Tag Archives: Ornette Coleman

A DownBeat Feature From 2009 and an Uncut Blindfold Test With Christian McBride

A few weeks ago, I missed a chance to observe bassist-composer Christian McBride’s birthday with a post of a DownBeat cover piece that ran in late 2008 and a slightly earlier Blindfold Test that I conducted with him not long before that. I’ve decided to rectify the omission, as I think both pieces are worth reading. I’ve posted my “director’s cut” of the feature (it runs about 900 words longer than what appeared in the magazine), and the original, unedited transcript of the Blindfold Test.


 Christian McBride, DownBeat Cover Article:

Late in the afternoon on Friday, May 8th, Christian McBride stood in the foyer of David Gage’s Tribeca bass atelier, poised to sound-test the latest addition to his arsenal. There was little time to spare—McBride had fifteen minutes to retrieve his car from the parking lot, a short walk away, and it was a mere 90 minutes til gig time at the Blue Note with James Carter’s new band with John Medeski, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron. Still, McBride couldn’t restrain himself. Beaming at his new possession like a father cradling a newborn, he  put forth an elegant, funky one-chorus blues that the prior owner, the late Ray Brown, might well have cosigned for his own. Then McBride packed with a single efficient motion, enfolded Gage and his wife with a hug, and exited the premises, grabbing the car keys with two minutes to spare.

McBride was elated for reasons that had less to do with the excellence of the bass, which he declared superior to the one he had traded in to ameliorate the price, than with the pass-the-torch symbolism of the occasion. His new instrument had not come cheap, but he seemed to regard his possession of it to be more in the nature of an inheritance than the result of a transaction.

“It means the world to me, but I don’t think I’ll get that sentimental about it,” said McBride, who performed with Brown and John Clayton throughout the ‘90s in the singular unit, Super-Bass. “In my heart I’ll know it’s Ray’s bass, but I’m going to play what I need to. We had a very fatherly relationship. I don’t want to sound selfish, but I feel I SHOULD have it, since John has one of Ray’s other ones.”

Barely out of his teens when he joined Super Bass, McBride, now 36, was anything but a neophyte. Out of Philadelphia, he moved to New York in 1989 to matriculate at Juilliard, and quickly attained first-call status. By the fall of 1993, when McBride made his first extended tour with Joshua Redman’s highly publicized quartet with Pat Metheny and Billy Higgins, many considered him a major figure in the jazz bass continuum.

Perhaps this explains the vigorous blastback that certain elders launched McBride’s way in the latter ‘90s, when he began to revisit the electric bass, his first instrument, as a vehicle to investigate more contemporary modes of musical expression.

He recalled a backstage visit from Milt Jackson after his band, opening for Maceo Parker, played “a little tune I’d recorded that wasn’t a swing tune.” “Milt asked, ‘Was it necessary?’” McBride laughed heartily. “I said, ‘What do you mean, ‘necessary?’ ‘That ain’t the kind of stuff you’re supposed to be doing.’”

“I stood there and took it, because I loved Milt. But I had to ask: At what point am I allowed to get away from bebop? Is there some graduation process where Ray Brown or Hank Jones or Tommy Flanagan comes to Bradley’s and gives me my diploma? Why do I feel that I’m going to get in trouble if I decide to get a little funky? I knew stretching out wouldn’t affect my bebop playing or make me alter my sound.”

In point of fact, Brown, a fixture on L.A.’s commercial scene, who, as McBride notes, “played pretty good electric bass” himself, was anything but judgmental about his protege’s populist proclivities. “Ray never said a negative thing to me,” McBride said. “His whole thing was about pocket; as long as it had a toe-tapping quality, he was into it. He loved that I brought my own thing to Super Bass as opposed to ‘trying to play like a bebop guy.’”

Over the past decade, McBride’s penchant for adapting his “own thing” to any musical situation, however tightly formatted or open-ended, brought him copious sideman work with a crew of auditorium-fillers, among them Sting, Bruce Hornsby, David Sanborn, Herbie Hancock, and Pat Metheny, with whom he toured extensively during the first third of 2008. It was the final year of his four-year run as Creative Chair for Jazz at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for which, since 2005, he had booked 12 concerts a year. Among the highlights were projects with Queen Latifah and James Brown, his idol, on which he both music-directed and played bass, and also such high-concept jazz fare as Charles Mingus’ Epitaph and a ninetieth birthday celebration for Hank Jones. McBride had not neglected his jazz education commitments—per his annual custom since 2000, he spent a fortnight as Artistic Director at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, and he maintained his co-director post at National Jazz Museum in Harlem, an employer since 2005. If this weren’t enough, McBride also assumed artistic director responsibilities at the Monterrey and Detroit Jazz Festivals, producing new music for the various special projects and groups presented therein.

The impact of all this activity on McBride’s Q-rating was apparent when the three Metheny devotees sharing my table at the Blue Note stated that his name, and not Carter’s, was their prime incentive for shelling out the $35 cover.

McBride did not disappoint: Playing primarily acoustic bass, he constructed pungent basslines that established both harmonic signposts and a heartbeat-steady pulse around which the band could form consensus. He also brought down the house with a pair of astonishing solos. On the set-opener, “Mad Lad,” a stomping Rhythm variant by Leo Parker, McBride bowed a fleet-as-a-fiddle, thematically unified stomp, executing horn-like lines with impeccable articulation, intonation, and stand-on-its-own time feel. To open the set-concluding “Lullaby For Real Deal,” by Sun Ra, he declaimed a wild Mingusian holler, then counterstated Carter’s balls-out baritone sax solo, chock-a-block with extended techniques, with a to-the-spaceways theme-and-variation statement that ascended to the mountaintop, danced down again, and concluded with an emphatic FLAVOOSH on the E-string.

At the Rose Theater a fortnight earlier, McBride performed equivalent feats of derring-do with Five Peace Band, the Chick Corea-John McLaughlin homage to the fortieth anniversary of their participation on Bitches Brew with alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Brian Blade. Halfway through the final leg of a seven-month world tour, with Blade on drums, FPB addressed the repertoire in an open, collective manner, and McBride switched-off between acoustic and electric feels with equal authority. On one McLaughlin-penned piece, he laid down crunching funk grooves on the porkchop, at one point mirroring a staggeringly fast declamation by the leader so precisely as to give the illusion that the tones were merged into one hybrid voice.

“Technically, I could have done that ten years ago, but I don’t think my confidence would have been there to try it,” McBride remarked. “From playing electric so much more on sessions and gigs, now I have that confidence on both.”

He elaborated on the sonic personality that each instrument embodies.

“The acoustic bass is the mother, and the electric bass will always be the restless child,” he said. “Sometimes the energy of a restless child is cool to have around. It gets everybody up, and it keeps you on your toes. But the mother is always there, watching over everything—a wholesome feeling. The acoustic bass isn’t as loud, but it’s so big—it grabs all the music with a big, long arm. It encircles it. The electric bass is clearer, more in your face, but it doesn’t have that wisdom. Even with Jaco at his creative peak—and he was easily to the electric bass what Bird was to the alto saxophone—you never got that feeling. But you would go, ‘Man, this cat’s from another planet; who IS this?’”


“I don’t know what made me think I would be able to do Detroit and Monterrey back-to-back, though I managed to pull it off,” McBride said. “I’ve always prided myself on being able to take on multiple projects at the same time. But in 2008 I bit off way more than I could chew. By October, I was ready to collapse. Then I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to go to Europe for five weeks; I can’t collapse.’ Everybody was like, ‘You’re in town for three weeks? Let’s book some record dates.’ My brain was saying yes. But my body was like, ‘If you don’t go somewhere right now and sit in the dark for about three weeks, I’m unplugging on you.’ I’m trying to edit ‘09 a little bit.

“I’m ready to sink my teeth into my own music and see what I can finally develop on my own. Maybe one day I can be the guy leading an all-star tour or calling some other cats to come on the road with me.”

Towards that end, McBride was ready to tour with a new unit called Inside Straight, with saxophonist Steve Wilson, pianist Eric Reed, vibraphonist Warren Wolf, and drummer Carl Allen, whom he had assembled for a one-week gig at the Village Vanguard during summer of 2007 and reconvened to play Detroit. “I hadn’t played at the Vanguard since 1997, and thought it was time to go back,” McBride related. “‘Lorraine Gordon said, “Of course you’re always welcome at the Vanguard. But don’t bring that rock band you usually play with!’”

Said “rock band” was a plugged-in quartet with Geoff Keezer, Ron Blake, and Terreon Gully, which McBride first brought on the road in 2000 to support Science Fiction, the last of his four dates for Verve, to bring forth McBride’s “all-encompassing view of what jazz means to me.” The week before Christmas, during FPB’s December layover, they entered Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola for a “farewell-for-now” engagement. On the first set opening night, without rehearsal, they stretched out and hit hard, detailing a sonic template that spanned the soundpainting-beatsculpting feel of such ‘70s art fusion as Weather Report and Mwandishi and the inflamed ebullience that mutual heroes like Freddie Hubbard, Joe Henderson, and McCoy Tyner evoked in their live performances of that same period.

Indeed, the group’s extreme talent far exceeded their recorded documentation or gig opportunities. “We got defaulted as a fusion band, which I thought was inaccurate,” McBride continued. “It seemed our gigs always got stuck in when I had two nights off with Pat or Five Peace Band, and it was hard to change hats quickly and think things all the way through. But we all like music that has a lot of energy. It could be funky or free, it could be bebop or Dixieland swing, or it could rock. As long as that jazz feel is underneath, what’s on top doesn’t really matter.”

Funk, freedom and rock are absent from Kind of Brown [Mack Avenue], McBride’s debut date with Inside Straight, and his first all-acoustic presentation since Gettin’ To It, his 1995 opening salvo on Verve. “I call it one of those ‘just in case you forgot’ recordings,” said McBride, whose twentieth-anniversary-as-a-New Yorker plans also include weekly hits over the summer with a big band, and Conversations With Christian, a still-in-process project comprising 20 duet interview-duo performances with select “friends and mentors.”

“I came to New York to play with all the great modern jazz musicians I could, and I became known doing that in the Paul Chambers-Ray Brown spirit,” McBride said. “In a lot of recent musical situations, I’ve found myself being a little louder than I really like, and I got the itch to come back to some good foot-stomping straight-ahead.”

It was observed that McBride had traversed a conceptual arc not dissimilar to the path of such generational contemporaries as Hargrove and Redman, whose respective careers launched on their ability to hang with elders on equal terms. While in their twenties, they embraced on their own ground the tropes of contemporary dance and popular music, but recently, perhaps no longer feeling a need to prove anything, have returned to more acoustic, swing-based investigations.

“I see everybody turning the corner again to the acoustic-based, swinging thing,” McBride said. “We were the generation that was able to assimilate all that had happened before us, and at some point decided to use with their jazz vocabulary hip-hop or certain types of indy rock, great music that not too many jazz people were keeping their ear on. It’s no different than what any other generation of jazz musicians did.”


Regardless of the context in which he plays, McBride appears—has always appeared—to be grounded in a place not quite of his time. “My own mother told me once, ‘You really are an old soul,’ he said. “Coming from her, that almost scared me. I’ve never consciously thought we’ve got to bring back the vibe from the old days, but I probably do have a certain thread with an earlier generation. I’m an only child. My mom had me young, and she raised me as a single mom, so as much as we’re mother-and-son, we’ve always thought of each other as best friends. My childhood was hanging around my mother’s friends, listening to their stories, to their music.”

Referencing his fast learning curve, McBride added, “Having two working bassists in the family didn’t hurt.” One was his great uncle, bassist Howard Cooper, whose outcat gig resume includes Sun Ra and Khan Jamal. The other was his father, Lee Smith, a fixture in ‘70s Philly soul and R&B circles who began playing with Mongo Santamaria later in the decade. “He was a consistent figure in my formative years, in that I’d see him a few times a month,” McBride said. “We always practiced together, but after the initial ‘lessons’ when he showed me how to hold the bass and where to place my hands, it became just jamming. By high school, I spent all my time practicing classical etudes on the acoustic, which my dad didn’t play then.”

From the jump, McBride conceptualized the acoustic “as an oversized electric bass.” “Clarity was always the center of my concept of bass playing,” he said. “The  instrument’s range and frequency means you can feel the pulse that makes you move, but it’s hard to hear the notes. Much as I hate to admit it, I mostly hated bass solos, because I could never understand what they were playing. Notes ran into each other, and some cats would be out of tune—outside of first or second position, it gets dicey. I found that cats who play very clear and have good melodic ideas tended to be from the low-action, high-amplified school. When they’d start walking, all the pulse would go. Then, bass players with a really good sound and feel, who make you want to dance, when they soloed it was, ‘Ummm…go back to walking.’

“So my whole style was based on balancing the two—to play with a serious clarity of tone and still have the guts and power of the true acoustic bass. When I walk or am accompanying somebody, I wanted that soloist to feel they have the best tonal, rhythmic, and harmonic support possible, but I also didn’t want to bore the hell out of people when I soloed.  I was young enough when I started not to think that I had to get ideas only from other bass players. I thought, if I can play it, why not try to transcribe a McCoy Tyner or Joe Henderson line for the bass, and see how it comes out. Dumb 11-year-old idea.”

The notion of balance—triangulating a space between deference and self-interest, between pragmatic and creative imperatives, between acoustic and electric self-expression—is perhaps McBride’s defining characteristic.

“I’ve always tried to live in the middle,” McBride said. “I’d be a good U.N. diplomat! I’ve always found it interesting that I could talk about the same subject to two people who have violently different outlooks.” He recalled an early-‘90s encounter in San Sebastian with Lester Bowie—himself no diplomat—and Julius Hemphill when “they just started ripping into Wynton. ‘Man, Wynton’s ruining all you young cats. It’s a SHAME what he’s doing to you cats. But see, you got some different stuff happening, McBride! See, you got the opportunity to not be fazed by any of that stuff!’ I’m not really disagreeing or agreeing with them, just listening, ‘Mmm…mmm-hmm.’”

It’s unclear whether Bowie knew that McBride considered Marsalis “very much like a big brother or a mentor.” Old soul or not, he’s a child of the ‘80s, “one of the most fruitful periods for great jazz,” and, like many in his peer group, considered Marsalis’ recordings—along with those of the Tony Williams Quintet, Harrison-Blanchard, the various members of M-BASE, Art Blakey, Bass Desires, and Ralph Moore—“as important to my development as Miles and Freddie’s.” So when Marsalis came to Philadelphia in 1987 to conduct a high school workshop, McBride learned “as many of his tunes as I could.” Intrigued, Marsalis invited the 15-year-old prodigy to see him play the Academy Theater three days later, and invited him to sit in on “J Mood.”

Marsalis kept in close touch, conducting a regional Duke Ellington Youth Ensemble in which McBride participated, and “calling to check on me, telling me to keep my academics together” as McBride became a presence on the Philly scene. During these years, at Marsalis’ urging, McBride focused on the unamplified, raise-the-strings approach to bass expression  which, as he puts it, “seemed to be the new religious experience for young bass players coming to New York.” As his reputation grew (“people seemed to like what they were hearing”) he staunchly adhered to this aesthetic even through several bouts of tendinitis—although, upon Watson’s insistence (“Bobby, you don’t understand; the bass was not made to be played this way; maybe Victor can come down a bit…”), he did relent and purchase an amp for a Village Vanguard engagement.

Not too long thereafter, early in a duo week with Benny Green, Ray Brown heard McBride for the first time. “Ray said, ‘Why are you young cats playing so hard? You don’t need your strings up that high.’ I thought, ‘Shut up, and listen to Ray Brown.’ I saw him a few nights later, and it hit me like a ton of bricks. Ray seemed to be playing the bass like it was a toy. He was having fun. Playing jazz, he had that locomotion I heard in the great soul bass players, like James Jamerson and Bootsy Collins and Larry Graham.  He wasn’t yanking the strings that hard, he had the biggest, fattest, woodiest sound I’d ever heard, and most of it was coming from the bass, not the amp. At that point, I slowly started coming around. I was able to find a middle ground where, yes, it’s perfectly fine to use an amplifier. It’s not the ‘40s any more.”


A member of the last generation to receive a full dose of the heroes of the golden age of jazz, McBride is now well-positioned, through his educational activities and increasing visibility as a public spokesman, to facilitate the torch-passing process. His present views, informed by deep roots in black urban working-class culture and the attitude towards musical production that he absorbed during formative years, are not so very far removed from those of his mentors.

“Everybody’s nice now, but a lot of hard love came from those legends,” he said. “At Bradley’s, if you played a wrong change, you’d hear some musician at the bar going, ‘Unh-unh, nope, that’s not it.” They’d ream you on the break. After they finished, they’d buy you a drink. All of us wear those moments as badges of honor. When you see young cats doing the wrong thing, it’s not a matter of actually being mean or being nice when you  pull them aside and tell them what’s happening.”

Often he tells them not to bridle at the notion of marinating “in situations you’re not used to or that make you uncomfortable—situations where you’re playing bebop.”

