that’s what prompted him to buy a tenor saxophone.  That’s how it happened.  And he started playing tenor saxophone sort of as a novelty, and then what eventually happened, the alto began to fade into the background and he became a tenor player.  Like with lots of other alto players — Jimmy Heath, Don Byas, George Coleman; many of them were alto players.

But Charlie Parker, I have to go back to him again.  Although he was an alto player, and on that concert where I first heard him, my idol was on that concert, Don Byas… But when the concert was over, and after John and I went back and got the autographs (you know how kids are), we found ourselves following Charlie Parker up the street.  We followed him for blocks.  And John was carrying his horn on the left and I was on his right, like kids.  “Mister Parker, how do you do this?” and “What is this?” and “What is..>”  I guess we drove the man crazy, until he got where he was going; he was on his way to the Downbeat club, which was about four blocks from the concert hall, and we were too young to get into the club, so he left us there — maybe he was glad too get away from us!  “Okay, kids, keep up the good work.”  It was up on the second floor.  And we spent the rest of the night just standing outside, listening to this new music being played by Charlie Parker, who was being featured with the local rhythm section, who was Red Garland, Philly Joe and Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  We didn’t know any of them at the time.

TP:    In 1945.

GOLSON:  Yeah, we were kids.  They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.  We wanted to know them, though.  And we stayed there all night until it was over.  Certainly Charlie Parker influenced John’s playing as an alto player.  But I think he influenced many of us.  Til this day.  Barry Harris sounds like Charlie Parker playing piano!  But he helped take us on our voyage to nowhere, because we didn’t know where we were going.  We didn’t know whether we were going to be successful or not.  But we didn’t care.  We were compelled to do what we were trying to do.  And each day we woke up, it was great to open our eyes, because we knew we had another shot at what we were trying to do.  So we used to have lots of jam sessions.  We used to get together.  And when I heard this playing here, and you could hear the bass drum playing this 1-2-3-4 heavy THUMP… Around that time, the rhythm sections hadn’t really caught up to what Bird and Diz were doing.  As I said, they did later, and it really began to smooth out, and everybody began to go in a similar direction in their development.  But this is what we were living, those of us in Philadelphia at the time.  I didn’t know anything about Chicago or New York or anyplace else, just what happened in Philadelphia.  This is where we were, and these were the kinds of things that were helping to move us forward — all of us.  Jimmy Heath, Nelson Boyd, Percy Heath, Philly Joe.  We were all trying to get into this new music, and eventually we did.  Some of us were successful enough to leave Philadelphia and come to Mecca, New York City, and go to various places around the world, and some weren’t.  I feel, as many of us do, that we were privileged to be a part of that and develop it to a point that we could go out and show our wares, as it were, to people all around the world, and they would appreciate it in varying degrees.

TP:    In the decade before you were able to come and settle in New York, you undertook a comprehensive, extended apprenticeship in many different bands and many situations, playing music for many different functions.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Lots of rhythm-and-blues.  We didn’t always play jazz.  None of us.  Because at that time… When we started, it was hard for us, because the older and well-established musicians would ridicule us.  They would say, “Where is the melody?  Where is the bass drum?”  Or “You play like you’ve got a mouthful of hot rice.”  It wasn’t like the musicians today who are older, who encourage the younger ones who come behind them.  I think it’s great when I see the younger ones come on the scene.  I think I and many of the others, probably all of them, try to encourage them.  We got no encouragement at all.  They were always trying to put us down.  Until so many of us came on the scene, that the scene changed!  Time marches on.  But it was a troublesome period for us.  You didn’t get called for many gigs, and we had to take some gigs that we didn’t like.  Gigs where you had to get up on the bar and walk the bar and step over drinks.  I did it.  John did it.  We all did it.  We were trying to survive.

TP:    You spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and I know you spent a fair amount of time sneaking out.  But tell me a bit about the Washington scene, which was very active, dynamic and proficient.

GOLSON:  It was during that time.  But then, so was Philadelphia.  Somewhere along the way, they both died.  But during that time they were alive.  They were vital.  It was fertile, both cities.  I thought it was going to stay like that forever.  I was so happy about it all.  Music was everywhere.  There were groups playing everywhere — trios, quartets, quintets — in Philadelphia and Washington.  I suppose, to a large extent, they were happening in other cities, too, in Chicago and Detroit, probably in Los Angeles, New Orleans, wherever.  It was a happy time for us, because more and more people were beginning not only to play the music, but to understand it.  So people were buying records.  People were plunking their money down to come and see the groups that came to appear in the clubs and in the theaters.  Because a lot of the theaters were still open then.  The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Alhambra in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt in Pittsburgh.   There were many places where groups and orchestras were still appearing live.  It was great!

TP:    That was also a time when there was a circuit of black entertainers, so it wouldn’t just be the bands coming into these theaters, but a whole show would be coming in.

GOLSON:  A whole show with some of them.  Oh yes, we had to play those shows.  Sometimes it was a drag.  But when you find yourself in a situation, rather than let the situation get you down… Charlie Parker had a way of existing, and his personality always came through, no matter where he was.  He said that everyone had something to say.  They might say it a little differently than you or him, but he had something to say, something of value.  So when we found ourselves in situations, we made the best of it.  We tried to maximize that situation.  Because we were still going through a learning process.  So when we down to the chitlin circuit, when we went through Mississippi and Georgia and we played those tobacco warehouses and so on, it helped us to get our soul together and to find out what feeling was all about.  So it wasn’t wasted time.  It was a part of our education.

TP:    What were some of the bands you played that circuit with?

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson.

TP:    Describe it.  Within that band were the seeds of some of the most consequential music of the 1950’s.

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson was a player who had played with Lucky Millinder.  He got the name Bullmoose because his appendages were long, he had thick fingers, big feet, a long face, his lips were very thick, his head was long.  They gave him that name.  But he had a beautiful voice, and that’s what helped to get him started in his own group.  He had a 7-piece group.  Frank Wess, I think, started out with him.  He had become successful to an extent, as far as it was possible during that time, and he had many recordings out.  When I met him, he was in the process of changing the band around.  So he asked me would I like to join the band.  I had an audition.  I had to come to the hotel room.  The manager of the group was also the alto saxophone player.  They gave me some things to read, and I played it with them.  They said, “Well, you’re not wearing glasses for nothing.  Do you know of a good trumpet player we could use?”  He wanted to change the band around completely.  So I mentioned Johnny Coles, who was an excellent reader.  Then he wanted a drummer.  As I told you, we didn’t always play jazz.  The drummer turned out to be Philly Joe Jones.  Well, he wanted a bass player.  Jymie Merritt was the bass player.  So we had a nice group.  When I got to the group, the only one that he didn’t let go was his manager, who played alto, and the piano player, who was his friend (also from Cleveland, where he was from) who happened to be Tadd Dameron, who wasn’t working that much at the time, so Moose said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me until you decide you want to do something else.”  So when I got there, Tadd was there.  So we had this plethora of new blood, new musicians, and we started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits.  Then he got me to write things, and at the same time I was picking Tadd’s brains to find out how he arrived at certain things.  And the man was so friendly, he showed me everything he knew, which helped propel me along in the direction I wanted to go.  So I began to write things, and Moose enjoyed playing those kinds of things more than the things he was making his money at.  The group got so good and so diverse, that I remember, when we played a club in St. Louis, I can’t remember the name…

TP:    The Riviera?

GOLSON:  No, that was a large one.  This wasn’t quite that large.  But I remember the Riviera.  But it turned out we had two audiences, the people who came to hear Moose sing those songs, and people who came to know what the group was about.  Now, we never recorded any of those things, but by word of mouth, people began to talk about this band that had Tadd in it, and Philly Joe and so forth.  And we would play his hits, and then we would do our thing.  It was great.  It made it tolerable, because we had a chance to do the things that we really wanted to do in that band, and the leader loved it, too.
So it was great…until it ended.

TP:    The tenor player who as much as Bird affected the sensibilities of many young tenor aspirants performing in the aesthetic Benny Golson is talking about is Lester Young, and the music he cut after World War, after his supposed decline, were hits on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods around the country.  You were checking Prez out a lot, and the next selection is “D.B. Blues,” done right after he got out of the Army.

