Tag Archives: New Orleans

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th Birthday, a Jazziz Feature from 2002

For Ellis Marsalis’ 79th birthday, I’m posting a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz circa 2002, the interviews that I conducted for that piece, and a pair of WKCR interviews from the ’90s, on one of which he joined me at the studio with Jason Marsalis.

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By Ted Panken:

“Jazz is about the art of discovery. Not discovery in terms of guesswork. You give a person a certain amount of information, and make sure that information is communicated. From that point, they begin to make decisions about that information. All you really need is the spirit of adventure, applied to the music that is being presented to you.”
—    Ellis Marsalis, June 2002.

Widely known as the paterfamilias of a musical dynasty, Ellis Louis Marsalis, Jr. retired in August 2001 after a phenomenally productive 37-year teaching career on the high school and university levels. Ironically, the 67-year-old pianist, a professional improviser for half-a-century, never intended to make education his life’s work. Early tangents began to surface while the New Orleans native attended Dillard University between 1951 and 1955, moonlighting as a journeyman tenor saxophonist on local gigs with blues singers like Big Joe Turner and playing piano behind Big Maybelle and other singers at an Uptown boite called the Dew Drop Inn. Other possibilities arose during these years as he worked on and recorded original music with a peer group that included drummer Edward Blackwell and clarinetist Alvin Batiste, and later with saxophonist Nat Perrillat and drummer-composer James Black.

After earning his Music Education degree from Dillard, Marsalis enlisted in the Marine Corps (stationed in Southern California, he spent off-hours in 1956 woodshedding with Blackwell and Ornette Coleman), was discharged, and returned to New Orleans where, in quick succession, he married Dolores Ferdinand, and fathered his famous sons Branford, in 1960, and Wynton, in 1961. With a young family to support, Marsalis today recalls that “the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never great anyway, had changed tremendously, with virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of. I figured I might as well try to use my degree.”

From 1964 until his retirement, Marsalis dual-tracked as a performer-educator. He took a position as band director at a high school in a small Louisiana town, serving until 1966. From 1974 to 1986 he taught and designed a curriculum at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a multi-disciplinary arts magnet high school that students attended on elective from their home school. Marsalis’ pupils included his four sons — saxophonist Branford, trumpeter Wynton, trombonist Delfeayo, and drummer Jason – as well as Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick, Jr. In 1986 he left New Orleans to head the jazz program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He returned in 1989 to create the jazz program at the University of New Orleans, remaining there until his retirement.

The beginning of Marsalis’ teaching career coincided with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which abolished Jim Crow laws that had stood for decades. Living under statutory segregation, he had accumulated and processed the vocabulary of jazz “in a sort of shotgun approach — a piece here, a little there,” and could draw upon no codified pedagogy to teach it. At Dillard, he recalls, “We got the basis of European music, taught in a slapdash way, depending on who was teaching. The rules of the music department were modeled to be a kind of mini-conservatory, focusing on the things band directors are expected to do, with an abundance of courses in theory and almost no practical. So there was virtually no sound, formal training ground that emanated from a specific black tradition where you could learn to play jazz on the instrument. You learned just about everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it. Jazz was always second-class.”

Jazz continues to be but a blip on the collective consciousness of popular culture, but the idiom’s stature has evolved tremendously since Ellis Marsalis was a young man. Under the artistic directorship of Wynton Marsalis at Jazz at Lincoln Center, jazz enjoys  equal institutional pride of place with classical music and opera at America’s equivalent of the French Ministry of Culture. Furthermore, dozens of universities offer degrees in jazz performance. Marsalis is one of a national cohort of pioneer improviser-educators (others include Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath, William Fielder, and New Orleans colleagues Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan) who revolutionized the way jazz is taught, and his curricular first principles are seminal in the recent intellectual history of jazz education.

At NOCCA, Marsalis relied on those first principles while cobbling together a pragmatic, homegrown pedagogy designed to teach the building blocks of jazz and improvisation so that, as Wynton Marsalis puts it, “people can go out and get a gig, whatever kind of gig they can play.” “Whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy,” the elder Marsalis notes. “Mostly it happened by reaction. I heard a story about Thomas Edison. His assistant said they had done 150 experiments. None of the lightbulbs worked. He said, ‘Man, we ought to give up on this, because we’re making no progress at all.’ Edison supposedly responded, ‘On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.’ We don’t always think about going to the things that don’t work as a path to finding what does.”

Like a painter in medieval Europe who required apprentices to mix paints and prepare canvases before allowing them to wield a brush, or a master bata drummer breaking down the beats for an initiate, Marsalis taught with artisanal focus, forcing students to learn the skills of their trade before they can think about expressing their personalities through the medium. “You can get into a lot of trouble trying to figure out at what point it becomes art,” he reflects. “That becomes more philosophical than realistic. I’m concerned about whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.”

Asked how he would synopsize his method to a grant-bearing arts administrator, Marsalis responds: “Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony, and melody, not necessarily in that order. We didn’t distinguish between European music and jazz. All the students at NOCCA had private instruction. New students learn two songs a semester. You apply those component parts to each piece, drilling on intervals, on individual notes, on the correct scales. Then, if your personality is suited to it, you work on the concept of improvisation.”

Marsalis began his work at NOCCA by focusing on the blues. “Learning how to play blues is like mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic before moving to algebra, trigonometry, and calculus,” he says. “It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation. I would write out 12 measures of chords that, when played, turned out to be a blues. They got the sound of the notes in their ear, and got their fingers used to the positions. They got a tangible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus. The chord symbols represented vertically sounds they would deal with in a linear manner. And they’d be sensitized to the rhythmic flow, to deal with music in motion.”

Ear training is crucial. Marsalis insists students internalize the fundamental building blocks so that transcription and memorization of classic repertoire will become a more organic process. “Without the oral component of music, you take away its natural ingredients,” he says, lifting an analogy from his bottomless well of metaphors. “It’s like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit. Preserves tend to taste the same; you can get them whenever you want. But the apple on the tree will be there only so long. In the same way, a solo only exists in the moment. The students who really pursue this have to learn that the concept of a solo is not unlike a novel or short story, with a beginning, a developmental section, a peak, and ultimately a climax or ending. The more references you can draw on, the more possibilities you have.

“Too much academic description can make a student lose the ability to hear certain subtleties. Someone might analyze a solo by discussing its technical components, for instance, that so-and-so used this scale and that scale and another scale – but the person who did the solo wasn’t thinking about that at all! It’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can remove the essence of what was actually going on. There’s a story that somebody was talking to Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, ‘Man, forget the recordings; you got to have been there!’ It makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what was actually going down.”

BREAK

With his utilitarian bent, Marsalis is a lineal descendent of such mid-century African-American teacher-autocrats as Walter Dyett from DuSable High School in Chicago and Samuel Browne from Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, whose programs produced dozens of outstanding jazz musicians from Marsalis’ generation. Eschewing the authoritarian methods by which they kept students in line (Dyett was legendary for the accuracy with which he hurled his conductor’s baton at erring students), Marsalis won hearts and minds by treating his charges as young adults with minds of their own, as individuals accountable for their actions and decisions.

“Ellis encourages and motivates his students, but he’s also direct and won’t pamper you,” says Victor Goines, Director of Jazz Studies at Juilliard School of Music. A 41-year-old New Orleans native, Goines studied privately with Marsalis in the ’70s, apprenticed with his combo in the ’80s, and has played saxophone and clarinet in the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra from 1989 until the present.  “With me, he could be painfully truthful, but also compassionate to my needs as a young man. If it sounded bad, he didn’t pull punches. He was for real.”

Goines borrowed a number of Marsalis’ dicta in creating the jazz program at Juilliard, beginning with the notion that working musicians are the most effective teachers. “Ellis brought to the classroom experiences from the oral tradition he’d learned as a performer, as opposed to learning the theory of education in the classroom and trying to go out and play after the fact,” Goines says. “He believes that working with small ensembles is important because of the freedom for improvisation. Students need to have perspective on the music’s history. They need to be able to function in different idioms, and to always realize that you’re not preparing for the gig you’re doing now, but the unknown gig to come. Ellis puts you in situations that you have to work your way out of. He always told me that to try to get to something great, you have to be willing to take chances, to make a fool of yourself. He said that you shouldn’t get on a bandstand with someone you wouldn’t get in a foxhole with; if everyone isn’t working toward a common goal, it’s a waste of time. He even teaches you to take care of the business aspects. He covered all the aspects of what it takes to be a professional musician.”

“I was shocked as a kid the first time I went to his school, and heard his students call him ‘Ellis,’” says Branford Marsalis. “That just didn’t happen in the South in the ’60s and ’70s. Later I understood how hip that was. My pops was just having a dialogue with the students, to the degree of almost demystifying education. He points the finger and forces you to think for yourself. He twists standard American colloquialisms so that they make more sense to him. He’d always say, ‘You know, son, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him thirsty.’ That’s brilliant! Once he told a student to listen to a piece of music. The student said, ‘I don’t want to.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Man, I know what I like.’ My father said, ‘No, son, you don’t know what you like; you like what you know.’ I thought about it, and realized that in order to say that you know what you like, you have to know a helluva lot. What he was getting at is that you should study the music for your own sake, not just because he tells you to. If you don’t, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball.”

“My father’s first principle is, ‘You don’t know unless you know,’” says Wynton Marsalis. “Don’t assume anything without first-hand experience. Don’t get chord changes out of the book; get them off the record. He always gets you to question what you know. He stresses that there’s no right or wrong way to hear. He’d guide you in a direction, but he wouldn’t tell you what to do. He gave you the opportunity to figure out your own thing.”

For a teacher to give students that much rope demands not only self-confidence, but tremendous faith in human nature. An unflinchingly realistic man devoid of illusions, Marsalis is explicitly not religious. To trace the source of such fundamental trust is therefore an intriguing endeavor.

“My father believes in jazz — real jazz,” Wynton Marsalis declares. “He never believed that jazz was White or Black. He believes it’s a universal expression, a thing that brings whoever addresses it into contact with their greater self. He doesn’t suffer from cultural intimidation. He’s very clear and uncompromising that you have to face jazz — or J.S. Bach — on its own terms, not change the music or put it on a lower level so you can feel comfortable in your relationship to it. If you practice and learn what you have to — and have the ability — you can play it. If you don’t, you can’t.

“The foundation of how I teach — what I think and know — comes from watching him. Long before we even had Jazz at Lincoln Center, when I was 19 and 20, I did workshops and went in the schools, because I saw my father doing it. The way to conduct a workshop, to present material, to pick tunes to play, to use analogies to make something clear, the importance of teaching form, the central position of the rhythm section in the band — all these concepts come from him.”

For all the inherent optimism implied by his lifelong struggle to communicate jazz values, Ellis Marsalis is not exactly sanguine about the present state of things. “The schools are teaching jazz with a conservatory approach, nice clubs are cropping up, and jazz is now a respectable area to function in,” he says. “But mainstreaming it removed a lot of individuality. Listen to the saxophone players in the conservatories that have good jazz departments. All of them can play! But when they solo, you can’t tell them apart.”

What case, then, would Marsalis make for talented musicians to study jazz in school?

“I don’t necessarily think they should,” he responds. “Jazz is a highly individualistic art. You’ll do better with a good private instructor and being around people who are well versed in the style of music you’re trying to play. Actually, there’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz at all, aside from the music speaking to you. But more and more, I think that the study of jazz, across the board, can help a musician or lay person better understand America, because the music reflects the whole of the citizenry so completely. In some ways, jazz is a form of glue that keeps American culture centered. We live in a world where people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist. So a disciplined approach to anything is something this country very much needs.

“I often think of America as a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him a candy store, with nobody to guide him. He goes into this candy store and proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid. If he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die, he’ll ultimately learn, after he gets a bellyache, that there’s something to know when you got this place. It’s not just, ‘Oh, great, this is mine.’”

No longer teaching in any capacity, Marsalis is focusing on his retirement, making decisions about his future involvement in education. He works most Fridays at the prestigious Snug Harbor club in a trio with youngest son, drummer Jason, and leaves town for occasional jobs. In the autumn he’ll release a self-produced trio CD on ELM, his own label, and will go in the studio to record several CDs worth of material. In his manner, he’ll continue to do what he can to help that 10-year-old grow up.

“My father never preached,” says Branford Marsalis. “And he never wasted any time trumpeting his strengths. He was always interested in addressing and eradicating his weaknesses. That’s something I believe in. The great thing he passed on to us was to always go for something you like, because it’s about expanding, not finding your little place in the box and staying there.”

[---30---]

INTERVIEWS:

Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):

TP:    Some nuts and bolts questions.  Are you still teaching, or are you now retired from any institutional affiliation?

MARSALIS:  No, I retired August 10th, 2001 from the University of New Orleans.

TP:    So you’re retired for a year.  Are you still teaching in any capacity?

MARSALIS:  No.

TP:    So your artistic focus is on being a piano player.

MARSALIS:  I’m focusing on my retirement.

TP:    How are you spending it?

MARSALIS:  Well, first getting used to it.  I started putting some unfinished portions of things into my computer, which is something that I’ve been slowly learning about doing.  Because the program can be very difficult.  But I’ve got some gigs.  I usually play every Friday night at a local club called Snug Harbor.

TP:    That’s the top club in New Orleans, isn’t it?

MARSALIS:  Right.  And I go out occasionally.  This summer we have a couple of grandchildren who are staying with us, going to some summer camps. So I’ll be here doing that; my wife and I will be taking care of that.

TP:    When did you begin to teach?  How long have you been teaching?  What were the circumstances?  Was it the NOCCA experience in the mid-’70s?

MARSALIS:  Well, not really.  When I graduated from Dillard University.

TP:    So way before the 1970s, then.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  I didn’t really want to teach, but eventually I went into the military and got out, and got married, and the gig situation in New Orleans, which was never that great anyway, changed tremendously, and as a result, I figured I might as well try to use the degree I’ve got.  So I started to teach in 1963.

TP:    In what situation?

MARSALIS:  It’s hard to really describe.  Because I went in to be like a music teacher, and they never had a band in there at the school.  What happened, I ended up with two or three science classes and some general music classes, with one period to develop a band.  So I stayed there for a year, and I said, “Well, I know I need the money, but I’m not going to cripple people because I need the money.”  And I didn’t know nothin’ about no science!  So I left there, and I started teaching in a small Louisiana town, Browbridge.  I was band director there for a couple of years.

TP:    Is that when you started to develop a pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.

TP:    By 1964, you’re an established musician in New Orleans, such as the scene was, and you’d been playing professionally for a little less than 15 years.

MARSALIS:  Wait.  When are you talking about?

TP:    Let me see if my chronology for you is correct.  You’re born in ’34.  You go to Dillard when, about ’51 to ’55.  You go in the Army in either late ’55 or early ’56?

MARSALIS:  No, I was in the Marine Corps in ’56.

TP:    You spend a lot of that time in California, and it seems that your military service wasn’t so arduous as to prevent you from playing music.

MARSALIS:  Well, basically, that became my job.

TP:    So you’re another one of the people who got to play music as part of their Service duties.

MARSALIS:  Right.

TP:    And you get back to New Orleans around ’58 or ’59, and you start to have your children, and because the economic situation in New Orleans was what it is, you start to teach.  And in the mid-’60s, you’re teaching in that high school in Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’64 to ’66.

TP:    In one of my earlier conversations with you, you spoke about how you learned, about your formative process, that you started playing clarinet when you were 11, started playing tenor saxophone in high school, did a lot of rhythm-and-blues gigs, and you were studying the piano, and that when you got out of high school you decided to be a music major, that Dizzy Gillespie turned you on, a bunch of things turned you on.  You said: “I had been studying with a really great piano teacher. Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to, or you were learning from someone who was either in your family or was a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, or you studied with a piano teacher who basically was teaching formal approaches to European music.”  You said that you weren’t playing in the church, which was to your regret, and you didn’t know anyone who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view, and you gravitated to the two areas that were closest to you, being Rhythm-and-Blues and Jazz, and I guess some European tradition — which you’re not saying here — with that piano teacher.

MARSALIS:  I didn’t really study with her long enough to develop a repertoire.  I studied with her maybe about a year or so, and then I started at the university.  And I couldn’t put it together to continue studying with her.  Her name was Jean Coston Maloney.  You see, I couldn’t put that together, because if I had thought about it and had figured it out, I could have continued studying with her.  But I said, “Well, I can’t study with her and be a music major over here at the same time.”  I said, “When I graduate, I’m going to go back and start studying with her.”  Of course, by that time she had left town.

TP:    Would you say you had a good music curriculum at the high school that you attended?

MARSALIS:  No.  There was no music curriculum. There was none at all.  There was the marching band and the concert band.

TP:    What was the level of instruction that you received in that band?  How was learning done?

MARSALIS:  Well, that school was in transition at the time, and in fact, it closed my sophomore year.  And the band director, who had really been great, left the year before I got there, and went off to Southern University to direct bands there.  So what we did was sort of limp along.  The last part of the year, we didn’t have a band teacher at all.  We just did it ourselves.  So I didn’t learn much about music at all in high school.

TP:    I see.  Because I’ve talked to a few of your contemporaries from New Orleans, like Clyde Kerr, and I gather his house was a focal point for a lot of like-minded musicians.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  That was true with Clyde.  Clyde, Sr., was a music teacher also.

TP:    Were there any teachers in New Orleans who were equivalent to the great black high school teachers of segregation days — such as Walter Dyett or Samuel Browne or the woman at Cass Tech in Detroit — in inspiring musicians of your generation?

MARSALIS:  If I had to pick somebody, it would be Yvonne Bush.  There’s a book coming out which is going to be very interesting, and she’s featured in that book.  In fact, the guy who wrote the book, Al Kennedy, had in his first printing of it a chronology of all of the people that she influenced.  It was one of those pullouts.  Now, I don’t know if Scarecrow is going to keep that.  I mean, it may make it and it may not.  But Yvonne Bush is one of the people that I would tend to think was close to what you’re talking about.  She was a trombone player, and I think she had spent some time playing with the Sweethearts of Rhythm during their later days.

Anyway, Clyde Kerr… There was also a younger guy named Alvin Thomas who helped a couple of guys.  But he died young.  He was younger than me.  He was still in high school when I was doing my (?).  He was also one of the students of Yvonne Bush.

TP:    But in the process of learning the vocabulary of jazz and the tools that you would need to be effective, how did it operate before you went to college? Was it totally informal, like you and Alvin Batiste would get together and take down solos from records?  I know a lot of people from your generation were very homegrown, but then, other people had substantial formal instruction.  And given the subject of this article, I’m interested in how you accumulated and processed vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  In a kind of shotgun approach. Some here, a piece over there, a little bit here, a little bit there. Because once I decided that I was going to be a piano player, one of the things that I didn’t know was the dimensions involved.  That is, if you are a tenor saxophone player, you play the tenor saxophone, but you may have studied the chronology of saxophone players who played your instrument, so you get a pretty good understanding of who came before you.  But when you’re a piano player, the significance of being a piano player is that you wear several different hats. There’s solo piano, which Art Tatum scared everybody to death with that. Then there’s the trio piano playing, the stuff that Oscar did and various other people who played. Then there’s playing piano in a rhythm section, which is one of the things that you end up learning to do because of working conditions.  Usually, all of the piano players at some point end up playing in a rhythm section.  And the accompaniment role, in some cases, if you happen to be in a group with a singer.  And it’s all different.  And there was nobody there to tell me that, so I just learned it as well as I could.

TP:    You made a comment in my second radio session with you that accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.

MARSALIS:  It really is.  It shouldn’t be. But the reason why it’s so difficult to teach is because music programs are not structured in a way that the vocalist and the other instrumentalists are taught in a complementary manner.  By “complementary” I mean this.  If a person says, “Well, I’m interested in playing jazz piano,” unless you have a singer who is interested in singing jazz in accordance with the tradition in the same sense that that piano player understands their role, you don’t have a thing!  You see?

Most of the metaphors that I used when I was teaching was through athletics.  I would tell the students various things, especially when Jordan was still playing.  I would try to get them to focus on learning melodies to a song, make sure you know what that melody is.  If there are words to that song, at least learn the first verse to it, so that you see how those words connect with that melody.  The harmony is a part of that.  Learn that harmony the way that the guy wrote it, so when you hear the alterations from other people, you have a reference point. Know the rhythm so that you understand what category the piece falls in.  It may be a Rhumba or a Congo or a Bossa-Nova, or it may be a ballad, or it may be up-tempo.  I used to use Michael Jordan.  I said, “When you look at him, what you see is somebody who has developed every facet of the game, whether it’s his defensive play, or his ability to shoot around the perimeter, or it’s the various ways in which people develop moving the ball around, the free-throw shooting…”  Like, all of the aspects that go into the whole of the person.

Music teachers rarely teach like that.  The reason that music teachers rarely teach like that is because you have too many people involved, and they only hired one music teacher, and that music teacher is expected to teach a band well enough to go out on a halftime football show.  So it can become very difficult to try to deal with subtleties when it’s just you and 100-and-some students.

TP:    How did you deal with that when you were at Browbridge?

MARSALIS:  I didn’t deal with that.  I had a concert band which I dealt with, and then the football season.  I had somebody who could do the little halftime steps and all that, and teach the band that, and go out and do the halftime football show.  Basically, that’s it.

TP:    At Browbridge.

MARSALIS:  Right.
TP:    And at that point, would you say that by the age 30, you had developed pretty much the pedagogy — given, of course, the various refinements and elaborations over time — that you continued to teach? Or did it springboard you into developing that pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  See, it’s hard to answer that, because I didn’t pursue teaching sort of like in a straight line.  Like someone who wants to be a doctor.  You may end up being a surgeon or internal medicine or a podiatrist.  But you still go in a straight line.  But see, I wasn’t really that interested in teaching, and when I left Browbridge, I came back and started playing in the Playboy Club, and I stayed there until such time as… I mean, the job in and of itself was not really going anywhere.  It was a good job, playing six nights a week.  But I wasn’t satisfied with it.

TP:    Not artistically satisfied.

MARSALIS:  Well, not really, man.  It was a jazz gig.  It wasn’t like you had to play something other than that.  But even if you’re playing jazz, if what you are playing isn’t really saying anything… And then, it really wasn’t my group, so to speak.  So even though I was playing every night, there was little or no chance to do anything with them or with anybody else.  Because the city at that time had just moved away from legal segregation — maybe two years earlier, in 1966.  So it was a city in transition, and there were still a lot of older clubs and older musicians playing, and a lot of younger guys coming in who were bringing a different brand of funk to what they were doing.  There was virtually no jazz — as we consider it — to speak of.  And there wouldn’t really be any straight-ahead stuff until, oh, much later.

TP:    Let me step back to Dillard and address the way the curriculum you received there affected the musician you became.

MARSALIS:  Well, what about it?

TP:    Let me put the question to you this way.  Do you feel you received a solid music education at Dillard?

MARSALIS:  Not really.  It was a small school, a private school, and the emphasis was on the nursing school, which had a very good reputation, and also on education.  Because heretofore, teaching and education degrees were areas that college-minded Black students could go into and get a job as a schoolteacher.  So the idea of performance was ludicrous.  At the time, I didn’t really know that was the way people were thinking who were administering the school!  So what we got was really the basis of European music, and in some cases, taught by people in a kind of slapdash way.  Not everybody.  It just depended on who you got.  It was modeled, so to speak, kind of after a poor man’s conservatory — which most of them are.

TP:    You mean most of the black colleges during segregation?

MARSALIS:  Well, most of them were anyway, even the ones that weren’t Black.  The thing is, your primary customer… For example, even at the University of New Orleans today, the primary customer is one who is going to be in music education.  So consequently, what you get is all of the rules that are set up in such a way that resemble a mini-conservatory.  So many hours on your major instrument, so many hours on the minor instruments, all those kinds of things that they expect band directors to do.  And for the most part, courses in theory.  In a lot of cases, you have an abundance of theory classes and almost no practical.

TP:    Whereas people like Yvonne Busch and Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne were extremely practically-oriented and performance-oriented.

MARSALIS:  I imagine so.  But it’s kind of hard to tell.  I used to talk with Eddie Harris about Walter Dyett, because Eddie studied under him.  And I talked a little bit with Joe Williams about the Colonel, from Wendell Phillips High School in Chicago.  He went under a guy who had been a Colonel, I think, in the Army.

TP:    The guy at Wendell Phillips was Major Clark N. Smith, then Dyett succeeded him, then Dyett went to DuSable when the school was founded in 1935.

MARSALIS:  Yes, it must have been the Major.

TP:    He had the Chicago Defender Boys Band, which Lionel Hampton came out of.  I think he was a no-nonsense Marine, like you!

MARSALIS:  Also the school in Detroit, Cass Tech, where Donald Byrd… A lot of those cats went to Cass Tech.  See, we didn’t really have schools like that.

TP:    Oh, I’d been under the impression that one of the black high schools in New Orleans had a good music program.  I guess I was under the wrong impression.

MARSALIS:  How long ago?

TP:    I was thinking the late ’40s and ’50s, but my memory may be incorrect.

MARSALIS:  Well, when people say that so-and-so had a good music program, you don’t ever know what that means!  I had a guy that told me he was going into the studio down here, and he was trying to get some musicians, and he heard that St. Augustine High School had these great musicians and this great music program, and he got some of them kids in the studio.  I knew what he was trying to do, and I didn’t call him on it, but he was trying to get over cheap.  But anyway, he got those kids in there, and they didn’t know jack!  They’re not being taught any of that.  They’re a marching band, and their reputation is that.  But a lot of times, people don’t really know.  They look at these situations, and they’re not involved in music, and go, “Oh, this is a great program.”

TP:    One thing that occurs to me is that in thinking of people like Dyett and Samuel Browne and these high school music programs through which talented young black musicians emerged and were prepared to become skilled jazz musicians in the period when segregation was operative, there was a certain type of pedagogy and a certain type of attitude and a certain type of world view that was conveyed that helped these musicians function.  Looking at you from the outside, I see your work as very much in a continuum of that, granted, of course, that you were doing it in a different time.  So I’m fishing here to see if this sort of attitude stuck to you and informed your perspective on your own teaching.

MARSALIS:  Well, by the time that I started to teach music in high school at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts, which was a different school… There was no marching band.  There was no band.  There was no core curriculum of math or science or any of that.  This was an arts high school that students went to, using their elective from the home school.  You could not graduate from the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts with a diploma that was recognized as anything.  In other words, you had to go to the regular certified high school that taught math and science and English and history, and then half-a-day, you would study your discipline.  Now, a discipline at NOCCA could be dance, theater, music, visual arts, or creative writing.  And we had a faculty of artists.  So the curriculum was designed by the artists for young people who would anticipate becoming professional musicians, dancers, singers, whatever.  That was the greatest faculty that I was ever on.  There was only three of us.  That faculty was fantastic.  I learned as much as the students did.

TP:    Was that you, Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan?

MARSALIS:  No-no, not at all.  Alvin was teaching at Southern.

TP:    He wasn’t teaching there at all.

MARSALIS:  No.  Alvin was the artist-in-residence, I think, for the Orleans Parish School system.  So when that school opened, Alvin called me, and told me that they were opening up the school, and that it would probably be good for me.  By that time, I had already gone and started taking courses at Loyola Graduate School, and wasn’t interested even in interviewing for the job.  Because I had developed a plan, a modus operandi, which took me to graduate school, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to veer away from that plan.  But I did go and interview, and eventually they hired me.

So I was able to function on a great faculty.  It was Bert Braud, who was also an instrumental music teacher, and also a vocal teacher, Lorraine Alfaro.  One of the things that we didn’t really do was to emphasize or make a distinction between European music and jazz.  All the students had to study.  All the students had private instruction.

TP:    I gather you had a grant, and members of the Symphony were teaching for the amount of the grant.

MARSALIS:  Well, not always.  They would take the grant, and sometimes the students would have to supplement the grant.  But it wasn’t a lot of money for the level of instruction.  The grant was about 8 bucks, and the symphony people at that time were teaching for $12 for the students.  But it was a marvelous opportunity for them.

TP:    Would you say, then, that your pedagogy developed through the imperatives of setting up a curriculum for NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

TP:    So you get your first class or your early classes, and what do you present them with?

MARSALIS:  When I first started there, I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to approach this.  But invariably, I just started with teaching students a lot of blues.  Then I’m trying to pick standards that I knew related to a particular instrument.  For example, I knew that just about all of the trumpet players should be expected to play “I Can’t Get Started With You” and tenor saxophone players would be expected to play “Body and Soul.”

TP:    You broke down those tunes and they had to show…

MARSALIS:  They had to play them.

TP:    Did you give them recordings to listen to, or first principles that they should follow?

MARSALIS:  If I had them.  Yeah, I would do that if I had them.  We eventually hustled up some money and bought some recordings.  Also, we bought some old Collins speaker.  They might still be in use, man!  Clyde Kerr was using the same speakers, and doing…kind of piecemealing what we could do.  But I was very big on the practical side of playing.

TP:    How do you mean the practical side?

MARSALIS:  That’s it.  Play.

TP:    When did you ascertain that a student was moving in the right direction?  Was that through your knowledge as a working jazz musician?  I’m thinking about criteria, the right thing and the wrong thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, the right thing and the wrong thing is easy.  Because one of the things they had to do was be able to play scales.  Either you understood and played the right ones, or you didn’t.  And if you did, I’d work on the concept of improvisation, which is not something that’s suitable for everybody’s personality.  But there are ways in which you can get people to improvise if they are susceptible to that process.  When I say susceptible, what I mean is that some people are just not comfortable with the process of improvisation.  If it’s not written on a page or instructions that come from on high or whatever, they are just not comfortable improvising.

TP:    So when you found someone who you determined had talent… I assume that given the type of students who were coming in, you were able to take very individual approaches with each of them.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, but not because of who was coming in.  Mostly because of the way it was structured.  Because we just got public school students, period.  Whoever came to audition.  We didn’t know who was talented and who wasn’t.

TP:    I did a piece earlier this year on Harry Connick that was a cover story in “Jazziz,” and I talked to Branford about him.  He said this: [ETC.] “…if you walk in the room, my father says, ‘okay, why are you here?’  Virtually every other teacher would say, ‘Turn to page 13.  Okay, that’s great. Come back next week and give me another $100.’  My father is like, ‘Why are you here?’  ‘I’m here for you to teach me.’ ‘What do you want to learn?  I don’t know.’ ‘Come back when you’ve figured it out.’

MARSALIS:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    I said, “What do you think Harry wanted to learn?”  He said, “I don’t think Harry knew, and that’s what my father wanted to get to — what is it you want to learn?”  He says he doesn’t know what you taught him, he and Wynton would rough him up and go outside, but he assumes you would do studies on the blues because that’s what you made piano players deal with first, blues and rhythm.

It seems that so many people who have studied with you are able to access the maximum of potential from themselves, and I’m interested in your philosophy of dealing with people, particularly at that very sensitive time in their lives, when things can go in so many different directions.

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t know that I had even developed a philosophy.  See, the thing that I remembered, that I fell back on, is that when I was in elementary school, in the early elementary school, first through sixth grade, that [things were done by drill]  ….[END OF SIDE]…. We had English classes, we had math class, and in all of those classes, one of the key components was drill.  So when I started teaching at NOCCA, I began to use that aspect.  Because it stuck with me.  You just drill on something and you drill on it until they get it.  And it wouldn’t matter…

See, this is another thing.  It wasn’t so much about whether somebody was into jazz or classical.  The drilling aspect had to do with whatever the subject matter was at the point that you were teaching.  Because I was also responsible for teaching Classical students, not just what we call jazz students, and I had to develop a sight-singing class which everybody had to take.  The biggest part of that that I used was drill — drilling on intervals, drilling on individual notes, drilling in all of that.  Basically, you concern yourself a lot with whether or not somebody wants to be a certain thing.  Like, I would ask students, “Give me an example of a model or somebody that if you could be like that, if you could sing like that or play like that…who would it be like?”  And you would use that sort of as a guide of trying to figure out how they were thinking.

But I think what Branford was talking about was usually private teaching.  Because you can’t do that in a school!  Now, one of the things that we used to do also was make students responsible.  You see, one of the major problems with public school education today is that, from what I can see, students are never responsible for anything.  You don’t have to be responsible.  I just read in the paper the other day where this woman in a town, she and 12 other people just resigned, plus the principal, because they wanted her to change the grade.  The parents were calling up all hours of the night… What it was is that she gave an assignment, and 23 of the students cut-and-pasted their way over the end of that, and turned the papers in, and she could see what they had done.  So she gave them all zero, and got in a lot of trouble because of that.  Because nobody wants the students to be responsible.

But that was one of the things we had that was in our favor.  We had a principal at NOCCA whose discipline was theater.  His name was Dr. Tom Tews.  The only thing he asked us to do was, “Just tell me what you’re doing,” because he didn’t want to be blind-sided by somebody coming up to him saying that the faculty is doing something he didn’t know nothing about!  But we had unlimited opportunities to restructure what we were doing curriculum-wise, and change it around to meet the needs of the students that we had — just to do a lot of things that were flexible.  But we would make students responsible, even when the parents would come in hollering and screaming.  And I think that’s basically what the problem is right now.  They’re not allowed to be responsible.  Then they get out in the world, and there it is!  But that’s a whole other story.
TP:    It would seem that a magnet arts school, where you have motivated students, would be well suited…

MARSALIS:  Well, that’s a myth, see.  The whole idea of having very motivated students comes either after they get there and discover that there’s something they can develop if the platform is suitable for their individuality.  Otherwise, the motivated students usually get turned-off at school.  Because schools do not emphasize individuality.  And when people become motivated, they become motivated as an individual.

TP:    Do you emphasize individuality?

MARSALIS:  Oh, we had to.  That’s the only way an arts school can work.  You cannot herd an art school and have it really work effectively.

TP:    Donald Harrison told me that Kidd Jordan would call him at 8 in the morning to make sure he’d done what he was supposed to, that he’d take extra time and so on.  Did you take a role with students outside of the school?

MARSALIS:  Not a lot.  Well, I had a lot of other responsibilities.  If it was something that I could help them with and it took some extra time, I’d find that.

TP:    Let’s get through NOCCA, and start talking about… You started teaching at the University of New Orleans when?

MARSALIS:  1989.

TP:    So the timeline is, you’re at NOCCA from 1974 to what year?

MARSALIS:  ’86.

TP:    Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.

MARSALIS:  Right.

TP:    That’s where Victor Goines and Clarence Penn and various others come under you, then you get a faculty position at the University of New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Yes, but that’s not really so much true for Victor Goines.  See, Victor was a kid that I knew along with my kids when he was still in high school.  He didn’t go to NOCCA.  For a while, he was at Loyola.  Before he graduated from Loyola University, he started to study privately with me.  And eventually, I just put him in my band.  Because I had a quartet.  The band went on a Southeast Asian tour in the month June of 1986, before I left to go to Virginia Commonwealth.  Because see, Victor was teaching math at St. Augustine High School.  After I left, he decided that he wanted to come up and go to graduate school!  That’s what he did.  But to tell you the truth, while I was at Virginia Commonwealth, I never had any classes that Victor was in.

TP:    So there are three different categories.  There’s the New Orleans public schools, the Catholic schools, and there’s private tutelage.  So musicians in New Orleans coming up would go through any combination of these routes.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  There was also the total practicum, like the kids who went to the junior high school and learned some basics, and then put a band together and went out on the street, and opened up their cases, and started playing for the tourists.

TP:    Which is something that’s distinct to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of places, they’ll put you in jail if you play on the street. You can’t just play on the street.  But in New Orleans, that’s a different town.  They may have some restrictions by now.  But man, a lot of people were playing on the street, some who now have careers!

TP:    Kidd Jordan disapproved of the effects of that.  He said it sort of stifled the urge to learn or expand or explore.  In a broader sense, how do you see the impact of the vernacular aspect New Orleans music and the Caribbean tinge of New Orleans culture on the way musicians develop and evolve and think?

MARSALIS:  Well, for the most part, I think it’s all economic-driven.  I mean, those people who call themselves music teachers in public schools… It’s economically driven.  If there were no jobs out there, they would not subject themselves to four and five years of college training to get a degree not to work.  And these kids get an early start, especially from some of these junior high schools with these brass bands.  Now, I don’t think that it’s anathema to learning at all.  I think kids get turned off by adults very early in life.  It’s not the music that’s causing them to do that.  It’s the mere fact that there’s nothing going on in the schools.  If there was something going on in the school, they wouldn’t quit.  Or if there was something happening musically, they wouldn’t want to… For example, Terence Blanchard was going to John F. Kennedy High School.  A marvelous band instructor over there.  I mean, this guy was great — the concert band.  Well, he played in that concert band while he was a student at NOCCA, because there was something going on over there.

Branford went to de la Salle, and the music program over there was okay.  But Branford was talking at one point about going and being a lawyer or something.  Which was all right with me.  I didn’t care.  But it didn’t appear to me that he was doing what he needed to do to be at the school.  So we came to the mutual agreement that he ought to leave that school and go to the one of the public schools, and then just attend NOCCA and study the music for the remainder of his high school time.

TP:    So to you, the cultural thing in New Orleans where the younger musicians play and the oral tradition aspect is a very positive thing.

MARSALIS:  Of course.

TP:    Could you elaborate a little on why it’s a positive thing?

MARSALIS:  Well, mostly it’s positive because, first of all, it’s economically driven, and the kids who do it generally need whatever monies they can come up with.  It also promotes a certain amount of teamwork, because it means that these kids have to organize themselves into a functioning unit with virtually no adult supervision at all.  That’s another thing.  And that skill is a very useful skill for anybody or any group of people to learn early enough in life.  The next thing is, they begin to understand a friendly relationship with the general public.  When you go out there on the street and open up your case, there are things that you can get to learn.  You learn what people will put money in the case to hear you play, and probably they don’t want to particularly put their money in… In other words, if you’re out there and you have a group, and your group was playing some Bach chorales with a brass ensemble, the amount of money that you get is going to determine whether you keep playing that.  Now, if you keep playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” and people start putting money in the box… I mean, it don’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out!  So these kids go out there immediately playing “When The Saints Go Marching In” or some other piece like that.  Now, it’s anybody’s guess to assume that at some point they will have wanted to play some chorales of J.S. Bach.  We don’t really know.  And a lot of people say, “well, if they wouldn’t have been doing that, then they would be learning this over here.”  We don’t really know that.

There have been numerous times… There was a wonderful band teacher who passed on, named Donald Richardson.  Donald Richardson had a junior high school, and he was totally devoted to his kids, and when they would graduate from that junior high school, if they went to a high school and that high school didn’t have a challenging band, the horns were in the case, the case went under the bed, and they went and did something else.  So we can’t make the assumption that kids have this undying need to learn certain kinds of music.

TP:    What kinds of music?

MARSALIS:  Any kind.  Anything that would be considered by the people who make those statements as challenging.

TP:    There’s a quote in an article I saw on the Web from Jason Marsalis that instead of telling a musician everything, you tell them just enough so they’ll discover certain things on their own.

MARSALIS:  Yes, I think jazz is really about the art of discovery.  And I don’t mean discovery in terms of guesswork.  What I mean is that give a person a certain amount of information, and you have to make sure that that information is communicated.  Then from that point, they have to begin to make decisions about that information.  And like I said earlier, not everybody has the personality to improvise.

TP:    What sort of personality do you need to improvise?

MARSALIS:  All you really need is the spirit of adventure, and it’s applied to what your understanding is of the music that is being presented to you.  Because it’s very easy, man.  I did a workshop, and I can’t remember where it was, but it was a guy who had a band; there was a whole room-full of students in there, and it was just me and this little raggedy piano.  And I developed a way where I could give a kid maybe five notes, and play some little things on piano.  If you just play those five notes any way you want to play them, you can’t go wrong — except if you don’t play at all.  This one kid was playing vibraphone, and I said, “I want you to try it.”  Oh, no.  He was real shy.  And his fellow students started to encourage him.  So finally, he decided that he’d try it, that he’d play, and I backed him up as he played.  And about ten minutes, man, we couldn’t shut him up!  He wanted to play the rest of the workshop!  Now, I don’t know that he had an opportunity to do that before. He didn’t act like he did.  But he didn’t even want to try.  So you don’t really know.
TP:    So half the battle is breaking down the resistance to trying.

MARSALIS:  Well, if it’s in the personality.  There was a young man who was a trumpet player, and he came into the class.  And I could not communicate with him what it took for him to experiment in improvisation.  It didn’t appear to be in his personality to want to do that. I mean, he tried and he wanted to do it.  He went on eventually, man, to become a principal trumpeter in the symphony orchestra.  So the musicality was already there.

TP:    Let me get back to what Branford said you do with piano players, and what you said you did initially in NOCCA, which was deal with the blues.  Now, there’s no established pedagogy for the blues, certainly not when you were beginning 27 years ago.  How did you organize your principles of teaching the blues?

MARSALIS:  See, what I had to do… It reminds me of dealing with a kid with Play-Dough.  What you do is, you give him the play-dough, and you say, “Here, take this and make something out of it.”  I would write out some notes which, when played, would be 12 measures of the blues.  So they could do two things.  One, get the sound of the notes in their ear; the other is to reposition their fingers in such a way that they would play when they would practice.  Their fingers would get used to those positions.  I have one exercise where it was just the left hand, another exercise where it was both hands, another exercise where it was the left hand with some different chords.  But it was all based on the blues.  And there again, it’s just a matter of drill.
TP:    A matter of drill and then their personality accepts it or it doesn’t.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Well, with the piano players it could be a little different.  Because with the piano players you’ve given them notes which basically outline a whole form.  It’s a different thing with a piano player.  The piano player still has to do the same thing from an improvisatory standpoint.  But what you do is, you give them all of the notes in the beginning.

TP:    Would you say that your experience as an improviser informs your teaching and the way you relate to students?

MARSALIS:  Yeah, definitely.  First of all, it helps me to understand a lot better what it is that I’m trying to get them to do.  Because if I can’t improvise myself, there’s no way that I’m going to be able to teach them.  But see, what causes one to be able to teach, and somebody else to be a great improviser and maybe not be able to teach, is that they don’t necessarily do respective thinking about what they are doing so that they can convert it and create a language to communicate that.  Because all of teaching centers around a language.  How could you teach Medicine if you don’t have a name for the principles.  It’s the same thing.

And a lot of times, the problem… Well, I don’t know if it’s the problem or not.  There is not a codified language for jazz.  There are some things, the blues… But “blues” is a general term.  It’s not by any means as specific as, say, the heart would be if a doctor studies medicine.  That’s very specific!  But what I’m saying is that we have to have enough terminology so it can communicate what the essence is in terms of studying jazz improvisation.

TP:    In one of these things I saw on the Web, the writer describes you asking a trumpeter if he knows “Caravan,” the student replies that he has the sheet music, and you say that “the sheet is always secondary — always.”  Does jazz continue to be an oral music in any manner?  And how do you deal with that quality within the prerequisites of teaching within an institution and a curriculum?

MARSALIS:  Well, the thing about jazz being an oral music is that if you don’t have the oral component of the music, what you will have done is taken away the natural ingredients of it.  It’s sort of like the difference between preserves and fresh fruit.  See?  Like, if you could walk up to a tree and there are some apples on that tree, you can pick an apple, and you can eat that apple.  Now, there are people who learn how to make preserves, and in most cases, they always taste the same.  And you can get it whenever you need it.  But the apple on the tree is only going to be there for so long. Like the solo.  I mean, if somebody plays a great solo, if you’re not there when they do it, then you won’t hear it.  If it’s a recording, you hear sort of a replication of it.  Which would be like the preserves.  Which is why the term “preservation” comes into play.

TP:    That’s a very interesting metaphor.

MARSALIS:  But that’s basically what it is.  And any student has to develop an understanding of what a solo really is.  Solos are not unlike a novel — or a short story.  You have a beginning, you have a developmental section; you have a point or a peak; and then ultimately you have a climax or an ending.  Solos are like that.

TP:    To what extent do you give students vocabulary from other players as part of their repertoire?  A process a lot of people do, maybe you did this yourself with Oscar Peterson or Bud Powell, is the imitation of solos and an understanding of how master artists organized vocabulary in different periods.  Is that important to your curriculum and pedagogy?

MARSALIS:  Yes, but I don’t like to academize it.  See, students spend so much time with academic descriptions of things, until they begin to try to put everything in that category, and they begin to lose the ability to hear certain subtleties.  I mean, it’s bad enough you’re listening to a recording, which can sometimes take the essence away from what was going on.  It reminds of something I read that Earl “Fatha” Hines said. Somebody was talking about the recordings of Art Tatum, and Fatha Hines said, “Man, forget the recordings thing; you’ve got to have been there!”  That’s a whole other level of experience in that music.  Students have to learn, the ones who are really going to pursue it, that the concept of a solo is in the development of it, and the more references that you have to draw from, the better possibilities you have of a solo.

TP:    To extrapolate on that Fatha Hines quote, “You have to have been there,” it’s becoming increasingly hard for younger musicians to be there in terms of at least of expressing the older vocabulary as expressed by the people who created that vocabulary.  Is there any contradiction in there?

MARSALIS:  How could it be a contradiction?

TP:    It could be a contradiction, because if someone is dealing with getting the sound of Jelly Roll Morton together, such as Eric Reed, who dealt with it functionally in the LCJO, he wasn’t there to witness it, but he dealt with it in a real-time situation.  One thing that’s often noted by younger musicians is at once the increasing options of vocabulary available to them and the increasing distance from the people who created that vocabulary.

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re saying.  Well, the point is this.  There again, I use metaphors in athletics.  The same could be said of Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson.  Those who were there when Magic was doing what he was doing, got the experience that those who were not there didn’t get.  Now, it doesn’t mean that those who were watching Kobe Bryant cannot appreciate the game, the style of play, which essentially was a part of the same thing that Magic was doing.  But I think what happens with music is that it becomes so academic.  When I say “academic,” it becomes like the analyzation of a solo in which somebody starts talking about the technical parts of it, and the scale, and how he used this scale and that scale and another scale — and that’s not what the person who was doing the solo was thinking about at all.  I’ve also used as a metaphor that it would be like if somebody asked a student to do a book report, and when they got ready to do the book report, they’d stand up and say, “Well, the person who wrote the book led off with two prepositions, three nouns, two adjectives, followed by a period,” and go through that whole thing.  Now, if you want to analyze the sentence structure, that may be true.  But I doubt very seriously if that’s what the person who wrote the story was thinking about.  And it’s a similar kind of thing with music.

So when Fatha Hines said that you had to have been there, I mean, that’s one of those things that sort of vibrated sympathy.  Obviously, he couldn’t have been where Tatum was, but it expressed something that makes you realize that whatever analysis you apply to this music is inadequate in terms of what actually was going down.

TP:    How important is it for students to know about the milieu in which the music was going down?

MARSALIS:  It’s important totally.  There again, it’s the same thing with athletics.  I mean, the average kid, when he comes into the NBA today, he knows about the City Game!  They know about the City Game.  Kareem knew about the city game.  All of them!

TP:    Well, Kareem was part of the City Game!

MARSALIS:  So what I’m saying essentially is that what a lot of students don’t get, in some cases, is the academic complement.  I think if you can get an academic complement, so that the experience becomes total…

TP:    But the way I mean the question is: Is it important for a kid who is marching in brass bands and is then going on to further musical education to understand, let’s say, the historical origins of brass bands, how marching bands might relate even to customs in Africa, as you once described on a radio show we did.  Is that sort of well-rounded knowledge essential to a contemporary aspiring jazz musician?

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  I was listening to one of those guys in a brass band doing an interview.  And one of the first things he said when a young guy came into the band… He said, “The first thing you’ve got to understand is that this is part of a tradition, but when you come here, you don’t come here with no strange attitude.”  And he wasn’t talking about music to him.  What he was talking  about are those things that are peripheral, those things that put some meaning into that.

I remember Wynton made a statement to me one time, and he was waiting for me to rebut him.  He started talking about bebop.  He said, “man, bebop brought a negative element into the music.”  And I said, “Yeah, you’re right.  It did.”  And that’s a generation that I was a part of.  And the reason why that occurred had as much to do with the recording industry as it did with anything else.  Because in the recording industry, technology advanced to a point where people could begin to play longer and longer and longer. When you go back and listen to Charlie Parker…

TP:    Three minutes.

MARSALIS:  Well, maybe five.

TP:    He has the famous quote, “If you can’t say all you have to say in two choruses, you’re practicing.”

MARSALIS:  That’s right. So essentially, what happened is that another negative element… Well, actually, I don’t necessarily consider that a negative element.  When they started to emphasize the whole drug scene.  Well, that has to do with something else.  I mean, whoever controls the press decides what’s going to get in it.  And if anybody was paying attention, the amount of jazz musicians interested in drugs wouldn’t even register 0.000-whatever.  So that element I didn’t consider.

TP:    I think in bebop it was a pretty consequential element.  I’ve been doing articles on people like Jimmy Heath, who had that experience.  I spoke to Frank Wess on Friday for a piece, and he said one reason music today is better than it was then is that the musicians then dissipated themselves in an almost commonplace manner, and today that isn’t the case.  I think that’s a fact about at least a lot of the musicians of the time, for better or for worse.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s not so much that that’s not a true statement.  But I don’t know that that could be proven.  I’ll tell you the reason why I say that.  First of all, there are peripheral factors involved.  When I say “peripheral,” let’s take, for example, the first fifty years, from 1900 to about 1950-ish.  The total economy of the jazz musician was gangsters.  There was no other economy.  Now, that managed to produce a lot of fantastic players in spite of the fact that that was the situation.

Now, as great as some of the young players are today, the democratic process that goes on with the schools teaching jazz and some clubs coming along, and… Like where I work.  It’s a nice club!  The situation is conducive now to make jazz a respectable area to function in.  In reality, it has lost a lot of its individuality as a result of that.  Because when you mainstream something… Everything has a good and bad side.

TP:    It’s a dialectic.

MARSALIS:  Right.  But when you go back and you start listening to all them tenor players, man, from Chu Berry on, and people who were lesser lights, like Eddie Lockjaw Davis, and…

TP:    To some, he is not a lesser light.

MARSALIS:  Well, when I say “lesser light”…
TP:    I know what you mean.

MARSALIS:  Believe me, man, Jaws was a personal friend of mine.  I loved Jaws and I worked with Jaws. I listened to Jaws play some introductions, man, on his own… [LAUGHS]

TP:    I’ve heard people from every sphere of music talk of him, like how did he get those sounds with the fingerings he used?

MARSALIS:  The only reason why I said “lesser light” is because Lockjaw Davis never forgot that he was in show business.  He could never have been a John Coltrane attitude-wise.  He was never that.  So that level of dedication was not going to be there.  And it was the same thing like a Charlie Parker, who spent an enormous amount of time practicing, trying to figure all of this stuff out.  Jaws was a product of the times!  He was going to be representative among the players who was there.  He was the straw boss of Basie until he couldn’t… He and Basie philosophically fell out.  But what I’m saying was by no means saying a lesser light…

But when it comes down to it, when you listen to these kids, you hear them and you say, “Oh, man…”  My youngest son, Jason, is very responsible for some of these younger kids, and he’s almost like a senior to some of them.  The reason why is because Jason has learned the importance of researching the older guys, so he can tell a young drummer about Dodds!  About Baby Dodds!  See, he’s already researched that.  He can also tell them about, “Look, when you’re getting ready to present a solo, this is what you do.”  He did a session just recently with Curtis Fuller, who was in New Orleans during Jazzfest.  When Curtis got ready to play a ballad, the producer was saying, “Look, this is just with piano, bass and trombone.”  And Jason immediately knew what the problem was.  He didn’t say nothing.  So when they started playing, Jason got behind the drums and started sweeping.  So this guy said, “Yeah, man, that’s hip.  Not too many young guys can even play brushes at all.”  But see, he knows that.  And he knows about people not knowing the technique of playing brushes.  And he also understands when it started, and the whole ball of wax.

So I’m saying all of that to say that it is necessary that young kids understand and learn all of these things, because otherwise it becomes kind of like a guitar player, a kid who came to NOCCA when I was teaching there.  He was a senior, and usually we didn’t take seniors, because it was too late.  I said, “Look I’ll take you, and whatever I can do for you in a year, I’ll do.  Play the electric guitar.”  I put some records on to let him hear that.  I put George Benson on, and the recording George Benson made of “Paraphernalia” with Miles.  When the record was over, I said, “Well, what did you think?” He looked real bewildered.  He said, “I don’t know, man.  All I ever thought there was to Benson was ‘Breezing.’”  So consequently, what you get is a bunch of kids who just don’t know!  Because there’s been nobody there to say, “Hey, man, if you’re playing tenor saxophone…”

[END OF SIDE 2]

TP:    …among black musicians was the notion of having your own sound, above and beyond just about anything else, in many ways.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, that was one of the things that contributed to the fact of whether you were going to work or not.

TP:    So again, it’s economic.

MARSALIS:  Well, that was one of the factors.  It wasn’t just the only one.  But the thing is, there was no uniformity.  You go up to Eastman.  They’ve got a great music department at the Eastman Conservatory. Look at the cats in that band.  I mean, there’s a conservatory approach to jazz.  All the saxophone players got the same sound.  And they can all play!  And you listen to these guys playing a solo, and you can’t tell which one is what!  There is no individuality, man.

And having your own sound has as much to do with… I remember Jug told me, Gene Ammons told me… See, Gene Ammons went to school under Walter Dyett.  Gene Ammons said, man, “When I went to study in the band, the first thing the dude did was gave me the mouthpiece, and I had to play that for a month.  Then I got to the neck, and I had to play that for another month or so.  Then finally, I got the horn.”

TP:    Von Freeman told me the same thing.

MARSALIS:  Yeah!  He said by that time, what you do is develop a sound.  In some cases, it’s not so much my sound as much as it is a sound.  Because when you start to play jazz especially, you hear differently than what happens when you study classical music.  And even with Classical music, there are people who have individual sounds with that, even though you’d have to be really attuned to hear them.

TP:    Well, connoisseurs can tell Michelangelo Benedetti from Pollini, or Dinu Lupatti from…

MARSALIS:  Michelangelo Benedetti was one of my favorites, especially for French music.

But for the most part, I think that’s one of the things that sometimes people misconstrue when they say “my sound.”  Everybody’s got a sound.  Because once you learn how to play that instrument, whatever comes out of it is going to be your sound anyway.

TP:    I’m trying to circle around to an ending.  How, within your pedagogy, did you give students that imperative of developing your own sound?  Is that just implicit within what you give them?

MARSALIS:  Essentially it is.  Because I never had them for that long.  That’s the one thing you’ve got to realize about teaching in a high school.

TP:    But now I’m talking about college, too.

MARSALIS:  Well, college is totally different.  See, the thing about college and universities, you get students in clumps.  If you’re teaching an improvisation class, you get all of the students that’s taking that at that time.  Now, they’re studying their instrument with somebody else.  You see?  And if you happen to have a combo that you’re teaching, there are some things you can pass on to them in that context. That’s teaching a combo.  But that individual approach is not there nearly as much.  Because by the time you get to the university, you have to spend a lot of time, hopefully, in dealing with refining what’s there.

TP:    But do you use the same principles in dealing with your university students as you did with your students at NOCCA?  Is what you did at NOCCA the building block for the Ellis Marsalis way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  Yes, definitely.

TP:    Let’s say I’m some administrator giving you a grant.  How would you boil down your principles for me?  The one or two minute synopsis.
MARSALIS:  Basically, it’s important to learn the three elements of music — rhythm, harmony and melody, not necessarily in that order.  And you apply that to each piece that you play.

TP:    Since you only took ten seconds to answer: How are you going to go about giving it to them?  Through drill?

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    It’s all drill.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  You can really study two songs a semester, and teach everything that you need to teach in that given semester.

TP:    What two songs would those be?

MARSALIS:  Any two songs that have to do with the form.  Like a 32-measure form, AABA… It doesn’t matter.  Because all of them are going to have rhythm, harmony and melody.  It’s a busy-word(?) concept to give somebody 25 songs to learn.  I was telling my colleague that.  He said, “Man, they ought to learn 25 songs at a minimum.”  I said, “But what are they going to play on those songs?”  You take one song and say, “Okay, here is the verse, here is the melody, this is what the harmony is.”  Now, the first thing you’ve got to do is learn how to play each of those component parts.  And it takes time to do that.  Now, you multiply that by ten, and what time do you have?  You don’t have no time.  You’re scuffling, trying to make some arbitrary deadline.

TP:    So you really are like Walter Dyett and Samuel Browne in a lot of ways.

MARSALIS:  I hope so. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You really are.  I’m glad I’m not imposing some rigid thesis on you.  One final question.  What do you think of the state of things in jazz now?  We’re talking about some negatives, like maybe lack of individuality among young musicians, but overall, what’s your sense of the state of things as opposed to 15 years ago, when you started at Virginia Commonwealth, or 28 years ago, when you started at NOCCA?

MARSALIS:  Well, those are very short periods of time.  I think that jazz ultimately will become a major part of the cornerstone of American music.  I just heard a trio… This was a classical group.  I think all of them went to Juilliard, and they were playing a piece by one of their contemporaries, who is a violinist, who has been playing with a Rock band, and is now composing music, and has been playing violin with Ornette Coleman.  It was piano, cello and either violin or viola.  When they started to play his piece, I could hear “Lonely Woman,” man, in the beginning theme of it.  That’s the direction that the music is going in.  And the people who are going to make the biggest contributions towards it are the same as it was in Europe as composers.

TP:    When you say “that’s the direction,” do you mean Ornette Coleman or do you mean the hybrid?

MARSALIS:  The hybrid.  That’s it.  It’s going to be like this violin player, the bluegrass player… He’s written a composition that’s very interesting, too.

TP:    A young guy?

MARSALIS:  Not too young.  He’s younger than me.  Top of the list.  Top line.  The representative of that.  Well, anyway, I’ll think of it.

TP:    Another aspect of the hybrid is all the musicians internationally who are coming here with substantial idiomatic knowledge of jazz and bringing their own cultural information to the table.  I’m thinking particularly of musicians from all over the Caribbean and South America.  And it seems to me that the rhythmic template of jazz, things that were maybe esoteric 10-15 years ago, are no longer esoteric.  Do you perceive this internationalization of the music, that it’s incorporating more information at this point?

MARSALIS:  Of course.  That’s the way that is. That’s why we get terms like “globalization.”  I don’t think music is the only representation of that.  I think whatever you see is happening in terms of economics, in terms of the market, in terms of trade… There was a big thing in the paper here yesterday, they’re trying to make a deal between France and New Orleans to build a super-port.  So it’s all-inclusive.  That’s what I’m saying.  It’s not really a separate thing.

TP:    So the world is smaller, people can transcend the particularities of their locale, and you can get anywhere in a day, that sort of thing?

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

[-30-]
* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):

TP:    Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?

MARSALIS:  Correct.

TP:    What was the situation when you arrived there, and what did you do?