“The people behind the scenes who pull the strings play on this idea of faction-race-gender-class, groove-versus-no-groove, intellectual-versus-street,” he said. “We’re in a period where the less groove or African-American influence, the more lauded the music is for being intellectual, or ‘this is cutting edge,’ ‘this is what you need to go see,’ ‘this is pure genius,’ whereas the guys who are grooving—‘that’s old; we’ve been hearing that for over half a century; we need to come further from that.’ The more European influence—or, shall we say, the more ECM—you put in your music, you can be considered a genius.

“At first, I thought it was racial. Maybe it is to a certain extent. But the white musicians I know who like to sink their teeth into the groove can’t get any dap either. Part of it might be backlash from when the record labels were dishing out the cash to advertise and market some straight-ahead ‘young lions’ who frankly didn’t deserve it. The recording industry did real damage to the credibility of young jazz musicians who were really serious about building on the tradition. It almost took an American Idol twist—some new hot person every six months. When it happened to me in New York, I remember thinking, ‘That could change tomorrow.’”

From the musicians in his family, McBride learned early that music is as much a business as an art form, and that to sustain a career requires labor as well as talent.  “My focus was always on being good,” he said. “If I’m the best musician I can be, I won’t have to worry whether someone thinks I’m hot or not; I’ll just be working with all the musicians that I can. I think that’s where I got my outlook to always try to find the middle ground.”

He intends to retain this attitude. “You see musicians reach a point where they no longer have to take certain gigs—and they don’t,” he said. “Some of us think, ‘They’ve lost that edge; they don’t have that passion like they used to.’ I never wanted to become one of those guys. My chops start getting weird. The pockets start getting funny. There’s a reason Ron Carter is still as active as he is. He’s playing all the time. Ray Brown was like that. They keep that thing going.”



Christian McBride Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Hans Glawischnig, “Oceanography” (PANORAMA, Sunnyside, 2007) (Glawischnig, bass, composer; Chick Corea, piano; Marcus Gilmore, drums)

I feel like I’m pretty sure on at least who two of three of those guys are. It certainly felt and sounded like Chick on piano. I’m going to guess that was Eddie Gomez. [No.] Really! Mmm! In that case, I’m a bit stumped. Whoever it was, I certainly feel like they come from the school of playing of Eddie Gomez, a lot of very pianistic, melodic lines way up on top of the bass, a wonderful melodic sense all over the bass but particularly in the upper register, and it didn’t sound like a very overtly powerful, kind of meaty, woody, kind of Ray Brownish school. The sound came more from the Gomez-Peacock-LaFaro kind of school. That’s why I might have thought it was Gomez. But if it’s not Gomez, it’s certainly someone I like a lot. I can’t guess who. I didn’t know who the drummer was at first. At first, I thought it might have been Jack. I thought it might have been Jeff Ballard. Knowing it was Chick, it thought it might have been Airto playing traps for a minute. So I’m a little stumped on who the bass player and drummer are, but I liked it a lot. Any professional musician playing changes that good and playing that good time, 5 stars. Hans! Very-very-very-VERY hip. Beautiful, Hans. Sounded great. Good job.

2.   Victor Wooten, “The Lesson” (PALMYSTERY, Heads Up, 2008) (Wooten, bass, hand claps, composer; Roy Wooten, cajon, shakers, hand claps)

I’m glad I heard that last minute. Got to be Victor Wooten. Only one man sounds like that on the electric bass. Victor has become the new bar, the new standard for a lot of electric bass players today. There has now been a legion born of Wooten-ites, as we call them, who try to play like that. I guess it’s very similar to what happened when Jaco came on the scene; now, every electric bass player had to sound like Jaco to be considered hip. So Victor Wooten is very much in that position these days. I love what Victor does. Is this a recent recording? [It’s coming out.] Well, one thing I’ve heard in Victor’s playing recently more than what I’ve heard in the past is that I could tell his level of harmony has completely blown way past the stratosphere at this point. When I first heard Victor, he was more or less a straight-up kind of R&B-funk guy, but his technique on the electric bass was so incredible you couldn’t help but be affected by that. But now I know he’s been working with a lot of guys like Mike Stern and Chick, so he’s been in situations where the musicality now is almost at the level with his technique. So it’s really great to hear what Victor’s done with this new thing. I love it. 5 stars.

3.   Omer Avital, “Third World Love Story” (ARRIVAL, Fresh Sound, 2007) (Avital, bass, composer; Jason Lindner, piano; Jonathan Blake, drums; Joel Frahm, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Avi Lebovich, trombone)

Is it the bass player’s album? Is it his composition? If it’s his composition, I give him or her a few extra stars. I like the composition a whole lot. It was very soulful, interesting but not too complicated, as I know is a tendency to happen among a lot of jazz musicians in my generation and younger. We get so involved into the “hip” aspect of writing, sometimes we lose the simplicity of it all. This song had a nice, simple feeling to it. The only thing that I would have liked to hear a little different didn’t have anything to do with the bass player, but had to do with the comping behind the solo. I kind of wish the entire rhythm section would have come down a little more behind the solo, or maybe they could have raised the bass up in the mix a little more. But that was the only little minor thing that I heard that I might have thought I’d have done a little different. I could tell that whoever this is, is someone I know. The guys in the band, I could tell I probably I know them. But for the life of me, from that particular track, I can’t tell who it was. I’m not good at giving stars. Because any professional musician doing a helluva job like that, they’ve always got to get 5 stars. [AFTER] Johnathan Blake? I knew it! I should have said it. The last time Johnathan and I played together, I remember getting that same feeling. Listening to the drumming on this… When I did some gigs with the Mingus band, and Jonathan played drums, I remembered that same kind of feeling, like there’s someone behind chomping away! Not in a bad way, obviously. But I had a feeling it was Jonathan. Very nice, Omer. He’s such a jolly guy anyway. I love the cat. Omer! The big teddy bear.

4.   Eberhard Weber-Jan Garbarek, “Seven Movements” (STAGES OF A LONG JOURNEY, ECM, 2007) (Weber, electric upright bass, composer; Garbarek, soprano saxophone)

Stanley Clarke. No? Is this person American? [Why would you ask a question like that?] I think it’s a perfectly legitimate question. [Go through your thought process.] My thought process is that most bass players I know with this kind of sound and that kind of facility, if it’s not Stanley Clarke, it’s always been someone from Europe. [The bassist is European.] Thank you! That part there has got to be overdubbed. That’s humanly impossible to play on the bass. You can’t go from a high E on the G string down a low G on the E string. Now, that can be played on the bass. [MIMICS FINGERING WITH LEFT HAND] Is this Eberhard Weber and Jan Garbarek. He’s done a lot of stuff with Kate Bush, hasn’t he? [This is 65th birthday concert.] So he’s really playing that live? I’d love to see that. Well, I dig that a lot also. For that particular thing, I don’t think two guys have that sound more together than Eberhard and Jan. Even the American cats who have recorded for ECM who have tried to kind of get that sound, that’s… We have our own explicit sound… When certain cats get that sound, we have a certain American way that it sounds. But that particular thing there, that’s entirely theirs, and they have their own definite fingerprint on that particular sound—which is, frankly, European. That’s not said to be an insult or a compliment. That’s just what it is. I liked it a lot. [Any speculations on what’s European about it?] It was much more based on harmony and melody than rhythm. I’ve found that most European music tends to rely less on rhythm than melodic and harmonic content, which is cool if that’s what you’re in the mood for at that particular time. I think what we just heard is the preeminent way to capture that one thousand percent Euro sound. And it should be! 5 stars.

5.   Peter Washington, “Desafinado” (Steve Nelson, SOUND EFFECT, High Note, 2007) (Washington, bass; Nelson, vibraphone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Lewis Nash, drums)

Is that my dear friend, Lewis Nash? [On bass solo.] Is that Peter? Anything Peter Washington plays on gets 5 stars. Peter Washington has always been one of my favorite bass players of all time. He has such a big, big sound and such great time. He picks such great notes. Hearing him on record is almost misleading, because when you hear him live, his sound is so much bigger. It still sounds great on record, but hearing him live is even a bigger treat. Of course, the way he and Lewis have played together through the years, they’ve established a chemistry that’s pretty special. The way Lewis always plays behind everybody, particularly bass solos, is why he’s the hardest working man in the drum business, and he rightfully deserves to be, the way he plays behind everyone, particularly bass players. That’s why Ron Carter loves him so, that’s why I love him so, that’s why Peter loves him so. But getting back to Peter, he sounds great all the time. I’ve never heard him have a bad night, never heard him sound a little bit off—he’s always right in the pocket. Since I got Peter and Lewis, I don’t know if I want to put an egg on my face and guess the other two. I don’t know who the vibe player is. I was thinking he didn’t sound quite as eagle-like as Bobby Hutcherson or Steve Nelson. They’re both so much in the stratosphere, unless it was one of them purposely holding back. I certainly don’t think it was one of those two. It was Steve? Okay, Steve was trying to hold back. We’ve all seen Steve Nelson just take off on a spaceship and go above the clouds. And I respect him! He was trying to be cool on this one! But he still sounded great. Just by an educated guess, was it Renee playing piano? No? Kenny Barron maybe? You got me. Mulgrew. Ah, of course. Well, that’s the A-band.

6.   Reginald Veal, “Ghost In the House” (UNFORGIVABLE BLACKNESS, Blue Note, 2004) (Wynton Marsalis, trumpet, composer; Veal, bass; Victor Goines, tenor saxophone; Wessell Anderson, alto saxophone; Wycliffe Gordon, trombone; Herlin Riley, drums)

Just from the sound of the bass, it only leaves a handful of people. It’s got to be like Ben Wolfe or Carlos Enriquez. It’s not Reginald Veal. These are gut strings on this bass. I’d be very shocked if this is not Wynton’s group or the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. So is this Carlos playing bass? Is it Ben? Reginald?! Really! This must not be new, then. What is this from? Ah, the Jack Johnson film. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Reginald play with gut strings before. It certainly sounds like gut strings. I’ll tell you a little secret about Reginald Veal. I’ve always been very happy he never decided to be part of the New York scene—to kind of hit the Bradley’s scene, the Vanguard scene, and work around with the New York cats. Because if that were the case, a lot of us wouldn’t be working! I’ve loved Reginald Veal for a very long time, and I’ve heard him in many different situations with a lot of people. I think he’s most known in the jazz world for his association with Wynton. Also with Diane Reeves, but with I don’t think he was able to really stand out in that particular group like he did in Wynton’s group. But this particular thing here I don’t think would be the best representation of Reginald’s great ability. This was obviously a wonderful track. He played great, he sounded great, as he always does. But those of us who have seen Reginald through the years know he’s a sleeping giant, as they say. He’s a bad dude. 5 stars.

7.   Scott Colley, “Architect of the Silent Moment” (ARCHITECT OF THE SILENT MOMENT, CamJazz, 2007) (Colley, bass, composer; Ralph Alessi, trumpet; David Binney, alto saxophone; Craig Taborn, piano; Antonio Sanchez, drums)

Is this Dave Holland? It’s killin’, whoever it is. I liked it a lot. I’m still trying to guess who the bass player was. Like I say, whoever it is, is really killin’. Maybe Patitucci. No? Good sound, good facility. Is that the bass player’s composition? There was a lot in there. I was trying to analyze it, but it’s hard to catch a lot of that stuff the first go-around. Obviously, it’s someone I could hearken back to when I talked about the…it has some very tricky parts in there. Compositionally, it’s built very well. For the first time around, it was a little bit of a challenge to find something to hang my hat on. I could tell it was definitely a really, really good composition, but from the very beginning I remember those slick dissonances between the bass part and the melody, and then how it kind of built into that section where it kind of explodes, where the drummer was kind of cutting loose at the end, and then the middle section where the solos were. So a lot of happening. Some good stuff going on. A couple of different drummers came to mind. Billy Drummond actually came to mind, but I know that’s not quite his sound. I’m a little stumped on who it might be, so I beg you to relieve me. 5 stars. Scott Colley? Dammit! Rooney, my good friend! Sure. I didn’t recognize Antonio’s sound, quite honestly. I’ve always known his drum sound to be a little different. But as I said before you told me who it was, whoever it was, was killing. Scott is definitely another one of my favorite musicians. I had no idea he was such a killing composer. I wouldn’t have guessed Craig.

8.   Francois Moutin, “Trane’s Medley” (Moutin Reunion Quartet, SHARP TURNS, Bluejazz, 2007) (Francois Moutin, bass, arranger; Louis Moutin, drums)

Is this Brian Bromberg? Well, that certainly would have gotten a lot of house in a big theater. It was certainly imaginative. Nice Coltrane tribute. My knee-jerk reaction is to say it might have been a little too choppy for me, and I don’t mean choppy in the sense that it didn’t flow. I mean choppy in the sense that whoever this person is has absolutely amazing chops, and it was used to the effect of garnish as opposed to meat on the plate. I say that with the utmost respect, because I know that people have said that about me from time to time. But with it being just bass and percussion, maybe that person felt a need to compensate for the lack of the piano and the guitar and whatever else was not there with some cute chop runs every now and then. But it was definitely imaginative, and it would have gotten plenty of house in a big theater. I don’t know too many acoustic bass players with those kinds of chops. After Bromberg, I’m a little stumped. 4 stars.

9.   Miroslav Vitous, “The Prayer” (UNIVERSAL SYNCOPATIONS II, ECM, 2007) (Vitous, bass, composer, samples; Gary Campbell, tenor saxophone; Gerald Cleaver, drums)

Is the bass player also the composer? Really! Is this from a movie? I feel like I’m watching a movie. [What do you see in the movie?] Like a war scene or something like that. The after effects, or something like that. I’m so into the composition that my knee jerk reaction is that it almost doesn’t need a bass solo in it. Whoever the composer is, I’ll give a bunch of stars, more than 5, just for the feel and the arc of the composition. I think the bass solo, whoever it was, with all due respect, I don’t think it was needed. The composition stands alone very well by itself without the soloing in between. The saxophone, too; not just the bass. I could have stood for even a little silence in those holes there. But definitely a bunch of stars for the composition. I couldn’t tell who the bass player was. Miroslav! I actually got to play with Gary Campbell once. But wow, Miroslav, a huge amount of applause for that piece of music. That was awesome. It was also my first time really getting to hear his orchestral samples kind of up-close like that. I’ve heard them kind of on their own, just as a demonstration once.

10.  Buster Williams, “The Triumphant Dance of the Butterfly” (GRIOT LIBERTE, High Note, 2004) (Williams, bass, composer; Stefon Harris, vibraphone; George Colligan, piano; Lenny White, drums)

[AFTER 8 BARS OF OPENING BASS SOLO] Buster Williams. I know that album pretty well. That’s a great, great record, with George Colligan and Stefon Harris. Buster Williams has created such a legacy. He’s such an influential musician and such a really, really great composer. I’m not quite sure why more bass players don’t give it up to him, because he’s certainly right on that level where you would mention a Ray Brown or a Ron Carter or an Oscar Pettiford. I have always felt you had to mention Buster along with those guys. He’s also been able to develop a pretty identifiable sound. Even before he was using an amplifier, if you listen to him on, like, Sassy Swings The Tivoli, he still sounds a lot different from a lot of bass players from that period, and it just developed and developed. He has a sound like no other. When he’s playing quarter notes, man, when he starts swinging, it’s treacherous!—in a great way. Five million stars for anything he does.

11.  Hank Jones, “Prelude To A Kiss” (FOR MY FATHER, Justin Time, 2004) (Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass; Dennis Mackrell, drums)

This sounds like an elder statesman. Is that Doctor Taylor? [What makes it sound like an elder statesman to you?] Just the way they’re playing the time. It’s nice and relaxed. The language. The style of chords. Just the approach. It sounds like guys who never got stung by the Herbie-McCoy ‘60s bug. Interesting to give it to the drummer on the bridge, because it’s such a pretty bridge. I’m not saying drummers can’t play pretty. I still think it’s one of our elder statesmen. Was the bassist Earl May, or someone like that? It’s got to be Hank or Billy or someone like that. Georege Mraz? Aggh! There we go. 5 stars.

12. Ornette Coleman, “Sleep Talking” (SOUND GRAMMAR, 2006, Sound Grammar) (Coleman, alto saxophone, composer; Greg Cohen, Tony Falanga, bass; Denardo Coleman, drums)

Is this Ornette with the two basses? Greg Cohen and I forget the other one. I’ve only seen this group in person, not on the record. I dig it. It’s kind of hard not to dig Ornette—for me. I remember when Melissa saw Ornette’s group at Carnegie Hall with Abbey Lincoln, and she said it was amazing because so many of these so-called “culture experts” who so-called know that Ornette is a genius, they couldn’t hang past the first tune. But I give props to Melissa. She hung in there the whole night. She said, “I dug it.” I was out with Metheny, and we saw them somewhere in Eastern Europe. But I dug it, man. I like the basses. Ornette might be the only person who would be able to get away with putting together something this loose. But knowing that it’s… Put it this way. If someone other than Ornette had to put this together, I’m not sure I would have understood it as much. He’s reached a point where he can put together almost anything and it will work as long as he is in the middle of it some kind of way. First of all, it was always my own personal opinion that Ornette was never really that out. I know he gets called the genius of the avant-garde, but I’ve always thought Ornette was pretty funky. I still hear plenty Texas in his playing, even when he’s really, really way out there. So I like that. That kind of ties it all together for me. So no matter how out it is, there’s still some hint of brisket underneath. [Meat is a frequent metaphor for you.] Yeah, man! 5 stars.