GOLSON:  It was so popular, that I had to learn how to play what you’re about to play note for note.  When we played locally at the dances… We didn’t play at the clubs then.  We weren’t that great.  But we used to play these local dances, and the younger people would come to the dances, and they always wanted to hear this tune.  My claim to fame was playing this next tune, “D.B. Blues.”  I had no identity of my own!

[MUSIC: Prez, “D.B. Blues”]

GOLSON:  You see what I was talking about.  The rhythm section still had not quite come up to where it is today.  I guess that’s a lot to ask, to come up to where it is today.  But they eventually caught on to what was going on, the spirit of it, and the rhythm did change.  It wasn’t so much hi-hat cymbal as it was then, you know.

But your speaking about jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods before brought things to my mind.  And Coleman Hawkins comes to my mind.  In my neighborhood (they used to call them tap rooms), there was a bar, a saloon, a block from where we lived.  I remember walking by that saloon and hearing this beautiful saxophone playing this tune.  Well, I wasn’t playing then.  I hadn’t begun to play at all then.  I was still playing piano (playing at it anyway).  I later found out that tune was “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  And everybody liked it!  It’s not like today, where most of the people like Rock-and-Roll or Rap or whatnot.  Everybody in the neighborhood loved “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  Later, when I started to play the saxophone, somebody transcribed it.  Like I said, I was so eclectic then, and we really didn’t have a voice of our own.  We used to play these things at high school and go visit other high schools.  I got this transcription of “Body and Soul” with every note that Coleman Hawkins played.  I played the notes.  Sad to say, it didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins.  But I would do that.  And as I got older and more mature, I realized what this man was really doing in that song.  And I never played it.  I recorded that song last week with Branford Marsalis; we shared it together.  I looked back and wondered to myself why I had never recorded it.  I don’t think I ever played it.  Rarely did I play it.  I think it’s because Coleman Hawkins did so much with it.  It’s so beautiful, what else could I add to it?  It was just that way.  It was such a classic thing he did.  What else could I add to it?

[MUSIC: Hawk, “Body and Soul”]

TP:    Could you comment on the contrasting styles by the two founders of the main branches of the tenor tree, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  If you noticed, when Coleman Hawkins was playing, he was playing like many of the other tenor saxophones during the day, and that was using vibrato.  During that time they used a wide vibrato.  That was acceptable, because that’s what was happening.  Prez came on the scene, and he used no vibrato.  And they said, “What is this guy doing?  He’s not using any vibrato.”  But he set a new approach to the sound of the saxophone.  Nobody uses the wide vibrato any more.  Many of us play with no vibrato — or, when we choose to use it.  But the wide vibrato is gone.

TP:    Why?

GOLSON:  Well, it fell out of style.  It was out of date.  Style moved on to something else.  We’re not wearing spats any more.  Things progress and go forward.  Well, call it forward or backward.  But it changed.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  We didn’t look like this twenty years ago.  Did we? [LAUGHS] Yeah, time is corrosive.  Time moves on.  But I think it was for the better.  The wide vibrato was all right then.  I like it better without the vibrato.  However, I like this version of “Body and Soul.”  I am transported back in time, so in my own mind I guess I accept the vibrato because of the way he played, the feeling, the creativity that he evinced in this version of “Body and Soul.”

Prez was a minimalist.  A lot of people thought that Prez couldn’t double up and play double-time on the fast things, or he could just groove.  I was talking to someone about this the other night.  I said, “You know, Prez could double up and run all over the horn.  I heard him do it!”  But he chose to take this approach.  He liked to lay back in that groove and find a pocket.  And it worked.  He was a minimalist.  He made his notes count.  What was it Sweets said about some saxophone player who played a lot of notes? [LAUGHS] Oh, he said, referring to this person… I don’t remember who he was, but he’d play all up and down the horn constantly.  He said, “If he got paid by the note, he could retire early.”  Sweets is a minimalist.  They choose the notes well, and they make them work, and they play the notes with feeling.  When you play a lot of notes, you don’t get a chance to linger on each note and get a full feeling from each note.  It’s only when you slow down on the ballad and you slow down for an appreciable amount of time that you get a chance to emote.  You know what I’m saying?  When you start moving fast, that’s gone.

TP:    Describing phrasing a note that way makes me think of Ben Webster, who we’ll hear on a track from his younger days before he became famous for ballads done in that manner.  Hearing Ben Webster performing “Raincheck,” from 1941, brings us to another aspect of Benny Golson’s work which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the seed of writing and your career as a composer.  The impact of Ben Webster and the Ellington Orchestra.

GOLSON:  Well, writing didn’t take me over yet.  I didn’t have enough knowledge to realize what writing was about at that time.  But I remember when my mother brought the saxophone home to me.  As bad as I wanted the saxophone, when I opened it, I felt terrible, because I didn’t even know how to put it together.  So she packed the saxophone up and we both went around to the neighborhood we used to live in, about three or four blocks away, to a the house of a fellow named Tony Mitchell.  Now, he played the saxophone.  So we went in, and I wanted to know, “Well, how do I put this together?”  He took it out and showed me how to put the neck on the top of the horn, and how to put the mouthpiece off, and how to put the ligature off and put the reed on and put the ligature back on and tighten it, and put the strap around my neck.  “Oh, I didn’t know it had a strap.”  “Yeah, it hangs on the strap.”  And I put it no the strap, and he said, “Okay, now you put it in your mouth and play something.”  Well, I’m like a mule being led to slaughter.  I couldn’t play anything.  I was discouraged again.  I didn’t know what the learning process would be like.  He said, “Wait, let me show you.”  So he put his saxophone together, and he put on this next record that you’re about to play, and he played with it, the way I used to play with  “D.B. Blues” and some of the other things.  It was Ben Webster.  The tune was “Raincheck.”  This is when I first started to become of aware of where I had to go and what I had to do — not being aware of how long it was going to take either!

[MUSIC: Duke-Ben, “Raincheck,” “Just A-Sittin’ and A-Rockin'”]

TP:    Ellington and Tadd Dameron seem to be the two primary inspirations of your formative years as a composer.

GOLSON:  Duke Ellington first, yeah.  Because this song you just played, I was just delighted with the way Ben Webster played.  But then I noticed the periphery that was going on around him, and that helped to even highlight him more.  Then I started listening to the chords and the clarinet… I’d only heard Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, then I heard how this clarinet, how he worked it in.  I’ll tell you, I haven’t heard this in a long time, but to me it’s like Dom Perignon wine.  It gets better with age.  It sounds better and better.  And music can sound like that sometimes.  Which means that you develop a deeper appreciation for it as time goes on, because there are other things that come into your life that helps to highlight the value of music like this.  It’s like on outdoor elevator.  The higher you go, the more you see.  And going higher is like developing a keen appreciation, more knowledge.  That’s what I liken it to.

TP:    One question before we move to the music of Tadd Dameron.  Ellington’s music was performed for dancers and in concerts and really beautifully produced revues…and for dances.  You, of course, played for many dances in your various journeys.  Talk about the impact of an audience on what you’re doing, and a dancing audience that’s in a particular tempo or a particular groove.

GOLSON:  Well, jazz today doesn’t lend itself to dancing per se.  It can make you pat your foot and do things like that, but it’s not as danceable, I think, as the music we heard by Duke Ellington.  Yet these things are classic things.  His music can be compared with Stravinsky or Beethoven or anybody else.  His music had a lot to say.  There’s a lot going on there compositionally.  His music is not something that you can get too easy as a writer.  He had a certain way of doing things — using the baritone saxophone, for example — that is not easy always to comprehend.  When you heard this music, you always knew it was Duke Ellington.  There was no question about it.  You didn’t confuse him with Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton or anybody.  You always knew it was Duke Ellington.  So he had a certain way of writing that identified him.  It served two purposes — for people to dance by and for people to sit down and enjoy.  In a cerebral way, if you wanted to.  It was that deep.  He accomplished a lot with his music.  It was melodic, it was rhythmic, it was memorable, it was cerebral.  All of these things at the same time.