MARSALIS:  There’s different layers to that.  First of all, there’s the idea of moving to another state at that time in my life, and a lot of pressures that it brought on my wife.  That’s one situation.  Then not only was it beginning a job, but a university job in a program that was rather young.  They had a jazz program when I got there, but it was not totally defined in any strict way.  The band director, Doug Richards, was probably the best jazz band director that I had ever seen; he could really get a tremendous amount out of a jazz band.  But there wasn’t anybody there who really wanted to actually head a program.  In other words, we had a whole lot of soldiers and no real chiefs.  The faculty was a very able faculty across the board.  There were 44 people on that faculty, most of whom were in classical music, but it was not an antagonistic situation.  So there were things I had to get used to.

But it’s one of those things that the more I did it, the more I found out that it wasn’t that much different than teaching at NOCCA.  The reason for that is that when you teach in a typical high school, there’s an adversarial situation between the administration, the teachers, and the students which is built in.  And the laws of any given state do not permit you to treat the students as really the way they are.  They’re really like young adults who have intelligent.  But the various state laws don’t permit you to function with them like that.

TP:    As young adults.

MARSALIS:  Right.  So teaching in the average high school, they have virtually no real responsibility that’s allowed.  All the classes are like herds.  you go in one herd to Class A, and then to the math class, and then to the history class, and then at some point you go home.

Now, at the university, there’s a lot less pressure from that end, because the students decide what they take and what they don’t take.  So it creates a different kind of pressure, if you will.  Because students who go into high school are going mostly because they either need it as a means to get somewhere else or because it’s mandated by the state after a certain age.  At the university, when a student chooses to go to a university, they do so because they think that it’s going to affect their lives in some way.  So the way that we taught at NOCCA, it was very much like a college, even though it wasn’t a college, because the students that we would retain were students who had shown a determination towards performance at a professional level.

TP:    Did they tend to sort themselves out?  How did you ascertain that they were ready for that?

MARSALIS:  Well, it isn’t a case of them being ready for it at all.  It’s a case of them making a decision based upon what was asked of them, whether or not they wanted to pursue that particular discipline as a career.  There were five disciplines at this school.  Then what they had to do was to look at it and make that decision.  And encouragement for professionalism was always there.  At the average high school, band directors would never tell students in the band that they could be professionals, unless that person was a pro himself and would sort of pick somebody and put him in a group with them and say, “Look, if you want to, you could probably do this.”  Because in most cases, teachers who teach in high schools… I remember something that the chairman of the music department told me at Virginia Commonwealth, which I really thought was tacky.  He said, “Most of the people on this faculty are failures.” I said, “What do you mean, they’re failures?” He said, “Well, they really want to do what you do, but they don’t really have it, so they teach instead.”  I said, “Damn, man, that’s a little bit jive.”

TP:    I’ve heard a lot of musicians say, for instance, who went to Berklee, that they were taught by someone who couldn’t play, etc.

MARSALIS:  Well, a lot of times, people are hired on that basis.  The reason for the preponderance of an emphasis on certification by way of academic credentials is that it creates the means by which people can hire someone, and as a result, blame it on somebody else if it doesn’t work out.  Because if you have a Ph.D and whatever, that’s the justification to pay you X amount of dollars and give you certain… I think my wife was telling me, or somebody, that the corporations are beginning to look differently at MBAs, saying an MBA is nothing, that hiring people on the basis of that is not the thing to do.  The school system here just got rid of the second superintendent in a row, and it’s decided that the procedure they’re going to go through is not to go and look for some superstar somewhere, but to actually go within the university community to see if they can get someone to be the superintendent of the public schools in the city that they function.

TP:    So someone who knows New Orleans to deal with the New Orleans schools.

MARSALIS:  Well, that could be what their mindset is, but believe me, nothing could be further from the truth.  Like I said before, man, there’s a lot of things about the law which nobody really deals with, which just doesn’t permit you to do certain things in the schools.  And the kids know the law.

TP:    I’m getting away from the college, and I want get back to it.  But it seems the subtext to what you’re saying about what you were able to accomplish at NOCCA is that you were able to do it precisely because it was a magnet school.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.  It was a magnet school, and we had a principal who came from the theater as a background [Tom Tews].  Consequently, his philosophy was, it’s much easier to get forgiveness than permission.  So we would do a lot of things that were good for the students, and if necessary, tell the school board people later.

TP:    I think I’m restating we talked about last week, but you developed a lot of your ideas about what was good for the students through your experience as a working jazz musician and an improviser.

MARSALIS:  Precisely.

TP:    I had asked you to boil down your educational philosophy as though I were an arts administrator, and you said, “Learn the fundamentals of melody, harmony and rhythm, and do it through drill.”  Can you boil down what it was you learned as a professional jazz musician and improviser that gave you the sense of what your students needed to know?

MARSALIS:  I think I discovered the relationship between the Blues and the American Canon, the music canon, and how it related to… How can I put this? Learning how to play Blues became like learning arithmetic.  Before you can get to algebra, calculus and trigonometry, you must have mastered the fundamentals of arithmetic.  The Blues is like arithmetic.  It’s the simplest approach to learning improvisation.  And that’s one of the things I learned about Blues.

TP:    And why is it the simplest approach to learning about improvisation?

MARSALIS:  Because you don’t have a lot to deal with.  Like, 12 measures is equivalent to one chorus.  It’s a repetitive situation, chorus after chorus after chorus.  And the students can be given relatively few notes.  I would write out 12 measures of chords that would turn out, when played, to be a blues.  I was doing two or three different things at the same time.  One, I was presenting them with a visible manifestation of the form of blues in one chorus.  Two, I was using chord symbols to represent in a vertical manner the sounds that they were going to deal with in a linear manner.  See, after a while, this thing gets to be complex.  The next thing is getting them to a point where they could deal with music that’s in motion.  When you start to play and you count off the Blues, they begin to understand that you have to be at Measure 1-2-3-4, in a certain time frame, so you become sensitized to the flow of the rhythm.

TP:    Of the knowledge you had accumulated up to this time, what percentage of it was vernacular and functional, and what percentage of it came from your academic training?

MARSALIS:  None of it came from my academic training to speak of.  First of all, I did not go to a music school.  The university that I went to had an ample music department, which was sort of typical.  It was sort of like, “Okay, this is a university, we need to have music, so we’ll just put something there.

TP:    Didn’t Dillard have a very good art department in the ’30s and ’40s?

MARSALIS:  Well, in the ’30s and the ’40s, there were people there who had the beginnings of what could have evolved into a great music program — or a great anything.  See, when you start to talk about the ’30s and the ’40s, you’re talking about a completely different America.  What happened after the Second World War had a tremendous amount of effect on shaping what we’re going through right now.  I don’t care if you want to talk about Enron and WorldCom and them, or whether you want to talk about those young guys who’s out there playing a million notes a second in the name of Jazz, or the rappers who, when all else fails, curse.  It doesn’t matter.  What happened at the end of the Second World War set the stage for the American culture that we see today.  Now, what was going on before that was the beginning of something that sort of was just left behind.

TP:    What sort of things?

MARSALIS:  There were things that were common among universities.  For example, at one time, university presidents could help shape public policy.  Nowadays, university presidents are about fundraising.  Then, we’re talking about a predominantly black university, and there were several of those, and they were producing very good students.  For example, Tuskegee had George Washington Carver, who was doing miracles with the soil in Alabama and actually created crop rotation.  People like Charles (?), who at Howard helped to develop plasma, which saved the lives of a whole lot of guys in the Second World War.

What I’m saying is that the seeds that were planted during those days could have evolved in a lot of different directions.  Now, it’s for another generation at another time to go back and begin to ford all of that stuff out.  It’s sort of like looking at why the Roman Empire collapsed.

Anyway, in reference to what you were talking about as far as college is concerned, one of the first revelations that I had after I got there… I ended up meeting with the Chairman, and the Chairman said, “I was just looking over the applications that came in for the Fall, and I don’t see any jazz students’ names on these applications.  So what are you going to do about that?”

Well, that was a shock to me.  Because I had never been in a situation where I was under the gun for the RR — Recruitment and Retention.  See, that’s one of the things that you have to face when you’re going into a university — Recruitment and Retention.  Then I was forced to begin to say, “Now, who actually is the jazz student?”  We would take the big band and go straight up I-95 in Virginia, and go to these  different towns and these different high schools, and we’d leave there and go up into Maryland, where the high school similar to NOCCA, the arts high school… Antonio Hart came from one of them.  Then we’d leave there, and go on up to Philly, and go into that high school where Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco, some of them came from.

But eventually, what I started to realize was that most of the students we ran into, especially the trombone players, the good straight-up musicians, not necessarily people who were well-versed in jazz, but the good musicians — they were all talking engineering.  And the ones with the 1400s on the SAT, none of them were talking about going into the music.  And it wasn’t that I blamed them!  It’s just that I had never really thought about jazz studies.  Because in a high school, like at NOCCA, we were there for students to explore the possibilities of a career in one of five disciplines, whereas once you get to college, the students who come to a college are there to make decisions that will affect, if not the rest of their lives, at least a sizable chunk of them.  And whether it does or doesn’t, the motivation for going to a university is based on, “Hey, I’m trying to make a decision that’s going to help me to get a job here, doing this or that.”  Jazz was not viewed as economically viable in terms of university students, period.  Now, there’s always exceptions.  But you can’t run a program off of exceptions.  That’s one of the things I learned real quick.

TP:    Well, Chris McBride and Joey DeFrancesco went right into the fray.  They didn’t go to college, or at least not into that sort of program.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  Well, those are exceptions.  That’s why I said I wasn’t talking about exceptions.  There are people who do that now.  There are even people, man, who are leaving high school and going into the pros.  In fact, they’re not the first ones anyhow.  Moses Malone did that.  I think essentially, if you can stay, that does… Because even if you go all the way through college, that doesn’t mean you’re going to stay.

TP:    That’s right.  You can go backwards in college.

MARSALIS:  [LAUGHS] Yeah.

TP:    So you were faced for the first time with having to recruit a band.  It brought your job description to a different plane than it had been before.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I had go to out and try to find some students.

TP:    And I guess in competition with other programs, too.  You had to be like a coach.

MARSALIS:  Well, you’re always in competition with other programs.  Everybody is.  With the exception of whatever those programs are that just automatically get a huge body of people that they just have to say, “Well, we don’t want any more.”  I don’t know if Engineering is like that.  It may not be.  I was talking to a friend of mine who knows a professor at UCLA who teaches composition.  I had one lesson with this guy.  I forgot his name, but anyway, he was telling him that at one time, of his composition students at UCLA, he would get maybe 4 or 5 or 6 who were interested in film scoring.  See, all of them are now.  Every single one of them.  And when you think in terms of what has been happening lately, there is much more of a pronounced emphasis on John Williams, on Howard (?), on even one or two of the Newman family, of which there’s been an abundance in the film scoring world!  So television and movies play an important role in the decisions that people are making, and I think ultimately, the universities haven’t really figured out some of that.  I’m sure some institutions have.  But when it comes down to it… I was reading where Harvard University had a course called (?) that they just got rid of, because there wasn’t anybody taking it.  One of the things that was an assist when I got to UNO is that there were a lot of courses which had been approved through committee, and there was nobody teaching it.  So those numbers were there, and see, a lot of times, man, if you know what they are, you can go and take the number and develop a course without having to go totally through committee.  Because going through committee can sometimes be a hassle.

TP:    So you’d do an end run.

MARSALIS:  It’s kind of like an end run, yeah.

TP:    But at VCU, a number of musicians went through who are making an impact now.

MARSALIS:  Well, there’s only three that I know.  Clarence Penn, Alvester Garnett and Loston Harris.

Victor was teaching math in high school in New Orleans.  He’d been in my group.  I used to tell him, “Vic, if you really want to teach, I don’t see anything wrong with that, but to me it doesn’t make any sense to be teaching at these schools.  You ain’t got no benefits, man.  They could fire you tomorrow!  And you have no recourse whatsoever.  So if you really want to teach, you ought to teach in public school.  At least you’ll get some benefits!”  And when I left to come to VCU, he told me he’d thought about that, and he said, “Man, look, I don’t want to be sorry one day looking back and saying ‘I should have.’” So he split and came up there to work on his Masters.  He really did it in a year, but they wouldn’t let him finish in a year. They made him come back and register for a recital.  Eventually, he started to utilize his saxophone skills in different ways.  He went up to New York and was doing sub work in some of the Broadway type shows. I think at that time “Ain’t Misbehavin’” was running and a couple of other ones.  I remember he told me that when he went up to New York, somebody up there was talking to him at an audition, and the guy said, “Hey, man, do you know how to read?”  And he said at first he got insulted!  “Man, what is this?”  He said after he was around New York for a while, he found out why he was asked that. [LAUGHS] A lot of the musicians up there couldn’t read!

TP:    What would you say you brought to the faculty at VCU that hadn’t been there before?  Did you bring a new attitude, a new way of teaching?

MARSALIS:  I don’t think so.  Because I wasn’t there long enough.

TP:    Three years, right?

MARSALIS:  I was there for three years.  And I’m not sure to what extent that would have been a possibility to do.  Because I came in without the benefit of the kind of experience… Just to give you an example, there’s a guy at Virginia Commonwealth, a trombone player named Tony Garcia.  He edits the “Jazz Educational Journal,” which is the official organ of IAJE.  He sent me an email and asked me if I would be able to come up as part of a program that they are doing, and he outlined some of the things that he was able to do.  This is over the period of one year.  It’s fantastic.  Because what this guy was able to do is nothing short of miraculous.  Well, for one thing, he was instrumental in getting somebody (I don’t know the guy personally) to give 2 million bucks to the jazz program at VCU.  No jazz program has ever gotten that kind of money.  Not in a state institution.  I was the recipient of a million dollar chair.  But when it came down to it, nothing like that.  What it takes to be able to do that is the kind of press-the-flesh…

TP:    You need to have very solid political skills to pull off something like that.

MARSALIS:  That’s right.  There’s just an awful lot of things, man, that he was able to hook up.

TP:    The question has more to do with philosophy: Looking back, what would you have done that you didn’t?

MARSALIS:  One of the first things that I realized about Virginia Commonwealth was that being in Richmond meant… There was no music tradition in Richmond.  There was one little small space — I never went to that space — where some of the guys would play.  There was another space that was like a restaurant, but it was bigger.  And every now and then, they would bring somebody in.  But for the most part, the benefits of being in a city that had a history of music, where students who were coming out of high school as well as those who were coming out of the city of Richmond to go to VCU, would have been able either to participate in or just be a spectator of.

When I go to work on Friday nights at Snug Harbor, there’s a live band that’s playing right across the street.  On the corner from there, there’s a place Cafe Brazil, with live music.  Across the street from Cafe Brazil, there’s live music.  Now, we’re not even talking about what might be happening on Bourbon Street.  Then there’s all of these other different places in the area.  On North Rampart Street, there’s three spaces within two blocks of each other, one called Funky Butt, the other one called Donna’s Bar & Grill, which specializes in brass bands, and then a blues joint which the owner of Funky Butt owns.\

Richmond didn’t have that.  So when I looked at that, I started to realize that getting some people to come to Richmond, especially during the ’80s, to study Jazz, was seemingly very difficult.  So I decided that if I was going to stay here, I needed to find a niche, something I can, which would really not only justify being here, but make it a positive musical experience for most of the students.  So I was thinking of concentrating on developing rhythm sections — the piano, bass and drums.  That would mean getting people to come here and trying to specialize in that area.

TP:    Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.

MARSALIS:  Right.  Now, Alvester I met while he was still in high school.  He came to VCU the following year.  So I was there I think a year while he was there.

TP:    I want to step back to your comments about what happened after World War II.  Is what you’re saying, in one sense, that the focus on core curricular values started to deteriorate at this time and it had a deleterious effect on the culture?  You made a very strong statement.  The tone of voice is strong.  The words are strong.  It seems what happened is an important issue to you.

MARSALIS:  I need to be more speculative here than direct, because it’s very difficult to be as close to that and be accurate historically.  What I’m beginning to realize is that we tend to be judgmental about things which are different from the way we grew up.

Anyway, the thing that happened after World War Two was television, for one thing.  And for the first time, here we have an invention which goes right into people’s homes, and within five years, which would put it right around 1950, there were about 10 million sets in the country.  Now, what television managed to do was twofold, at least.  One was to instantly let you know whatever was going on in almost any other part of the world that the networks chose to broadcast. Unlike, for example, “War Of The Worlds” on the radio with Orson Welles in 1939.  I mean, there were people out there in fields in the Midwest with guns waiting to go to war with the Martians.  And America, before World War Two, was not that much different, even going back to the past century.  I mean, there just was not that much of a difference in terms of the way the country was going on.  But as soon as World War Two came in, things like plastics were invented… I wish I knew all of them different inventions.  I remember we got our very first refrigerator in 1941.  Before that, it was the icebox.

TP:    In New Orleans, that was an important thing.

MARSALIS:  Well, it was an important thing everywhere.  Because what it meant was that you could now keep food one or two days longer than you could otherwise.  So many things started to happen.

I think what happened with jazz is that jazz moved closer toward the musical objectives that have been prevalent primarily in European Classical Music.  What I mean is this.  During the time of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and Kid Ory, all of these earlier guys, they played music for the sheer entertainment of people.  They played dances, and when they played the blues, it was for people to dance to.  They had cutting contests, but the cutting contest was music played at the level of the audience themselves.  For example, what they would do, they would have these flatbed trucks, and two bands would come. [The ballyhoo.] Whoever won that one, that’s where the people would go to dance.  By the time World War Two came (and I’m using World War Two more as a marker than the cause of anything), you had musicians coming out of the Swing Era with the dance bands, like Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and various people… The top level of people was one thing, but then there were all of the disciples, if you will, like Sonny Stitt and various other people.  So the emphasis started to be placed on the soloist.  The elements of the music carried over was related directly to the band.

TP:    Max Roach used to say that had something to do with the tax the Federal government started putting on dance…

MARSALIS:  I know what you’re talking about.  That was in Dizzy’s book.  During the war, the government put a war tax of 10% on all venues that had a show.  Now, shows could be anything from juggling to dancing girls… For example, the Cotton Club, where Duke played.  Now, I don’t think the Cotton Club uptown was going on during the war years, because Owney Madden had gone to jail by then.  But anyway, 52nd Street had a lot of these little bitty clubs, and they would put a combo in there.  So with the combo, not having a show, the guys, especially the soldiers and sailors passing through… Ultimately, what you begin to get were bands that played for people who were sitting around the bar.

TP:    Minton’s wasn’t unlike that either.

MARSALIS:  Actually, Minton’s looked like a toilet almost.  There wasn’t nothing happening when I went to Minton’s in the ’50s.  It was in August and there were some bands there, but it was just a big old space.  I think there was a piano in there.  But it was like a lot of joints I’d seen in New Orleans.

Anyway, most of those places were like hustles.  That’s what I called them.  A hustle is when a guy opens up a club, because he either likes people or he’s fortunate to have someone leave him a piece of property, or whatever, and you didn’t really need anything other than connections to get a license and sell some booze.  Because at that time, I don’t know if anybody was dealing with food in these places anyway!  But Prohibition had gone by the wayside by 1933, when Roosevelt came in, so you’re looking at the development of the urban community on all fronts.  At the end of the war, you start to see the suburban community come into effect.  They’re building all of these post World War II houses in these little towns, and selling it, and the veterans is coming back, man, $500 to get you a house… [LAUGHS]

All of this played out in terms of signalling exactly what was going to be happening in America, and the music was no different.  Monk came out of the dance bands, too.  But when Monk started to play Monk, Monk was expressing Monk via his musicality and his intellect.

TP:    [rambling question on the way Monk, Bird, Powell were educated vis-a-vis contemporary musicians]

MARSALIS:  You’re looking in terms of trying to get an analogy between they learned and the way musicians learn today.  For one thing, it’s hard to really nail it down.  For example, on the back of a vinyl album, Willie The Lion Smith made the statement that a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to develop the left hand through learning the music of J.S. Bach.  James P. Johnson was very good classically; he was accompanist for a soprano at that time named Sister Rita Jones. Fats Waller was one heck of an organist.  So there had been all along people studying and learning European music.  Except as we get later and later into the century, we begin to find that schools primarily utilize European music as a discipline criteria to reinforce the attitudes, in some cases cultural, in some cases blatantly racist, and exclude anything else than European concert music in terms of teaching — you develop orchestra, choruses, choirs.  Everything you do centers around practicing and playing European concert music.

So jazz and any folkish music was on the outside.  The bluegrass players were like fiddlers.  Some of them used to have a joke that said, “He was a great fiddle player, but he went to college and learned to become a violinist.”  So the folk music aspect was kind of forsaken.  And jazz really was a folk music.  But the difference between jazz and other types of folk music was that jazz became grist for the mill of composers, even Ravel.  I think we are now beginning to get some composers looking at bluegrass.  Copland did to an extent, but it was all surface with Copland — “Billy The Kid” or “Appalachian Spring” you can hear that influence slightly.  But jazz sort of became a more formal statement of Americana through the development of the instrumentalist.  And when I say “the development,” what I mean is that the process of improvisation was something that was an intellectual development, and it occurred over a period of time with a considerable amount of musicians honing in on it, and it became separate from dance music.  Lester Young came to maturity with a lot of the stuff that he did in the Basie band, which was a dance band.  Woody’s band was a dance band.  Stan Kenton’s band was a dance band.  All of those bands were dance bands.  So the soloists had kind of a minor role.  In the early days, Billie Holiday used to complain about the fact that she had to go up there and sing just half-a-chorus and go back and sit down.  All the rest of those bands, Jimmy Dorsey, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Eberle…

TP:    Jimmie Lunceford.

MARSALIS:  Definitely.  Lunceford was a straight-up show band.  What I’m saying is that basically the bands were really like dance bands.  Sometimes in colleges they would refer to them as “swing bands.”  When I was in high school they had what they called a swing band. You could go buy arrangements.  There would be stuff like “9:20 Special” or you could get the stuff that Harry James was doing.  You couldn’t get no Duke Ellington, but you might get an arrangement somebody made for a standard band of something that Duke did.  But for the most part, that’s the way it turned out to be.

TP:    One thing a lot of people who passed through the bands note is that they themselves were a training school, like a functional conservatory, in terms of standards upheld and information being passed on.

MARSALIS:  In some cases you would find that.  But for the most part, there were several differences just in terms of who was doing what.  For example, jazz had always been a music that you either already had to know how to play, or you had to have a significant skill on the instrument in order to get it, and you just about learned everything on the job, because there wasn’t any place else for you to get it.  And there were a lot of kids learning because their daddy was a player or some other relative.  I saw that among musicians in New Orleans who were younger than me.  Clyde Kerr. The French brothers, Bob French and George French, the sons of Albert French, who played with Papa Celestin.  Sammy Alcorn, whose daddy, Alvin Alcorn, was a trumpet player.  But invariably, it was always second-class.

TP:    Jazz was second-class.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  It wasn’t like nowadays.  When I read the stuff that was done at Lincoln Center, they have status with the other aspects of Lincoln Center now.  There’s a big building going up, which they have a part of.  We’re speaking about a whole different thing.

TP:    It occurs to me when you say that many of the principles you espouse or the way you teach, in terms of how they got filtered through Wynton, are very much responsible for why Lincoln Center is in the position that it’s in, or what Victor Goines is doing at Juilliard.  So again, what your first principles are would seem to be very significant in the intellectual history of jazz at this moment because of the way they’ve been transmitted and filtered through other people. Maybe you think I’m wrong or overexaggerating, but I don’t think so.  When I hear him speak and hear you speak, I hear a lot of similar thought processes.  His own mind, certainly, but similar thought processes, similar metaphors.  This piece is about you as an educator, but I’m trying to pinpoint what it is about your first principles, the principles you bring to conveying information and the way you’re able to do it that has stuck.  The proof is very much in the pudding here.  We have these facts, these institutions.  This is a tangible change from 1987.  And in 1987, when the Lincoln Center Jazz program started happening, it was a very tangible change from 1974.

MARSALIS:  I think that the whole process is somewhat like America as a nation.  We’re still in the process of evolution.  We’re still evolving.  And I think the same thing is the case for the music.  I think if you would look at the formal aspects of European music, for example, at some point there was a peak which was reached by way of the composer.  And, to some extent, not only by the composer, but the performer.  I mean, Beethoven never heard his music on a Hamburg Steinway.  He would have no idea what that sounded like!  But it didn’t prevent him from writing the kind of music that makes stars out of people who do play on Hamburg Steinways.

So what we’re looking at is a multifaceted kind of thing.  The guy who invented the saxophone, his invention was too late for the European Masters, as they called them.  And the Rhapsody that Debussy wrote… He didn’t even like the saxophone.  Some woman gave him a check for about $500 for a piece, and he delayed as long as he could, and the woman aggravated him to a point to where he finally wrote this rhapsody for saxophone.  Now, there were other French composers who probably didn’t feel the same way about the saxophone.  Probably Ravel, because he wrote saxophone into “Bolero” which played a rather prominent part.  But the thing is, you can’t overlook that also.

So whatever it is that I managed to do didn’t really come by way of a philosophy.  Mostly it came by way of a reaction.

TP:    The music and the circumstances were telling you what to do at any given moment, and you were responding.

MARSALIS:  Yes.  And I would begin to do, I imagine, since I haven’t really studied, something similar to what Thomas Edison was doing.  I heard a story that his assistant said they had done about 150-200 experiments, and none of the lightbulbs worked.  Finally he said, “Man, we ought to give up on this, because this thing ain’t workin’!  We ain’t makin’ no progress at all.” And Edison supposedly said, “On the contrary, we know 150 ways that do not work.”  We don’t always think in terms of going to what doesn’t work.  That was one of the things that I started to learn.  For example, I remember one of my colleagues who was teaching instrumental music, he said, “Man, these kids need to learn 25 tunes a semester.”  Well, what are they going to play on those 25 tunes?  Because his expertise in terms of improvisation was really not that strong.  So he didn’t understand that you do practice improvisation, that you do actually do that.  But basically, I didn’t have a philosophy per se.

TP:    But you had first principles.
MARSALIS:  What do you mean?

TP:    You had a set of aesthetic values that governed your responses to these situations, and you had a culture and a milieu from which you emerged to face these situations.

MARSALIS:  Right.  That’s true.

TP:    This is all I’m saying, and it’s one reason why I’m so interesting in hearing you address the ’30s and ’40s and ’50s, and how you perceive those times vis-a-vis today.

MARSALIS:  Essentially, the situation in the ’40s and a large portion of the ’50s was based on the entertainment side of music.  So jazz did not enjoy an acceptance in any academic sense.  And it’s not that people didn’t study.  I think I told you about this book that’s coming out on Yvonne Bush.  People went to school, and they studied, and the better teachers you had, probably you were most fortunate to have learned whatever you learned.  But when it came down to it, how to apply it was sometimes tied directly to employment opportunity.  I remember listening to stories… See, I had a chance to work with Cab Calloway.  I also had a chance to work with the Judge, Milt Hinton, and I knew Dizzy also.  The Judge would tell me how, during the break between shows somewhere they were playing, Dizzy would say, “Come up on the roof, man,” and he and Dizzy would get together on the stuff Dizzy was working on, and he’d tell him what to play.  Cab told me how… This is a little ancillary story.  They were doing a live broadcast for NBC Radio, and while they were going through the broadcast, Cab got hit in the back of the head with a spitball…

TP:    And it wasn’t Dizzy.

MARSALIS:  No, it wasn’t.

TP:    It might have been Jonah Jones.

MARSALIS:  It was.

TP:    Then they had the knife fight…

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  Then Dizzy stuck him in the rear with the knife.  But Cab told me, “Man, the next time I saw Dizzy, Dizzy came through with this arrangement, man, and said, ‘I’m going to try this arrangement; listen to this.’”  So they played it, and Cab said, ‘Man, what is that?’” Dizzy said, “Man, this is the new stuff; this is what’s happening.”  There were all of these people, like Gil Fuller, who was doing some of the writing, and Tadd Dameron.  To some extent, some of these people were also teachers.  For example, John Lewis was a teacher at CCNY.  I think Ron, too.

See, I have several ideas that I have yet to be able to implement.  First of all, I think that the drumset is the most important instrument in the jazz band.  That’s the first thing.  I’ll tell you an example.  I was doing a workshop in North Carolina with the jazz band at a university called Shaw.  It was a pretty good sounding band.  So after they finished playing, I asked the guys in the band, “Can you guys hear the drummer?”  See, a lot of times what happens, nobody takes the time to find out whether or not some of these people in the band can really hear from one end to the next, and unless they’re experienced players, they don’t know to tell the band instructor, “Hey, man, I can’t really hear what this guy is doing over there.”  So I asked them, could they hear the drummer, and they said, “Yeah, we can hear.”  So I said, “Let me ask you something.  When you listen to the drummer, tell me what you hear.”  Do you hear [SOFT ARTICULATED BEATS] or do you hear [UNDIFFERENTIATED BUZZ]?”  They said, “Yeah, that’s what we hear [LATTER].”

So I knew what was wrong with that.  And these were all very serious players.  I’ve done some workshops where guys come in with marching band sticks broke in half, no tips, paper on them.  They’re not even serious.  So I asked the drummer, “Hey, man, what size sticks are you using?”  He said, “I’m using 7A.”  He said, “Well, 7A, man, is a combo stick.  If you’re going to play and kick and a big band, you need at least a 5A, and if you’re going to play with a 5A, when you practice, you need to practice with a 3A, so that you build up to that.”  See, these are some things that I found out later on.

TP:    Very practical.  To help them succeed.

MARSALIS:  Oh yeah.

TP:    So you take for granted that they are going to have the fundamentals down through drill.  It’s as though the process of learning music is like learning a trade or an artisanal skill, and then it becomes art through all the permutations to which those skills are applied.

MARSALIS:  Well, you can get into a lot of trouble, man, trying to figure out at what point it becomes art.  That becomes a lot more philosophical than it does realistic. I mean, I listen to cats talk about “the art of hip-hop.”

TP:    But I’m talking about the art of Charlie Parker.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, I know.  But, see, that’s where the argument comes from.  Who gets the right to use that word?

TP:    The word “art.”  Do I have the right to use it.

MARSALIS:  Well, everybody has the right to use it.

TP:    But you know what I’m saying.

MARSALIS:  Yeah.  But it at some point it may become art, and it may not.  See, that’s the thing.  We don’t really know to what extent it will or won’t become art.

TP:    But you’re not concerned about that when you’re teaching, then.

MARSALIS:  No.  See, what I’m concerned about is whether these guys can put one foot in front of the other.  Because it becomes very difficult to start dealing with philosophy.  I think I might have told the story about the guitar player who was doing… When you get students like that, they have not had enough experience dealing with anything of a philosophical nature to start trying to preach “art” in that sense.  In most cases, you get to be lucky if they can play their instrument.  And if they can play their instrument, we just go from there.

TP:    Let me take you to University of New Orleans, so I have the chronology.  You stayed at VCU for three years, and then for a variety of reasons, I’m sure, you move back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Well, for one reason.  The chancellor came and he made me an offer that I couldn’t refuse.

TP:    But I guess he didn’t have to hold a gun to your head to get you back to New Orleans.

MARSALIS:  Oh, no!  I still thought that New Orleans was the best place to develop a jazz program.  I think that New Orleans today is still the best learning town in the world!

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because of the various places that exist to ply your trade, to practice.  There are so many different spaces here to play in, so many different kinds of places.  You could play a brass band, you can play in trad bands, you can play in a traditional jazz band, you can play Ska.  There’s all of this stuff.

TP:    You can play in Latin bands now.

MARSALIS:  That’s right!  The people who come from other places to come to New Orleans, they don’t have to concern themselves nearly as much about property.  At one point, guys were going around Soho…well, they weren’t even calling it Soho then…

TP:    You could rent a cold water flat cheap.

MARSALIS:  Yeah, you could get a loft, man.  Now that’s all gone.  New York becomes one of those places that if you go there, you’d better have a gig when you go there, and when the gig runs out, you’d better be ready to go back somewhere else.

TP:    So you’re saying that in New Orleans you can learn music on a major league level without having to shell out $2000 a month for a railroad flat.

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    Very practical.  What was the program like at UNO when you got there?

MARSALIS:  There was no program.

TP:    So you actually had to start the program and get it off the ground.

MARSALIS:  There was one guy on the faculty named Charles Blancq.  In fact, he’s got a son who I think is living in New York now, who was at one time teaching at Queens, named Kevin Blancq.  A good little trumpet player and arranger.  Anyway, I knew Charles for years, even when he was a music student at LSU, the club that I had, and all the rest of that… Anyway, the Chancellor asked me to come back to New Orleans, we finally came to terms, and I agreed and went back.  I did one more year at VCU, for the seniors before they left.  So Charles Blancq and I put together a curriculum over the telephone, and that enabled Charles to go to the committee at UNO to get the courses certified for a degree.  Because it was a liberal arts degree.  They were all basic courses.  Because as a freshman going into this university, a good portion of what you took in the first 17 hours was like English, Earth Science, history, just the fundamentals — not music.  You got so many hours for playing in a combo.  It was maybe three or four years before we really got a big band.

TP:    Around ’94 or so?

MARSALIS:  I forget the year.  Maybe even later.  But what I’m saying is that this is where we went to.  Ultimately, we had a series of meetings where we tweaked this or changed that, or tweaked that and changed this, or reorganized that… We knocked it down from 132 hours to 128 hours to graduate.  All the while, putting a major emphasis on performance.  We had to develop ways for evaluation.  Like, when we listened to the guys play, what were we listening to?  A lot of things that we started out with and ultimately changed were concepts we got from the existing wing of the music department, which was the Classical Department. We eventually got permission to do recital hours with just the jazz students.  Also, we were able to get the jury… Most times what you would get would be the faculty for a particular instrument, and the private teacher would come in, and they would talk about the student, and the student would play whatever they were working on.  So we had meetings about that.  We said, “Man, this doesn’t really make a lot of sense.  What we really need to do is go and listen to the students in the context of what they’re playing, hear them in the combo that they play with.  Because that’s really where they function.”  So we were able to change that.

TP:    Is University of New Orleans part of the State University of Louisiana?

MARSALIS:  Right.  But basically, those are some of the things we were able to do.

TP:    You retired last August.

MARSALIS:  Yes.

TP:    Who are some of the students who came through University of New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  There’s a guy in New York right now named David Morgan, a piano player.  He was the first graduate from our program.  There’s a saxophone player who came at the same time he did named Bryce Winston.  There’s a couple piano players — a guy named Josh Paxton, who works down here, and finished in the graduate program.  There’s some people who came and didn’t really stay.  Nicholas Payton came and stayed a semester.  Irvin Mayfield stayed a couple of years.

TP:    Was Peter Martin involved?

MARSALIS:  No.  Peter was teaching, doing adjunct teaching over there.

TP:    Why should people go to school to study jazz?

MARSALIS:  Well, I don’t necessarily think they should.  That’s not a statement that I would make.  I think if they really need… Well, let me put it another way.  As I mentioned to you earlier about the concept of being in a state of evolution, there may be a time in the future when going to school to study jazz would be maybe the same thing as going to school to study engineering.  Maybe.  But as it stands right now, jazz as we know it is such a highly individualistic art, until, if you get a good private instructor and you’re around in a situation… I’ll have to say that this excludes pianists.

TP:    Why?

MARSALIS:  Because you can play by yourself.  You can do the Keith Jarrett thing.  But if you are around people who are well enough versed in the style of music that you’re trying to play, then you really don’t need it.  You’ll do better with private instruction and just going out and playing.

TP:    Why should people continue to play jazz?

MARSALIS:  There’s no real reason why anybody should continue to play jazz.  Aside from whatever personal reasons that they bring to it, that the music speaks to you.  Now, I think more and more that the study of jazz, across the board, whether it be as a musician or as a lay person, can help you to better understand America and its relationship to the citizenry as a whole.

TP:    Why is that?

MARSALIS:  Because the music itself reflects the whole of the citizenry, moreso than any other music.  In other words, you can listen to and develop an appreciation for the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven, but that don’t have nothin’ to do with America!  Neither does any of the other musics developed in that canon.  But if you listen to “West End Blues” by Louis Armstrong, and really get to appreciate what was going on in there, you begin to understand what was going on in the early part of the century in America, and you begin to connect that to the numerous blues players that were wandering across the country during the time when the Depression was on and nobody had any money.  You can connect it in Chicago, where all these blues players were.  That’s basically what I’m saying.

TP:    But how does that pertain to the here-and-now?  It’s an interesting situation.  You have all these skilled jazz players of many different generations, and as far as the broader culture is concerned, even with Lincoln Center and the various institutional stronghold in the universities, it’s just a blip on the consciousness of popular culture.  As an educator and thinker and the father of four extremely accomplished musicians, what do you think playing jazz offers to young people of today?

MARSALIS:  I think in some ways we can look at jazz as a form of glue that keeps American culture centered and provides avenues for research, whether it be formal research or whether it just be chasing down the name of somebody you find and enjoy and seeing what else that person has done.  In the kind of world that we live in now, people do not necessarily even have to have a skill to become rich and famous as a pop artist.  So consequently, a disciplined approach to anything becomes something that’s very much needed in this country.  As I mentioned to you, jazz is the only music that started as a folk music and evolved as a folk music.  Most of the other music that started as folk music, especially the music in the European tradition, started as folk music, stayed folk music, but became an influence on composers — so the composer became the filter.  For which you heard various… “Hungarian Dance #3,” and all the stuff Bartok ripped off from them gypsies.  Well, I won’t say “ripped off.”  But their music was a predominant influence.  But in America, jazz remains a folk music that evolved as a folk music.  And even though you might hear Charlie Parker with Strings, if you were to take that recording and bleep out Charlie Parker, what do you have?  You have some whole note-half note violin players sawing away, and a Mitch Miller solo on oboe.

But for the most part… One of the things that has not yet become a staple is the quintet.  When I say a staple, what I mean is as a course of study, as a recognized ensemble.  For example, if you study classical music, there are several ensembles. String quartet is one.  The symphony orchestra is another.  Then there are various others, brass quintets, brass quartets… Invariably, there are combinations that are not necessarily that standard. But in jazz, it’s the quintet, the tenor saxophone, the trumpet and the rhythm section.  There’s more recordings made with that combination that have yet to really be studied in that context, where you look at it and say, “Okay, this is an ensemble that’s representative of a jazz ensemble of this period.”  Whereas if you go earlier to traditional jazz, especially when it’s New Orleans, what you get is the sextet, with the trombone, cornet and clarinet.  Which was a big influence on Duke.  On “Mood Indigo” that Duke Ellington did, he flipped everything upside-down.  He took the trombone and made the trombone higher, then he took the clarinet and put the clarinet on the bottom, and the trumpet was playing the melody with a mute.

I hear some younger kids today, some kids who play with Jason, and as young as Jason is, he even recognizes that some of these don’t have really any idea about their instrument — about the tenor saxophone.  At one time, there used to be this person who was a tenor saxophone player, and he was recognized as a tenor saxophone player.  Nowadays, some of these guys play the tenor, and there’s no particular reference to that instrument in any particular fashion in terms of what they play.  That is, when you listen to them, you don’t get the feeling, “Well, man, I think he may have listened to Ben Webster” or he might have listened to Gene Ammons or Sonny Rollins or Chu Berry — some of the more well-known tenor saxophone players.

TP:    So that link to the broader narrative thread that runs through the music ceases to exist.

MARSALIS:  Well, it’s like writers.  You read a writer and think, “Has he ever read Hemingway?  Has he ever read Faulkner?  Has he ever read Mark Twain?”  I think what is beginning to happen… I clipped an article out of the paper by a local writer who was talking about two people who were at a university in the State of Louisiana in education, and the chairman of the department used to like to take them on junkets to different places — South America, China — talking about education techniques.  As soon as they get a couple of miles away from the university, they were minority kids in dire need of (?) an education techniques, and there was no observation of that at all.  So eventually, this guy and his wife… This guy got to be dean of the school, of the education department, and he and his wife took a year and they went to the furthest corner of Louisiana, near the Arkansas line, and for a year they taught in an elementary school in a rural parish which is extremely poor, and they wrote a book… I don’t know if they did it together or he did.  He taught fourth grade and his wife taught the third graders.  In this book, they talked about the instance that LETA(?), which is what they call the standardized tests in Louisiana… They actually said that it was fraudulent.  I’d never seen anybody say so strongly that this is fraudulent.  I mean, I’ve always thought that.
But when you think in terms of young musicians and jazz musicians, you realize… Like the guitar student I had.  They don’t really know that there is something to know about what it is that they’re doing.  I was working once with a student on “Summertime,” and I said, “Have you ever heard the original rendition of ‘Summertime’?”  He said, “Yeah, man, I got that recording by Miles.”  And I had to explain to him about this aria in an opera called “Porgy and Bess” that was written by George Gershwin.

This is one of the dilemmas that we have.  And I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this is a very young country.  I often think of America the way that I would about a 10-year-old kid whose folks died and left him this candy store, and he had nobody to guide him or nothing.  So he just goes into this candy store and, like, proceeds to be a 10-year-old kid.  And ultimately, he has to learn every time he gets a bellyache, if he’s not unfortunate enough to get diabetes and die before then, that there’s something to know when you got this place.  It’s not just, “Oh, great, this is mine.”

I think that invariably, the sources of information, as they descend, becomes filtered to a point where there’s very little meaningful information that gets through in terms of any discipline.  And unless it’s popular enough, it doesn’t get through at all.  Just to hear some young guys come up to me in school and say, “Hey, man, what do you think of Hip-Hop and Jazz?”  I cannot think of more of an oxymoron than Hip-Hop and Jazz.  And there are people who defend that.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (#3):

TP:    As I understand it, it would sound like your two cornerstones were Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson.

MARSALIS:  Actually, not Bud so much. I got to Bud later.  But Oscar Peterson was the first major influence on piano.  See, the thing about it is, I was primarily a band piano player.  I didn’t study piano the way Oscar and Bud studied piano, so I came into it playing piano in a jazz group and sort of filling in the blanks.  So I didn’t really develop that pianistic philosophy that people develop when the study the instrument, like a Keith Jarrett did, he had all these recitals… You learn to play the piano with the objectives that go along with the history of that instrument.

TP:    With you, it had more to do with the function of playing in bands and combos.  Did you play piano in rhythm-and-blues bands also, or is that something you did more as a tenor player?

MARSALIS:  It was more as a tenor player.  By the time I got out of college, looking back at it, the scene here was changing a lot.  This was in the mid-’50s, and I started practicing and working on learning some pieces… At that time, Clifford and Max was a great influence on us.  Because I was then playing with Edward Blackwell and either Peter Badie or Richard Payne on bass, and Nathaniel Perrilat.  But we never really succeeded in getting a trumpet player to round out the group.  So a lot of times we would play those pieces just quartet-wise.  But it was still essentially like a band thing, because that’s where I was concentrating my energies.

TP:    When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?

MARSALIS:  It’s really hard to say.  Because it evolved more than it began.  Edward was a cat who always was interested in playing.  He might call me up and say, “Why don’t you come over?”  There was a tenor player named Clarence Thomas, who later became known as Luqman.  He would go over to Edward’s house, and then I’d go over, when I first started trying to put the piano together, and we’d play things and work on stuff.  We didn’t have a bass player.  Eventually, Harold Battiste started writing some original pieces, and we just would get whatever bass player we could find and started playing some of that material.

TP:    This is while you’re at Dillard.

MARSALIS:  And after.

TP:    So it begins around ’52-’53, like that.

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’52-’53 was sort of the beginning of the end when it came to the rhythm-and-blues thing with me.  When I look back at it, I realize that the whole rhythm-and-blues concept was changing entirely, and I was not a part of the people who were doing it.  In the earlier years, in the 1940s, see, the rhythm-and-blues catered primarily not only to the singer, but there was a lot of blues being played.  Big Joe Turner was singing blues, Louis Jordan was singing blues, Wynonie Harris… There was a lot of blues singing going on.  So if you were playing in one of those bands, essentially your function was to deal with that in playing blues.  You’d learn a lot of shuffles if you were a piano player or guitar player or drummer in the rhythm section.  There’d be a lot of shuffles going on, and you had to learn that.  If you were a saxophone player, usually that’s who would play the solos.  And if you played the backgrounds, they were usually riffs… It was a rather simplistic kind of thing.  Everything about it was primarily functional.  It wasn’t a band thing, like a string quartet gets together.

TP:    Or a bebop combo.

MARSALIS:  Well, even with those.  The bebop combos got together pretty much the same way.  You had to go out and find somebody who could play the music.  You see, there was no training ground officially where you could learn to play the instrument that emanated from a specific tradition, and that there were formal instructions involved — which is the reason why I mentioned the string quartet.  So this is basically how that whole thing went.  And if you were playing rhythm-and-blues, you were playing rhythm-and-blues because you had a gig.  Pure and simple.  Otherwise than that…

TP:    There would be no reason to play it.

MARSALIS:  Right.  And there was virtually no real opportunity for you to learn it, unless you were actually playing.  The other performance-oriented situation was in the church, and sometimes in the earlier years, if you were playing in the church, it was advisable to conceal the fact that you might be playing elsewhere.  I didn’t have that problem, because I didn’t play in the church.  But for the most part, a study of that period of time in terms of jazz, is a lot more about the communal aspect of the way the musicians lived than it is about any formal study.

TP:    Are you saying that as a general principle, or are you saying that about New Orleans?

MARSALIS:  I’m saying it about New Orleans because I’m from here, and when I talk to other people, essentially it was the same thing where they were.  In other words, there were lots and lots of people who studied music, but there were very little opportunities to really study jazz music.

TP:    Unless you were in New York or Chicago…

MARSALIS:  Even if you were in New York or Chicago.  I mean, you didn’t do that.  I mean, if you were Herbie Hancock, you were playing classical music.  Herbie played with the Chicago Symphony when he was 11 years old.  Or if you could study with Walter Dyett or Major Clark Smith before then.  But if you talk to, for example, Benny Goodman and Milt Hinton, they both went to the same classical music teacher.  Because the Judge was a violinist.  He switched to bass because he couldn’t get no work.

* * *

Ellis Marsalis (WKCR–Out To Lunch) – (8-5-95):

[MUSIC: Ellis/Branford/Tain/Hurst, "L'il Boy Man" (1994); E. Marsalis/R. Brown/B. Higgins, "Swinging At The Haven" (1992)]

TP:    I’d like to start from the beginnings, your musical background.  I gather your family had a place in New Orleans which was a gathering place for musicians, where musicians played, or is this incorrect?

EM:    No.  It makes for wonderful mythology, but it’s really not true!  My father was in business.  He had a motel.  And I succeeded in convincing him (this was after I had gotten out of the Service; I had spent a couple of years in the Marines) to allow me to take the house that we had been living in, and turn it into a club.  Because I had fantasized that operating a club wasn’t really that difficult.  You know, so that I could have the band and play.  Well, I found out that none of that was true, that either you’re going to play music or you’re going to operate a club.  You’re not really going to do both of those and do either of those well.  So I was in business about six months.

TP:    Ooh!

EM:    [LAUGHS] And from that came the last selection, “Swinging At The Haven.”  The Music Haven was the name of the club.  Harold Battiste, who is currently one of my colleagues at the University of New Orleans, had been instrumental in developing AFO Records.  One of their initial jazz projects was to record some of the local musicians, of which I was one, doing some of our own music, and playing jazz as opposed to some of the other things that the label was recording.  They had had a very big success with a recording of Barbara George singing “I Know,” and there were a few other R&B type things that they were doing.  So Harold thought for posterity we should really record these people.  And that boxed set from 1956 to 1966 is the result of Harold Battiste.  Now Harold is slowly reissuing a lot of things on CD.  But it’s still the same old shoestring operation, so he’s got to piecemeal it here and there.  But it’s coming along.

TP:    Did you start playing the piano very young?  And how did you go about it?  Was it lessons, or through the family?  What was your path into the music?

EM:    Well, I started playing the clarinet when I was about 11.  In fact, it was around the same time that I met Alvin.  We were in elementary school.  I started to play tenor saxophone in high school, somewhere around a sophomore, I think, in high school, because the tenor saxophone was the rage instrument for reed players in rhythm-and-blues, and we were playing a lot of rhythm-and-blues in those days.

TP:    What years are we talking about?

EM:    1948, 1949, around that time.  But I was always interested in jazz.  I had had the chance to hear the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in 1949 in the spring, the one where he was doing “Things To Come” and “That’s Earl, Brother” and “52nd Street Theme,” I mean, that screaming, brand-new Bebop that was coming on the scene.  And man, that whole experience really just took me out.

TP:    They came through New Orleans.

EM:    Yeah, they came through New Orleans.  And it was really… I can’t really describe it.  I had a chance to talk with Diz about that.  But it was really a tremendous experience.  Because I knew when I heard that band that this was really what I wanted to do.  Man, that was it, what those guys were doing on that stage.  I was about 14 or 15 then.  I had started piano lessons, but I was not that serious about it.  I just liked to play.  But I was mostly concentrating on tenor saxophone.  So when I got out of high school and decided to go to college, I decided to be a music major.

I had been studying with a really great piano teacher.  Of course, studying piano at that time either meant that you were learning from a mentor in the church that you went to or you were learning from someone who was either in your family, or a friend of the family that would teach you the tradition of the music according to earlier styles, Stride or what have — or you just studied with a piano teacher, and the piano teachers was basically just teaching European music, formal approaches to European music.  The other two I didn’t have.  I wasn’t playing in the church, which is to my regret, and I didn’t know anybody who was really playing piano from a traditional jazz point of view.  So I gravitated towards the two areas that were closest to me, Rhythm-and-Blues, tenor saxophone playing, and Jazz.

There was not as much of a line drawn… Well, what I mean is, the difference between Jazz and Rhythm-and-Blues was extremely narrow at that time, because most of the same people that was playing, Sonny Stitt… Charlie Parker had been with Jay McShann’s band.  I don’t know, but I think Monk somehow avoided all of that.  I don’t know if there’s any record of Monk ever playing in that idiom.  Maybe so.

TP:    I think he traveled with some traveling preachers in the Carolinas in his teens, but after that I don’t think so.

EM:    Yeah.  But for the most part, that’s what I gravitated towards.  And the solos at that time were basically influenced by religious music and secular music, which were sort of like opposite sides of the same coin.  I was living in what was then a racially segregated society, so it became inclusive.  The experience was all-inclusive in terms of economics, in terms of social interaction, in terms of education.  All of that was basically within the American-African community.  So we would play music that was reflected… We sort of bounced off of each other.

And the newer recordings of… Well, the recordings of the new music, which would be called Bebop, was coming out at least on a monthly basis, and they were all like 78 records.  So you would go the record store, and there was sort of like a phone chain.  There was a lady in the record store, I can’t think of her name, but anyway, she would call a couple of people; you know, I’ve got a new record in by Charlie Parker or Miles or whoever it was.  And we would, in turn, call people and say, “Hey, there’s some new stuff in,” and we’d go down to the record shop.  It was a place called the Bop Shop, and we would go down and listen to it and buy it, and then start working on the solos.

That was an integral part of the learning process.  It was not within the context of the system.  The schools were not amenable to that at all.  So…

TP:    Was there any jazz in your high school band at all, or was it all marching band and brass orchestra type music?

EM:    It was mostly marching band, John Philip Souza marches, (?)Ed Bagley(?) marches.  And there was a group in one high school that I went to that was what you call a swing band.  Now, the swing band played those stock arrangements.  There was stock arrangements, like “9:20 Special” and Harry James’ “Back-Beat Boogie” and most of that.  But there was nowhere to really get at the whole idea of soloing.  Because unless you could figure it out for yourself, there was nobody there to do it.  And even the swing bands were sort of tolerated.  It wasn’t something that the music teachers looked upon with great favor.

However, New Orleans was a little different (I have to say a little different, because I don’t know about the rest of the country) in that there were several music teachers who were jazz players in previous generations.  Some of the older guys were teachers.  So if you happened to be fortunate to get one of those… It reminds me of what Eddie Harris used to tell me about Walter Dyett, and a lot of people talked about him in Chicago.  And there was another band teacher in Chicago that Milt Hinton used to talk about…

TP:    Clark Smith, Major Smith, who had the Chicago Defender band.

EM:    Yes.  So as time went on, we began to get less and less of the kinds of fundamentals that produced the level of musicianship that was being produced at that time, especially within the context of a jazz idiom.  Invariably what would happen, you would begin to get people who would study the more formal approaches to European music, and then try and figure out how to make those application, people like Phineas Newborn — and Charles Lloyd, too.  When I met Charles Lloyd, Charles was at USC.  I think he was a freshman at USC, and I was in the Marine Corps.

But that was basically what I had done, was to kind of piecemeal some things, and become a music major at Dillard University.  Which was very standard.

TP:    Describe the music scene in New Orleans when you were a teenager, and going into college.  Were you doing little gigs when you were playing the saxophone and clarinet in high school, for instance?  And what kind of gigs would they be?

EM:    Oh, yeah, we were still playing some dances.  The YWCA was one of the places that we would play dances.  And different schools.  We would go to a lot of different high schools and just play dances with the local R&B pieces, “Blues For The Red Bar,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” Roy Brown’s piece, Joe Liggins’ stuff, all of the people who was doing the dance music of the day.  What Jazz there was going on, I didn’t know anything about at all.  Especially the Trad, especially traditional jazz, I didn’t know anything about that.

TP:    You weren’t involved in the Second Line in any way as a kid?

EM:    Not as a kid, no.  I didn’t know anything about that.  So eventually, what I would start to do in the high school was play those rhythm-and-blues solos.  Because I could hear those.  Also it was an interesting thing, if you could play the dance music of the day, then you could get the attention of some girls, you see!  Because I was too small for football, too slow for track, too slow for basketball — and there was no future in that in those days anyway.  So when I realized that I could learn these solos, then I said, “Oh, okay, this will work!”  So I started concentrating on some of that.  Eventually, I would get real serious about jazz, and then found out that nobody wanted to hear that!  But by then, you’re stuck, like a habit.

TP:    Who were the pianists whose solos you were emulating once you started getting more serious about Jazz and more advanced?

EM:    Actually, you know, it’s funny.  I never did transcribe any solos at all.  I listened to Oscar Peterson a lot.  But for some reason, I never did really try to play those.  I’m not sure what it was.  I mean, I would always try and play whatever I heard.  But the transcription was not something that I was doing on piano.

Now, when I first started trying to play the solos on saxophone, I remember there was a recording of Charlie Parker, “Parker’s Mood,” and I tried to play all the solos on there on tenor saxophone, John Lewis’s solo on piano and Charlie Parker’s solo — but there was a lot of Charlie Parker’s solo that I couldn’t get!  All of those recordings were really short then.  You know, this was long before Trane started making those LP’s.  In fact, they didn’t even have LP’s at the time!

So I started essentially like that.  Eventually, when I was old enough to go to the local nightclubs…

TP:    Who was playing in the nightclubs then?

EM:    Well, most of the local musicians.

TP:    Name some names.

EM:    There was one club called the Dew Drop Inn which was sort of the anchor club, if you will, in the American-African community.  Lee Allen would play there; he would eventually make all of those recordings with Fats Domino.  A lot of times that scene was more a matter of a show.  That is, the club-owner would put together a band.  He’d get a bass player, then a piano player and a drummer, and maybe get a singer.  There was one female named Bea Booker who used to sing there, and there were some other singers, but I never did work with them at the time.  I think Anna Laurie and Paul Gayton, and I think Dave Bartholomew used to play (he was a trumpet player).

But by the time I came on the scene, some of those people were no longer working in that establishment.  And then a lot of us started to work there.  When I say “us,” I mean a lot of younger guys who would comprise the sidemen in the band, being the piano player or what have you.  We would play behind the strip dancers, local singers.  Every now and then somebody may come from out of town.  But a lot of times when they did, they would get the better players — of which I was not one!

TP:    Who were considered to be the better players?

EM:    Wow, let me think.  There was a drummer there named Earl Palmer, who is now on the West Coast.

TP:    He played with Ray Charles for many years.

EM:    Who, Earl?

TP:    Oh, I’m incorrect.  Excuse me.

EM:    No, not Ray.  The drummer from New Orleans who did play with Ray Charles… Edward Blackwell did for a very brief period of time.  But Wilbur Hogan played with Ray Charles’ band.  In fact, that was the very first time that I ever heard Ray Charles, was at the club, the Dew Drop Inn.  They had a jam session, and I was playing saxophone at the time, and a local trumpet player named Raynell(?) Richards, who was in his band… Ray was playing piano, and I mean, this guy was burnin’!  And I knew just about all of the piano players who could play.  I knew who they were.  And I asked the trumpet player, “Who is that?”  He said, “Oh, that’s this guy, Ray Charles.”  I said, “Where is he from?”  “Oh, he’s out of Florida.”

But basically, it would be a matter of choice among some of the singers as to who they liked.  There were some piano players who were better suited for some songs, and they would also make a lot of gigs with some of those people.  And I wasn’t really making a lot of gigs, because I was still in school.  I remember there was a group in New Orleans that was called the Johnson Brothers, which was Raymond Johnson and Plas Johnson.  Plas left to go to California, and Raymond asked me to join the band — and my father said no!  So that opportunity passed me by.  And by me being in school over an extended period of time, I was always maybe just playing on the weekends or whenever I could.

TP:    Two of the musicians you’re best known for having worked with regularly in those early years are Alvin Batiste and Edward Blackwell, and according to the books, Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans for a while and you were going through musical adventures with him.  Can you talk about that?

EM:    I didn’t know Ornette in New Orleans.  I didn’t know that at all.  Melvin Lastie I think knew Ornette.  I didn’t meet Ornette until 1956, when I went out to California and Harold Battiste.  The three of us went out there.  I had just graduated, and was really not doing much of anything.  Actually, it was the summer of 1955, really.  So I decided, “Well, I’m going out to California.”  Basically, that was when I met Ornette, because Ornette had sent for Blackwell to come back out and start trying to do some work with him.

TP:    Tell me about the young Ed Blackwell.  Were you involved with him in any way as a youngster, or did that start a little later, too?

EM:    Well, no, he was a little older than I was.  I met Ed Blackwell basically the same way I was telling you about the other situation.  Whenever he couldn’t get the better piano players, he’d call me up!  I remember the first time I went over to his house, he was living Uptown in New Orleans on Danille(?) Street.  He was living with his sister I think.  And he had his drum set out.  And it was the most melodic set of drums I’d ever heard, but then at that time I hadn’t heard that much anyway.  He was the first drummer that I ever heard play a drum solo on a ballad, and it made perfect sense!

There was a saxophone player, I think his name was Clarence Thomas.  He was up in New York; I think he was going by the name of Luqman.  But anyway, the three of us was at Edward’s house one day, and we were playing.  It was the first time that I had ever been over there.  And it was a captivating moment for me, because we started to play with some degree of consistency… I have to say some degree of consistency, because there was not that much employment around for what we were trying to do.  So we would play whenever we could.

There were two guys in the city of New Orleans named Al Smith and Clarence Davis.  They used to rent the spaces, and then hire jazz groups.  And they’d hire us, too, to play.  Clarence Davis had been a drummer with Dave Bartholomew’s band, and Al Smith was really trying to play the drums.  So they had something like Al and Beau Productions, I guess you would call it, and they would rent spaces on holidays, you know, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, which was one way of hedging your bet.  And we would go out and play, and people would come out.  That was some of the few times that we really had a job as a whole quintet.

