Tag Archives: Larry Willis

To Mark Larry Willis’ 71st Birthday, an Unedited DownBeat Blindfold Test From 2006

Pianist Larry Willis — a Harlem native and alumnus of Music & Art — turns 71 today. To denote the occasion, here’s the unedited version of the Blindfold Test he did with me in 2006.

Larry Willis Blindfold Test:

1.  Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “The Hard One” (from SUPERNOVA, Blue Note, 2002) (Rubalcaba, piano; Carlo Enriquez, bass; Ignacio Berroa, drums)

I can’t quite pinpoint who this is. But whoever it is, the way he plays lines, the note ideas, he’s obviously listened a lot to Herbie. I hear a lot of that in this. Some of it might remind you a little bit of Randy Weston. But I say that rhythmically. He’s got great facility. I’m going to give this 4 stars. I like the approach. It goes everywhere. So everybody is obviously thinking about how to deal with this rhythmically. That’s the thing I like about it. I like both the rhythmic and harmonic approach. But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Boy, what a fantastic pianist he is. He’s a very welcome addition to today’s jazz piano. Besides, he’s a really nice kid. [He’s 43.] Well, he’s a kid to me. I got him by 20 years. The composition rubs me a little bit on the negative side. I honestly feel… The Cuban part I like, but it’s very difficult for me to focus in on anything. There’s just a little bit too much going on for me.

2.   Michael Weiss, “Walter Davis Ascending” (from MILESTONES, Steeplechase, 1998) (Weiss, piano; Paul Gill, bass; Joe Farnsworth, drums; Jackie McLean, composer)

I don’t know who it is, but the touch is so reminiscent of Hank Jones. Maybe not so much the ideas. Maybe Lewis Nash on drums. But it sounds awfully good. I’m having difficulty trying to hinge the tune. I love the composition. The left hand is not quite in that style, but I hear Bill Evans also. Compositionally, it sounds like something that Bill might play. Is this a contemporary of mine? [No.] Older? Younger. He’s a teenager. I’m going to step out on a limb. Is this Kirk Lightsey? This is this tune written by somebody that I know very well. It’s Jackie’s tune. 3 stars. It doesn’t quite grab me. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional, as far as I’m concerned. But the performance of it is good.

3.   Chano Dominguez, “No Me Platiques, Mas” (from CON ALMA, Venus, 2003) (Dominguez, piano; George Mraz, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums)

It’s a nice waltz. I don’t think it’s him, but the touch and harmonic approach remind me a lot of Ray Bryant. But I don’t think this is something Ray would play. Then here again, I don’t know who could be playing. I love the sound of the trio. It’s very well-integrated, everybody’s listening to everybody, and I like the approach, the concept of what they’re doing. It’s quasi early Bill Evans trio. The bass player is playing very loose, the drummer is not playing time so strictly, and I like the approach. Could the bassist be George Mraz? Yeah, it sounds like Bounce. We call him the Bouncing Czech. Is this Richie Beirach? A lot of Bill Evans here. Could this be somebody like Denny Zeitlin? You got me. 4 stars. [AFTER] I don’t know him, but I know who he is.

4.   Denny Zeitlin, “Bemsha Swing” (from SOLO VOYAGE, MaxJazz, 2005) (Zeitlin, piano; Thelonious Monk, piano)

“Bemsha Swing.” One of the problems that I’m having is that Jazz, as far as the growth and development of the art, has reached an impasse. I’ve heard no new voices, particularly at the piano, no new schools of thought since 1968, and I think a lot of that has had to do with the way the record industry has crept into this, and basically destroyed a lot of the bands where young players could serve apprenticeship. When I came along, there was the Jazz Messengers, there was Miles’ band, there was Trane’s band, there was Horace Silver’s quintet, a lot of working bands where you could develop. But that doesn’t exist. So what I’m hearing is a lot of retread. [In this performance?] In general. This sounds like Randy to me. But here again, I don’t know who it is. I love what he’s doing. I’m going to give it 5 stars. He plays enough of the piano to let you know that he knows what he’s doing at the instrument, but the whole thing just comes off. I like the harmonic approach. The ideas are nice. I know where it’s coming from, but I can’t tell what records he’s listening to. Let’s put it that way. I like that. He’s put some thought into what he’s doing. [Older guy? Younger guy?] Maybe my age. The concept. He plays good stride. I like how he’s interpreting Monk. Understanding that music is not necessarily something that falls out of a tree. And he doesn’t play too much. Let me put it this way. The element of taste is very prevalent here. What he’s doing, everything seems to be in the right place; he does it at the right time. When he starts to stride, it adds instead of making me feel he’s doing it just to show you that he can. All this is integrated into the music. [AFTER] Denny Zeitlin? Makes a lot of sense to me.