TP:    An aspect of that pertains to the dynamics of improvising, which is that Ellington comprised that sound out of the sound of the instrumentalists that he brought into his band.  I’d still like you to address the question of how playing for a dancing audience impacted you as a performer, but also bringing the individual personality into one’s own compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I don’t play for dancing audiences, but when I did, it was a different situation, so you approached it in a different way.  People were there to be entertained, and then you did what you did.  I guess a little bit of the entertainment thing came into your playing because you wanted the people to enjoy what you did, so you had to be in whatever spirit the music was in.  Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.  If you were playing a Mississippi kind of blues, to try to play bebop on it wouldn’t work.  You know what I mean?  The people wouldn’t appreciate it.  So you had to get into the spirit of what was going on.  And once you let yourself do that, even though you were playing music that might ordinarily be an anomaly or an aberration to what you normally did, you could enjoy it, because you threw yourself into the spirit of the moment.  Oh, we used to play these things with the guitars and everything, and believe me, when I got into it so much, when we would go down South (there was no bebop on the jukeboxes), I found myself plunking nickels on “Miss Cornshucks” and B.B. King and you name it, and I was enjoying it.  Although I didn’t want to play it.  It wasn’t my kind of music.  It sort of took me over.  You can get into the music so much.

TP:    Let’s move to today, and the question of weaving the improvisational personalities of your musicians into your compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you how valuable that is.  That’s a luxury that isn’t always afforded us, though.  Duke did it because he had the orchestra.  When he wrote, he knew that Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or Ray Nance or Lawrence Brown or whoever it was…he knew they were there.  It was sort of like the couture tailors, when it’s made for the person.  That’s the way his music was.  It accommodated not necessarily the instrument (which it did), but the personality behind the instrument.  Certain people did certain things.  He used that to his advantage, and it made the music really vital.  Now, I do that when I can.  But since I don’t have a big band traveling around and musicians at my fingertips, not even a quartet at my fingertips (it changes so much), I try to do things so it makes sense for whatever setting I’m in and whatever group of musicians I happen to be using.  If I had a group with certain men in it all the time, then… Oh, I’m sorry.

There was one situation, the Jazztet, where we did have certain men.  We had a pianist, Mickey Tucker, who was so well-equipped… I mean, he ad-libbed, he played classical piano, he was a composer himself, he could read anything that I wrote — and I took advantage of that.  I wrote things for him and incorporated it into the group that I would never have written for anybody else.  I remember one night we had to get a sub.  We had a sub for Art when he had to have an operation.  We had a sub a few times for Curtis.  Clifford Jordan and subbed for me.  We had a sub on the drums, the bass.  It worked out okay.  But we got the sub for the piano, it was a catastrophe.  That music was so hard.  And the piano player took it home!  But when he came back, it wasn’t like Mickey.  You know, I would bring things in, and when I was writing I would look at it and say, “My goodness, I’m glad I don’t play piano.”  We’d go to the rehearsal, and the music would be sitting there on the piano, and we’d get ready to start, and he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he would sort of look at it, like looking at the headlines, then he’d sit back and say, “Okay.”  And that was that.  It was incredible.

Now, if you’ve got musicians like that, and we did… The musicians in the Jazztet were like that, and I was able to write things with them in mind.  Toward the end of the Jazztet, I was writing things for the bass, beginning with the bass, rather than having them at the end with some solo — start out with the bass.  And some of these things were difficult.  They were challenges, really; things we never recorded.  We broke up before we did that.  We might go back and record them one day…maybe.  I wrote one thing and took it in.  It had no form, no form at all, except when you got to the solos, when it had to have some sort of form.  When we first played that thing, I remember Mickey Tucker said to me after we started rehearsing it, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”  It was so different.  But I’m of the mind: Why must everything always be the same?  Why must everything sound the same?  If a person is truly creative, it shouldn’t.  We don’t drive around in 1929 Fords any more.  We don’t wear spats.  Time moves on.  Music is no different.  It has to move on, too.  That’s part of the adventure, too — doing things different.  Some people might not like them, but that’s the way it is.  Those of us who choose to do it, have to do it.  I’ll put that word in quotes — “have to.”  We have no choice.  We have to do that, lest we become counterfeit to ourselves.

TP:    Some reminiscing about Tadd Dameron.  Last time you noted that he was a master of maximizing resources, of making a small band sound huge.

GOLSON:  Yes.  He was a dearth writer, dearth meaning dealing with a small number of instruments.  He was a master of it.  You have to listen to it.  He had a certain way of writing that made it sound bigger and more important than it really was.  That’s what amazed me about him.  But he used everything.  He maximized everything.  He knew what to do with the piano.  He knew how to use the bass and the drums and the two horns.  He knew what harmonies to use, and the rhythms and things like that.  You can hear it in “Our Delight,” which is one of the first things that caught my attention.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron, “Our Delight,” “Focus”; Diz, “Night In Tunisia” (1946)]

TP:    You had a few comments about J.C. Heard’s drumming.  He played a different pattern behind each soloist on “Night In Tunisia,” and you noted how that affected the total sound of the band.

GOLSON:  I thought it was a different rhythm section, because it sounded different.  He was up on the ride cymbal.  I said, “See?  Now the rhythm section has come along; they’ve evolved.”  And you mentioned it’s the same rhythm section as “52nd Street Theme.”  I said, “That’s odd.” Then the next chorus he’s back on the hi-hat cymbal, which they did a lot then — closed.  Next chorus was the hi-hat slightly opened.  You mentioned that maybe Diz told him to play on the ride cymbal.  I thought, “Diz told the rhythm section a lot of things.”  I said, “You are probably right.”  Then I just reflected years before, it was always the hi-hat cymbal [SINGS TIME ON RIDE]; they only used the ride cymbal to crash!  And when Kenny Clarke left the hi-hat cymbal and went up on the ride cymbal to play tempos, it bugged them to death!  They thought he had lost his mind.  Just like when Prez refused to use the wide vibrato, and things began to happen.  Now, the ride cymbal is what you use when you really want to swing, not the hi-hat.  I mean, the hi-hat hasn’t lost its function.  It still has its place, and it’s great.  But when you really want to swing, you have to get on that ride cymbal.

TP:    How much do you pay attention to what the drums and bass are doing in the composition, particularly in the improvisational sections?

GOLSON:  A lot.  I have to feel comfortable.  If I am going to play, I have to feel comfortable.  And when I listen to other people, of course, they do what they want to do.  But basically, I’ll want to swing.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s not just notes.  Notes must have spirit, lest they become merely notes, documentations of pitch — and we want to go way beyond that.  We want the music to have some feeling.  We want it to swing when it’s supposed to swing.  We want it to do other things when it’s supposed to do other things.  On a ballad when you go to the brushes, then that has a certain feeling.  If it’s got a little raunch to it, then you might play a shuffle.  Art Blakey was one of the few drummers who could make the shuffle swing.  Incredible!

TP:    The next set will focus on musicians who relate to the music we’re discussing, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, who preceded Benny in the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON:  John had an insatiable thirst for moving ahead.  Even as young teenagers, he was always two steps ahead of the rest of us.  I remember when he started talking about augmented chords, and we said, “What?”  Then when we came to comprehend what augmented chords were about, he was somewhere else.  It turned out that wherever we wanted to go, he had been there before we were there, and gone somewhere else.  He used to employ Spartan-like practice; especially as he got better, he practiced more, believe it or not.  As some of the rest of us got better, we practiced less.  But he practiced… We used to live two blocks apart in New York.  When you went to his house, if his wife wasn’t home, you couldn’t get in, because he wouldn’t stop playing.  He would play all day, and when he went to the gig at night, he would get on stage and play.  And during intermission, he would practice the whole intermission in the men’s room, and then come back.  McCoy said he practiced like a person who had no talent.  But we know he had so much talent.  And with that kind of practice and being as exceedingly talented as he was, we could see why he was able to soar above the circle of the earth in unoccupied air space.  And that’s where he was.