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For the 81st Anniversary of David “Fathead” Newman’s birth, A 1998 DownBeat Interview with him and Hank Crawford and a Liner Note

Today is the 81st anniversary of the birth of David “Fathead” Newman, a master practitioner of the saxophone family and the flute, whose sound helped stamp Ray Charles’ various units during the ’60s and ’70s and whose own leader career is documented on three dozen or so recordings. I had an opportunity to write the liner notes for one of those dates, Keep The Spirit Singing, and to interview Mr. Newman both on WKCR and for my first-ever DownBeat feature, a joint interview with him and his long-time saxophone partner Hank Crawford in 1998. I’ve posted the liner notes and the unedited transcript of the interview.

David Newman (Notes for Keep The Spirit Singing):

In the exciting times directly following World War II, when David Newman was a young man in Dallas, Texas, interstates, jet planes, mall culture and television did not exist.  People from different regions did things their own way.  For black tenor saxophone players from the wide open spaces, that meant cultivating the larger than life sound of the kind projected by luminaries like Herschel Evans, Illinois Jacquet, Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb and John Hardee on the popular recordings by big bands and jump bands of the day.  As much Newman and his peer group — Ornette Coleman, King Curtis, Booker Ervin, Dewey Redman — absorbed the startling modernist postulations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie during those years, they never strayed far from the elemental principle that the horn is an analog for the human voice.  The sound was of the essence.

Then, musicians learned by jumping into the fray.  Initially an alto saxophonist, Newman attended high school with future luminaries like Cedar Walton and James Clay and jammed on up-to-the-minute bebop with a teenage Ornette Coleman.  He played in bands led by a pair of little-recorded legends, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith, who was Charlie Parker’s earliest and primary influence from Kansas City days, and the tenor saxophonist Red Connor, who Coleman cites as a primary mentor.  We’ll digress with Newman’s comments on both.

“Red Connor was a very fine musician with a sound somewhere in between Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons, or Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, with a little Don Byas or Chu Berry in there,” he recalls.  “Booker Ervin listened quite a bit to him, as you can hear in Booker’s playing.  I don’t know of any other players that had Red’s particular style and his sound; he was very much his own person and  didn’t particularly pattern himself on any of the forerunner tenor players.  Red knew all the Bebop tunes, he was playing Bebop always, and I got a thorough training by playing with the Red Connor band when I was in high school.

“At that time Buster Smith had moved back to Dallas, and he had one of the best big bands in the city.  One night I sneaked into a club to hear his band play, and he gave me a chance to sit in, which was a very big thing for me; soon I started to play with him.  Buster had an advanced approach, different from most musicians of his era.  He had a huge sound on the alto, and his execution was superb; he could get over the instrument really fast — he knew it backwards.  His phrasing and harmonic concept were modern, ahead of its time.  He was a self-taught musician with perfect pitch, and he could sit and write arrangements while we were riding up and down the highways — he wouldn’t have to be anywhere near a piano.  He would write out full arrangements, and on a jump blues that he wanted to extend he would set up different riffs for the saxophones, then someone in the brass section would set the riffs for the trumpets and trombones.  They called Buster ‘Prof,’ short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.

“Buster put together small combos for the road or to back up people like T-Bone Walker and others who came through Dallas.  Around 1951-52, Buster organized a group with Leroy Cooper and myself to do a tour with Ray Charles, who was singing and playing the alto.  We played mostly the southern states out to California.  I had met Ray a little earlier, when I was playing with Lloyd Glenn, a piano player with a hit record called ‘Chickaboo,’ and Ray was with Lowell Fulsom, who featured him playing piano and singing.  We were traveling on the road at black theaters and dance halls with a package that also included Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker.  Sometimes Ray sounded similar to Charles Brown, sometimes he sounded like King Cole, even sometimes like T-Bone Walker, but you could hear his thing starting to come out.  I think Ray’s recording of ‘I Got A Woman,’ when he started to inject a Gospel feel, is where the real Ray Charles started to emerge.”

Newman blossomed as a star sideman with Charles’ brilliant small band from 1954 to 1964, but he’s never felt aesthetically encumbered by his past.  “Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation,” Newman told “Downbeat” a few years back.  “Before I encountered Ray, my only real love was jazz and bebop.  With Ray I learned how to respect and admire and love all other forms of music.  This music is an incredible gift.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me, put my stamp on it, my feeling, and see what comes out.  I want to explore other areas, bridge the generations.  You can’t close yourself off as music moves on.”

Now 67, Newman sustains that attitude of freshness and exploration throughout Keep The Spirit Singing.  Performing on flute and tenor and alto saxophones, he sculpts his sound with refined nuance through a broad matrix of emotion and rhythm-timbre, enhanced by an ensemble of creative veteran improvisers who know the Old Master well enough not to have to waste time getting acquainted in the studio.

Pianist John Hicks spent his formative years in St. Louis and Atlanta, and knows intimately the language of blues and church forms; his distinctive voicings and ebullient beat fit Newman like a custom-made suit.  “I’ve known John a long time, and he’s been one of my favorite pianists for many years,” Newman says.  “He knows where I’m going, and we blend as a very good combination.”

On three selections Newman pairs off with trombonist Steve Turre, a fellow Charles alumnus who coaxed the master into playing four tunes on his recently issued In The Spur of The Moment [Telarc].  “I like the blend of the tenor saxophone and trombone,” Newman says.  “Ray’s standard instrumentation was two trumpets and three reeds, but in the ’50s when we played the Apollo and the Howard Theater, he would use the trombone.  I wanted Steve because he gets that wide-open, full sound.”

Newman first met Turre and bassist Steve Novosel when both were working with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, another devotee of extracting a full sonic palette from an array of horns.  “I first met Rahsaan in Chicago, when I was playing with Ray,” Newman digresses.  “Rahsaan was just getting his start, and had come over to Atlantic Records.  He would hang out at the Sutherland Hotel, where we stayed quite often in Chicago.”

Returning to the subject at hand, he continues: “Steve Novosel is a solid, great player.  I depend on him a lot for his ability to carry the melody.”

Like Novosel, trapsetter Winard Harper works frequently with Newman.  The relationship began when Harper hired Newman for a record date a few years back; the in-demand 38-year drummer plays with idiomatic precision and imaginative flair throughout. Joining him for several tunes is percussion wizard Steve Kroon, who dots the i’s and crosses the t’s with customary panache.

Guitarist O’Donnell Levy composed and arranged the Caribbean-flavored title track and the samba-esque “Asia Beat,” which frame the session, while Turre offers the pungent “Mellow-D For Mr. C.”  “I like the way the changes move in the tune,” Newman says of the latter, which refers to Ray Charles.  Does the Caribbean beat relate to the 12/8 feel Newman played over 45 years ago?  “Yes, it does.  It’s a very natural feeling.  A lot of people today seem to like that feel, and I am one of those people.”

Newman’s “Cousin Esau” showcases his vocalized flute sound.  “I adapted some of the things that Eddie Harris and Les McCann used to do with this particular beat,” Newman says.  “No one has a name for it, but I call it the Listen-Here beat.  Most drummers that I ask know what I mean.  It’s a four-beat rim-shot figure played on the snare drum; most people can groove to it.  I thought of the flute when writing this tune.  Through the years I’ve tried to get an identifiable flute sound, and somehow it’s starting to come together.  It’s a very earthy, open sound.  When I was a kid I used to blow across a Dr. Pepper or R.C. Cola soda bottle to get a sound; after I started playing the flute, I found it was a good way to get a good open sound.”

Newman wrote “Karen, My Love” for his wife; his bravura performance comes right out of the Gene Ammons tradition of heart-on-the-sleeve balladry using only the choicest notes.  “John Hicks helped me flesh this out,” Newman reveals.  “I knew exactly what I wanted, but John could put meaning to what I had in mind.”

Newman reprises “Willow Weep For Me,” which he recorded years ago for Atlantic, taking it here with a 3/4 feel.  It’s a showcase for his bright, declamatory alto saxophone style, and shows that his early experience with Buster Smith “has stuck with me all through the years.”

John Hicks composed “Life,” one of his many lovely waltzes, with Newman’s flute in mind.  “It has a natural feel,” Newman says.  “John wanted me to play it as I felt it fit me.”

Newman is no stranger to the Latin sound that inflects much of the proceedings.  “I guested many times with Machito’s band, and later on with other Latin groups, and that gave me the feel of the Latin beat as well as some things coming out of Cuba,” he notes.  “The jazz feel with the African-Latin influence and the European influence is part of what jazz is all about, especially these days — it’s all come together.”

Pushing the envelope remains the animating imperative for Newman, a musician who can retrospect on a career that spans a half-century — 45 years in the spotlight.

“You don’t want to get yourself into a dated position,” says the man whose sound defines soul tenor for several generations.  “I like to incorporate the modern approach I hear from the younger players in playing the changes, and I still include some of the things that I played and learned from the veteran musicians when I was young.  You take what you have and ride with it, put it all together, and keep moving with the feeling, keep going forward.”

Hank Crawford-David Newman – (3-3-98):

TP:    The first question I’ll address to you both is when you were first aware of the other?  Hank Crawford, did you first meet David Newman when you came into the Ray Charles band?

HC:    Yes, I first met him when I went in Ray’s band.  But I was aware of his playing from some records I had heard, solo things he had done with Ray Charles.  But the first time we met I’d just joined the band actually.

TP:    I’d like to talk to you, Hank, about your path into the Ray Charles band, and I guess we should start from your early years as a musician.  When did you start playing music?

HC:    I started playing at the age of 9.  I started on piano.  Piano was my first instrument.  I studied three years of private lessons; I guess that must have been at about the age of 6 when I started taking music lessons, and from there I went to the saxophone.

TP:    Why did you go to the saxophone from the piano?

HC:    My father was in the Service, and when he came back, he’d bought a saxophone with him, which was a C-melody — actually it was a C-melody saxophone.  I think he was sort of a frustrated saxophone player himself, but he never did go into it.  But he brought the horn, and I was studying piano and still in elementary school.  So I still had, I guess, 6th, 7th and 8th grade to go.  And once I entered high school in 9th Grade, naturally I wanted to be in the high school band, and piano was a bit much to march with.  So I just went to the closet and picked out the horn.  I’m self-taught saxophone.  I just got a book actually in Ninth Grade and taught myself after I learned the fingering, because I already had a slight knowledge of music from taking piano lessons.

TP:    You could read probably, and knew some chords.

HC:    Right.  And I started playing saxophone in Ninth grade.  Then after I taught myself the fingering and stuff, I just kept playing.  Later I had lessons on the saxophone, too, but that was in college.  That’s when I entered college.

TP:    What sort of music program did you have in high school?

HC:    Well, it was basically the marching band, a concert band, and a dance band which we called the Rhythm Bombers.  It was a 16-piece high school band.  Our band director in high school was a trumpet player by the name of Matthew Garrett, who is Dee Dee Bridgewater’s father.  Actually, Dee Dee’s given name is Denise Garrett.  Her father was Matthew Garrett, and he was my high school band director.  We used to play a lot of Woody Herman charts and Count Basie charts, just big band stuff.

TP:    Did he have you working outside the high school, like Walter Dyett did in Chicago, got his guys in the union?

HC:    Oh yeah.  We played a lot of Monday night things, usually on campus.  And then we played some things off-campus, which was in local clubs.  But even in high school, we were playing major functions.

TP:    Had you always been listening to records and other saxophonists?

HC:    Yes.

TP:    And when did the alto become the horn of choice, or the horn that suited your ear.  From the influences that you describe on your bios, you mention Bird, Louis Jordan, Johnny Hodges, Earl Bostic, later Cannonball, they’re all alto players.  So I assume that was the primary voice that you heard.

HC:    During that period I heard a lot of saxophone players, from Bird to Bostic, Tab Smith, and on up through to Ammons, Sonny Stitt, you know… So really, I can’t say just one more than the other inspired me the most.  Because I love to hear musicians play, all saxophone players.  I got a bit from each one.  But I always liked the sound of the alto, although I did play a little tenor or baritone.  But I could express myself more on alto.  That seemed to be my voice.

TP:    You also mentioned your church experience as being very important for you.

HC:    Oh yes.

TP:    And it seems to me that the alto saxophone is the sound that’s more commonly inspirational in the church.

HC:    Oh yes.  I think the alto is very voice-like.  I approach the horn vocally, as if I was going to sing.  I guess that comes across because of my early beginnings or early roots in the church.  That’s where I started when I was playing piano.  I used to play for the junior choirs, the senior choirs, prayer meetings.  My whole family was really involved in church a lot.  If they didn’t play, they were singing.  So all my life I was involved in spiritual music.

TP:    What was the name of the church you belonged to in Memphis?

HC:    Originally, Springdale.  Springdale Baptist Church.

TP:    That’s where you had your piano lessons, or played piano.

HC:    Yes, right there.

TP:    Well, we’ll stop with Hank in high school playing with the 16-piece band in high school with Matthew Garrett as the band director, and go through the same process with David Newman.  Your path on the saxophone.  When you started playing, what the circumstances were, etcetera.

DN:    You mean right from the very beginning.

TP:    When did you first put a horn in your mouth.

DN:    Well, it was the mid-Forties when I first picked up the alto.  Like Hank, I started out with the piano.  I had a few piano lessons at first, but I didn’t stay with the piano as long as he did.  I only had a few lessons, and then right away my friends started calling me a little sissy, so I wanted to pick up a more masculine instrument.  So I asked my Mom to get a horn, and I didn’t know exactly what kind of horn.  But then I heard Louis Jordan play the alto saxophone, and it just blew me away, and right away I chose the alto — that’s what my Mom bought me.  I was still in elementary school, and started taking private lessons from my music instructor, J.K. Miller, who was the band director at Lincoln High School.  He taught Cedar Walton and James Clay, alike from Dallas.  We called him Uncle Dud.  When I started high school I went directly into the band.  Uncle Dud was the one that gave me the name “Fathead.”  He wanted me to read the music instead of memorizing music like what I was doing, and he called me a fathead in class, and that’s been my nickname until this day.

TP:    Unapropos.

DN:    [LAUGHS] Unapropos, but nonetheless that’s the way it was, and it’s a trademark by now.  I don’t get offended by the name at all, because it goes so far back, and it’s just a nickname anyway.

TP:    What sort of music program did he have.  Hank Crawford’s describing playing contemporary Basie and Woody Herman charts, a 16-piece band.  Did you have something similar to that in high school?

DN:    We had something similar to that for the jazz band, some Basie charts, some arrangements by Buster Smith, who was a local alto saxophone player and arranger and composer from Dallas, and also some stock arrangements, which were published orchestrations.  I was playing alto for many years, and after about my second year in high school, a friend of mine introduced me to Bird.  He brought along a Charlie Parker record, a 78 on Savoy Records, and Bird was playing “Koko,” which was “Cherokee.”  I had never heard anything like that before in my life.  I was thinking that there was no other player that could play any faster or better than Earl Bostic.  Earl Bostic was the man at that time.  And when I heard Charlie Parker it just blew my mind away.

From that point on, I fell into the Bebop bag, and I started listening to all the Bebop tunes as they came out.  And during that particular time, it was very easy to keep up with all the new tunes that came out, because there weren’t that many.  So I would listen to J.J., Diz, Bird, Fats Navarro, Dexter, all the players.

TP:    What a lot of people describe is that when these records would come out, their whole little clique of musicians would get together, memorize the solos, and then…

DN:    Exactly.

TP:    Was that your experience, too, Hank?

HC:    yes.

TP:    Do you remember your first Bird record?

HC:    Maybe not by name, but I can say this.  Like David was saying, at that particular time it was the Bebop era that we both came through, you know, and some of the same people he named I really admire.  I love Bostic for power.  He was a power player.  But we all came through all phases of music, from the Blues, Gospel and Jazz… Actually, I was speaking about the spiritual side of music, but we were also playing Bebop.  That was the era that we really come through.  We always tried to play Bird’s solos, and did play them, note for note!

TP:    So you memorized your Bird solos also.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Oh yeah.

TP:    I’m going to ask you each about your contemporaries, because you each came up with a small group of distinguished cohorts.  In David’s case, you came up with James Clay, Cedar Walton and Ornette Coleman.  You’ve mentioned a good story about Ornette, playing in the park.

DN:    There was a park in Fort Worth (I forget the name) where we would all gather around the gazebo and play there.  I was playing with an older musician there named Red Connor, a very good saxophone player.  He never was that well-known because I don’t think he left Texas that much, but at the time he was the leading saxophonist in that area.  His sound was more or less between Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon, and even maybe Don Byas.  He was a Bebop player, and he knew all the Bebop tunes.  I was playing in Red’s band, and Ornette would come and play.  I was playing the alto and Ornette was playing the tenor saxophone when I first met him.  We would play all of Bird’s tunes, and we both knew his solos, as well as Sonny Criss and the other alto players.  We’d learn these solos note for note, then after we finished playing whatever Bird had played, then it came time to do the individual thing, and this is when Ornette would go Ornette.  Then we could hear come in after he would run out of Bird’s solos, then he would go to Ornette! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Ornette as we know him today.