TP:    Let’s hear the reconfigured American Jazz Quintet at the Ed Blackwell Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, which was hooked up by Rob Gibson from Jazz at Lincoln Center.  The proceedings were documented on Black Saint Records, FroM Bad To Badder.  We’ll hear a trio track on that featuring Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell, a composition called “Nostalgia Suite.”  Any comments?

EM:    Actually, I’m not sure what that is right now.  When we did it, I think “Nostalgia Suite” was a fancy name for what we used to call medleys!

[MUSIC: "Nostalgia Suite" (1987); AJQ, "Chatterbox" (1956); EM/Branford/Wynton/J. Black, "Nostalgic Impressions" (1982)]

TP:    Was the bassist on “Chatterbox” William Swanson or Richard Payne?  I don’t have it right before me.

EM:    I’m not altogether sure.  Swanson came in town with the Billy Williams band, and we started just jamming.  Because he liked to play with us.  It was just about that time… When I say “that time,” I mean, it was somewhere close to December.  Because we went into the studio and did this just before I went in the Service, and Swanson was still in town at the time, and Harold used him on a couple of selections.  But I’m not sure exactly which ones right now.

TP:    Blackwell was the drummer, though, and we can hear, just from the evidence in that, that his sound was all there back in 1956.

EM:    Oh, yeah.

[ETCETERA]

TP:    On our last conversational segment, we took you out to the West Coast.  What was your Army experience like?  Was it a time when you were able to do a lot of playing?  Were you in the Army as a musician or were you in the line?

EM:    Well, I was in the Marine Corps, which first of all meant that I had to do the basic training.  It was between conflicts, that is, I went in just after Korea had ceased, and it was before Vietnam.  So I wasn’t involved in combat.  Most of the time that I spent on the West Coast was really due to the fact that I was in the Marines at the time.  I did go out earlier at the time that I went out with Harold and Edward, but I only stayed a couple of months, and then I came back home.  Because at that time, the military was still conscripting and I had gotten the notification to report to the draft board.  In fact, I’ve often thought about how it was a lot like Caesar said, everybody should go home to be taxed.  Well, you had to go home to be drafted into the Service!

I volunteered for the draft, which is what that was called, and they sent me back to California.  So I ended up doing basic training at MRCD in San Diego, and was sent to the air base at El Toro, which is in Santa Ana.  So I was able to drive into Los Angeles quite frequently.

TP:    Moving up in a totally disjointed way here, we heard James Black, and I’d like you to talk about some of the musicians you worked with after returning from the Service in the early Sixties in New Orleans, like James Black and Nat Perillat.

EM:    Well, when I got out of the Service, I went back to New Orleans, and Edward Blackwell was playing a trio gig at a place called the Jazz Room in the French Quarter.  I went to hear him play one night, and the piano player… On the night that I went, the piano player got into a dispute of some sort with the owner, and he came back to the bandstand after the break was over and started the song, played his solo, and got up when the bass player started playing a solo — and left!  And the bass player and Edward Blackwell were playing, and it took a minute before they realized that he wasn’t coming back!  So to make a long story short, the owner asked me did I want a gig.  I had just got out the Service, and I said, “Yeah, definitely.”  So that was how I got on that gig.  I stayed on it for about six months, and  it ended up going the way that the other piano player went, except I got fired instead! [LAUGHS]

But for the most part, that first band was with a bass player named Otis Duvirgney(?) and Edward Blackwell.  Durvirgney(?) was an interesting bass player.  He was sort of like a self-taught bass player.  I mean, he had the strongest groove — swing you to death.  But it was difficult to record, because his technique…the notes weren’t really true, and the microphones would pick up a lot of that.  But it was a great feeling to play with Otis.  Eventually I think he left and moved over to the Coast, around Biloxi, and we started working with another bass player named Peter Beatty, Chuck Beatty, who had played some time with Lionel Hampton’s band and different groups.

We tried to get Nat Perillat on the gig so we’d have a quartet, and we succeeded in doing that for the most part.  It was always hard to get club-owners to go beyond a trio, because with the trio being a complete band, they couldn’t see justifying the expense.  So we were able to get Nat on the gig for the most part… In fact, now that I remember it, I think Nat outlasted me on that job.

TP:    Talk a little bit about his sound and style and approach to music.

EM:    Nat didn’t have a big tenor sound.  It wasn’t thin either.  But he wasn’t a tenor player in the tradition of what has become known as the Texas tenor, like Arnett Cobb and a lot of those saxophone players that came out of Texas.  But Nat was a diligent musician that practiced for extensive periods of time.  His facility was flawless.  In fact, one of the best examples of Nat Perillat is on that album that we made in 1963 (which is on From 1956 to 1966) where he played on “Yesterdays.”  I mean, he played a solo on “Yesterdays” that sounded as good as anything anybody’s playing now.  He and Alvin were both practice practitioners extraordinaire.  I mean, it was nothing for them to practice seven-eight-nine hours a day, every day.

I was never that kind of a practicer.  I mean, I could practice long enough to get some things that I needed together.  But my discipline wasn’t substantial to practice that amount of hours!

TP:    You were creating a lot of original music at that time as well, and the music was quite substantial, as evidenced by the recent release Whistle Stop where you recapitulate a lot of compositions from thirty years ago that sound totally fresh and contemporary.

EM:    Well, a lot of that was James Black, too.  Because James…!  He had a genius about music that didn’t pervade his whole life; but musically James had a concept which was unique, to say the least.  I’m really sorry that he didn’t pull a lot of other things together which would have permitted him to have document his music, and wrote and recorded even more.

TP:    Talk a little bit about the particulars of his sound that made him so distinctive.

EM:    Well, James was also a guy who could sit down and play a paradiddle for a solid hour on a snare drum to get his technique flawless.  And his cymbal sound… He had a clean attack, the definition of his cymbal.  See, when we talk about definition, a lot of times you hear guys going, DING-TING-A-DING, TING-A-DING.  Well, if the definition isn’t there, you usually get that TINKATENGADDDDD…you just get a hint at that whole thing.  Because each stroke, each attack and release on that cymbal has not been developed with the particular technique that is needed for it to be clear.  And James was a master at all facets of playing each one of the drums, whether it’s floor tom, mounted tom, bass drum, ride cymbals, sock cymbals.  He had studied it to that extent, and was meticulous about it.

Edward Blackwell, for example, was more of a Max Roach drummer.  And when I say a Max Roach drummer, his major influence was Max in terms of the way he set up his phrases, his early ideas.  Eventually, Edward would evolve into being his own person, playing some of the music of Ornette Coleman and also studying some music of West Africa, which came as a result of some jobs that he played with Randy Weston — because he played with Randy, I think, a lot, and had been over in Rabat in Morocco.  So he had a lot of those influences.  And he was a true percussionist in the absolute sense of the word.

Whereas James Black, he had played solo trumpet in the concert band in the university, he played guitar, he could play piano, he could write — I mean, he was a more comprehensive musician.  But drums was… I remember Harold Battiste made a statement which was appropriate about James Black.  He said whenever he thought about James Black, he never thought of him as a drummer; he just thought that drums was one other thing that James could do.  It was, for the most part, his instrument of choice.  He had the best time sense of anybody that I ever played with.

TP:    Did you mutually influence each other’s ideas and writing?

EM:    Oh, I’m sure that occurred.  I know he used to tell me about various… In fact, this tune “After” was influenced by at least one chord I got from him.  Because he used to tell me about things that he got from me playing piano.  But it’s very hard to talk about your influence on somebody else, because that has to come from them.  I mean, sometimes you can listen to it and you can say “Oh yeah.”  But then you’d have to be really aware of where you are, because your things also came from being influenced by somebody else, so you can’t always be sure if that person is influenced by you or by the person who influenced you!  It never comes at you, usually, in an absolute way.  It usually comes somewhat almost like a point of view.  So that when you hear it, if they don’t say, “Well, you know, I took this right here that I got from you and then I did this with it,” sometimes you won’t even notice it.

[MUSIC: EM w/Branford... "A Moment Alone" (1994); Marsalis/ Black/Perillat, "Monkey Puzzle" (1963)]

TP:    While “A Moment Alone” was playing, you said you liked the way your son played on that particular track, and indeed, on this recording he plays all of the music with great subtlety, nuance, swing and a great sound as well.

EM:    Branford has an unusual gift, that is, to be able to play in any idiom.  I mean, it doesn’t matter what it is.  I have a tape of him doing I think it was the Jacques Ibert(?) with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra!  And he plays, as you know, the latest Funk licks and Hip-Hop, and he’s got two or three albums that I hope will be released where he did a live concert with he and Jeff Watts and Bob Hurst as a trio, Jazz recordings that is really out there!  So it doesn’t really make much difference to him what the music situation is.

And the most difficult thing I think there is in any kind of music is to really be able to play slow.  That is… I mean, a lot of people are impressed with virtuosity and speed and agility.  But believe me, to be lyrical and play slow is very difficult.  And to some extent, I think that there are people for whom that’s a gift.  Even if it’s a gift, you still have to work about it.

TP:    Well, I don’t think we can allow you to speak about one of your sons without mentioning the other three that I know of that play music.  So I’m sorry to do this, but a few words about the qualities of each of your very strong and individual sons.

EM:    Well, the thing of it is that all four of them are really great musicians.  They bring different things in their personalities to the music.

Wynton is likewise comfortable in any idiom.  He chooses not to be involved in some Pop idioms, which doesn’t mean that he couldn’t do it — it just means that that’s what he chooses not to do.  His contributions to the history of the trumpet, as far as European music is concerned, is already documented.  There’s any number of recordings that you could get to hear that.

Delfeayo is kind of a late bloomer performance-wise, because he spent a lot of time with production.  And he’s been playing with Elvin Jones lately, which means that the more that he begins to play in a setting like that, the better he will get at it.  And he’s a real good writer.  His album Pontius Pilate’s Decision was very well crafted and well constructed in terms of arranging.

Jason is probably the most amazing.  I think Jason probably has more natural talent than all of us combined.  It’s going to be enjoyable to watch him develop, because he chose the most unlikely instrument for his ability; his ability to hear pitch as accurately as he hears it.  And then to choose the drums… Of course, that is the instrument of choice now.  I have no way of knowing what he will do at some future time, see.  But he has a very strong interest in percussion, and he says that he wants to write for percussion.  He’s got a stack of original songs that he’s written for his own band even now.  But he’s one of those kinds of people that will not be confined to the arbitrary lines of music that are drawn up.

See, we’re moving more and more towards a real concept of what is called world music.  World music can mean a lot of different things.  But I think that with technology being what it is today and what it promises to be in the future, being exposed to as many different kinds of instruments, instrument concepts, performers, cultures and all of that, we can begin to find these other influences being a standard part of various composers.  There are some composers that I have had an opportunity to hear… I can’t even remember the name of it.  There was a clarinet conference at the Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was on the faculty there for three years.  And the last year that I was there, there was a clarinet conference in which some new music, that is, music say since 1980, was being performed for various combinations — piano trio, piano-clarinet-violin.  And some of the composers’ techniques for clarinet were right out of the jazz book, but they were all written in the context of the piece itself, and all of the players were totally European-trained and European performers…I mean, the music was European.  So it wasn’t a case of getting a jazz player to come to do it.  And it’s coming to be more and more a part of the compositional techniques of various composers.  I’m not sure if it would even be limited to American composers, even though it’s largely American music that they’re drawing from.

TP:    We’ve been speaking with Ellis Marsalis, and he has to meet his car, so we have to say so long.  There are many other things we could discuss.  His teaching activities in New Orleans over the last twenty-five years, and the many musicians who highlight today’s stages around the world who began under his tutelage.  We could talk about his ideas about the distinctive New Orleanian quality of music, but he’s grimacing, so I’m glad we didn’t time to ask him that.  And many, many other things, but he has to catch his car.  We’ll send Mr. Marsalis off with a selection from the most release, Joe Cool’s Blues, which seems to have been co-marketed with the producers of Peanuts.

EM:    You know, it’s difficult to talk about this project because it didn’t all come under one roof.  I was in New Orleans, and I think Delfeayo produced it, and Delfeayo asked me to come into the studio and record some of the Peanuts music.  I worked on it, and we recorded it.  A pianist who works with Delfeayo, Victor Atkins, was asked to do some arrangements. and one of the arrangements that he did was on “Little Birdie.”  Well, we had laid a track down for “Little Birdie” from which the arrangements by way of Victor, and the vocalist, Germaine Bazile, came in later and sang that.  Eventually, when I did hear the whole thing, Wynton’s group, the things that they were playing, I heard later on.  Some of it came from the show that the Peanuts characters did on the Wright Brothers!  It was such a potpourri of things until it didn’t seem like a project to me.  Because I was sort of like one of the chessmen in the game!  So I never really got a whole feeling of this… For example, when I did the recording with Wynton on Standards, Volume 3, The Resolution of Romance, that was a complete project that went from beginning to fruition with everybody that was involved.  But this was piecemealed in such a way that I didn’t get a real holistic feel of it.

TP:    Nonetheless, I don’t think the listeners will really be able to tell that…

EM:    Nor do they care!

TP:    We also haven’t had a chance to talk about your brief career as a football coach.

EM:    Where did you hear about that?

TP:    Your son told us about that about a year-and-a-half ago.  He said they almost won the game also.

EM:    [LAUGHS] Believe me, it would definitely take some time to go into that.
[-30-]

* * *

Ellis & Jason Marsalis (WKCR, 1-16-97):

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, have you performed in New York with Bill Huntington before?

EM:    I performed with him, but it wasn’t in a club scene.  It was in a university.  I can’t remember exactly what the event was.  I can’t remember what university even.

TP:    You’ve been playing with him for a long time, though.

EM:    Well, I usually think of it in terms of, I’ve been playing with Bill for as long as the State of Louisiana’s laws would permit me to do so — since 1964.

TP:    So it must be very nice to come here and play with someone who breathes alongside you, as it were.

EM:    Yeah, it is.  It’s quite interesting, because the latest musical endeavors have always been with younger people.  I think there’s a positive side to that, but there’s a difference in terms of… I remember I was listening to Frank Morgan play, and at the end of his performance I said to him, “Man, I had almost forgotten what that sounded like.”  Because most of the guys that I had been playing with were youngsters.  And it doesn’t take anything away from them.  It’s just that there’s something about age… I guess in a way it’s sort of like vintage wine.  There’s something about the age and the seasoning of a player that’s just different from the talent and the exuberance of a younger player.

TP:    In a certain way perhaps, the frequency with which you play with younger players has to do with your considerable reputation as a teacher of the music and someone who communicates its fundamentals to young musicians.  I’m sure this must have been the case with you, Jason, coming up.  I recollect seeing you play in the Jazz Heritage Festival when you were 12 years old; I don’t remember exactly which year.  How old were you when the drums became your overriding interest.

JM:    Well, it depends.  When you say overriding, I guess age 13 was about when that happened.  But the first instrument I played was not the drums, but the violin.  How exactly did I get started on that?  Was that your idea?

EM:    Well, it was a Saturday afternoon program at a public school about six or seven blocks away from the house.  This was part of the Suzuki program.  They had 35 violins, and the first 35 people could get a violin for their kid for the cost of the insurance, which was 10 bucks a year.  I said, “Wow, I can’t beat that deal!”  So I made sure I was one of the first 35 people.  Jason probably was 6, 5, somewhere around that age, which is sort of typical of when younger players start in that Suzuki program.  He stayed with the violin until we went to Richmond, Virginia, for three years — I was on the faculty at the Virginia Commonwealth.  When we came back in 1989, that was the end of the violin.

EM:    Richmond was the reason for that, though.

TP:    You couldn’t find a good teacher there?

JM:    Oh, no-no.  There were good teachers in Richmond, Virginia.  That was not the problem.  What happened was, is I had always played in student orchestras in New Orleans for a long time, and when I got to Richmond, Virginia, it was the same kind of thing except in Richmond they called it the Sinfonietta, the Junior Youth Orchestra, the Youth Orchestra or whatever.  Well, in sixth grade, I believe it was… I was in sixth grade in school, about 12 years old, and I was in the Junior Youth Orchestra at this point, and this was the first orchestra I played with that had a percussion section.  It had a percussion section with a timpani and snare drum.  I had never played with an orchestra that had a section like that.  When I first got there, I was upset.  I was like, “They have a percussion section?  Why am I over there?  This isn’t fair!” [LAUGHS] Then a year later, when I got back to New Orleans I said, “No, I want to pursue percussion a little bit further.  Violin is nice, but that’s not really what I want to do.”

TP:    How long had the drums been part of what you were doing?  I gather you’d been playing drums all along.

JM:    Yes.  I had started drums at age 6, a year after the violin.  I used to sit in on gigs with my father, played just off and on.  It wasn’t really an everyday sort of thing.  That didn’t really start until I was 12 or 12, when I became more serious about the drums and it became a more ongoing thing.

TP:    Was it something you were just picking up by yourself?  What kind of instruction did you have when you were 6-7-8 years old?

JM:    The first drum lessons I had were from James Black.  I was about 7 years old.  I was a kid.

TP:    That’s quite a teacher.

JM:    Oh, definitely.  I was fortunate enough to study under him.

TP:    The last time I interviewed your father he made an interesting comparison between two of the drummers he was involved with, James Black and Ed Blackwell.  Encapsulate the style of James Black and what made him so special as a drummer.

JM:    Well, the thing about James Black is that he was more than a drummer.  He was a musician.  To my knowledge, he played trumpet and guitar besides drums.  Also he was a great composer.  He had written a lot of great, challenging music.  I mean, he had written music that involves odd meters, which is something a lot of drummers do.  I notice drummers always write tunes in 5/4 meters, 7/4 meters, and he was a drummer that did that.  James Black also I guess you could say always was looking forward.  He had a knowledge of the history of the music, but he was always one to look forward from what was happening in the music at the time.  Whether it was happening in the ’60s or ’70s, he was always looking forward.

TP:    There was a real flow to his music also.

JM:    Oh yes.

TP:    It would be in an odd meter, but you wouldn’t necessarily hear that first off.

JM:    Oh, no. [LAUGHS] Not the way it was being played.

TP:    Ellis, what was your first contact with James Black as far back as you can recollect, and what were the circumstances when you began playing together?

EM:    James was a few years younger than I was.  I had really been introduced to drum concepts in a small group setting by Edward Blackwell, who was really a Max Roach style drummer.  It was through Edward that I first began to hear drums.  By “hear drums” what I mean is that Edward would play solos very musically.  See, you can play drum solos that are rudimental, which is almost like marches, and you just have a little signal at the end of your rudimental playing, and everybody comes back in.  But Blackwell, following the path of Max Roach, would play in the form of the songs and play phrases that were like horns.  So I had to learn to hear those kind of phrases.  Blackwell was the very first person that I heard do that.

In 1960 Blackwell moved to New York, and we didn’t have anybody who was going to step in the shoes of Edward Blackwell!  There were a few drummers at home.  Nathaniel Perillat, the saxophonist, and I tried a couple of guys, and they were okay.  Then Nat Perillat told me about this kid, James Black, who was at the time I think a student at Southern University in Baton Rouge.  Nat had been going up there playing jobs, and he said, “Man, we ought to try this guy.”  So we tried James.  At first it was that typical energy kind of thing. but as James began to settle in with the group, especially whenever we got a chance to play quartet, the whole jazz scenario became like his world.  Because all he really needed was an avenue to express the abilities that he had.  So he was able to write, because he knew whatever it was he wrote, there were some musicians who could play it.

We had different assorted engagements.  Because there was really not a scene, so to speak, in New Orleans for Modern Jazz.  We did a stint at the Playboy Club for a while, and we lost that job because… See, we were hired to accompany all of the Black artists, singers that were coming into the Playboy Club, and because of segregation, when they stopped coming we didn’t have a job.  That lasted about three months.  Then we would play wherever we could, a club here, a club there, about two or three months here, a couple of jobs there.  Finally, we sort of went in different directions.  Because the ’60s were a little different.  James left I think to go with Lionel Hampton.  He came to New York and played, I think, with Horace Silver for a while, joined Lionel Hampton, he recorded with Yusef Lateef.

TP:    Live at Pep’s, I think.

EM:    Yes, and there’s also an album called Psychomosis, Psycho-something that I think he’s on.  In fact, Yusef recorded the “Magnolia Triangle.”

Eventually James came back to New Orleans, and we started to play again wherever we could.  We played off and on together I guess until just about the time I left to go to Richmond.

TP:    Jason, when did you begin studying individual drummers in terms of styles and the different approaches they took, the different voices of trap drummers — and who were they?

JM:    Very good question.  That didn’t start until I’d just moved back to New Orleans, like Eighth or Ninth Grade.  That’s when I started looking at individual drummers.  I had always heard drummers.  I’d heard Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach, Art Blakey, but I hadn’t really studied them.  Around this time I started studying them, and the first drummer I started studying was Jeff “Tain” Watts.  His style with all the polyrhythms he’d be playing and just his powerful sort of style attracted me.  He was the first drummer that I really emulated, copy solos and so on.  A lot of my earlier playing was really influenced by him.

Then after a while I wanted to branch out and deal with the history, like Max Roach, Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, like I mentioned earlier.  I decided that I wanted to investigate what these drummers were playing, and I did that for a while.

Then after a while I started investigating drummers like Ed Blackwell.  My Dad would drop me off to school and whatever, and on the way we’d listen to the jazz radio.  There would be some mornings when Ed Blackwell’s drumming would be on the radio, and I’d think, “Man, this is interesting; I’ve never really checked him out; I’m going to have to investigate his playing.”  But the unfortunate thing is, a month later, the next thing I know, he was dead.

TP:    What were the qualities of Blackwell’s style that were so appealing to you and struck you so singularly?

JM:    Well, the first recordings that I started really getting into that he wason was the music of Ornette Coleman.  What I thought was so interesting was his sound.  It was a really clear sound.  Also it had an African quality to it that’s kind of hard to explain.  That’s one of the things that my older brother Wynton was always telling me about.  He said, “Man, check Ed Blackwell out.  He has that African sound in him.”

TP:    Let’s explore that a bit.  How would you define that aspect of his sound?

JM:    Well, Ed Blackwell, from what I know, was really into African music and the African drums.  Pretty recently I’ve been listening to some African percussion, a percussion group from New Guinea.  The rhythms of that music are interesting enough, but there’s a quality about the sound, a very pure, very natural kind of sound, and that’s sort of how Blackwell sounded — it was very pure, very natural, very deep.  I think the way that he would play syncopations was a little different, too, the way he would play on the downbeat.  But that natural, pure sound in his playing was what was really interesting.

TP:    Who are some of the other drummers you’ve gone into and analyzed in depth?

JM:    Another drummer, also by the recommendation of Wynton Marsalis, was a drummer who played with Thelonious Monk by the name of Frankie Dunlop.  When I started getting into him, one of the first things that attracted me was his getting into the beat, so to speak.  Most drummers usually have a set way that they play, a routine way of playing.  But Frankie Dunlop’s playing was not like that.  He was always playing around with the beats.  You’re almost not really sure where the beat is almost.  It’s like someone who plays a trick on, so to speak, like someone who’s joking with you.  You’re not really totally sure where the beat would be.  His drumming has that playful quality to it.

TP:    I’d like to take Ellis Marsalis back a bit, and talk about pianists who had an impact on you back in the 1950s when you were starting to formulate your sense of how your piano style should be, and the ensemble sound as well.

EM:    Well, there was Oscar Peterson, Oscar Peterson and Oscar Peterson.

TP:    That was it.

EM:    Actually, around 1950, Peterson had been in America for I think a year.  He was touring with Jazz at the Philharmonic, and they came to New Orleans.  At that time he was functioning in a duo format with Ray Brown.  I went to hear them, and it fractured me, so to speak.  I had a recording called Stratford Up On Avon with the Oscar Peterson Trio, a vinyl recording, and I just wore it out.  First of all, I had never heard anybody play with that type of agility, in that format.  I had heard Art Tatum play, but Art Tatum was a wizard.  I mean, everybody understood where Art Tatum was coming from who listened.  But Oscar Peterson was a trio player who utilized that medium.  First of all, I never heard anybody play as fast as that in that format.  I just loved it.  In fact, I was so enthralled with Pete, it was years before I went back to listening to Bud Powell and really trying to get to that!

There were lots of influences.  In a way, in the Jazz arena, a pianist sometimes is not always a pianist.  It just depends.  Oscar was definitely a pianist of the first magnitude.  But when I always thought of Thelonious Monk, for instance, as the piano being a vehicle for his music, and his writing was equally as important if not more important than his piano playing.  I mean, it’s as though his piano playing existed to play his music.  Monk apparently could do a lot of different things.  I’ve heard him play Stride, but when he plays Stride it doesn’t sound like Willie the Lion and James P. — it sounds like Monk playing Stride.  And Duke Ellington, who was a wonderful pianist, but somehow it didn’t matter, because what Duke was about was so much bigger than whether he was a piano player.  John Lewis was the same situation.  I love John’s playing, its subtleties, but with him also what he did as a composer was bigger than just the fact that he was a good piano player.

Also, there were the band players.  When I say “band players,” what I mean is there were the players like Richie Powell with the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet, the different piano players that Miles Davis’s band had, the different piano players in Art Blakey’s ensembles.  There are a lot of recordings of musicians that at the time I thought were bands, but they weren’t; they were just recordings where somebody was a leader, and would go out and find some gigs from that recording.  There were a lot of piano players like that.  Wynton Kelly was one, and Red Garland was another one.

Tommy Flanagan was one of the better of those.  But see, Tommy was also bigger than that.  Tommy spent a lot of years with Ella Fitzgerald, and accompanying a vocalist is a very special thing.  Accompaniment is the most difficult thing to teach.  I’ve been teaching for better than twenty years, and I’ve devised methods lately of dealing with the concept of accompaniment.  Usually my piano students, when they get to a certain level, they have to bring a singer into their lesson, and we work on pieces where they are accompanying the singer.  That’s the only way to really do that.  In a setting where a lesson is occurring, we could talk about it all day.  There are a few things about accompaniment everybody should know.  First of all, you should definitely show that you know the song in and out.  If you’re accompanying the vocalist, you’d better know the words.  Also, you’d better be prepared to learn how to breathe with that instrument.  Even though it’s not a wind instrument, the concept of playing is directly connected to the concept of breathing, and you have to understand that each singer… It’s also true for instrumentalists, but I dwell a little bit more on singers from the accompaniment side, because singers are working with something that’s a little different.  The interplay with a soloist is not quite the same.  A singer is trying to deliver a message through the sound-word.  So the enhancement of that is what is expected from the pianist.  I would say, get a recording by Hank Jones, who by the way I think is the consummate concept of a pianist, I mean, a total pianist… Believe me, this doesn’t take anything away from anybody else.  But from an academician who is trying to create Jazz programs, I’d say Hank Jones would be my model of the consummate pianist.  Hank Jones recorded a duo album with Abbey Lincoln recently.  Every student of recording and accompaniment, that recording should be under your pillow, on your CD, wherever you go.  And there are others.

TP:    Could you comment on the piano trio concept of Ahmad Jamal?  Did that have an impact on you in the 1950′s.  I know that Jason also works with the Marcus Roberts Trio, and the first person I thought of when I heard you play (not many people can make me think of this) is Vernell Fournier, a fellow New Orleanian.  Jason is deferring to his father, so Ellis Marsalis first.

EM:    I don’t know if that’s correct, because you addressed it in terms of drumming…

TP:    Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.

EM:    I’ve gotten to know Ahmad, but I’ve never been able to sit down with him and talk about it.  But based upon what I have heard… Ahmad influenced me in ways which I would not consider very complimentary to me or Ahmad.  When he did “Poinciana,” it was one of those songs that we all had to play as a trio.  So what happened is that I listened to “Poinciana” and learned it (in the wrong key, I might add, which is neither here nor there for the listening audience), and it was sort of like emulating Ahmad Jamal, not appreciating the real subtleties of what he was doing.  How many different kinds of grooves he was playing.  How he would use those vamps in ways… A vamp is a consistent pattern that’s played which allows you to play something over that, kind of a static groove, if you will.  It would be years before I would really listen to Ahmad in ways that one needs to listen in order to get the real message.  Without having spoken to him about it, I think maybe that hit he had probably threw a lot of us off.

Now, Miles thought so much of Ahmad Jamal that Miles recorded a lot of Ahmad Jamal’s solos, just played them right out.  I think some of the younger drummers and piano players are now beginning to discover Ahmad.  “We ain’t never heard about that!”  They are now beginning to discover Ahmad.

TP:    One thing about “Poinciana” is that the beat Vernell Fournier is from a vernacular New Orleans rhythm which is now known as the “Poinciana Beat.”

JM:    Well, it’s really some second-line.

TP:    There you go.

JM:    When I first heard that beat, I didn’t know Vernell was from New Orleans, and I was kind of suspicious.  I said, “Man, this sounds like some Second Line.”  But then when I found out he was from New Orleans, I said, “Oh, okay, that solves everything.”  But that’s really the influence of the New Orleans music, the traditional music of New Orleans, be it brass band music or whatever.  That’s really where that beat comes from.

Now, as far as Ahmad Jamal’s trio, it’s interesting, because I’m working with Marcus, and that’s someone Marcus listens to a lot.  When you listen to the Gershwin For Lovers record, you can really hear a lot of the influence of Ahmad Jamal.  One thing Miles Davis said about him was that he liked the fact Ahmad would let the music breathe.  Ahmad used a lot of space in his playing, and that’s one of the things I found interesting about his music as well.  He didn’t necessarily have to razzle-dazzle and play all kinds of fancy stuff.  He would let the music breathe.

Not only that, but my Dad mentioned students… Down in the New Orleans area, every young musician was into Ahmad Jamal!  I don’t know of any young musicians who are not into Ahmad Jamal.  All of them just loved Ahmad Jamal records.  It was really a big thing.  But I think a lot of young pianists and drummers these days are especially influenced by Ahmad Jamal.

TP:    And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.

JM:    Right.

TP:    One thing about Vernell Fournier and Idris Muhammad, who credited Ellis with bringing him to a Jazz concert for the first time… Idris said he got his unique concept of the bass drum his assimilation of Second Line rhythms.  But both are masters of drum timbres and the sounds of the different components of the trap set in combination.

JM:    That’s a kind of complex thing there!  Well, there’s something about the bass drum that New Orleans drummers have always played differently than drummers from anywhere else. Whether it’s Funk drums, a drummer like Zigaboo Modaliste from the Meters, or whether it’s the traditional Jazz drummers, there’s always something about the bass drum, the way the bass drum grooves that’s always different.  I think one thing is the emphasis that the drummers put on the beat-four.  That’s one of the things I’d say that’s different.

But as far as different timbres, so to speak, there are so many nuances to that, especially listening to a drummer like Vernell Fournier.  One of the things I like about his playing is his brush sound, which was subtle as well as powerful.  Even playing sticks it was sort of the same thing.

TP:    Have you had a second line experience for yourself, in one form or another?

JM:    I’ve had a few.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

JM:    I’ve done a few performances, Second Line gigs I guess you would say, playing with brass bands.  I’ve played snare drum a few times with some brass bands, and I marched in the Mardi Gras parade once playing snare drums.  So I have played snare drum in a brass band on a few occasions.  There’s also one interesting experience in New Orleans, which can only happen in New Orleans, that a brass band will be just playing in your neighborhood down the street, you’re in your house, then you hear this band playing, and there’s all these people just following them around, and marching in second line along with them.  That’s something that happens, like, whenever.

EM:    That’s an    African tradition.  If a group, especially those who live in the bush, go through a village in a ceremony, the people from the village, some of them will just join right in and follow the ceremony.  That’s the common pleasure that exists today.  There are what they call social and pleasure clubs, and every now and then what they will do is get a brass band and stage a parade.  Which doesn’t specifically have anything to do with Mardi Gras.  They will just stage a parade, and they will march in the area where their club functions.  They just get permits, and they march down the street, and people in the various neighborhoods just jump right out in the street and start what they call the Second Line.

For people who don’t really understand what that means:  See, the Second Line goes all the way back to the days when people who passed away was interred in a grave-site that was always within walking distance of the community that they lived in.  So they would get a band to go out and play some religious music, “Flee As A Bird,” “Just A Little While To Stay Here”…

JM:    “A Closer Walk With Thee.”

EM:    Yeah, “A Closer Walk With Thee.”  After the body is interred, at what is considered to be, as they would say, a respectable distance from the grave-site, you would hear a trumpet player.  He would say DO-DIT-DAH-DIT, like that, which was sort of a signal to the other musicians that they were going to start.  Then usually what would happen, they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  Now, without going off into religion and philosophy, the Christian concept of rejoicing when one passes on, that’s part of that.  The person has lived a life and is now passed on, and the celebration belongs to the people who are alive.  So they would start to play something like “Didn’t He Ramble.”  What would happen, the members of the bereaved’s family would be right behind the band.  The Second Line would be those who had no real kinship, but just came out and joined the celebration, following behind the family, which would be considered the First Line.

Now the tradition, in a somewhat modified sense, is still going pretty strong in New Orleans, except that now grave-sites are not within walking distance, and you may find a band playing and you may not.  But in other kinds of ceremony, you will find… There’s a lot of brass bands.  Whoever is going to New Orleans for the Super Bowl, when you get off that airplane, there will be a brass band at that airport to meet you.

TP:     Speaking of brass bands, Jason, have you been studying and analyzing the older New Orleans drummers such as Baby Dodds?

JM:    Oh, yes.

TP:    Talk about that, and the importance of that concept of playing to a contemporary drummer performing contemporary music.

JM:    It’s good you should mention Baby Dodds, because he’s someone I’ve just started to investigate.  Baby Dodds’ playing is much different than playing now.  One thing that’s different is, for example, he didn’t play like drummers play on brushes, time on brushes and time on the ride cymbal.  He didn’t play like that at all.  I have a recording that Dr. Michael White gave me to record where he’s playing an early form of the drum set, like snare drum, bass drum, two toms, and he’d have woodblocks and cowbells and so forth; the basis of his set was the snare drum and the bass drum, while the other drums were used for decoration.  In the brass bands, the basic setup of the drums was you’d have a snare drummer and a bass drummer — two different drummers.  In his setup, the snare and the bass drum was the main thing happening; the other drums and stuff was just decoration.  That was just some stuff he’d use for fill-ins and so forth.  So how he used his setup is one of the things that’s different about him.

TP:    How do you incorporate that concept, if you do, into what you do in the here and now.

JM:    A very good question.  Well, there are certain things that Baby Dodds played that can be used in the music today. But the music played back then is so much different than the music being played now.  It just was a different time, a different era back then.

TP:    Ellis Marsalis, you said in an earlier interview that you weren’t particularly involved in Second Line experiences, but you were playing saxophone and playing a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues type of saxophone?  Do you think your experience as a saxophonist had a substantial impact on the way you approach the piano?

EM:    Definitely!  In fact, Edward Blackwell told me once that I was not a piano player; I was a transposed saxophonist to piano.  It took me a while to figure out what he meant.  See, I had studied piano, but I had not really approached the piano like Phineas Newborn, Oscar and people like that.  And when I started to play in bands, especially with Blackwell and Nat, and we would do things from Clifford Brown and Max Roach and Miles, the pianistic approach for me was sort of like patchwork.  For one thing, I also realized later on that the concept of accompaniment, or comping as it’s called, was still in a state of evolution.  When you listen to what Bud Powell was doing in earlier years, that kind of accompaniment was nothing close to what was occurring when Miles had Tony, Ron and Herbie.  That rhythm section defined a peak in terms of accompaniment, solos, every aspect of it.

TP:    People are still dealing with the implications of that rhythm section.

EM:    Oh, they’re going to be dealing with that for a long time.  I mean, that was a major breakthrough.  It was like Isaac Newton’s theory.  That was something that was a major breakthrough, and it’s around, and it will be around.  Physicists come and go.  Newton’s concept stays!  That rhythm section virtually defined the small group approach to rhythm section playing and accompaniment.  It was a similar kind of thing that was beginning to evolve.  Wynton Kelly was playing with Miles, and his approach was a lot more closely associated with Paul Chambers and what Jimmy Cobb or Philly Joe Jones was doing.

The historical significance of the Jazz musicians, the contributions have come to us in patchwork, because we’ve never had an institution, a Jazz institution that was a part of the culture.  If you go to Brazil, you’ve got a Samba Club, lots of Samba Clubs.  In Trinidad, there are steel pan bands, lots of them.  It’s in the fabric of the culture.  Jazz has never been in the fabric of American culture.  So everything that came about, came about as a result of so much patchwork.  That’s why people from New Orleans were unique to that.  That was a lot closer to the Caribbean experience.  You talk to some of the guys from Detroit.  I mean, there’s a lot of musicians!  P.C. came from there, Doug Watkins, Ron Carter, Bob Hurst… [END OF SIDE A]

…of the dance, you see, and the dance came about by way of what the American-African brought to that whole experience.  If you were to come to New Orleans tomorrow and there was a brass band down the street, and you would see guys in the Second Line, what you would see is guys doing a strut.  Now, it’s not a military band.  In fact, if you ever go to see what we call SWAC (Southwest Athletic Conference), the Universities of Texas Southern, Jackson State, Southern University, Florida A&M, all those historical Black colleges, you’ll see those marching bands at halftime — they don’t march like soldiers.

TP:    The most advanced trap drummers can be conceived of as analogous to African dancers because in African dance the interdependence of motion of each limb in conjunction with each other is the principle of the dance, and I guess a trap drummer is trying to make the rhythm from each limb, the extension of himself or herself, their own personal dance.

EM:    Well, in the African dance, the difference is going to be in the age.  There are some dances which are primarily for males, older people.  And there’s also some dances and music and rhythms that are primarily for females.  Mainly today we talk about those things which are traditionally done in the bush country.  You get into Lagos and those cities, then you’re looking at skyscrapers and cars and traffic jams, all the things that happen everywhere.

TP:    [ETC. ON MUSIC] A few words about “Cochise.”

EM:    That’s a piece Alvin wrote based on the chord structure of “Cherokee.”  We made a recording of this as youngsters.  I don’t know if it will ever be released.  It was so fast, it was ridiculous.  Talk about youthful energy and arrogance borderlining on stupidity to play like that!  Anyway, it’s a very difficult piece because it reflects the highest level of virtuosity.  Alvin wrote that, and we used to play it, because in those times were going through that young period when you’re feeling your oats.  Like, everything was about how fast can play — that kind of thing.  Forget about the music.  How fast can you play? [LAUGHS] I think “Cochise” was one of the pieces we used in that manner.

[MUSIC:  B/E/J Marsalis & B. Hurst, "Cochise" (1994); E. Marsalis-E. Harris, "Homecoming" (1985); E. Marsalis/ Perillat/J. Black, "Swinging at the Haven" (1962)]

TP:    A few words about the project with Eddie Harris, the great saxophonist and musical thinker who died last year.

EM:    Eddie was an enigma.  It’s very hard to really put him into a category.  As a musician he was extremely well prepared for practically anything.  He evidently had some rather inventive qualities, too.  I remember hearing Eddie play with a machine that had a tape loop, and he would play a Blues, he’d play a chorus, and he would put a solo on it, then it would play back, then he would record another one against that, those two would play back and he would record another one.  I’ve heard him go up to six different tracks on that machine.  And there came a time when he didn’t travel on that machine very much.  I’ve heard him play trumpet by putting a saxophone mouthpiece on the end of the trumpet in the place of a conventional trumpet mouthpiece, and play that. [LAUGHS] And done of these were gimmicky.  It was not a gimmick.  He actually figured out how to make this work.

TP:    He was someone who was tremendously concerned with the permutations of sounds in motion, in many ways.

EM:    Well, Eddie Harris covered a lot of bases.  He had a unique approach to playing jazz, especially those wide intervals that he played, and he was very comfortable in the Pop idiom where there was quality music being played there.  He and Les McCann did several wonderful projects together.

TP:    What was the genesis of your duo recording?  Had you known him for a number of years?  Was it something that just got set up by circumstance?

EM:    It was a combination of both things.  Eddie used to book himself a lot.  He happened to call a club called Tyler’s in New Orleans, which is no longer there.  I happened to be working there that night, and during the break the owner says, “Hey, man, I’ve got Eddie Harris on the phone.  How about a duo with you and Eddie?”  I said, “Yeah, sure.”  I think I’d played with Eddie before at another club in New Orleans, so I knew him.  Anyway, he came in, and we did the duo at this particular club, Tyler’s.

As I remember, maybe David Torkanowsky set the session up.  We went in to Dallas, Texas, to do it.  I’m not sure of all the particulars, but I think David’s the one who set it up.  Now, “Homecoming” was a piece I was surprised was even on the album, let alone the title.  I’d written the piece, and as I was walking out the door to catch the plane, it was laying on my desk, so I said, “Well, I’m not going to do this, but I’ll just take it with me and get Eddie to look at it.”  So I almost didn’t take it to the studio, and we ended up recording it!

But it was always fun to record or work with Eddie, because Eddie was a funny, funny cat.  He had a wonderful sense of humor.  I remember once he told the audience, “I have decided to make a career change, and I am going to be a Rock-and-Roll singer.  I have all of the qualifications necessary — no voice and nerve.”  He was always making witticisms like that.

TP:    Jason Marsalis, what is it that makes your father an educator who is able to produce musicians of the quality of those who’ve come from under his tutelage?

JM:    Bright students perhaps! [LAUGHS] That’s a very good question.  Hmm.  I don’t know…

TP:    Not to put you on the spot or anything.

JM:    It’s interesting, because a lot of people ask me what has my father taught me.  Now, I’ve learned from him in different ways, but not necessarily in the concept of teacher-student.  It’s moreso father-and-son than teacher-and-student.  As far as teacher goes, he’s always found good teachers for me when it comes to studying percussion, whether it was classical percussion or studying drums or whatever.  He’s always found good teachers for me in that aspect.  But as far as his qualities as a teacher, it’s hard to tell.

I think one of the things with him teaching at the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts in New Orleans at that particular time… One good way of explaining it is maybe it was one of those things that was the right place at the right time, the way the whole school jelled.  It was a great faculty… Just the people who came together at that time.  The students that were there.. There was just something about that particular time.  I mean, I was a baby then!

As far as him being a teacher, one thing is that teaching wasn’t what he was set out to do at first.  Playing was really the first thing.  In fact, me and my older brother Delfayo had a debate about that, whether my father was a teacher or a player.  Delfeayo was, “He’s a player!” and I was, “No, he’s a teacher!”

TP:    There are some strong personalities in the family, in case people out there don’t know it.

JM:    There sure are.

EM:    This is probably very difficult for Jason to answer, because he was the only musician who went to that school that I didn’t teach, because I wasn’t there at that time.  But the thing about it was that… A lot of what he said, too, was correct.  First of all, the time in America was such that the magnet school concept was prevalent.  A lady named Shirley Trusty, who is now Shirley Trusty Corey(?), was very instrumental in getting a grant that ultimately helped to create the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.  As a result, we were able… When I say “we,” I mean the whole faculty, because there were four disciplines… Let’s see, it was five disciplines eventually.  I started out with music, dance, theater and visual arts, and then creative writing was added later.

When we started out, our mission was to give students the opportunity to explore the creative area so that they could make career decisions relating to the arts.  It wasn’t the objective to crank out a bunch of Jazz musicians or Classical musicians or anything!  It was really to try to help students to understand what this was all about and make decisions in high school.  Those who needed to go further, went further, and left and attended Juilliard… Branford left and went to Southern University and eventually to Berklee.  Donald Harrison went to Berklee.  Later on, Harry Connick, Jr., went to Loyola University for a semester, and later attended Manhattan School of Music.  And there were any number of people who went into Classical music and conservatories.

What we tried to do, and had the opportunity to do mainly because this was a magnet school, the students who came to the school could use their electives to choose which discipline to be in.  So we had a model school.  We had 100 percent opportunities to present what we wanted to present the way we wanted to present it.  We had virtually no support from the Board of Education.  There was no budgeting for anything like what we were doing.  The Federal Government was fast disappearing from those concepts.  But for the most part, we were able to get students at a young enough age… We had a grant, which was very important to our program.  It was only $8 an hour.  That was it!  But most of the guys in the Symphony Orchestra would agree to teach for the grant and a couple of dollars above that.  That meant that the students got very good instrumental instruction from people in the orchestra.  And it didn’t matter… See, we didn’t really deal as much with the concept of Jazz and Classical music as a separate thing.  If a person wanted to concentrate on Classical music, obviously that’s what they did, and they spent as much time as it took for them to get into a major institution.  If the student said, “Well, I want to be a Jazz player,” he got the fundamentals from studying what would be Classical music –but major scales and triads are not necessarily Classical music; they’re just the fundamentals.

TP:    That word “fundamentals” is perhaps the key to your gift as a teacher, that you seem to have the ability to break down almost any body of work into its fundamentals and are able to communicate them in a very practical way to students, and I think the proof is in the pudding.

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Filed under Alvin Batiste, Branford Marsalis, Ellis Marsalis, Jason Marsalis, Jazz Education, New Orleans, Ornette Coleman, Piano, Wynton Marsalis

For Alvin Batiste’s 81st Birth Anniversary, A WKCR Interview From 1987

In July  1987, the New Orleans expat bassist Eustis Guillemet put me in touch with the master clarinetist-educator Alvin Batiste (November 7, 1932 – May 6, 2007), who was in town for a week at Sweet Basil with pianist Henry Butler, in his pre-R&B period, who had a hardcore jazz album out on Impulse! titled The Village, with Batiste, Ron Carter, Jack DeJohnette, and John Purcell. I’d first heard Batiste in person in 1982 at a Public Theater concert with Ellis, Wynton & Branford Marsalis, Edward Blackwell, and bassist Mark Helias, and was extraordinarily impressed with an extended piece called “Ayala Suite” on which Wynton uncorked a pair of unbelievable solos, beyond anything I’d heard from him at the time. In any event, I jumped at the opportunity; what follows is a transcript of our conversation. (Please feel free to offer correct spellings of proper names.)

Alvin Batiste (WKCR—7-31-87):

[MUSIC: A. Batiste/E-W-B. Marsalis/Blackwell, "Mozartin'"]

AB:    I was born in New Orleans and raised in New Orleans and did considerable development in New Orleans, and I moved to Baton Rouge to work for twenty-one years at Southern University with some significant young talents, mostly from the United States, a few from Africa.  By the grace of God, I’ve retired, and I’ve had the opportunity to perform with some of my idols.  Recently I just completed a tour with Freddie Hubbard and the Satchmo Legacy, which gave me an opportunity to revisit some music that because of my own development, which began formally in music with Charlie Parker, I really had not meticulously gone into that music, even though it was a part of the New Orleans way of looking at the world.  And then to have the honor again to play with Ron Carter on such a sustained basis, and to meet Joe, who I have always dug for many years, and Henry Butler, who is a tremendous talent and a tremendous soul… It’s just quite an honor to have an opportunity to play with these gentlemen here in New York.

Q:    I believe this is your first extended engagement in a New York venue.

AB:    It is.  I played in New York with Ray Charles.  I did the Bottom Line with Billy Cobham.  I did my Carnegie Hall debut, heh-heh, with the illustrious Rufus Reid and Mulgrew Miller, and I did some things at Bennington in Vermont, which included Rufus and Mickey Tucker, and a fantastic drummer named Herman Jackson, who sojourned with Henry Butler in Louisiana.  He’s a part of my quartet, and he’s on my latest album with India Navigation.

Q:    We’ll get into all of these things as the show goes on.  But I’d like to give the people a chance to get to know something about your roots and sources, and what led to your taking the interests that you eventually took.  Let’s get to the basics.  You were born in New Orleans in what year?

AB:    In 1932.

Q:    Tell me about how you first entered into music.  Was it always a part of your life?

AB:    Well, I can remember very vividly one Easter Sunday, I think I was about five years old, and my mother had gotten me one of these little white suits that kids at that time were wearing in Louisiana, whether you were Catholic or Protestant.  And a parade passed by my house.  I was living in a section of town called Holly Grove.  And parades didn’t pass that often, so I followed the parade, and I was with the parade all day — if you can imagine a five-year-old kid.  They fed me… And they had canals during that time that took care of the sewage and stuff, and so when the water would go in the canal there would be an algae.  And I slipped down and messed up my little pants.  But I got back home at about nine o’clock and got a good one!  But I think that’s when I was bit.

My Dad had a picture of Edmond Hall, the great clarinetist from Reserve, Louisiana.  That’s forty minutes from New Orleans.  The Hall family is a famous musical family.  Herbert Hall is a great clarinetist; he lived out in San Antonio, Texas, and Edmond Hall played with Louis Armstrong.  The rest of the Halls played in the musical life of New Orleans.  Like, many of the New Orleans musicians came from areas within a radius of 300 miles of New Orleans, but they went to New Orleans because that was where the industry and the gigs was at that particular time.  He also had a picture of Benny Goodman on the wall.

So he used to tell me about Edmond Hall.  And we had an old Philco radio, and you could listen to the big bands on the radio.  And I used to go down to the Palace Theatre and catch Count Basie and Cab Calloway and Lionel Hampton and stuff like that.  So by the time that peer pressure started getting into the act… Cats in the neighborhood were getting instruments who were older than me, and I started getting interested in it.  A guy named Bud got a clarinet, who would influence me quite a bit.  So I fooled around with it for maybe about six months.

And it was a drag, because my dad got it from a pawn shop, and I’ll never forget… Because he got the tubing from the music store, and the keys, and he put it together; which showed that he knew about the clarinet.  But I had never heard him play, and he never really talked too much about his musical activity.  But since I had to carry it in a bag, just the whole idea of carrying it in a bag, and the other cats had a case; I mean, it was a drag, so I just let it go.

So when I went to high school… The summer before going to high school I met Harold Battiste, and I heard a record by Charlie Parker called “Now’s The Time,” and it literally spoke to me.  And I said, “This is what I want to do.”  Harold was transcribing the solos off of records.  There was a baritone saxophone named Sterling White.  You could play a record one time and then take it off, and he could play the whole record back to you.  So he said, “Go home and get the clarinet.”  It was like five minutes both ways.  So he started giving me lessons, and I practiced Klose  mechanisms.  I guess I was about 14 or 15, going to high school.

And the high school that I was going to, that’s the high school that Edward Blackwell was going to, Wilbur Hogan who was with Lionel Hampton, I think Joe Newman went to that school, Benny Powell went to that school, Idris Muhammad’s father went to that school…

Q:    What school was that?

AB:    Booker T. Washington High School.

Q:    And who was the teacher?

AB:    Laurice DeBauffet(?), who was a lady, and she really made us practice.  Because we knew that any day that we came in, we could be challenged for our seats.  Like, we would have maybe 20 clarinet players.  I started out in the instrumental music class, whole notes, whole rests, and stuff like that.  Then by the mid-semester you advanced to the junior band, and I got to play the last seat at graduation on the clarinet.  Through the challenge system, working on up like that.

I was playing Albert System, because that’s what my Dad knew about.  So I had worked my way up to first clarinet, and we were playing On, Wisconsin, and the supervisor came to school, a guy named (?)Raymond DeLuopp(?), and he said, “That kid’s got to have another clarinet.  That clarinet is ancient!”  And that’s when I got a Boehm System, and then I was able to cut the parts, you know.  But basically, that was it.

But all during that time, Jazz was going on at the same time, and the symphony used to practice in the school.  So we always had an interfacing between all styles.  We never had a division between Black music and any other kind of music.  It was all based on musical excellence and what you wanted to do, and when you were doing that, you did it as good as you could, and you had good people doing it.  Dooky Chase from New Orleans had a big band that included Emory Thompson, Omar Sharif, Tony Morette… You know, it was just one fantastic environment.

So I joined the Army at 17, the 333rd Army Band, which was a Reserve unit, and I did that for twelve years because all the cats were in that band.

Q:    In a Reserve Army band.

AB:    Yes.

Q:    That was stationed in New Orleans?

AB:    Yes.  So we had to once a week get together, and we had to practice.  We played all the chestnuts, you know, Poet and Peasants, Zappa(?) and all that kind of stuff.  Then we had the big band with Harold Battiste, Alvin Dejean, who runs the Olympic Jazz Band, Roger Dickerson, the composer…

Q:    This was during the Fifties.

AB:    Right.

Q:    I’d like to step back just a moment and ask you something about the scene in New Orleans when you were a youngster, what type of music you remember hearing in the community.

AB:    Well, at that particular time, Edward Blackwell was an innovator.  He was playing with a guy named Wallace Davenport and Frank Campbell.  Because that was the first time that I knew, or learned about chord changes.  And Clarence Ford… At that particular time (I’m talking about maybe 1947, I guess), Clarence Ford was playing Cherokee through all the keys, I Got Rhythm through all the keys, the Blues through all the keys.  That was to serve me later as I developed a pedagogy at Southern University, because we had already understood that that was the way to open your ears up.  So that was going on.

Then you had Lee Allen, Fats Domino, Dave Bartholomew, Angel Face…

Q:    Did you play on those dates?

AB:    No.  I was a neophyte.  I was just beginning, peeping at the door.  I threw papers, and the Sunday paper was thrown at 3 o’clock in the morning.  I put my clean shirt under the steps, and then I’d come back after I’ve thrown the paper (my parents are still asleep, right), and get my shirt, change shirts, put my sack on the steps, and go on down to the French Quarter and jam with Red Tyler and them, Earl Palmer and Edward Frank.  And the groove would be so strong, Ted, and you could hear it from the corner, man!  I’d break out and run!  [LAUGHS]

I thought about that last night when I heard Joe Chambers jumpin’ it.  He was right on it, I’ll tell you.  He’s a great drummer, Joe Chambers.

Q:    But basically as a teenager, then, you were influenced by the modern music of the time, and not really by whatever…not to categorize it, but small group swing, or more traditional New Orleans music that was happening.

AB:    Well, at the time, we didn’t think of music like that.  When you were doing that, you did that.  My mother used to say, “Oh, they’re playing that ratty music.”  But now I understand that to mean a particular groove.  That’s what we would call a groove now, you know.  But we always… One time Cannonball asked me… We were talking, and some musician said (it may have been some guy in his band), “Batiste, how come musicians in New Orleans play all kinds of music?”  I said, “Well, we have to.  We just do that.”  And for a long time, I would negate that.  But that’s one good thing about the music now.  You don’t have to negate it, because the rhythm is wide open, and so you can express the continuum of African-American music in a broader sense, and the influences that you encounter interfacing with that.

Q:    Speaking of the broader sense, you encountered Ornette Coleman at a rather early time, around 1950.

AB:    Right.  Well, I started teaching school in 1955, and I got a call (school had just opened) from Edward Blackwell and Harold Batiste that said, “Come on to California, man.  We’re going to make it happen, so you got to meet on that.”  You know, nothing’s going to happen in New Orleans.  Well, we had been knocking our heads around.  We had sponsored concerts, and we did pretty well sponsoring concerts, but you can’t do but so much wearing all of the hats.

So I had a ’49 Oldsmobile with leopard-skin seat covers, and my brand-new daughter, and I drove to California! [LAUGHS] I’d never been on a freeway before, man.  And I saw this street, Alvarado, and I was so frightened, I took that street and just got off that freeway.  And it just happened to be the street that Ellis and Blackwell and Harold were looking at a map trying to figure out where I might be!

Q:    I guess it was meant to be, then.

AB:    You know?  So they took me to Ornette’s pad, after I got settled… He was living across the street from the California Club.  Even though he was living across the street, they didn’t want him to play, because his playing was so contrasted to what was going on at that particular time.  So we got into that, and so they wouldn’t let us play either.  So we played at Ornette’s house, and we developed a rapport that I’m thankful I had an opportunity to develop.  Because when you hear the music now, so-called free-form, that was really a very important nucleus of that manifestation.

By the time I got to Ray Charles’ band, I found myself having to defend… You know, you couldn’t defend an aesthetic event on the basis of words, because things that come from the inner self, you know, they don’t lend themselves to be intellectually designated until later.  I mean, it has to go through considerable thought.  But we all understand now.  What do they say in politics, “hindsight is better than foresight”…

But thank God for Ornette, and the music is still beautiful — I heard him in Italy recently.  And he’s a beautiful man, and we had beautiful experiences.  I look forward to doing some things with him in the future.  Because one of the things that I’ve always felt is that African-American music has been denied certain resources meaning the things that musicians at the particular time would like to have that are related to material wants, and have also been denied dissemination, which would enable us to express to a broader public our cosmic contacts.

Q:    I’d like to ask you one other thing.  Did Charlie Parker ever come through New Orleans?

AB:    One time, man.  One time.

Q:    Was that the time you got to see him?

AB:    I got to see him and talk to him.

Q:    What was that like?

AB:    It was like on the street meeting God!  It was three of us, Nat Perillat, Julius “Shake” Snyder and myself.  Julius was a baritone player, and he was even more imaginative than I was, so he asked Bird, he said, “Man, what were thinking about when you played that lick?”  So Bird asked him, “Which lick”  He said, “On Just Friends.  He said, ‘You know that lick.’”  So I hummed it, [SINGS REFRAIN]; he said, “I was thinking about my keyboard.”  And that threw us away, because it brought us back down to the fundamentals.  And if you looked at his keyboard, his left hand is perfect.  I mean, his right hand is perfect, too.  But you can’t get a better hand position than Charlie Parker had.  It was something that I was able to always use in helping certain students.

[MUSIC: Bird, Cheryl, Now's The Time]

Q:    Two by Charlie Parker that Alvin Batiste heard as a youngster that turned him around at that crucial time.

AB:    Yes.  There was a period when there was a lot of peer pressure to play saxophone.  I’ve played saxophone at many different periods of my life.  In fact, for a great while there, I made many more gigs on saxophone than I did on clarinet.  But clarinet was always my love, because naively I started on clarinet, and when I was inspired to pay music, I never realized that you weren’t supposed to play it on clarinet.  So I learned a whole record of Charlie Parker solos, and then I discovered that he was using the inner self, and that one has an inner self — and I began to rely on it.  And that was a turning point in my consciousness.  And that’s a thing that I’ve always tried to share with students, that the key to expression and the perception of others’ expression lies in the inner self.

Q:    When I spoke with you prior to the show and you told me that you weren’t influenced by clarinet players, I was very surprised because of the rich clarinet tradition in New Orleans.  So you did really come to your style through the music of your time…

AB:    Yeah, right.

Q:    …through the inner self applied to the fundamentals of the clarinet in terms of what was going on at the time.

AB:    See, I was playing with saxophone players and trumpet players, you know, trombone players… The sound of the clarinet, which was a major technical barrier for me for many years, and many different embouchures and many different concepts and perspectives of the clarinet I just couldn’t deal with because of that type of development.

Q:    Well, it was supposed to be almost impossible to play Bebop effectively on clarinet, was the canard of the time, because of the tone of it.  I think that’s what was supposed to be a barrier, as many people perceived it at the time.

AB:    I don’t think it’s a very simple thing.  One of the things that happens in the American society which is so mercantile is that whatever is popular, then it tends to have a weight.  So the type of thing that people expect from you, if you’re not in touch with yourself, then it exerts undue pressures on you.  You know what I’m saying?  So people expect from you in New Orleans… The clarinet was very functional.  I mean, there are a lot of good clarinet players in New Orleans — I mean, even now!  But you know, I never thought like that.  Rather than think like that, I just said, “Okay, I’ll learn to play saxophone!”