He went through phases, just like Picasso did.  The pointillism, the Cubism, the Blue period and so forth.  He went through periods on his saxophone.  I remember them.  When he first picked up the tenor, he sounded somewhat like Dexter, as I mentioned.  But then he went to a style, when we were playing together with Johnny Hodges, around ’54… I don’t know how to describe it.  Sort of a hopping-skipping style.  I don’t think he recorded when he was playing that way.  Then we weren’t so close as we were, because we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him quite as often.  But I would hear him from time to time.  I remember he came by my apartment once in New York, and I hadn’t heard him in a long time.  I had heard one or two things Ornette Coleman was doing, and I said to him, “It sounds like maybe you’re doing some of the same things Ornette is doing.”  And he quickly said, “Oh, no.”  He didn’t want to be linked there.  And as it turned out, he wasn’t.  He was doing  something completely different.  Each time I’d hear him, he was doing something different.  And all of it was exciting.  He had an extremely large whatever, a voluminous bag that he could reach into and pull out all sorts of things.  It was bottomless.  Because until the time he died, he was always bringing new things into his life via the horn.  Not all of us can say we can do that.  We might change a little here and there.  But I’ve heard him make major changes, change directions.  And most of it was exciting.  Some of it I didn’t understand.  But not all of us understand everything that goes on.

I remember when he started to change, some of the things he was doing were raw.  When he was with Miles, I remember I went to see him once at the Blue Note in Philadelphia.  He had been talking to a trumpet player called Calvin Folks, and Calvin was trying to explain something to him.  In this guy’s mind… He was so open to everything, he wanted to absorb everything and distil it, use what he could and whatnot.  So he was playing with Miles, and right in the middle of a solo… Oh, I have to say this.  The trumpet player was sitting right at the bar, and the bandstand was in the middle of the bar.  So he was looking right down at the trumpet player.  He took his horn out while the band was swinging, and he said to him, “Do you mean like that?” [LAUGHS] I guess he nodded his head or whatever, and then he continued on playing.  But he was always learning.  And he listened constantly.  He didn’t just listen to himself.

TP:    Sounds like he made every performance situation as much a laboratory…

GOLSON:  That’s a good analogy.  You’re absolutely right.  On this, just notice.  This is not one of those complicated tunes.  Things don’t always have to be complicated to be meaningful.  Notice what he does with just a simple structured tune.

[MUSIC: Coltrane, “Good Bait”]

GOLSON:  You heard what he did with that simple tune.  He made it his own.  I mean, he had his signature all over it.  But now, one doesn’t have to play an abundance of notes for it to be meaningful.  I’ve said that about Sweets and some other people, and I think about another saxophone player.  This fellow was probably one of the most melodic saxophone players on the jazz scene.  He wasn’t known for running all over his horn, though he could.  I’m speaking about Hank Mobley.  I remember, I took some music to a recording session.  This guy was such a natural and had such a great ear.  He could read changes and things like that.  I took this tune (I don’t remember what it was) to Rudy Van Gelder’s, and they were reading the melody down, because they were unfamiliar with it.  When it came time for a solo, I said, “I guess he’s really going to scrutinize the chart now.”  He closed his eyes and reared back.  He never looked at the music.  He just heard what was going on, and played his feelings.  He was playing from the heart.  What more can you ask for?

TP:    He was also a prolific composer.  Maybe they were ditties, but they were all distinctive melodies and structures.

GOLSON:  Yes.  I don’t usually like ditties.  But Monk was a profound writer of ditties, and so was Hank.  He had a tune, “This I Dig Of You,”  Listen to what he does on it.  He doesn’t run all over the horn.  You don’t have to.  Some of the profoundest things that are said, are said with fewer notes — or fewer words, if you will.

[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, “This I Dig Of You”; Benny Golson, “Turning Point”]

TP:    In the liner notes it says you met Jimmy Cobb when you were at Howard in 1948.

GOLSON:  Yes, we played a gig with a guitar player who was later to become the guitar player with the Clovers — “One Mint Julep.”  That’s where we met, at this gig at a nightclub called the Liberty, in northwest D.C.

TP:    We’ll hear Joe Henderson, from the next generation back of Benny, who was already an accomplished professional with vast experience by the time he arrived in New York at 25 years old in 1962.

GOLSON:  You’d better believe it.  He was sounding good to me the first time I heard him.  Kenny Dorham told me about him.  He’s from Lima, Ohio.  I tease him about that, because it smells like sulfur there all the time.  But the first time I heard him, he sounded great!  He had it together.  That was a long time ago.

TP:    He and Wayne Shorter are the two saxophonists after John Coltrane who had a huge impact on subsequent generations.  Would you talk about the dynamics of his style?

GOLSON:  Like some other saxophone players, Joe is not afraid to take chances.  And he has enough facility to carry out the things that enter his mind.  He’ll be going in one direction, and all of a sudden he’ll dart and do something.  It might sound crazy, but it fits into the scheme of things, the overall tapestry of what he’s doing, and composing.  To a large extent, that’s what people who are playing solos do.  They are composing; composers of a sort.  Extemporaneously.  They don’t get a chance to go back and hone it like someone who is writing a song.  And sometimes that’s even more difficult, to come up with a concept, an overall concept of something that you’re doing that makes sense, and you don’t have time to edit it.  So sometimes things go by that have little mistakes in them, but you don’t look at the mistakes.  You stand back and look at the whole tapestry.  And Joe, it seems to me, has always been able to paint a picture, a picture that made sense from beginning to the end.  And it seemed like he always was going somewhere.  It wasn’t just a solo.  It always had direction.  It was going somewhere and building.

[MUSIC: Joe Henderson, “Invitation” (1968)]

TP:    An example of transcendent technique that never obscures the necessities of the moment, and the poetic drive of his solos.

GOLSON:  Aren’t you profound!  That’s great.

TP:    We’ll hear music by Branford Marsalis and Dan Faulk.

GOLSON:  You’ll notice the tenor players we’ve played today, as soon as you hear them, you know who they are.  They have distinctive personality.  You know the sound of their horns.  Unfortunately, today, many tenor saxophone players get caught up in one style, and it’s hard to tell  many of them when you hear them play.  They can play the heck out of the horns, but the styles aren’t as distinctive today as they were in times gone by.  That’s not a derogatory statement, because they can play the keys off the horn.  But the ones I’ve selected today really have their own personalities, as does Branford Marsalis — who is extremely broad, you know.  He can play bebop, he can play Rock-and-Roll, he can play the New Orleans thing, when he was with Sting he was doing something else.  It takes a lot of ability to do that.  And Dan, who is ascendant; he’s still coming, he has his own style, he’s consequential, he has something to say.

[MUSIC: Branford, “Just One Of Those Things”; Dan Faulk, “Barry’s Tune”]

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Filed under Benny Golson, DownBeat, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

Lou Donaldson: Blindfold Test, 2006, Uncut

In a thread that arose last week in response to a  Facebook recounting by Russell Malone of hearing Lou Donaldson play the alto saxophone at Birdland  (I didn’t get to go, but, by several accounts, he was in magisterial form), several folks cited choice “insult humor” bon mots of the type that Donaldson is famous for  — “Jazz is not recommended for fusion and confusion musicians!”  “If you want to play outside, then play outside the club.” And so on.

Donaldson displayed a certain restraint in his remarks on the 12 selections I played for him in a Blindfold  Test in 2006, not long before his 80th birthday.  But he pulled no punches. What follows is the verbatim, uncut transcript of an interesting session.