DN:    Ornette as we know him.  It was Ornette.  He wasn’t calling it harmolodics at the time, but that’s the direction that he would go into.  He would not conform to the chord structure.  He would just go completely different, because he had his own conception.  His concept was entirely different.  We knew he was on his way to being something different.  We didn’t know what it was, but we knew it was a different thing happening with Ornette.

TP:    Hank Crawford, I can think of two pretty fair saxophonists in your age group, George Coleman and Frank Strozier.  Were you all acquainted?

HC:    Yes, we were all in high school together.  In fact, George and I were in the same class.  Frank was a few years behind us, but we were all in the same band.  Speaking of local saxophone players, at that time the guy who impressed me the most was a tenor player named Ben Branch, who sounded a lot like Gene Ammons — and I always liked Ammons’ playing.  There was a guy who played alto in Memphis who I got my name from, an older man named Hank O’Day — really Hank, not Henry.  He was playing in a big band that was led by Al Jackson, who was the father of the drummer Al Jackson from the Stax scene.   There was George, and then a few years behind us was Charles Lloyd.  There was another guy who played saxophone who sounded very much like Bird… At that time, George Coleman was the king.  He was playing all of the Bird stuff.

During that era, we were studying a lot of Bebop.  That’s why we went from house to house, to learn all these bad tunes.  But basically, our primary function when we would go out to play was the Blues.  We’d practice the Bebop all day at each other’s house, but when we had to go out and play, we’d play a lot of Blues, Memphis being the home of the Blues, they say.  I walked bars and laid on my back on the floor with people dropping coins in the bell.

I remember listening to Johnny Hodges, and I remember Tab Smith played on “Because of You” that floored me.  I like melodies.  I really like ballads, and I think I’m most expressive on ballads.  I guess that comes from being around vocal music a lot.

TP:    You mentioned that starting in the church as well.  You mentioned that in your trademark horn arrangements, the horns are the backup singers, you’re the lead singer with the alto.

HC:    Yes.  I found that to be true when I joined Ray Charles’ band.  I started trying to write a little bit when I was in high school, and in Memphis, almost every band that you played with was at least eight pieces, from 8 to 16 pieces, five horns at least.  Big bands was a favorite of mine, too; I loved big bands.  I even had the opportunity to meet some of the great big band leaders later on in my career.

TP:    Lunceford was from Memphis from originally.

HC:    Yes, and Gerald Wilson.  And later, when I went to school at Tennessee State in Nashville, I had a chance to meet Ellington and Dizzy.  They would come and play the homecoming campus gig every year.  There would always be a big name.  I had an opportunity to meet Charlie Parker three months before he passed in Nashville.  I was a senior at Tennessee State, and Bird came through on a show with Stan Kenton, June Christy, Nat Cole.  There was a tenor player in Nashville named Thurman Green. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You’re laughing.

HC:    Well, he was funny.  He was funny just as a human being and then he was funny as a player.  We used to laugh at his playing.  He just played funny, man.  He knew Charlie Parker personally.  And Bird came through at that particular time with that show we were talking about, and he came down to a little place that I was playing called the El Morocco.  I was playing an off-campus gig, and Bird came down there, just hanging out.  He didn’t play anything; came with Thurman, his friend.  He sat there, and for about two hours, man, after we finished, I had a chance to sit next to him and talk.  I don’t know what we were talking about.  Just fun things.  This was like in December, and he passed in March.  That’s about three months.

TP:    It sounds to me that the thing you both share is you had thorough high school educations.  You got a thorough musical preparation in a lot of ways in high school, and then you were playing functionally on these type of gigs and getting professional experience from a fairly young age.  How old were you when you did your first professional gig, whatever amount of money it was?

HC:    Actually in high school we were getting paid.  Because at that time, at 14 and 15, we were going out playing the dances.  The senior players, they were out, too.  But at that time, Memphis was full of great musicians, man.  Phineas Newborn was there.  He was playing at that age, man, and he was just out of sight.  So we played all of the R&B gigs and all of the jazz gigs and so forth.

TP:    There wasn’t a differentiation between Jazz and other forms of music.  It was all one big pot, kind of?

HC:    Right.  Well, playing Bebop, that was our classroom.  That was the study period, you know.  But Blues just came as a natural if you were from that part of the country.

TP:    I take it that Dallas, Texas wasn’t so dissimilar in terms of the requirements for playing in public, am I right?

DN:    My experience in that area was we’d play Bebop in jam sessions, and maybe there was one club or two where we would play together for the door, which wouldn’t be very much money, like the Log Cabin in South Dallas.  But you couldn’t earn a living playing Bebop because the people, especially in the Dallas area, they weren’t that interested in Bebop.

TP:    What would happen if you might throw that into your playing?  Would they be very verbal and vociferous and clear in their displeasure?

DN:    Well, the younger people would dance to anything that we played.  They were receptive.  But the older generations, from the thirties on, they didn’t take too much to Bebop.  They would listen for the beat and that sound which they were accustomed to.  If it wasn’t Swing from the Big Band area, then it had to be something like Blues or Rhythm-and-Blues, something from a beat there, and the Blues, bluesy tunes.  So you had to play the Blues.  In order to make any kind of money playing music around the Dallas area and Texas, you had to play the Blues.  T-Bone Walker was from Dallas, and I would play gigs and go on gigs.  Whenever T-Bone would come through town, I would go on gigs, because Buster Smith usually put bands together to back up T-Bone.  Lowell Fulsom lived in Fort Worth, and I’d work with him.

TP:    Would you go out with them or just play gigs?

DN:    I would go out.  My first outing from Dallas was with a piano player named Lloyd Glenn, who had a hit record out called “Chickaboo.”  They would have packages on the shows.  It would be Lloyd Glenn’s band, Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, Lowell Fulsom, and I was playing with Lloyd Glenn. That was my first outing other than going out backing up T-Bone Walker playing in Buster’s band.  But my first outing on the road professionally was with Lloyd Glenn.

TP:    Tell me a little bit about Buster Smith, the master of riff arranging.  How did you come to meet him?

DN:    Well, Buster was well-known.  Buster had left Dallas, and he was living in Kansas City.  He’d played in the Blue Devils, which was from Oklahoma City, and then with Bennie Moten, and then Basie, and then came back to Texas for various reasons in the ’40s.  He was very good arranger and he had control of the alto saxophone.  His execution was very good.  He was very fast.  This is how Bird came to listen.  When Bird was very young and later when he was playing with Jay McShann, he’d come over to hear Buster play, because Buster was really getting over the instrument.  Buster was a main influence on Charlie Parker more than most people realize.

TP:    What were your personal experiences with Buster Smith?

DN:    I played many engagements with Buster.  He was a very gifted musician.  I think he was a self-taught musician.  He had perfect pitch.  We’d ride up and down the road, and Buster would just sit in the car with his cigar in his mouth.  He wasn’t a drinker; he just had a cigar.  As a matter of fact, they used to call Buster “Prof,” short for Professor, because he had this air about him, as this very well-educated professor.  But he taught himself music, really, and he had this wonderful gift.  He could arrange and write without being around any kind of instrument at all from having perfect pitch.  I learned so much from Buster.

TP:    I don’t know if you recall this from our last encounter, but I showed you a transcript of an interview Buster Smith did for the Oral History Project at the Institute of Jazz Studies, and he said that he had a sextet with you and Leroy Cooper, and that Ray Charles used that band in the very early Fifties, and that was your first encounter with him.

DN:    That’s true.  Leroy Cooper and I were both from Dallas, and Leroy had been to the Army and was back.  When I came to Lincoln High School, Leroy had graduated and was going to a college called Sam Houston, and from there he went to the Army.  Buster had a small combo together.  He usually kept a big band, but for putting together bands for the road or when people like Ray Charles would come through, Buster would put together these little small groups, and that’s how Leroy Cooper and I came to playing together.  Leroy and I also played together behind a guitarist called Zuzu Bollin, who had a record out called “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night” that Leroy and I played on.  Yeah, we played on this record, “Why Don’t You Eat Where You Slept Last Night.”  Then after that, Leroy left and went out with Ernie Fields’ Big Band, and when he came back… See, Leroy was playing alto.  He was originally an alto player.  But when he went out with Ernie Fields, Ernie Fields needed a baritone player, and Leroy started playing baritone.  When he came back from Ernie Fields’ band, he was playing the baritone.  When he was playing alto, he just literally ripped the keys off the alto because he was so fast.

TP:    But do you recall the specifics of the linkup between Buster Smith and Ray Charles?

DN:    Well, Buster was probably recommended to Ray.  Because Ray needed a band to back him up when he came through, and Buster was the man around Dallas.  I don’t know what the connection was, who brought them together, but Buster was probably recommended.

TP:    What was Ray Charles’ style like at that time insofar as you mentioned.

DN:    He sang like Nat Cole, T-Bone Walker, Charles Brown.  He hadn’t found his own identity yet; he was still searching.  He could sound like probably anyone, but his favorite people were people like Nat Cole, Charles Brown, T-Bone Walker.

TP:    I’ll ask Hank Crawford now to talk about your college experiences and your beginnings as a professional musician, which were in college, but entering the fray from that.

HC:    Well, as I think about it, there was a route of, say, Memphis, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, that most road bands were covering at that time.  They all came through Memphis, and they used to play at places like the Palace Theater, amateur shows (we called them midnight rambles).  There was the Hippodrome, and there was Club Handy which was at that time in Mitchell’s Hotel.  They would all come through Memphis.  We didn’t have to really go too far to see these people.  That was one of the good things about that era.  We got a chance to see a lot of the people that we later got to know.  A lot of singers would come through town, like Percy Mayfield, but instrumentalists, too.  We got a chance to see these people.  Sometimes they’d come through maybe with not the full band and pick up locals, and we would always be the ones that would play for these certain entertainers, whether it be… Really, man, it was an era of everything going on.  You had tap dancers, comics, shake dancers — shows.  We played shows.

TP:    And you’d play the whole show.

HC:    the whole show.

TP:    You’d be playing for the shake dancer, for the tap dancer, for the singer, for the comedians act.

HC:    Yeah, for all of it, before the Apollo even entered my mind, you know.  That all was happening.  It’s a long story; I could think of a million things.  But that was part of it in Memphis, among a whole lot of other things.  When I left Memphis…

TP:    When did you first go out on the road?  Do you recollect?

HC:    Really, really go out on the road?

TP:    Was that at that time, or after?

HC:    Most of that time I was basically in Memphis.  When I went to Tennessee State, I formed a little group called the Jazz Gents, and we would play locally, and as far as we would get would be Louisville, Kentucky, at the Top Hat, and then we’d get up to Buffalo at the Pine Grill.  This was all while I was still in school, so we’d go out during the summer months and play for the summer, that southern route, New Orleans, St. Louis and stuff like that.  I was basically a student most of the time, but I had a chance to meet all of these people, because they would come in the locale that we were all based, really.

I had some great teachers at Tennessee State.  W.O. Smith was one of my instructors; he’s a bass player who was on the original recording of Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul.”  Frank T. Greer was my band director, when Florida A&M and Tennessee State started doing the “hundred steps, 8 to 5…”

TP:    Oh, that’s when they started that?

HC:    Yes.  When that started, FAMU and Tennessee State, you’d just be running down the field almost.  Anciel Francisco was my reed teacher.  I didn’t start studying saxophones and clarinets and reeds until I got in college.

I played around Nashville, and I met a lot of people.  I met Roland Kirk in Nashville, and Leon Thomas, and man, you could go on and on.

But really, I guess my big real-real going out on the road was when Brother Ray came.

TP:    Let’s talk about how that happened, for about only the three hundredth time you’ve told the story.

HC:    Well, I was still in school, and like I say, I’d heard Ray — “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Drowning In My Own Tears”   were some of the first things I heard.  I remember I heard something about David.  One of the first things I heard him play was the solo he did on “Ain’t That Love.”  It knocked me out, man.  Actually, I had a couple of buddies who had already joined Ray’s band.  There was a trumpet player, John Hunt, and a drummer, Milt Turner, both from Nashville.  Anyway, Ray came through Nashville.  I think Leroy Cooper, “the Hog,” he had taken a leave of absence, and he was out for a minute, and they suggested to Ray that I would be the person to play that part.  I never played baritone in my life.  Never.  You know, just around the band-rooms fooling around with the instrument.

DN:    I took the same route.  I came in the band playing baritone.

TP:    Well, I think music before it was anything else was functional for you.  This was how you were earning your livings basically from the age of 14-15-16 years old.

HC:    Yeah, from day one.  I never did anything else.

DN:    We were both reed players, so we played the reeds.

HC:    I happened to be the Student Director on campus.  I had a big band at Tennessee State; I was fronting the campus band, a 16-piece band — I was writing then.  I was impressed by the sound of Ray’s small band.  Actually, in Memphis, we always had eight pieces, and always had that kind of Gospel type of sound.  So I kind of knew the feeling.  But getting into Ray’s band, it just made it much more better, because I fell into the same kind of groove that I had been raised up with.

So anyway, I went down, didn’t even audition.  I don’t think we had a rehearsal that day, because it was just quick notice.  I went to the campus band-room, I talked Mr. Greer out of the baritone, told him what it was for, so he agreed, and I took it down to the Club Baron where they were playing.  I sat in and played the gig that night, and that was the end of that.  Three months later, I got a call from R.C. — or his manager, Jeff Brown at the time — and he asked me if I wanted the job.

I never thought I’d stay as long as I did.  I was glad, because I felt the music, and worked a lot, and saw the world.  Ray was getting into his thing.  He was really beginning to blossom at that time.  The period that I’m talking about, when I joined the band…

TP:    Do you mean blossom musically or blossom in terms of the breadth of his audience?

HC:    The fans.  He was really going… I got in the band at a great period, man.  I really came in the band at a great period.

TP:    Let’s hold that, and I’ll talk to David about his route to Ray Charles so you can catch up to each other on the time line.

DN:    Well, I met Ray in ’51, when he was featured with Lowell Fulsom, singing and playing.  He had recorded a few singles, and he said that he was going to get his own band.  We became friends right away, and I asked him, when he formed his own band to let me know, and that I would love to come play with him.  And sure enough, he called me when he formed his band in ’54.  We’d played together in ’52 when he was touring around, and we played with Buster, backing him.  But when he formed his band in ’54, he called me, and I stayed with the band until 1964.

TP:    How did the band evolve from ’54 until Hank joined?

DN:    Well, the band just    blossomed right away.  I started out playing baritone, and Donald Wilkerson was on the tenor.  There was a trumpet player from Houston by the name of Joseph Bridgewater, and he knew John Hunt, and Ray needed a second trumpet, so Joseph Bridgewater called John Hunt into the band, and John Hunt in turn called Milt Turner from the band, who was from Nashville.  That was the Nashville connection.  Then we came through Nashville and there were already musicians in the band who knew Hank, so that was the connection.

But I stayed with Ray from ’54 to ’64, then by ’66 I came to New York and first played some gigs with Kenny Dorham and then later played a few gigs with Lee Morgan and did a couple of recordings with him.

TP:    Now, you switched to tenor while you were in the band, and it seemed like that was a great meeting of the minds and ears when you started playing tenor with Ray Charles.

DN:    Donald Wilkerson left the band for a minute.  Now, the tenor player was getting all the solos.  During all my time playing baritone I think I got one solo, and that was a tune called “Greenback Dollar Bill.”  I took a solo on that, because that was my one and only solo.  I wanted to stretch out, so I asked Ray could I take the tenor chair.  He didn’t have any particular tenor player in mind, so he said yeah, if I could get a tenor saxophone.  So I went out and got myself a tenor saxophone, and from that time on I started playing the tenor.  I had never played tenor before.  I had played baritone and alto, but not tenor.

TP:    How was the switch for you?  Natural, I would assume.

DN:    Oh, it was natural.  I was just eager to make the switch anyway, and I was eager to play.  I knew the book pretty well anyway; it was just a matter of switching from an E-flat to a B-flat instrument.

TP:    How do you see the differences between the two?  Are they different voices for you the way you play now.

DN:    I have a different approach on each instrument.  Whatever instrument I pick up, I tend to have a different approach.  It’s a different flow; I just feel them differently.  I can’t say exactly what it is.  I just know that I have a different voice on each one.

TP:    Now, you came in as the baritone player.  Was Ray Charles playing alto and piano in the years before Hank joined?

DN:    When we’d begin, the first half-hour or so before Ray would come in to do his singing and performing on piano, we would play these five-horn jazz arrangements Ray had written, and Ray would play the alto part.

TP:    Then Hank eventually took the alto chair. Clarify that for me.

HC:    See, I went in the band in ’58, and I played baritone 1958 to 1960, for two years.  I didn’t think I was going to be playing baritone that long, but for some reason Leroy didn’t come right back — it was a period of two years.

TP:    Did you get a solo?

HC:    Yeah.  In fact, I was playing baritone on Ray Charles At Newport, but I was called Bennie, my real name.  A lot of people ask me, “Now, who is Bennie Crawford?  Whatever happened to him?”  I say, “Well, he’s still around.”  Anyway, I played for two years on baritone.  And like Newman was saying, I was shocked.  One night, however it happened, here comes Ray Charles with his alto saxophone… See, that was one of the good things about that band, too.  It was educational, because everything we did was on paper.  We did a few head things, but even they sounded like arrangements.  We were just that kind of band.  In 1960 Ray graduated from the small band.  He had big band eyes.  I think that’s when he did “Let The Good Times Roll” and that big thing, which is on The Genius, one of my favorites.