Q:    We’re going to spin some sides by Ornette Coleman, who you met in 1955.  That’s another new one on me.  I had thought from the A.B. Spellman book that you had met him in 1950, when he came through New Orleans.

AB:    Ornette… I’m saying he came to Baton Rouge also.  But I wasn’t in Baton Rouge also.

Q:    Because your name was mentioned in the book, to my recollection.

AB:    Uh-huh.

Q:    Anyway, we’ll hear a piece called “The Disguise” from Somethin’ Else, Ornette and Don Cherry on alto and trumpet, which is an association still happening thirty years later, loud and clear, Walter Norris, piano, Don Payne on bass, and another who is still happening thirty years later loud and clear, Billy Higgins, on the drums.

AB:    Absolutely.

Q:    Were these the tunes Ornette was playing at the time when you went to Los Angeles?

AB:    Oh, I’m sure.  The thing that I remember most vividly about Ornette’s playing was that he would play cycles, and he would play what you would call musical fragments from Bird’s language, but the syntax would be different, and the whole breathing pattern would be different.  The form had changed.  And musicians spent a lot of time trying to justify it intellectually, but actually what you do is you just do it!  So I think we’ve gotten around to that.  That’s why I enjoy playing so much with the Clarinet Summit, with David Murray and John Carter.  John Carter is an incredible clarinetist.  We just do things.  Kidd Jordan in New Orleans plays intuitive like that also, and it just adds a range to the music.  Of course, Miles always did that.  Recently, when I did the gig with Freddie Hubbard, studying the gig with Louis Armstrong… You know, he did that also, within the situation that he was in, in his language.  He was an incredible player.  I mean, bad!  He was killing it.

Q:    Well, you said you discovered in transcribing 21 of the Hot Seven arrangements.

AB:    Yes, I had to know exactly what was happening.

Q:    On this project… Although it got shelved, basically, there were arrangements set up for you.  So you’re sitting on 21 transcriptions of Hot Five and Hot Seven arrangements for some future occasion.

AB:    Well, I won’t be sitting on them long.  In fact, I’m going to have you play the “Twelfth Street Rag” that I recorded.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Ornette Coleman, "The Disguise"]

Q:    Coming up we’ll hear a few selections from Alvin’s forthcoming release on India Navigation.

AB:    It’s called Musique Afrique de Nouvelle Orleans.  It’s about recognizing a perspective that the music from the south of Louisiana, as the music in Oriente in Cuba and Bahia in Brazil, are basically African-based musics that have evolved within communities that have interfaced with this great African tradition.  So you get other traditions coming out of it.  If you look at it that way, then you can appreciate the continuum of music throughout mankind as a whole, because then there is a connection between all cultures when you look at the natural principles, the undergirding principles of music, from sound vibrations and things like that.

Q:    New Orleans has always been a melting pot of many cultures, I guess because of its nature as a port, and music was coming through at many times…

AB:    But it’s also a mosaic.  Cultural identities are maintained.  Which is good, because it maintains a vortex for natural expression, and people don’t have to over-adapt or suppress their natural inclinations.  That’s what’s so hip about what I see in New York also.  I just want to see more of the Afro-American musical expression…

[END OF SIDE A]

Q:    …they get a very competitive type of edge.  I get the sense in New Orleans it’s more of a communitarian, up from the community type of ethos that informs the music.

AB:    No, actually the ethos from New York permeates all the other parts of the country.  This is one of the points of leadership here that radiates out.  But we’re talking about a consciousness that’s supposed to accompany real development that reflects real intelligence and real humanitarianism that goes along with being one of the greatest and most developed nations in the community of nations extant in the world now.

Q:    Tell us about the selections we’re about to hear from the next record.

AB:    This is going to be called The Venus Flow.  The Venus Flow has to do with the blood flowing to and from the heart, and it makes a sound.  I am into symbolisms, because many of the things that we do as we develop our perspectives are based on the symbolisms that we respond to or that we ignore.  [ETC.] The thing you’re going to play for me will include one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite heroes, Thad Jones, who contributed quite a bit to American education by way of Jazz and also in the Big Band idiom.  Because the school bands play much better as a result of the music that he offered.

Then after that, you’re going to hear something that you may not have heard before.  I’m playing with an acoustical quartet, acoustic clarinet, piano, bass and drums, and then a guy named Charlie.  And you tell me what Charlie is saying when you hear it.

[MUSIC: "The Venus Flow," "Tutu Man"]

Q:    Another associate of Alvin Batiste’s in New Orleans was tenor saxophonist Nat Perrillat. [ETC.] Tell us about Nat Perrillat and James Black, two of the heaviest personalities on the New Orleans scene.

AB:    Well, Nat Perrillat was a world-class saxophonist.  He was very, very significant in my development.  We spent a lot of time together.  We were tuned as brothers as well as professional compatriots.  And I played in his band a number of years.  That’s where my nickname came from, Mozart, because I had gig with him one night and played with the symphony during the afternoon.  And Melvin Lastie, who was the official namer (his nephew plays with Ahmad Jamal, Herlin Riley, the drummer), came to a concert, and he named me Mozart on the spot.  So if Orrin Keepnews or Peter is listening, that’s where the name Mozart comes from.  Nat was an incredible player.  Totally dedicated to music.  And his untimely death just left a big void in New Orleans and in American music.

James Black is a fantastic drummer.  Here again, he’s one of these drummers who was really born.  You don’t just develop that through the techniques.  He has something very special.  His time and his metric perception was ahead of the game.  And of course, in school he was a trumpet player!  So he has keyboard skills.  I wish that he would come on out of New Orleans and do some things in New York also.

Q:    We’ll hear now a composition by James Black.  He’s a fine composer, as is evident from this 1962 quartet session with Nat Perillat, Ellis Marsalis, Marshall Smith on bass and James Black on drums.

AB:    Marshall Smith is from Dallas, Texas, and that area has produced some fantastic people.  In fact, the Moffett Family comes from around there also.

Q:    The Moffetts, John Carter, Ornette, etcetera.  Was there a lot of back and forth between New Orleans and eastern Texas when you were coming up?

AB:    Buster Smith, who had a great influence on the Kansas City musicians of that time, according to history books… But Louis Armstrong had a great influence on all of this.  Like Cannon said, “We’re all his chillun’.” [LAUGHS] That album that you’re talking about, we’re so fortunate that Harold Battiste had the foresight to put that together, because that would have really been lost.  And Harold is playing again.  He’s going to participate in the Edward Blackwell day that’s going to be done in Atlanta in November, I think November the 4th.  Harold was the saxophone player who decided that he was going to devote some of the time to setting up something that would relate to the material forms, and that’s one of the results of it.

[ETC.]

In New Orleans you can just get music happening spontaneously.  It’s just very natural.  Because it’s been going on so long, the musicians expect you to be able to just play music and make an arrangement on the spot without music and without a prior conception or any kind of conference.  It’s something that I’m adjusting to as I go around to other places where there are other expectations.

[MUSIC: Magnolia Triangle, Twelve's It, THEN CONVERSATION, then Satchmo Legacy, Twelfth Street Rag]

Q:    One of Alvin Batiste’s long-time associates is pianist, also educator Ellis Marsalis of New Orleans. [ETC.] Tell us about your first contacts with Ellis Marsalis back when.

AB:    The first time I met Ellis Marsalis was in a state contest.  He was a clarinetist and I was a clarinetist in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He was going to Gilbert Academy, and I was going to Booker T. Washington.  And then by the time that he started going to Dillard University with Harold Battiste and Roger Dickerson, then Harold, who had started me off on clarinet and who was my first teacher… Then that was the connection.

Ellis had the piano, and the parents who would let us make noise from 12 o’clock in the day to 12 o’clock at night, learning all the tunes.  He had a sister, Yvette, who played all of the concert literature.  And he knew all of the tunes even then on piano, but he was really a clarinet player and a saxophone player.  But he has this marvelous ear and this beautiful lyricism that’s always been a joy for all of us.  So…

[END OF SIDE 2]

…quite rewarding in our little circle.

Since you mentioned education, it makes me think about the fact that we used to sense there wasn’t a market, so to speak, for so-called Modern Jazz at this particular period, and we used to sponsor our own concerts.  And we’d have at least 300 people quite often coming to our concerts.  And there were one or two other promoters also.  We’d get the halls at maybe the YMCA or something like that.  We also started a program at the YMCA on Claiborne Street, and had students to come, and we started kind of a Jazz instruction program with Nat Perillat, Richard Payne, James Black, Ellis Marsalis and myself — I think Chuck Beatty may have been involved with that also.  So we go back a long ways.

Ellis is at the University of Virginia in Richmond now.  And his wife, Dolores Marsalis, is a singer.  She finished at Grambling University in Reston, Louisiana.  His youngest son, Jason, is a very fine little drummer.  He can bash right now.

Q:    Tell me something about how you planned out the curriculum in this education program.

AB:    Well, I went to Southern University in 1965 as Assistant Band Director.  At that particular time, I had been out of school for about ten years, I think.  So they told me that I was going to have to get a Masters.  I had planned to go to the University of Michigan, but at that particular time I had to get my bread together.  So I went to LSU in the meantime and started taking courses, and sort of attuned to that kind of thing again.  They had a Jazz band, and they asked me if I would go with them to Mobile in the Fall to a college festival, because they didn’t have anybody who could improvise.  I said, “Well, I’ve never played in one of these before; I guess so.”  So I went.  And I heard the University of Illinois band with the Bridgewater Brothers and Howie Smith and Ron De War(?) — John Galdi’s(?) kids.  And man, I had never heard anything like that before.

So I came back to Southern, and I started raising hell.  And Dr. Harrison said, “Okay, be cool.  We’ll help you.”  So it just happened that a guy showed how to write a proposal, I wrote a proposal, and it was concomitant with a change in the whole band administration.  So I went on into the Jazz area.  The idea was to have a Jazz Institute, where it would be impermanent, just a short-term thing.  So we adopted the name Jazz Institute.  So I took the basic curriculum that David Baker had developed, and used that for the paper and added some things to it.

But I dropped the audition requirements from the literary sense, and anybody who had a propensity for musicality, I dealt with that.  So we had a lot of non-literate musicians who were giants.  Because learning to read music is the simplest thing in music, if you don’t have a mindset that tells you that it’s so complicated.  So we took that kind of approach.  And that’s always been my philosophy, to teach young people the fundamentals without interfering with their natural expression, and it worked very well…

So we have a lot of people who overcame the remediation.  In fact, one of the great things that happens in predominantly Black schools, even with the meager resources that they have and the lack of support, is the remediation that takes place.  And I am very proud to have associated with that for the last twenty years.

Q:    I’d like to mention some of the people who have come up under you at Southern University.

AB:    Well, I think right now Willie Singleton is playing first trumpet in the Count Basie Band.  Frank Foster saw me in the Hague, and said, “Hey, man, there’s somebody you want to see!”  And look, I was just so proud.  Because you know, here we go.  We’re talking about literacy at its finest, and intuitive aesthetics at its finest, in the finest American musical tradition.  You can’t get a band to play any better than the Count Basie band.

Then we have Raymond Harris, who plays with the Ellington band.  Randy Jackson, who plays with Journey and makes Aretha Franklin records.  We have Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Herman Jackson, Henry Butler, Yolanda Robertson, Wessel Anderson… I’m not going to name a whole bunch of people.  But the last time I wrote one of those pages for administrators, we had about 25 people who were actually functioning in the streets.  And we didn’t aim for the hotel type gigs, because it really had a tendency to dry up kids, and that didn’t work too well with the kind of racism that goes down anyway on those gigs, because it’s very difficult for Black musicians to get the gigs in that kind of configuration now anyway.  But we’ve made many inroads into musicianship, but without obfuscating the natural tendencies.

The big problem now is from the marketing and distribution standpoint, and of course, from your side — the whole media configuration.  From the Seventies there has been such a sophisticated development in the industry, it has had the tendency to do things that have never been done before as well in terms of stopping creative activity in music.

Q:    How do you think this works?

AB:    It works because people write proposals, and they approach music from a business standpoint rather than from an aesthetic standpoint.  So it keeps people off-balance, because the cart is before the horse.

Q:    Your colleague, Ellis Marsalis, has been teaching more (I believe, correct me if I’m wrong) for younger students, people in their teens, through community centers in New Orleans as well.  And we’re going to hear two selections coming up, both from self-produced records.  The first selection has Alvin Batiste’s nephew, Kent Jordan…

AB:    He’s a fantastic flute player.

Q:    He has an LP on Columbia.

AB:    He has two.  [ETC.]

[MUSIC: Moment's Notice (w/Kent Jordan), Django]

Q:    [ETC.] …Henry Butler.

AB:    I met Henry Butler in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he had begun studying at Southern University School of Music.  Immediately there was a rapport.  And he was one of the founding members of the Jazz program, he, Herman Jackson, Terrell Jackson and Julius Forma(?), a fantastic bass player  who studied with Ron Carter, who lives in Milano.  And Ron always asks about him because he has this special touch.  Henry is somebody real special.  He can do the vocal repertoire in the Western tradition, and he can improvise accompaniments to the traditional Western lieder and arias, the kind of thing that he does on the gigs.  So he’s just liable to do anything.  His memory is impeccable.  And he’s a very intelligent man.  He’s a philosopher and a mystic.  A lot of people are not aware of that.

So one of the tapes that we have cued up is something that he and I did together at Rosicrucian Park in San Jose, California.  Rosicrucian Park is on the facilities of the Rosicrucian Order Armorc, which is a cultural fraternity devoted to the evolution of man.

[MUSIC: Batiste/Butler duo; H. Butler, My Coloring Book]

This is the first clarinet concerto that I’ve ever written.  It’s based off of my gig music.  I’ve been dealing with some forms that I can’t actually define because they actually come from the gig music.  I’m just using the orchestral resources.  And I like to deal with that.  I think that if American musicians who play in the African-American idiom had more orchestral resources available to them, it would be a very exciting time.  Most of the time when they get their hands on these resources, they have to adapt to the traditional Western way of thinking, or to more commercial ways.  So Musique D’Afrique Nouvelle Orleans represents an idea on my own terms to deal with that.  Also it combines with some ontological ideas that I have dealt with in my effort to be as I try to manifest my perception of my spiritual inclination.  So you will hear things that I understand to be the duality of Man’s spiritual and physical expression interfacing.  So at times you can get glimpses of the two in the various realms.

This is conducted by Coleridge Perkins.  It’s at the Black Music Symposium at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

[MUSIC: AB's Clarinet Concerto]

That version is a little fast.  But you deal with concert configurations, and you’re dealing with hall or union workers and all of that.  So we picked up the tempo just a little bit!

[END OF SIDE 3]

Q:    We’ll hear Alvin Batiste’s “Chatterbox,” recorded with the Adderley Brothers in 1962.  Before we get to it, I’d like to have Alvin tell us a little bit about his relationship with the Adderleys, and particularly with Cannonball Adderley.

AB:    Well, if I could single out anyone who has been the greatest living inspiration in my life, it has to have been Julian Adderley.  I mean, he’s tapped me on the shoulder and said point blank, “Hey!”  One time Nat Perillat and I were working on relaxation together — I mean, when we played.  And it sort of made our playing lose some of the gusto that Cannon was accustomed to from us.  So he told both of us, “What the hell’s going on?”  So the next morning at rehearsal I told Nat, I said, “Man, my feelings were hurt so bad, I cried.”  He said, “You too, man?!”  Because that’s how much we loved and respected Cannon.  I’d come to New York, and he’d take me around and show me the ropes and stuff.

I met Cannon when I was a freshman in college (he had already finished; he was teaching), at a jam session.  We went to a jam session… You know how kids go to a jam session, they want to play Cherokee, you know…

Q:    Where was this?

AB:    In Tallahassee, Florida.  And Clair Rockamore was playing, a trumpet player from Detroit.  I mean, a monster.  I wish he’d come out here.  Dynamite.  Ask Donald Byrd about him.  In fact, anybody from Detroit.  Detroit is another place like Philadelphia.  Great musicians.  I mean, just incredible.  Nat was there; I met Nat that night also.  But Cannon also was a fantastic cook.  And it was very profound for him to taste Edith’s gumbo, because he couldn’t figure out what was in it! She’s a master, but not only gumbo.  She can take a vegetarian deal and do that.  She’s very gifted.  She’s on top of that.  It’s like a cosmic thing with her.  She’s in a family of 16 kids, and her Daddy says, “Let Edie fix it.”  You know what I’m saying?  And they have some heavy cooks among eleven girls.  She’s also a poet.  She has a new book out.  I’m sorry we don’t have time to hear some of her stuff, but next time I come, you will.

Q:    What were some of Cannonball’s specialties, by the way?

AB:    The thing that really knocked me out was some smoked chops and stuff.  They were really kind of stewed, with a hip gravy.  It was different from New Orleans, because it had a black pepper catalyst.  He could really do a number, you know.  He was telling me about the time when he had to go through 13 weeks without a release!  He was complaining.  I said, “Man, what you talking about?  Some poor cats never have any release!”  But during that time he was cooking, you know.  So I used to always tell the guys on the program, and the girls…

In fact, my last year (and I’d like to mention that also), I was very proud of the fact that I had some dynamic ladies in my program at Southern University.  One young lady, her name is Yolanda Robinson, is an arranger and a singer.  You’re going to hear her on the second cut.  Her mother’s name is Topsy Chapman with One Mo’ Time.  She’s a Jazz singer, so she doesn’t sing melody in the regular way.  I just can start out playing.  And that’s the way we did with Henry Butler and Edward Perkins and Ernest Jackson.  We didn’t let singers, heh-heh, get chord eyes!  We’d let ‘em get on in there, you know.  So you’ll hear Yolanda really doing some Jazz things.

Q:    But first we’ll hear your piece, “Chatterbox,” played by the Adderley Brothers.

AB:    Well, it’s a special story with the “Chatterbox,” because that was a club on Claiborne Avenue where Marsalis, Richard Payne, Harold Battiste and Harry Nance and I had this gig.  We played for a whole week, and the first day the cat said, “Well, I’m going to pay you the next night,” and the next night he said, “Look, I didn’t quite make it” — and ultimately, we didn’t get paid.  So I said, “I’d better get something from this,” so I wrote this tune.  And I guess the reward was to have Cannon to record it.

Cannon was a fantastic player.  And on that particular album… Cannonball had come to New Orleans on some other business.  He hadn’t planned to make a record.   So he went to a music store, and picked up a student horn and a student mouthpiece, put a reed on there and went to the recording session.  I mean, that’s how bad he was.  He was awesome.

Q:    And you had it laid out, and he just hit.

AB:    Yeah.  He was a fantastic player. [ETC.] Sam Jones!   The thing that I used to tell the kids about being proud of their utterances… Cannon told me about Sam when he was with his band in Moscow, and they went to the Conservatory, and this professor was playing all of cello things on the bass, and Sam was saying, “Wow!”  So the professor got the interpreter to ask Sam to play.  And Sam said, “Man, I don’t want to play nothin’ for this cat.”  So they kept on begging him, and so finally the professor makes the sound, and he says, “DUM-DUM-DUM, DUM-DUM-DUM.”  So finally Cannon says, “Oh man, he wants you to walk some.”  So Sam put that walk on it with that fantastic sound, and the professor grabbed his solar plexus and said, “Oh!!!”  He just went all the way out.

[MUSIC: Adderleys, Chatterbox]

Next is a tune I’ve been playing this year, by Billy Eckstine, “I Want To Talk About You.”

Q:    Which Coltrane did.

AB:    Yes.   I love it.  It goes all the way back to the time when I was courting my wife.  Edie and I just love those tunes, all those tunes that sound like that, the Buddy Johnson sound, Luis Russell and so on.

Q:    Did the Eckstine band come down to New Orleans, by the way?

AB:    Not when they had all the…I wasn’t going…

Q:    You were young.

AB:    Mmm-hmm.  But in addition to doing this, David Murray and I did a duet also that’s going to come out on the next Summit album for Soul Note.  And the second selection that you’re going to hear is called Recife, and Yolanda Robinson will be singing that one.  On both of these sides you’ll find Emile Vignet, a piano player from New Orleans, who I finally got a chance to do something with.  We called him Pianski.  He’s just a groove.  That’s what he does.  And Chris Severin, who was one of my first jazz-artist-in-residence students.  He was a student of another great tenor player who had an untimely death in New Orleans, Alvin Thomas.  He was in the program that ultimately became the forerunner of the school that Wynton Marsalis and Branford and Kent Jordan and Moses Hogan and them got a chance to go to.

Q:    Which was?

AB:    NOCCA, the New Orleans Center For The Creative Arts.  That’s where Ellis turned out all those fine students.  Then if you get a chance, I’d like you to play “Kheri Herbs.”  That’s very special.  They were the keepers of the nosus in ancient Egypt.  By the time they came to Greece, they were called the Therapeuti and the Alchemists in Europe.

[MUSIC:  Recife, Kheri Herbs]

Q:    We’ll conclude with Morocco performed by the original American Jazz Quintet, a very unique aggregation in NNew Orleans that was set up by Alvin Batiste, Ellis Marsalis, Ed Blackwell, Harold Battiste, and the bassists were either William Swanson or Richard Payne.

AB:    I think it’s probably Harold Battiste and probably Swanson.  Because I think he was the first guy with a bass guitar to come to New Orleans.  But I’ve got to hear it.  That particular tune is interesting, because what I am hearing now, I am hearing then.

Q:    By the way Ed Blackwell is recorded just beautifully on these sides from 1956.

AB:    Yeah, the mallets!  Ooh!

Q:    And you really get a sense that Blackwell had a mature style in the Fifties, and you get some sense of where he came from.

AB:    Right.

[ETC.]

[-30-]

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Filed under Alvin Batiste, Clarinet, Ed Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis, New Orleans, Ornette Coleman, Uncategorized, WKCR

An Interview with Kidd Jordan, July 2002

This interview with speculative improviser Kidd Jordan, best known internationally for his white-heat inventions on the tenor saxophone (and also the father of master musicians Kent Jordan [flute], Marlon Jordan [trumpet], and Stephanie Jordan [singer]) was taken for a short piece in DownBeat about him and drummer Alvin Fielder, his long-time friend and musical partner. Both interviews were published in their entirety in 2004 Cadence (the transcript of my conversation with Alvin will follow soon). The addendum at the bottom is the transcription of a separate conversation with Jordan for a commissioned Studio 360 piece on the nature of the avant-garde in the 21st century framed around that year’s edition of the Vision Fest.

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Kidd Jordan (7-08-02):

TP:    I’d like to get some basic facts and figures.  Were you born in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  I was born in Crowley, Louisiana.  That’s in southwest Louisiana.

TP:    In what year?

JORDAN:  1935.  I usually don’t tell people my age.  I played music in elementary school and high school, in regular school bands, marching bands, and then I went to Southern University in Baton Rouge.  I played there in the stage band and the dance band, which did all the dances in the area.  I started gigging around Baton Rouge.  A guy there named George Reed had a band, and all the cats who could play a little bit played in his band, a gig or two on Saturday night and Friday night.

TP:    What was your first instrument?

JORDAN:  C-melody saxophone, then alto saxophone.

TP:    Were you listening to records? Were you checking people out?

JORDAN:  In my early days, yeah, I checked out people. Illinois Jacquet was from Broussard, which is near my home town.  In fact, he used to come visit us riding a horse, because he was out… That was like the country, maybe 15 or 20 miles from where I was.

TP:    Can you tell me what kind of country it was where you grew up?  I gather one of your sidelines is raising thoroughbred horses.

JORDAN:  I’ve had horses since I was a kid.  My daddy used to deal with horses.  But it wasn’t thoroughbreds.  Some of them were quarterhorses, and they had little races.  But it wasn’t like what I’m doing now.

TP:    What is it like in that part of Louisiana?

JORDAN:  It’s closer to Texas than it is to New Orleans. That part of the country is where zydeco music comes from; Clifton Chenier is from that area. It’s strictly Zydeco and Blues from way around, and that’s what I came up listening to.

TP:    What did people do there for a living?

JORDAN:  During that time, it was the rice capital of the world.  They had about 15 rice fields when I was a kid.  Rice was a big thing; they’d have a big rice festival and so forth.  All that is dried up now.  But there were always musicians, with cats playing blues and also bands with cats playing horns.  When I was in high school, I was playing with some older men who had a band.  They played stock arrangements for three or four saxophones, and I would play with them at Christmas and Easter when they had some of their gigs.

TP:    If you were born in 1935, Charlie Parker was already well-established by the time you came of age.

JORDAN:  I heard Charlie Parker when I was in high school, after the fellows came back from the war — they were talking about Charlie Parker.  I was fascinated with it.  That was the new music.  I started listening to Bird and everything else I could.

TP:    In high school, did you have a band teacher who gave you enough tools to start breaking down what he was doing?

JORDAN:  No, I was playing by ear.  I could read music, but I was playing the licks I got from Bird by ear.  In the early Downbeats they would transcribe some of his solos, and I started reading some of them, and listening to the records.  I listened to Sonny Stitt also, and everybody else I could listen to.  But Illinois Jacquet is the cat who gave me the first idea of playing free when he was with Lionel Hampton.  The honking tenor players with Hamp.  That gave me an idea that music could be done another way. That was the first glimpse, the first conscious attempt I had of that.

But I played alto a long time, and then when I heard Ornette Coleman, I liked him better than anybody, so then I started sounding… Well, ordinarily by the way I was playing, I was into something else.  I was trying to sound like something else.  But when I heard Ornette, that convinced me that I wanted to go another direction.

TP:    When did you hear Ornette?

JORDAN:  I guess the first record Ornette made.

TP:    I know Ornette came through Louisiana for a quick minute.

JORDAN:  Yeah, Ornette was down here with Melvin Lastie.  But they would come through them towns in them blues bands.  Ornette used to play with Clarence Samuels, who was a blues singer, who died in May. He played with Clarence Samuels and Roy Brown and a lot of them blues singers around here, and they would be touring around here.  I wasn’t paying no attention to them.  I was just paying attention to the grooves.  I had developed by the time I heard him on record, and then I knew there was another way, and I liked that and started dealing with that.

TP:    So you were 23-24 when you heard those records.

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Well, Ornette’s first record was in ’58.  But you’re probably talking about “The Shape of Jazz To Come” or something like that.

JORDAN:  He made a record with a piano player.

TP:    With Walter Norris.

JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s the record.

TP:    That was on Contemporary.  It was recorded in ’58.

JORDAN:  All right.  This wasn’t  “The Shape of Things To Come.”  It was another one.  He played a standard tune on there, “Out of Nowhere.”  And the way he played that was practically all he ever did with what Bird and everybody else had been doing.

TP:    So by that time you’re 23…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I had finished college.  I could wail on my instrument.  I could play my horn then.

TP:    At Southern did you major in Music Education?

JORDAN:  Yeah, Music Education.

TP:    So you got your teaching thing and your pedagogy out of your education at Southern.

JORDAN:  Right.

TP:    You’re a little younger than Alvin Batiste.

JORDAN:  Right, about three years younger.

TP:    Were you at all linked up with him and some of the New Orleans modernists?

JORDAN:  We were in college together.  He was a year ahead of me.  In fact, we finished college together, because I caught up.  They had been in before me and were older me, but I caught up with them by going to summer school all the time.

TP:    So you were in a hurry.

JORDAN:  Well, I was just trying to play my instrument. I was just dealing with it.  Alvin and I were together in college, and we’ve been together all our life since the college days.  He’s my brother-in-law.  We married two sisters.  We’ve been in the deal all along!  But he was in a lot of jazz things.  I was playing rhythm-and-blues.

TP:    Was that just because there weren’t other types of gigs you could do?  Was it a practical matter?

JORDAN:  Well, it was a money-making issue,  but also I was trying to work on something else. I was trying to separate myself from all them tunes that they was doing, to arrive at something of my own and not just play what everybody else was doing. When I understood how “Cherokee” went, when I understood how “Giant Steps” and all them tunes went, it wasn’t interesting any more. I’m not a cat that just plays tunes.  I’m trying to get at me.  And I can’t get at me doing what everybody else is doing. Not that I’m trying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m trying to play my convictions and what I think about it.

TP:    So that’s just something that was innate, part of your personality.

JORDAN:  Exactly. You hit it right on the head.  I’m one of them that can’t tolerate a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.  Now, playing in them rhythm-and-blues bands, a lot of times I played baritone.  I didn’t have to learn the tunes; all I had to do was solo.  I still play baritone a lot in bands, for shows and so on.  Very seldom do I play tenor.  Every now and then I play alto.  But in the Rock-and-Roll bands they always needed a baritone player, somebody who could play the notes on the bottom.  I’d just hear what they were doing, and follow the bass player or whatever, so it went easily.  A lot of times, with everything going on and since the microphone isn’t put up to me, I could practice on my horn without being so noticeable

TP:    So you heard Ornette Coleman.  Were you ever at any point in the ’50s or early ’60s playing jazz?

JORDAN:  Well, see, when you say “jazz” around here… Yeah, we had little jazz bands out here, but they wasn’t makin’ no money.  I mean, we had bands where we’d play Charlie Parker’s music and our own music.  Every now and then we’d get a gig, but no steady gigs playing that. I learned the chart, but I was trying to solo in a different kind of way.  When I was college, they used to call me weird.  I was at a reunion the other day, and they said, “Man, in college, man, we didn’t understand what you were doing; we still don’t understand.”  I don’t have no problem with that.

TP:    As long as you understood it.

JORDAN:  I hope I understand it.  But my main thing is that I just wanted to be a good saxophone player.  And the majority of the cats who play jazz are not good saxophone players.  That’s the first thing.  I mean, technical-wise. I mean, they play jazz, but to play a saxophone the way I want to play it, I’ve got to practice and deal with it on another level.  I’ve played a lot of the classical repertoire. I’m trying to play the instrument correctly, and I’ve put a lot of time into doing that.

TP:    In other words, you can get a so-called “legitimate” sound… You can make the saxophone sound pretty much any way you want it to sound.

JORDAN:  Yeah, I’ve played solos with orchestras, with swing orchestras, and all of that.

TP:    Do you have a favorite among the saxophone family?  One you feel most at home with.

JORDAN:  Probably alto, but I don’t play it too much.  I’ve played the alto longer than I’ve played anything.  But I couldn’t express what I wanted to express on alto. I’ve played alto, soprano, sopranino… I used to practice all of them.  The whole gamut.

TP:    So given a certain set of circumstances, if you were in practice, you could express yourself on an orchestra of instruments like Roscoe Mitchell does.  Have you ever played all of your stuff on one particular set?

JORDAN:  No.

TP:    Who were some of the people you were playing jazz gigs with?  Was that always around Baton Rouge, or were you going back and forth to New Orleans in the ’50s.

JORDAN:  Oh, in Baton Rouge we’d be playing with Alvin Batiste and all the dudes that was in school.  And in New Orleans, anybody who was on the scene, like Johnny Fernandez, Alvin Batiste, and the drummer…who was that boy…Blackwell.  Blackwell used to practice with a trumpet player named Billy White. I’d go there almost every day and practice with them.  Then there was Eddie Williams, and a trumpet player named Samuel Alcorn.

TP:    He was Alvin Alcorn’s son?

JORDAN:  Yes.  Samuel died.  But he was a good trumpet player.

TP:    Did you know Nat Perrillat there?

JORDAN:  Yeah.  I used to play with Nat.  Nat used to play with us around there.

TP:    And Ellis Marsalis, too?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I mean, all the cats was on the scene.  But Alvin and Ellis and them had a regular, organized band together.  But when we’d go jam, I’d go play with everybody.  We had a band with Samuel Alcorn and Eddie Williams, a tenor player around here named James Rivers, an alto player named George Davis, who was also a fantastic guitar player.  George played in “Chorus Line” for about twenty years.

TP:    So you were going back and forth between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

JORDAN:  When I was in school. But I moved to New Orleans in 1955.

TP:    So you’ve been living in New Orleans since ’55.

JORDAN:  Since ’55, right.

TP:    When you say you did rhythm-and-blues gigs, does that mean the type of thing that became famous as New Orleans rhythm-and-blues, Dave Bartholomew and so on?

JORDAN:  I used to go out on the road with people like Guitar Slim and whoever needed somebody.  See, Ray Charles used to make bands up around here.  Big Maybelle.  Anybody who came to town. Sometimes they’d come to town by themselves, and then put a rhythm section together and get some horn players.  Big Joe Turner, anybody who needed a band.  I remember one time me and George Adams went out with somebody named Chuck Willis, who was a blues singer.  George was playing tenor and I was playing baritone.

TP:    The George Adams who played with Mingus.

JORDAN:  Yes.  George was a bad cat.  He was terrible.

There was a cat named Lloyd Lambert who had a good band. He used to back up different singers and what-have-you.  A dude named Choker Campbell out of Memphis or somewhere, would come through and need horn players.  Anybody who was on the scene and needed some horn players, some of us would go out with them and deal with them.

TP:    Were those gigs satisfying for you in any way?

JORDAN:  Yes, they were satisfying for me, because there was a feeling that you’d get from dealing with that.  I’ve played with some of the great female vocalists, from Gladys Knight to Aretha Franklin, or Big Maybelle, Little Esther, Lena Horne, and there’s an aesthetic in dealing with those people that a whole lot of people don’t get to.  And the aesthetic from the blues is a part of the thing that I want to have in my playing.  I don’t care how out it gets

TP:    Can you describe that aesthetic?

JORDAN:  You can’t describe an aesthetic.  I know when it’s there, and I can tell when a whole lot of… I’ll give you an idea. The difference between what the Rock, like what David Bowie and them were doing…what do they call those new Rockers?  Acid Rockers or whatever.  That music is devoid of that aesthetic; I mean, the aesthetic that’s supposed to go along with that music.  And if you don’t know, you don’t know.  But those who know, know.  And there’s a certain aesthetic that Trane, had, a certain aesthetic that Bird had, and it’s not what they’re doing, but the aesthetic part of it.  That’s missing in a lot of the music people do now.  So many people can’t feel the aesthetic and don’t know what it is, and when they hear it, they don’t know where it’s at.

TP:    So that aesthetic comes out of playing dance music…

JORDAN:  Not necessarily.  The aesthetic comes from listening to somebody and hearing somebody like Muddy Waters or Big Maybelle or Dinah Washington, as opposed to somebody who don’t have any feeling in what they’re talking about.  Like, when you go to a church and hear one of them Baptist preachers who really get out and say what he’s got to say.  It may not be grammatically correct, but I mean, there’s a feeling.

TP:    Was that part of your early experience, too, the church thing?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I went to all churches when I was young.  I went to Catholic church as well as Baptist church.  But there’s an aesthetic that I knew was coming from the Baptist church that wasn’t in the Catholic Church.  It’s the way Gregorian Chant sounds in relationship to somebody who is really doing one of them “Precious Lord” kinds of things.  When you hear Aretha Franklin do “Precious Lord” or Martin Luther King talking about he went to the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land, that’s the same kind of thing. I told a dude the other day who asked me about playing jazz, “go listen to Martin Luther King’s speech, and then come back and we can talk.”  If you have none of that, then there ain’t no sense in us talking about that.

TP:    So that’s the sound you’re looking to get on your saxophone or when you play yourself.

JORDAN:  To a certain extent.  But that’s the kind of aesthetic that I would like to get.  I don’t get it all the time.  Because when I’m really out, I’m trying to do it.

TP:    When did you start to try to take it out?  After you heard Ornette?

JORDAN:  Not really.  I always had that idea.  When I first heard Illinois Jacquet, that gave me the idea.  I started flirting with that.

TP:    Or Arnett Cobb later.  People like that.

JORDAN:  Yeah, all them Texas tenor players.  I mean, them honking tenors.  I could hear something in there that I could deal with on a conscious level, not just learning what they was doing. See, that’s why I couldn’t deal with solos that’s all dressed-up, like practicing solos and getting them down and what-have-you. I’ve got to come up with a feeling.  I’ve got to come at it like it’s new all the time.  I just can’t come up with something that I’m playing over and over.  If I practice like that, I might as well be practicing classical music.  I’ve played concertos and all of that, and I don’t play them no more.

TP:    What was the impact Ornette Coleman had on you when you heard those records?

JORDAN:  Well, I knew that it was somebody serious and the music was serious and it was going another way.  So that’s the main thing.  Like, right now, when I start listening to Ornette, and start feeling good and pick my alto up, sometimes… Maybe Ornette is the reason why I’m playing tenor, because I gravitate to not wanting to sound like that.  It feels good, though.  But there ain’t gonna NEVER be no more Ornettes.  You can forget that.  I hear some people playing like Ornette, but Jack, they will never play like that.

TP:    Why is that?

JORDAN:  [LAUGHS] Because he has a way of playing!  That’s another thing.  You can copy somebody note-for-note, and can be so far off as far as the phrases and aesthetics are concerned, it’s not even funny.  So deep down with him… To me, he plays like Bird.  But it’s so amazing that he can play all that Bird stuff, and when you hear him play… Ornette told me one time, that’s the difference between a player and somebody who can improvise.  Players learn whatever anybody plays.  But you can give improvisers three notes and they’ll come up with something.  And if you’re really serious about improvising, you’ll improvise on the material you get to deal with.  That’s why I don’t deal with a whole lot of tunes no more.  I just want to get out and play on what I hear. If I hear something to play, I play it.  In fact, I’m at the mercy of the rhythm section or the people I’m dealing with.  If they give me something to play on, then I can play.  And if they don’t give me nothin’ to play on, then I’ll just try to hear what the drums are doing and play off the drums — or play off anything.  Other than just playing something for the sake of playing it.

TP:    So you need a dialogue.

JORDAN:  That’s the way.  When people play bebop, they dialogue.  They play off of changes.  So when I’m dealing with somebody else, I’ve got to play off of what they’re giving me to play off of.  Then you’ve got to react to that very quick.  If they go into the different keys or timbres or whatever they do, you’ve got to react to it.

TP:    So you’re in New Orleans from ’55 and going out with these bands and making some money, but then at a certain point you start teaching.

JORDAN:  I always taught.  I’d go out on the weekends and in the summertime.  But there was a whole lot of rhythm-and-blues records, a whole lot of rock-and-roll being made, and when the first line cats who was in the studio would get tired, we’d do it at night sometimes and on the weekends.

TP:    So if Lee Allen or Red Tyler were tired, you’d go in the studio.

JORDAN:  Right.  A lot of us would make some of that stuff.  And I was with one of them little hot bands down there that they called the Hawkettes, that went into the Neville Brothers.  So we always had some good grooves.  Idris Muhammad was the drummer in that band with us, and a drummer around here named Smokey Johnson.  John Boudreaux was the drummer before Idris, and he was a helluva drummer.  We always had good drummers in the Hawkettes Band.

TP:    Where were you teaching?

JORDAN:  I was teaching in a town called Norco, about 20 miles out of New Orleans in St. Charles Parish, at Bethune High School.  And then I came to Southern University in New Orleans.  I taught out there for maybe eight or nine years, and I’ve been at Southern now for 25 or 30 years, something like that.  I don’t know how long.

TP:    I’d like to talk about the relationship you developed with Alvin Fielder. The story I think you told me once is that Billy Higgins and Clifford Jordan were in town and played with you, and Clifford told Alvin he should go down and meet you because you were just about to burst with frustration.

JORDAN:  Well, at the time I wasn’t playing with nobody.  I was playing with myself. I was dealing with a lot of students, and they hadn’t gotten to the point where we could play together.  I mean, there were people I could play with, but I was into what I was doing. I was making gigs, playing dance music, playing whatever somebody had to play, but I wasn’t playing what I play with no bands. They wasn’t playing what I was playing.  They wasn’t playing free music.

TP:    It’s the difference between doing a gig and being a creative musician.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  There was no creative outlet for me.  I was playing by myself, and I was just starting with my students, so they weren’t to the point where I could get them together to play it.

TP:    How did you keep your inner strength to keep developing on your own?

JORDAN:  I’ll tell you, I could stop and play concertos.  I played every concerto there is on the saxophone.  People think that I have to play jazz.  But sometimes I play classical music, and I can go in and play clarinet and flute and stuff.  My main thing is to play music. It doesn’t have to be jazz.  It never was like that.  I was playing a long time before I heard any jazz that I really liked.  When I was in junior high school, I wouldn’t listen to no jazz.  I heard jazz later on.  But I was trying to be a musician, and trying to be a musician is one thing, and playing jazz is another.  I’ve had a lot of difficulties with jazz musicians, because a lot of them can play jazz, but they don’t play their instrument very well. And I always would try to play my instrument as well as people in symphonies can do.  I mean, being able to do on my instrument what any of those can do. If you get that frame of mind, you can practice on fundamental stuff.  I was practicing on fundamental things today, like tonguing and scales and all of that.  In fact, I believe you’re no better than your fundamentals. Trane was practicing fundamentals when he died.

I’m one of them that don’t care one way or the other.  I don’t care if somebody likes the way I play, if they like it or don’t like it. You still be playing what you got to be playing. If somebody listens or nobody listens, I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. A lot of cats used to say, “Man, you ain’t never gonna hear Kidd play until you go to his house,” and when I’m really screaming and really playing, they say, “Man, don’t you do that on a gig?”  Because I don’t want to.  I play in my house. A lot of times I just play in my house, and think, “Man, if I was on the stage, they would really dig this,” and a lot of times it don’t ever come on the stage.  I mean, that’s just the way it is.

TP:    That’s just you.

JORDAN:  It will always be me.  I’m going to meet it on my terms.  If it’s not on my terms, then I’m not going to deal with it.  If I would never play another note, I could go out to the barn in the morning and feel just as good with the horses, dealing with them.

TP:    But still, Billy Higgins and Cliford Jordan were telling Alvin Fielder that he’d better go down and see you because you were so frustrated.

JORDAN:  Right.  When I was playing with Billy he found out I was frustrated. He told Alvin and Clifford Jordan and all of them, and Alvin came down and found me, and immediately we hooked up and started dealing.  That’s probably one of the best things that happened to me.

TP:    Why are you and Alvin so simpatico?

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  We’ve been playing so long, it looks like we can almost read one another’s minds.  I can anticipate some things; he can anticipate what I play.  We lock in.

TP:    You both have a scientific attitude towards your instrument.  He speaks about the drums in the same manner, like compiling almost an inner rolodex of rhythms and patterns that he might access at any particular time.

JORDAN:  Mmm-hmm.  And I’ll react to the patterns.  Whatever he lays down, then I’m going to react to it. He can collect them all and then lay them down, and then I’ll play over them.

TP:    So you meet around ’73.

JORDAN:  I’m not good with dates.  I can’t remember nothing about dates.

TP:    And you were teaching all this time.  Did you develop a particular pedagogy that’s yours, that’s individual to you?

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got some things that I run my students through. We used to have bands, big bands that were completely free, and they would be writing some stuff.  Some of my older students now, we can get on a bandstand and just start playing.  Elton Heron still plays with me.  He’s one of the bass players that I use — an electric bass player.  Every time William Parker comes down, I use Elton and William together, and they work very well together. Some of those students I can call on right now.  We can play a gig in the morning, and won’t even have to say a word.  Back then, they were all playing free, writing songs and so on.  But after the music went conservative, then we started playing big band charts.  I teach them anything they want to deal with.  I don’t tell nobody how they got to play.  If they want to play Dixieland, we can get together a Dixieland group.  Whatever they want to do. All I want to do is teach them.  But when we start playing creative music, some of them latch onto it and start writing tunes and doing all kinds of stuff. We had some things that we’d go through every day, and right now I’ve got some students going through this.

TP:    What sort of things do you go through every day?

JORDAN:  It’s the system of what we do. I mean, hearing things. If you talk about being a jazz musician, the number-one thing you need is to be able to hear.  Not playing the same tunes every day, but setting up different sounds, hearing them and playing off of them. Setting up different scales and making scales up.  Setting up different timbres and playing off of them.  Hear the sound of that.  With guitars and pianos and synthesizers, you can get all kinds of sounds.  I’m playing with the strings of a piano now; no keyboard at all, just the strings of a piano.  They just run some metal objects over it like a hawk.  I’ve got a band where we use that, and I’m crazy about that instrument. We can do fantastic things.  I’m definitely dealing with that now.

TP:    How isolated were you, exactly, in the ’60s and ’70s?  Were you in touch with other similar-minded musicians?

JORDAN:  I was in touch with everybody in the city.  I was playing with different cats with the entertaining music.  But when I did what I was dealing with, I was doing it myself.

TP:    Where that question is leading: In ’76, you put together the first World Sax Quartet concert.  I’m presuming you knew those guys.

JORDAN:  Well, I was in New York for about two months during the summer that year, which was the year of the Bicentennial. I was going to Ornette’s house every day and playing in the loft.  Ornette was getting the electric band together. They was coming in there from Philadelphia, the bass player [Jamaladeen Tacuma], and I was playing in the lofts with them, and with David Murray and Hamiet Bluiett and others where David stayed at, over the Tin Palace.  I was playing every day with them.

TP:    So at the end of the 1975-76 school year you visited Ornette, spent the summer, and then organized that concert in the Fall?

JORDAN:  Actually, it was the last day of the semester.  School was out in December.  Because that was the only thing going on in the school, and I got that together.

TP:    Were you in touch with what the AACM was doing in the ’60s and early ’70s?

JORDAN:  Yeah, I was in touch with them, but they wouldn’t let me join, because I wasn’t in Chicago.  Muhal told me I had to be in Chicago to join. [LAUGHS]

TP:    Who did you know who was involved in that in the ’60s?

JORDAN:  I knew Muhal. I knew a lot of cats around Chicago. I was trying to catch Fred Anderson and Billy Brimfield, but I could never deal with them.  I knew the drummer, the cat who was in Air — Steve McCall.  One time I was in Chicago, and Steve was trying to get Muhal to let me play, and Muhal said, “Man, anybody who comes from the country can’t play this kind of music.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me play.  I always tell him about that.  But they had so many cats on the stand, I could understand why.

TP:    You knew them from your travels in bands?

JORDAN:  Yes.  I’d go into Chicago every now and then.

TP:    So you’d go with bands that weren’t just local in the South, but traveled around the country.

JORDAN:  In the summertime or Christmastime, I’d travel with anybody.

TP:    So you’d travel the country with these bands, and that’s how you met musicians everywhere, like a lot of people have.

JORDAN:  I met a lot of them in bands.  But every now and then, I’d go to Chicago or New York or somewhere where somebody was doing something.  Very seldom on the West Coast.

TP:     Describe the evolution of your band with Alvin Fielder.

JORDAN:  We used to write tunes.  I had a lot of tunes I used to write.  We had three horns on the front line at one time.  I was playing alto, we had a guy named Alvin Thomas playing tenor, and Clyde Kerr was playing trumpet.  So we used to write tunes: we’d play a head, and then we’d play off the head.  Then after a while, Alvin said, “Man, let’s stop.  We ain’t gonna play no more tunes.  We’re just gonna go on the bandstand and start playing.”  That’s stopped me from writing tunes. Every now and then, we play some of the old tunes that we’ve produced.  But the majority of the time, we just go out and hit.  Whatever comes, comes.

TP:    Do you think there’s something in the music that you and Alvin and the people who play with you make that’s distinct from people who are playing out music in other parts of the country or the world?  Is there a distinctive sound or approach that other people aren’t doing?

JORDAN:  I don’t believe so.

TP:    When did you start going to Europe?  When did the European audience and musicians start to embrace you?

JORDAN:  Alvin Fielder would probably know better.  The first trip we did was the Moers Festival.  I don’t remember the year. It was over 20 years ago.

TP:    How is it for you playing with the European musicians?

JORDAN:  Well, I react to whatever anybody does.  You stand there and deal with it.  You don’t want to be a drag.  But that’s my thing;I adapt to what people are doing.  I just fall in line.  Their aesthetic thing isn’ t there on a lot of it, but I can do what I do and feel good about it, and don’t be bitching about it.

TP:    Is there anyone you particularly like playing with there, like Peter Kowald or…

JORDAN:  Yeah, I like to play with Peter.  I like to play with Louis Moholo on drums.  I like to play with an electric bass player there named Frank Wollen(?).  When I go to France, Sunny Murray and the piano player Bobby Few are there, and Alan Silva is around a lot. If I’m in Germany, I can always find good musicians.  There’s a piano player named Fred Van Hove who’s good, and Schlippenbach is good.  Basically, it’s just a different thing to me.  I don’t worry about it.

TP:    So there’s a community around the world of people you can function with.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    Most of those people are older musicians.  Not so many of them are younger.  Why do you think that is?

JORDAN:  Because the young cats, they started looking back.  They started playing bebop again and traditional music.

TP:    Why do you think they did that?

JORDAN:  I don’t have the slightest idea.

TP:    Well, you’re a teacher.  You know some of these musicians well.  Some of them are really good musicians, too.

JORDAN:  That’s right.  I don’t know.  My thing is that people have to play what they feel comfortable in playing.  I think they feel comfortable with that.  And probably a lot of musicians now are playing music to make a living, and you can’t make a living playing the kind of music that we play, so I guess they choose to play music that they can probably make a living from.  I’ve always been a schoolteacher, so I didn’t have to make a living playing music.  That’s why I play like I play.

TP:    Well, it seems to me that most of the people born after 1955 didn’t come up living bebop, and felt that if they didn’t learn it they were missing something.  They didn’t have Charlie Parker right there, didn’t have Illinois Jacquet right there, didn’t have the rhythm-and-blues right there.  It wasn’t part of their life, and they felt they were missing something, and they had to go back and learn it.  I think they felt they’d be incomplete musicians if they didn’t do it.

JORDAN:  I’ve got a thing in my case now where Charlie Parker is saying he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  They’ve got that in one of them old Downbeats.  I’ve got it in my case now.

TP:    That may be, but he learned every one of Lester Young’s solos at 16 and 17.  He took them apart and learned them all and played in those bands.

JORDAN:  Well, I’ve got my doubts about that.  People say that.

TP:    He said it.

JORDAN:  Well, he said he wasn’t a child of the Swing Era.  I’ve got that in a Downbeat right now.

TP:    I don’t think the two statements are mutually contradictory.  But everybody comes out of a time and a place. Everybody starts from a first principle.

JORDAN:  I don’t know.  Bird could have did that without going through Lester.

TP:    Maybe so.

JORDAN:  Ain’t no maybe about that.  Bird had stuff that ain’t nobody else had!  Number one, Bird could outplay everybody on the saxophone.  That’s the first thing.  Lester couldn’t play the saxophone like Bird played.  This is another thing that I firmly believe.  Technique determines how you’re going to play.  Lester played a certain way because he had a certain technique.  But Bird couldn’t play like Lester, because Bird’s technique dictated that he had to play another way.  See, once you start dealing with the instruments… This is why, when you keep on shedding, if you’ve got a concept, it’s going to have to evolve, because the more technique you get on your instrument, the more you can do, the more you’re going to stretch it to another end.  If what you’re saying about going back and learning was the case, we’d have to go back to Scott Joplin and all of them old Dixieland players.  You’d have to go learn all of that.  See, this is why I deal in principles.  Once you understand how something goes, you don’t have to worry about it.  If you want to do it, you can do it.  But if you don’t understand the principle, then you’ve got a problem.  See, once you learn “Cherokee,” “I Got Rhythm” and the Blues, you can play anything.  There ain’t nothing in none of them repertoires that’s different.  The only different thing was Coltrane’s “Giant Steps.”  After that, you could play all night and all day, and just play on “I Got Rhythm” and the blues and “Cherokee.”

One of the things that turned me off with bebop is it’s so repetitive.  Cats didn’t play but three or four different phrases — after you sit down and listen to it.  Sometimes I hear people play all night and all day, and they’ve played only ten different phrases.  They keep playing the same the same thing in a different place in a different time.  I’ve got to do something else.  And if I do something repetitive, it ain’t because I’m putting it in the same spot. It’s that I’m hearing something at a certain time, and it’s coming out. It ain’t like just taking this phrase and turning it around and doing this or doing that.

A lot of people don’t sit down and analyze.  I can sit down and listen to a whole lot of people’s playing, and it sounds good to a certain extent.  But it’s just like eating red beans and rice or gumbo.  They got some GOOD gumbo down here.  But I can’t eat gumbo every day.  I’m sorry.  I can’t eat red beans and rice every day.  I’ve got to have something different.

TP:    How are the students you have now?

JORDAN:  Not too good.

TP:    In what sense?

JORDAN:  Well, they’re not really trying to be good musicians.  Some of them are dealing with Pop music, some of them are dealing with Rap music, some of them are dealing with jazz.  I mean, they’ve got little studios that they’re dealing with, hooking up electronic stuff.  And they’re basically trying to do the kind of music that’s currently popular.  I wouldn’t want to tie them down with nothin’ that I’m doing, because I mean, they’ll never make a living doing this. All I can do is give somebody the fundamentals and techniques in order that hopefully they can continue to thrive and do what they want to do.

TP:    What do you teach, by the way?

JORDAN:  I teach Band, Saxophone, Ear Training and Music Appreciation.

TP:    What’s your title?  Are you head of the department?

JORDAN:  Associate Professor of Music at Southern University in New Orleans.

TP:    Is there an educational philosophy that differentiates Southern from other institutions?

JORDAN:  We just try to give the students what we think they can do.  Well, Alvin Batiste has a Jazz Institute at his place in Baton Rouge. He’s at the main campus of Southern University and I’m at a branch in New Orleans.  I don’t have a Jazz Institute.  Mine is music education. I teach jazz bands, but at my school they don’t get credit for jazz. They just do it because they want to. They get credit in Alvin’s Institute.

TP:    So basically, you’re now able to take your horn around the world and play with different people by having stuck it out as a schoolteacher.  Otherwise you wouldn’t have been able to sustain yourself and your family.

JORDAN:  Exactly.

TP:    You have two sons, Kent and Marlon, who are strong players. Were you very proactive in their education?

JORDAN:  No.  I got them good music teachers, and they started playing.  Both of them, truthfully, could be symphonic players now as well as play jazz. My thing is to be the best instrumentalist you can, and then do whatever you want. They saw me playing classical music all my life, and jazz, and playing with concert bands, and playing solos with orchestras and bands.  I just wanted them to be musicians.  And when you’re a musician, you can play a whole lot of stuff.  I’ve played a lot of Broadway shows.  I’ve played every Broadway show that came through town.

TP:    You played all the pits.

JORDAN:   Yeah, all the pits. And I played at the Fairmont, in a band over there.  The contractor is a dude named Herb Tassin.  I’ve been playing with him for about 25 years.  He gets every big show that comes to town

TP:    You’re still doing that?

JORDAN:  We do it, but not as much as we used to.  Herb Tassin was the main contractor in New Orleans, and I’ve been playing with him for thirty years on shows and whatever.

TP:    Were you involved in NOCCA?

JORDAN:  In the early days I used to teach some kids saxophone. But I don’t have time for that now.

TP:    Is that when you instructed Donald Harrison and Branford Marsalis?

JORDAN:  When I had them, NOCCA wasn’t even started.  Ellis was out on the road with Al Hirt. I just had workshops in school, and young kids would come around and play in the band, and I’d deal with them, and then they would play with the college students. But I was giving Donald and Branford private lessons when they were young kids, in junior high school and high school.  My son Kent was in the first class at NOCCA.

TP:    In a previous conversation we had, I was expecting you to agree with me about the benefits of the street music that people can do in New Orleans, and you stated that isn’t the case.

JORDAN:  Well, you get a good groove out of doing that, but you can be doing it all your life. After a groove there’s some other things supposed to happen.  I mean, you don’t live and die with grooves.  For instance, I like the groove Max Roach plays, but shouldn’t I love Elvin Jones’ groove also?  If you can understand what I’m saying.  It’s good to get a feeling like that, but I mean, I’ve seen some kids live and die with that same thing.  Some of them are 35 years old and they’re playing like they did were when they were 15 in the street.

TP:    Do you see some kids who were on the street who went on to do something else?

JORDAN:  Some of them go on to do something else. I guess it’s a personal thing.  After you learn about a groove and see where it’s at, then maybe you’re supposed to develop it and bring it somewhere else.  There’s a groove they call “Two-Way Pockaway.”  I figure I’ve been hearing Two-Way Pockaway all my life.  There ain’t too much you can do with that.  Or that groove that Professor Longhair and them played.  I played with Fess.  I would be a damn fool to be playing that same groove now! [LAUGHS] I loved Fess, don’t get me wrong. But man.  Shit.

TP:    Well, there are a lot of young musicians who would kill just to be able to get that groove.  It’s a fact.

JORDAN:  Well, they just don’t know.  They’ve got to try to listen to what somebody else is doing.

TP:    How many horses do you have?

JORDAN:  Between me and my nephews, we have 10 or 12.  We have about 7 of them running.

TP:    Do you raise these horses?

JORDAN:  No, we buy them.  We go to Kentucky and buy some as 2-year-olds, or maybe a yearling, and then we put them in training to run them. We’ve also got some Louisiana Reds.   We don’t have them raised in here at all.  I’m thinking about raising one for my grandson.

TP:    Any horses that have done well?

JORDAN:  Oh, yeah.  They’ve won some races.  We win races all the time.

TP:    What are the names of the horses that win the races?

JORDAN:  Dirty Red is a very good horse.  That’s one of them catchalls! [LAUGHS] We’ve got so many nicknames.  We had one name, Redbone.  That’s Dirty Red’s little brother.  We’ve got one named Mississippi Sound.  Got one, a young horse, we’re going to call him Kidd Stuff.  He’s never ran.  He hasn’t been tested yet.  So he’s going out at Kidd Stuff.

TP:    Are there any parallels between training horses and being a musician?

JORDAN:  Horse racing is like improvising.  You don’t ever know what they’re going to do. I go look at a horse race and see more improvisation than when I hear somebody play. When you bring the horses out there to the racetrack, they can be prepared, they can be the best out there, and depending on how the jockey gets them out of the gate, what the jockeys do, depending on how they feel, all of those… You say they’re going to do what they did the last time, and they do something altogether different.  So that’s some serious improvisation!  [LAUGHS] You see? Because sometimes when I hear people play, they play the same shit all the time. They don’t improvise.  They’ll be playing everything they know.

TP:    They play patterns and whatnot.

JORDAN:  Exactly.  I mean, they’ve got everything down.  They’re not improvising.

TP:    Well, there are some people who play bebop who sound pretty free with it.

JORDAN:  I’m not talking about bebop.  I’m talking about music, any kind of music.  They’ve got everything down that they’re playing.  Which is good, in a way.  I don’t have no problem with that.  But I want it to be just like when I go to a race, where you don’t know what’s going to happen.  How they’re going to get out, how they’re going to get in the stretch…It’s just improvising.

TP:    What happens when you’re not feeling the spirit?  Do you have cliches?  Do you repeat yourself ever?

JORDAN:  I always feel the spirit.  Yeah, I repeat myself if something comes to me.  I mean, there are some things that you will play, sometimes consciously or sometimes subconsciously.  But you don’t try to do it.  And there are certain stimuli.  I mean, you react to certain things the same way.  But you don’t do it as a conscious thing.  It’s subconscious.  Because you’re trying to hear.