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1.  Thelonious Monk-John Coltrane, “Sweet and Lovely” (from Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall, Blue Note, 1957/2005) (Monk, piano; Coltrane, tenor saxophone; Ahmed Abdul-Malik, bass; Shadow Wilson, drums)

That sounded like John Coltrane. It’s a concert somewhere. Piano player really didn’t sound like Monk, but I guess he was copying Monk. If it was Monk, he was in good shape that night. Heh-heh-heh. The drums and bass, I couldn’t tell you anything about that. Probably Frankie Dunlop or somebody. The performance was great. That’s a great rendition of “Sweet and Lovely.” Really top-shelf. This type of music was kind of advanced at that period of time, and they had been working together a long time at the Five Spot, so they had whatever they were playing really together. It sounded like an organized group; it didn’t sound like a session or anything like that. [When you recorded with Monk, had you been playing with him for any amount of time?] No, I never played with him. I just did the record. I worked a couple of weeks with him at the Famous Door in the late ‘50s. That was a great band. Max Roach, Kenny Dorham , and Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be the bass player, but he broke his leg and they brought Mingus in. Monk didn’t like to play with Mingus too well, and he didn’t really play that well that week. I met him at Blue Note, at the company. It was kind of interesting to play with him, because he never wrote anything out. He would sketch a little stuff out now and then, but you were kind of on your own for playing. It was pretty interesting. Kenny Dorham was a good friend of mine, so we had a good time. And Max. Wilbur Ware came and sat in. He played much better with Wilbur, because he liked Wilbur. [Anything to say about Monk’s playing or Coltrane’s playing?] Well, at that period of time, Coltrane was just beginning to start playing the way he eventually ended up playing. He’d been playing more swing-type saxophone up until then. But once he got with Monk, that was a different thing altogether. He would go down and rehearse during the break. You’d hear him in the basement rehearsing, getting stuff together. Because actually, the stuff with Monk was kind of hard to play. Unless you’re used to playing that way, it’s kind of difficult to play that kind of music. I was a young guy, and it was very interesting to me. I liked it. That’s a great record there. I’d give it 4 stars at least. Great record. Great performance. [AFTER] Even now it’s very interesting. At first I thought the drummer was Frankie Dunlop, but it was Shadow Wilson. Shadow was actually the most reliable drummer during that time period. I’m not going to tell you why other guys weren’t too reliable. But guys play and live like they want to live. It’s not my business; it’s their business. But he was the most reliable drummer and the steadiest drummer, especially for a guy like Monk. Or even Trane. He was great.

2.  Vincent Herring, “You Leave Me Breathless” (from Mr. Wizard, High Note, 2004) (Herring, alto saxophone; Danny Grissett, piano; Reuben Rogers, bass; Greg Hutchinson, drums)

I don’t think you got me on that one. That’s Vincent Herring. He’s great. He did his homework. He’s got his stuff together. Tremendous. That’s a nice song, too – “You Leave Me Breathless.” Bass player I’m not familiar with. Is that a recent record? He sounds a lot like Cannonball. We’ve got a lot of young saxophonists playing real good. But it seems that the only people getting recognition are Kenny G and Najee, people like that. 4 stars. That’s nice. Vincent’s a great player. I hope he continues on. Actually, somebody has to continue this type of music, or otherwise we’re in trouble, because it’s a concerted effort by the media and a lot of other people to sneak that other kind of music in. It’s what they call cool jazz. It’s all right. It’s good music, too, but it’s not what we would say authentic jazz music. Whereas this music is more like a jazz musician would play it. He’s improvising. But he’s got a lot of stuff together, too. You can add and take away, add and take away. That’s what makes the music so viable. It lasts so long, because you can add and take away. Sometimes you’ll catch a cat, he’s not playing exactly that way. Still playing the same song. He’s upholding the tradition, especially for the alto saxophone.

3.  Donald Harrison, “Third Plane” (from New York Cool: Live At the Blue Note, Half Note, 2005) (Harrison, alto sax; Ron Carter, bass, composer; Billy Cobham, drums)

That’s one of the younger players. I’m trying to listen to it and digest and see who it might be. It’s one of the younger guys who I haven’t heard that much. Maybe Donald Harrison or Kenny Garrett, somebody like that. They’re playing progressive but they’re playing with a bluesy type feeling. You know how that goes. You want to play up-to-date contemporary, but you still want to retain the essence of the jazz soul. You can play interesting and play a lot of stuff, but you still want to maintain that. It could be somebody else. But the younger players I haven’t heard that much. The older guys I would know a little better. The performance is good. Nice groove. It’s at a concert, so I guess the guys have got into a nice groove. It’s a little adventurous for public consumption. They didn’t have a defining melody, something that would actually stick to the people, make the people be humming and singing it. But it’s creative jazz. What can I tell you? The drummer sounds interesting. Pretty good concert there. 3 stars. It’s a groove tune. A tricky little melody there. [AFTER] Ron Carter’s tune? I don’t know it. Billy Cobham? Oh, that’s an old record, then. It was Donald? Good, I guessed that! I told you anybody that I’ve ever heard over a period of time, I’ll know. Some of the newer guys I don’t know. You couldn’t trick me if you played somebody old. I research all the saxophone players. That’s my business. I have to understand what they’re playing so I know what to play. You stay a little bit ahead of them! That’s a nice groove to that record, but it’s not 100% like the type of stuff we play. All the musicians play a little different style.

4.  David Sanborn, “Tin Tin Deo” (from Closer, Verve, 2005) (Sanborn, alto saxophone; Gil Goldstein, piano; Russell Malone, guitar; Mike Mainieri, vibraphone; Christian McBride, bass; Steve Gadd, drums; Luis Quintero, percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s David Sanborn. I can tell by his sound. I’ve researched all of the older guys. Even the funk guys, I can tell some of them. Some of them sound the same. But this guy has got a wonderful feeling. Jazz, I don’t know about that, but he’s got the feeling, and he knows how to make records. There’s a trick to making records. I mean, records that will sell. A lot of people can play a lot of stuff, but when you try to make records to sell, it’s a different situation. It’s a good treatment of the song. But see, the way they have it set up, they have a good presence in the studio where they played. They sound beautiful. What they do that other more up to date jazz cats don’t do… They don’t have this kind of rhythm. They don’t play against a background like this. There’s more going on. But actually, I know why they do it this way – because they’re trying to sell the record. Which makes a lot of sense. You don’t play for nothing. You can play the greatest solo in the world, but if you don’t sell it, you’re just wasting time. The background is perfect for what he’s playing. He’s a very interesting guy. You can tell at one time he must have tried to play a lot of jazz music. He told me himself that he always liked Hank Crawford. In fact, he came to see me one time, and we talked a long time. I didn’t know he was from St. Louis, but he’s from St. Louis, Missouri, and I was working out there and he came by. It’s hard to make stars for a commercial record that you’re trying to sell it. But give them 3 stars.

5.  Lee Konitz-Ted Brown, (“317 E. 32nd”) (from Dig-It, Steeplechase, 1999) (Konitz, alto saxophone; Brown, tenor saxophone; Ron McClure, bass; Jeff Williams, drums)

Lee Konitz, without a doubt. Sounds like two saxophones on there. Has he got an echo chamber? Lee kind of lays back on the rhythm when he plays. He made a good record called Relaxin’ With Lee. That’s not it, but that’s the way he plays – relaxing while he plays. A lot of guys force the rhythm. They’re right on the rhythm and they force it. But he doesn’t do that. I don’t know exactly who the tenor player is, but I’d say Warne Marsh? No? I know Lee and Warne used to play a lot. Oh, it’s a late record? It’s not my cup of tea. But they did some different stuff with the kind of style that originally was played during the ‘50s. Lennie Tristano and all of them had a little bit different approach. That’s what makes jazz creative, is a little different approach to what is being played. Actually, I wouldn’t play that way. I always have to have a piano to begin with. When I think of playing without a piano, it’s suspect. Piano always plays a certain sequence of chords and changes, and if you don’t play on those changes, you’re doing something else. BS’ing. Most of the time. Not this, though. This is actually the way he conceives what he wants to play. But I’ve heard many records where we have one sequence going on with the piano, but the horns are not playing the same thing. They’re not following that sequence. It doesn’t make any sense, because if you’re not going to follow the sequence, there’s no need to have a piano or bass or whatever you’ve got underneath. What we call background. But he’s got his own identity, I’m telling you. You strive for that the whole time you play music, for that I.D., because that’s what determines that people know what it is and who it is. Actually now, the way they have these jazz schools and colleges, a lot of musicians come out playing just about the same way. It’s hard to determine who’s who. When I was coming up, everybody had an I.D. Two or three notes, I could tell you exactly who it is. You can’t do that today, because a lot of musicians are trained in just about the same way. It seems like they’ve got the same instructors. See, in the old days, when you came from California, you sounded a different way; if you came from Texas or came from Chicago… You could tell from the way guys played what section of the country they were from. Can’t do that any more. That’s gone. That’s “Out of Nowhere.” I can hear it. That’s what I’m saying, there’s a certain chord pattern you can hear most of the time. Lee’s got a lot of stuff he does on weird songs. But that’s his concept; that’s how he plays. We’ll give it 3 stars.