DN:    Excuse me, but Hank played baritone when Ray Charles presented me to Atlantic and we did Ray Charles Presents.  He had solos on that and he did some of the arranging.

TP:    I was about to ask Hank about your arranging activities with the Ray Charles and the dynamics of it, the type of feeling you were trying to convey and what he was asking you to do.

HC:    When I joined the band with Ray, that was an avenue for me to do a lot of things.  Like I said, I had been writing for small bands a little bit in Memphis.  To be honest about it, Ray and I kind of clicked right away.  We became section buddies and we always communicated, and I think he might have had something with me, because I even got the job as music director when Ray got the big band.  I was directing the small band.  Even in the small band, when I was playing baritone, when Ray was not on the bandstand, that’s the first time that we introduced the electric piano.  There’s only two people I know who were playing electric piano at that time, and that was Joe Zawinul with Cannonball and Ray Charles.  Ray liked the sound.  I remember he bought a blond Wurlitzer.  I got a chance to kind of use my piano chops, because Ray wasn’t on the bandstand, so we only had bass and drums.

TP:    You play piano on a couple of the albums that are on the CD.

HC:    Whatever I could do on it, you know. [LAUGHS] When through whatever channels things went through, I was asked if I wanted to take the job as music director, naturally I agreed, because I just dug the whole scene.  And I kept that post for three years.  That’s when I got a chance to do a lot of writing.  I did most of the writing in the small band.

But back to your point.  As the thing grew, Ray started playing alto and he started writing more charts for the small band, which featured him a lot on alto.  And he was quite a fine alto player.

TP:    Who were some of the influences for you and Ray Charles as arrangers?

HC:    Well, I liked Quincy, Ernie Wilkins, Frank Foster…

TP:    So the Basie-Dizzy Gillespie type charts of the mid-Fifties when you were in school.

HC:    Yeah, and the Ellington things.

TP:    Had you taken those apart and analyzed them and studied them in a really exhaustive way, or were you just taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and applying it as appropriate?

HC:    I would take a little bit from each arranger.  But basically, I was sort of being myself.  I think even after listening to all the saxophone players that we talked about, I found my own voice.  Even when I play now, I try to play like Hank, but you will find yourself playing a bit of this guy and a bit of that.  I’ve always been a melodic player, I’ve played in all sets, but like I said, I found my voice.  And being in Ray’s band is such a long story, but it was quite an experience.  I went to alto when the big band was organized.

TP:    You were playing together how many nights a year during that time?  250?  300?

HC:    Oh, man, we were busy.  We played the theater circuit, dance halls, clubs, whatever.  It was something else.

TP:    That gives the band the type of tightness that you can’t get in any other way, doesn’t it.

HC:    And the thing, too, about it, there were some great musicians in the band.  There was Fathead, Cooper, Marcus Belgrave, John Hunt, and there later came to be Bruno Carr and Philip Guilbeau — and all of these guys were dynamite players.  So it was a learning experience.  We all had knowledge of music, and we could play together well.  Whether we were playing outside or inside, whatever we played, the musicianship was so good that it happened automatically.  So everybody felt comfortable even in that setting, whatever we played.

Before Ray, I guess the band that really knocked me as a small unit was James Moody’s Octet.  Even before I went into RC’s band, Moody did some of the first small band records that I heard, and I loved the sound of Moody with an octet.  I’ve always loved the sound of a band.

TP:    That’s the sound you put on the recent record, Tight, five horns and rhythm.

HC:    I’ve always used horns on my records, except for a few I’ve used just a quartet.  I like the sound, and when I joined RC I studied his formula for it, how he’d take tenor, alto and baritone and two trumpets to come out sounding like a big band.  I found out there wasn’t that much really involved. It’s basically I, III, V, VII and IX.  I don’t think we ever played anything in that small band that had anything above a IX chord in it.

TP:    David, I think Hank’s looking at you to answer a question.

DN:    What’s that?

HC:    I was just talking about the simplicity of the music we played, and how it wasn’t complex, but it came off as the sound of a big band.  I was just saying I don’t think we ever played anything chord-wise in terms of the structure of a horn that was over I-III-V-VII-IX.  We didn’t get into the flatted chords and extensions.  Everything was basic.

DN:    With the five-horn arrangements and two trumpets, it really gave the sound effect of a big band, because of the brassy sound.  Ray preferred two trumpets to trombone.  His voicing for the five horns was very unique.

HC:    It’s like a vocal group.  You have soprano, alto, tenor, baritone and bass.  Those are your five major voices.  Anything over that, you’re doubling.  When you get into IX or XI, you’re only doubling the third or whatever you played before.  When you take a VII-chord, man, and it’s voiced right, five horns can sound like ten.  It’s when it’s distorted that makes it sound less.


TP:    Hank, the first time you met David?

HC:    Actually, it was in Nashville when I joined the band for that one night.  The band bus pulled up in front of Brown’s Hotel.  At that time it was called a Wiener.  Red-and-white, long airport style.  I was standing outside, and they pulled up, and I remember David getting out with this grin on his face.  I’d heard him, as I said.  He kind of bowed and nodded at me, and I nodded back.  I’m meeting David, you know.  It was just that simple.  That was the first time I actually saw him.

TP:    David, let’s talk about some of the productions on the record, inasmuch as you remember, starting with the first one, Ray Charles Presents David Newman.  First, how much input did you have into the material on these records.  Do you feel that these are a good expression of who you were in that period.

DN:    Well, yes.  My only tune    on here was a tune called “Fathead,” and that was my contribution to the arrangements.  Hank Crawford knew Paul Mitchell from Atlanta, and he introduced me to the tune “Hard Times,”  which he arranged.  Hank also arranged “Bill For Bennie,” and “Sweet Eyes” and “Weird Beard.”  Ray’s arranged “Mean To Me” and “Willow Weep For Me.”

TP:    Did this record evolve organically out of things you were doing in the band, plus your own interests?  Also, how were the records set up in terms of choosing material, personnel and so forth?

DN:    I had no idea that I was going to become an Atlantic recording artist.  Ray had just said that he was going to feature me.  I really didn’t know that he would be presenting me as such, and that I was going to become an Atlantic artist myself.  Because Ray was recording for Atlantic.  I just thought we were really doing an instrumental, and Ray was just going to feature me.  But what he did is, he set it up.  It was called Ray Charles Presents Fathead.  It was like setting me up.  And hence, from that recording on, I became an Atlantic artist, and I signed a contract then.

We did some of these tunes when we were on the road playing.  Like I say, Hank had introduced “Hard Times” to me.  I thought it was a helluva tune when he first played it, and I immediately asked him where he’d gotten it.  Then when Ray said this was going to be my introduction and he was going to present me on this recording, we started to think about tunes that we could play.  So Ray did the arranging on “Mean To Me,” he spent a lot of time on that, and then “Willow Weep For Me.”  Then Hank arranged most of the other compositions that we played, like  “Tin Tin Deo” and “Hard Times”…

TP:    What do you remember about Straight Ahead, with the slick New York rhythm section?

DN:    Oh, Straight Ahead was a wonderful date, because I particularly wanted to record with Wynton Kelly and Paul Chambers, I knew Charlie Persip, and I asked him how he felt about playing with Wynton and Paul, and he said that he would love it because he’d never recorded with them before. It turned out to be a wonderful date for me.  It was the first time I’d recorded on the flute.

TP:    Does this reflect what you were able to do on the set with Ray Charles before he would come out?  You’d be playing Jazz for two-three-four tunes, and then the show would start?

DN:    On Fathead, not Straight Ahead.  Straight Ahead was later on, a separate thing.  Because I had been spending time living in New York when I did Straight Ahead.  In fact, I wasn’t even in Ray’s band at all when I recorded Straight Ahead.  That was done around ’65 or ’66. [THIS IS INCORRECT]  I was still playing with Ray when I did Fathead Comes On.  That was the second recording.

TP:    I know you probably want to get out of the Atlantics and talk about recent things you’ve done.  You did two very strong records with Herbie Mann, a former Atlantic recording artist, and his now-defunct Kokopelli label, both with strings, a smaller group on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool, and then more lush arrangements on Under A Woodstock Moon.

DN:    Bob Friedman did the arranging on Mr. Gentle and Mr. Cool , which was a tribute to Duke, with all Duke Ellington tunes.  Bob had played baritone for a brief spell with the Duke Ellington band and was familiar with the Ellington compositions.  I think the original concept about doing a tribute to Duke came from Herbie Mann.

TP:    Was it all material that was meaningful to you as a young musician?

DN:    Some of it was, and then some of the tunes, like “Azure” and “Almost Cried,” even at the time I started to work on the project.  My parents had all of the records by the swing bands of the Big Band era like Ellington and Armstrong.  Johnny Hodges was one of my favorite alto players, and I’d listen to him play “Jeep’s Blues,” a tune that I always loved, “Don’t Get Around Much Any More.”  I had heard “Prelude To A Kiss,” but I’d never played it before.

The second recording, which was Under A Woodstock Moon, was my outing as a producer.  I always wanted to do strings, and I’d had strings on an album entitled Bigger and Better for Atlantic, with Bill Fischer arranging in the late Sixties.  Kokopelli couldn’t afford to do a whole string section, so we did a string ensemble thing with a string quartet, which was as much as they would allow me to do.  Bob Friedman did the arrangements.  I had just moved to Woodstock, and this was a tribute to Mother Nature.  One of my compositions was “Under A Woodstock Moon” and another called “Amandla.”

TP:    It’s a very mellow, melodic record, with a lot of variety of color and texture.

DN:    The other tunes were a tribute to Nature, like “Up Jumped Spring,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Autumn In New York,” and “A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square.”  I have another composition on there called “Amandla,” which is an African name for freedom.

TP:    Let me ask you one or two things that the editor wants me to ask you.  What do you think was the impact of the Ray Charles Band you were in on contemporary music, in terms of the way the grooves and the feeling has permeated it?

DN:    I don’t know about the impact.  I would say that there is definitely an influence on the music from the Ray Charles feel and what was happening musically with Ray.  Ray Charles certainly influenced my playing and Hank’s playing jazz-wise and in terms of music as a whole.  Ray gave us a lesson in music appreciation.  Before my encounter with Ray, I really didn’t have any kind of concept about music appreciation.  I only liked to play jazz and bebop.  That was my only real love.  But after meeting Ray and playing with Ray, I learned how to appreciate all other forms of music also, like the Blues, Spirituals, Gospel, and even Country-and-Western.

TP:    To play the whole range of music with conviction and soul.

DN:    Right.  And to have the respect and to really admire and to love the music.  So it was a lesson in music appreciation that I think we got from Ray.  I don’t know about the impact, but there was definitely an impact.

TP:    That’s a beautiful answer.  You’ve really stretched out a lot on your recent recordings, taken chances, worked with progressive musicians.  Is that your true heart in the music?

DN:    Well, yes.  Because this music is a gift, it’s an incredible gift.  What happens is the music doesn’t really come from me or from us; this music comes through us.  So I want to explore what I can do in all the different areas of music.  I don’t necessarily want to stick to a certain form insofar as the music goes.  I want to expand my mind and expand the music as it comes through me and as I feel it.  I really like to bridge the generations, so to speak, when it comes to the music that I’m playing, because this music is moving as the time moves on, but we still have these feelings about music.  So I want to explore and to play in other areas, even see how my music fits into the Rap situation — I mean, poetically.  I don’t really see anything wrong with Rap.  It’s just the content in Rap that’s a little offensive sometimes.  But the Rap music itself is really an extension of the music, coming from Louis Armstrong.

TP:    Do they use samples of your solos ever that you know about?

DN:    Not that I’ve heard.  Nothing that I’ve heard so far.  But I’ve become interested in this, just listening.  I was listening to Quincy Jones speak the other day about the music.  Jesse Jackson asked him why would he be interested in Rap, and Quincy said the same thing, that the music comes not from him, but through him.  That’s the same way I feel about this music.  It comes through me, and what you do is, you put your particular touch onto the music and what you feel.  You put your stamp on it, your feeling, let the music come through you and see what comes out.  You can’t close yourself off from the different forms of music as music moves on.

TP:    You also have access to so many sounds and colors from being a multi-instrumentalist.  How do you keep your chops up on all the instruments?

DN:    Well, I manage to keep my chops up, especially since I have moved to Woodstock now.  I get a chance to work on the different instruments.  I still have a soprano, I have an alto and a tenor and my flute.  I get quite a few calls to do studio work to record with various musicians, and I manage to stay halfway busy to keep myself going.  Of course, I know that to keep my chops up and play, I have got to pick the instruments up and play them.

TP:    People say it’s a struggle to keep one instrument up, and you’re keeping up four!  You’re doing pretty good.

DN:    Well, it’s a labor of love, that’s what it is.  I love the music.  I think I’ll always… It’s not about practicing, but I just pick up the instruments and play.


TP:    Equipment from David Newman.

DN:    I have a Selmer alto.  My mouthpiece is a hard rubber Otto Link.  I used to play the Meyer mouthpiece, but now I have Otto Link hard rubber.

TP:    Why?

DN:    I like the Otto Link hard rubber mouthpiece.  I don’t play the metal mouthpiece any more, because I have dentures now, and I’m a little more flexible on the hard rubber.  I like the Otto Link because I like the sound, especially the old Otto Links.  I use that on my alto and my tenor.  I have a Selmer soprano also, and I used a Meyer mouthpiece on the soprano.  I have a Selmer Mark-VI tenor that was made in the ’60s.  It was made in about ’60 or ’61, a very good time for Selmer tenors.  Any of the Selmer saxophones made in less than 100,000 would be really good quality material that they were putting into the instruments.  They still make very good instruments, but the newer instruments these days… That’s the reason why so many musicians try to get a Mark VI.  The Mark VI was really one of the classic saxophones.

I have a Germeinhardt flute.

TP:    Anything you want to say about why you use these instruments, or have you said your fill?

DN:    Well, my first flute was…when I first became interested in the flute… We were traveling in Ray’s band, and we came through Orlando, Florida, and we had a few off-days.  I passed by this pawn shop, and in this pawn shop they had two wooden ebony Haynes flutes, very good and expensive flutes.  Some guy there who had played with the symphony had these instruments, and the pawnshop owner let me have it for little or nothing.  He had a C-flute and an alto flute, and I think I gave the guy $25 for the C-flute, which had an E-flat trill on it.  I should have bought the alto flute also.  I brought this flute back, and the guys in the band asked me, “Do you know what you got there?”  I said, “It’s a flute.”  They said, “Man, you’ve got a Haynes wooden flute, and this is a very expensive instrument.”  And I started teaching myself to play the flute, and listened to other flute players, particularly James Moody and Frank Wess, and I eventually started trying to get a sound on the flute.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk and I, we both maybe started on the flute around the same time.  I was a couple of years older than him, so I might have started earlier.  Eventually, the flute was stolen from me, I lost it, and then I started playing other C-flutes, of course.  But my first flute was a Haynes flute, and the flute I have now is a Gemeinhardt.


TP:    David has left, and Hank and I are here together.  A few words about the recordings on Memphis, Ray and A Touch Of Moody.  What do you remember about More Soul, the first one you did?

HC:    Actually, that was my first recording as a leader.  I wrote some of the arrangements in Nashville, maybe a couple in Memphis, and the rest I wrote while I was in Ray’s small band.  But we played these arrangements in Ray’s small band.  We used to go 45 minutes or an hour before he would come on to sing — the band had it.  When we recorded that, we were playing at the Apollo Theater, doing a show, and we finished the late show.  We were doing five or six shows a day.  We finished at about midnight, and we went directly to Atlantic Recording Studio.  We got there I guess by 12:30, and we started recording at 1, and we didn’t stop until we’d completed it, which was 7 or 8 o’clock the following morning.  Most of the musicians and the music we were playing in the small band of Ray Charles.

That’s when I got the opportunity to start writing, because after I had been in there for a while, R.C. found out I that I was doing some arranging and liked to write, so he just kind of hinted, said, “You know, if you want to do some writing…” Plus I found it a good place to be, because I was very interested and very much into writing and arranging, and being in that band, since he liked to write and I had written for bands that size… See, I was familiar with the size of that band.  I just didn’t have the venues or the musicians to play the music.  I was still young and hadn’t been that far.  So that gave me an opportunity to write, when he found out I was writing a little bit.

TP:    The writing started in high school for you.

HC:    Yeah, I’ve been writing since then.

TP:    There are two Moody tunes, “The Story” and “Boo’s Tune.”

HC:    I did the arrangement on everything except “The Story,”  which Ray Charles did.  I told Ray I was doing the date and asked him if he would do a tune for me, and he did “The Story.”

TP:    So Moody’s band was very influential in a lot of ways that aren’t well known.