TP:    But it’s always with the intent of trying to play something new.

JORDAN:  Going for broke, that’s what I call it. Always trying to do something off the top of your head. That’s the definition of improvisation. Taking it off the top of your head and trying to do what you do, and listen to what somebody’s doing and react to it.

TP:    How long does it take a student to get to the point where they can do that and not be bullshitting?

JORDAN:  I don’t know about that.  You’ve got to develop an ear to do that.  See, the majority of the people who play have learned by some hook or crook, but they don’t have a certain ear to develop in order to deal with that.

TP:    Can anybody improvise?

JORDAN:  I think anybody can improvise, myself. It ain’t gonna sound like what you want to sound like, but you can improvise.  You know, Beethoven improvised. And I’m sure Bach was a helluva improviser.  And Mozart.  They improvised, but it was just a different way.  They didn’t have the snap in it, and it was a different kind of groove, but it was improvised.  I had a little girl in a class one time.  You know the little pre-school instruments?  Man, I turned her loose; she played some stuff that was frightening.  I never will forget that.  Donald Harrison used to play some frightening stuff when he didn’t know what he was doing.  Sometimes, when they learn what they’re doing, it gets so sophisticated, it don’t come out.  It’s another thing.  I want mine to always be like it’s on the edge! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Is there more of a local audience for you now in New Orleans?

JORDAN:  Oh yeah.  Every time I play, they got cats coming out.

TP:    When did that start happening?

JORDAN:  Over the years it started building up.

TP:    Do you have disciples in New Orleans?  Are younger players coming up under you?

JORDAN:  We’ve got a few cats around here who can play. Some of them are playing rhythm-and-blues.  There’s a saxophone player here named Gary Brown that I put a saxophone in his hand about 35 or 40 years ago.  He’s playing in a club on Bourbon Street.  He’s one of the baddest saxophone players I know.  You can catch him at a club now, probably walking the bar, but Jack, look, sit down and let him open up on you and see what happens. [LAUGHS] Fred Anderson couldn’t believe his ears when he heard Gary play!  Lord have mercy, that boy can play.  I’m serious.  He’s terrible!

[-30-]

[7:34] TP:  Let’s just cut right to the chase since that’s what you do in a musical situation. What does the word “avant-garde” mean to you, first of all?

KIDD JORDAN:  I don’t usually like that word, “avant-garde.”  I usually talk about “creative music.”  Instead of saying avant-garde, I’d rather say “creative music.”  You’re creating the music on the spot like we did tonight.  I didn’t have any idea what’s going on, but you take all your skills and listening and practicing and developing it, and then listen to what people do and play on it.  I’ve heard some avant-garde people who play music that they just make a lot of noise.  I mean, they play a lot of stuff, but it’s not like music.  This music is a continuation of playing changes. And I played changes for a long time, and used to study changes, and now we study timbres and sounds that people make from the drums to the bass.  Like, tonight I was conscious of the tones that he was playing on the bass and I was conscious of the things that William set up, and when he [Milford] started singing I was conscious of the key that he was dealing with and conscious of the mood that he was dealing with.  So you’ve got to listen sometimes a little bit more carefully in this kind of music than when you’re playing music with changes.  Because when I used to play music with changes, I knew where they were, and a lot of times I’d practice a lot of the things, and they’d fall right where they were supposed to fall.  But with this music, you don’t know what’s coming.  So you’ve got to use your ear and deal with it, so you’ve got to create instead of “avant-garde.” I’d rather think about creative music, music of the time.

TP:    What do you think the term “avant-garde” means?

[9:18] JORDAN:  Well, the term “avant garde” started out years ago.  It started as a military term, the advance party.  The people who went before and covered the beaches…or the Marines were avant-garde, so they could get everything out of the way so the other people could come.  And it developed through every… In every age somebody has been avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde in the Classical period. Everybody who was doing something different, they say they were avant-garde.  Each musical period, from the Renaissance we could somebody like…one of them church composers… Palestrini was avant-garde.  Beethoven was avant-garde.  In all those periods, you had somebody who was doing something different, and they put that “avant-garde,” being advanced, being an advance party.  It was a little bit more advanced in what they were doing than the other people.

TP:    Do you think that would apply to the area of music that you purvey?

[10:14] JORDAN:  Yeah, you can say it applies to it.  But I just don’t like… The reason why I don’t like “avant-garde”… See, I’ve been around a long time.  When this music first started here in New York, people would get up and just do anything, play any kind of stuff.  “We’re avant-garde.”  And that kind of turned me around.  And I prefer to think… The term “avant-garde” is cool, but for it to apply to music… Music is so close to my heart, I don’t want to apply anything to music I think that doesn’t really fit it.

TP:    Do you think that the concept of the “avant-garde” is something that means something at this time, not just in music, but all cultural forms?

[10:56] JORDAN:  Yeah.  It means something. It just means people that’s on the cutting edge, people that’s a little more advanced.  And they apply the term to the things… Because the people in… The warmongers, they’re avant-garde.  Look at all them sophisticated missiles and things.  I read the other day where they tested a plane that made its rounds, and it can go in and do much more damage than the old planes.  I don’t know what they call them.

TP:    They call them drones.  They used them in Afghanistan already, unmanned planes.

JORDAN:  But they got something a little more sophisticated.  They made the test run last week.  They said it was more sophisticated than what they did in Afghanistan.  So still, we can use that term in any situation.

TP:    A lot of people in the ’60s identified the term “avant-garde” with a political attitude or an attitude toward the social order of the world.  Is that operative for you?

[11:52] JORDAN:  Yeah, that’s operative for me.  Because always people had to do things to open… You know, I lived in the South, and I’ve been through almost apartheid down there.  Some people don’t know, and they’re beginning to know.  But I went through a whole lot.  And if it wasn’t for the political activists, things wouldn’t have changed as soon as they’ve changed.  So it’s relative as far as society is concerned and everything else.

TP:    So do you feel that the way your expression evolved, from someone conversant with changes and the tradition and the continuum of the music to playing with no preconception at all has anything to do with that, or is it more of an organic development of the way you came to hear things.

[12:37] JORDAN:  It’s more of an organic way that I came to hear things.  I’ve always wanted to express.  And you know, by my playing all kinds of music… I’ve played rhythm-and-blues, rock-and-roll, bebop, and with all of those, I couldn’t express myself.  I was looking for an expression, and I found out that this as the best way for me to express myself.  Because when I was playing those other kinds of music, I was trying to play like other people, I was trying to play other people’s expression and trying to sound like somebody, and then I wasn’t sounding… I could sound like other people who were very famous, but I wouldn’t feel good about it.  I’d have to practice to do it.  But now I practice over my ear.  I practice things to hear, and when I get to a situation where if somebody presents something, then I’ll be able to hear it on the spot.  Like tonight, somebody talked about Albert Ayler.  I wasn’t thinking about it.  I hadn’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I started playing that kind of expression that Albert would play.  Not trying to… I haven’t thought about Albert in a long time.  But I’ve heard the music, but I’ve been through it… But I expressed me through the way Albert sounded — for a minute.  And God knows, there will never be another Albert.  And this is why you’ve got to try to express yourself.  Because if you’re trying to express somebody else and somebody who really did it… I mean, there’s a lot of people out there that think they sound like Charlie Parker.  But I heard Charlie Parker.  And once you’ve heard somebody and you know how they sound, you know nobody else… See, Sonny Stitt didn’t sound like Charlie Parker.  So… [LAUGHS] That’s something that people have…musicians have to come to grips with.  And some people don’t ever play their expression.  They’re always playing somebody else’s expression or trying to sound like somebody.  You never will get to your soul if you;’re trying to find somebody else’s soul.

TP:    Do you think the ability of being able to express your soul through music and being able to come to that is in itself being ahead of the curve, what might be referred to as avant-garde?

[14:44] JORDAN:  Well, I’d have to agree with you on that.  But it’s a term… It’s something that you have to work on, and it’s something you have to take a lot of abuse with.  Because I’ve been abused with this music.  People say “shut up, so-and-so-and-so.”  The thing about it is that people don’t understand what you’re working for, what you’re working towards.  And they base what you do on their expression of what they’re trying to do.  And they don’t know that if you’re working on something, sooner or later you may hit it — but you may never hit it.  And when you hit it, you feel good about it, but you’re still reaching for something else.

TP:    Can someone attain that level of expression dealing with the continuum, and not something akin to what we just heard you and William Parker and Milford Graves do?

[15:33] JORDAN:  Well, it comes out of the continuum.  See, once you understand the continuum… And we were swinging, we could swing, we could do all of this, and when he started playing, I would jump on it.  The continuum is listening and playing.

TP:    So it’s dialogue.

[15:46] JORDAN:  That’s right.  It’s dialogue.  Listening and playing.  And it comes out of a development.  But, now, if you don’t practice that development, you’ve got a problem.  Like, for instance, the day before yesterday, I was waiting on some kids to come to school, and I was in the band-room just practicing, and they said, “Man, that doesn’t make sense; what’chu doin’?”  Well, people who know me said, “Man, you know,” and they was listening… Then finally, it all came together, and they said, “Oh, man, I hear where that’s coming from; I hear the scale and I hear this and I hear…” I said, “Oh, I’m glad you hear that, because this is what I’ve been setting up.”  And I was wishing I could hear that tonight.  But what they played tonight didn’t suggest that.  But one of these days, somebody will suggest what I was dealing with the other day.  Not directly, but the sound, the timbre, all of that will fall together, and it will mean something.  It’s like stored in a computer.  And you start recalling the sound.  When somebody gives something, then you jump onto it, and add something to it, and take it and take it and stretch it on out.

TP:    Are there aspects of the vernacular culture of New Orleans, which I’m presuming you played when you were young, that contain the seeds of avant-garde music within them?

[16:58] JORDAN:  No.  I have to say no.  Because the majority of the people around New Orleans are content with playing… New Orleans is a town where people come to be entertained.  And you’ve got to play entertaining music. This is one reason why I say New Orleans is good in a way and it’s bad in a way.  It’s good because the kids play a lot of music.  You hear music in the streets.  You hear music everywhere.  But now… When we were coming up… I talk for the generation of Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis.  When we were coming up, we didn’t play the traditional music.  We were playing bebop.  And then rock-and-roll came on the scene.  Well, we were playing rhythm-and-blues.  Rhythm-and-blues is the basis for everything.  But in the middle of rhythm-and-blues, here comes rock-and-roll.  But we were playing bebop at the time.  You know, the learning stages.  They were more advanced than I.  I was a couple of years younger than them.  But I was following them, I was hanging, trying to learn how to play bebop.  So here comes Rock-and-Roll out of rhythm-and-blues.  Now the kids in New Orleans, they don’t play bebop.  They’ll play some fusion music or they’ll play traditional music.  And they’ve got a lot of little Dixieland bands (we call it Dixieland) playing fusion, Dixie and what-have-you, but they’re not really trying to stretch.  New Orleans hasn’t been a town that encouraged people to step out.  Because I took a lot of abuse, people would look at me and say, “Oh, man, what you doin’?  You ought to stop.”  But they didn’t have an idea of what I was working on.  And it took a time for it to develop, because for a while I was just around there playing with myself.  And Clifford Jordan came to town, he and Billy Higgins, maybe about 35 years ago, and told Alvin Fielder (Alvin was playing in Mississippi; he’d just come down from Chicago), “Go down and play with Kidd, man, because Kidd’s about to lose his mind.  Ain’t nobody down there playing with him.” [LAUGHS] They came to town, they came to give a concert at the school, and we jammed in the band room all day long! [LAUGHS] I was hungry to play.  So it isn’t a town that encourages that.  But because of people playing music to entertain people.

TP:    Well, the reason I asked is because there are some people who cite the polyphonic aspects of the older music, and the marching band music, and particularly the rhythmic aspects of second-line beats as seeds for what people then did that might be construed as avant-garde.  I wondered what your perspective was on that?

[19:37] JORDAN:  Well, the music was hipper.  The old men who did it, some of the older men had a hip conception of what they did.  But the youngsters came back, and they didn’t develop that.  They went backwards instead of coming… Because some of them things they did in them second-line things… I remember old man Paul Barbarin… I mean, nobody…none of them youngsters could do it like that.  And some of them beats they had, I mean, they REALLY were hip.  But the youngsters behind them, some of them wasn’t good musicians; they only wanted to go out on the streets and play music and go out in the Quarter and have people throw money at them and go hustle with it.  It wasn’t a real thing of them really studying the music.  They were using it as a hustle.  And the study aspect of the thing got lost in it.

[20:29] They talk about the Young Lions.  When John Fernandez, he taught at Xavier, and Alvin Batiste and myself, when we started teaching around there and really putting the stick on some of them fellas, then this is where the young lions started coming from.  The age of Wynton Marsalis and Branford, and Donald [Harrison] and [Nicholas] Payton and all of them, I mean, we put another vibe on them, you know, that they had to learn their instruments well.  I have two sons… My son, Kent, Wynton and them used to come listen to Kent practice.  He’s a little bit older than them.  Because he was playing in the clubs with Ellis Marsalis when he was 12 years old, and Wynton and them would come to listen to them.  They were playing rock-and-roll when he was playing “Giant Steps.” So it’s a matter of that whole generation.  Then they started a school that they called the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and Ellis started teaching, Alvin Batiste was teaching… So some people think it was an accident, but it wasn’t no accident.  They were studying with cats who had mastered their instruments, and would point them in a direction to play jazz.

There’s one thing about me.  All my students that I teach, I don’t tell them what to play or how to play.  I give them the tools and tell them the things they’ve got to work on, if they want to play Dixieland, if they want to play bebop, or if they want to play… Because I know that you’ve got to find your own means of expression, and if you can’t… Because I couldn’t express myself in any of those modes other than what I’m doing now.  And I feel good about it.  And I played them gigs, and I say, “Man, I’ve got to go back and practice.”  Because when I was up here, I missed some of those notes, this wasn’t the right change, and so on and so on.  Now I get on the stage and just listen.

TP:    There are people who think that these days the term avant-garde is almost an outdated term.  For one thing, so much has been played, so much development has occurred that you have a couple of generations trying to catch up with everything!  How do you see the state of the music today in general?  You get to see a wide spectrum of it as an educator, performing around the world.

[22:38] JORDAN:  Well, in America, this is the first generation that looked back.  All the other generations were looking forward.  The movement we talked about, they were looking forward.

TP:    Where do you think this generation starts?  Would you give a point of demarcation for it?

[22:53] JORDAN:  This generation?  I would say with the groups around Wynton Marsalis’ age.

TP:    So we’re talking really two generations.

JORDAN:  Yeah, two generations.  I think this is the generation that started looking back.  And not because they wanted to, but the recording companies, they found out that they could make money… Like, all those old LPs, they couldn’t sell that, they started reissuing them, and a lot of those kids hadn’t heard that music before, and they thought this was something new.  And the people who run the recording companies knew that if the young kids would develop, they could continue to sell that kind of music.  I still believe there isn’t a trumpet player here who can outplay Miles and that can express on a trumpet what Miles did, and all of them came up after Miles, and Miles kept going on… People used to bad-mouth Miles about his fusion, about whatever he was doing.  But Miles was keeping… All the old people…Trane…they kept going on. But this generation has sort of stopped, and settled for what they’ve done.  And hopefully, they’ll get out of it, but as long as they’re making money and making gigs…

[23:48] There’s not too many people going to hire a band every night to play what we play.  In the old days, Trane and them got away with it, which was good.  But I don’t think we could get away with that.  I would love to play in a club a five nights a week.  Any club that would hire me for five nights, that would be a delight in my life; you know, going and play what I do five nights a week.  That would be beautiful.  But that won’t happen on more.  So they’ve got them playing the music that people would probably… Well, I’m not going to say they didn’t enjoy this, but music that they could feel better with.

TP:    Do you think one reason why what we’re going to call for lack of a better word the avant-garde flourished in the ’60s is because people were able to work five nights a week?  Because they did, even around New York at different places.  The AACM was able to make their own work.  Do you think that had something to do with it?

JORDAN:  That’s a good point.  I think so.  And maybe the economy can’t afford it.  The people that they got, they’ve got to have some people there that’s going to ring some people into the club and make some money, and sell some liquor, I guess.  I don’t go to clubs.  I don’t know what’s happening there.  But you’re probably right.  That’s probably what’s happening.

TP:    One other question, then I’ll let you go.  In formulating your concept, not just of music but of art, you’ve presumably drawn on other areas besides just music.  Can you talk about what you’ve incorporated and how it inflects what you do?

[25:30] JORDAN:  Well, I played with some Germans over in Germany. A.R. Penck.  You ever heard of Penck.  He’s a helluva German artist.  Butch Morris played on one of those concerts together.  Ask Butch about that session, that time we did some real hip stuff in Germany with Penck.  [26:10] And Markus Lupus(?) and Frank Wahlman(?) and all that kind of stuff, really.  That has influenced some of the things that I do.  And this cat just told me tonight, a cat from Germany, he’s in the audience tonight, and he said the TTT, the triple something…he said they’re putting out a record with us that we did with me and Alan Silva and some others over there.  He said, “You know, you’re an official member of the TTT.”  Because I’ve been playing with them since Frank Wright died.

TP:    How do you think the American notion of the avant-garde differs from the European notion of the avant-garde?

[26:43] JORDAN:  Well, the Europeans have more…other kinds of things that’s dealing with avant-garde.  The visual artists and different kinds of things.  The kids come up seeing more..for lack of a better term…a more out kind of thing.  The way they dress, some of them.  I used to see those kids over there 20 years ago with the earrings and their nose and different kinds of hair and stuff, and then maybe later, maybe about five years later, I started seeing it in the United States.  But the whole environment, it gives them more of an outlook of something.  People don’t frown on some of the things that they do here.  It’s a more advanced kind of thing.  And with art, I think… I know, as far as art is concerned. they can… I’ve played in museums with Penck and some of them, and boy, some of that art that people be buying, I’d look at it and say, “Boy, I know I’m missing something; I need a course in art appreciation.”  And they would be into it.  And as it went, I started to say, “Yeah, well, I’m seeing some of the things and how some of this is put together.”  So it has an impact on my subconscious, I would say.  And conscious mind also.

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Filed under Cadence, DownBeat, Kidd Jordan, New Orleans, Tenor Saxophone

A 2006 DownBeat Feature On Wynton Marsalis, Who Turned 50 Yesterday

I couldn’t attend Wynton Marsalis’s four 50th birthday concerts in which he presented repertoire from his 30+ years in the music business. All accounts state — no doubt accurately — that to witness them was an extraordinary experience.

I’ve admired Wynton Marsalis since 1981, when I heard him playing with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams at the Chicago Jazz Festival. The feeling was reinforced not long thereafter, an extraordinary concert at New York’s Public Theater with Alvin Batiste, Ed Blackwell, his father, Ellis Marsalis, his brother Branford, and bassist Mark Helias. A decade before, I’d conducted two extended interviews with Wynton, resulting in this article, which has been on the Internet for a while.

In 2005, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write an extended feature on Wynton. Unfortunately, for space reasons, they had to cut my final draft — here’s the “directors’ cut,” so to speak.

* * *

That Wynton Marsalis does not think small was evident last November 14th, when Jazz at Lincoln Center threw a thousand-dollar-a-ticket fundraiser to celebrate its Artistic Director’s quarter century in the spotlight.

When the Rose Theater’s lights dimmed, television journalist Ed Bradley, the evening’s host, brought Marsalis on stage to a standing ovation from a crowd  primarily of donors from New York’s finance, real estate and media industries, intelligentsia, and eminent entertainers, all attired in black ties, cummerbunds, and designer gowns. Themselves tuxedoed, Bradley and Marsalis turned to a projection of 1979 high school yearbook photo of an Afroed, grinning Marsalis, trumpet in hand. “Pet peeve: Sucking valves,” read the salutation. “Biggest weakness: Bach Stradivarius trumpets.”

Another slide popped up. “Always saying: ‘Be cool, white boy,’” read the top inscription. The crowd laughed uneasily. Marsalis shook his head with a rueful smile, and Bradley joked about youthful indiscretion. The line below stated: “Ambition: ‘Transcend the f****g music being played today.’”

Interrupted by testimonials from various JALC dignitaries,  Marsalis spent the next 90 minutes demonstrating how assiduously he had applied himself to the latter aspiration. He played standards with flair—a burnished, elegant “Embraceable You” in duo with Hank Jones; signifying with the mute behind Diana Krall on “East Of The Sun”; stretching out with old piano partner Marcus Roberts on “Cherokee”—but he also prepared a tasting menu of ambitious compositions from the ’90s that reflect his omnivorous interests. The material was decidedly not about conceptualism, nor juxtaposing materials, nor conveying philosophical notions at the expense of human feeling. Rather, Marsalis pursued an aesthetic propagated by his intellectual mentor, Albert Murray, and actualized by painter-collagist Romare Bearden, who expressed a modernist sensibility through deploying an iconography of American vernacular archetypes.

For example, on “Many Gone,” a spiritual from At The Octoroon Balls, the Kronos Quartet conveyed Stravinsky-like harmonies with timbre and attack drawn from American fiddle music. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra displayed its mastery of Ellingtonian erotica behind two Alvin Ailey dancers on “Home: Beyond This Rage,” a vignette from Sweet Release. Gospel diva Kim Burrell raised the roof on “Oh, What A Friend We Have In Jesus/God Don’t Like Ugly,” from Blood On The Fields, Marsalis’ 1994 Pulitzer Prize-winning jazz oratorio.

With Joe Lovano standing in for Branford Marsalis and Jason Marsalis for Jeff Watts, Marsalis played “Hesitation” from his eponymous 1982 debut, engaging Lovano in extended, abstract counterpoint. Herlin Riley displayed his assimilation of New Orleans drum vocabulary on “Uptown Ruler,” a Coltrane-esque blues in 5/4 from the late-’80s Soul Gestures In Southern Blue series that marked Marsalis’ embrace of an across-the-timeline aesthetic. To conclude the evening, LCJO played “The Caboose,” the kaleidoscopic end car of Marsalis’ complex, Ellington-inspired 1998 suite, Big Train, replete with intricate ensemble dialogues, highwire brass unisons, instrumental onomatopoeia, a shouted question from Wycliffe Gordon (“somebody, somebody, somebody, please tell me; I want to know just how the big train goes”), and an inclusive choral response from the band in a hymnal subtone (“big train from the east, big train from the west”).

The lyric is emblematic of the scope of Marsalis’ ambition and accomplishment. At 44, he’s perhaps the most visible jazz artist on the planet—he’s filled clubs and concert halls since he formed his first band at 20, and became a bona fide mainstream celebrity at 23, when he won his first Classical Grammy. But he feels, with some justification, that the impact of his corpus on the sound of jazz today is less than it might be.

“I know people haven’t listened to the music, because they tell me so,” Marsalis said on the first press day of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s 2005-06 season. “Musicians who come into the band always say, ‘I didn’t realize it was that hard,’ or ‘I never heard it.’”

“I think his major contribution was on the political side, raising the visibility of jazz, but I don’t hear anything within his music that I see as a big contribution to the SOUND of today,” says trumpeter Jeremy Pelt, voicing a sentiment expressed off the record by a cross-generational sampling of musicians. “Now, he has influenced a ton of trumpet players, though not really me. He’s very akin to Clark Terry in his phrasing, the way he ghosts the notes. I saw Wynton on a PBS special with Kathleen Battle when I was starting out. I was very classical music oriented then, and it excited me, partly because it was a black person playing the shit out of the trumpet. So I decided to check out The Majesty of the Blues. I returned it right away. With his band, it feels like he wants to educate you. That’s great, but after a while, you feel like you’re  in a seminar or clinic.”

But what a clinic!  “To be to able to hear things the way he hears them is pretty amazing,” said pianist Eric Reed in 1997, after six years in Marsalis’ employ. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, dude, what’s going on in your head?’  To be able to commit that to paper is even more amazing, and getting a group of individuals to play that compounds the amazement. Wynton has unlimited resources, and he’s able to commit to a musical vision, which is unique in the jazz world.”

“Wynton developed in a fishbowl,” says David Berger. “He’s a big risk-taker, and any mistakes he’s made, the whole world watched, whereas most of us did that] while we were in school.”

“You haven’t heard me talk about other people’s music since I became a man,” Marsalis says, referring to the famously irascible statements of his youth, but he remains anything but shy in conveying strongly held ideas about what jazz is and is not, and hews to this pedagogy in selecting repertoire. In response, disaffected jazzfolk have attacked his motives with almost prosecutorial suspicion, disparaged his talent, critiqued his taste, and caricatured him as a musical analog to Reagan-Bush Republicanism. More often than not, the nay-saying has a tabloidish and assumptive connotation, eschewing concrete musical issues and presenting personal tastes and resentments as objective declarations of fact.  Now it’s hard to find an article about JALC in the mainstream press that does not include the C-word.

“It’s our house,” Marsalis likes to say about Jazz at Lincoln Center, showing thick skin in public. But he hears the catcalls.

The trope that the musical community is more attuned to the external trappings that frame Marsalis’ career than to the actual particulars of his production dates to his early years in the spotlight. “The unfortunate circumstance of Wynton being Wynton prevented any real acceptance of the importance of what they were doing,” said trombone playing brother Delfeayo Marsalis on the response of his mid-’80s peer group at Berklee School of Music to Wynton’s first quintet. “They were paying attention to Branford and Wynton—moreso Wynton—as a commodity.”

“I agree with that,” Wynton said. “Because so much of the response was anti, it cheated a lot of musicians out of the chance to figure out how to get to the next step in their evolution. They ended up just imitating stuff from the ’60s or ’50s, erroneously thinking that’s what we were doing. But that’s not what we do.

“My conception is holistic. Instead of being relegated to our time period, we can be in time. We had Afros in the ‘70s. Everybody used suss chords then. Now we can use suss chords and triads and New Orleans grooves, and do the 1960 jazz imitation of what the avant-garde musicians played in Germany in 1912—the chaos element. All the music that’s in one consciousness is the same. We are free to utilize all that we know, because we don’t have to appeal to a tradition, and we can create a truly modern music that sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard, but is also traditional. It’s revolutionary in its implications. All of it exists at one time.”

[BREAK]

Two days before Christmas, Marsalis spoke about  ‘All Rise,’ his 90-minute, 12-movement, millennial opus for symphony orchestra, big band and vocal choir, in which he weaves together the various genres, styles and forms that he explored during the ‘90s and incorporates a global array of rhythms, melodies and scales.  “I thought about it way back in high school,” he said at his Upper West Side highrise. “I was always dreaming, and I thought, ‘What if you could put all of the music together and everybody played at one time, but they were all playing stuff that was hard for them to play?’”

An edition of Yeats’ poems lay open on the table in front of his living room couch, and a floor compartment beneath it contained a washboard, the recent Fagels translation of The Iliad, W.C. Sebold’s Austerlitz, Walter van de Leur’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, and Runaway Slave Advertisements.. On a coffee table across the room stood side-by-side sculpted chess sets with matches in progress. Occupying the southwest corner is a piano, piled with books (the Joyce Carol Yates-edited “Best American Essays of the Century,” Eileen Southern’s “History of Afro-American Artists”), scores (among them a folio of Bartok’s String Quartets), and tools of the composer’s trade, such as tuning forks and a slide rule with chords.

Marsalis wrote “All Rise” on commission from ’90s New York Philharmonic head Kurt Masur, and premiered it in 1999. “He brought the idea of using a lot of different traditions and of it being a full evening, which was a risk for him,” Delfeayo said. “He wanted to continue that strain in Gershwin and Bernstein of dealing with Afro-American music and music from the European tradition.”

During a well-received October 2005 U.K. tour of “All Rise” that received reviews with such words as “herculean” and “brilliant,” Masur told a journalist that Marsalis’ understanding of his “basic idea—to reflect how jazz began,” was “absolutely philosophical.”

“In classical music that’s a plus,” Marsalis responded to Masur’s comment. “In jazz, it’s a minus, like something is wrong with you. People who are intellectuals in this music, like John Lewis or Dizzy or Duke Ellington, their music is not dealt with for what it is. People kept crying for Ellington’s music between 1938 and 1942, that it was his best period. All of his music has such depth and complexity. From a philosophic standpoint, what he actually put together begs to be treated on a serious level.”

If he wrote a book about Ellington, what points would he emphasize?

“First would be what in his philosophy allowed him to have such an unbelievably long, sustained development,” Marsalis said. “In the ‘New Orleans Suite’ from 1970 and ‘Black And Tan Fantasy,’ which he wrote in the ’20s, he deals with the same thing—blues, call-and-response, the antiphonal relationship between brass and woodwinds, mood pieces, shuffles. What does his development teach us in terms of his sustained seriousness of his art?

“I could pull out hundreds of  technical things that he invented. How he uses the blues inside of voicings and in the progressions he wrote, how he used the sound of the blues to modulate, how he used metric modulations in ‘Harlem.’ Why he liked that real straight vocal music. How he appropriated New Orleans counterpoint. What he looked for in vernacular music to put in his style. More than the technical things, why did he want to do that? The majority of his songs were not what his audience wanted. Nobody was clamoring to hear ‘Such Sweet Thunder.’”

What drove Ellington to do it?

“He wanted to be great,” Marsalis exclaimed with a long, it-ought-to-be-obvious laugh. “That’s why he searched around to figure out what in all this experience would lead him to the deepest regions of his musicianship and help him to develop his greatness.”

It’s impossible to interpret Marsalis’ assessment of Ellington as anything but a self-descriptive aesthetic manifesto. “Wynton does not want to equal anybody,” said multireedist Victor Goines, who first met Marsalis in kindergarten. Hanging out with Marsalis when both were 14, Goines heard him play Coltrane’s “Countdown” solo and decided that jazz was what he wanted to do. He joined the Marsalis Septet in 1993, allowing Marsalis to add the clarinet to his tonal palette.

“He has to surpass,” Goines said. “The only yardstick that is an accurate length for him is Duke Ellington.”

Stanley Crouch and Murray introduced Marsalis to Ellington during the ’80s. Gunther Schuller and then David Berger schooled him on Ellington’s scores. By 1985, when Branford and Kenny Kirkland jumped ship to join Sting on the cusp of the release of Black Codes From The Underground, the groundwork was set for Marsalis to realign.

“I heard that Albert Murray told him something along the lines of, ‘You will be more able to achieve your goals and vision whenever you start to do more things with musicians who are not your peers, and will more readily focus on what you’re trying to do,’” Watts recalled.

“The first band broke up too soon,” Marsalis acknowledges. “We had some impact, but it could have been greater if we’d stayed together longer. It seemed like everybody picked up on Black Codes From The Underground and liked it. It was high-energy playing. Tain’s combination of fusion and jazz; Kenny Kirkland’s rhythmic propulsion and sophistication; my interplay with Branford on ‘Hesitation,’ which comes from the New Orleans way of playing and the vocabulary of modern jazz. We put a New Orleans Two-Way-Pocky-Way groove and extended rhythms—stuff I’d heard from James Black and my father, using six-bar phrases or 3/4 bars—in the middle of Black Codes. Modulating into different keys within a song, like on ‘Delfeayo’s Dilemma,’ where I play in one key, Branford in another, and Kenny Kirkland in another key. On ‘Twilight,’ we improvised counterpoint at the same time. We phrased our melodies with a funky New Orleans flavor, but still in modern jazz.”

“The early band will have to go down historically as one of the more important small ensembles, but the way things have developed, you almost have to pretend that period didn’t exist, because you can’t find the individuals to re-create it,” Delfeayo Marsalis said. “These guys were going for a high level of intellectual expression. The compositional structure was well-conceived and different, but also it was a great improvising band. Those guys came together, and that hardcore jazz was the right thing for the right time. It was fortunate and unfortunate that it broke up. The level of intellectual challenge that he personally has received after early 1987 is limited. But he will always figure out a way to work the situation, and he became a great sculptor of greater works of music.”

“That’s the type of commentary you always get from people who don’t know what they’re talking about,” Marsalis says. “I think that at a certain moment Delfeayo liked that particular band.”

In Marsalis’ view, the period to which his younger brother refers was a time of philosophical solidification. “First I had to put the history of jazz together in my mind,” he says. “When Albert Murray’s book, Good Morning Blues came out, I played at a party at the Village Gate with Rudy Rutherford, Freddie Green, Buck Clayton, and other older cats who’d played with Basie. I’d played with the bebop musicians, like Max Roach and Art Blakey and Philly Joe, and I knew Miles and Dizzy and Art Farmer. I’d played with Herbie and Tony and Ron Carter. I’d played with Lester Bowie. But I’d never played with musicians from that generation. That was my missing link.

“To sit with all of them and check out their way of playing, the life in their music—it’s like what I knew my whole life. I could fit in easily with the essence of what they were playing. I thought I was going to play modern music—some scales, D over G, all the chords, playing in 5/4. That wasn’t something they could play on. They started just playing riffs. I’m from New Orleans, and grew up hearing riffs. Now, they weren’t men who were going to patronize you. They were like, ‘Damn, that’s a hip-ass riff. Shit, youngster, you might be for real.’ That night I went home and said, ‘Now I understand something.’

“In 1985 Sweets Edison told me something that had a profound effect. He said, ‘Don’t wait for nobody to validate you. You’re from New Orleans. You grew up a certain way. I knew you when you was a boy. You ain’t all this shit that they’re sayin’. You’re not from the North. You’re already yourself. All you got to do is be what you are.’”

Edison’s reference was to Marsalis’ upbringing in the hothouse musical culture of ‘70s New Orleans, where, as Marsalis put it, “musicians work—the gigs don’t pay that much, but you play. I always had a job. I would come home at 1 or 2 in the morning and go to school at 7. I played as much as I could possibly play.”

From 13 to 16, Wynton and Branford earned up to $100 a night with a funk band called the Creators, playing covers of ‘70s R&B hits at outdoor dances, receptions, weddings and the like, subverting the surroundings, Branford recalls, with segues from, say, a Parliament line into a tune by Deodato. Wynton played show tunes with a community band comprised of band directors, marched on parades, played classical music with his high school peer group in the New Orleans Youth Orchestra, with adult amateurs in the New Orleans Civic Orchestra, with symphony brass quartets and quintets. Himself no churchgoer, he played the black church circuit with pianist Kermit Campbell, internalizing the ritual of the service. He played Chick Corea tunes and “‘70s things on the cusp of fusion” with an adult band at Tyler’s Beer Gardens in the French Quarter. And he practiced four or five hours a day, an hour before school, an hour at lunch, an hour before dinner, an hour after the evening’s gig.

“In jazz, the thought always was you play whatever you feel,” Marsalis said. “But to achieve something and be successful in classical music, it was a given that you had to know the history.” Branford Marsalis recalls Wynton coming home from his trumpet lesson “with this big-assed book on Austria. He said, ‘Mr. Janson said that I will never be able to play Mozart unless I understand the people and the times that created him.’” Towards that end, Wynton bought natural trumpets, and systematically taught himself the instrument’s history and literature. Afternoons from 1 to 5, he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, where his father had established the jazz curriculum. There he learned theory from “my great teacher” Bert Braud, whose theme-and-variation class subsumed Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Bach.

Perhaps most importantly, Marsalis rejected the generation gap. “They were so much hipper than us,” he laughs, referring to Ellis Marsalis and such family friends as Clark Terry, Blue Mitchell and Sweets Edison. “We had our lifestyle. But compared to Blue Mitchell? Shit! Jazz musicians don’t get dated. You’re not going to rebel against them. My Dad’s vibe was always, ‘If you really want to rebel against me, come up with something that I don’t understand. Don’t come to me with some bullshit.’ Or ‘the greatest rebellion is self-financed; you’re not really serious about rebelling.” He was serious when he told you that. He was ready for you to be gone! ‘Man, I don’t need you to tell me what to do. Leave! Get your own crib. It’s hard out here with all these kids. I don’t have time to be up babysitting you while you’re trying to live out the American Dream with no money.’”

Stories of prodigies who didn’t fulfill their promise are commonplace in the arts. But Marsalis—who was getting local press by 15 and enjoying the attention of women who found intriguing the sight of the studious, bespectacled young trumpeter doing his homework between sets while “everyone was getting drunk or high”  (“The older ones would say, ‘Are you doin’ your homework, baby?’ ‘Yeah, can you help me with this?’)—did not allow approbation from neighborhood down-homes or local gentry to turn his head.

“I wasn’t impressionable,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to fit in with anyone. My Daddy’s friends were too much older, and I wasn’t trying to fit in with guys in my neighborhood. There’s a certain allure of being in the street and ignorant, but once I determined I wasn’t going to act like them, I didn’t care what they thought. I could play ball, and I would fight. Even to this day, I don’t like to be fucked with. If you want to find out, we can go ahead and do that. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it, though. Even when I had to kind of integrate a school and deal with being just one black person being picked on, I always said, ‘If you call me a nigger, we’re gonna fight.’”

[BREAK]

Three years after that party with the Basieites at the Village Gate, Marsalis—with New Orleanians Reginald Veal and Herlin Riley in the bass and drum chairs—began to change his sound. “Wynton is good at adjusting direction based on the talent of the individuals he has around him,” said Marcus Roberts, who replaced Kenny Kirkland in 1985. “It became more of a blues-based, groove-oriented way of playing. He explored different colors, and his concept of blues on the trumpet evolved. He matured in his ability to merge older trumpet styles into a more modern abstract vocabulary that he himself was codifying.”

Goines adds that the effect of a stable personnel is that “Wynton started to write for the individual personalities, like Duke did, as opposed to the saxophone chair.” The primary personalities were Wess Anderson, Wycliffe Gordon, Eric Reed and Goines, and Marsalis used the first iteration of Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra—including such ex-Ellingtonians as Jimmy Hamilton, Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Willie Cook, and Joe Temperley—as a template for incorporating their sounds as he built the repertoire for the Wynton Marsalis Septet and the next edition of LCJO.

“I always tell this story,” Marsalis said of his stylistic volte face. “A girl came to a concert we gave with the quintet at Blues Alley, and in five minutes she gave me the best critique of what we played that I ever got. She said, ‘I came to hear you all play, and I don’t like jazz, but I took my boyfriend, because I read an article on you all in Ebony and I wanted to see what it was. The first song, you all played together, and then everybody played individually. I thought that’s a great way to introduce the band, but you all played that way on every song.’ So at first it was a critique of the basic form of playing. Then she said, ‘Everybody plays for a very long time; you can follow it, but why do you all play so long?’ So the solos are too long. Then she told us that we played so loud she couldn’t hear all that was going on, and then she said, ‘I liked when you played the slow song, but then you started to play fast, and you played fast longer than you played slow.’ I followed what she said almost to the letter.”

It is interesting to compare Marsalis’ evolution to that experienced by his ‘70s outcat and funkster targets, who shaped their own predispositions in an age when the idiomatic tradition was in the air. His focus on self-determination through institution-building, educational outreach, and constructing an idiosyncratic body of work from a panoply of styles, is not so different from the tenets propounded in ‘60s Chicago by the AACM, comprised of musicians who are generational contemporaries of his father and such other independent-minded ‘70s New Orleans modernist improviser-educators as Alvin Batiste and Kidd Jordan.

“The word ‘conserve’ means to keep what’s good of what we have, like conserving trees,” says Berger. “But we also want to grow new trees. In some ways Duke Ellington was conservative, but he was also avant-garde. That’s what Wynton is. He throws down the gauntlet and says you’ve got to master the past before you can move into the future with any kind of success. How can you say that ‘Blood on the Fields’ is a retro piece? Yes, he uses a lot of Ellington’s conventions, but there’s so much modern stuff that was never heard before, and concepts from all over.”

“I think Wynton decided that whatever was going on in jazz was wrong, and he was going to go back and do it the way it had been done 55 or 60 years ago,” said Branford Marsalis. “I don’t necessarily disagree. Today’s musicians are far more versatile in the things they can do but have light, small, compact sounds and massive limitations in terms of swing. The emphasis of the songs becomes harmony and odd-meter forms. It’s more of a race toward scholarship. Wynton’s band was the absolute antithesis of that. He decided not to use monitors on the stage, not to have a bunch of musicians playing with their bells attached to the microphones or using pickups, which changes the nature of how a band sounds. Neither the song forms nor the meters were complex, but based on either the 6/8 Spanish tinge or straight 4/4 swing. It sounds simple until you get your ass on the stage and try to do it.

“On the standard jazz song, everyone is in the same key when the song starts and plays over the same set of themes. Wynton would have a guy solo on a blues in one key, then have an interlude which leads the next player to solo in a completely different key. It forces the musicians out of their comfort zone. It’s what Duke Ellington used to do. It’s what Jelly Roll Morton used to do. There was an easier and more difficult way of playing back then, and we gave it up for a more difficult, easier way of playing now.”

“You have to be as complete as possible in your knowledge of the history of the music,” says Ali Jackson, 29, who assumed the LCJO drum chair in fall 2005. “To be able to fit the styles of Jelly Roll Morton or Wayne Shorter. To play like Big Sid Catlett or Baby Dodds, or then like Buddy Rich, or Elvin Jones, or Tony Williams, but do it by playing what you know. Wynton is interested in musicians have a vested interest in all of the music. I believe in a style of jazz that runs all the way up to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and we’re similar conceptually.  His perspective is to encompass it all and find the divine paradox, that strain that runs through everything, that ties it all together.”

Jackson adds that because Marsalis writes what he hears, irrespective of instrumental limitation, that perspective also involves a high degree of difficulty.

“The demands of his book on the clarinet are extraordinary,” says Victor Goines. “But Wynton has a certain vision to be able to anticipate someone’s learning curve. I used to make a point of saying, ‘Look, my learning curve has not peaked yet. Whatever you want to write, you should write it. Don’t pigeonhole me.’”

“I like for the music to be hard,” Marsalis said. “As a trumpet player, why do I want to play the Brandenberg Concerto? Because it’s hard. I want to play the pieces that challenge me the most. I don’t just mean velocity. Some music is emotionally complex, too. But a degree of complexity, balanced with a certain spiritual substance and emotional weight, ensures that your music will remain.”

[BREAK]

My first conversation with Marsalis occurred two days after Hurricane Katrina devastated much of the turf he had traveled as a youngster. His parents and brother Mbaya were safe in Baton Rouge, and their house suffered minor damage in comparison to some. Still, friends of Marsalis reported that the trumpeter, whose life and career reflect a fundamental, inexorable optimism, was shaken, suffused with the sense that everything could end.

“It’s not going to end,” Marsalis countered the day after New Year’s, concluding our final conversation. “We’re still going to be out here.” He did not elaborate. Two weeks later, the Cultural Committee of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, which Marsalis co-chairs, requested $600 million in Federal funds to build a jazz museum, expand the city’s arts distract, and implement a jobs program for artists. A week after that, President Bush reneged on his earlier promise to provide sufficient funds to rebuild the Crescent City.

Perhaps such concerns diminished whatever pleasure Marsalis took in celebrating his astonishing quarter century. “It doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “It seems like a short time, in any case. I have a good friend who says, ‘I forgive everybody; we’re only out here for 80 years.’”

It’s a good bet that Marsalis will sustain his pace for much of that timeframe. In January, he completed the score for Ken Burns’ forthcoming opus on World War Two, and in April he’ll film a piece on Congo Square that will include African percussionist Yakob Addy. Also forthcoming is a small group piece with singing called “From The Plantation To the Penitentiary,” while on the grand scale he’s preparing an opera on the Civil War and, at Masur’s instigation, a mass.

It might take Marsalis 180 years to absolve his antagonists, though. “They call me conservative and all this bullshit, because I’m not of the Rock ethos,” he said heatedly. “Nothing in my experience as a musician would make me look up to that. Jazz was revealed to me from too young an age. In this era we have 50 Cent and these rappers playing over a machine, playing a beat, talking about ‘nigger,’ and ‘I don’t care what my parents like,’ and the use of all these equations to construct something philosophically. But I’m not using a philosophical equation. I’m using what I know, which is music.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, New Orleans, Wynton Marsalis

Dr. John (Mac Rebennack), Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test, 2006

With Dr. John and the Lower 911s sharing the bill with Chuck Brown in Prospect Park tomorrow night, it seems like a good time to run the uncut version of the DownBeat Blindfold Test that I did with Mr. Rebennack in 2006. Branford Marsalis, the guest editor for this particular issue, who set it up, couldn’t arrange his schedule to conduct the BT himself, and asked me to stand in. Branford gave me 8 or so of the tracks, and I came up with the remainder.

I don’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the New Orleans scene of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, and so there may be some misspellings — or complete incomprehension — of names within the text.  Any corrections are welcome.

* * * * * * * * *

1.   Jelly Roll Morton, “Freakish” (from COMPLETE  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS RECORDINGS, Rounder, 1938/2005) (Morton, piano)

I used to have a tape of this. It’s so long ago. But I think it’s Jelly Roll Morton. It’s so long ago that I had this tape… But there’s some interesting stuff like that on it. There’s some odd changes. It’s that old whorehouse music when they used to do these things that nobody could ever remember but the guy that wrote it. That’s what I think this is from.  My favorite thing I had by him were all these old tango things he did that he wrote way back in the game; I think it was on the same tape with this stuff. I remember Red Tyler and myself would be sitting in the back of the bus, and we used to get a kick out of certain things, and this very strange little tango piece was one of them. I like the way he plays. He was a very interesting piano player. I think he represented a chunk of New Orleans from back in the game that I don’t think as much credit as was his due. But that’s the kind of way that life shifts itself. I wonder if Duke Ellington ever heard this piece. Because there’s some Dukeness about it in some kind of strange way; especially that little verse and in some spots, he reminds me of stuff Duke was doing, but in another kind of thing. I’ll give it a 5.

2.   Wild Tchopitoulas, “Hey Hey” (from WILD TCHOPITOULAS, Mango, 1976/1998) (Vocals: Big Chief Jolly, George Landry, Spy Boy, Amos Landry, Carl Christmas, Flag Boy, Trail Chief, Booker Washington, Second Chief, Norman Bell; Musicians: Arthur Neville, keyboards; Leo Nocentelli – guitar; George Porter, Jr. – bass; Joseph Modeliste – drums; Cyril Neville – congas; Teddy Royal – guitar; Aaron Neville – piano; Charles Neville – percussion)

This is Big Chief Jolly with the Wild Tchopitoulas. I have an inside with this whole record, because I did the demo for this record with I think it was Aaron and Charles and maybe Cyril…whoever was in New York when we did the demo to get the record deal for this. This ain’t my favorite cut off this record, but I love Jolly singing, and I love that he had the old-school way with the Indian stuff, a real calypsoness about it. He remembered a lot of that era of it, and it was a good era of that whole… There’s something about that you can feel is very Caribbean, like the Junkanoos in Trinidad. But it shows the whole Caribbean connection of the Mardi Gras Indians as well as all the rest of it. I’d give everything about this record a 5, just because I like it. At the rate you’re doing it, it’s two 5′s for two songs… It ain’t this song; it’s this record I liked. This is basically the Meters.

3.   Professor Longhair, “Big Chief” (from BIG CHIEF, Tomato, 1970s/1993) (Professor Longhair, piano, whistling; Alfred “Uganda” Roberts – congas; George Davis – bass; David Lee – drums; “Big Will” Harvey – guitar; Tony Dagradi – soprano/tenor sax; Andy Kaslow – trumpet)

Without a doubt it’s Professor Longhair. It ain’t the Meters. I don’t know who the band is. I love Fess’ playing. There’s something about him… I always thought the original record of this, with Wardell Quezergue’s arrangement on it, was so unorthodox… It was like a big band. He had it under this song, this outside thing with… It was funny, because Professor Longhair never did an overdub when he did the original record. When he finished putting it down, he just left and he was gone, and nobody knew where he was, and Earl King came and whistled like a scratch thing, and that was how the record came out. That was the original record of Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief.” It was Earl King whistling and singing it, because Professor Longhair left the studio and was going home – or wherever he went. Just a little sidetrack. I don’t know about the band or anything like that. He’s kicking. It’s not BAD. But I have no idea. [Anything you want to say about his piano style?] Hey!! It was like… I think all of us doing session work in New Orleans thought it was Allen Toussaint or James, but in between takes the code word to get something funky out of something was just “play a little Professor Longhair,” and we knew to play the song a little funkier. Let me see, the secret code… I’m going to give that version of it 4 stars. It’s hard to give Professor Longhair 4 stars when I’ve been giving everything else 5. He was a dear friend. But this version…

4.   Louis Armstrong-Duke Ellington, “Solitude” (from THE GREAT SUMMIT: THE MASTER TAKES, Roulette Jazz, 2000/1961) (Armstrong, trumpet, vocal; Ellington, piano; Trummy Young, trombone; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Mort Herbert, bass; Danny Barcelona, drums)

I’ve got to give Louis 5 stars for sure on this cut. This is really classic Louis. [Do you know this record?] Is it with California session… [Do you know who’s playing piano?] I think I do remember, wait a minute. It’s somebody very famous. [SILENT THROUGH CLARINET SOLO AND TROMBONE SOLO] It’s not the band I thought this was going to be. The bone and the clarinet, man… The clarinet player sounded like a Johnny Hodges on the clarinet, just the way he was bending the notes and everything. I thought it was going to be the one with Jack Teagarden, but it isn’t him. [POPS FINAL SOLO] Damn!! [SILENT] I had a flash of who I think the bone player was a second. [How did you like it?] Oh, I loved it. It’s a 5½. I’ll tell you what. I still can’t identify who the clarinet player was. [Barney Bigard.] It was? That was some killin’ shit. He was so fucking good. I mean, he bent so many notes on there so hip that it was like… Damn. He sounded like Johnny Hodges on a very difficult instrument like a goddamn clarinet. I don’t know who the bone… [Trummy Young] Ah, okay. That’s not  who I was thinking of, but he does play like Trummy Young. [The pianist was Duke.] That was Duke?! I’d never have known in a million years. It’s always good to hear somebody from my neighborhood in New Orleans. [Was Pops important to you when you were a young guy?] Well, I’ll tell you what. My father always said that the best two things that ever happened in the Third Ward in New Orleans was Louis Armstrong. He didn’t say Louie; he always said Louis Armstrong. He said he gave a thing to the world that nobody else will ever do. My father said that in the ‘50s. He was very opinionated like his son.

5.   Ray Charles, “I Got A Woman” (from HALLELUJAH, I LOVE HER SO, Atlantic, 1954) (Ray Charles, vocals, keyboards; Donald Wilkerson, tenor saxophone; David “Fathead” Newman, baritone saxophone; Hank Crawford, alto saxophone; Renald Richard, composer)

Here’s Ray doing this.  It stirs up a weird thing, like where this song came from the gospel tune that Ray got it from, and then it stirs up a whole other thing with the bands Ray had for years… I think this is Donald Wilkerson playing here on alto… [Was this song important to you?] Put it this way. I must have had to play this song about a million gigs. It was one of them songs that… We had to play all the stuff the played on the radio. Whatever you heard in R&B stuff, you had to play it. And they played Ray a lot in New Orleans. Prior to this, after this… So, yeah. [Would you play it as a straight-up cover or do your own thing?] Well, at one time, when I first started playing, we played it pretty straight. Until we got to working at the Brass Rail Pub, where they said, “If you’re going to work in a joint that I’m managing and running, you’ve got to get your own arrangements to songs.” So keep the gig, we hurried up and rehearsed our own… We were in school still. We were like young kids. We spent the night learning how to get some new arrangements to all the songs. This was prior to this, but it’s not that far from that era. Only because of the lift from the man where he crossed him, I’ll deduct him a half-star on it, and give him 4½. But I’ll give Ray 15 anyway. But I’m deducting a half-star on that song.

6.  James Booker, “Keep on Gwine” (from NEW ORLEANS PIANO WIZARD, Rounder, 1987) (Booker, piano)

When I hear James Booker play… This is a song that’s near and dear to my heart. I think this is a Melvin Lastie song. “Keep on Gwine.” Or it was a dedication to Melvin Lastie; I can’t remember any more. But when Booker was working in my band, he used to sit down and just go through stuff like this before he was doing any solo things. But he was so talented. He was just frighteningly… But he knew that style of… I only ever heard three people in my life play this style. It’s called… He’s not using a trick. It’s kind of just straight stride there. But the trick he’s got is he knew how to do… I saw Roy Zimmerman, who worked with Santo Pecora’s band in New Orleans, and I saw Myan(?) Andrew play that style. You hit that, BOMP, and you bend the note, then the note is released. I can’t remember how to do it. I sat down trying to figure to see if I could still it, and I can’t. If you stay on top of it, you get it under you. Booker was one of them guys… I consider him a genius. I’m going to give him a 5, just because it’s him. Actually, when he was in the band at one point, a kid that was playing tenor with us, who was from a band called Traffic, Wood…Chris Wood…I can’t remember… Anyway, the kid bought an alto. Booker said, “Oh, can I see it?” and picked up the guy’s alto and it sounded like Bird or something coming out of this guy’s alto. The guy got so blown away with Booker playing it, he gave it to Booker, and about two days later the guy said, “Maybe I could play it on the gig tonight,” and Booker said, “I pawned and sold the ticket.” Real cold-blooded. But he connived this cat out of his axe, just like WHAM. But I couldn’t believe how good he played it! Obviously, he hadn’t had an axe in his mouth for a long time. He just got a great sound on it, played like he had been shedding. I was amazed. But he was an amazing guy.

7.   The Young Tuxedo Brass Band, “Bourbon Street Parade” (from JAZZ BEGINS, Atlantic, 1959/The Atlantic New Orleans Jazz Sessions, Mosaic) (Paul Barbarin, drum, composer; Emile Knox, bass drum; John Casimir, E-flat clarinet; Andrew Anderson, John “Pickey” Brunious, Albert “Fernandez” Walters, trumpet; Clement Tervalon, Jim Robinson, trombone; Herman Sherman, alto saxophone; Andrew Morgan, tenor saxophone; Wilbert Tillman, sousaphone)

This is Paul Barbarin’s classic, “Bourbon Street Parade.” It’s one of them great second-line brass bands, and I’m going to start… I’m not sure if it’s either Eugene Jones playing the bass drum with this band or not, or if… That would be where I would start. Then I’m going to work my way up from there. Then either Chester Jones or Freddie Kohlman. And I think it would be Paul Barbarin playing the snare on it. [It’s Emile Knox on bass drum.] Oh, okay. So I’m way off already. [Can you pick out which brass band it is?] Well, it’s neither one I thought of already. I’m way off base. The clarinet player is what originally got me thinking of those two bands. [Which bands did you think it was?] Well, the Buzzards and the Algiers Onward Band. Do you know what year it’s from? [1958] Oh, that’s later than I thought. That threw me. [Why did you think it was earlier.] The way the drummer was feeling it. I thought that was Chester Jones. This cat played a heavy, heavy four on the bass. So even though he played more of BUHM-BUHM-BUHM, all four beats, which Chester wasn’t always keen on doing it, but I heard him do that, but… ‘58! That one mystified me. [What did you think of the band?] I don’t know. They were good, but they weren’t… What band it was? [Young Tuxedo Brass Band. It’s a live record.] Look, all the stuff live on any of the brass bands is their best playing. They’re coming from the funeral, they’re playing a parade – that’s their best playing. That clarinet player was kickin’ ass, and I was going to work my way backwards, which I’ll try not to do in the future with any of this stuff, because that really lamed out. [Any idea who the clarinet player was?] It was…I’ll tell you… [It was John Casimir.] That’s not who I thought it was. I was way the fuck off base with everything I called. The Young Tuxedo Brass Band. I’ll give them a good 4-3/4 stars. Listen, their spirit was up there, and that bone was kickin’, a real good tailgate thing. Who was the bone player? [Jim Robinson and Clement Tervalon played trombone. The trumpets were Andrew Anderson and John Brunious...] Oh my God!  If I’d’a heard John Brunious, he was one of my all-time faves. [Did you second-line or play in any marching bands?] I never played in it. I just walked in there… The spirit would take you. It’s funny. I mean, John Brunious… I worked sessions with both of them. Jesus, they were really good players. Brunious wrote a couple of great songs. He was talented as hell.

8.   Danny Barker, “Eh La Bas” (from Paul Barbarin & His New Orleans Jazz, Atlantic, 1955/The Atlantic New Orleans Jazz Sessions, Mosaic, ) (Barker, banjo, vocal; John Brunious, trumpet; Barbarin, drums; Milt Hinton, bass; Willie Humphrey, clarinet; Rob Thomas, trombone; Lester Santiago, piano)

It ain’t Papa Celestin and it ain’t Kid Ory. It sounds a little bit like Danny Barker singing. But I don’t know who the rest of this band is. This is some good Creole music. I never heard Danny do this song before. I like the way he said “cherie!” [LAUGHS] It just sticks out like Danny. Oh, that Creole guy… Jesus Christ! This is one real Creole clarinetist. I should know the fuckin’ guy’s name. [It’s Willie Humphrey.] Oh, it was Willie Humphrey? I was thinking of… He was a funny fuckin’ guy. [LAUGHS] I just have this memory of Willie later in life, but it fits his… He was a funny guy. This is the shit. I’ll give them a 5. This is the shit! [It’s Paul Barbarin’s date, and Milt Hinton is on bass. They did it in New York.] Paul is playing drums and Milt Hinton is playing on this date? Bad-ass group there. [Lester Santiago.] Oh, I worked some gigs with him! He used to work with Dave Bartholomew’s band. He was bad. I met him and I didn’t even know who he was when I met him. It was like another generation of guys. [Did you ever perform this song?] No. I’ve recorded it as an instrumental, but not… I don’t speak that good Creole. I just speak a patois; it’s called Bobo-We [phonetic] But that was a really good… That was a fuckin’ nother one of those things that I went “Wow!” I wouldn’t have had a clue of anything about it, but I knew it was kicking. There’s something about Danny’s voice. He was an old friend. He was one of the most characters I ever knew in New Orleans. He had that dry, British kind of humor, it was crazy as hell. But I knew him since I was a little kid.

9.   Huey Piano Smith, “Boogie Woogie Flu” (Ace, 1957)

I can identify everybody on the goddamn session, if you like. Anyway, it’s Huey Smith and the Clowns, and the Clowns at that time was Izzy Cougarten, and Dave Dixon, Frank Fields is playing bass, (?) William playing drums, and one of the tenor players couldn’t make the date, and Peter Blue, a blind tenor player, was scared and he ratted the date out, and there was a big union stink over this session. But it’s very memorable because of that. I think the other tenor player was James Rivers or maybe Robert Parker. I was there when they cracked the goddamn date. But it was a vivid thing, not because of the song necessarily. It was just that the union busted them because Peter Blue ratted them out. He was this blind tenor player, and the union rep that would come and check on the sessions… The guys told him, “if the guy asks you for a union card, he can’t see; just give him your draft card, give him any kind of card and tell him you’re paid up.” And for whatever reason, he ratted all these guys out. That’s one of the reasons that date’s memorable to me. [What did you think of Huey?] I loved Huey. Listen, I played so many sessions with Huey playing piano and me playing guitar… It’s like Allen Toussaint, Huey Smith, Edward Franks – of them guys was like… Professor Longhair. Any of them guys it was like, “Wow…” I got to play on sessions with all of them different guys. But Huey was… I think I’d lead off with what Huey did in some kind of way more than a lot of the other guys, because he was more raw. Like, I never went to school to study piano. I was a guitar student. So I learned watching piano players, but I never knew classical stuff like Booker or Allen Toussaint. So I ran with what I had to run with. And there were a lot of guys like Professor Longhair… But most of the sessions I worked with was Huey Smith. I’ve been trying to get Huey… It’s like myself and Eddie Bo and Huey was at the end of that label… Earl King and everybody’s pretty much passed away. But those were the days when I first got into producing records… Oh, it was another thing to me. Stars? For the song I’ll give it 4, but for who it is, I give it 5.