6.  Phil Woods, “I’m So Scared of Girls When They’re Good-Looking” (from The Rev and I, Blue Note, 1998) (Woods, alto saxophone; Cedar Walton, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

That must be a new record. Sounds like Phil Woods to me. I haven’t heard this record, but it sounds like Phil. A very consistent player and always a good performer. He’s got it together, what can I tell you? It’s a nice arrangement, too, whatever that is. It’s hard to maintain that consistency over a long period of time. He’s got pulmonary problems. I’m getting it now. It’s just a matter of time before I’ll probably have to stop playing a lot. I never smoked or did anything, but just working in clubs… I’m asthmatic, so it’s a little different. I was always careful. I didn’t get myself exposed to a lot of stuff, which he did. He had some other things going for a while. But it didn’t really slow him down. Bird was impossible. I’ve been asthmatic all my life, but I avoid certain things. I never thought I’d be able to play a saxophone as long as I have. [Did you start to play saxophone as a way of dealing with asthma?] That’s right. The clarinet. I started using the clarinet, and the diaphragm breathing helped me a lot. But now it’s catching up with me. It took a long time. I’m almost 80. In few months, I’ll be 80. Music is a funny thing, man. It will keep you alive. Because while you’re doing that, you don’t think about anything else, so you ignore a lot of other problems. It’s hard to tell who the rhythm section because they’re just playing background. Playing well, though. I’ll give that a 4, man. That’s nice.

7.  Charles McPherson, “Blue and Boogie” (from Manhattan Nocturne, Arabesque, 1998) (McPherson, alto sax; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ray Drummond, bass; Victor Lewis, drums)

I’ll make a guess on this one. It sounds like Charles McPherson, but I’m not sure. [Good guess.] The rhythm section, I couldn’t tell you. Piano player sounds a bit like Mulgrew. Oh, I guessed that, too? [LAUGHS]     The drummer I wouldn’t know, nor the bass player, but they’re really cooking. I’ve got to give a 5 for this one. See, I’m a bebop player myself, and that’s what this is. I like this kind of groove and I like this kind of tempo. I like Charles, too, but I couldn’t recognize him then. His phrasing made me guess it was him, though. His resolutions keep going in and out, in and out, and he’s a bebop player, and that’s the way we play. If you listen to Charles or Sonny Stitt or Cannonball, they play that way. They play right on the beat, right on the meter, don’t lay back – right on it. It’s a great record. Carrying on the tradition. Great.

8.  Kenny Garrett, “I Only Have Eyes For You” (from Bobby Hutcherson, Skyline, Verve, 2001) (Hutcherson, vibraphone; Garrett, alto saxophone; Geri Allen, piano; Christian McBride, bass; Al Foster, drums)

It sounds like Kenny Garrett. But he hasn’t played anything yet. I have to wait until he plays something. He kind of lays back on it when he plays. A lot of the younger guys I haven’t heard that much, but I’ve heard a little bit of them. I’ll listen to see who it is. Yeah, that’s him. I got it. The vibes I don’t know. I never saw him playing with no vibes. Bass and drums I couldn’t tell you; they’re probably some younger guys who I don’t know. The performance is interesting. He’s doing a little searching, but it’s interesting. See, the younger musicians have a tendency to do that. I guess they’re taught that they have to go a little outside when they improvise. But actually, you don’t have to do it. You can stay right in the chord structure and still improvise a lot. But a lot of the younger guys like to try to go out a little, play a little what we call different kind of changes. Not exactly the original. Substitute is all right if it’s compatible with the way the sequence is going. But the only problem with the substitute, if you don’t substitute something that’s compatible with the sequence, you’re not really playing the song any more. You’re playing something else. Which is possible to do, because you can practice and study a lot of stuff, and play almost opposite to where the chord changes are going. The vibraphonist sounds like Milt. But I don’t know. You’ve got me there. See, it went way outside there! It’s coming in the door backwards. But most of the young players have a tendency to do that. I guess when they teach them, they tell them they have to play that way – they’ll be creating something. But you don’t necessarily have to do that. 3 stars. Nice little arrangement.

9.  Ornette Coleman, “Latin Genetics” (from In All Languages, Verve/Harmolodic, 1987) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Don Cherry, pocket trumpet; Charlie Haden, bass; Billy Higgins, drums)

You can take that off right away. [LAUGHS] That’s not jazz, that’s Yazz!! [LAUGHS] Any similarity between that and jazz music is purely accidental. [Why is that?] That’s not what jazz is all about. You’ve got to play with a blues feeling on a groove, and a melodic line – none of that is there. It’s music. It’s probably great music. But it’s not jazz music. [Any idea who the drummer is?] Is this a recent record? I don’t know. It would be hard for me to tell you. Billy Higgins was the original drummer with that group. I used to see the group every night at the Five Spot. [What was that like?] It was interesting. But I have to go along with Redd Foxx. Redd Foxx came down and when he came out they asked him “What about that music?” He said, “They tell me that’s the music of tomorrow. That’s what I hear tomorrow. Tonight I want to hear some music of today!” [LAUGHS] No, it’s interesting music. I’m just joking around with you. It’s interesting music, but it’s not what we’d call real jazz music. [What anything it is interesting to you?] Well, it’s different. What can I tell you? It’s different. Everything that’s different interests me. I listen to it, to see what it is. A lot of those little things he plays, I like! But I wouldn’t consider that jazz music. See, you got to realize, I came up listening to Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, Tab Smith, people like that. There’s a certain way a saxophone is a supposed to sound. If it doesn’t sound that way, then I… [Ornette Coleman came up playing in those type of bands…] No, he never did. I went to his home in Fort Worth, and they told me they never let him play around because he was always too weird. Of course, that’s his prerogative. If he wants to play that way, good! [David Fathead Newman said that when they were teenager, Ornette played the Charlie Parker tunes, and then he veered off into other areas. As teenagers they’d learn the tunes, play them in their own sessions, and then he went in his own direction.] I don’t  want to disagree with Fathead, who’s a good friend of mine, but I talked with a lot of guys who were down there who said that wasn’t the case. They said he never could play the bebop stuff. I asked a lot of people. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s the way he plays and that’s the way he wants to play. Good for him. Stars? [LAUGHS] Stars fell on Alabama. Look, you can’t beat around the bush with music. You either play it or you don’t. You try to do too much sometimes, it ends up doing nothing. It’s like everything else. You got to be careful of what you do. Jazz had a certain tempo or certain groove that was there, and that’s what made it sound different from other music. Now, offhand, listening to that, if you want me to categorize it, I would say it’s Folk music. Which is good, too. That’s good music, too. But jazz? Unh-uh. Nada. I like Ornette. Ornette’s a good friend of mine. He’s a nice guy. But that’s the way he wants to play. So be it.

10.  Jim Snidero, “Prisoner Of Love” (from Close-Up, Milestone, 2004) (Snidero, alto saxophone; David Hazeltine, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Billy Drummond, drums)

Nice. Very beautiful. Beautiful tone and everything, but I don’t know who it is. “Prisoner of Love.” At first I thought it was Vincent Herring, but you already played him for me. You’re trying to trick me, see? But you couldn’t do it, could you. [LAUGHS] That sounds like him, but what can I tell you. The only person I know who even plays that way is George Coleman. He plays sort of like that. But whoever it is is somebody I don’t know. I like it, but I don’t know who that is. 4 stars. See, that’s the way I play ballads. I can’t say it’s me, because it’s not. [Did this person listen to you?] Of course. If he’s not as old as I am, he had to: That’s the way I play them.

11.  Gary Bartz-Sphere, “Hornin’ In” (from Sphere, Verve, 1998) (Bartz, alto saxophone; Kenny Barron, piano; Buster Williams, bass; Ben Riley, drums)

You might think I’m crazy, but that sounds like Clifford Jordan. I used to play this tune with Monk, but I didn’t record it with him. See, that’s a Chicago-type player. Charles Davis… Who would play that way? [He’s not from Chicago and he’s not from Philadelphia?] He’s from New York? [Wasn’t born in New York, but been here a long time.] That sounds like an old record. Late ‘90s? That’s a good Monk tune. It’s a recreation of a good Monk tune. What can I tell you? They played it well, whoever it was. The saxophonist sounded all right. What can I tell you? Sounded like they were reading music to me. 2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t sound like them at all. I heard that group many times. Sorry about that, Gary.