HC:    I loved him as a player and I liked the sound of the band.  I think Johnny Acea was writing for that band at the time.  I always loved the octet sound.  Moody’s was one of the first bands I heard that small that really knocked me out.  Of course, before that I was listening to Louis Jordan’s Tympany Five, which is just like five pieces.  But Moody’s band was like an octet, and I loved the sound of the band.

TP:    I have to tell you, when I listen to you I feel like I’m listening to the reincarnation of Earl Bostic, in a certain way, just in the way you approach a melody and the sound.

HC:    Well, Earl was a power player.  In fact, I play strong myself.  I’m naturally a power player.  That was the thing that I like about Earl, plus he was playing a lot of ballads and standard tunes.  At that time, you know, I was hearing a lot of Bostic, so he was just automatically one of my first influences.

TP:    And I’m sure it affected people when you played like that, just because of the way the sound is.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Anyway, the second record, From The Heart, sounds more like what I’d expect to hear from you later, more range, lush textures and so forth.

HC:    Well, From the Heart was completely mine.  Nobody did any arrangements on that.  At this time I had really found my way of writing.  I was kind of comfortable with what I was doing on From The Heart.  It was basically the same band, because I was still with Ray.  But I was getting the opportunity to play these tunes before he would come out.  Once I got the job as music director, he pretty much just gave it up, and gave it to me.  So I used that, man, and I did a lot of writing, and the music got exposed because we were going everywhere, playing concerts.  It just gave me a chance to expand on what I wanted to do earlier anyway, being in that group.

TP:    Then there’s a strings album on this.

HC:    Ah, yes.  I asked to be recorded with strings, and I was surprised when I got a yes on it from Neshui Ertegun at Atlantic Records.  He agreed, to my surprise, and asked me who did I want to do the arrangements, and I said Marty Paich.  I had heard Marty Paich’s small band arrangements when he was writing for Shorty Rogers and Stan Kenton, the West Coast scene, and I liked the way he voiced the strings.  I found out the secret; he used french horns with strings to get that real melancholy sound.  So Neshui agreed, and we went to California to record the record.  I selected all the tunes except one, which really turned out to be sort of a signature tune for me, which was “Whispering Grass.”  Marty Paich suggested that.

TP:    You have quite a memory.

HC:    Oh yeah, I try to remember these things.  I mean, it stayed with me, man, because it was such an experience.  I heard Marty do a string session with Gloria Lynne, “I Wish You Love” and all those things, and I thought it was beautiful work.  To be honest about it, when Ray wanted to do his first thing with strings, around the time of The Genius, by me being close to him, I suggested Marty Paich to him, and he used it.

I was with Ray Charles 24-7, because I was the music director.  He would call me to come over to his house, and I would sit there all day and sometimes all night while he would dictate and I would notate.  So I was always busy.

TP:    So you have as much of an insight as anyone into the inner workings of his creative mind.

HC:    Oh yeah.  Well, after a while, he noticed how I was writing.  He’s an individualist, you know; he’s the only one.  Like, there are certain saxophone players, certain musicians there’s only one.  Like, I haven’t found anybody that has my sound yet, and I don’t think David… We all have our distinctive sounds.

TP:    That was the ethos of the time.  Everybody had to have their sound when you were coming up.

HC:    That’s the secret of survival in this business, is identity.  You can play all of the notes, and there are a lot of musicians out there now, man, that can play — I mean, young and old.  But nobody knows who they are.  And people buy identity.  You put on Miles Davis now, and automatically somebody goes, “That’s Miles.”  Then you put on Dizzy, and they know him.  But once they don’t know who you are, you don’t really sell.  Like, Louis Armstrong; they know Pops.  That’s what people buy.  When they go into a record shop, they say, “I want this guy.”  They’re not going there to listen to fifty other guys just to buy a record.  They know basically who they want when they go in.  So that’s what to me sells, is identity.


TP:    David just came in to mention to make sure I mention that he and Ron Carter were the two senior cast members on the 2 CDs for Kansas City.


TP:    Your comments on identity were a tangent from talking about Ray Charles.  You said you were with him 24-7, and the type of insights that gave you into the way his mind works.  Some general comments on his approach to music and the impact he had on you.

HC:    Well, see, it was so real for me to be there, because being around him and his background… There’s only like a four year difference in age between us.  So we are all from the same era, and we basically had the same experience with music, which was Gospel and the Blues and Jazz.  We’re all from that era.  So I heard the same things that he heard, and whoever was around at that time.  It just so happened that when I joined Ray, that was a period when things were happening within that unit that eventually went to the Moon.  Anyway, that’s what made it so easy for me to understand.  Because when he would dictate to me, writing his own charts… See, he wrote his own charts; he just didn’t put them on paper.  I was the one who was doing all the notating.  So when he found out that I had a background in arranging and composing and voicing chords and stuff like that, after a while, he would come in and make his initial statement about what he wanted, and he would write it, and then he would say, “You got it.”  So really I studied him.  It was another teacher, but it was not that much difference in how we felt about the feeling of music, because we all had the same type of background.

TP:    You were almost his alter-ego.

HC:    Yeah.  So I really understood where he was coming from.  I studied that, and I found out that, hey, I have some of the same kind of thoughts about this music, which made it easier for he and I to relate.

TP:    Is it harder for you to find people who have that sort of unspoken communication and empathy in the projects you do now?

HC:    Yeah, because you don’t have the association with musicians like you had at that time.  I mean, it was a community.  The Jazz community was great.  We were friends, man.  We hung out together and studied together, broke a lot of bread together.  We had venues to play.  There aren’t any venues now like there used to be, and the community is divided.  We don’t see each other as we once did.

TP:    You don’t cross paths in the same way.

HC:    Man, right here in New York City we used to walk down Broadway and go to 52nd Street or 50th Street, and stand right there on the corner — every day, 24 hours a day — and you would meet friends.  And we didn’t only play together.  We discussed music.  That whole era was a learning period from everybody.  But now, man you almost walk out like… You can’t find anybody.  Everybody’s moved out or they just don’t come out any more.  You know what I’m saying?  There’s just not the community like it used to be.  There’s no association, just, “Hey, how you doing, I’ll see you next time.”

TP:    But how does that affect your performing or recording projects, or the way you deal with bands right now.  I guess you have to dot a lot more i’s and cross a lot more t’s.

HC:    I’m not one of the type of players that’s concerned a lot about changing with what’s in.  No, I found my sound, and I think I’m going to stick to my guns.  I think that’s what destroys a lot of players.  Instead of being themselves, they try to be like others.  And in this business, there’s only one of one.  Like, there’s only one Bird, there’s only one Coltrane, and there’s only one whoever.  But what happens with a lot of musicians, I think, they’ll be inspired by somebody when they are learning, and they grew up trying to play like that person.

TP:    A lot of the young players.  Because they don’t have so many places to play.  They’re in school, and that’s the way they’re educated.

HC:    That’s it, man.  Like I said earlier, I’ve played in all settings, Jazz, Blues and everything.  I’ve had an association with all kinds of music, man, and with some great people.  I think I have established myself and my sound and what kind of player I am really, although I might play Jazz, I might play this, I might play that.  Like I said, I approach the horn as a vocalist.  I try to sing through the instrument, and play melodies, not a lot of technical things.  I think if I would lose that identity that I’ve established myself and that people know me by, and go into something just for the sake of saying, “Well, I can do this just as well as that person,” I think I’d lose my identity.  I could probably get away with trying to play some Coltrane for maybe a couple of tunes, and then your fans or your audience is going to say, “Hey, you’re trying to play like so-and-so; get back to yourself.”

TP:    That raises a question.  What you play on the surface is very simple, basic.

HC:    Yes.

TP:    Is it deceptively simple?  How complex is it really to do what you do?

HC:    For some people it’s hard.  For me, playing simple is almost a natural.

TP:    Because you’re a very sophisticated, educated musician.

HC:    I’m sort of a romantic when it comes to it.  The technical things… I’ve studied, man, and I can get off into some pretty hard Bebop.  But that’s not just me naturally.  I just play what I feel naturally.  And I’ve been into some great sets with some great players, you know, but it ends up that I’m better being myself.

TP:    George Coleman played all the notes.

HC:    Yes, in all the keys!  We studied that, too.  I tried that.  I said, “Well, you know, I can do a little bit of this, but that’s just not where I’m from; that’s just not me.”  So I chose to do what I do best.  Because if you’re going to survive in this business, man, you’ve got to have your own identity.  Nobody’s going to come to listen to one of my concerts or gigs to hear me sound like somebody else. That’s the biggest mistake I can do, for somebody to come and pay $20 or $25 and come in the door, and here I am on the bandstand trying to be somebody else.

TP:    Your name is your sound.

HC:    Right.  And once you lose that, I think you’ve destroyed everything.  You can turn on the radio, man, and you can hear this trumpet player or this saxophone player, and man, they’re playing!  But there’s something that don’t register with you if he doesn’t have a certain sound or play a certain style of phrasing.  If you can’t recognize that in a player, then you’re just listening to somebody and all you can say about it is, “Ooh, who is that?  He sure plays good!”

TP:    Are there any good young players, saxophone or any instrument, who you think have a sound?

HC:    Well, there’s a tenor player who’s young compared to a lot of people… I think Joshua Redman has his own sound.

TP:    That’s probably why he’s so popular.

HC:    That’s part of it.  There are a few others; I can’t think of them now.  But there are so many youngsters, man, that I hear and they sound good, they’re playing!  But that’s what’s missing.  And I’ll even go so far as to say this.  As far as the man walking on the street, who knows nothing about music, but knows it when he hears it, and he knows whether the player is playing or jiving, or he knows when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.  All these people on the street, man, they know when you’re playing wrong and when you’re playing right.

There are so many players like… I just want to use a major influence on young musicians, and I mean nothing by this because I have a lot of respect for him.  That’s Wynton Marsalis.  What I’m going to say that is when I was talking about identity…


TP:    Now you know it’s him when you hear him play.

HC:    The man has all the facilities in the world.  I mean, he’s a good trumpet player, he’s a good educator, he’s a good everything — I have to give it to him.  But the average layman, I’ll bet you, man, 75 out of 100 would identify a Freddie Hubbard or a Dizzy or a Miles faster than they would identify Wynton — as far as identity.  I mean, if you don’t really know, if you’re not a musician… And not only Wynton, but anybody.  If you don’t really know him and know the techniques of playing because you are a musician or a good listener, you would not be able to identify this bad cat, whoever it is.   It’s just like Count Basie.  One note.  You know the tag he plays, BOP-BOP-BOP?  I can go the piano and do it (it’s only three fingers) you could do it, I could teach my kids, anybody.  BOP-BOP-BOP, it’s all in one place.  But nobody sounds like when Basie hits it.  Same notes.  But when Basie strikes it, there is something else that comes out of the note.  You know what I mean?  And Oscar Peterson or somebody like that can go right behind and play the same thing, and you know how great Oscar is, but Basie has a stamp.  When he hits it, you automatically know it.

TP:    Do drummers today get the tempos they were in the Fifties and Sixties?

HC:    I like drummers.  A drummer is very important to me.  Because everything I play is basically to the root.  I don’t go outside too much.  A lot of musicians find that hard to do.  The simplest things can be the hardest sometimes.

TP:    The more you know, the harder it is not to go into everything that you know.

HC:    Right, man.  The drummer is very important.  You’ve got to learn how to be able to do what’s necessary for you to do in playing in a band.  In the drummer’s case, it might be necessary for him to just keep time.  It’s not necessary for him to play a solo.  Or anybody in there, but especially drummers.  Some guys felt like that was not enough just to keep time and complement the man out front, the front line.  It was a drag to a lot of people just to keep time until you get that give-the-drummer-some, that one solo a night.  Otherwise, he’s playing time.  And a lot of guys don’t like to do that because they like to do other things, but it’s not necessary for you to do nothing but keep time here — and that’s hard.

TP:    And tune to the drum to the sound of the band…

HC:    Right, and do that every night!  Every note.  It’s got to be this way every time you play it.  Certain music.  Certain music you just don’t explore on, man.

TP:    I need your equipment.

HC:    I’m just playing the Selmer Super-Action 80.  That’s what I’m playing now.  The mouthpiece is Barrett.  It’s really like a stock mouthpiece.  I never played anything other than stocks.

TP:    What is it about the Selmer alto?

HC:    It’s like the Rolls Royce of saxophones.  You ain’t got a Selmer… It’s just like having a Cadillac or a Rolls Royce.  It’s the king.  It’s a good horn, and most professionals play it.  There’s a lot of other horns, Bushes, Conns, all of them, but the Selmer is it for me.  The body, it’s got good weight, feels good, and it responds.  To me, it’s just the best horn.


TP:    Hank has some thoughts on Fathead.

HC:    Well, we go back to almost the beginning of my professional career, and we’ve been more than just musicians, section buddies.  We have a little friendship.  I respect him as a man, and we kind of have that respect as men — and I respect his playing.  I broke a lot of bread with David.  The thing I like about him is whatever he plays, for me, I can understand it, I can feel it, how he expresses himself.  He’s just the kind of player that I like, and there are many others, but David is one that I had the experience of being around a lot, so I know him from A to Z!  He’s a very soulful man, and he can play in almost every setting.  I think that’s what we all learned coming up through that period.  He’s just one of my favorites… He’s on most of my recordings.  Every time I use a small band, I always use David.  He has a beautiful sound, a warm sound, and he always finds the blue notes.  He’s a stylist, and I think that’s true of most of the musicians from our era.  We’re stylists.  We all style whatever we play; we put our tag on it.  That’s just the way it is.  And I like all music, man.  I’m not trying to put down anybody.  I have respect for anybody who gets involved in the business because it’s so competitive.  But when I hear a guy that can cross all bridges, and comfortable playing in each setting, that’s what I admire — and don’t feel guilty playing it.

I don’t feel guilty playing “Steel Guitar Rag” if I’m called to play it.  You know what I mean?  I heard that when I was coming up as a kid, man, at 6 o’clock in the morning.  Down South, that’s the first thing you’d hear on your radio, is Country & Western and Gospel music.  That’s what you wake up on, C&W and Gospel!  I spent many days listening to Eddy Arnold and Hank Snow and all of those people.  And we all liked it!  Even Jazz musicians, they can’t say they didn’t grow up listening to these people.  So I played it as a youngster, and I don’t feel offended by it.  I just do my best in it.  So it’s music to me.  I don’t mind being square because I play this tune.  In fact, it’s a blessing to be able to play in all the styles.  That’s when your phone keeps ringing!

TP:    Well, it’s like what David said about Ray Charles.  He said it was like music appreciation.  He learned to play with soul, from the heart in every different situation.

HC:    Look at Cannonball, man.  His biggest hits were Soul music, “Mercy, Mercy” and stuff.  And Cannon was one of the greatest saxophone players in the world to me.


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Filed under Article, Buster Smith, Cedar Walton, David "Fathead" Newman, DownBeat, Hank Crawford, Liner Notes, Ornette Coleman, Ray Charles, Uncategorized

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

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

* * *

By Ted Panken:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Ellis Marsalis (6-24-02):

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

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

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


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

MARSALIS:  I’m focusing on my retirement.

TP:    How are you spending it?

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    So way before the 1970s, then.

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

TP:    In what situation?

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

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

MARSALIS:  Yes, I would say.  Definitely.

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

MARSALIS:  Wait.  When are you talking about?

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Well, basically, that became my job.

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


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

MARSALIS:  Right.  ’64 to ’66.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    At Browbridge.

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

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

TP:    Not artistically satisfied.

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

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

MARSALIS:  Well, what about it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Yes, it must have been the Major.

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  How long ago?

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    He wasn’t teaching there at all.

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  They had to play them.

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

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

TP:    How do you mean the practical side?

MARSALIS:  That’s it.  Play.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Do you emphasize individuality?

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  1989.

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


TP:    Then you go to Virginia Commonwealth.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Of course.

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

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

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

TP:    What kinds of music?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That’s a very interesting metaphor.

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  How could it be a contradiction?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Three minutes.

MARSALIS:  Well, maybe five.

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    It’s a dialectic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

TP:    So again, it’s economic.

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

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

TP:    Von Freeman told me the same thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Yes, definitely.

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

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


TP:    It’s all drill.

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

TP:    What two songs would those be?

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

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

MARSALIS:  I hope so. [LAUGHS]

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

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

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

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

TP:    A young guy?

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  That’s right.

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (7-01-02):

TP:    Virginia Commonwealth was your first university position?

MARSALIS:  Correct.

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

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

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

TP:    As young adults.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Precisely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    What sort of things?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

TP:    So you’d do an end run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Three years, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Thus Clarence Penn and Alvester Garnett.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Jimmie Lunceford.

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

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

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

TP:    Jazz was second-class.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MARSALIS:  Right.  That’s true.

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

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

TP:    And it wasn’t Dizzy.

MARSALIS:  No, it wasn’t.

TP:    It might have been Jonah Jones.

MARSALIS:  It was.

TP:    Then they had the knife fight…

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

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

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

TP:    Very practical.  To help them succeed.

MARSALIS:  Oh yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    But you know what I’m saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Why is that?

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

TP:    You can play in Latin bands now.

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

TP:    You could rent a cold water flat cheap.

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

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


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

MARSALIS:  There was no program.

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

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

TP:    Around ’94 or so?

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

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

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

TP:    You retired last August.