10.  Harry Connick, “Junco Partner” (from 30, Sony, 2001) (Connick, piano, vocal; James Booker, composer)

It sounds like something Booker would have played on the piano, like some James Booker piano kind of stuff, but he doesn’t sound like Booker. Maybe it is Booker. Either that or somebody copying what Booker did with this tune. Who else would do Booker like that? I have no idea. That don’t sound like Booker. Now, that sounded like Booker right there. This is very confusing. Maybe it’s somebody that I would never think of. ["A little heroin before I die."] It sounds like Booker. ["A little cocaine."] Now, that whole arrangement is from Booker. But it don’t sound like Booker. But it starts out, the piano sounds like…all of it sounds like something Booker would do. If it’s not Booker, it’s somebody who sure studied the shit out of him. I’ll give it at least 4, because he can play the shit out of it. I liked it. [It was Harry Connick.] Ah, okay. Well, Harry studied under Booker, so that makes sense. But he SOUNDED like Booker. That’s what really throws me on it. He didn’t sound like Harry at all. I didn’t even know he cut “Junco Partner.” I liked the fact that he started with real Bookerisms right from the jump, and kept it all into around and that thing. But there’s times his voice really sounds like James Booker, man. Harry done good on that sucker! I liked the hell out of it. He’s a talented son-of-a-bitch. Look, I always loved his piano playing, and I like  his singing different. It’s two different elements, in my opinion. Sometimes it don’t always match, in my opinion, but I like where he’s coming from, and he tries shit. That’s the best thing about him. But that was a cool hit. What the hell record was that from?

11.   Ernie Kay-Doe, “Mother-in-Law” (1961) (Ernie K-Doe, vocal; Allen Toussaint, piano, arrangement; Benny Spellman, bass vocal)

That’s a great Allen Toussaint production. I think Benny Spellman singing that “mother-in-law” got more fame than he did with his own record, “Lipstick Traces.” But here Ernie K-Doe’s been dead for some years, and this year they wanted to run Ernie K-Doe for Mayor. It was so Mardi Gras-ish being there for this… There were just so many things going on. But Ernie K-Doe is like… I mean, I dug K-Doe. He might have been… Listen. I guess you could say he took conceited to a new height of enormity. And I dug it. He was a funny guy. And when his old lady had… You know what I mean? You got the K-Doe dough and the K-Doe this and the K-Doe that. But I mean, at the cemetery… This is a hard maneuver. Singing in the cemetery at another guy’s funeral, Earl King’s funeral… [LAUGHS] This is… You gotta love it. I give it 5. For one thing, I love Allen Toussaint’s work. I love what he did production-wise with any of the artists he worked with over a lot of years – including myself and all the rest. I can’t say enough about him. He wrote some of the greatest songs came out of New Orleans. He did some of the greatest productions… Everything I can think of about Allen is just too hip, and he’s always had that thing of sensitive hip.

12.   Charles Brown, “The Very Thought Of You” (from HONEY DRIPPER, Verve-Gitanes, 1994) (Charles Brown, piano, vocal)

Yeah, Charles. Charles Brown. This is with Danny Carroll on the guitar. I was so grateful that he made this little re-comeback thing. It just really made me feel good. One of the first big sessions I ever did in New Orleans was with Charles Brown, and he was just always as sweetheart to work for. I’ve never heard anybody say a bad word about Charles Brown. But he always did these songs so Charles Brown! I played on some tune we did a duet on, and he said, “You play too harsh, Mac.” I knew exactly where he was coming from. I play his stuff, and he’s very finesseful, like Allen Toussaint and all them guys. He studied. [PIANO SOLO] That’s so beautiful. It sounds like it’s from some of that Verve stuff he cut or something. Is that where it’s from? That’s some great shit. That’s a Charles Brown chord! Now, that’s a cat there, a stylist as well as a soulful pianist. They don’t have numbers high enough for him. I love this record. I’ll give it a 5. As much as Clifford Solomon is not on it… It’s nice! Just because he’s not playing on this cut, it reminds me of the old Charles Brown stuff with Johnny Moore and… I like the way that band played with Clifford, and I like that he stayed with Charles. Yeah, that’s nice.

13.   Lee Dorsey, “Do Re Mi”

That’s a song that Earl King wrote for Lee Dorsey that Allen Toussaint was supposed to do the session, but it wound up Marcel Richardson did it. The AFO band covered the session, which I think on that date was Red Tyler, Nat Perillat, maybe Harold Battiste – one of the two of them – and Melvin Lastie is the horn section, Ron Mantrell(?) on guitar, Chuck Beattie on bass, I think, and John Boudreaux on the drums. That was done for Marshall Seahorn on Bobby Robinson’s label out of Carolina. But it came about that Allen couldn’t do the session because he had just went… Joe Banashak and Larry McKinley and them had just started Minit Records, which did the record just a little bit ago with Ernie K-Doe and all of the string of hits he produced, “Ooo-Boo-Ba-Doo,” and all those strings of stuff that came out later. He just had a phenomenal string of classic records with Irma Thomas, with you-name-it – everything he was doing. And considering they had no promotion, these were guys who were doing records that were… Other than Larry McKinley was a disk jockey who part-owner of the label and he had one station in New Orleans, and he did have some connects. But it’s not like promotion. I give a lot of credit to Allen. It was a good thing.  But these guys went and covered the date, and it was one of them early hits for Lee there.

It’s funny. I remember Lee Dorsey coming to New Orleans. Renald Richard brought him in. I did the very first session. I hired Allen Toussaint to play piano, because Huey Smith, I couldn’t find him that day, and Allen is actually playing piano on a date I produced on Lee. But Renald Richard and Jessie  Hill(?) from Thibodeaux brought him to me, and that’s the cut I remember on it. We cut a song called “Rock Pretty Baby” – which somebody just gave me a copy of that. Guess who’s playing drums on it? [Blackwell?] Yes. Not a backbeat to be found. Listen, if it got by and it felt all right, who gives a damn? Listen, there’s other drummers… I can tell you, when Earl Palmer left ..[TK]’s [sounds like Stan Kenton, but it can’t be] band, I hired him to make a date with us. I said, “Earl, could you just play a backbeat; these people are giving me some shit.” He took both sticks, ran them through the snare drum, and walked off the gig. Wasn’t even his drums! [So Marcel Richardson was playing the style...]

He could play. Marcel… I’m kind of listening to the same thing around Allen and everybody. But Marcel was a great keyboard player. When he got to California, I remember Harold Battiste getting him in a clique with doing some stuff, and it was like with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, whoever it was before they were that, when they were the Buffalos… They had Marcel on the bass that he played on while “sitting on my wa-wa, waiting for my ya-ya,” and he said, “We want you to play some New Orleans shit,” and Marcel was playing, and he says, “This shit don’t sound like no goddamn New Orleans music.” He just said they heard it, he was at… But he was real.

[How did you start producing?] Oh, Johnny Vincent. I was a teenager. He thought he was hustling some kid who’s hanging out at his studio. [You were hanging out at the studio; that’s what you did.] Mmm-hmm. So I knew the people that was coming around to audition. Actually, I wrote songs for a lot of them, and would bring them to Specialty Records, which had offices in New Orleans, and bring them to Dave Bartholomew at Imperial Records, I’d bring them to Paul Gayton for Chess Records. I brought whoever auditioned… Sometimes it was the singers with the bands I had. But somebody would sing the song. I didn’t give a damn. As long as they learned it, was okay. They were people I met coming into the studio to do other shit. But I think they got wind of that, and Johnny hired me, and he beat me. [You said you knew he was...] He used to pay my salary, and if I earned more than that darn session, which I usually did, he’d try to deduct my salary. That’s pretty jive.

[Was that a clause he put in the contract?] No. We didn’t  really have a contract… Look, if you knew how hard it was to get paid, whether it was a union session, getting him to file the contracts on the dates… We couldn’t let him do it. We had to file them ourselves. It was easier dealing with Johnny Vincent, get the cash money in front before a session to work for the guy. There was like 80 million changes you had to go through to do that. It was not easy to work for him. [So you learned a lot of ins and outs as a teenager.] Ah, I wish I could’a said I LEARNT ‘em. But he was a special one. To say that I learnt SOMETHING; I should’a learnt a lot more. I’ll give… Huey Smith, Earl King, and…  Red Tyler, I give him the most credit for understanding different chunks of this guy. Whatever projects I worked on with Red Tyler, we would be treated with respect, and he always made those projects a special thing, and he knew that Red could bring a class act to his label. But Huey and Earl King had really short chains on their thing, even though they knew how it was. The first records they did, they started his label!

[You mentioned also that you hired Blackwell for an Isley Brothers date.] Oh yeah. I had him with the Isley Brothers on dates on Ace Records. I had him on a lot of sessions. You’d be surprised. I had him on some sessions of mine. I don’t know if they ever came out, but I had cut a song, it was… I had cut a song at home he played drums, Charlie Williams, called “Storm Warning.” Later for Jeannie Mack I cut another song that was a followup to it, and it was called “Cross-Winds.” I’ve never heard it, but I know that I had Edward Blackwell playing the drums, I had Rufus Gore playing tenor, James Booker was playing piano, and Eustis Guillemet was playing bass. That shit sounded good from what I can tell you. It was just one of those THINGS. But it was a helluva band I had for the date. That was half of a lot of what was available – easy.

A lot of memories went through some of this stuff you played. When you played that one Huey Smith song, it just… It actually had about 20% to do with that song on that thing, but that date! It’s just weird what your memory kicks up about something in particular.

[New Orleans was so segregated at that time, and I’d think that you often would be the only white guy on the session with a lot of black musicians. How did that work for you?]

Look. Sam Butera was the only white guy before my time with Paul Gayten, doing some recordings. I don’t think Sam thought anything but it was a recording date. Me? I got in a lot of trouble with the two unions back then, the two SEGREGATED unions. They were segregated by the goddamn…oh, whatever it was, the laws and stupid shit. But anyway, if I ran a session and it was through the white union, the black union gave me shit. If it was 496, the black union gave me shit, and if I ran it through 496 to 174, the white union gave me shit. It was both, because they were making a hustle all for the musicians. It had nothing to do with anybody giving two shits about ANY of that. It was just your typical… There was guys that were pocketing this little thing and that little thing, and had side hustles, and that’s life on the reality tip. You see it on bigger tips today, but it’s still on that. It’s still low-down life, low-down hustles. It’s old-school crap. They should have figured out some newer ones by now, but I guess the old ones are more guaranteed to work in somebody’s head.

I watched a guy actually promise they were going to have a retirement home for musicians, and it turned out the guy died, and they find out the property was a swamp. He had just fucked up all the money. It was those kinds of things that came out of all these studio musicians’ money. Oh, God, who the hell knows? Whenever we tried to bump a guy out of office… This struck me as kind of odd. But you couldn’t do it. It was like he was in there like God. You can’t vote God out of office. This guy was like that. He’s a fuckin’ union rep! [LAUGHS] It struck me as odd that they used to send Mr. Porter to pick up the cards, and he couldn’t see. That strikes you as odd, that a guy who checks everybody’s union cards in a session can’t see? Then they send…a musician took his place, Melvin Lastie, and one of the first sessions he busted, his own brother was playing on it. Melvin Lastie busted a session, and his brother Papi(? – Walter) is playing drums on the date. Now, this had to cause him some problems at home with his family, and Deacon Frank I’m sure was not too thrilled with Melvin’s behavior in busting his brother on a session. But it’s those kind of memories… I find them kind of nice now, but at the time it wasn’t that nice. [In retrospect, everything is humorous.] Well, you’re far away from it. It’s like the reason… Look, he busted the session, and by the time he took everybody’s name, the last guy he looked at, it was his brother over in the corner where they were doing it. It wasn’t at Cosmo’s studio, which was at the time the only known studio. They could sessions at the radio stations. But Johnny Vincent, with another one of his scams went awry, sunk some money into my boss, at that time a guy named Joe Athena(?), who made a lot of records, and he had Eddie Bo and Johnny Adams… He had some great artists over there. Well, that was the session Melvin busted. He got wind that there was a session going on at that studio, and it was built on top of where all the record distributors was. It was nowhere around where the other studio was. It kind of stuck out; I guess he had a lot of music popping through, not too well sound proofed. Anyway, it was just a funny story to me, thinking…

[Deacon Frank was a drummer, right?] Ah, listen, he… As a kid…I just always think of him… He played a beat, like, POM-CHICKA-CHICKA-CHICKA-CHICK, POM-CHICKA-CHICKA-CHICKA… No backbeat, just the… He could relax that, and if you added tambourines and congas and stuff with that, you don’t know if it’s a shuffle or 6/8, 12/8, or… With the guys playing with it, it just floated all over the place. We’d be playing something, and it would just be like… You didn’t think about what it was. He just had this way of laying that thing so different that… [Herlin has that beat now.] Oh, Herlin’s got a lot of that! It’s his family; that’s his grandpa. Anyway, I remember the last time I saw it. I went over there with a French film crew to see (?)’s mom, who was Herlin’s grandma. On camera, the woman grabs me by my collar and yells, “I told you to tell that son of yours something…” I didn’t know she was on her deathbed. Everything in the room smelled like roses. There was white roses, and she made them stick them in rosewater, and so it intensifies the heat of the room, and I’m thinking this French film crew is here to see it, and I can’t tell… I didn’t know she was on her deathbed. But she grabbed my collar and said, “Young man…” She was one of them people that could see stuff. She helped you. She told you stuff that might happen ten years from now, but it would happen. Usually I’d’a forgot it, but she was special.

I’ve got to go write a chart for a session…

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Dr. John, New Orleans

Two Interviews with Drummer Brian Blade

Continuing our mini-series on drummers informed by the Afro-diasporic elements of New Orleans culture, here are a pair of interviews with Brian Blade, who turned 41 on July 25th.  The first conversation, which originally ran on http://www.musician.com,  comes from 2001, not long after Blade had joined the then newly-formed Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci. The second, which ran on the now-dormant webzine, http://www.jazz.com, is a composite of  a June 2008 interview on WKCR and a phone conversation in the spring of 2009.  Most of the expository text comes from my introduction to the jazz.com piece.

As I wrote in my preface to the earlier piece, Blade, then 30, was “one of the few drummers with a distinct personality in hardcore jazz—credits include Kenny Garrett, Joshua Redman, Pat Metheny, and Mark Turner—who also has stamped his imprint on popular music through stadium gigs and recordings with Joni Mitchell, Daniel Lanois, Seal, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan.”

At the time, Blade had just released Perceptual [Blue Note], the second release by Fellowship Band, on which the leader and his unit—Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; Myron Walden, alto saxophone; Melvin Butler, tenor saxophone; Jon Cowherd, piano; Christopher Thomas, bass—interpreted original tunes by Blade and Cowherd that drew on a range of heartland folk styles, with guest turns by Lanois and Mitchell punctuating the flow.

What were your earliest musical influences?

The way I was brought up, boundary lines were never laid on the ground between people or the music. I always felt comfortable trying to surrender to the situation, no matter what banner may fly above it. You’re always trying to serve the song. My father is a minister and a great singer. My brother, Brady, Jr., who is five years older, is also a drummer. He left for college when I was around 13. He had been playing drums in church all this time, and when he left it was like everyone turned to me and said, “Okay, it’s your turn.” It was my duty, in a way. I never thought about it in terms of continuing into the next decade.

So you were just plunged into the waters of drumming, as it were.

[laughs] In a way, in the church environment, but there it was okay, because there’s tolerance there.

What was the sound of that music?

My father would tell me of his memories, and how there wasn’t even a piano; when he was coming up, people would clap their hands and sing and stomp their feet. I played right behind a great organist named Colette Murdoch, and there was piano and, of course, myself and the voices. Hindsight reveals that it taught me the essentials needed to be a part of a group, not only as a musician, but as a human being.

You mean beyond technique, in terms of the spiritual aspect of participating in a collective.

Absolutely. These people who would sing these songs didn’t come to music in a methodical way. They didn’t study it. They just sang, because it was praise! Hopefully, that’s what you’re trying to reach for. People get used to structure and chord progression. But when you’re not aware of these things, the spirit has to move you. So you surrender to that. I think it means a lot. Of course, it’s good to have balance. Now that I am playing music and making recordings, I want to know more and more.

Was Shreveport anything like New Orleans in microcosm, a smaller version with a lot of cultural influences coming in?

Not really. In a way, you could split the state of Louisiana in half culturally. Where I grew up, at the northwestern tip, there is this triangularity. Texas and Arkansas and Louisiana collide there. So it’s quite different from New Orleans, being this port of entry for so many cultures. It’s more inland, so you don’t have such a thick soup, so to speak, on the streets.

Was there a lot of blues?

Oh, absolutely.

A lot of country music?

Absolutely. Bands from the South and from across the globe would come to Shreveport. I saw the Modern Jazz Quartet there, Dizzy Gillespie was my first concert, the Neville Brothers would come through… So the Diaspora was presented to me.

Did it all seem like a continuum to you?

It absolutely did. That’s another wall that never came up for me, the sacred and secular. I’m still trying to do the same thing, and hopefully project the same feeling. I was always playing in high school, different music. When I went to New Orleans it just became more of a concentration on instrumental and vocal jazz music.

It’s interesting, because your teenage years coincide with the trend toward compartmentalization of music in the broader media – more compartmentalized radio, MTV is beginning. Maybe in Shreveport it wouldn’t have hit quite so strongly.

Yes. I’m thankful for the folks I grew up around in Shreveport, because everybody was open to so many different things. Even the ones who weren’t had a certain discipline that they wanted to share with me, and I am thankful for that, too. But I always knew, no matter what, that playing the music was always a joy, whether it was jazz or an R&B gig, or playing with a country band. It was always the joy of it. I try to carry that into every situation.

How do you prepare for the different feels of, say, swinging on the ride cymbal in jazz vis-a-vis, say, laying down a rock backbeat?

I think it’s important that you realize what the situation requires. No matter what your strong suit may be, hopefully you can find that singular thread that knits the music together, rhythmically. Again, for me, it all boils down to serving the song. Technically, I draw on the things that I’ve practiced, that I still practice, listening to recordings and trying to learn how Elvin Jones might execute something, or Art Blakey, or John Bonham for that matter — people who have created a sound, possess such an amazing groove and a great sense of tone and projection. When you analyze and absorb as much as you possibly can, it sets you up for any situation.

Let’s talk about some of your major influences. You’ve mentioned Elvin Jones as your hero.

Yes. Fortunately, I’ve been able to see Elvin several times over the last ten years actually, and God, it gets better and better every time. A Love Supreme was one of the first records that sticks in my consciousness. It’s an ideal that you aspire to. Also the things that Elvin plays on “Ballads” with only the snare drum, bass drum, cymbals and hi-hat. It sounds like a village of folks playing rhythm! He can create such a wide dynamic.

I should also refer to my teachers in New Orleans. John Vidacovich was and still is important. Sometimes when I hear him I think, “Oh God, I’ve stolen everything from Johnny V.” But hopefully that’s not the case. Aside from having always the deepest sense of groove, Johnny is always concerned with this sort of melodic motion coming from the drums. He moves the music and shapes it, and kind of gets inside of it. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way.

He did that great book with Herlin Riley.

Yeah, New Orleans Drumming. Totally. Herlin is another from New Orleans, and David Lee, Jr., who used to play with Sonny Rollins. Herlin to me almost embodies what New Orleans is. It’s like a perpetually modern approach. When you hear brass bands in New Orleans, the arrangements are like turn-of-the-century, coming into 1900! But the grooves and approaches are still evolving. So Herlin somehow takes these street rhythms, and breathes into them a new perspective from a New Orleans viewpoint.

I used to hear David Lee play trio all the time with the alto saxophonist Earl Turbinton and the bassist James Singleton, and also in a piano trio with Ellis Marsalis. He always moved the music forward, kind of an unwavering force, totally swinging all the time, never losing sense of that motion. As a teacher he had me learning the names of certain beats — “This is a Merengue, this is a Calypso.” It was very specific. He had me playing out of books. A very methodical way of approaching the drums. He and Johnny Vidacovich had very different ideas of what they felt they needed to impart to me, and I kind of got the whole picture. It was good to have both perspectives; each is valid, and I don’t think you can have one without the other.

Was Ed Blackwell’s sound universe a big influence on you?

Absolutely. In Ed Blackwell there’s this Africanism, moreso like a Western African playing a drumset, in a way. He’s always playing these sort of little conversations within this four-legged instrument! It’s interesting how many ideas can come from one place.

Which emanates pretty directly from the fact that New Orleans historically was a place where drums could be played.

Totally. I used to go to Congo Square. From what I’ve learned, a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, you know, to have this vigil, this drum… There is storytelling in the instrument and what you put into it — but only what you put into it, I think. You have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

In New Orleans there are certain idiomatic things that you have to do in playing certain functions that traverse the whole timeline. Was that part of your experience there?

Well, I did march in a few parades during Mardi Gras. For me, the most fun thing is to see the brass bands, and how the past, present and future all collide at that very moment when you’re listening to them. I listened to Paul Barbarin records at the suggestion of Ernie Ely, who is another hero of mine down there. I was a busboy at a little place on Decatur Street called the Palm Court, where a guy named Greg Stafford played trumpet and Ernie was the drummer. The way they played the swing beat was real! They were playing these songs the way I felt they should be played, with the sensitivity but the passion for it. It wasn’t as if it was something relegated to olden times.

Have you studied in any systematic way African music, Afro-Cuban music?

Only as a music fan. I love to listen to music, and I buy a lot of recordings. Most recently I’ve gotten into this singer who I think is from Mali; her name is Umu Sangare. The drums are very soft on these recordings, but the rhythm is so strong. I think that’s what creates a groove, the interplay, and realizing that you may not have to do so much as the drummer to create something quite intense.

Is the science of rhythm in those cultures a different perspective than the trapset philosophy?

I think using all four limbs, perhaps it’s easy to get wrapped up in that, like the fact that you can create quite a complex landscape of rhythm. But to find that singular thread that makes the music live, that’s always the challenge. I’m a big fan of Paul Motian, and particularly Elvin Jones. Just one strike of the cymbal, there’s something transcendent in the sound.

You also mentioned John Bonham. Who are some of the people who influence the approach you take in your Rock life?

Well, for me John Bonham stands as one of the great drummers of any time. This density that comes from his sound and his sense of groove is unbelievable. So laid back, too, but at the same time moving the music forward. I always admired him. As well as Levon Helm of the Band records. He has this feeling that comes from a certain part of America, like Tennessee…

Shreveport!

[LAUGHS] Well, there’s this thing that happens, like all these musics, Country and Bluegrass and R&B, they all kind of collide, and out of it comes someone like Levon Helm. You hear the Motown sound and you hear these Stax records; all of these grooves kind of come out in his playing, but it’s uniquely him at the same time.

What’s the attraction of Paul Motian’s sound?

Johnny Vidacovich introduced me to Bill Evans records, because he liked Paul Motian so much. He possesses this amazing looseness that is so lyrical, but also at the same time the pulse. People sometimes miss that Motian really moves and gets inside of the music. It’s quite a different approach from records where you hear Art Blakey or Philly Joe Jones play the drums. But at the same time there is this swing and, like I say, this pulsation that injects the music with a good feeling.

You were talking about David Lee being extremely specific and almost pedagogical in his teachings. Tell me about practice — what you practice now, and how much you practice? Or is it more bandstand-oriented?

Since I have been on the road quite a bit for the last six or seven years, it has been difficult to practice regularly, and it’s important to take advantage of the time you have. On the road a lot of it happens mentally. I play the guitar every day regardless of where I am, because I can take it into hotel rooms! It’s good to have that musical connection, no matter what.

When I’m at home and do get to practice, I like to sit at the drumset and play time for periods of ten minutes at a time. Sometimes I play song forms, but sometimes I just play time, make this continuous line of different things so that hopefully, in live situations which are so unpredictable and when all this stuff goes out the window, your physical instinct will kick in. I try to get around the drums comfortably and play things that I hear, challenging myself to execute things. Usually it’s the distance from your head to your hands that’s the problem; you slow things down and speed it up again, that sort of thing.

What was your practice like when you were younger and forming?

In New Orleans I spent a lot of time playing with my friend Christopher Thomas, the bass player, in bands with Peter Martin or Nicholas Payton, or just the two of us for an hour or two on different tempos, playing blues or song forms or just quarter-notes together to see how disciplined we could be, to see where each of us felt the pulse and if the groove was together. I think it’s important to have companionship with someone, to try to find your place in a group. Because you’re going to be playing with people hopefully! There won’t be many solo drum concerts coming in the future for me.

So as important as it is to tell narratives and so forth on the drums, it isn’t going to happen without extensive preparation.

I don’t think so. Some folks just have this ability to tell a story, but I don’t think anyone can bypass these fundamental things. I don’t think anyone wants to really! Most times it’s lonely, like spending time in your room, listening and trying to see how things are played and how to get a certain sound, so then you can hopefully be free of it once you play more and more with every experience.

A final point. Rather uniquely among drummers of your generation you’ve made a mark in the Pop and Jazz worlds. But your imperatives seem to come out of jazz in a very profound way, and to inflect your stance towards the other areas.

Well, jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I’m not offended by the word “Jazz.”

Some people are.

Yes. Well, I think we get caught up in terminology too much. Maybe it’s just where I grew up, but for me the music was this singular thing. I never put up too many walls between genres and all this. Maybe that’s presumptuous or puffed-up to say, I don’t know, but…

That said, what does jazz mean to you?

There’s the improvisatory freedom that you don’t really experience in other musics. Within the forms and constructions you play, it gives you the opportunity to take flight and create your own picture with each performance of maybe the same piece, or with a different group of people, or with the same group of people — you challenge each other to tell a story every time. It’s the improvisatory freedom which makes it magical. It’s unseen. Hopefully you go with no preconceptions, so that it truly is of the moment. That’s the beauty of jazz music. Not to say that you aren’t playing songs, because that’s also the challenge: With that freedom, can you really create this narrative and take the listener as well as the people playing together on a journey that completes a sort of circle.

* * * *

In 2008, after an eight-year gap, Fellowship—comprising the same core personnel stated above—performed on Season of Changes [Verve], a succinct, streamlined suite on which Blade shaped the flow through subtle permutations of groove and drum timbre.

During that interim, Blade had toured extensively with Shorter, Redman, Garrett, Herbie Hancock, Bill Frisell, David Binney, Edward Simon, and other upper echelon improvisers from different points on the stylistic spectrum.  In the process, he burnished his stature among his generational peer group. In a Downbeat Blindfold Test a few years back, after remarking on Blade’s “real old-school sound,” drummer Jeff Ballard said: “Brian’s choices are amazing. What he plays is all for the composition. His mix of texture and tonality is perfect for that moment in the whole tune. So is his matching of sound to what’s going on in the placement. Also, he’s got patience with the biggest P on the planet. He forces things not to be automatic.”

Shortly before the jazz.com piece appeared,  Chick Corea had hired Blade to play the second half of a long tour by his Five Peace Band project with John McLaughlin, Garrett, and Christian McBride, made a similar point. “After working with Brian for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time,” Corea stated. “He thinks as a composer, and he’s very expressive. He carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams—in my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming—but he also does what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly, Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He came in and the whole set turned around.”

This interview was framed around the release of Mama Rosa [Verve], on which Blade  plays not a single beat on drums, but instead communicates with his voice and his guitar, revealing himself to be a first-class singer-songwriter. The 13-tune recital includes 10 Blade-penned songs that comprise a quasi-autobiography, touching on themes of faith, family, love, loss, and remembrance. Blade sings them without affect, allowing the power of his words to come through with phrasing and nuanced articulation. Lanois, the date’s producer, counterstates Blade’s message on guitar, Kelly Jones provides eloquent vocal harmony, and Fellowship colleagues Cowherd and Rosenwinkel also contribute to the proceedings.

“Revealing more of ourselves is always daunting,” Blade stated in the publicity materials attendant to the release. “But I feel like I need to keep challenging myself and peeling away layers to get to the core of who I am and what I have to offer.”

On Mama Rosa you reveal a side of yourself that you haven’t previously offered to the public. It’s a suite of music that includes ten songs you wrote while touring over the years. Can you tell me how the recording took shape? Is there an overall narrative arc, and did the songs fit cleanly into it? Was a lot of production involved?

As you say, it has been running parallel to my writing for the Fellowship Band, but in a very private way. Everything on the record was recorded at home on my 4-track, and it gave me enough satisfaction just to know, ok, they exist, and I’m fine with that. I’m thankful that I’ve had a little bit of time to write down my memories and experiences, and thoughts about my family, and life in general, and connect them with music. Some of those original four-track recordings are on the record as I did them in my little room, or various rooms around the world. But then it got to the point where I’d share them with my friend Daniel Lanois, and he encouraged me to try and make an entire record of it. As we went through the process he’d say, “Ok, I don’t think we can better this version from your home recording, so that’s on the record.”

Which of these songs is the first that you wrote, and when did you write it?

I guess “After the Revival.” Yes, that first song. I want to say on guitar, at least 12-13 years ago, even before Fellowship music started to come to me. It was a song written from the perspective of my mother, say, 1964, when she’s about to have my first child, my brother Brady. I was trying to think of what she might have been feeling at that time. My father is a pastor, so he often used to go out to preach at revivals when we were growing up. He was trying to build a home and take care of his family, but also go forth with his own mission as a minister. It’s really all about my grandmother Rosa, who is my mother’s mother, and also my mother and brother.

Can you tell me something about Rosa? Is she from Shreveport?

Yes, she is. Basically, she always took care of people’s houses, like a housekeeper her entire life, and she ran several kitchens at Southern University and places like that around Shreveport, Louisiana. Actually, the cover photograph is from the Jaguar Grille, which is the Southern University kitchen there. She’s a sweetheart! So I felt it was fitting to dedicate the record to her, and what she means to me, and hopefully the songs embody the joy she brought to my life and to so many other folks.

I gather you’ve recently moved back to Shreveport.

I’ve been spending more time there since I gave up my place in New York, just to connect with them more than just Christmas every year, as I get older and they get a little older.

This happened about two years ago. Has living there had any impact on your musical production? You remarked in conjunction with this recording (and I’m paraphrasing) that in a certain way you feel it’s time to be more open about who you are.

Well, maybe so. I don’t think I was ever concealing anything necessarily. But particularly with this Mama Rosa music, they almost feel like diary entries to me. It’s kind of like, “well, do I want the world to read my diary?” No, not really. But at the same time, it’s my music, too, which is something I love to share. So I felt, well, I  have to let it go in order to move forward and feel like I’m doing the right thing not only for myself, but for the grand scheme of things.

When did you start writing songs?

I want to say ‘96-‘97, just before the first Fellowship record came out.

So the process begins during or right after the time you’d been on the road with master singer-songwriters—Emmy Lou Harris, Dylan, Joni Mitchell.

Exactly. And Daniel Lanois.

Who you met in New Orleans. Was writing something that always had interested you? Did it start to emerge for you at that time?

It did, particularly from being around my friend Daniel Lanois, and watching him in the process, how he would write down ideas and form them into poetry and connect them with music. Obviously, Joni Mitchell, too. She’s my hero and my greatest inspiration for this way of seeing a story unfold, and putting down your observances and experiences in some way that might strike against someone else’s life and experience. That’s why I think her music endures and keeps getting deeper and deeper, the more I listen to it. It’s always a privilege to be around her and to be around Daniel or Emmy-Lou or Dylan, and to see the attention they place on all the elements of storytelling.

Are you or have you been a big reader? I noticed in an old interview that you majored in anthropology at Loyola University in New Orleans.

Yeah. I always sort of wanted to be Alan Lomax in this life, just go around finding cultural significance through people’s music. In a way, I’m doing it as a musician, strangely enough, not necessarily documenting other people’s music, but trying to take in as much as I can, and having it distill itself in me. It’s a constant research, a constant study, and you’re never there—you’re just on the trip, I think.

You moved to New Orleans in ‘88. How soon after arriving did you meet Daniel Lanois?

It would have been around ‘91-‘92. Maybe a little later.

By then, he’d already produced Dylan.

Yes. The second record, For the Beauty of Wynona, was about to come out, and he was going to go on tour with Darrell Johnson, who played bass with the Neville Brothers at the time. Daniel made a record with them called Yellow Moon. But we met and rehearsed at a little theater in Algiers where he was holed up, and became fast friends. We went on the road for three months, and we haven’t stopped since. We’re bound as brothers.

Was he the person who led you to Joni Mitchell and Dylan and Emmy-Lou Harris?

I was already very aware of their music and a fan.

I meant personally.

To Joni…yes, I guess to Emmy and Bob as well.

Songwriting. Apart from the inspiration and the message behind the words, it involves a specific craft. Did it take a long time for you to develop the craft?

It’s a good thing that in my time off from the road, or even on the road, I  put down every little fragment, or thought, or word, or chord that might be an inkling to something whole, something larger, a full song, a full idea. In those times, it’s almost like a meditation. You just try to stay in it as long as you can, to focus on the thought. Hopefully, I’m getting better and better at that. Same with the Fellowship Band music. I’m trying to write specifically for the guys in the band and for myself to hopefully get in on this story, to be able to deliver it and know it well. I guess the challenge is to do that…well, not necessarily quickly, because you can’t rush it. The process is still a mystery to me. You’re still almost grabbing…reaching out into the darkness for these little points of light, and you’re not sure where they’re coming from. But if you can just be in the moment and hold onto it as long as you can… It’s hopefully getting better.

But from what you’re saying, storytelling has always been an abiding interest for you.

Absolutely.

I’d imagine that your time in New Orleans perhaps influenced you to apply the notion of storytelling to the way you think about drumming.

New Orleans was my first time away from my family, starting college in a whole new community, one of the greatest places in the world, so unique in feeling and just the emotional vibe on the streets and the beat that lives there—and my teachers. John Vidacovich was very important. There’s a deep sense of groove, but also a deep concern with creating melodic motion from the drums, with moving and shaping the music. He’s more of a philosophical teacher than one that taught in a methodical way. David Lee had me play out of books, and placed names on certain beats—one is a calypso, another is a Merengue.

I guess along the way, my experience in New Orleans finds its way into all my music. Unconsciously, it’s just a part of how I go about making music.

Your creativity emerged on this very solid foundation. It sounds like a similar process was at play in your songwriting.

I must say that my teachers definitely gave me that foundation. You’re always grappling with that place between your head and your hands that you want to connect, and not have a gap between what you hear and what you execute. I used to go to Congo Square, where a slave would walk from Mississippi just to be there for a day, to do this vigil and play the drum… There is storytelling in the instrument, but you have to go to it wanting to tell people something. If you’re only playing beats, then what is it for?

Now, with the songwriting, I felt I was a little on my own. But the thing is, even before I met Daniel or Joni or Bob Dylan or Emmy-Lou, their records existed. What I definitely know is that when I hear something that touches me, then I go into the analytical process after it touches me, to say, “Ok, what is it that touches me about it? And can I put it into words? What makes it so emotionally powerful?” So I try to step away from my own writing and hopefully have that objectivity as well. “After the Revival.” What is this song trying to tell you? Who’s involved? Where are we? Is it in a specific place? Is it literal or is it more metaphorical? When you start to put words on things, too, perhaps it gets a little closer to the bone. Joni Mitchell’s influence also infuses the instrumental music, the Fellowship Band music, and it’s just as close to my heart as the Mama Rosa songs, but when the words enter the picture it’s maybe a slightly different trip, a more personal trip.

A lot of the songs on Fellowship Band’s Season of Changes sound like they could very well have lyrics, and for all I know, they do and you haven’t recorded them.

Some of the songs do begin with a lyrical idea, but then they end up living in the instrumental world. I guess I’m never so sure as to where a song is going to end up living. The process is that either I end up develoing this one sentence into a full lyrical idea, or else that idea is just a starting point that will give me the instrumental story. I’m never sure. Maybe that’s the great thing about the mystery, too. It throws you into the process, and you just have to take the trip.

When did you form Fellowship Band? You’ve had a fairly stable personnel.

It starts with Jon Cowherd. Jon was already at Loyola when I arrived in New Orleans in 1988, and we became fast friends and played all the time. That was the genesis of the band, actually—not knowing it, of course, until a decade later, when we made our first recording. A year or so after I met Jon, in 1989 or 1990, Chris Thomas moved to New Orleans to attend the University of New Orleans, to study with Ellis Marsalis. So there was this trio core in New Orleans that was the beginning of the band.

You must have met Myron Walden after moving to New York in the ‘90s.

Yes. I met Myron at Manhattan School of Music. I was playing with Doug Weiss and Kevin Hays, and Myron was there.

It’s hard to think of too many other bands in which I’ve heard the excellent tenor saxophonist, Melvin Butler. His sound seems perfect for what you’re trying to do.

It is. Melvin’s tenor voice, and how he delivers melody and emotes the feeling, the essence of what I feel the music is… He’s just a gifted person. It’s in his heart and in his soul. He went to Berklee, and had relationships with Kurt Rosenwinkel and musicians in New York, like Debbie Dean and Seamus Blake, who were all at Berklee during that same period of time. I met Melvin through Betty Carter, when she hosted her first Jazz Ahead at BAM. At the time, Chris Thomas and Clarence Penn were in her band. Peter Martin, too. Melvin is a very studious man, very much on a mission. He’s a professor now. Ethnomusicology. He’s busy writing, but he’s got a dedication to the band, which I’m thankful for.

Do you hear the drumkit differently playing with Fellowship than with other people?

I don’t necessarily think it’s different. The vocabulary is all the same. Within each situation, I’m primarily trying to do the same thing—serve the moment, serve the song. Thankfully, I’ve been given that liberty in almost every situation I’ve been a part of. Sometimes I’m amazed. I’m back there, I’m looking at Wayne Shorter, and thinking, “God, this is what I do!” There he is, the very man himself. When you encounter your heroes, it becomes even deeper and greater to you in terms of your reverence and respect for them, and love, just as people.

Are you composing or thinking of the overall sound of the Fellowship Band from the drums? Or are you thinking in a similar way as you would as a sideman, reacting to the flow around you?

That’s interesting, because obviously, I have a connection with Jon Cowherd… Whatever Jon brings to the table musically, I know I’m going to—hopefully—give the right thing for it. Myself, after I’ve written something, I then have to leave the guitar and sit by the drums, and it’s really kind of new for me at that moment, as if I’m playing someone else’s music. Especially when it’s in the hands of the people in my band, all of a sudden it becomes alive to me. So I have to create a part for myself in the moment. I suppose I’m always doing that. Insofar as how it fleshes out in terms of the group dynamic, I think everyone is sensitive to finding their thread and fabric, so to speak. That’s what I’m always trying to do.

As a working drummer in live situations, you always have to play the room. One week you might be playing the Village Vanguard, after spending a month playing concert halls with Wayne Shorter.

True. I think a lot of it comes from my earlier experiences, firstly playing in church in Shreveport, and doing many, many gigs in ballrooms and hotels and lounges, all these different environments, different musics. That has informed my ability to adjust, to adapt to the environment quickly and say, “Okay, this is the sound,” and be able to fill it but not overwhelm it. It’s always a challenge. Every day is a different experience.

Can you speak to the band’s name, Fellowship?

I guess the big idea is what I hope to present with the music itself, this bond and this solidarity, not separatism or things that place boundary-lines between us. The music is perhaps not always easily defined, but I would call it our folk music, and it’s based on our relationships.

In a previous conversation, we spoke about the role of location being crucial to your broad conception of music—American heartland music. Shreveport is situated more or less equidistantly between the Delta, the Bayou, and the Ozarks, which is the confluence of a lot of streams, I suppose you absorbed a lot of them as a kid.

I suppose I did. Gospel, of course, being at the core of it. But then, I heard so much music. Chuck Rainey and the Neville Brothers, Asleep at the Wheel, this kind of cross-section of Soul and Country and roots music, as well as all the recordings I was trying to listen to. So yes, it is a curious place, right at that point in Louisiana.

Have your experiences with Wayne Shorter modified-morphed your views on presentation, or forms of tunes, or how you tell a story on the drums?

It’s definitely given me a greater degree of courage, to take chances. That’s what I love about Wayne. He’s such a master, such a genius composer, such a funny man. So for him not to rest on what he’s already established, absolutely the bedrock of this music, his unrivaled compositions… He’s still searching for new pathways and a different direction every night. So I try to do that myself. There is that unknown, which Wayne embraces wholeheartedly, and he’s brought us into that, like, “Okay, flashlights on—let’s adventure.” But then also, Wayne is always writing and bringing things in, and often, as a trio, Danilo and John and I will go through things at soundchecks. We may not get to them for a while. But Wayne is always planting seeds, and the growth comes slowly but surely.

The concerts give the impression of being 60 minutes of collective improvising, with occasional references to the tunes. How does it function? Are there cues? Is it just that you’ve been playing together for so long that you have that mutual intuition?

Right. After nine years, that unspoken language develops, just from that immeasurable amount of time together. But beginning from nothing, there are points at which someone might actually play something that we are familiar with. “Oh, I know that melody.” “Oh, do you want to play that?” “Okay.” You might agree, and everyone goes there, but sometimes four threads of thoughts are intertwining. So somehow, within all that variance, comes a singularity as well. Wayne loves that. He loves for you to make your choice and stick with it.

There’s a quality of real sound-painting, almost as though he’s seeing the sounds as colors and shapes as he’s creating them.

His imagination is so incredible, and you can hear it in his tone and his improvising. I think of it as always this cinematic view running. There’s also the symphonic aspect of everyone’s vision. It always seemed to exist in Wayne’s music, all the records I bought while I was in college, all of his Blue Note recordings, and later his Columbia recordings, and obviously Miles’ quintet with him, and also Weather Report.  He always projects some other idea somehow, something bigger, something out of this world. Wayne is such a pictorial thinker, and he has such a cinematic, descriptive eye, and it’s great to feel like we’re part of that vision that can make his music. It’s perfect on paper. As far as I’m concerned, we just have to play what’s on the page and I would be so satisfied with that. But he wants to break out of that form almost immediately, before we even get to it, to create something that’s all of ours, so to speak. It’s been such a privilege with him to hear and just play one note, and what’s in that note is so profound and beautiful. But it’s also been great for me and for Danilo and for John to have played together for so many years now where we can walk out on the wire, so to speak, with no script, and improvise, compose together for the moment. It requires a great deal of trust, and also simultaneously, ambitiousness, and patience to put yourself in a vulnerable place, and hopefully have your instincts kick in and deliver the goods.

You mentioned how important the recordings that Wayne Shorter was on were to you as a young guy. Parenthetically, I once presented a track of yours to a veteran drummer in a Blindfold Test, and he mistook you for Tony Williams, which indicates your command of that vocabulary. Could you speak of the drummers you studied early on?

As to Wayne’s recordings, of course his Blue Note recordings with Elvin Jones, but I also initially tried to absorb Art Blakey as much as I could. Max Roach as well. Definitely Tony Williams. After I met Greg Hutchinson and Clarence Penn, they said, “Man, you need to check out Philly Joe Jones, you need to check out Papa Jo Jones.” So obviously every thread connects. Then you start to look at the progression. You can hear Papa Jo in Elvin. You can hear Art Blakey in Tony. Even Tony at 17, you’re talking about a fully formed genius. He set the bar so high, and you can hear that he absorbed the history of not only swing, but how to command a sound at the instrument. I guess I’m trying to do the same thing. Those are my pillars.

Were you an emulative drummer as a kid? What I mean is, would you try to play as much like Elvin Jones as you could, or as much like Art Blakey as you could, or as much like Tony Williams as you could, and then form your own conclusions out of that to become Brian Blade? Or was it more an osmosis thing?

Well, at home, in practice, I would try to. I did a little bit of transcription, but also less writing of it and just sitting at the drums and trying to learn how to execute these things that I liked. But when you’re playing in a situation with people, you make music in the now and not play something that you… It becomes a part of you, hopefully, and you can transmit it, but I know where it came from. I had so many opportunities to play all kinds of music. I was always listening to Steve Wonder, and Earth, Wind and Fire, or Todo! Again, these connections. Like, I’d hear Jeff Porcaro play a beat, and then later I would come to hear Bernard Purdie, and say, “Oh. Bernard Purdie!” I’d start to go deeper into the roots of where things come from. Sometimes when I listen back to things and hear myself, I think, “Wow, there’s New Orleans!” It’s always there, that pulse and memory of that place, my teachers and heroes there. It all has formed my way of playing music and seeing the world to a certain degree as well.

Did guitar precede the drums for you?

No. Violin did, however. But after, I guess, junior high, the line got blurry—I started playing snare drum in the sort of symphonic band. But for me, the guitar… I never had a great connection with the piano. So for me to be able to travel with this acoustic thing, and feel like, “oh, these little gifts are coming to me, and if I have 15 minutes somewhere as we travel along…” You never know. So I always like to keep it with me, and even if I get a fragment of an idea, who knows? It might develop quickly. But at least I was there to receive it.

Did any of the tunes on Season of Changes stem from guitar explorations?

Absolutely. “Rubylou’s” and “Stoner Hill”. The one song that I wrote at the piano is entitled “Alpha and Omega.” John and Myron do this amazing improvisation that precedes it, and then connects to that little piece of music. I’m proud of that one. I fancied myself in my room, the electricity had gone off, and I’m at my little piano, and Laura Nyro kind of came into the room a little bit in spirit!

When you played at the Village Vanguard with Fellowship last spring [2008],  the distinctive sound of Kurt Rosenwinkel was prominent within the mix. Jon Cowherd sat stage left at the piano, Rosenwinkel stood stage right, and, as I believe you mentioned at the time, their sounds comprised the pillars through which you navigated. Speak a bit about the band’s texture, the sound you’re hearing from the unit in your mind’s ear.

Obviously, Kurt’s brilliance and expressive power and eloquence comes from this core love of harmony. Also John, the same thing. This interweaving conversation is happening within every beat. They’re constructing these, I guess, monoliths! As a band, when it all comes together, the lines move in a linear way, but then also move in blocks, as these stacks. I often write that way. Not so much long lines, but more sung, shorter phrases perhaps. Jon and Kurt are able to make those two chordal instruments not collide with each other, but create a sort of fabric, and we all are able to stand on and jump from these posts.

Kurt Rosenwinkel was one of so many consequential musicians who developed their musical ideas at Smalls from the mid ‘90s on, as is well-documented. At that time, you played there regularly on Wednesday nights with Sam Yahel—the ambiance was more a straight-ahead, kicking drum thing, signifying on the approaches of some of the drummers you mentioned before. Can you talk about those years?

I miss it. To go down to Smalls with Sam and Peter Bernstein, for a while, every Wednesday, helped me. In our development as people, but specifically as musicians, you hit these plateaus, where you feel, “okay, I’ve been able to express these things, but I’m stuck there now.” So you have to place yourself in situations where you’re going to be challenged. With Sam and Peter, it was always a feeling, “wow, I have to raise the bar,” because they were really talking on a high level. It helped me so much. And it was fun. You’d walk out of there at six in the morning, and it was as if, “Okay, we had an experience tonight.”

But it seems that towards the latter ‘90s, leading up to Wayne, you started to move from “blowing” drumming to longer-form sorts of things. Now, this is a gross generalization, since everything goes on at the same time. But I’m wondering if there’s a kernel of truth to this observation.

I suppose so. I feel my writing became much more compact on Season of Changes—little 3-minute statements, very short sentiments. But we’re also able to balance that with, say, Jon’s writing, “Return of the Prodigal Son” or “Season of Changes,” that are much more of a trip, much more of a landscape through the mountains and valleys. I don’t know. It’s ever-changing. Maybe I’ve got another suite in me somewhere around the bend.

You mentioned that you started playing snare drum in junior high school.

I started playing drums when I was 13. My brother, Brady, who is five years older than me, was playing in church. At the time, he was leaving for college, so it just seemed it was my time to step into the seat in church once he left. It was an unconscious move, really. It just felt like, “Oh, that’s your duty.” “You want to play? Oh, great.”

You once mentioned to me that when you started playing drums in church, you were directly next to the chorus.

Yes. But particularly the organist—or piano, depending on which side and which church we were in. There’s been three locations of our church, Zion Baptist. We started in one part of Shreveport when I was very young, and for most of my life we were in a second location. Once I moved away to college, we moved to yet another location. So it was a different arrangement within each church, but very similar. The choir is always behind the pulpit, and the piano and organ are always behind the left and right, and the drums could have been on either side.

That’s a very dramatic context in which to play drums every week. Did those early experiences have a big impact on the way you think about playing drums now?

It is definitely the ground on which everything stands for me. Every situation which I’m a part of, that initial experience of serving the song, where it’s about praise and not some show or entertainment, but the rhetoric and being in worship service…I feel like every time I play, I’m in that place, even in an unconscious way. I think it gave me a certain focus to hopefully get out of the way! Obviously, there’s a lot of practice that we all have to do to get better at playing and expressing ourselves. But those lessons and that experience is where I come from, I think, in every other situation.

Can you speculate similarly on whatever impact your father’s sermons or rhetoric may have had on the way you express yourself and tell stories?

Yes. Actually, I’m writing a song for my dad right now, because we’re going to make a record for him later this year. I guess a lot of times, people don’t necessarily see Biblical stories as being connected to their lives. But my father had this great ability to break down parables. Often in church, when something speaks to people, they say, “Make it plain!” By “making it plain,” it’s like, “ok, I see what you’re saying; it’s real to me in this moment, in my life.” I’m trying to do that with songs. My dad definitely has inspired me and influenced me so much in trying to make it plain, these things that sometimes can be heavier thoughts or seemingly abstract.

Does the “Make it plain” notion have anything to do with the way you approach playing drums in the flow of things?

Perhaps it does. I remember my brother, when I was starting to play in church, would say, “It’s all about the train.” Keep the train moving. Just the simple thought of CHUG-CHUG-CHUG, seeing my role as being the train, so to speak, or the engine of the thing. Then you find yourself in that description. Ok, maybe the train is a colorful train. Maybe the train makes little stops on its route. So I try obviously to express myself, but at the same time not lose my sense of responsibility in a situation.

Eight years ago, you told me, “Jazz definitely is predominantly what I do play. I am not offended by the word ‘jazz.’”

Yeah!

Then you followed up with a remark that we get caught up too much in terminology.

I think so. Perhaps it’s so loose… I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to define what jazz is. But maybe it was something much clearer to folks when it was somewhat popular music, say, from the turn of the last century til as late as the ‘60s. You could look to Miles Davis or Louis Armstrong, and just say, “Ok, this is jazz.” But as things became much more combined and influences started to come together, those lines started to disappear as to clear definitions. But when I think about jazz, certain folks come to mind. Thelonious Monk. Duke Ellington. Or hopefully what the Fellowship Band is doing I would call jazz—but other elements and feelings come into our music as well.

Hopefully, what we provide for each other is this trust, the confidence to take chances. We don’t want to rely on what we played last night, or any automatic rote actions. We want to be in the moment as well, and surprise ourselves, and surprise each other, to have that mutual connection and know that everyone is completely submitting themselves to the whole idea. I think the audience feeds off of that. I’m not comparing us to the John Coltrane Quartet, but they are the example of what great group interplay is and the power that comes from that. Each individual is so virtuosic and delivering such emotional power on their instrument, but then there’s even something higher that we can reach together, something unseen, something that is a grace that’s been given.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, Jazz.com, New Orleans

Idris Muhammad and George Coleman, WKCR, April 5, 1995

Continuing  our mini New Orleans drummer series, here’s an encounter with Idris Muhammad from a week in 1995 when he was working with George Coleman at the Village Vanguard, one of three successive Vanguard gigs in an 18-month  span that George publicized with me on WKCR. Not sure whether it was George’s or my idea to have them up together, but whatever the case, Idris was in, as they say, expoobident form.

Not sure what happened to the beginning of the conversation, but I’m quite sure that most of the proceedings are contained herein.

* * *

IM:    …then I tried to play a little something, then we’d stop… And growing up, the school that I went to… All of us went to the same junior high school, grammar school, so it was known that we were going to play the drums.Add New

Were your parents musicians?

IM:   My father played the banjo. He played the banjo with Louis Armstrong.  His name was Nathaniel Morris.  Plus, he was an interior decorator; that’s how he supported us.  But he had a sense of rhythm, that he could go from the kitchen to the living room with a pair of drumsticks, and play on everything, and make it happen.

What about his background?  Did the music go back to your grandparents?

IM:   My mother’s people originated from France, and my mother’s father was a violin player in the opera house in New York.  So she knew music.

So your family, in a way, covers all the strains that make New Orleans a city that has such an incredible wealth of music.

IM:   Right.  Well, you see, the neighborhood that I lived in, musicians lived there and schoolteachers, see, and they had three bands that used to parade through the streets.  And they had two Indian tribes.  So when people ask me about my music, what happened:  I used to follow the bands in the second-line, and I used to dance under the bass drum player.  So as I grew up, I had this sense of bottom, playing the bottom, because I used to walk next to the guy that played the bass drum — and I used to hear this big sound all the time.  And the snare drum player was always on his left, see.  But I used to always march…

GC:    This was marching in the street parades.

IM:    The street, yeah, the Dixieland people!  And the guy used to say to me, “Son, get away from this bass drum before I hit you with this mallet.”  You know what I mean?  And then the next thing you know, when I started playing the drums, I had this sense of bottom, playing the bottom, you see, where a lot of drummers play the top — they’ll be top heavy, but they don’t play the bottom.

So in a certain almost literal way, if someone hears you now playing trap drums with George Coleman, you’re playing an extension of what you heard in New Orleans as a kid.

IM:   Yes.  It’s a mixture between the Dixieland bands that marched through the streets and the Indian rhythms.  You had two Indian tribes.

GC:    And the Cajuns.

IM:    Yeah, the Cajuns.  These guys were playing these tambourines.  See, there’s a rhythm that they play.  See, in our neighborhood, there is a drum-beat that I developed, that I mixed the Second-Line and the beat with the Indians playing the tambourine.  So I came up with this Funk sound that the Nevilles play today — because we’re from the same neighborhood.  So I came up with this certain Funk sound.  I was on the road in ’57 with Arthur.  We had a band with a guy named Larry Williams; he had some records out, “Short Fat Fanny” and “Bony Moronie,” which were big hits in this time, kind of a takeoff on Little Richard.  Then when we got back, the guys was all saying that they never… There was a lot of comments about the drums, and the sound that they was hearing.  Then I was out with Sam Cooke (I was Sam Cooke’s personal drummer), and I came to New York, and I remember playing at the Apollo — and the guys were saying, “What is this drummer playing?”  And I had no idea that it was that different, because up here they were playing a lot of shuffles.

GC:    That’s right.  I’m not cutting you off, but incidentally, Idris is on many of the commercial records, the hit records, with that fantastic beat, that boogaloo type thing that was quite prominent in the ’50s throughout the ’60s.  He was one of the innovators that could play that type beat, that Boogaloo thing.  And he’s been on many, many records that you hear this very distinctive beat.  A lot of people call it a Rock-and-Roll beat, but I like to call it Rhythm-and-Blues

And the more you hear it, it sounds like the New Orleans beat.

IM:    Well, that’s what it is.  That’s what it is.

GC:    Well, it pretty  much comes from there.  Of course, there were some guys in Memphis who could play that, too.

IM:    They could play that also, yeah.

Of course, there was always an interchange between New Orleans and Memphis because of their proximity on the Mississippi River.

GC:    Yes.

Did you know about George when you were a kid?  You’re a little bit younger than George, I think.

IM:    No, I didn’t.  I met George, as we said, we were working with Betty Carter, and we became…

GC:    That’s right.  When he came to New York and we started working together, that’s when we hooked

Now, George, as a young guy,  apart from learning Jazz, you were playing with people like B.B. King and other Blues and Rhythm-and-Blues bands.

GC:    That’s right.  A lot of people don’t know this, but a lot of the great Jazz players came from these bands.  Like, John Coltrane, he was playing with Earl Bostic.  Tommy Turrentine, a great trumpet player, he was playing with Earl Bostic.  Blue Mitchell was with Earl Bostic.

Or Benny Golson with the Bullmoose Jackson band and Earl Bostic.

GC:    That’s right.  And Stanley Turrentine was with Earl Bostic, too.  All of these great players have come from the R&B.  We’re all coming from the R&B.  I’d say a good portion of us started playing R&B in these bands.  And there were quite a few of them out there.  There was Amos Milburn, Sam Cooke, a lot of traveling bands out.  And we used to run into each other out there, because we would be on the same bill sometimes.  I used to run into Louis Jordan, and he had some great musicians in his band.  The musicianship was very good in these bands.  Those guys, the so-called headliners, Sam Cooke, B.B. King, they always kept good musicians in the band.  They realized the value of having guys who could read and improvise — and play Jazz, too!  But we were playing R&B, and on rare occasions we would get a chance to play a bit of Jazz.

Of course, sometimes the audiences might be a little rough.

GC:    Well, see, the way it was, we would go out with B.B. and we’d play maybe a couple of Jazz tunes.  We had a good book, too.  We had special arrangements.  There was a great arranger from Memphis that wrote for the band named R.J. Horn, and we had some nice arrangements.  I think the instrumentation was two trumpets, alto, tenor and bari.  This was the basic instrumentation.  Maybe it was two tenors, because Bill Harvey was the leader, and he played tenor, too.  So we had two tenors, bari, alto and two trumpets.  So we had special arrangements written for this instrumentation.  And it was Jazz pieces, too.  We had Jazz pieces.  A lot of it was original stuff.  And we had another singer in the band who opened for B.B., so we would play a couple of Jazz tunes, the singer would come on, and then after that B.B. would come on.  But before this would happen, while we would be playing, they would be impatient.  They’d say, “Hey, come on!  Where’s B.B.?  Where’s B.B.?  We were playing all of the hip stuff, you know, and they didn’t want to hear it.  They wanted to hear B.B.

So that’s the way that went down, and I think in a lot of the other bands that’s what would happen.  They would warm-up with just a couple of things, band tunes, and then after that you bring on the star.

Back to Idris for a moment, and staying with New Orleans.  When you were coming up, were you basically just self-taught on the drums through picking up what was around you, or did you have people specifically teaching you hands-on?

IM:    I am a self-taught drummer.  I used to practice with two other drummers.  One is named John Boudreaux and the other one’s name was Smokey Johnson.  Now, Smokey played with Fats Domino, and John is living out in Los Angeles.  They used to rehearse in my house.  Now, these guys were more advanced than I was, and they would… Because my mother allowed us to play the drums in the house, and if anybody would say anything, she would protect us, and say, “This is my father’s house; he plays any time he wants.”  So these guys used to come from downtown to my house, and practice.  I would watch them practice, and John would play just like Max Roach, and Smokey had this thunder roll like Art Blakey.  So when I got ready to play, they said, “Okay, now you get to that.”  I said, “Man, I can’t play this.”  He said, “Yes, you can.  Just look.  You put one hand here and you say ‘TING-A-LING,’ and then you do something else with the other hand.”  So I would listen to what they were doing, and try to do something that they did.  That was the closest I knew about Jazz.

