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For Producer Creed Taylor’s 85th Birthday, A 2005 Downbeat Article and A Pair of Interviews Conducted For It

Today is the 85th birthday of Creed Taylor, who put his imprimatur on CTI Records in the early ’70s, after distinguished tenures at Bethlehem, Impulse (which he launched) and Verve. Downbeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature about Mr. Taylor in 2005, when he was launching a new online retail venture. I’m posting the final cut, plus a pair of interviews that I conducted for the piece.

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Known for his implacable self-confidence and laid-back urbanity through a  half-century in the jazz business, Creed Taylor grew up on a farm, a fact made apparent by the wrench-force handshake he offered after lunch on the Friday before July 4th. “I milked cows,” he explained, pointing to his forearm. New Yorkers streamed past towards holiday R&R. Taylor smiled. “I like it better here,” he added. Then he returned to his downtown office to tweak a software glitch that was wreaking havoc on the shopping cart field of his on-line retail business, http://www.ctijazz.com.

During the ‘50s, Taylor learned the ropes at Bethlehem, and built his reputation as a marketing-savvy, high concept producer for ABC-Paramount. In 1960, he convinced his ABC bosses to fund Impulse!, and signed John Coltrane, who would remain at the label until his death in 1967. During four years at the helm of Verve, he launched the Bossa Nova movement with Stan Getz and produced lushly orchestrated best-sellers with Wes Montgomery that remain a template for commercial jazz production. He continued to hone the pop jazz formula during a three-year partnership with Herb Alpert at A&M, and in 1969 launched a successful signature label, CTI (Creed Taylor, Incorporated), whose output of the ‘70s set the template for “smooth jazz.”

Taylor, 76, last produced a record in the mid-‘90s. Now he hires an outfit called Fulfillment House to buy, pack and ship reissues of his classic titles, all branded with his signature and the logo “Creed Taylor Presents.” Owned primarily by Universal and Sony-BMG, the albums reflect Taylor’s singular, detail-oriented aesthetic, built on meticulous ears, marketing savvy, keen design sense, and an intuitive feeling for the zeitgeist.

“The fundamental thing always, whatever idiom of music we recorded, was to go for a groove,” says Taylor, whose sides still resonate with dance-oriented deejays and remixers around the world. “With CTI we might keep the rhythm section playing for an hour on the same 12 bars—when it begins to sound like it’s just about to lock in, then you start to record. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. Now, Jobim was a genius beyond generations, who created melodies and harmonies that made the whole thing so appealing. Still, he would sit at the piano, or guitar, and work a samba groove over and over until it clicked. On Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool, we went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil worked up a little groove with Tony Studd on bass trombone and the drummer. He wrote the chord changes on a four-bar riff on a matchbox, and handed it to Tony, who formed a bass pattern, and did the same with the lead trumpet and reed players. That became ‘La Nevada.’ On Blues and the Abstract Truth, Oliver Nelson knew exactly what he wanted, but it still took time to get the drum patterns down.

“You need a swinging foundation on which to put the improvisation. It’s like batting practice and pitching warm-ups before a baseball game. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.”

The son of a mill owner, Taylor, who worked comfortably with black artists throughout his career, grew up in Jim Crow times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the western, Appalachian section of the state. “There was one black family, and their kids were my playmates,” he recalls. “It was like the racial thing didn’t happen, except for seeing  ‘whites’ and ‘colored’ drinking fountains at the Greyhound station, which shocked me.”

Situated “two mountain ridges over” from the Carter family, bluegrass—“hillbilly music, the real folk stuff”—was everywhere, and Taylor didn’t like it. By 10 he was listening to big bands on radio. Soon thereafter, he taught himself to play trumpet, and by16 was hitchhiking to hear every traveling dance band within striking distance. His most frequent destination was Roanoke, Virginia, 75 miles down the road, where such heroes as Woody Herman, Jimmy Dorsey, Sammy Kaye, and Benny Goodman played the all-white auditorium, counterpointing chitlin’ circuit one-nighters by Louis Jordan, Erskine Hawkins, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Earl Bostic, and Billy Eckstine at a warehouse over the Norfolk & Western railroad tracks.