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

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

TP:    Was Peter Martin involved?

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

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

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

TP:    Why?

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

TP:    Why should people continue to play jazz?

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

TP:    Why is that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * *

Ellis Marsalis (#3):

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

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

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

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

TP:    When did that band with Ed Blackwell begin?

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

TP:    This is while you’re at Dillard.

MARSALIS:  And after.

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

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

TP:    Or a bebop combo.

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

TP:    There would be no reason to play it.

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

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

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

TP:    Unless you were in New York or Chicago…

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

TP:    Ooh!

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

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

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

TP:    What years are we talking about?

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

TP:    They came through New Orleans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Who was playing in the nightclubs then?

EM:    Well, most of the local musicians.

TP:    Name some names.

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

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

TP:    Who were considered to be the better players?

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

TP:    He played with Ray Charles for many years.

EM:    Who, Earl?

TP:    Oh, I’m incorrect.  Excuse me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM:    Oh, yeah.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM:    Nor do they care!

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

EM:    Where did you hear about that?

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EM:    Richmond was the reason for that, though.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That’s quite a teacher.

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

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

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

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

JM:    Oh yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Live at Pep’s, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    That was it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP:    Well, drumming and the piano trio concept.

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

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

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

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

TP:    There you go.

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

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

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

TP:    And extrapolating, Vernell Fournier.

JM:    Right.

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

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

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

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

JM:    I’ve had a few.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

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

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

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

JM:    “A Closer Walk With Thee.”

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

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

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

JM:    Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JM:    There sure are.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Alvin Batiste (WKCR—7-31-87):

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

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

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

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

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

AB:    In 1932.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:    What school was that?

AB:    Booker T. Washington High School.

Q:    And who was the teacher?

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

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

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

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

Q:    In a Reserve Army band.

AB:    Yes.

Q:    That was stationed in New Orleans?

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

Q:    This was during the Fifties.

AB:    Right.

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

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

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

Q:    Did you play on those dates?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB:    One time, man.  One time.

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

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

Q:    What was that like?

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

[MUSIC: Bird, Cheryl, Now’s The Time]

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

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

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

AB:    Yeah, right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AB:    Uh-huh.

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

AB:    Absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: Ornette Coleman, “The Disguise”]

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: “The Venus Flow,” “Tutu Man”]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


…quite rewarding in our little circle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q:    How do you think this works?

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

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

AB:    He’s a fantastic flute player.

Q:    He has an LP on Columbia.

AB:    He has two.  [ETC.]

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

Q:    [ETC.] …Henry Butler.

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: AB’s Clarinet Concerto]

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


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

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

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

Q:    Where was this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: Adderleys, Chatterbox]

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

Q:    Which Coltrane did.

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

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

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

Q:    You were young.

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

Q:    Which was?

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

[MUSIC:  Recife, Kheri Herbs]

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

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

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

AB:    Yeah, the mallets!  Ooh!

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

AB:    Right.



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

For Bud Powell’s 87th Birthday, A 2004 Bud Powell Homage in Jazziz

In 2004, Jazziz gave me an opportunity to write an homage to Bud Powell, who is my “first among equals” favorite, my main man of all the jazzfolk on the timeline. For Bud’s 87th birth anniversary, here it is.

[For further info on Bud, keep your eyes out for Wail, a soon-to-be-released ebook biography  by Peter Pullman — a link to Pullman’s blog here and for the book here].

[And spend some time with Ethan Iverson’s exhaustive, four-part post on Bud on his essential blog, Do The Math.]

* * * *

Early in August of 1964, Earl “Bud” Powell, accompanied by his friend and caretaker, Francis Paudras, flew to New York City from Paris, Powell’s residence since 1959, for a 10-week billing at Birdland, Powell’s primary venue during the previous decade, when bebop was in vogue.

Eager to soak up the master, New York’s musicians flocked to the club for opening night. In the liner notes of Return To Birdland, ‘64 [Mythic Sound], Paudras described the scene as he and the pianist arrived.

“There were two rows of men, face to face, on each side of the door. I recognized immediately many familiar faces. To the right in the front line, his face shining with joy, there was Bobby Timmons; next to him, Wynton Kelly, then Barry Harris, Kenny Dorham, Walter Davis, Walter Bishop, McCoy Tyner, Charles McPherson, Erroll Garner, Sam Jones, John Hicks, Billy Higgins, Lonnie Hillyer…there were others, but my memory fails me. Bud stopped short, and at that moment, we could hear discreet applause. Then he started walking toward the stairway, and at that precise instant, Bobby Timmons took his hand and kissed it discreetly. He was at once imitated by his neighbor and all the others with a kind of frenzied devotion… We went down the stairs escorted by this wonderful guard.”

A spontaneous 17-minute standing ovation ensued as Powell approached the bandstand, and the engagement began its roller-coaster path.  Ensconced in a hotel around the corner, Powell touched base with such old friends and colleagues as Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Sonny Rollins, Art Blakey and Babs Gonzalez. He also met a more recent arrival who had changed the scene in his absence.

“One morning we were about to go out for breakfast when the doorbell rang,” Paudras wrote in Dance Of The Infidels [DaCapo], which documents the ups and downs of his five-year relationship with Powell. “I opened it to find a young man standing there. His face looked familiar but I couldn’t place him at that moment. ‘Is Mr. Powell in, please?’ ‘Yes, of course. Your name?’  ‘Ornette Coleman.’ I called Bud and Ornette introduced himself. ‘Good morning, Mr. Powell. My name is Ornette Coleman. I’m a saxophonist and all my music is based on the intervals and changes of the sevenths in your left hand.’”

Perhaps the anecdote is apocryphal or mistranslated; Coleman was not available to confirm its authenticity. But the encomium illuminates the breadth of Powell’s impact on the sound of modern jazz. As is well documented in the history books, Powell extrapolated the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the piano and interpreted them with his own singular stamp, incorporating the rhythmic self-sufficiency and harmonic ambition of stride maestros like Willie The Lion Smith and James P. Johnson; the fluent linearity of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Billy Kyle; and the aesthetic of virtuosity embodied by Art Tatum. Such next-generation stylistic signifiers as Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Cedar Walton used Powell’s “blowing piano” style, a staccato attack that evoked the dynamism of a horn, as the primary building block for their own approaches.

If a musician’s music bespeaks a personal narrative, Powell’s biography tells volumes about his art.  In early 1945, either a Georgia cracker, a Philadelphia cop or—citing Miles Davis’ autobiography—a Savoy Ballroom bouncer smashed the high-spirited youngster in the head, triggering the massive headaches and a pattern of impulsively aggressive and self-abusive behavior that found  him confined more often than not in mental hospitals. Heavy use of alcohol and narcotics destabilized Powell’s personality;  repeated electroshock treatments dulled his reflexes and acuity. Yet, between 1946 and 1953,  he played magnificently and made his greatest recordings, for Roost, Blue Note, and Norgran, including original compositions with titles like “Glass Enclosure,” “Un Poco Loco,” “Hallucinations,” “Oblivion,” “The Fruit” and “Dance of the Infidels.”

As the titles suggest, a turbulent, sometimes demonic lucidity permeates Powell’s music. It grabs you by the throat, connecting you to the processes by which various polarities of the human condition—wretchedness and grace, madness and genius, the profane and the sacred—can play out in real time. Sometimes Powell projects the oceanic emotions of 19th century Romanticism through a prism molded by the hard-boiled, warp-speed ambiance of New York City after World War Two. Sometimes the template is not unlike the the piercing novels of Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Chester Himes and Hubert Selby, all fellow masters at conjuring vivid, unsparing chronicles of the lacerating consequences of mortal foible.

Born in 1924, Powell honed his jazz sensibility as a teenager,  jamming on bandstands around Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and, most consequentially, in Harlem, his home turf. At Minton’s Playhouse, he met Thelonious Monk, the house pianist, who was working out the chords and intervals that became the foundation of the music known as bebop. Monk took the youngster under his wing, and, according to drummer Kenny Clarke, his Minton’s partner, he wrote many of his now iconic tunes with Powell in mind, on the notion that he was the only pianist who could play them. You can hear Monk’s influence on several of the 18 sides Powell recorded with Ellington veteran Cootie Williams in 1944, specifically in a tumbling solo on “Honeysuckle Rose” and his jagged comping on “My Old Flame.” Pianist Barry Harris, 15 at the time, remarks on Powell’s finesse, how deftly he “double-timed and ran the most beautiful minor arpeggios” underneath Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s vocal on “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t My Baby.” But Powell’s two fleet, elegant choruses on “Blue Garden Blues” show he’d been listening to someone else as well.

“When I met Bud, he was playing pretty much what you would call prebop,” says Billy Taylor, who moved to New York in 1944. “I used to see him uptown a lot, and we hung out. He was light-hearted then, didn’t take himself all that seriously, and was fun to be around. He liked Fats Waller and some other things I liked, and we’d jam together, just playing stride. I have enjoyable memories. We used to argue a lot, because I was very much into Art Tatum, while Bud said, ‘I want to make the piano sound as much like Charlie Parker as I can.’ I said, ‘That’s cool, but that doesn’t use all of the piano. Tatum has some pianistic things that any pianist should try to get into. Check it out.’ He said, ‘I have checked it out, and I know what Tatum plays. But that’s not where I’m going. You work your way and I’ll work my way.’ By 1950, he was making the piano sound just like Charlie Parker. Those lines that he played were long and complicated and very well played. He dominated that instrument. He had all the nuances pianistically under control as he played.”

“All of Bud’s vocabulary—extensive use of arpeggios and arpeggios with chord tone alterations, and playing altered dominant chords in such a way that they resolve to the next chord—comes straight out of Bird,” says David Hazeltine. “But the way he adapted it to the piano was very interesting. Piano is a difficult instrument, and it presents problems for playing linearly that the saxophone or trumpet do not. On saxophone, all the fingers stay on the same keys all the time; it’s a matter of coordinating different combinations of keys, like octave leaps and different positions. On piano, the distance is represented on the keyboard and you need to execute physically exactly what you’re playing—cross over and cross under and so on. Bud’s arpeggios are effortless; he  made his language very playable. It’s bebop and melodic playing without a bunch of acrobatic pianistic tricks.”

A child prodigy, Powell developed his technique through intense study of the European tradition. “Bud was very heavily influenced by Johann Sebastian Bach, and also by the Romantics—Debussy and Chopin,” says Eric Reed, whose information on the subject comes from Bertha Hope, the widow of pianist Elmo Hope, Powell’s childhood friend and himself a musician of brilliance. “He and Elmo Hope practiced the inventions when they were kids. When Bud’s mother would leave for church, they’d start getting into some jazz stuff, and when she came back, they’d be practicing Bach, because they didn’t want to get in trouble. You can hear a connection to Baroque music in the contour and construction of Bud Powell’s improvised lines—the way it moves, the succession of notes, in the complexity of the lines. Bach’s music has a similar rhythmic propulsion, a continuity that’s very similar to bebop.”

Perhaps the most astonishing component of Powell’s tonal personality is how he deployed his technique to conjure fresh, viscerally primal stories at volcanic emotional heat. “Bud never played the same thing twice,” Powell’s long-time drummer Arthur Taylor told me in 1992. “He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song.” He always elaborated a point of view. As Bill Charlap notes, “Bud dealt with thought and idea and structure and architecture, using the piano to tell you what he thought about music.”

“Bud wasn’t just throwing licks around,” agrees Vijay Iyer, a pianist born almost a decade after Powell’s death in 1966. “You hear him make decisions in real time and act on them. There’s a thought process made audible. That’s what that music was about.   There’s so much at stake in that moment when you’re creating in real time, and to be able to come up with something in spite of all the obstacles and constraints he faced is an inspiring story.”

There are naysayers. A number of musicians, most vociferously Oscar Peterson, consider Powell an incompletely pianistic pianist. “Granted, he could swing,” Peterson wrote in his autobiography, A Jazz Odyssey. “But I never regarded him as a member of the central dynasty of piano defined by such great players as Tatum, [Teddy] Wilson and Hank Jones. Bud was a linear group player, who could comp like mad for bebop horns and could certainly produce cooking lines that had tremendous articulation, but for my taste there was too much that he didn’t do with the instrument. He lacked Hank’s broad, spacious touch on ballads, and he failed to finish his ideas too often for comfort and satisfaction. Despite his strength of linear invention, in fact, he had a technique problem: although other musicians and I could intuit where those unfinished lines were going, an unschooled audience was left to play a guessing game, having to make do with grunts of tension in place of delivered ideas. It took a long time for players like Hank Jones, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, and me to get pupils to realize that the linear approach is not enough on its own. Bud may have symbolized an era, but not true piano mastery.”

Billy Taylor indirectly references this criticism with the following anecdote. “Mary Lou Williams came to Monk and Bud and said, ‘You guys are too good not to have the kind of piano sound you should.’ She brought them to her house, fed them and hung out with them for a while, and literally changed their sound at the piano. I don’t recall the exact date, but each was recording for Blue Note at the time. If you listen to some things from maybe two years later, you’ll hear the difference.”

Today’s jazz people learn touch and everything else in a less homegrown manner, and perhaps the evolution of jazz vocabulary has led younger aspirants to consign Powell to the outer branches of the piano tree. “Bud Powell exemplifies the language of bebop, and he’s the starting point for contemporary jazz piano, so you have to check him out,” says Edward Simon. That being said, Simon sees Powell’s position on the timeline as specialized. “Bud’s harmonic concept was modern at the time,” he says. “But most people today draw on later pianists for harmony. I think his contribution was more in the way he breathed his lines, and connected the notes smoothly, in a legato style, which isn’t easy to do on a piano.”

“They’re the more developed pianists,” says Hazeltine of Hancock, Tyner and Chick Corea. “It’s more impressive at a first listening. Bud’s music isn’t as polished and smooth and slick as, say, the classically schooled Herbie Hancock. I know Bud played Bach and referred to classical music, but that’s not where he’s coming from.”

Hancock is on record that “every jazz pianist since Bud either came through him or is deliberately attempting to get away from him,” a point which Eric Reed elaborates. “Bebop is useful under certain circumstances, but if that’s where you stop, you’ll be limited,” he says. “I think many piano players, great as they think Bud Powell is, try to use that vocabulary in their own way. Listen to Herbie’s solo on ‘Seven Steps To Heaven’ with Miles Davis. It’s in the bebop style in his phrasing and the way he runs the lines, although the notes and harmonies are very different.”

“Bud Powell is definitely in the top ten of the greatest jazz pianists that ever lived,” Reed continues, and numerous pianists, young and old, still regard Powell as the sine qua non. “Most of the younger pianists that I’ve heard, even Chick and Herbie, don’t attempt to get Bud’s rhythmic power,” Billy Taylor says. “Younger pianists play very well, and technically much cleaner in some respects. But I don’t hear that physical will to make the piano do certain things—Willie The Lion used to call it making the piano roar. I don’t think they have the point of reference. Most of them don’t want to spend that much time to get Bud when they don’t think the end result is what they’re looking for.”

Still, Charlap notes, 21st century pianists have much to learn from Powell. “His solos have no loose or wasted notes, and every note clearly relates to the bassline and underlining harmonies,” he begins. “But he also was so free with the rhythm, and created such rhythmic nuance within the line, like playing drums on the piano. It’s not like playing a perfectly even Mozartian scale.  But you have to be able to play those notes very evenly to be able to make the choice of how to make the rhythms pop the way that he did. A Bud Powell solo will deal with all manner of rhythmic devices; he had them at his disposal all the time and would rest on any place of the beat. His solos aren’t just the notes, but the attitude and the way the notes speak—like trying to get wind behind the notes. Bud made that all come through at the piano. I can see how someone who is approaching the piano from Chopin through Liszt may be more dismissive of using the piano to do vocal or drum-oriented things. But before they’re dismissive of it, I’d like to hear them sit down and do it.  It’s a different way of approaching the instrument.  I tell students, ‘It looks the same, but as a jazz musician this isn’t the same instrument that you play Chopin on.’”

“I tend to think of him as a tragic genius, which is found in all the arts,” Moran says. Tormented and impoverished, Powell died in Brooklyn, not long after his 42nd birthday. But his search for truth and beauty at all costs will resonate as long as musicians seek apotheosis in the act of musical creation. Barry Harris recalls a revelatory conversation with New York pianist of his acquaintance. “He said him and some cats went by Bud’s house early one morning,” Harris relates. “He was playing ‘Embraceable You.’ They said, ‘Come on, let’s go and have a ball.’ Bud said, ‘No.’ So they left and did whatever they were going to do, messed around all day, and when they returned that night, and knocked on Bud’s door and went inside, he was still playing ‘Embraceable You.’”

As Harris puts it, Powell practiced playing, and he wasn’t doing it for a school assignment. It was the most serious thing in life.  “A lot of us take this for granted, but they were actually CREATING bebop on such a high level,” Moran says. “It was like a science, and they put a lot of time and experimentation into their process. That’s what makes this music so revered, and everybody HAS to refer to it. Some people can’t stop referring to it.”



Filed under Article, Bud Powell, Jazziz, New York, Piano

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.


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.”


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.  


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…


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.


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.


