Tag Archives: New Orleans

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 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 this piece, 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 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 Oumou 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.

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