5.  Martin Wacilewski, “Plaza Real” (from TRIO, ECM, 2005) (Wacilewski, piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz, bass; Michal Miskiewicz, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

This is a nice trio. I don’t know who it is. Harmonically I love it. Also, the piano is really well-recorded. He’s listened to Bill, that’s for sure. That last little run is a Bill Evans run! He was a very influential piano player! But there’s also a lot of Herbie’s harmonic approach. Right there! I like it. 4½ stars. [AFTER] They should keep doing what they’re doing!

6.   Dave McKenna, “C-Jam Blues” (from LIVE AT MAYBECK RECITAL HALL, VOL. 2) (McKenna, piano; Duke Ellington, composer)

This sounds like it might be two piano players. Sure is covering a lot of ground. There are two piano players. [Who are they?] Is it Hank and Tommy? No, that’s not Hank. Or Tommy. I haven’t a clue. [Are you sure it’s two piano players?] Yes, I’m sure. Or at least somebody overdubbed something. [It’s one piano player.] Wow. [Live.] Live?! The lines are good. They’re not great. But to play that much with just two hands is doing a lot. It’s not Oscar. I haven’t a clue. 3½ stars. It just doesn’t reach out and grab me.

7.   Jason Moran, “Out Front” (from PRESENTS THE BANDWAGON, Blue Note, 2003) (Moran, piano; Tarus Mateen, bass; Nasheet Waits, drums; Jaki Byard, composer)

There’s something almost Steve Kuhn-ish about this—approach, concept, touch, ideas. But I know it’s not Steve. I like it. He’s got a lot of chops, whoever he is. [Are you familiar with this tune?] No. But for some reason, the name of Jaki Byard is sticking in my head. It sounds like some music he’d play or some music coming from him. It just rubs me that way. I love the treatment. But I can’t figure out who it is! Sounds like they’ve been playing together for a minute. Sounds like a younger player—the sound of the instrument. It doesn’t sound like an older personality. I’m almost going to step out on a limb and say it’s somebody like Marcus Roberts. There’s a lot going on. There’s a lot of information here to decipher. [Do you like that?] Yes and no. I’ve always been one to think that less is more, and because the piano is such a complicated instrument, the 88-to-10 odds empower me to be more simplistic in my approach. I think sometimes piano players get so involved in the 88-to-10 odds that the music takes somewhat of a back seat. That’s happening here. It’s more of a show than music. 3 stars. It isn’t bad! If it gets below 3, that means I don’t like it.

8.   Edward Simon, “Abiding Unicity” (from UNICITY, CAM, 2006) (Simon piano, composer; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums)

The bass player is great. It’s not George. It’s not Eddie Gomez. Is it Richard Davis? I’m trying to think of how many bass players have that kind of arco technique. Is the pianist from outside of the United States? [Yes. But he’s lived in the States for a long time.] I asked because of the approach to rhythm. [What part of the world is the piano player from?] He’s either from Europe or he’s from Japan. How can I put this? Because I’m an American and jazz comes from here, and I’ve been listening to it for a long time from an American perspective, the whole concept of playing inside the pulse framework is a little deeper here than I hear coming from other places, and I think… It’s not a putdown. It’s just that if you don’t grow up in a culture, it’s very difficult to assimilate the little subtleties of whatever that is into your playing if you haven’t experienced it. [That affects how you’re hearing this.] Yes. But let’s back up. It affects me in this context. What I am trying to say is not a bad thing. That’s just how it is. For example, as close as he came to being involved with an American approach to playing jazz, I still hear that difference in somebody’s playing like Joe Zawinul, for example. There’s always a tendency to… It sounds like it’s on the surface almost. The piece is okay. It started out great, and then it went someplace else that I didn’t particularly care for. If it started like what he’s doing now, then I might feel more compelled to… It just doesn’t get inside my body. 3 stars. [AFTER] Patitucci and Blade always seem to be together. I heard them with Wayne, I heard them with Herbie…