Filed under Drummer, Ed Blackwell, Interview, New Orleans, WKCR

Blindfold Test: Paul Motian About Ten Years Ago

It’s been a thrill to get to know Paul Motian — who ends his MJQ Tribute week at the Village Vanguard tonight —  a little bit over the last 12-13 years.  He joined me on numerous occasions while I was at WKCR, and I’ve written three pieces about him — a long DownBeat feature in 2001,  a verbatim WKCR interview on  the now-defunct jazz.com website, and the blindfold test that I’ll paste below. We did this in the Carmine Street apartment of a friend of Paul’s (I could kill myself for not remembering his name right now, as he’s a nice, extremely knowledgeable guy and facilitated the encounter). This is the raw, unexpurgated pre-edit copy.

* * * * *

Paul Motian Blindfold Test:

1.    Keith Jarrett-Peacock-deJohnette, “Hallucinations”,  Whisper Not, (ECM, 2000) – (5 stars)

I’m familiar with all the players.  I don’t know who it is.  It’s not Bud Powell, obviously. …For a minute, I thought it was Keith Jarrett. [JARRETT GRUNTS] Okay, it’s Keith.  I know who the drummer is, but I can’t… I could guess and say it’s Keith’s current trio, with Jack DeJohnette and Peacock.  Five stars.  They sounded nice, man.  Good players.  Taking care of business.  I haven’t heard Keith play in that style since I don’t know when.  So for a minute I was thinking that maybe it’s a really early Keith Jarrett record from when he was going to Berklee in Boston or something.  I did think that.  I met him when he was playing… Tony Scott called me up.  He said, “Hey, man, I’ve got a gig for you at the Dom,” which was on 8th Street.  I went down there with him and Keith was playing piano.  That’s when I met him.  I said, “Wow, the piano player is great.  Who’s that?”  He said, “Keith Jarrett.  I just discovered him.” [LAUGHS] Henry Grimes was playing bass.  And I played with him that night.  That’s when I met him.  But I thought that might be early because… Well, it took me a minute to recognize DeJohnette. [What didn’t you recognize?] Sort of his style of playing and not the sound.  From what I heard from the sound, I didn’t know who it was.  It sounded familiar, but I didn’t know who it was. [Maybe he wasn’t playing his drums.] Could have been.  I’m pretty much going to give five stars to everybody.  I think everybody sounds great.  Why not? [But if you don’t think something sounds great, it would devalue the stuff to which you give five stars.] Okay, that’s all right.  If I don’t give something 5 stars, does that mean I have go and buy the record?

2.    Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino”, Plays Carla Bley (Steeplechase, 1991) [Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums] – (5 stars)

[AFTER A FEW NOTES OF IMPROV]  That’s Paul Bley.  I wish I knew who the bass player was.  That’s “Ida Lupino.”  Paul Bley, five stars, man.  Why not?  He sounds great.  I don’t think it’s me on drums, but it could be!  I don’t know if I can get the bassist.  Charlie Haden and I played with Paul Bley in  Montreal.  I’m wondering if this is that!  Those ain’t my cymbals. [You played with the bass player.] [AFTER] Wow.  Man, I left Bill Evans to play with Paul Bley.  And when he heard about that, he was very happy.  At that time, there was a lot happening.  I’m talking about 1964.  There was a lot going on in New York.  The music was changing, there was some interesting stuff, and things were heading out into the future.  And I felt like I was stuck with Bill and that it wasn’t happening with Bill out in California.  So I just quit.  I left the poor guy out there.  What a drag I was.  I left the guy on the road like that.  My friend, my closest friend and companion and musician. [But you had to go.] Yeah, I wasn’t happy.  I came back and got into stuff with Paul Bley. [Can you  say what it is about Paul Bley that makes you recognize him quickly?  Is it his touch?]  Well, it’s everything.  It’s the sound.  Mostly sound, I guess.  Style, touch, everything.  [So you knew it was Jack DeJohnette because of his style, but with Paul here you knew…] No, I was more sure about it being Paul than I was sure about it being Jack.

3.    Scott Colley, “Segment”, …subliminal (Criss-Cross 1997) [Colley, bass; Bill Stewart, drums; Chris Potter, tenor sax; Bill Carrothers, piano) –  (5 stars)

[ON DRUM SOLO] Nice drums, whoever it is.  I like it.  I like it a lot.  It’s 5 stars.  But I don’t know who it is. [You have no idea who the tenor player is?] No.  The first two or three notes I said, “Gee, maybe it’s Joe Lovano, but it’s not.  I feel like I should know who they all are.  But I don’t. [LAUGHS] I like the tune.  What’s that tune called? [“Segment.”] Oh.  I think I played that tune. [LAUGHS] [Yes, with Geri Allen and Charlie Haden.] No wonder.  Wow.  Nice. Nice sound, the drums and everything. [AFTER] Potter?  No kidding.  That sounded really good.  Very together.  Nice sound.  I liked the sound on the drums, the way they’re tuned.  I liked it.

4.    Joey Baron, “Slow Charleston”, We’ll Soon Find Out (Intuition, 1999) [Baron, drums, composer; Arthur Blythe, alto sax; Bill Frisell, guitar; Ron Carter, bass] – (5 stars)

I have no idea who this is, but I still want to give this five stars.  They’re all playing, they’re good musicians, and it’s great! [LAUGHS]  Nice groove. [Any idea who the guitar player is?] No.  I like it, though. [AFTER] I didn’t know Frisell could do that.  He played with me for twenty years.  I didn’t know he could do that.  See, I don’t know if I would ever recognize Joey anyway.  It’s good for me to find out stuff about these guys.  I can put it to good use!  I haven’t heard Arthur Blythe much at all.

5.    Warne Marsh, “Victory Ball”, Star Highs (Criss Cross, 1982) [Marsh, tenor saxophone; Mel Lewis, drums; Hank Jones, piano; George Mraz, bass] – (5 stars)

[IMMEDIATELY] Warne Marsh.  There was one particular night at the Half Note playing with Lennie Tristano, with Warne playing… He played some shit that night that was incredible!  I’ll never forget it.  That record came out a few years ago.  Tuesday night was Lennie’s night off, and we played with no piano player or a substitute piano player, and that night it was Bill. [Any idea who the piano player is?] The way the piano player was comping, for a minute I said, “maybe it’s Lennie Tristano,” but it’s not.  Everybody sounds so good!  It’s great.  I have a feeling the piano player is going to surprise me.  Five stars.  I should know who the drummer is, but I don’t. [AFTER] Wow.  I am surprised at Hank Jones.  He usually plays with more space.  It was a great experience playing with Lennie Tristano.  I had a great time.  It was a period in my life when I was playing with a lot of people, and that was a little different than what I was used to doing, and it was very enjoyable, man.  I was playing almost every night.

6.    Satoko Fujii, “Then I Met You” , Toward, “To West” (Enja, 2000) [Fujii, piano, composer; Jim Black, drums; Mark Dresser, bass] – (5 stars)

It’s worth five stars just because of all the study the bass player had to do.  There are more players playing now than when I got to New York, and at a good level.  What I’m trying to say is that the music I listened to in the ’50s and stuff came from that time, and you listened to Prez and Bird and Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday and Max and Clifford Brown and Bud Powell.  I could recognize any of that in a second.  Now there are so many players and so many good ones.  One thing that’s… I heard a few things in the piano sound that I know it’s a digital recording, which kind of bugs me.  I still hear that kind of tingy thing… I’m almost 99% sure I can tell when it’s a digital recording or whether it’s a CD, or whether it’s an analog recording from an old LP.  I mean, there’s a solo Monk record I bought when CDs first came out.  I played it once and threw it away, man.  It sounded like an electric piano.  Five stars.  One time I was playing at the Village Vanguard with Bill Evans and Scott LaFaro, and we were playing opposite Stiller and Meara.  Stiller came up to me afterwards and said, “You guys are really brave with the music you’re playing, that you would get out in front of an audience and play that music.  There’s a lot of heart in that, and you’re really brave to be doing that.  I feel that’s five stars for these guys, with what they’re doing and where they want to take the music. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of her.  I love what they’re trying to do.

7.    Ornette Coleman, “Word For Bird”,  In All Languages (Harmolodic-Verve, 1987) [Coleman, alto sax, composer; Billy Higgins, drums; Charlie Haden, bass; Don Cherry, tp.] – (5 stars)

Ornette.  Sounds like Charlie on bass.  Blackwell on drums.  Oh.  Higgins, I guess.  Well, Charlie for sure!  Couldn’t miss that.  That’s not Cherry either, is it?  It sounds like he’s playing the trumpet!  It’s not that tiny pocket trumpet sound.   It sounds like a regular trumpet.  Now that I’ve stopped and thought about it and listened, it’s Cherry, all right.  Five stars.  More if there are any.

8.    Lee Konitz, “Movin’ Around” , Very Cool (Verve 1957) [Shadow Wilson, drums, Konitz, as, Don Ferrara, tp, composer;  Sal Mosca, piano; Peter Ind, bass]  – (5 stars)

[I want you to get the drummer on this.] [LAUGHS] I recognize the beat. [SHRUGS] Lee Konitz.  It’s got to have 5 stars right there.  It’s always great when a drummer can play the cymbal and just from the feel of the beat make music out of it.   With the trumpeter, I hear something like that, I hear a specific note, and I see a person’s face that I recognize, but I don’t know who it is! [LAUGHS] That means that I know who it is…but I don’t. [LAUGHS] The style is recognizable.  It’s beautiful.  I KNOW that drummer.  Can I guess?  how about the piano player being Sal Mosca?   Oh, Jesus.  Is the drummer Nick Stabulas, by any chance? [AFTER] Wow!  I hung out with Shadow, but… [LAUGHS] No wonder there was so much music in just playing the cymbal!  You dig? [LAUGHS] That’s great.  That means the trumpet player might be Tony Fruscella, someone like that.  Someone like Don…what was his name… [It’s Don Ferrara.] Yeah, so there you go.  I don’t think I ever played with Don Ferrara.  Is the bass player Peter Ind?  So it’s an older record.  Shadow was one of my favorite drummers, and to hear him play now after so many years and to see all the music that he played, just playing a cymbal!  Shadow was a motherfucker.  20 stars.  Shadow Wilson.  Shit.  That’s Shadow Wilson on that Count Basie record, “Queer Street,” where he plays that 4-bar introduction.

9.    Billy Hart, “Mindreader”, Oceans of Time (Arabesque, 1996) – (5 stars) [Hart, drums; Santi DeBriano, bass, composer; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; John Stubblefield, tenor saxophone; Mark Feldman, violin; David Fiuczynski, guitar; Dave Kikoski, piano]

The piano and drums sound like they’re in tune with each other.  I’ll try to take a guess and say that bass player is Mraz. [It’s the drummer’s record.] Yeah, I figured that out.  I didn’t say anything, but… He’s the one who’s out front.  Whoever did the composition and arrangement, it’s great.  It reminds me of back in the ’60s when we were doing stuff with Jazz Composers Orchestra.  This sounds like it could be something that came out of that.  But this is more complicated somehow, more written stuff.  There’s a lot of people involved, and it’s very good.  So who’s the drummer?  Nice drum sound.  Nice tunings.  Very melodic.  Nice ideas.  He deserves some credit, man, a big organization like that.  There are a lot of good drummers out there now.  I don’t know who it is. [This drummer is close to your generation.] He sounds like he’s been around the block a few times! [LAUGHS] [AFTER] I would never recognize any of that.  The vibe is great.  The record is great.  Good for Billy.  Five stars for sure.  Look at all the work that went into that.  That was great.

10.    Danilo Perez, “Panama Libre”, Motherland (Verve 2000) [Perez, piano; Brian Blade, drums, Kurt Rosenwinkel, guitar; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

If the drummer isn’t Max Roach, Art Blakey, Kenny Clarke, Philly Joe, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, I’m not going to know them.  Five stars just because of the way they’re fucking with the time.  It’s not Pat Metheny, is it?  He sounds familiar, too! [Well, there’s 2 degrees of separation of everybody in jazz with you.] I like people who play with dynamics.  You don’t hear it very much!  Another reason for five stars.  I think I’ve played with this guitar player too.  Are you sure I hired them?  Another thing about drums… I don’t know who the drummer is, but on recordings, did you notice how Billy Hart was so much in front, and now this guy is mixed so far back?  I guess I’m not going to get this either.  It sounds so familiar, man! [AFTER] Kurt Rosenwinkel keeps improving.  He started with me ten years ago, and now he’s out there on his own, he’s got his own band and everything.  He’s writing nice stuff and playing better.  I recorded with Danilo Perez way back, but I wouldn’t recognize him.  But that’s why the guitar player sounded so familiar.  I should have known that sound.  I said that sound was so familiar!

11.    Joe Lovano-Gonzalo Rubalcaba, “Ugly Beauty”, Flying Colors (Blue Note, 1997) –  (5 stars) [Lovano, tenor saxophone; Rubalcaba, piano; Monk, composer]

Someone said that this was the only waltz that Monk ever wrote.  Okay, let’s figure out who this is.  Okay, Lovano. [But you’ve also played and recorded with the pianist.] Oh, Gonzalo.  I recognized Lovano.  But when I was in England recently on tour with an English band, and I walked into the club to set up, and they were playing a CD, and I heard the saxophone and I heard it for two or three notes, and I said, “That’s Lovano.”  The engineer said, “No, it’s not.”  I said, “Oh yes, it is.”  “No, it’s not.”  “Oh, yes, it is.”  And it wasn’t.  I don’t know if I would have recognized Gonzalo except for the fact that I knew Joe had done a duo record with him.  Man, five stars.  Are you kidding?  Everything’s going to be five stars.  I can’t renege now.  Joe’s great, man.  So’s Gonzalo.  They sound nice together.

12.    Joanne Brackeen, “Tico, Tico”, Pink Elephant Magic (Arkadia, 1998) [Brackeen, piano; Horacio ‘El Negro’ Hernandez, drums; John Patitucci, bass] – (5 stars)

“Tico, Tico” in 5/4 time.  Five-four, five stars!  No idea who the drummer is.  Maybe I should listen a little bit! [AFTER] That was interesting.  They deserve five stars for sure.  Was it Al Foster?  I’m just guessing. [Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez.] I’ve never heard of him.

13.    Ralph Peterson, “Skippy”, Fotet Plays Monk (Evidence, 1997) [Peterson, drums; Steve Wilson, soprano sax; Brian Carrott, vibes; Belden Bullock, bass] – (5 stars)

“Skippy” by Thelonious Monk.  I was going to say Steve Lacy, but no, it’s not his sound.  Five stars just for playing a Monk tune! [AFTER] I would never have known them.  The treatment was okay.  It seemed like they just went straight-ahead and played the tune.  That’s a hard tune, man.  Even anybody to attempt that tune deserves five stars, for Chrissake.  Steve Lacy says all you have to do is know how to play “Tea For Two” and you can play “Skippy,” but I don’t believe him.  I said, “Man, ‘Skippy,’ that’s a hard tune.”  He said, ‘Well, it’s ‘Tea for Two.'”  I tried to sing “Tea For Two” along with it, but… [LAUGHS]

14.    Bud Powell-Oscar Pettiford-Kenny Clarke, “Salt Peanuts”, The Complete Essen Jazz Festival Concert (Black Lion, 1960) [start with 3:46 left] – (5 stars)

That’s “Salt Peanuts” and it was a nice drum solo, but I don’t know who the players are. [You played with one of them.] You keep saying that!  I guess it wasn’t the drummer.  It probably was the bass player.  I don’t know the piano player.  I guess because of the live recording, the sound wasn’t as great as it could have been. [Play “Blues In The Closet.”] This is the same piano player?  Almost sounds like Oscar Pettiford.  I played with him in 1957 at Small’s Paradise for a couple of weeks.  I went down south with him with his big band to Florida and Virginia.  1957, man!  Wow, that was something else.  Mostly black cats; Dick Katz was playing piano and Dave Amram was in the band.  Jesus, maybe it is Bud Powell.  Is it?  So it’s a later Bud Powell.  The drummer is Kenny Clarke.  That’s the same people as on “Salt Peanuts”?  That’s not really Kenny Clarke’s drum sound. [Maybe it wasn’t his drums] It didn’t sound like it.  It sounded kind of dead.  Max Roach got a lot from Kenny Clarke.  All those cats got shit from Sid Catlett, too.  He was a motherfucker, Sid Catlett.  Five stars.  Oscar Pettiford, man!  After I was playing with Oscar, he split and went to Europe and was playing there, and I got a telegram from his wife saying “Oscar sent me a telegram and said I should call you and get in touch with you, and you should go right away to Baden-Baden, Germany, and play with Oscar.”  I was playing with Lennie Tristano at the Half Note.  I couldn’t get up and leave.  There was no plane ticket!  But he liked me.  I was quite honored.  People said, “You played with OP?  Man, he’s death on drummers.  How are you doing that?”  I had at the time 7A drumsticks.  After one set one time, Oscar came over and looked at my drumstick and started bending it.  He said, “Man, what the fuck kind of stick is that?  Go get you some sticks!”

I think it’s great that there’s really quite a few good young players on the scene now.  It’s quite encouraging.  I think it’s good for jazz.  There may be a lot of them around.  It’s great.


Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer, Paul Motian, Vibraphone