“The dynamics of my marketing thoughts might have begun then, with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another,” says Taylor, who in the ‘70s created Kudu—named for an African antelope and bearing the colors of the Jamaican flag—as an R&B crossover label to coexist with CTI. “Keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

In 1947 Taylor matriculated at Duke. He graduated four years later with a degree in psychology, played in the school band, and moonlighted on local club and dance gigs. He describes as life-altering a night when pianist Claude Thornhill brought to campus his short-lived band with Lee Konitz, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Scott, two french horns, and a book that included Gil Evans’ arrangements. Stan Kenton’s trombone-heavy arrangement of September Song, and Stan Getz’s recorded solos on “Early Autumn,” with Woody Herman, and “Autumn in Vermont,” with Johnny Smith, were other taste markers. So were Symphony Sid’s late night broadcasts from the Royal Roost and Birdland, which Taylor monitored; thus inspired, he periodically came to New York to get the sound of bebop first-hand, staying at a hotel near Bryant Park and frequenting the clubs of 52nd Street.

After two years in the Marines, including ten months of combat in Korea, Taylor settled in New York. He hung out, jammed, listened, observed, and formed as a first principle the notion that a recording and a live performance are different entities. Dates on Prestige or Blue Note or Verve might faithfully depict the heat-of-the-moment sound of a band in a Harlem or 52nd Street nightclub, but for Taylor they lacked nuance.

“I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic records, and those extended solos didn’t make it for me,” he says. “The attention span can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking about audience participation and the excitement and the show business. The Prestige stuff was so rough. I immediately saw other things that could have been done with great soloists like Zoot Sims and Al Cohn by changing the drummer or something. Most records had no bass presence, and I liked the way Rudy Van Gelder could record it.”

Taylor would soon actualize his preference, booking Van Gelder to record a date for Bethlehem, a struggling independent owned by Gus Wildi, a Swiss businessman.“I told Gus I thought I could produce a record very economically,” Taylor recalls. He’d met singer Chris Connor while “hanging out at some recording sessions,” and matched her with pianist Ellis Larkins. “Chris dug up these great songs, and I packaged a ten-inch LP,” Taylor continues. “I got an announcer to introduce her on the record, and did little merchandising things. When she was booked into Birdland I put a life-sized statue out front. Things like that weren’t happening then, so it was a good idea.”

The record took off to the tune of 20,000 units, and Taylor was off and running. Over the next 18 months, he supervised some two dozen Bethlehem sessions by Oscar Pettiford, Carmen McRae, J.J. Johnson and Kai Winding, Charles Mingus, and Herbie Mann, often under  the marketing slogan “East Coast Jazz.” He moved to the newly formed ABC-Paramount label as a staff producer, and built a jazz catalog with musicians he’d worked with at Bethlehem, adding artists like Quincy Jones, Lucky Thompson, Don Elliott, and Kenny Dorham. He also oversaw strong-selling concept-driven projects—drinking ditties, World War I songs, flamenco, Montoya & Sabicas, Italian pop singer Nicola Paone, and “Creed Taylor Orchestra” theme albums—that earned him trust from his old-school bosses. This translated into budgetary freedom, and Taylor spent liberally on A-list photographers and classy graphic design to give his product a striking visual identity that augmented Van Gelder’s trademark sound.

At Impulse Taylor parlayed his assets, releasing albums by Jay & Kai, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Oliver Nelson, and John Coltrane, branding them with gatefold jackets, orange-and-black spines, and the logo “The New Wave of Jazz is On Impulse.” He bet that “by identifying all the records with quality sound and packaging, radio stations that normally wouldn’t play, say, Gil Evans or Oliver Nelson, might go along for the ride”—and won.

In the summer of 1961, Norman Granz, whose laissez-faire blowing dates had alienated Taylor a decade before, sold Verve to MGM. Taylor took the reins. Within a year, Jazz Samba, the Charlie Byrd-Stan Getz collaboration that internationalized  Bossa Nova, was in the can.

“Charlie went to Brazil on a State Department tour, and met Jobim, who gave him these songs,” Taylor recalls. “Charlie recorded sketches, brought them home to Washington, D.C., got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and asked if we were interested in recording them. I said, ‘Stan, let’s go,’ and we hopped on a plane to D.C.