12.   Charlie Parker-Dizzy Gillespie, “Salt Peanuts” (from Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945, Uptown, 2005) (Parker, alto saxophone; Gillespie, trumpet, composer; Al Haig, piano; Curley Russell, bass; Max Roach, drums)

Syphilis Sid. That’s Joe Harris on drums. Well, let me listen a little more. Sounds like Al Haig on piano. I can tell you that. That kind of stuff you won’t hear any more. That’s gone. It’s amazing music. For that time period, that was amazing music. It’s still amazing, but that time period it was earthshaking! [Do you know this recording?] No, I don’t know it. It sounds like it was recorded at probably Carnegie Hall. Town Hall? The recording sounds very good. That’s a great record there. That’s a 5 there. No doubt about it.

The best records that Dizzy and Charlie Parker made, Sidney Catlett played the drums. The best records they ever made. Sidney Catlett, Slam Stewart on bass, and the piano player was… Oh God, I’m getting senile. But that’s the best record they ever made. This piano player, I never heard him on another record, but he played on that one. Great record. Sid Catlett was a great drummer, because he never got in the way. A lot of drummers can get in the way and disrupt what’s being played. But he never did. Listen to him. You don’t know a drum is being played; all you do is feel the rhythm. And they loved him, too. When I first came, I was all about all these musicians, and I used to study them. Everywhere they played, I would go. I would be right there. I came to New York in 1948,  but I came to stay in 1950. I used to go everywhere. I’d go down to 52nd Street, all the places, and check them out. I made a study of them, and made a study of all the guys who were kind of inhibited by some substance, and I found out that a lot of them, if they didn’t have great musical talent, it didn’t help the performance. You know what I’m saying? Actually, what happened to me, I went to see Dizzy one night… I can’t remember the club. But anyway, Charlie Parker didn’t come, so they used Don Byas. I kept going for three nights because I wanted to see Charlie Parker, and actually, when Charlie Parker came back, the band sounded better to me with Don Byas. Don Byas was a tremendous saxophonist. He never really got the credit he deserved. Same with Lucky Thompson. But as history goes, they write about who they want to write and they build up who they want to build up. Don Byas did leave early, but he came back a couple of times on special occasions. But music is a funny thing.

Like I said, that music has got the feeling, the rhythm and everything right in it, whereas in later forms of that same music, musicians kind of overdid it. They learned what they were doing, then they tried to supplement it and put other stuff in there, and kind of overdid it. Consequently, they ran a lot of people away from the music, because they were trying to overdo it a little bit. [Were you able to play bebop on gigs in New York?] Yeah. I played anything I wanted to play, because I always played something that I knew the people would understand and like at the beginning of the set. Then the last tune, if I played “Cherokee” or something, they wouldn’t mind. They’re satisfied. But a lot of cats make a bad mistake by trying to play too intricate at the beginning of the set. See, back then, people had a tendency to want to dance to the music, too, so you had to be careful, especially if you were working on a steady job. [You were working a lot uptown, not so much midtown or downtown in the early ‘50s, right?] No, wasn’t nothing in Midtown but Birdland. When I came they had other clubs, but they were closed.

It’s been a pleasure. And I’d like to thank all my fans for many years of support, and I hope I haven’t offended anybody with this interview!

[—30—]

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Lou Donaldson

Kenny G is 55: A “Chirpy” Interview From 2002

Via Larry Appelbaum’s Facebook notification, I see that Kenneth Gorelick, aka “Kenny G,” is 55 today. It’s a set-up for me to run the piece of mine that probably more people have seen than any other — an interview for the bn.com website on the occasion of a new recording called Paradise. The conversation transpired over 15 minutes as he was being driven in a limo to New York’s then-smooth-jazz station. It’s understating the case to say that I’m not a fan, but I did decide to play it straight and talk to him as I would any other musicians. Note Mr. Gorelick’s remarks on the provenance of Charlie Parker’s sobriquet, “Bird,” and then the follow-ups, down to his final response.

BTW: Check out Larry’s risible 2005 Before & After session with Misha Mengelberg, also a June 5th baby.

* * *

TP:    First of all, in your recordings, do you look for an overriding arc, an overriding theme? On the last one, Classics, you dealt with a lot of songbook material, lingua franca type of jazz material.  But in general, is there an overriding story?  If so, is there one for this?

KENNY G:  Well, with Classics, that was obviously well thought out in terms of finding the material, using material that was already written by the great masters of these instruments.  But normally, no, I don’t really do that.  I just kind of start creating music, start writing songs, and little by little, an album takes shape.  That’s pretty much how it works.  I try to make it so that a person can listen from the beginning of song 1 until the end of song 11, and enjoy it, and not feel like there is one song that sticks out in any kind of a bad way.

TP:    What do you mean by a “bad way”?

KENNY G:  Well, you could have ten great instrumental songs, and if you put the wrong vocal song on there, maybe it’s a big hit or whatever, but if it sounds inappropriately placed, then I don’t like it, and I won’t do that.  But instrumentally, you’ve got to keep everything sounding… It has to feel right.  I don’t even know how to say that in other words.

TP:    It’s intuitive.

KENNY G:  Yeah, it’s intuitive.  You can’t teach that type of stuff.

TP:    Do you start from point one and then progress from that?

KENNY G:  No.  Not at all.  I start with writing songs, and each song kind of happens when it happens, and pretty soon they start coming together, and at some point I may realize that there’s too many songs that are of this particular tempo.  So I’m not going to write any more songs with that tempo.  I’m going to try to write songs with a different tempo.  Then I just do that until I feel like I’ve covered what I feel I need to cover for this particular record.

TP:    How long did this project take from gestation to realization?

KENNY G:  With Paradise, about a year.  Maybe just a little bit more than a year.

TP:    So from the first tune to the last tune, to recording it, to putting together the charts, getting in the studio, all of that took about a year.

KENNY G:  A little bit more than that. More like a year-and-a-half.

TP:    Do you remember which of the tunes came first?

KENNY G:  Yes, “Spanish Night” was the first one.

TP:    Do you listen very analytically to your records, to one in context of the last one, or is it that once one is done, that’s it, you’re done with it, on the next to the next thing?

KENNY G:  I only listen analytically to my saxophone playing on each song, whether I’ve played exactly the way I want to play.  But I don’t analyze how to write or what kind of albums to put out or anything like that.

TP:    How do you feel your saxophone playing has evolved from when you emerged as a solo artist 20 years ago?

KENNY G:  I think now I play a lot more in-tune.  I think my sense of melody is a lot stronger, so that when I perform a song on my records, I think that instead of maybe kind of embellishing the melody… I’d probably embellish it more ten years ago than I do now.  Now I play melodies a little more straight.  But I’m much more in tune.  I think that my songwriting has gotten a lot stronger in terms of just being able to do different kinds of things, not just the same kind of song.  So I feel really good about it.  I also think that my technique, in terms of playing note-for-note, is a lot better than it used to be.  Because I’ve practiced. Anything you do over a period of ten years or twenty years or thirty years, you’re going to keep getting better.

TP:    Do you continue to maintain an assiduous practice regimen?

KENNY G:  Well, I do when I’m not performing a lot.  I get burned out.  So right now, when I’m out performing and doing TV shows, and I’m doing concerts in China next week, and things like that… I’m probably not going to practice too much in the near future, because I want to… I mean, I don’t need to.  I like to practice.  And if I’m going to perform, I want to keep myself fresh.

TP:    What was the input of your producer, Walter Afanasieff, in creation of this album?

KENNY G:  Walter is a fantastic piano player, and he knows a lot about sounds and things like that.  We work on arrangements together.  We’ll write songs together, then he’ll play the keyboard part, and then we use electronic drums and samples and things like that, and he knows how to program that stuff and play it in a way that’s very musical.  I’ve worked with him on almost every record.