When did Jazz start entering your consciousness more specifically?

IM:    There was a saxophone player who used to play with Fats Domino.  He asked me to make a Jazz concert with him.

Was that Clarence Ford?

IM:    Yes, that’s Clarence Ford.  And he asked me to make this Jazz concert, which I was scared to death.  It was Ellis Marsalis and Richard Payne.  So we made this gig, and I rehearsed it at Ellis’ house.  At this time Wynton and Branford was like little kids, running through and disturbing the rehearsal.  So I couldn’t… After rehearsing, I had no… The first time they had me to play 4′s, I couldn’t figure this out.  It just so happened, Blackwell came to the house, and he was saying… I said, “Black, show me how to… I can’t feel these fours.”  He said, “Oh, you can do this.  All you have to do is listen.”  And he played it a couple of times, and then I played it, and then I got it.  So that was the first experience that I had of Jazz.  I was basically a drummer that backed up a lot of singers, so I had a sense of playing to please people.  When you were playing for singers, you had to play what they want, and you had to pay attention, see, because paying attention when playing was very, very important.

I had one lesson that I paid for in my life.  There was a drummer called Paul Barbarin who had played with Louis Armstrong, and I asked him for a lesson.  He said, “Yeah.”  So he came by my house, and he says, “Okay, sit down.  Play the intro to ‘Bourbon Street Parade’” — which is a drum intro.  I played it.  He says, “Okay, now play a Mambo.”  And I played a Mambo.  He says, “Play a Cha-Cha.”  I played a Cha-Cha.  He says, “Play a Waltz.”  And I played a waltz.  He said, “Listen, son, I don’t have time to waste.  You’re wasting my time.”  I said, “But Mr. Barbarin, I want to learn how to read these notes.”  He said, “You’re going to school?”  I said, “Yes.”  He said, “You will learn in school.”  He says, “But I’ll tell you one thing.  One day you’ll be a great drummer.  But when they tell you that you’re great, let it go in one ear and out the other ear — and give me my two dollars.”

I’ll bet it was just like that, too.

GC:    [LAUGHS] But you know, that’s pretty much what happened to a lot of us.  Because I’m a self-taught musician, and I was fortunate enough to be around guys… When I first started playing music, I got the best schooling that you could ever want.  Because I was right there with these guys.  These guys were arrangers, composers, piano players…

Name a few names.

GC:    Oh, nobody would know them.  Some of them are still back in Memphis.  There’s one guy, Robert Talley, who is still alive back in Memphis.  Of course, Onzie Horne is dead.  He was another great teacher.  But Bob Talley, he was the guy who showed me all the stuff about chord progressions, all the stuff that these guys go to Berkeley for.  I knew that stuff when I was about 16 or 17 years old!  I knew about half-diminished chords, minor sevenths, thirteenth chords.  I would sit right down at the piano with my horn, and this guy would show me all of this stuff.  Then there were some elderly players, too, some older guys that played like Jelly Roll Morton — and I would get the basics from these guys, playing just my basic minor chords and dominant seventh chords.  But they were correct!  Everything was correct that these guys would show me.  But then, when I began to get the modern harmony from this gentleman, Robert Talley, he was showing me all about the half-diminished chords, all the stuff these guys go to Berklee to learn.  I knew that stuff when I was like 17 years old, when I first picked up the horn.  The reading, arranging and composing, I began to get all of that at the same time.  All of that stuff; it was right there available for me.  So I didn’t have to… All I had to do was to apply myself, which I did — and study and practice.  That’s all I needed.  I didn’t need all of this going to school and learning the formal stuff about… Of course, I had a basic music education in high school, where you’d find out what the great staff was, the treble clef, the bass clef, a whole note, a half note, valuations, and all that different stuff.  That was basic.  That was just basic music that you learned in high school, from your music teacher.

Your music teacher was, by the way… In high school.

GC:   Her name was Mrs. Thomas.  I can’t even remember her first time.  But this goes back to junior high school.  She was great.  Because she would set us down and she’d play some of the classics, and we had to identify Beethoven and different little things like that.  So that helped the ear.  So I was listening to Classics when I was a kid.  Moonlight Sonata and all those things, you would have to… She would play it on the record player, and then you would identify it.  “Now, what is this?”  Then you would tell her what it is.  This was just basic music.  As I say, you found out about whole notes, half notes, the great staff, bass clef, treble clef, and all that.

Now, these things didn’t mean that much during that time.  But as I grew and began to get involved in Jazz, then these things started making sense.

George, were you also listening to saxophone players and trying to emulate their style?

GC:    Oh, yes, man.  That was the order of the day — transcription.  That was the order of the day.  We were transcribing Bird solos.  As I said, this same stuff that happens at Berklee and the University of Miami and places like that, I was doing that when I was 17.  I was transcribing Charlie Parker solos.  Maybe not writing all of them out, but I would emulate them, I would play them, and I would listen to them on the 78.  And that was the top speed.  You couldn’t slow it down.  Today you can kind of slow things down.  Then with 78′s, you had to hear it right from the speed.

Idris, did you practice off records, too, with other drummers, or was it all functional with you?

IM:    Yes, I did.  I practiced with the radio. [LAUGHS] It wasn’t a Jazz station, but it was a Rhythm-and-Blues station that used to sneak in every now and then with a couple of Jazz tunes.  So I practiced playing… I had to learn the top ten tunes…

So you could play at the dances.

IM:    Right, so I could play with these singers.  And every now and then they’d sneak in one of these Jazz records, and I would play with that on the radio.  Now, my high school teacher was Solomon Spencer, and to play in the high school band, you had to learn how to read.  You just couldn’t play in the band.  I mean, he was teaching us… A strange thing happened.  There was a waltz that I hated to play, because the snare drum he only had to play BUHM-BOOM, and the bass drum says BOOM, and the snare drum answers BUHM-BOOM.  I used to get sick of this.  And he says, “Listen, son.  You can’t…no BUH-DOOMP, BUH-DOOMP.  You must play BUHM-BOOM.  What’s on the music, that’s what you play.  And I hated this waltz.  Now, just recently, in the last six-seven years, I’m living in Vienna, in Austria, and I went to a park to pick up my wife one day, and I heard this orchestra playing in the park — I heard this waltz.  I said, “Gee, whiz, that’s the waltz I used to hate to play!”  And it turned out it’s the “Blue Danube Waltz.” [GC AND IM SING FIRST 8 BARS] [LAUGH] I hated that man!  Johann Strauss.  That’s one of this… Strange things happen.

But musically, you have to… When you’re playing the music, they always taught us to pay attention.  You see, you had to pay attention.  When someone taught you something, you observed and you got this down. So when you had to use it again… I remember I was playing back in the Big Joe Turner band, and he said, “Son, turn the sticks around, backwards, and give me that beat.”  And I gave it to him, and I remember while performing he turned around and looked at me and gave me the greatest smile, man.  It looked like I just hit the drums so hard… Then I remembered this, that my job is to please the people who I’m working for.  If I take a job…

GC:    Give them what they want.

IM:    Yes.  If I take a job, at the end of the night you’re going to be happy with what I’ve done, because I’m going to please you.  That’s why I take the job.  My object, I am the drummer, I am the spine of the band.  You see?  I am responsible for everything that goes down in the band and happens.  I am carrying the band.  I am the carpet under the band.  So I let you ride on me.  But when I take you for this ride, when I let you off, you’re going to be happy.

I want to follow up on one comment you made before about your first official Jazz concert, I guess in the early ’60s in New Orleans with Ellis Marsalis and Clarence Ford.  You mentioned Blackwell coming by and showing you some stuff.  So although you weren’t so familiar with Jazz as such, you knew Blackwell a little bit — and people like James Black as well?

IM:    Well, you see, what happened is that Blackwell and Earl Palmer and Wilbur Hogan, these were Jazz drummers.  These guys played Jazz.  That’s all they did.  They played Jazz.  And Blackwell was known for playing Jazz…

Uncompromisingly so.

IM:    Oh, man, he played Jazz!  And see, I learned these things about playing melodies, playing the melody on the drum by listening to Ed Blackwell.  I had heard Max Roach and them do it, but I saw Blackwell do this.  And he was so intricate the way he did it.  I mean, he played the melodies like the horn player played it.  So I saw it, but it didn’t… You see, I came from Funk and Rhythm-and-Blues.  It didn’t dawn on me that…

What happened to me in the Jazz in New York, I was working at the Apollo Theater with Jerry Butler, and I went down to the Five Spot to hear Roland Kirk.  So I just got enough nerve to ask the drummer to let me sit in — and he did!  We started playing, and Roland got through the melody and says, “Who is that on them drums!?  Who?  Who’s that on them drums?”  I said, “Leo.”  He said, “Keep that beat!  Keep that beat!”  So I ended up playing a couple of numbers.  When I finished, a guy came up to me out of the audience.  He said, “Oh, man, you sound really great, and I’d like you to do a concert with me at Town Hall.”  I said, “yeah, I think I could do that.”  He told me when was the concert, and I said, “By the way, what is your name?”  He said, “Kenny Dorham.”

GC:    Mmm-hmm.

IM:    You see?  And that was my first experience… The first Jazz thing I got into in New York, playing at Town Hall, was Kenny Dorham’s band, Freddie Hubbard’s band and Lee Morgan’s band.  From that gig, I met Betty Carter.  Betty heard me, and Betty hired me.  You see?  The next thing, George and I met up.  And one thing led to another, and the next thing to another… Meanwhile, I’m still recording a lot of Rhythm-and-Blues, Rock-and-Roll, Funk records, because nobody in New York knew how to play these rhythms.  Nobody could play these rhythms.  See?  So I made quite a few hit records with a lot of people.

GC:    Yes, he did.

Name five.

IM:    Well, one is “Alligator Boogaloo.” “Feel Like Making Love” with Roberta Flack.

GC:    Oh, you did some Bob James stuff, too.

IM:    Yeah, Bob James.  We did “Taxi.”

GC:    And you also did that commercial with Bobby Short, “Charley.” [SINGS THEME] During those times, I made a few little things.  Because the recording field was quite lucrative back in those days.  So I used to make a few commercial things, too, just playing parts and stuff like that.  But he was the man.  He was the man for the beats, for that particular thing during that time — and in any other kind of beat.  So when he’s telling you, “Well, I give them what they want,” he’s capable of doing that.

Anybody.

GC:    Anybody.  Whatever you want, he’ll give you.  That’s what makes him so great.  That’s why I’m very happy to have him.  And when the people come out to hear us, they’re going to hear a great drummer.

[MUSIC: George Coleman, "El Barrio"; Idris Muhammad with Gene Ammons, "The Black Cat"]

That track brings up a kind of continuity.  George spent a number of years in Chicago, sort of as the way-station between Memphis and New York.  I’d like you to talk about the quality of those years.

GC:    My stay in Chicago, it seemed as if I spent much more time than I actually did.  I arrived somewhere circa 1956, and I departed March ’58 to join Max Roach.  Now, that’s maybe a couple of years.  But during that time I was there, it’s like I spent ten years, at least ten years there, because there was so much happening during that time Jazz-wise.  As a matter of fact, it was 24 hours a day of music during that time.  As a matter of fact, Norman Simmons and I were just talking about that last night at Bradley’s.  There was so much happening at that time, musically, Jazz-wise, because there were so many clubs… There was just a tremendous amount of music, and great musicians, of course.  Gene Ammons was there, and Johnny Griffin, and a lesser-known saxophone but nevertheless a great player, a guy named Nicky Hill.  Of course, Eddie Harris; he was there.  Eddie is a multi-instrumentalist.  He played five saxophones, piano…

He said he used to play piano off-nights with Ahmad Jamal.

GC:    Yeah, he probably did!  There was just such an exciting array of talent there during that time.  There was one club that was open 24 hours.  I mean, you could go in early in the morning and play at 6 o’clock in the morning, all through the night — a place called the Cotton Club.  It was first called the Cotton Club; then they changed it to Swingland.  But the policy was still the same.  The bass and the drums were always on the stand, and just any time of day or night there were people playing in there.

How would you distinguish, say, the way Chicago drummers were playing from the New Orleans sound? — if there’s a distinction.

GC:    Well, I can’t correlate music geographically.  Because there’s so many guys… It doesn’t matter where you’re from.  It seems to me that whatever you do, or however you play… You could be from Timbuktu, and you could sound like somebody from New Orleans or Memphis or Detroit… There was a little argument just recently about Detroit pianos.  Well, Tommy Flanagan says there’s no such thing as Detroit pianos.  Because they tried to associate all the guys from Detroit as having some kind of connection style-wise.  But it’s not.  All those guys are different!  Flanagan’s different from Lightsey and Barry Harris.  But they’re all great.  It just happens that there are a lot of great piano players from Detroit.  And there are some great musicians in Philadelphia.  There’s great musicians all over the place. So geographically, it’s kind of hard for me…

You don’t want to hear anything about Chicago Tenors, then.

GC:    No.  No, not really.  It’s just that there are so many great musicians all over the world.

Well, Idris, do you think that someone like you or James Black or Ed Blackwell could have developed the type of style you did anywhere but New Orleans?  What’s your take on that?

IM:    Well, because I was raised there, and I had a sense of rhythm and time that we were taught, and it was the experience, you know… As George says, you could have gotten it no matter where you lived at, but it just so happened that I was in New Orleans…

GC:    And there were some great drummers there…

IM:    Yeah, and there was some great guys.

GC:    See?  That’s it.

IM:    They taught us… I remember my father saying to me, “Son, what are you going to do as far as making a living?”  I said, “Pop, I’m going to play the drums.”  He said, “Is that all you’re going to do?”

GC:    You’ve got to go out and get a real job!

IM:    He said, “You’ve got to get a job, boy.”  I said, “Well, Pop, I’m going to play the drums.”  He said, “You’re going to play the drums and take care of a family?”  I said, “Yeah, Pop.”  He said, “Well, how are you going to do that?”  I said, “Well, just play the drums.”  He said, “Just play the drums?”  And after… I think I was in the Tan Magazine (which was a rival of Ebony Magazine in these days) with Jerry Butler.  Also, I spent a number of years in Chicago.  And my mother saw this, and she went to the newsstand, and she bought all of the magazines, and she showed this to my father.  When I came back to New Orleans, I had this nice Brooks Brothers suit, and I bought my father a canary-yellow sport-jacket.  He said, “Son, it seems like you’ve made up your mind that you’re going to play the drums for a living.”  I said, “Yeah, Pop.  And look how much money I have!”  He said, “Yes, I think you’re going to do all right.”

I guess being a musician himself, he had a well-earned skepticism about the life.

IM:    Yes.  Because we were 14 kids, you see, and he was an interior decorator also.  We all learned this business, because all of my uncles are interior decorators.  So as a kid, we were always apprenticed to learn this job.  That’s how he really took care of us.  Playing the banjo, it was like…

GC:    It was fun. [LAUGHS]

IM:    Yeah.  I remember from my older brother, before he died, he told me something that I didn’t realize until… My  brother heard me play with Johnny Griffin one time, and it was the first time he ever heard me play Jazz.  Then he told me some history about myself that hadn’t been pulled out of me.  It’s that when my father played this banjo, he used to sing all of these standard songs, all of these standard tunes that we play today that we call “standards” — “Stella by Starlight” and all of these.  He used to sing them.  We sat on the floor and he would sing to us!  So I knew these standards as a kid.  So when I started playing Jazz and the guy called a standard, I already knew that.  I’d see that the piano players were having trouble with the changes, but I was playing it on the drums.  They’d say, “Well, Idris, how did you know that this went like that?”  I knew this music.

My brother said, “I listen to you solo.  You’re playing the melody, you play the bridge, play the last eight, and you’re bringing them out.  Your father used to do this.”  Then he told me something about my hands, how to balance my hands out, you see.  But I am a musical drum player.

GC:    That’s right.  Exactly.  See, he hears tones as well as percussive sounds.  Idris hears tones.  This one tune we played, he heard the bridge and he said, “Man, that’s a hip bridge; that’s some hip changes on the bridge!”  Now, how many drummers would really be listening to changes?  He listens to changes and melodies.  See, that’s what sets him apart from so many other drummers.

That’s George Coleman’s second encomium to Idris Muhammad.  I’d like Idris to return the favor and talk about George.  You’ve played with some of the greatest tenor players — Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Pharaoh Sanders.  What makes George Coleman special to play with?

IM:    For me, George is special because George is always working at new things.  I heard a comment Elvin said about John, that when he worked with John, how John was inspirational to him.  One time I was in the dressing room in between sets, and someone was interviewing Elvin, and they were commenting that Elvin was the number-one drummer and all of that, and Elvin was saying it’s due to John’s always working on new things that makes him reach for other things that he doesn’t know are inside of him.  For me, George has this.  To play with George is a challenge for me.  I was saying to him last night… George, I was playing with you, and you were playing some stuff, and my left hand was going crazy, and I was trying to play what he was playing in my left hand, and keep the rest of the things going, and it was pulling me, and I said, “No, I’d better stop myself in,” because I happened to stop my cymbal ride and my bass drum beat.  See, it’s a challenge.  I don’t have this challenge too much.

George is a fellow that’s always working on something new, and he’s always progressing — you see?  And for me to play with him, I think that one of the greatest things is just watching George play, you see, and being able to play with him to hear these notes — because he is always reaching for things.  I mean, new things.  I have played with a lot of horn players, and a lot of the horn players have tunes that they like to play.  George is playing things that’s always… When I play with George in the band it’s always something new.  Every time I play with him, he’s always progressed.  See?  So it’s a challenge to me, because it makes me reach for things that.. If I hear something that I haven’t heard before, I try it with him.  And if it comes out, then I reach a new area.  So I think he’s a very exceptional horn player, and underrated.

Idris, how do you go about working on new things?  Does it come through gigs, or through your own solitary practice?

IM:   Well, strange as it might seem today, I don’t practice any more.  I don’t have time.  I really don’t time.  I don’t have time to practice.  I’m traveling a lot.  My kids was asking me, “Pop, the drums are down there; I haven’t heard you play the drums in a while.”  When I come off the road, I put the cymbals on the side, and I go to my family duties.  Then the phone rings, and I’m out in a couple of days.

So what I do is, I use a theory that if I have a job, who I’m taking this job with, I think about them, think about their music — then on my way to the gig I’m playing with them already.  So I’m already into you before we have already hit a note.  On the way to the gig I’m thinking about you.  If I’ve got to work with George, which is a rare thing unless we’re working on new tunes, we don’t have time to rehearse.  You see?  So when I’m on my way to the gig, I’ve taken a gig with George Coleman, so I’m thinking of George is playing.  He’s a very strong player, a very devoted player, and I know he’s going to come up with some new things.  So I am putting myself up for this.  So I am playing already; before I set the drums up, I’m playing.

George, talk about your working on new things.

GC:    Well, I’m basically the same way as what Idris is talking about.  I don’t get a chance to practice too much.  Fortunately, when I’m playing, that’s basically when I’m practicing, when I’m trying to create new things or do new things.  What motivates this is my supporting cast, my being surrounded with excellence.  That’s what makes me create and be able to do things, and just relax and play.  If I have players like Idris and Jamil and Geoff and Harold Mabern and people like that, that’s the motivation.  That gives me incentive to try new things and create new things.  Because I don’t have to think about whether the beat is going to be messed up or somebody is going to play some wrong changes.  All I have to do is lay back and just play, and when I am able to do this, then I can come up with some creativity. That’s what happens to me.

Actually, you’re practicing when you’re on the stand.  That’s how you get your practice.  You know when you become a performer and a professional that has been in the business as long as we have (I know exactly what he’s talking about), it’s not so important to practice.

Technique is no longer an issue.

GC:    Right.

This is a hard question, maybe even a corny question, but I’ll ask it anyway.  George, five saxophonists, and Idris, five drummers who influenced you like no others.

GC:    Okay.  Bird, Trane, Sonny Rollins… There’s a host of others.  Of course, Don Byas.  People like that.  And I respect all of the great players.  I like all the guys who are sort of unsung.  And when people tell me that I am underrated, I look at the whole… I mean, I’m at the back of the line.  There’s a lot of guys, like Frank Foster, a great player, and Jimmy Heath, and of course the late Junior Cook — there are so many players.  And then there’s a lot of great young players out there now.  So I put myself in a position to listen to all of them.

But to answer your question about the influence, the basic influences were the aforementionables, the people I mentioned before.  But there are so many other great talents.  And I always find time to listen to guys and hear things, and I say, “Oh, man, that was really nice.”  That’s how I perceive saxophone players.  Even some of the young guys that nobody even knows about.  I’ll hear a young player and I say, “Oh, that guy sounds good.  I kind of liked that.”  Then I might hear a guy who probably can’t play anything, and then I’ll search and I’ll search, and I’ll find out all those funny notes that he plays, and I may find something in there, one phrase that I say, “Mmm, I wonder if he did… Did he luck up on that?”  I’ll weed out all of the negativity and come up with something positive.  That’s how I listen.

Idris, you named some names, but the five drummer question for you.  Or five musicians.

IM:    Well, there was a saxophone player in New Orleans who a lot of people didn’t know about.  His name was Nat Perillat.

He recorded with the Adderley’s and with Ellis Marsalis.

IM:    Yes.  He was one of the first guys who I heard.  And of course, Coltrane, Lou Donaldson, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons.  A number of guys.  A great friend of mine, the drummer Art Blakey, heard me play one time at the Five Spot, and he said, “Son, you sound great.” I said, “yes, Mr. Blakey.”  He said, “Just call me Art.”  He said, “You’re sounding great, but you’re playing on those pot covers.” [LAUGHS] Which my cymbals wasn’t so great!  He said, “You sound great, but you’re playing on those pot covers.  Come with me tonight.”  So him and I and Paul Chambers hung out for a day-and-a-half, and I ended up with the cymbals that I have now, K-cymbals.  It’s something special.  It’s about 26 years I’ve had these cymbals, and everybody likes my cymbals.

GC:    They love them.

IM:    Yeah, everybody loves them.

They were hand-picked by Art Blakey!

IM:    Yes, Art gave them to me.  These were the cymbals that he used to record with.  He gave me this gift.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, New Orleans, WKCR

Herlin Riley: New Orleans Drummer, 1999 Interview

Following up on yesterday’s post of a 1986 interview with Edward Blackwell, rich in cultural implication, here’s a dialogue with drummer Herlin Riley, the nephew of Melvin Lastie, Blackwell’s close friend. Riley’s c.v. includes a five-year run with Ahmad Jamal, and 17 years (1988-2005) with Wynton Marsalis in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (as it was then named) and the Wynton Marsalis Septet. The conversations transpired as background for the liner notes that I wrote for Riley’s two excellent Criss-Cross recordings,Watch What You’re Doing (1999) and Cream of the Crescent (2005), the latter recorded just after Riley left his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra sinecure to pursue his own projects. I’ve combined the interviews below.

A griotic improviser who lived the tradition from the inside out in his formative years in New Orleans, Riley —in the manner of such New Orleans antecedents as Baby Dodds, Freddie Kohlman, Paul Barbarin, Smokey Jackson, Vernell Fournier,  Blackwell, and Idris Muhammad—is a drum scientist, one who has investigated all the sounds he can extract from the components of the drumkit and from vernacular percussion, and conjured fresh grooves, combinations, and modes of expression from a vocabulary that draws on second line, Meters-like funk, Afro-Cuban and Samba styles, Mardi Gras Indian chants, the odd-metered swing of James Black, 4/4 swing, the sanctified backbeat, and the blues.

* * * *

What is it about the culture of New Orleans that makes its drum styles and rhythmic signatures so distinctive?

RILEY:  Well, one thing, I think, during the time when jazz was being developed, New Orleans was a melting pot for different cultures.  There was the French culture, the African culture, the Spanish, some Portuguese, some Italian.  So with that, I think, and the stuff that was played in Congo Square, which was the only place where Africans could play their drums during slavery… I think what came out of those rhythms was a lot of bottom, which is the bass drum.  Even today, when we have second-lines and we have marching parades and that kind of thing, the bass drum is very prevalent in the music.  When you hear guys who come from New Orleans… I think a lot of that influence is the fact that there’s a dialogue with the bass drum and also the snare drum throughout the music…

A polyrhythmic dialogue?

RILEY:  Yeah, because they have a conversation.  It’s not necessarily the bass drum answers the snare drum with the same phrase.  It’s like it has a conversation.  The bass drum may have a question, and the snare drum will answer it. You extrapolate that to the trapset.  And even though it may be different styles of music, even if it’s swing or whatever, you can pretty much hear that undercurrent of dialogue between the snare drum and bass drum that’s happening all the time.

You come from a family that contained several generations of musicians and drummers.  Let’s talk first about the passing-down of information, and then tell me a bit about your family lineage in music.

RILEY:  Well, information is pretty much passed down as…it’s like a griot, you know.  Those guys who come and tell you stories about different music and different guys who played the music, but they also teach you about the styles.  For myself, the style was passed on to me pretty much by my grandfather, who was a drummer.  He played the drums, and he played in the homes with Louis Armstrong, like 1913; the boys who were locked up together in the homes.  His name was Frank Lastie.  I was raised pretty much by my grandparents, my grandmother and my grandfather.  My grandfather would sit me down at the table in the mornings with two butter knives or something, and he would beat out rhythms on the table, and he would challenge me to try to do them, and I would try to do the rhythms behind him.  Sometimes I would succeed and most times I would fail, and he would just laugh at me.  But the fact that I was being exposed to a particular style… Still til today, I go back and check out the influence he’s had on me, and it’s still prevalent in my playing.

Was he a working drummer, a working musician when he was raising you?

RILEY:  Well, he wasn’t a working musician.  He didn’t play the drums professionally.  He played pretty much in church.  I learned to play pretty much just in church.  And when he would get up from the drums in church, I would sit down and play behind him.  But his sons were also musicians — Melvin Lastie, David Lastie and Walter Lastie.  Now, Walter Lastie was a drummer; they called him Poppy(?).  He’s the one that actually turned me on to styles of bebop and more modern styles of playing.  How to hold a stick and how to use the rebound in a stick for speed and that kind of thing.  So he kind of taught me about the technique of playing and about the more modern styles.  You were also talking about some second-line stuff, but that came from my grandfather.  Then as I got older, I started checking out other drummers around New Orleans, like James Black or Paul Barbarin.

Say something specific about Paul Barbarin first, and then James Black, their style and relating it to New Orleans tradition.

RILEY:  Well, Paul Barbarin played pretty much the traditional New Orleans style; he plays a lot of snare drums and a lot of rolls, and he played some woodblock and choke cymbal kind of things, which is more the traditional New Orleans style playing.  He played with people like Louis Armstrong…

Well, he played with Luis Russell, who was an early big band, which would seem to relate to you in a certain way.  Applying that to a big band might be an interesting connection here.

RILEY:  Well, the big band thing is a whole nother… I didn’t look to Paul Barbarin for my influences in playing big band styles.  I listened to people like Sam Woodyard and Sonny Payne for that style of playing.  But going back to New Orleans, that’s pretty much the traditional influence.

But I listened to James Black also for the more modern influence.  James played in odd meters, like in 5/4, in 7/4 and that kind of stuff, and he played all these polyrhythmic things, like back in the ’60s…

Like the “Monkey Puzzle” record.

RILEY:  Yes, those kinds of things.  So I listened to James for the modern kind of influence.  But I wasn’t listening to him to be influenced by him.  I would go see him play and just be in awe of his playing.  I watched him for many years.  Once I was playing a gig when I… I used to play the trumpet as well, and I was a teenager and I was playing in the park where we would play and do these talent shows.  James Black happened to be in the neighborhood that particular day…

He played trumpet, too, didn’t he?

RILEY:  He played trumpet, too, yes.  But this story is so ironic.  I’d heard about James, but this is before I saw him play.  I’d heard all these stories about him and what a phenomenal drummer he was and so forth.  Then one day we were playing at this talent show, and he comes on stage.  This guy’s playing the piano, and he’s playing all these bad changes and stuff, playing the blues and playing some of his own tunes.  I asked somebody, “Who is this guy playing the piano?”  They said, ‘Man, that’s James Black.  You don’t know who that is?  That’s James Black.”  I was flabbergasted, because I never expected him to play the piano as well as he did.  I guess the point I’m making is that he was a wonderful composer as well as being a great drummer.  James wrote some fine tunes.  So as I got older, I began to appreciate his talents more and more.

The Lasties were close to Blackwell, too, no?

RILEY:  Yes, they were close to Blackwell.  My uncle Melvin especially was good friends with Blackwell.  They hung out around New Orleans, and also when they got to New York they did gigs with Willie Bobo and Ornette Coleman, and they hung out with Don Cherry and did some stuff with him as well.  New Orleans is a very small place, so all the players, all the guys, all the musicians know each other.  It’s a good thing, because they have jam sessions, and there’s also an exchange of ideas and influences.  You don’t hardly find any kind of animosity or jealousy among the players down here.  People are always willing to exchange information.  I think that’s a healthy thing for music in general.

Let’s get some facts and figures.  You were born when?

RILEY:  I was born in New Orleans, February 15, 1957.

Your grandfather was giving you the butter knives when you were 3-4-5?

RILEY:  Yes, I was 3 years old.  Actually there was always drums in the house.  It was just there for me to play, and I learned to play because they were there.  I heard my uncles rehearsing in the house.  They had different bands that would come to my grandparents’ house and rehearse.  They would kind of roll my crib into the rehearsal room and let me check out the music, and it would keep me quiet.  So as I got old enough to walk and to handle things, they put sticks in my hands, and I was able to play.  I just innately learned how to play.

Did you have any formal teachers when you were young, apart from your uncle and…

RILEY:  I never had any formal training on the drum set.  I played the trumpet in high school.  What I would do… When I got to high school…by then I could play the drums.  I mean, I could handle myself a little bit.

On the trap drums.

RILEY:  On the trap drums.  When I got to high school and I played the trumpet, I would watch other drummers.  Every time we would take a break or something, I could go over to the other drummers about what they were doing, and they would show me stuff, like 5-stroke rolls, what a flam was, various paradiddles and so forth.  They would show me those things, and challenge me to do them with them.  Sometimes I could do it, sometimes I couldn’t.  But I was gathering information about the technical aspects of playing.

Were you playing functionally at that time?

RILEY:  I was playing in church all the time.

Trap drums and tambourine…

RILEY:  Not a lot of tambourine, but mostly trap drums.  From the time I was 5 years old on up, I was always playing… I went to church regularly.  I went to church like 2 or 3 times a week.  So I got a chance to play… Every time my grandfather would get up, I would sit down and play, and then as time went on, I got to play more and more, because I was growing and I was able to keep better time and that kind of thing.  So I could always play the drums.  But when I went to high school, I was playing trumpet in school, and drums was something I did that nobody in the school knew about.  They didn’t really know about that, until they saw me messing around with the other drummers or something.

Were you playing drums in brass bands, or were you a parade drummer?

RILEY:  No, I wasn’t doing that.  Well, I got a chance to do that when I was 14, and Danny Barker, who was a banjo player, had come back to New Orleans from New York, and he formed a band of younger musicians, of kids, playing traditional second-lines and New Orleans style music.  So I was fortunate enough to get a shot to play in a band.  I played in that band…

That was the Fairview Baptist Church band.

RILEY:  The Fairview Baptist Church Band.  Yes, it was.

Tell me about that experience, of meeting Danny Barker and meeting him.  Did he have a big impact on you?

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Well, Danny Barker had played with Lady Day, and Cab Calloway.  So I knew the legend of Danny Barker; it stuck out.  My uncle Melvin knew Danny Barker real well, and he came back to New Orleans and formed this band, he told Danny Barker that he had a nephew who played the trumpet, and Danny said, “Yeah, just bring him over here.”  He gave him an address where to bring me, I went over to where they were rehearsing, and I got a chance to play.  That was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, because Danny always taught us how to… Even though we were playing music, he said, “Man, you play music, but you’ve got to play to people.  Because you’re not playing for yourself; you’ve got play music for the people.”  There were some other guys in the band, like Leroy Jones, who plays with Harry Connick, Lucien Barbarin, who’s also with Harry Connick, Wynton came through the band… At the time it was a good thing, because nobody else was doing that kind of thing.  All the music that was being played was pretty much being played by adults, and Danny’s coming down and organizing kids to participate in playing the music I thought was a good thing.

You’re talking about being trained in all this traditional music, but you’re much more than a traditional drummer.  You cover a history, a spectrum.  When did you start playing modern jazz?

RILEY:  Well, it was always there.  Just being in New Orleans, I got a chance to play with a lot of different type of musicians.  I got a chance to play with traditional guys, I got a chance to play with guys who were trying to stretch a little bit more.  I remember playing with guys like Ramsey McLean, who’s now a lyricist, but he was a bass player back then.  Harry Connick was also part of a band called Lifers, with Charmaine Neville.  I played in that group, and we had a chance to play… Well, Sam Rivers came down once and played with us, and it was like some free-form kind of stuff.  So I got a chance to play with him.  Then in ’75 I played with a Russian cat named Vladimir who had a Latin band.  I played in funk bands with some of the Neville guys.  So just because of being in New Orleans and New Orleans being a small city, I had a chance to play with all the guys who were playing different types of music.  Because there’s only a handful of drummers and a handful of bass players and so forth, so a handful of drummers and bass players covered a lot of different gigs.

Were you exposed at all to, say, Kidd Jordan or Alvin Fielder or Alvin Batiste?

RILEY:  Yes.  I went to school at Southern University in 1975, and Kidd was the director there at the time, and I played in that band.  Also, when I was in Carver High School, Alvin Batiste came from Southern University to do a Jazz Artist in Residence program.  The band was under the directorship of Miss Yvonne Bush.  One thing I can say about Miss Bush, she would always allow us to do other things.  If musicians wanted to play other instruments, she would always encourage you to do that.  If you wanted to write, she would always encourage you to do that as well.  But Alvin would come down, like, twice a week, and turn us on to things about jazz, how the rhythms in jazz work, and the blues scale, and let us improvise, and that kind of thing.  So I was definitely touched by Alvin Batiste as well as Kidd Jordan.  I also had a chance to play with Ellis Marsalis, even before I knew Wynton, in the Heritage Hall Jazz Band, which played trad style, but also leaned toward more kind of bebop styles, too.  So it would play trad styles, but would put modern harmonies on it and that kind of thing.

I heard a record by them with Freddie Kohlman on drums.

RILEY:  Yes, as a matter of fact, I replaced Freddie Kohlman in the band.  I came after he did.

So your experience is sort of perfectly suited for what you’re doing now.  The past is very vivid for you.  It’s not like some exotic artifact.  It’s a living entity.

RILEY:  Yes, it is.  It is a living entity, because I’m playing all these different things even now; all these different styles that I learned growing up, I’m having a chance to apply all of that stuff now in my playing.

When did you learn how to read music?  Was that in high school?

RILEY:  Yeah, I learned how to read from playing the trumpet, learning scales and so on.

Let’s talk about the course of your career, then.  From Southern University to Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

RILEY:  All right.  When I graduated out of high school, I played trumpet in a group that my uncle Walter (Papi) had put together.  I was 18 or so.  My uncle was playing the drums.  We did a gig somewhere in Florida with a 1950′s style Rock-and-Roll group called Vince Vance and the Valiants.  The drummer was leaving the group to go to law school or something, and they had a couple more gigs to do.  He asked my uncle if he would do the gig.  My uncle had family and couldn’t do it, so he recommended me to do them.  I went on the road and I played this gig with these guys, which was like 1950′s Rock-and-Roll, shuffles, and Duke of Earl, all that kind of stuff.  That was a real good experience for me at that time.  I wasn’t sure myself if I could play the drums on a gig.  I’d been playing in church and kind of practicing around, but I wasn’t sure myself if I could do it on a gig.  So I did it, I made the gig, the gig did well.

Right after that, I started getting calls to do more of these ’50s kind of gigs.  So I did a couple more of those in New Orleans, and I was still playing trumpet also.  One night, my Uncle David called and asked me if I could do a gig in a burlesque club on Bourbon Street.  He was at the street at Stratus(?) Club with Frogman Henry, and the 500 Club across the street was owned by the same people.  The 500 Club was a club that had strippers and novelty acts.

So you got to do the dinks for the strippers.

RILEY:  Yes.  Crash cymbal for kicking their leg, and when they’re shaking their butt you hit the tom-toms, and that kind of stuff.

You get into the dynamics of the kit.

RILEY:  Yes.  That’s very true.  It did get me into the dynamics of the kit, and to know how to use each part of the kit for certain effects.  I was playing trumpet on one night, subbing for a guy, and I would play drums on another night.  The gig ran seven nights a week, and the only way musicians could get off is if they had a sub.  So I was subbing for both guys on different nights.  Ironically, the trombone player and the drummer, who I was subbing for, both quit at the same time, so then they hired me as the permanent drummer because I knew the show.  I knew when the kicks were coming and I knew when they were going to shake their behind or whatever.  So I knew the show, and so they just hired another horn player to come in.  That’s when I began to play the drums really on a professional level, because I was doing it every night.  Time went on, and I did that for about two years…

You were going to school at the time?

RILEY:  Yes, I was going to Southern-New Orleans during the day and I would do that gig at night.

Were you a music major?

RILEY:  Yes, I was a music major.  That was kind of rough for me.  I was doing the gig, I was married with a daughter, trying to make a living…

And they stay open late in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Yes, they do.  I was working from 9 to until 2:45 in the morning, and I had to make sure I was out of there to catch the bus at 3 a.m., because if I missed the 3 o’clock bus I had to wait until the 4 o’clock bus came around.  So at quarter to 3, I was making sure I packed up and got my stuff out of there.  One thing about the show, it ran clockwork.  It was on time, to the second almost.  It was a drag to have to play that way every night, but come 2:45 I was glad it was.

And I guess later on that’s discipline that serves you well in some sense or another.

RILEY:  Absolutely.  Because after I left that show, I did a trio gig in a hotel lounge with Johnny Bashman, who played piano, but also was a tap dancer around Las Vegas and in New York.  He replaced Sammy Davis in a show called “Mr. Wonderful” and that kind of stuff, but he also played a lot of piano, boogie-woogie style.  So I played in a trio setting with him.  I learned a lot from that gig, because he taught me about tempos.  He would play real fast tempos, and he would play for long stretches of time. I learned a lot of things about texture with him, because he sang ballads, he sang show tunes like “Send In The Clowns.”  So I learned textures, and how to play soft, ballady kind of things behind a singer, in a trio… Because it’s a lounge; it’s a quiet kind of setting.  I also learned to play fast and soft playing with his group.

Now you’re how old?  Still in school?

RILEY:  No, I had left school by then. This is ’79-’80.  I didn’t get a degree; I left school.  So this is 1980, I leave Johnny Bashman’s group, and I leave and go play with Al Hirt’s group.  That was interesting.  Al was a phenomenal trumpet player.  Sometimes he would be great, but other times he would drink, and I don’t want to spew any venom on the cat, but then other sides of him would come out.  So that was a nice experience to do his gig, too.  He was legendary around New Orleans, and it was a good gig for me at the time.

It must have been the best-paying gig you’d had.

RILEY:  It was.  I mean, in New Orleans it was the best paying gig.  To be at home, and I was getting paid good with him at home.  So that was good at the time, and I appreciate that opportunity.  I did that for about a year, until about ’81.

Did that challenge you or stretch your concept in any way, or was it just what you knew?

RILEY:  No, it didn’t really… It was just a gig, pretty much.  But then I left his gig, and I played with a show called “One Mo’ Time.”

Directed by Vernell Bagneris.  I think I saw that show in New York.  Were you in it?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t do the Village Gate.  I didn’t do New York.  But I did New Orleans, and then they went to London in 1981, and I went with the show and stayed for six months just playing the show.  That was another great, great experience, because at the time I did that, I was playing 1920′s kind of music, which was nothing but snare drum, bass drum, floor tom and a crash cymbal, a choke cymbal thing.  It was good to do that, and also it was a show.  The show was a more upscale kind of show, with dialogue, and it was actually acting and that kind of thing…

It was theater.

RILEY:  It was theater.  Exactly.  It wasn’t burlesque.  It was theater.  So that was another kind of discipline to do that show, the discipline of playing that style of music, the discipline of being on stage and being somewhat in character.  I did that show for a couple of years.  In fact, that’s when I met Wynton.  In 1981, while I was doing that show…

He’s emerged.

RILEY:  He has emerged by then.  There’s a club in London called Ronnie Scott’s, and I was there for six months, so after the show, every night… My show would end at 10:30, and I could go to Ronnie Scott’s and catch the 11 o’clock show with guys coming in.  I got a chance…

So London was very nice experience for you.  Because you got to experience the world-class jazz music there.

RILEY:  Right.  I got to experience world-class jazz music, being in another part of the world, a whole nother culture.  And going to Ronnie Scott’s every night, I saw Betty Carter, I saw Art Blakey, I saw Dexter Gordon, I saw Panama Francis — just a host of different world-class musicians.

Who you had not had a chance to see in New Orleans.

RILEY:  Right, never had a chance to see in New Orleans, and I hadn’t been coming to New York enough to see these guys either.  So that was a good experience for me to be in London for that period of time.

How did Art Blakey impress you?

RILEY:  He was a MONSTER on the drums. That’s when I saw Wynton.  I was going to see Art Blakey… I knew Wynton was in the band, and when I met Wynton, he knew who I was, I knew who he was.  He knew who I was because I had played with his father and by my reputation a little bit in New Orleans.  And I knew who he was, because of course, everybody knows.  So from that time we met, man, he was just like a brother to me.  He took me in the back, he hugged me, he said, “Hey, this is my homie, man!”  We weren’t very close, but he embraced me that way, and he took me in the back and introduced me to Art Blakey and the rest of the guys in the band.  He looked out for me.  Then the next night, Branford came to the show and saw the show.  So that’s the birth of my relationship with Wynton.  So that was London for me.

Did you play with any of the English jazz musicians while you were over there, or was it exclusively “One mo’ Time”?

RILEY:  No, I got a chance to play with some English musicians.  I can’t remember their names.

Was it a trad thing, or more modernist?

RILEY:  I played some trad stuff.  But also, I was in London with Walter Payton, Nicholas Payton’s father, who was playing tuba in “One Mo’ Time.’  Now, he also played upright bass, which is what he really enjoys playing.

I hear he has an incredible instrument, too.

RILEY:  Yes, he does.  But Walter and I would go out trying to find out where cats were swinging and playing more modern styles.  There was this club called Tutty’s in London, and we would go there on Sunday afternoons when they had a 2 o’clock matinee, and we’d swing with those guys… At other times we’d try to find out where guys were playing.  If we had a chance… That was a regular spot for us to play.  They were playing more modern styles there.  But we’d also go into other places to try to play and hear other people.

So that’s London.  After I left London, I came back and I was in New Orleans, and I got a call from a guy in New Orleans about Ahmad Jamal.  This was ’82 or ’83.  Ahmad Jamal had come to town on a gig, and his drummer left the gig like in the middle of the week or something; his wife was having a baby, so he left the gig real abruptly.  So a friend of ours, Emery Thompson, a trumpet player called me, and asked me if I could make the gig with him.  They threw somebody else in to make the rest of the week, and he didn’t like him.  Ahmad was going the next week to Phoenix, Arizona, and he asked Emery Thompson, “Who’s a guy in town who can perhaps do my gig?”  He said, “I’ve got the perfect guy for you.”  So he recommended me.

Ahmad called me at about 7 in the morning… First Emery calls me and says that Ahmad Jamal wants me.  “Ahmad Jamal needs you, man.” I said, ‘Man, are you serious?  It’s 7 in the morning.  Don’t play any jokes on me, man.”  “No, I’m serious.  He really wants you to play in his band.  I’ll have him call you.”  So sure enough, about 10 minutes later, Ahmad Jamal calls me and says, “I’d really like to have you come out and play with me.”

He hadn’t heard you; this is just on the recommendation.

RILEY:  Just on the recommendation.  Emery Thompson is known as Omar Sharif.  He’s also a Muslim; that was the connection between he and Ahmad.  So he says, “Can you fly to Phoenix today?”  I said, “Today?  I don’t know.  I have some gigs; I have to get some subs.”  So to make a long story short, I got subs for all my gigs, and I was packed, and I was on the plane by 1 in the afternoon that same day.  I flew to Phoenix, met him — I didn’t know what he looked like.  I checked in the hotel.  Then we had to do a soundcheck, which was 30 minutes after I got there.

That was the rehearsal.

RILEY:  That was the rehearsal.  But it was so easy to do a soundcheck; it was so easy to work with Ahmad Jamal.  He sat down at the piano, and he didn’t say very much to me; just sat down, started playing, and just continued to play.  He would play, and then he would point at the bass player, the bass player would come in, then he’d point at the conga player, the conga player came in… In the meantime, he’s playing the cycle of the song around and around, three or four or five times.  Then he finally points to me and brings me in.  He didn’t tell them what to play.  I just listened to them play it.  And I found my pocket.  I tried to find my own little pocket…

Was his style something very easy for a New Orleans drummer to find a pocket?  Do you think he was influenced by a New Orleans conception of drumming?

RILEY:  Yes, absolutely I think so, because his number-one-selling hit was basically a New Orleans groove which was laid down by Vernell Fournier — “Poinciana.”

Which is now known as the Poinciana beat.  Where does it come from?

RILEY:  It comes from Second Line.  DING-DUM-DING, DINK-DE-DOOM, DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DING.  DINK-DE-DUH-DOOM. That’s nothing but just a second line groove; that’s all it is.  So I would definitely say yes to that, because that’s the tune that pretty much put Ahmad on the map.  But the point is, I think it doesn’t matter if you’re from New Orleans or Timbuktu or wherever.  I think Ahmad Jamal has such a feeling and command of his instrument, and the spirit that he brings to the music, that if you just listen to what he’s playing, you can find a spot, man, because he leaves a lot of room for other people to play in.

Lately he’s been working a lot with Idris.

RILEY:  Yes.  So I definitely think he has an affection for New Orleans drummers.  He’s even mentioned it to me before.  He said that he’s worked with New Orleans drummers, and he’s enjoyed the experience of working with each one of us.

So you were with Jamal for about five years.

RILEY:  Yeah, five years with Ahmad Jamal.  I would say Ahmad Jamal is like a matador on the bandstand.  He’s very calm, and he has command of everything around him on the bandstand.  He has a presence about himself.  When he hits the bandstand, the musicians, the audience, everybody just tunes in to what he has to say.  And he definitely has a lot to say on the piano.  It was very easy for me to go in and do that audition with him.  And after I did that audition, that very first time, he was like, “You’re hired.”  Well, we did the gig that night.  After the gig that night he came to me and asked, “Would you like to work in the group?”  I said “Sure, man.”  So he hired me on the spot.  But it was so easy to come in and play with him, because he has command of everything.  He gives signals for his music, and he’ll let you know when it’s time to go to the top of the tune, when it’s time to go to the bridge, or when it’s time to play the interlude or whatever.  So therefore, he can arrange his music on the spot each and every time, and it’s in a way that it can turn on a dime.  When he commands it, it can just shift and go to another thing.  So the music is very loose but also, because of him and his way, it’s very disciplined, too.

And for you, it must have been the total validation that you’re ready to play with anybody, any time, any place, anywhere.

RILEY:  Well, definitely working with Ahmad Jamal gave me a shot of confidence.  Because his music was challenging.  There was stuff in his music that I had never played, rhythms I’d never really faced before or dealt with before.  So that was definitely an educational experience, and working with him gave me a certain amount of confidence.

Were you aware of Vernell Fournier beforehand?

RILEY:  I was not really aware of him.  I had heard “Poinciana” before.  I sort of took him for granted.  Because that groove wasn’t foreign to me at all, aside from hearing the tune on jukeboxes and so forth.  Now, I knew who Ahmad Jamal was, but I knew him mostly by his more contemporary recordings.  But less the stuff he did in the ’50s.

Blackwell did a very specific study of African rhythms at a certain point, and he said it was very congruent with what he came up with in the culture of New Orleans.  Did you at any point do specific studies of African or Afro-Cuban rhythms, or were they just sort of inherent in the rhythms you learned coming up in New Orleans?

RILEY:  No, I didn’t study those types of rhythms that extensively.  The experience I had playing with the Latin band, the New Aquarians, in New Orleans, kind of helped me to identify some of those styles.  But I pretty much listened… I try to evoke the spirit of the rhythms as opposed to just playing specifically the exact rhythm or something that’s played.  I try to just capture the feeling of what it feels like in a particular space or place musically.

So you leave Jamal in ’87, and is that when you hook up with Wynton?

RILEY:  Shortly thereafter.  I did a small stint with a show called “Satchmo: America’s Musical Legend.”  Byron Stripling played Satchmo.  Anyway, I did that show for six or seven months.  I did a little acting in it as well, which was nice.  But then right after that, in ’88, I joined Wynton’s band, then a quintet with myself, Wynton, Reginald Veal, Marcus Roberts and Todd Williams.  Marcus had been with the band a year or two.  It was ironic, because I think it was my 31st birthday when he called me.  I always say it was the best birthday present I could have gotten, just a call from him to come play in his band.  Wynton had seen me play with Ahmad Jamal once, and I was surprised that he’d call me.  We talked about it later, and I think what influenced him to call me most was the fact that maybe a year before that I’d played at the Jazz & Heritage Festival with Ellis on a trio gig with Reginald Veal.  Wynton happened to be in town with his band, and he came and sat in with us, and he liked the feeling of myself and Reginald playing together.Then a year or two later, that’s when he called me, and he said it was from that experience… He’d kept it in mind; it just felt good for him.

So while you were with Jamal, you continued to play around New Orleans in a variety of situations.

RILEY:  Yeah.  When I would come off the road with Jamal, people would call me to do different types of gigs.  Ellis Marsalis would call me.  Teddy Riley would call me on gigs [no relation].  I would occasionally get a chance to do stuff with Danny Barker.  I would do stuff with Charmaine Neville.  I would play in my uncles’ R&B bands.

That wasn’t just the normal R&B band, was it.  They were kind of stretching forms, no?

RILEY:  They were stretching the forms in little ways.  But they still were playing blues, and they were playing like shuffles and slow kind of blues and that kind of stuff.  I would also get a chance occasionally to play with some Latin cats, like Hector Barrero, and some guys who play strictly Latin music…

Where the trapset has a strictly defined function within the percussion.

RILEY:  Exactly.  But I would still slide a little New Orleans inside it anyway, a little bass drum.

So what you’re doing is perfect for the concept Wynton was looking for with the septet, or first the quintet.  He’d been sort of stretching out on Modernism in the early part of the ’80s, and in this it seemed he wanted to put together a global way of looking at music historically.

RILEY:  Well, it wasn’t that.  It turned into that, because it just happened that Wynton… When I first joined his band, his music was like pushing and on the cutting edge of trying to expand the horizons of the music.  He wasn’t interested really in going back and capturing the history.  Well, I don’t think he was really interested in that at that particular time.  But he says to me that when myself and Reginald came into the band, he could suddenly hear it.  His music became clearer to him.  The music opened up in a certain way and became clearer.  When I first joined the band I’d heard all those records that Jeff Tain Watts had played on.  He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of rhythm and a lot of dialogue in his playing with the instruments, and I came into the band with that concept in mind as to how to approach Wynton’s music.  I thought about Tain going in, because that’s who I followed.  So I tried to apply that kind of influence and that kind of approach to playing.  It was okay, but it really wasn’t working, and finally, after about a year I began to find my own voice, and Wynton started really listening to my voice inside of the music.  Then the music took on another shape, he had different ideas about what to do with the music, and then the range of what he could do expanded.

Talk about what you think your voice was, and what it is that you think Wynton saw that he could do from hearing you.

RILEY:  When I came into the band, I didn’t play a lot of drums inside of the swing.  Tain played a lot of polyrhythms and stuff, and I didn’t play that way.  I tried to play that way at first, and it was okay, but it wasn’t me.  Then I started to play in a way that the solos was able to just speak out, and I would be more of a supportive…like a cushion under the soloist — with some interaction as well.  But I think they were able to hear more.  Then the fact that I was from New Orleans and I played second line stuff, he could hear… It was a different feeling.  I think I brought a different feeling to the band, a feeling of more groove and dance-oriented kind of rhythms.

So you became more and more comfortable with each other, because he works all the time, and you’re working all the time together, and I guess you just get that hand-in-pocket thing.

RILEY:  Yeah.  I mean, as you work and time goes on, things begin to develop and things begin to gel.  Everybody in the band… One thing we always stress in the band is that to be a jazz musician you have to have some humility and also some ego.  But those things have to balance.  I would say in working with Wynton, as many things as he’s accomplished, he still has a lot of humility.  I think humility allows you to grasp information and to hear other people.  So we’re always able to come together and hear each other, and in hearing each other we develop a specific sound.

As the septet evolved, it sort of dovetailed with the activities of the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra.  He’d bring in the information he was getting from that into the Septet, so Jelly Roll Morton arranging techniques come in, or the Monk things, Ellington things come in… It became a real global concept.  I really loved that septet.  You’re also playing at Jazz At Lincoln Center where you’re dealing with the whole history of the music from the inside-out.  Now, presuming that what I’m saying is basically correct within your framework… I’d like you to talk about how playing with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band has affected your concept of the drums, or just you personally.

RILEY:  When I first got a chance to play with the Jazz At Lincoln Center Big Band, I got a chance to play with some of the older guys who actually played in Duke’s band.  I played with Norris Turney, Britt Woodman, Sir Roland Hanna was in the band, Joe Temperley (who is still in the band now), Marcus Belgrave, Joe Wilder, Jerry Dodgion.  All these guys were around, and some of them had actually played with Duke.  So when I got a chance to play in the band with these guys, it gave me a sense of… I really wanted to play the concept and I wanted to play it right, because I have all these guys who know what’s happening, and how it should feel and what the music should state.  So I approached the music with a certain amount of pride about learning…

The idiomatic…

RILEY:  That’s a good word, idiomatic.  I was really trying to understand what the guys had played in that style before me.  So I listened to Sam Woodyard, I listened to Sonny Greer; I would listen to those records, and I would try to capture the essence of that feeling of the music.  And every time I thought about them, and playing certain pieces, I would think about how people danced to the style, and try to evoke the mood of a particular piece.  That was with Duke’s stuff.  I think I approach all the musics like that.  We did a program on Monk.  We did a program on Louis Armstrong.  And with each artist that we’ve done, I’ve tried to go back and listen to their records, and understand the feeling and spirit of what their music is about.  That’s pretty much how I’ve approached it.

New Orleans seems to be the only place where a musician your age or younger could capture the experience that the musicians from previous generations had, because it was part of the culture.  You wouldn’t get that coming up in New York.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in Chicago.  You wouldn’t get it coming up in San Francisco particularly or Los Angeles or Detroit.  New Orleans because Bourbon Street and the Second Line and Modern jazz…the whole history is available to the young musician as a functional experience.

RILEY:  That’s very true, and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing guys in everyday kind of situations as opposed to just on the bandstand.  When you see a guy who plays the drums at night, and then you see him in the daytime, who’s maybe working on the car or something, or he’s maybe at a restaurant or somewhere just hanging out and having some red beans and rice or something, or shooting the breeze at a barber shop, this kind of stuff… When you see guys in a living kind of situation, then you can understand really about the feeling of why they play what they play, and kind of understand some of the influences.  So all those things are a part of it; it’s a part of why you play the way you play.  I remember seeing guys like Smokey Johnson at a supper or something… They would have like Saturday night fish fries or something, and you’d be in the back, man, and the guys would be eating some potato salad and some fried fish, and they’d be playing cards, and kind of just talking trash across the table to people…maybe not even musicians.  The whole picture of being there, and seeing all these kinds of things, the music that’s playing in the background, the smell of the fish that’s in the air, the smell of gumbo or something that’s in the air… All this stuff is a part of what makes me who I am, and having that experience.

Did you play with any of the piano players, like Booker or Professor Longhair or Tuts Washington?

RILEY:  Yeah.  I got a chance to play with Tuts Washington when I played in the burlesque club.  Also I’d play some gigs with him sometimes on the side, where it would just be like piano and drums.  I’d play just brushes and he’d play the piano.  I got a chance to play with him at that club.  I got a chance to play with Dave “Fatman” Williams at the same burlesque club.  Professor Longhair was good friends with my grandmother and grandfather, and he would come to my grandmother’s house.  There’s still a gash inside of the piano where he would play the piano and kick his foot to keep time.  He would play like this [KICKING RIGHT FOOT SIDEWAYS] all the time.  It would be the same spot.  There’s a spot on my grandmother’s piano where he would kick holes in it!  I also worked…even sometimes now I work with Dr. John.  I’ve recorded a couple of things with him.  So the New Orleans piano thing is very much part of… I’ve had a chance to do that, too.  I’ve had a chance to do a lot of different things, a lot of different styles of playing.

[In 2005, when we had our second conversation, Riley had just completed his final tour with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.]

RILEY:  Basically, it was time to leave. I need to let my own voice be spoken a little bit more. I want to play with other people and do some other things musically. It was a great experience. It was a great time. I got to play a lot of music. I got to learn about a lot of different aspects of playing music, and I got to experience some wonderful things, too. Just playing with the orchestra and being associated with the orchestra, my ability to teach and to do workshops and that kind of thing has grown. My playing has grown from that. But playing inside of a big band kept my playing very structured. Now I’m looking forward to doing other things, and playing in smaller groups, and being freer in my expression.

What are some things you feel weren’t being expressed within LCJO?

RILEY:   I was very expressive when I was playing. But from a personal standpoint, being locked inside of a big band structure  makes you stay inside a certain box, for lack of a better word. It keeps you confined to a certain style of play, whereas playing inside of smaller groups there’s much more freedom and flexibility and elasticity inside the  structure. That’s what I want to get to. I want more elasticity and flexibility and openness to my playing.

Now, the LCJO experience has definitely enhanced the musicianship of each and every one of us who played in it. The sheer experiences that we’ve shared. Being onstage with the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Phil, and going to London and playing with the London Orchestra, doing pieces like “All Rise” in those types of environments, and then turning around and playing with some Brazilian or some Cuban cats or some African cats, where you’re playing their music, the music of that culture. All those experiences have definitely enhanced our musicianship. Not only that, but just playing the book of the LCJO, which has about 200 pieces.

Didn’t you innovate a beat where you integrate the tambourine within the flow of the drumset?   Wynton used that a lot in the septet, like on the piece, “Sunflowers.

RILEY:   Exactly. Yes, I guess I did kind of innovate that. I grew up playing the drums in church, and watching people play in church—and I played the drums all the time. When I was in church and wasn’t playing the drums, if there was a tambourine sitting around that nobody was  playing, I would pick it up and start playing it. As I grew up, I started trying to find things I could do that would enhance the music, whatever it was. For instance, I also played washboard. I played washboard in the show One Mo’ Time, and I played bones, like two bones together…

Wynton had you doing those things in Blood On The Fields and other things, too.