9.  Oscar Peterson, “Sweet Lorraine” (from FREEDOM SONG, Pablo, 1980/2002) (Peterson, piano; Joe Pass, guitar; Niels Henning-Orsted Pederson, bass; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I like the piano player. It’s a very nice, refreshing treatment of this song. Whoever it is, they’ve certainly paid attention to the Nat Cole Trio—or the King Cole Trio. I like this. I’m almost going to say Mulgrew. Is the guitar player Russell Malone perchance? Is the guitarist an older player? [Yes.] Older than me? [No.] Well, it’s not Cedar. It doesn’t sound like Barry Harris. Now, that sounds like Hank right there. Whoever it is, they’ve really listened to Hank’s approach to playing the instrument. Hank’s got one of the cleanest, clearest, prettiest sounds coming out of the piano in the history of this music, I feel. And whoever this is, I like very, very much. Harmonically, technically, just the general approach to playing the instrument. He’s got a great sound. 5 stars. [AFTER] [LOUD LAUGH] Okay.

10,  Bebo Valdes, “Lamento Cubano” (from EL ARTE DEL SABOR, Blue Note, 2000) (Bebo Valdes, piano; Israel “Cachao” Lopez, bass; Carlos “Patato” Valdes; congas)

An older pianist. From Cuba. Bebo Valdes. The sound, concept, touch. That’s Bebo! He’s a really unique player. First of all, as a pianist, he’s assimilated the world’s concept of playing the jazz piano and formulated it into a very unique concept of playing the piano—and playing that music, playing Cuban music. I love him, first of all, because he’s got a great sound from the piano. Then, his minimalist approach pleases me immensely. In a sense, he reminds me, if I can make an analogy, of Ahmad Jamal, for example. He shows you just enough technique to let you know that he’s got it, but the rest is focused on playing some music that will allow you to assimilate it. 5 stars. I asked Miles one time… There’s a great story about him going over and hearing Clifford Brown, and then just saying to him, “Brownie, why are you playing all of those notes? Nobody hears that.” I asked Miles about it, and he said, what it is, when you’re playing music for people other than musicians, they can’t assimilate and decipher all that information and have it come out music that touches their souls. So a lot of what you play gets wasted on just you showing off and how much technique you have. Oscar doesn’t do that, and he’s got a world of technique. Art Tatum didn’t do that, and he had a world of technique. But a lot of players play too much. Too much information. The ultimate objective of all of this is not to be the greatest… I’m not trying to be the greatest piano player in the world. I want to be the best musician I can be. Because the instrument is there for you to play music on.

11.  Chick Corea, “Celia” (from REMEMBERING BUD POWELL, 1997) (Corea, piano; Bud Powell, composer)

It sounds like Barry Harris playing “Celia.” Or somebody from that generation. [It’s someone from your generation.] They really understand the concept of bebop, the bebop school of thought as far as playing the piano is concerned. Kenny Barron? He’s listened to bebop quite a bit. He’s played it quite a bit. Hmm. From my generation? 4 stars. [AFTER] Okay. All right. Aside from the music that he’s been able to come out with and has been so successful with, there’s a bit of a chameleon in Chick as far as playing the piano. I’ve heard him play duets with Herbie, and he’s got one face there. I hear this, it’s another face. I hear what he does, for example, with Return to Forever; that’s another face. I heard him with Stan Getz; that’s another face. Yes, Armando!

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Larry Willis, Piano

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

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

The Bradley’s Hang
……
By Ted Panken

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A physical altercation ensued.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WENDY:

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

J.H.
In Love

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