TP:    When did you decide to make the soprano saxophone your primary instrumental voice?  You used to play several different instruments on your albums.

KENNY G:  True.  I used to play more of the other horns as well.  I don’t know.  It’s just one of those things.  It’s like a transformation, it’s a progression… I don’t know why.  It’s not a conscious effort.  I’m not trying not to play the other instruments.  On this album, I probably experimented on every song with different songs, to see which horn was the right horn for the song.  I really don’t care which horn I play.  I like them all.  I mean, I can play them all.  But the soprano just seems to be the one that’s speaking my language right now, and I don’t know why that is.

TP:    This isn’t the first album on which the soprano is the primary voice, though.

KENNY G:  I play one song on tenor.  But it’s mainly the one I use.  It’s been that way probably for 10 or 15 years.

TP:    Do you play the whole reed and woodwind family?  Does that go back to your earlier training?

KENNY G:  Yes.  I mainly play the saxophones.  I can play the clarinet and I can play flute, but I wouldn’t really like to do that publicly, because I’m not that good on those instruments.

TP:    Had your career gone another way and you’d become a section musician, you might have elaborated on those more, but for being out front and expressing your personality, that’s the way you’ve gone.  May I ask you a bit about your early influences on the instrument?  Was or was not soprano the first horn you picked up?

KENNY G:  It wasn’t.  The alto was.

TP:    According to the bio (and the stories are oft-told and must be boring to you), you heard the saxophonist on The Ed Sullivan Show, you took to it, you were in  a good band program in Seattle, you were working by the age of 16 or so…

KENNY G:  Yes.  I’m lucky that I got a chance to do all that work early on.  Because what it showed me when I was 16-17 years old was that I could hang in a professional world and be as good as the guys who are out there doing it for a living.  I knew then that I was capable of making music a career.  It’s like getting a real early picture that, “Okay, you can do this,” so I don’t have to worry about getting a job at a bank.

TP:    But then you did become an accounting major.

KENNY G:  Yeah.  Well, I’m a numbers guy.  I like numbers.  I like studying things, and I enjoyed the learning process.  Learning about music wasn’t interesting to me, but playing it has always been a joy.  Learning about numbers and… I mean, I took calculus and economics and all that stuff.  I just enjoy those subjects.

TP:    Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve was a jazz musician in the ’40s.  He worked in the big bands.  I think a lot of musicians are mathematically inclined.

KENNY G:  I think that’s what they say.  They say that if you learn to master an instrument, it’s the same brain as learning to figure out real hard calculus problems.  I’ve been very good at that kind of stuff.

TP:    Once you got past the beginning stages, was your process of learning an emulative process?  Again, in the bios: You were studying Grover Washington, in college your band director turned you on to Bird and Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and these people.  Were you accumulating vocabulary in a very systematic way, or learning things and applying them on gigs as necessary way or not?

KENNY G:  You hit it right on the head with the first one.  I start definitely being a copycat.  That’s the way it was.  I mean, I wanted to be the white Grover Washington, Junior, and I think I became the white Grover Washington, Junior.  Then when I started to hear other saxophone players, like Sonny Rollins or Coltrane, I heard this different way of playing that I had not really had a lot of access to, I thought, “Well, I’ve got to learn these licks.”  So I started to learn all that stuff.  And pretty soon, after years of practicing this and practicing that, at some point I decided that my own style emerged, and I play the way that I play.  It’s cool.  Because any time, I know that if I wanted to, I could play the fast Coltrane licks, and if I need to play soulfully, I can always play in a certain kind of style.  I’ve got a lot of different ways that I could play the saxophone, and I know that.

TP:    For purposes of this website, I ask musicians to name favorite recordings.  Would you mind naming one particular Grover Washington recording, one particular Coltrane recording, and one particular Charlie Parker recording for me?

KENNY G:  The Grover Washington one that I listened to a lot when I was a kid was called “Inner City Blues.”  As for Coltrane, of course, “Giant Steps” is the main one that he did, and he also did a rendition of “My Favorite Things.”  To me, those are the famous John Coltrane songs.

With Charlie Parker, there are just so many different records.  I don’t say this to be disrespectful, but when you listen to Charlie Parker, on pretty much any record he’s going to sound the same.  He’s going to be unbelievable.  He’ll be playing the fastest lines in that style… He was the fastest.  Nobody played faster and more clean than him.  Except that there was another saxophone player named Sonny Stitt.  He was actually an almost exact duplicate of Charlie Parker, except he played it even cleaner.  Charlie Parker would squeak a lot, and that’s why they called him Bird, because his reed would chirp.

TP:    You think that’s why they called him Bird?  That’s interesting.

KENNY G:  That is why they called him Bird.  That was the deal.  He played so fast, and his reed would chirp because it…I don’t know, it just couldn’t take the speed of his fingers.  But Sonny Stitt used to do it without the chirping thing, and played beautiful.  But I don’t think he ever got the same accolades that Charlie Parker did, mainly because Charlie Parker was the first one, and then…

Anyway, I know a lot about that kind of music, and I admire those players.  But I am not motivated to try to copy what they do or play in that style, because there’s no way that anybody can play better than Charlie Parker.  You can’t.  So what’s the point?  I mean, even if I played every note exactly the way he played it, at exactly the speed, it’s not going to be better.

TP:    Well, then you wouldn’t be you.  You’d be a copycat.

KENNY G:  Yeah.  And you know, it’s fun as a technical exercise to take those tunes… Like a song called “Scrapple From The Apple.”  You take that song, and you learn those licks, and that’s a great test of technique.  You can learn the “Giant Steps” solo of John Coltrane’s.  You learn that, that’s an unbelievable feat of showing-off, of technique.  But that’s all it is to me.  It’s not something that requires… I wouldn’t put my musical career as doing that.  That doesn’t motivate me.  But there’s a lot of people that like to do that.  There’s a lot of guys who like to play these things, and they think that they are the best players in the world because they can play these John Coltrane things.  I go, “Great, but I just feel like creating new stuff…whether you like it or no.”

TP:    What do you think was Grover Washington’s legacy to us?  You said your aspiration was to be the white Grover Washington, and you think you attained that goal.

KENNY G:  Grover was the first guy to play in a certain kind of soulful way.  He was a very melodic, soulful player, that still had enough bebop chops that he could… It’s hard to say.  You’re asking me to describe things that I feel with words, and it’s hard, because…

TP:    You’re doing a great job!

KENNY G:  Well, I’m trying.  Grover could play melodically, but he had a soulful sound to him, and nobody else ever played like that.  He had a way of kind of slowly getting into notes.  Like, he wouldn’t hit the note straight-on, but do what we call a gliss.  Like, he would gliss into a note, and that was really cool.  He did that better than anyone, and I liked that.  I do that in my playing.  In a different way, but I do a lot of that… Well, I don’t usually hit notes straight-on.  I like to slide into them.  That’s part of my style.

TP:    Categories are a tricky thing.  In the press release, it says you’ve bridged the worlds of jazz and contemporary and R&B and so on.  Do you think of yourself as a jazz musician?  Do you think of yourself as something other than a jazz musician?

KENNY G:  Well, personally, I do think of myself as a jazz musician.  But I grew up with the word “jazz”…to me, it meant instrumental and it meant improvisation.  It really doesn’t matter the style.  I don’t play the traditional Charlie Parker songs.  But I do improvise and I do create with my instrument, and that to me is jazz.  But there are people who use the word “jazz” only in a traditional sense, and they would be offended by that, and that’s fine.  They should be, if that’s what they feel.  But that’s just my opinion.  I think everybody has to kind of decide what the word “jazz” means to them, and that’s fine.  Just figure out what you think jazz is, and then if it fits into that category, it’s jazz, and if it doesn’t, it isn’t.  It’s no big deal.

TP:    What sort of things are in your personal listening rotation at this point?  Do you listen to a lot of music?

KENNY G:  No, I don’t listen to a lot of music at all.  I’m actually more into… I don’t know.  I’m just more into playing golf.  It’s a great thing.  I work on my music and I play my albums, and when I’m done, I’m done.

[-30-]

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