RILEY:   One thing I loved about Wynton is that whatever you brought to the table, it was great, because it was all about the spirit of the music. I think that was a good thing. He said, “Man, whatever you got, whatever you bring that’s part of your set, we’ll use it.” So eventually we did. Even playing cowbells and that kind of stuff, man. I brought cowbells, I brought gongs, I brought all kinds of stuff on the bandstand. But the tambourine was one of those things I was able to incorporate and play grooves on inside the drumset…to play grooves with the bass drum and the hi-hat. I always use a tambourine that has a head on it, so that you can snap the head and get a more percussive sound, like the drum or something.

I think you’re a real scientist of the drums. You seem to have investigated all the sounds on all the different drums, and how to combine them, and in a very practical way.  I think the spirit of exploration is part of how you approach even the most mundane gigs. As you described the strip club gig, learning the dynamics of the trapset by doing that.  It seems to me to be a characteristic among  New Orleans drummers.

RILEY:   Another thing I think we all have in common is that we don’t hear the music in separate entities. It’s all one thing, and it’s all one groove. It’s just another type of groove. When you hear different music, I still incorporate it; I still say, “Well, it’s just another groove.” What you do is, you go in and find the nuances of that particular style or that particular groove, and you play inside of that nuance. So it’s not anything that’s really mystifying.

It’s not mystifying, but it seems very much to descend from the culture of the city and what you do as a working musician in New Orleans. Those opportunities present themselves naturally in the culture of New Orleans.

RILEY:   It’s very true. The culture here is very strong, and the drums are such a big part of the culture here. So it’s very natural for a drummer to be influenced in the way… It’s undeniable. It can’t be denied because the influence is so strong.

Are you the last generation of drummers who picked that stuff up? Do the younger drummers approach things like you, or were their early influences more the broader world? I don’t mean that you weren’t influenced by the broader world, but you came up watching people like Freddie Kohlman and Smokey Jackson, these people with deep roots in the culture? Is the next generation of drummers doing that, or have things changed?

RILEY:   A few of them. But no, I don’t think a lot of them do The ones who are serious, like Jason Marsalis or Adonis Rose, have gone and checked people out who played before them. I guess in a lot of ways they look at… I’m 48 years old. These guys are still around 30, so they look at people like myself or Johnny Vidacovich or Herman Ernest…now we have become the mentors.  So a lot of the guys aren’t as in tune to the history as perhaps I was, or some of the older guys or guys my age. But the history was still living at the time.

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Filed under Drummer, Interview, New Orleans

Edward Blackwell, WKCR, May 4, 1986

Six or seven months after I began broadcasting on WKCR,  Eustis  Guillemet, a bass player from New Orleans, asked if  I’d be interested in interviewing the iconic drummer Ed Blackwell (October 10, 1929 – October 7, 1992) on the Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show, a six-hour slot that affords an opportunity for in-depth investigation of an artist’s work. I’d done a program with Eustis not long before — I have to find the cassette, and I hope it’s still workable — in which he spoke at length about the musical culture of New Orleans in the ’40s and ’50s, and he was interested in finding an outlet to propagate this history to the NYC radio audience.  Needless to say, I was more than enthusiastic at the opportunity to talk with Blackwell, then extremely active and visible with Old and New Dreams, various projects with David Murray and Mal Waldron, and the occasional leader project of his own.  Eustis  facilitated the proceedings; the appearance midway through the show of the English journalist Valerie Wilmer — an old friend of Blackwell’s and author of the seminal book As Serious As Your Life, which contains an eloquent chapter on the maestro — was also a wonderful surprise.

What follows is the transcribed proceedings of our conversation, presented publicly for the first time.

* * *

Eustis, how far back do you and Blackwell go?

EG:    Well, I remember around 1954, when I was in school, that’s when I was working at Xavier University, in the Music Department, and they came back and introduced themselves…

Who came back?

EG:    Well, Edward Blackwell, Ellis Marsalis and Nat Perillat.  And I’ve been a part of them ever since.  Actually, they kidnapped me really.

They kidnapped you.

EG:    Edward said, “You’re the bass player…”

EB:    Yeah, he was the bass drummer in the band.

The bass drummer?

EB:    Yeah, the bass drum in the marching band.  So we thought that we had to get that drum off his neck and put a fiddle in his hand.

Let’s start from first sources with Mister Blackwell.  Now, I have two conflicting birthdates for you, not the date, but the year—1927 and 1929.

EB:    It’s 10-10-29.

10-10-29.  And from New Orleans from the start?

EB:    New Orleans, that’s right.  Born and raised.

Tell us how you came to the drums.

EB:    Well, that’s a funny thing.  I just came to the drums naturally because of the fact that I had musicians in my family.  My brother and sister were tap dancers, and they traveled with a show that they used to call the Brown’s Mannequins, which was a Black vaudeville act.  And as a result, I would always be tapping around with pots and pans, and always trying to play some type of rhythm, because of the way they practiced tapping.  So just as a natural thing, I was influenced by the drums.

And when did you get your first set of traps?

EB:    My first set of traps were bought by my sister’s husband.  It was an old 26-inch bass drum, a set that was  used by a chick who played with a group called the Sweethearts of Rhythm.  And he bought this set for me, and I converted it into a Jazz set as best as I could…

Did you play on the Second Line at all?  Were you active in that…?

EB:    Well, I was active in that only in the fact of traveling behind the musicians, which was called the Second Line.  But I never played any of that Second Line music.

Let me ask you this.  The type of music that you were listening to, was that the big bands off the radio, or stuff that was happening vocally…?

EB:    Right.  Well, I had… My older brother used to go to a lot of dances that the bands would come through, like Cab Calloway or Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington.  He was a big fan of those bands, and he would buy the records and bring them back and play them — and I would listen to them.

I’d like to know who were some of the drummers in the 1930′s and early Forties who turned you on, who gave you some sense of the approach you wanted to take to the drums.

EB:    Well, the main drummer I remember was the drummer called Wilbur Hogan.  He was one of our biggest influences.  Wilbur was about three grades ahead of me in school.  And when I went to high school, he had been there for three years — and I wanted to play in the band, but I couldn’t read.  But he volunteered to teach me to read the music.  So the teacher accepted me as a drummer in the high school band.  That’s how I was able to make the high school band.  But Wilbur was the one that first taught me about the rudiments and the paradiddles and all of the basics of the drums.

He did a hell of a job.

EB:    Heh-heh, yes he did.

Tell me the name of the high school that you went to.

EB:    Booker T. Washington.

EG:    You know, in New Orleans, all the gifted players and the ones who really are saying something musically, be it drums or horns in high school, you hear about it — the word gets out.  So Booker T. Washington had a very good band, and especially the drumming section.  And you would hear about Wilbur Hogan and you would hear about Edward Blackwell.  So I heard about Blackwell before I saw him; you know, much longer before I saw him.  But they had a certain rhythm.  And during football games, everybody was as much attracted to the band and the rhythm sections as they were to the football team.  So they had a good football team, but they had an excellent marching band.

Good brass players also in that band?

EG:    They had good brass players.  I don’t recall who the brass players were, because the drummers were really the ones who set the rhythm at halftime, and Blackwell was one that they said he had a lot of rhythm, you know.

EB:    And there was another school that we used to be in competition with called Gilbert Academy, which was more or less a private school that used to compete with our band.  When we played them at the football games, it was always this big competitive thing with the groups.  Gilbert Academy used to come out on top of us because they had a very hip drum major they used to call Pounds…

EG:    Yeah, that was his nickname, now.  We can’t place nicknames.  But we just know it’s there.

EB:    He was such a beautiful marcher!

EG:    Now, when Ed Blackwell stated that I was playing a bass drum, I was at Xavier University as a bass major.  But during the football season, I played the bass drum in the band — and this is where he saw me.  And also, I got a shot at being the drum major, but Pounds was too much.  [BLACKWELL LAUGHS]

When did you start to gig with groups, and what types of things were you playing?

EB:    Well, the first group I gigged with was a group called the Johnson Brothers. I got this gig because of the fact that the original drummer had been drafted into the Navy, and they needed a drummer.  And there was a girlfriend I was going with, her stepfather was their uncle, and she told him about me playing the drums, and he introduced me to these brothers.  They auditioned me for the job, and I got the job.  And that was my first gig with the group.

What type of music was it?  A rhythm-and-blues band?

EB:    Rhythm-and-blues, right.

And your name got around?

EB:    Well, yeah, somewhat, because of the group… We got very popular, that group, the Johnson Brothers.  But my name individually didn’t get around very much until after I left them.

EG:    Well, you might recognize one of the names of the Johnson Brothers as Plas Johnson.  Is that correct?

EB:    Right.  Plas, and the other was Raymond…

EG:    Raymond, right.  But they had, like, the most popular group.  They’d play before all the big shows that come in town, and around the area.  Drums in New Orleans always was like number one.  You always had a good rhythm section.  Whether in a street parade or marching bands funerals, or anything, drums always gave the basic rhythms and feeling.

And the approach to the drums is passed down, more or less?

EG:    Yeah.

EB:    Yes.  It’s always… It’s just like in the culture.  It’s a cultural thing.

Let me ask you something.  For instance,  I listen to your music and I listen to the Baby Dodds solo record or Baby Dodds on this or that, and I hear lots of affinities between you and Baby Dodds.  Had you ever been able to listen to Baby Dodds, or is that simply coincidental, through the culture?

EB:    That’s really coincidental.  Because I haven’t really… I only heard one record by Baby Dodds in my life, and I don’t think he did very much recordings.  But I have a record now that one of my friends made for me… But I think it’s very coincidental.  But like I say, the drums are…the culture is so strong, it just comes down naturally.

EG:    It’s like it’s in the air, you know.  Like, the message is sent through the drums.  Like, you had Paul Barbarin and all… And we listened to all these guys, man.  They played well.  I had an opportunity to play with Paul Barbarin on Bourbon Street, which was a real gift — because I’d heard of him.  But the feeling and the rhythm and the direction is there, you know.  Whoever is in tune, they sort of fit right into the mold of things.

After the Johnson Brothers… I’m sorry, what years are we talking about?

EB:    This is 1949.

1949.  Isn’t that the time Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans?

EB:    Right.  Ornette Coleman came through New Orleans with a  rhythm-and-blues band, Clarence Samuels…

Where he got stranded.

EB:    Well, it was a friend of ours that he lived with named Melvin Lastie.  He was a good friend of Ornette.  And he decided to leave the band and stay in New Orleans for a couple of days.  He wasn’t really stranded.  He just left the band.

I see.  That’s Melvin Lastie, the cornet player.

EB:    Yeah, the late Melvin Lastie.

Tell us something about him.  I know he was a very well-known figure around New Orleans.

EB:    Right.  See, Melvin and I were in the same band together in Booker T. Washington.  In fact, Melvin graduated one year before I did.  After that, we got to play quite a bit together in jam sessions around New Orleans with different people like Harold Battiste and people like that.  Melvin was trying to establish himself as a feature player, too, and he had little different groups playing around New Orleans, with this drummer named Honeyboy and other players like that.

EG:    Melvin had a basic New Orleans feeling.  Like, he played street parades, and… He was known as partly like the soul man, if you had a band, to really lay down the rhythm and the feelings.  Like, I worked with him… We did a tour with Shirley and Lee, and Jo Jones, who maybe talked too much…you know, we did a tour.  Usually Melvin directed the whole situation.  Then later, when he moved to New York, he joined King Curtis, and he was like the backbone into that.  And then he made “I Know,” I think, made a famous solo that’s still history.

EB:    Right.  In fact, Harold Battiste wrote that solo note-for-note.

EG:    That piece was by Barbara…I’ve forgotten her name.  It was a hit on the AFM label that was made… Was that for the AFM label… AFO or AFM in New Orleans.

Let me ask you about a few of the other people you were associated with in New Orleans — or, I should say, whether or not you were associated with them.  Alvin Batiste, the great clarinetist.

EB:    Well, Alvin and I practically grew up together.  We lived about two blocks from one another as a kid, and we went to the same grammar schools, and then to the same… I don’t know if Alvin went to Booker T. or to Gilbert, but I know we were always playing together, especially after he got in… He went to Southern University.  And he and I and Ellis and Harold Battiste, we were all, like, from kids; even before we were established as musicians, we played together, you know.

EG:    I’d like to make the statement that the time that Alvin Batiste, Marsalis, Blackwell and myself… It was like everybody else had seemingly come from the streets, but this next set or group were either coming from high school or colleges.  It was the new approach from that level.  We all knew of each other, because each school had some player, either horn player or rhythm player.  And we all knew each other, and that’s how the word got around, and eventually that’s how we got together.

[MUSIC: A TAPE FROM BLACKWELL'S COLLECTION OF ORNETTE COLEMAN, DEWEY REDMAN, DAVID IZENSON AND BLACKWELL, TORONTO, 1972]

EG:    Right before the tape ended, we were talking about the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and I stated that it was one of the most popular street sort of marching bands that came “commercial.”  I spoke to the drummer about a week ago, and I found out that they all… Like, Edward has kids, I have kids; they were the kids from that section.  And they came from the section around the Caledonia, which was really a soulful area; I mean, real nightlife street people.  But it always produced some strong rhythms and feelings.   Each section of New Orleans produced a different feeling.  Like, if you were on the Ninth Ward, you had a certain thing going on there, or from the Sixth Ward… Each produced groups or players.  The overall feeling was New Orleans, but everybody had their section of town that they played with.

What was the section of town did you came out of, Mister Blackwell?

EB:    Well, I was from the section that you called the Garden District.  New Orleans was separated into different sections like front-of-town, back-of-town, Downtown and Uptown, instead of North, South, East and West.  And my section was called the Garden District.

But meanwhile, the most popular nightclub at that time was called the Dew-Drop Inn.  And we used to play there quite a bit, but we also played for we called, like, vaudeville acts.  In fact, the drummer… We would have to play for tap dancers, belly dancers, fire dancers, vocalists, shake dancers — and that was my schooling of experience.

Quite a schooling, because you have to be very flexible for all the different individuals.

EB:    Exactly.  Right.  I remember reading an article where Max was saying that was one of his greatest experiences, playing with these kind of activities for dancers, you know, different dancers like shake dancers and tap dancers and fire dancers and all these type of… Because you have to really adapt your experience to what they were doing.  And it was a real learning experience.

Were a lot of groups coming in from out of town at this time?  Were you able to hear the famous Jazz musicians of the day?

EB:    Well, there were quite a few groups coming at this time.  But at that time, they were mostly like rhythm-and-blues groups, like B.B. King and Muddy Waters and Ray Charles and those type of groups.  Later on during our experience, Eustis and I with Nat Perillat and Ellis were all working more with our own type of music, the contemporary thing; we began to see more and more Jazz type musicians coming through New Orleans, and we would engage them in deliberate jam sessions, you know.

But in 1950, say, or 1951, would you have had a chance to see Charlie Parker in person, or Max Roach?

EB:    No, no, not at that time.  Not down in that area.  The only time I got to hear Charlie Parker in person was in ‘54, in Los Angeles, California.

EG:    The university started bringing some of the Jazz players down. I remember a tour, but this was the late Fifties, when Stan Kenton had a tour, and that was the first time…

1954, that was.

EG:    ‘54, right.  Well, that was a good time.  ‘54, that period began a whole new era.  Charlie Parker came down with a tour with Stan Kenton and Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck, and they were out at Loyola University.  Earlier, like, you were playing for the different acts and groups; you had the Palace Theatre, you had the Lincoln Theatre, you had these places where all the different acts would come.

But the Dew Drop incorporated all of this.  Like, if you were playing for the house band there, within a month you were going through a shake dance, a fire-eater, Big Joe Turner. Sam Cooke…

EB:    Yeah.

EG:    You know, a variety.

Were you able to play Modern Jazz, so-called?

EB:    Not really.

EG:    Not per se.

EB:    No, not per se.  Because see, that’s what made us such rebels, Eustis, myself and Ellis.  Because after we began to play strictly Modern Jazz, we started refusing all rhythm-and-blues gigs…

EG:    And then we found out there was a separation of the musicians.

EB:    Right.

EG:    Like there was a battleground.  During this time we used to have matinee Jazz concerts at a club called Mason’s, or even the Dew Drop.

EB:    Right.  But we had to sponsor ourselves.  We would produce ourselves, and play for…play the music, you know.  Because that was the only… Nobody else wanted to sponsor this type of music.  So in order to get it to the audience, what we’d do, we would produce these concerts on our own.

Now, Blackwell was known as a great technician and as a devotee of Max Roach.  Is that correct?

EB:    Yes.

So you got that off of the records, then.

Mostly, yeah.  That was my schooling, listening to the early Charlie Parker records.  “Dewey Square,” all these records on Dial, I used to hear.  I went to this music…a drum shop.  The owner of this drum shop, he had a… He used to order these records directly from New York for me whenever they would come out.  Even before they got to New Orleans on the radio, I would get them privately.

Now, there are other things that you incorporate in your music that are very African-influenced.  Again, was this something that was out of the culture or something that you studied after learning your rudiments…?

EB:    That came… That was out of the culture.  And the reason I… When I began to realize it was when I made the trip to Africa in ‘66 with Randy Weston, and I began to notice the similarities of the culture that had been in New Orleans, how they had preserved, kept so much of this African culture.  And when I got to Africa, I would see all these scenes that reminded me of childhood scenes in New Orleans.  It was something… It was phenomenal!  I just couldn’t get over it.  And after coming back… We’d made a three-month trip.  But after coming back, you know, I began to try to retain some of the different rhythms that I’d heard, but there were so many, it was difficult to retain.   So I just had some, you know.  And I began to incorporate them as much as I could in my… Then I went back to Africa for a second time, which helped very much, because I was able to really understand more of the…

A more formal study, was that?

EB:    A more formal study, yeah.

Where was that?

EB:    This was all through Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ouagoudougou, Upper Volta, Lower Volta.  Then we spent… We lived in Morocco for three years.  We played for a hotel chain called Diafa, that had hotels all over Morocco, and up in the mountains, in the Berber countries.  So we had a chance to really hear the different cultures like the Gnawans and the Berbers, all up in ….(?)…. And it was a gratifying experience.

During those years, were you performing on stage with local musicians?

EB:    We did.  We did quite a bit.  In fact, they would have sessions, what they would call jam sessions.  They would play all night.  Oh, man!  I mean, they have so much energy, these musicians; it was phenomenal.

Of course, a lot of people know about Ornette Coleman’s playing with the Joujoukan musicians there in 1972.

EB:    Right.

Did he get hip to them through you?

EB:    No.  I think he got to those musicians after he went to Nigeria.  I think he got hip to those from some of the musicians he met in Nigeria.

Next we’ll hear music that was coming from Alvin Batiste and Ellis Marsalis in 1956. Now, you say that you were turning down all rhythm-and-blues gigs.  This was a very fertile time for rhythm-and-blues in New Orleans.  It was almost a seminal sound, a sound of the future that was happening in New Orleans, the Dave Bartholomew contracted groups and so forth.  So you must have made some significant sacrifices if you were…

EG:    Believe it.

EB:    Well, it was… See, Ellis and Harold and Eustis, they were all in college and living with their parents anyway, and I was living with my parents, so it wasn’t necessary for us to really have a job to survive.  So we could really sit down and be choicy about the type of music we wanted to engage in.

EG:    And just concentrate on, you know, particular… Because we used to go out to Ellis Marsalis’s house.  I think the last time I was here, we spoke about Marsalis Mansion, which was one of the first real Jazz clubs, but it was in Jefferson Parish, and all the big-time acts used to  stay out there and they used to play.  Ellis had a piano, and we used to come to his house in the morning and come back at night, and during the day we’d be practicing and jamming and eating.  You know, we were protected.

This recording was made after Ed Blackwell had been in Los Angeles for a couple of years, and then returned to New Orleans.

EB:    Right.

Why did you decide to go out to L.A., and when was it?

EB:    I went to L.A. in ‘51 with an aunt of mine.  My aunt was a postal clerk, and she went… I think what she really wanted me out there for was to get a job and help her buy a house.  But when I got out there, all I wanted to do was play music.  So she was very disappointed.  But I stayed out there for about five years.  And Ornette had been there before then, and he came back in ‘53, and we hooked up together again and started… Finally, we got a job.  We started living together.  In order to survive, we worked at two different department stores.  I was the stock clerk and Ornette was the elevator operator.  So that’s the way we would survive in order to pay the rent and just play every day. It was May’s and Bullock’s, two different department stores.

By the way, I know that a lot of musicians from New Orleans traditionally had a trade — you know, a cigar-maker, tailor…

EB:    Right.

Was this the case with you?  Were you trained for something other…

EB:    Well, when I was in school, I was supposed to be trained to be a bricklayer, but I couldn’t get with that.

[ MUSIC: American Jazz Quintet"  "Capetown,"  "Morocco,"  “Chatterbox": Harold Battiste, tenor sax; Alvin Batiste,  clarinet; Ellis Marsalis, piano; William Swanson, bass; Edward Blackwell, drums]

Let’s take “Chatterbox,” that last piece, as a springboard for the next segment of conversation.

EB:    Yes.  The Chatterbox was the name of the place where Alvin, Ellis, Nat and myself and I think it was Chuck Beatty… Were you on this?

EG:    No, I was in the Army during that time

EB:    It was Chuck Beatty.  Chuck Beatty was playing bass then.  That’s why Alvin gave it this title, “Chatterbox,” because this was one of the few places where we could work and play our music.

What kind of joint was it?

EB:    It was nice.  Very open. It was a little club, a small club, you know.  And the owner, I think he was a real music enthusiast, because he put up with us for almost about a month.  And we hardly drew any crowd, but we played a lot of music.

So you and Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste really go back a good thirty-five years?  How often have you been able to play together since you left New Orleans?

The first time since I left New Orleans that I played with Ellis was when I went back in ‘76.  We had a job together for a weekend in a joint called Lu and Charlie’s, and it was Alvin Batiste, Ellis, and one of Ellis’s students on bass, and Wynton Marsalis, who was 16 at the time.  I went back again in ‘81 for the Heritage Festival, and I played again with Ellis and Alvin.  Then the last time I played with them was here in the Public Theatre in 1982.

We’ll hear now a selection from the aforementioned concert at the Public Theatre from August 21, 1982.  There were two nights at the Public, two sets each night, and the group was Alvin Batiste on clarinet, Ellis Marsalis on piano, Branford Marsalis on tenor saxophone, Wynton Marsalis on trumpet, Mark Helias on bass, Edward Blackwell on drums.  This did get professionally taped, and courtesy of Mr. Blackwell, we are going to hear an original by Alvin Batiste, a very involved one with many different rhythms and modulations, “Ayala Suite.”

[MUSIC]

While researching for the show, I read that you had built your own set of drums.  Is that right?

Well, I didn’t really build them.  What I did was, I converted some… I had a 16-inch military snare that I converted to a bass drum, and put some wooden hoops on, and then I used a tenor drum and I put legs on it to convert it to a floor tom-tom, and a regular snare out of a 9″-by-13″ tom-tom.

How long did you have that set of drums?

Oh, man, I took it to California with me, in fact.  I had it up until I went back to New Orleans in ‘56.  And when I left in ‘60, I left it with my uncle and them, but they got rid of it, heh-heh.

What were the skins made out of?

EB:    Calfskin.  Regular calfskin, yes..

Now we’ll discuss  the events leading up to the time when Ornette Coleman called and Ed Blackwell left for New York City.  Just to recap, you had met Ornette Coleman for the first time in 1949, when came through New Orleans, was staying at the house of cornetist Melvin Lastie.  You had been out to Los Angeles in the mid-1950′s, and both worked in department stores to sustain yourselves while you were working on the music.  Tell me something about your approach to the drums before and after Ornette in just the most general way.

EB:    Well, in a general way, my approach to the drums before Ornette was the regular way of playing, the 32 bars or 12 bars or 16 bars, and make the turnaround, and then you start over again.  But when Ornette and I started playing together, there was a difference, because Ornette didn’t play with that type of mode.  Ornette would play more or less phrases.  He wouldn’t play 8, AABA, that type of thing; he would just play.  And he would use phrases.  And his turnaround sometimes would extend for maybe 11-1/2 bars or whatever, and I had to listen for that in order to make turnaround with him.  So I developed a new way of listening to Ornette play…

But it wasn’t any problem for you to adapt the forms that you had been working with before to that style.

EB:    No, it wasn’t any problem at all.  In fact, it was quite a learning experience, because it was something different… I had never been able to approach the drums, and I had never conceived of approaching the drums in that manner, as far as playing the music.  But with Ornette’s style of music, it was a different approach to the drums completely.

So this was happening as early as 1950 and ‘51?

EB:    This was happening from ‘53.   From ‘53 up until ‘56 when I went back to New Orleans.  Well, first I went back in ‘55, and I came back again from New Orleans to L.A. with Ellis and Harold  in late ‘55.  And then Ellis’ father got ill, so he had to leave, and I stayed over with Ornette up until ‘56, the early part of ‘56.  Then I left and went back to New Orleans.  Then he got a contract with Contemporary to make his first album, Something Else! He sent me a ticket to come and make this album with him, but I was having so much fun with Ellis and them that I sent the ticket back, because I didn’t want to leave then!  He used Billy Higgins.

So things were really popping, then, in New Orleans.

EB:    Yes, very much so.  We were building up a great following, because we were working at a place called… What was this place upstairs?

EG:    Foster’s.

EB:    There was a Foster’s Hotel, and we had a little club upstairs that we would play every weekend.  Then we had to be at another job that started at 6 o’clock in the morning, an after-hour jam session down in the French Quarter.  So there was quite a lot of playing going on.   I didn’t want to leave that.

Didn’t you also spend some time with Ray Charles?

EB:    Yes.  I left… I went with Ray Charles for year in ‘57. That happened because of the trumpet player that was a cousin of the Johnson Brothers, he had been the straw boss in Ray’s band, and Ray needed a drummer.  So he knew of my capabilities, so he hit on me about playing with Ray.   I gave it quite a lot of thought.  I didn’t think I would enjoy it.  But he said, whatever conditions you want, you know, he would agree with.  So I said, “Okay, if he’ll buy me a new set of drums, I’ll play with him.”  So he bought me a new set of drums, so I played with him for a year.

But playing with Ray, he had the same program every night.  Wherever we played, it was always this program.  The pieces would be played in the same order, the same places every night.  And after a month of that, you know, after working with Nat and playing such exciting music, this began to be boring.  So I was able to stretch it out for a year, then I left.  He was very disappointed.  He called me quite a lot, but I didn’t want to go back to that.

Was it ever open so that you could in a set play something that satisfied you?

EB:    Not really, no.  The only time that would happen is, like, before he would come on the stand, the band would have a little freedom for about 15 minutes before his showcase would start.  Then we were able to play maybe one or two, you know, three tunes.  Sometimes he would come up and play with the band… Because he played alto also, and he would come up and join in the tune.  But once he started singing, we would go into his program.

Eustis, how would you compare Blackwell with the other great New Orleans drummers who were contemporaries, like Earl Palmer, people who went into the Rhythm-and-Blues direction?

EG:    Well, most of the drummers, you know, if they had just let themselves go, could play almost anything.  But Blackwell sort of personified the Free movement.  And I recall we were working a job at the Dew Drop, and we were playing a ballad, you know, “How Deep Is The Ocean” or whatever it was, and Blackwell took a solo on the ballad — and that turned everything around, because it hadn’t been known during that time.  Earl Palmer sort of set a precedent so far as swinging and playing, and also going out to California and breaking into the studios.  That was one of his big contributions.  But Blackwell was about experimenting and bringing the drums more freedom in playing.  The drummers in New Orleans have a good beat, a good feeling, but a lot of times they’re locked in.  They even used to call Blackwell to play some of the Rhythm-and-Blues sessions.  He’d make one or two, and they knew…that was it.  Just ilke with Ray Charles, everybody thought he was crazy to refuse…

EB:    Heh-heh…

EG:    You know, it wasn’t about really work.  Because the concentration, you know, when Blackwell would be practicing and rehearsing, going through things, and his mind was really 100 percent.  And that’s what really amazed…

How many hours a day would you practice?

EB:    Usually, I… Let me see.  I was living with my parents, and they would leave at 8 o’clock.  I lived with my father, my uncle and my sister, and they would all work.  They would leave the house at 8 in the morning and would not return… The earliest one would return at about 5:30 that evening.  Up until…all that time I had the time to practice.

Was that by yourself?

EB:    By myself, usually until… Because Eustis and them were in school all day.  As soon as they got home at evening, we’d be together.  But during the day, the early part of the day, it was strictly solo.

Did you practice to records?

EB:    Yeah.  I practiced to Charlie Parker all the time.  Charlie Parker.

Also, you’re renowned as a master of drum timbre, of tuning the drums.  Is this also the time when you developed your methods of getting different sounds out of the drums?

EB:    Well, I guess so.  But that came about just as a natural result of wanting to get a certain sound with the  drums.  And those drums I told you I converted, I was able to get the real sound that I wanted.  And as a result, it carried over to other sets, you know.  And people began to notice that I…for some reason or another, my drums would always be in tune with one another, with whatever I was playing.  So that’s how that repetition became…

On your first LP with Ornette Coleman, he wrote the liner notes, and here is what he said about Edward Blackwell:  “Ed Blackwell, the drummer, has to my ears, one of the most musical ears of playing rhythm of anyone I have heard.  This man can play rhythm so close to the tempered notes that one seems to hear them take each other’s places.”  That’s what Ornette Coleman said about Edward Blackwell, and we’re going to hear a couple of pieces from the first sessions that they made together in July of 1960.  We’ll hear a piece called “Humpty-Dumpty” from This Is Our Music and then from a collection that came out subsequently in the late Sixties of unissued material, we’ll hear “A Fifth Of Beethoven.”  Then we’ll talk about Blackwell and the Ornette Coleman Quartet.  

[MUSIC]

You had a terrific situation in New Orleans.  What happened?  What made you finally decide to cut the cord and go?

EB:    Well, what happened was a very personal problem that went down, a very negative thing in my life that caused me to readily accept Ornette’s offer at this time to come to New York.  Especially since he had called, and he was in such dire straits, because he was already working and Billy Higgins was unable to get a secure cabaret card, which meant that he could no longer continue to work, and he was without a drummer.  So he really needed a drummer.  So I was very happy to accommodate him.

By the way, had you known Billy Higgins in Los Angeles when he was a young, nascent drummer?

EB:    Well, Ornette and I met Billy Higgins and Don Cherry… We met them at the same time.  Because they were living up in a place called Watts up in…Compton; not Watts, in Compton.  And they had a friend of theirs, George Newman, that had this big garage, with a piano…set up like a studio.  And I was always looking for somewhere to play.  So we went up there, and we started going up there every day to play together.  Billy and Cherry and George would sit around and listen at us play.  That’s how we really met Billy Higgins.

I think I’ve read (and this could be wrong or apocryphal) that he was studying with you somewhat, or that you were giving him tips or whatever.

EB:    Well, yes, we did.  He used to sit in… Naturally, I let him sit in, and there were some things about the music that he didn’t really understand, so I had to really explain it to him, about ways of listening to Ornette, to play with him, ways of playing… See, Billy had come out of the same school that I did, that old school of AB, AABA, you know, and Ornette didn’t play in that school.  So he had to adjust as much as I did.  So it was easier for me to explain it to him since I had been through that already.

Was he a basketball player in high school or something?

EB:    Billy?  Well, what I hear from Don Cherry… See, Don Cherry and Billy Higgins met in what was like a boys home, where they put wayward teenagers.  Because Billy, obviously, and Don Cherry were what they call delinquents.  So they met together in this school.  But I don’t think he was a basketball player.

Well, that’s just something I heard, and when I hear these things I ask people who know.

EB:    Right.

So when you got to New York, you found yourself in the midst of the scene that was shaking New York’s art community to the core.

EB:    Right.  Well, I’ll tell you.  The day I got a taxi to the front of the Five Spot.  We went into the Five Spot, and Ornette pulled out his horn, and Don Cherry, we ran over our  tunes, and he said, “Fine.”  We went home and changed clothes and came back to work that night.  And we worked there steadily for seven months, six nights a week straight.

Six nights a week will sure make a band tight.

EB:    That’s right! We were doing quite a lot of recordings, you know.  And he was writing quite frequently; he was writing a lot of the tunes.

Describe the way sets went down at the Five Spot.  Were the pieces similar length to the records?  Did you stretch out more?

EB:    During this time most of the clubs were featuring two bands a night.   There would be four sets.  Ornette would play two sets and the visiting band would play two sets.  This was going on for like six nights a week.  We had a chance really to stretch out during our sets.  Sometimes Ornette would stretch out our set, and sometimes he would just cut them a little shorter, depending on what mood he was in.  But it was always intense.  A lot of times we would rehearse all day and then come to work that night, and everybody was always geared up to play.  The energy that flowed through that band was phenomenal.

Did people ever sit in?

EB:    No.  No, not too many people were sitting in with the band. [LAUGHS]

When did Bobby Bradford come to town?  Didn’t he come to town briefly and take his place with the group?

EB:    Well, Bobby and Moffett came to town together.  That was the time after Don Cherry and I decided to leave the group for a while.  And Bobby Bradford and Moffett came to town to work with Ornette.  Then I went with Eric and Booker Little to play…

And that famous session, Live at the Five Spot came about.

EB:    Right, right.

Eustis, were you in New York at that time?  Were you hearing that band?

EG:    Yes.

What impression did it make on you?  Especially since you knew Blackwell.

EG:    Well, it sort of put everything in place.  Seriously.  You know, when Blackwell was in New Orleans, we knew that he had new music in him.  So when I came to New York and saw him performing with Don Cherry and Ornette, there it was.  What we felt before was really right in front.  Now, the  Five Spot used to bring all the new groups.  It was the newest group, and it was one of the hippest clubs for the new music and for, you know, not only lay people, but a lot of writers… Artists who were trying to free themselves.  Because music is always the front-runner. You know Leroi Jones was always down there.  The other group that was popular at the Five Spot was Thelonious Monk, which had quite a few good recordings.  And it was the place for the people with new ideas.  I was there every night.  You know, after Blackwell left, about six months later, here I came up.  And a lot of the people who were fighting the free form, you know, they’d come in and try to listen and try to find their place in the new musical history, you know.  It was fun for me, because having some prior knowledge of Ed Blackwell, I would just sit on the side and laugh.  Because I knew all they had to do was throw the ego away and say, “Well, what is this?”  That’s what I liked about John Coltrane.  He did approach Ornette.  He wanted Ornette’s tapes, he wanted to find out as much as he could about the new music.  That’s why he was a great player.

EB:    A funny thing, I used to have people come to me and tell me, “Man, I like the way you play, but I don’t know how you can play with that cat.  He’s crazy.  He don’t know what he’s doing.”  And really, they were serious!  They couldn’t understand why I could enjoy playing with Ornette so much.  I’d say, “Well, if you like what I’m playing, you should like what he’s playing, because that’s what I’m playing — what he’s playing.  And they couldn’t understand.  They’d look at me like I was strange, heh-heh, and he’d say, “No, that’s not the same!”

EG:    I think they were a little brainwashed, in thinking in forms

EB:    Yeah.

In 1965 and 1966 you made several recordings with Donald Cherry for Blue Note.

EB:    Right.

Talk about your activities in the mid-Sixties.  I know you were traveling in Europe and Africa…

EB:    Right.  I went to Africa in ‘66 with Randy Weston.  That was my first trip out of America.  But before that, Don Cherry…in ‘65 we recorded a lot of these albums for Blue Note — Complete Communion and  Symphony For Improvisers and Where Is Brooklyn, and all those…

Those were in 1965 and ‘66.

EB:    ‘65 and the early part of ‘66, right.  Then after being with Randy and coming back in ‘67, I rejoined Ornette at the Village Gate.  Then we began working, traveling to Europe every year after that.  Every year we’d go to Europe, and we’d make this tour of Italy, Paris and Germany and all around for about a month.  Most of my European traveling… In fact, there’s only a number of people I ever went to Europe with.  Ornette Coleman was one, and Old and New Dreams was another, and David Murray.  Because you know, there’s not very many people I enjoy going to Europe with.  I want to be sure the money’s going to be right!

The piece we’ll hear, “Buddah Blues,” features two bassists who were seminal in Ornette’s music, David Izenson and Charlie Haden. It’s from a concert in Rome, in 1967, issued without authorization, on an Italian label.  It was recorded in Rome in 1967. 

EB:    There’s also a couple of Bologna that were illegally recorded that he didn’t get paid for.  But the music should be heard, since it’s there.

[MUSIC: "Buddah Blues," followed by "Reminiscence," Paris, 1971, Ornette Coleman, violin; Charlie Haden, bass; Blackwell, drums; Kenny Clarke, m.c.]

What’s the genesis of Old and New Dreams, and how did that get started?  Obviously everybody had been associated with each other for many, many years.  What was the specific motivating thing behind that?

EB:    Money.  Well, the most motivating thing was that we wanted to extend the music of Ornette Coleman.  And since Ornette was not active with the group any more, we decided that maybe we should get together and extend the music, because it was music that we thought should be heard more prolifically.  And the fact that while Ornette was doing it, it was not accepted as when we started doing it.  The audience seemed to accept it more, even though it was the same music… But we had a better acceptance from the audience as a result.  That’s when the group got together to do it.

When did you last perform with Ornette?

EB:    The last time I performed with Ornette was in ‘72.

And that’s the year you recorded Science Fiction and Skies of America the sides for Columbia…

EB:    Yes.  And the tour through Europe.

Old and Dreams fuinctions as a collaborative, fully collective group?

EB:    Yes.

I know that you can’t get into the head of an audience.  But why do you think that audiences would accept what you do without Ornette Coleman?

EB:    Well, that’s strange to this day, too.  But I don’t know… It seems that because we have a younger listening audience now than when Ornette was playing the music… The audience that we perform for now is a more knowledgeable audience.  Like, a lot of kids in universities and everything, who have heard of the music before, and they never heard it live.  So when we began playing it, that was their only chance to really hear it done in the live atmosphere.  They wanted to hear it and they accepted it.

It hasn’t only been Old and New Dreams.  There have been many duet situations, and you have appeared with Mal Waldron and David Murray in the last five or six years.  You’re also situated at Wesleyan College…

[END OF  TAPE SIDE]

EB:    …gamelan orchestra.  We also have the Indian Mrdingam drumming, and all type of Indian drumming.  It’s a vast program. A lot of very good music.  It’s very active.We have what we call the faculty of the Afro-American… See, I’m affiliated with the Afro-American Jazz Department of the music.  And that department consists of Bill Barron, an Associate Professor, and Bill Lowe and Fred Simmons, the pianist, myself, and we also have a bassist, one of the graduate students that’s been around, Wes Brown, who plays quite frequently.  I usually perform two faculty concert a year, one each semester.

[Music: Old and New Dreams. “Togo” (Blackwell’s arrangement of a Ghanaian traditional song) and  “Handwoven,” an Ornette Coleman composition]

About half-an-hour ago Valerie Wilmer, the British journalist and author, arrived in the studio.  She’s written about Blackwell on several occasions.  Those of you who have her book As Serious As Your Life will remember her chapter on Edward Blackwell.  [ETC.]

You have some very interesting stories on how you met.

VW:    We first met in London, I think it was in ‘66 or ‘67; there seems to be some debate on when it was.   I knew about Blackwell, and he was like sort of legendary figure.  So I was very much into tracking down legendary figures, especially drummers, because I had always liked drumming, and Blackwell was one of the greats.  Even then I knew about him.  So I called him up, and asked him if I could come and interview him.  And I think he was a bit surprised that anybody wanted to interview him in those days.  Is that right?

EB:   Yes.  Yes, especially Valerie Wilmer!

VW:    Oh, well…

EB:    Because I had been reading contributions to DownBeat, and I never expected that Valerie Wilmer would call me to do an interview.

VW:    You want to watch that, Blackwell.  You’re making it sound like I’m older than you.  But I remember that when we were doing the interview, you were shy and modest, as usual.

EB:    Yes…

VW:    And you drummed on your thigh with your mallets all through the interview.

EB:    Yes.  That was my way of relaxing, to be able to… That’s why I carry these little mallets around with me, because whenever I get uptight, I just pull them out and start drumming it on my knee, and that will release the stress.

VW:    Well, and a man full of music and full of rhythms all the time.  There was another occasion, I don’t think it was that first time but it was also in London, when we went off to have a meal together.  We went to eat in an Indian restaurant.  And at this time I had sort of decided that I might want to play drums, so I was talking to Blackwell about some drum patterns.  So we finished eating, and he said, “Let me show you something.”  And he took out a felt-tipped pen, and he started drawing these drum patterns all over the tablecloth.  It was a beautiful linen tablecloth in a very nice Indian restaurant, and the waiters were looking on aghast as sort of paradiddles and whatever was drawn all over the tablecloth.  We should have saved that and framed it for posterity and given it to the New Orleans Jazz Museum or something.

Incidentally, that particular anecdote appears in  Valerie Wilmer’s book,  As Serious As Your Life

VW:    There’s another one, too.  This is my favorite story about Blackwell, and it’s not in that book, but it may be in a forthcoming one — and I don’t know if he even remembers it himself.  We were in Morocco together at one stage, when Randy Weston was there, and Blackwell, you were there with Frances, your wife, and your family.   We were all staying  in the same house.  And the day I arrived in Rabat, you had a motorcycle accident.

EB:    Right.

VW:    Remember that?

EB:    Right.  I had a broken shoulder-blade.

VW:    Right.  And all your chest was encased in a cast, wasn’t it.

EB:    Right.  A body cast.

VW:    It was hot, and ants got down inside it, and he was scratching inside the cast with a drumstick… It was something else, wasn’t it.

EB:    Yeah.  And then I had to play this concert.

VW:    Well, I’m going to tell this story about that.  Let me tell this story.  The story was that Randy’s son, Azzedin, was going to play because you couldn’t play.  Right?

EB:    Right.

VW:    But you put your tuxedo on and went to the concert anyway, and when it got to the last minute you said, “I’m going to play anyway.”  Right?  So he got up, and in front of an audience of Moroccans and I think a few Americans and other visiting people, he played this amazing solo, this really incredible drum solo, one hand and two feet.  And I was sitting next to Frances, Blackwell’s wife, and at the end of it I looked at her, and she had tears in her eyes because of the applause.  Everybody stood up and applauded.  I said, “Oh, that was something.”  She said to me, “Man, Blackwell normally sounds like four men; tonight it just sounded like three.”

Edward Blackwell has brought a tape of a performance of him and Don Cherry in Verona, Italy, February 11, 1982, that he says is smoking. [ETC.]  He told me on the telephone, “This is better than any of those records!”

EB:    Right.  It is.

[ETC., MUSIC]

Edward Blackwell and Donald Cherry go back about thirty years.  And it seems that on almost every record I’ve pulled to do this show, Donald Cherry is there, whether it’s the Ornette Coleman records or the duets or Old and New Dreams.  He’s ubiquitous in the recorded musical career of Ed Blackwell.  So you met in Los Angeles at the time you went out in ‘56, is what you were saying.

EB:    Well, when I met Donald, he was about 17 or 18 years old.  This is when Ornette and I were going to the jam sessions together, and he was hanging out with some of the local musicians playing.  But we didn’t have any friendship with him until we started going to this garage in Compton and played with him.  He was still very young.

What was his sound like at the time?

EB:    He was very active and very energetic and searching; he was very searching for his sound.  He was playing the regular-sized trumpet at the time.

Q:    [ETC.] Next up is a selection from Rhythm X, an LP in Strata East, by Charles Brackeen, who has been a colleague of Blackwell’s over the years.  He appears on an aborted LP of Blackwell’s, by a group that I heard a few times at the Tin Palace around 1980, which had Ahmed Abdullah, trumpet, Charles Brackeen and Mark Helias.  You specifically requested we play this.

EB:    Yes.  I think this particular record was one of Charles’ greatest efforts.  He had just arrived here from California, and he was a big devotee of Ornette Coleman.  In fact, he came to New York especially to be near Ornette Coleman, with his own family.  And we got together, he and I, and we got these tunes…he was writing these tunes — and we got a chance to put them on Strata East.

[MUSIC: “Rhythm X,” then "Bemsha Swing" from Coltrane, The Avant Garde, 1961]

That was “Bemsha Swing,” interpreted by John Coltrane, Donald Cherry, Percy Heath and Edward Blackwell from The Avant Garde.  A couple of things came to light during the break.  First of all, Blackwell did play once with Thelonious Monk in 1972.

EB:    I’ll tell you what happened with Monk.  During the course of the gig, after about a week… He used to give me a lot of solos.  Then one night we were playing, and he gave me a solo, and I played, you know, and after he came off the stand he come over to me and he said, “You know, you ain’t no Max Roach.” [LAUGHS] And I don’t know why he told me that!  He just danced away. Wilbur Ware was in that group also.

I remember a story Art Taylor told me about Monk.  He was playing with Monk in Chicago, and Monk had stopped letting him solo.  So during the course of intermission, he came over, and A.T. said, “You know, you cut off my solos, man.  You used to give me little solos.  Why don’t you let me play?”  So he said when they went back up to the set, Monk went to the mike and said, “We will now hear a solo by our drummer.”  And that was it!

You played with Wilbur Ware  quite often during the ’70s.

EB:    Playing with Wilbur was a real learning experience playing with Wilbur, because Wilbur had such an acute sense of time, and it was fantastic to behold and listen to it.  And he also played a lot of little drums.  He used to sit down on the drums, too…

He actually worked as a drummer in Chicago in the late Forties…

EB:    Right.

And he was a tap dancer as well..

EB:    A tap dancer as well.  That’s right.  It was a real pleasure to work with Wilbur, I’m gonna tell you.  He had a unique sense of timing.

Charlie Rouse was the tenor player, and you’ve been working with Rouse lately in Mal Waldron’s group in various gigs at the Vanguard.

EB:    That’s right.

Some among our radio audience may have heard the Nu Quintet play at SOB’s this past winter.  It’s Donald Cherry, Carlos Ward, Nana Vasconcelos, Mark Helias and Blackwell.  How long have you known Nana Vasconcelos?

EB:    I’ve known about Nana for a number of years now.  In fact, the first time I played with him was at the Public Theatre with Don Cherry in about ‘76, ‘77, something like that.  I never worked with him again until we got together in this group, the Nu Quintet.  It’s been a real pleasure with Nana, because I’ve always admired his sounds. I’ve always been fascinated by the Brazilian rhythms, and Nana epitomizes that.

You’ve appeared with David Murray quite a bit over the last four or five years and recorded with the quartet, and I can recall hearing you play with the octet at Sweet Basil once or twice…

EB:    Right.  And also with the string group, a couple of concerts with the string group. I was at the old Five Spot on St. Mark’s Place with Don Cherry when David first came into town from California.  He used to come over and sit in and play with us quite a bit.  So we were aware of each other.  Then he drifted off into his thing, beginning building a career.  And when he decided to get a group together, he called me and wanted to find out if I was interested in working with him.  And yeah, I was, because he was playing the type of music, the new music that I enjoy playing.  So we’ve been working together, that’s been five or six years, and we’ve been playing together off and on.  I went to Europe with him twice, and we’re getting ready to do a tour around the States in June.  Then we’ll be playing together at a festival in July.

[MUSIC: Ornette Coleman, "Law Years" and "The Jungle Is A Skyscraper"]

EB:    Eustis is helping me recall quite a bit of the history that I’ve forgotten.  He’s been reminding me of quite a lot of things, bringing to mind those days that we played together.  Because Eustis and I used to play together as a duo quite a bit in New Orleans during the time we were residing in New Orleans.  In fact, it was always either Eustis and I, or maybe Ellis and I, Nat and I; there was always two of us, or just a whole group.  We were always just playing every day.  That was the main thing.  We were obsessed with playing and perfecting our instruments.

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Filed under Drummer, Ed Blackwell, Interview, New Orleans, WKCR

Donald Harrison Turns 51 Today

This evening, alto saxophonist  Donald Harrison, “Duck” to his friends, observes his 51st birthday with opening night of a three-night run at the Jazz Standard linked to his participation in the acclaimed HBO series Treme, for which his personal biography is the source of two characters. Joining Harrison for the engagement is his working quintet, a trio of Mardi Gras Indian musicians, and, on percussion and voice, Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers.  He’s one of the masters, and ought not to be missed.

Ten years ago, I had an opportunity to write a DownBeat profile on Harrison, which appears below.

* * * * *

The alto saxophonist Donald Harrison is particular — make that very particular — about his gumbo. After two decades in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene-Clinton Hill district, the 41-year-old son of New Orleans had never found a decent local version of his hometown delicacy, and a new spot on Fulton Street called Restaurant New Orleans has piqued his curiosity. There we sit on a crisp December afternoon, and as we wait for our bowls, he discusses Congo Nation, a smallish Mardi Gras Indian krewe of musicians that he founded a year ago and represents as Big Chief. Adorned in elaborately detailed, brilliantly colored regalia, this year’s edition — including iconic Crescent City drummer Idris Muhammad, masking for the first time at 60 — will parade, sing and dance through the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras festivities on February 12th. Harrison has been shopping for Muhammad’s costume, and will begin to sew it when he returns home to New Orleans a few weeks hence.

Black New Orleanians began to mask as American Indians in the 19th century, and the ritual chants and steps of this tradition descend in a more or less uninterrupted line to Congo Square, where African slaves were allowed to congregate and play the drums on Sundays. Harrison learned both the moves of the game and its cultural context from his father, Donald Harrison, Sr., himself a widely respected Big Chief of several tribes, including Creole Wild West, the Wild Eagles and the Guardians of the Flame. Mr. Harrison passed away in 1998, carrying with him a comprehensive knowledge of Mardi Gras Indian folklore, a keen sense of its African origins, and a clear vision of what it might contribute to contemporary culture. Erudite and charismatic, he not only walked the walk but talked the talk, able to communicate his message as effectively to the man on the street as in the halls of academe.

He imprinted the message on his son, for whom the spectacle of Mardi Gras Indian ceremonial is part and parcel of earliest memory. “I see it in the back of my head,” Harrison says as the gumbo arrives. “I was in my outfit, and I could see the other Indians  running and their feathers moving up and down fast; I remember hearing the music and the singing. I grew up in it, and I know the inside stuff — how to sew, how to dance, how to sing, how to meet another chief, what to say, what to do. For me it’s the same sort of mindset as a jazz band, because you’re supposed to take the whole thing and sow your own fruit, tell your story within the context of your tribe. I’ve been in what we call a circle, and that takes you to another level. You’re in touch with all those elements — spiritual, warrior, the music, the art, the dancing, the fear, the courage. Every emotion is right there, and they’re all present at the same time. It ties together what you know now with things that were happening at the inception of everything.”

Donald digs into his gumbo, a savory roux infused with crab and shrimp. “I can relate to this,” he smiles. As we eat, let’s bring the Harrison story up to date.

Mr. Harrison bought Donald his first saxophone in elementary school. The aspirant tried it, liked it, put it away, then became serious for keeps at 14, learning second-line and traditional repertoire in Doc Paulin’s brass band and finding work in local funk bands. “Donald had a good feel for music from being around the Indians,” recalls outcat saxophonist-educator Kidd Jordan, his primary instructor during those years. “When he was playing by ear, before his technique was straight and he learned about changes, I thought he was going to come up with something in the style of Ornette Coleman. He was hearing some real creative things. I could hear a rawness that knocked me out.”

A few years later, Mr. Harrison put Charlie Parker’s “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” and “Kind of Blue” on the turntable, and converted his son to hardcore jazz religion. He enrolled at the New Orleans Center of Contemporary Arts (NOCCA), where such faculty as Jordan, Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste taught such students as Branford and Wynton Marsalis, Kent Jordan, and the slightly younger Terence Blanchard.

“The first time I heard Donald, I was amazed at his level of maturity,” recalls Blanchard, a 15-year-old sophomore when Harrison was a senior. “He never had a problem getting around his instrument or with chord changes. You didn’t hear any young guys in the city playing like that on the alto.”

Several distinctive characteristics marked the Harrison sound when he arrived at Berklee School of Music — by way of Batiste’s program at Southern University — in 1979. His technique featured a seamless five-octave range and fluid fingering, as though the saxophone were an extension of his arm, while his style blended the grand harmonic partials of John Coltrane, the soulful oomph and precise articulation of Cannonball Adderley, and phrasing that recalled the fleet rhythmic displacements of Charlie Parker. “Donald had a freeness to his playing that was beyond the bebop thing,” says Blanchard. “He had so much ability to go in different directions that you could hear him changing his mind in the middle of his solo.”

Spending as much time in New York as Boston, Harrison sat in at every opportunity, landing a gig with Roy Haynes and — at Miles Davis’ instigation — buffaloing a Fat Tuesday’s bandstand occupied by Freddie Hubbard, George Benson, Kenny Barron, Ron Carter and Al Foster. Elders and peers took notice; in 1982, Branford Marsalis recommended his homie to Art Blakey for the Jazz Messengers sax chair. Until 1986, Harrison and Blanchard — who in 1982 released “New York Second Line” [Concord], debuting Harrison’s penchant for framing modern jazz with second line and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms — played alongside each other in a dynamic Messengers unit. When it was time to cut the cord, the tandem combined their surnames and signed a three-album contract with Columbia.

“Unless you’ve done something, you won’t think of it,” Harrison remarks, gently daubing hot sauce over a second course of lightly fried catfish. “I can tell a story from being an Indian. I hear guys doing second-line music who were totally against it initially, so I know our music influenced them or turned them around to think differently.”

“‘New York Second Line’ sounded delightfully strange to me when I was in high school,’ says pianist Eric Reed, 31, who produced and performed on much of “Real Life Stories” [Nagel-Heyer], one of three Harrison-led recordings due for 2002 release. “It became apparent to me that a new sound was taking place. The way Donald and Terence were interpreting their New Orleans influence was profound and amazing; on ‘Nascence’ [Columbia] the way they had Ralph Peterson incorporate the second line into an updated backbeat, syncopated-offbeat feeling was nothing short of genius. They did everything that Wynton’s group was doing with Branford and Tain, except, again, they made the New Orleans core of it so hip! — and they were doing it before Wynton had decided it was hip to do.  The music was accessible and felt great because the groove was so strong. There was nothing pretentious about it, just two young guys who were playing their experience, saying whatever it was they needed to say through their instruments, and they didn’t feel a need to intellectualize or over-explain the process.”

“Donald functioned wonderfully in Art Blakey’s band, but you could hear he wanted to do his own thing,” Blanchard says. “Our band seemed to be more of a perfect fit for him, because it was truly a workshop, and he could work on his concepts. He was always trying to mix things, compounding different rhythms on top of each other or playing in different registers simultaneously in a pianistic manner, with a melody in one register and an accompaniment in another. He had a big influence on my sound.”

In 1989 Blanchard — then developing a new embouchure and finding opportunities to write film music — left the partnership, a circumstance Harrison describes as “messy, but no hard feelings.” Partly for financial reasons, the altoist retreated to New Orleans, and soon was masking with his father’s tribe. Fortified by experiences garnered from a decade traveling the world and invigorated from immersion in the ’80s Brooklyn scene, where Reggae, Soca, Calypso, Haitian, Salsa, Go-Go, Hip-Hop and various African musical and dance styles coexisted and intermingled, Harrison reconnected with his roots from a mature perspective.

“I went out with my father and the Indians at Mardi Gras, and a light switch went on inside my brain,” Harrison says. “I started hearing the swing ride cymbal pattern that Art Blakey and Papa Jo Jones played inside of the African rhythms that the tambourines and drums were playing.  Mixing the Indian rhythms with the swing beat led me to put funk and reggae rhythms with the swing beat, which I call Nouveau Swing.”

Joined by his father, Dr. John, Indian percussionist Howard “Smiley” Ricks, and jazz youngbloods Carl Allen and Cyrus Chestnut from the second iteration of Harrison-Blanchard, Harrison presented his hybrid concept on “Indian Blues” [Candid], a 1991 classic that links “Two Way Pocky Way” to “Cherokee.” The following year, trumpeter Brian Lynch, a close friend and fellow Messenger alumnus, recruited Harrison into Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa-Jazz ensemble.

“Eddie plays from a dance perspective, he knows how to write rhythms so everything is in place, and listening to that music every night deepened my understanding,” Harrison states. “I had to develop techniques to make slides and smears on the saxophone, and learn to play the rhythms in the right clave. The rhythms were natural for me; I always knew how to dip and dive into them even if I didn’t know the specifics. But Eddie helped me to be able to speak in that music, and it carries over to what I write and play now.

“If I’m writing, say, a second line song, I know the dance, what my feet and shoulders are doing to lock up to the different rhythms of the drums. If you listen to the drummers of the Samba and look at the feet, you know it’s matching up. Certain things interlock in Classical music, too. Miles Davis told me, ‘You hear something; to make it yours, just change it up a little bit.’ It is a language, and you can change the language and add different words. I hear the kids in Brooklyn adding new words to the English language all the time! ‘Whattup, Ma?’  They’re saying hello to a woman. They keep changing, and always know what they’re saying. You can change the music, too; the traditional part is making sure everything matches up. When you write from that perspective, it’s always locked in.”

Harrison demonstrates his point on “Real Life Stories,” his fourth melody-rich document of Nouveau Swing since 1996. He’s worked with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer John Lampkin –  both “young guys who understand the modern texture and can play it in the context either of a jazz band or a dance band” — for several years, and each is intimate with Harrison’s fine-tuned, elegantly worked-out grooves. The altoist plays with relaxed abandon and perfect time, soaring soulfully through the attractive, gospelized “Confirmation” changes of “Keep The Faith,” spinning a sinewy statement over a funky Latin feel on “Night In Tunisia,” playing with the harmonic contours of “Oleo” as though engaging in advanced mathematics. There’s a tinge of barely restrained wildness in his tone, evoking memories of ’80s flights that distinguished Harrison’s tonal personality from his peer group.

“I used to get dogged by the critics and some musicians,” Harrison recollects. “I wasn’t inside enough for the mainstream players and I wasn’t out enough for people who liked avant-garde. But I know my peer group listened to the records with Buhaina and Terence; a lot of young saxophonists then were quoting my solos without even realizing it. I’m comfortable with what I’m doing now; I’m getting back to the way I thought when I was 19, before I began to listen to people and worry about what they said. Once I started listening to Bird, I took the approach that this music is evolutionary, which means that in order to understand it and be a master, you have to study the whole history.”

Harrison spears a final forkful of catfish. “Each person is unique,” he concludes. “The beauty of jazz is to find the things that are truly you, tell a story, and touch people. That’s why I say it’s all about love. I enjoy going out in this world, watching people, being around people, seeing the joy that what we do can bring to them. Besides all the intellect and high thinking that we put in the music, when it’s all said and done, what do you feel?

“I was never trying to be the greatest. I always felt that if you could be one of the cats, you did a great job, because the cats were so great. We do the best we can and keep moving on. Like Art Blakey used to say, ‘Light your candle and hope that somebody will see it.’”

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Filed under Alto Saxophone, Article, DownBeat, New Orleans