Taylor carefully cultivated relations with Getz, his famously  truculent early idol. “When I came to Verve, I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, ‘I’d really like to do something with Bill Finnegan.’ That was Focus, which couldn’t have been more esoteric—no rhythm, no chords. It was a 10 o’clock date at Webster Hall, and Stan walked in on time with a quart of Dewar’s. He put it on the stool in front of him, put alka-seltzer next to that, got ready, and played. I knew the critics would like it, Stan’s fans would like it, and Stan would appreciate my having gone along with it— Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that. Doing that made it possible for me to say, ‘Let’s do this thing.’”

Asked to compare himself to fellow Van Gelder devotee Alfred Lion, the auteur of Blue Note, Taylor offers a window into his thinking. “Alfred was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense,” Taylor says. “I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might appeal a little more to the general public. Beyond knowing what was good and what was swinging, Alfred didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production, and I don’t think he ever had marketing or packaging per se in mind, although his partner Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer, which gave the package an identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.

“Alfred also didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogerman. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row and B-row of the violins, and who you don’t hire because between takes he plays cards or reads the paper or doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he”s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. At A&M and CTI, we had the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.”

Framing jazz individualists with well-wrought arrangements and danceable grooves on poppish material would become Taylor’s trademark. Still, the legacy of these lucrative years seems somewhat at odds with his personal listening, which spans the piano music of Ravel and Debussy, Focus, Thornhill, Oliver Nelson, Chet Baker, and “anything by Bill Evans or Wynton Kelly.”

“Something that backfired on me is being responsible in a very odd way for smooth jazz, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds,” he says. “When CD-101 started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. and those early CTI things in that vein, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce background music for beautiful people purposes.”

Among active producers, Taylor admires Manfred Eicher. “The discretion—he knows what to leave out and what not to push,” he says. “Everything I’ve heard that he put out has integrity. That doesn’t necessarily mean I liked it. And Quincy always knew the right thing to do, whether I was producing him or he was producing another record. We see music from different angles; I think I’m better positioned to look at it objectively from the outside.”

All in all, Taylor acknowledges, there are there many ways to make a jazz record. Does he think his way was best? “Don’t we all?” he retorts. “Sometimes I wished I’d done it another way, and I sure didn’t make that mistake again. But those mistakes are long gone into my deep subconscious.”

[—30—]

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Creed Taylor (July 1, 2005):

TP:   What occurs to me in thinking about the projects you’ve been involved with is that your aesthetic has been consistent through 51 years in the record business. You seem to have operated on the same core principles, but with very different-sounding music in recordings made under different circumstances. Your consistency is remarkable. I’d like to explore how you came to your principles, how you came to hear the music the way that you hear it. That’s my overriding thought. That quality has stood you in good stead, and it seems that your instincts, which also were tempered by hard work, were quite accurate in each period you operated in. Any reflections on why you heard music the way you did.

CREED:   This is a roundabout…an opinion, as I look back on my early experiences. I grew up in the mountainous part of Virginia, close to West Virginia, and I was inundated with bluegrass. Bluegrass was all around me. This was before Nashville even…the big County movement hadn’t happened. It was the Carter family. The Carter family lived two mountain ridges over from where I grew up, so this was really hillbilly music, the real folk stuff. And I didn’t like it. I remember as a 10-11 year-old, I started listening to the radio, and I heard the big bands, obviously. Records weren’t that available at that point. It was still the 78 era anyway. But time went on, and I was able to start getting broadcasts from Birdland from Symphony Sid…

TP:   You’d have been 19 or 20. Birdland opened in ‘49, and the Royal Roost was in ‘48.

CREED:   Anyway, either I heard it broadcast from the Royal Roost, or… WMCA had a very clear, strong signal in the late hours, when I went to bed. I was listening until 12 or 1 in the morning, and getting up at 6 o‘clock to go to school, of course. But I was hearing those sounds. Then I began to buy records, and I was buying Les Brown, who had a great band, and I would listen to anything I could on the radio, including Sammy Kaye. I lived 75 miles from Roanoke. At that point I was 16-17 years old, and I hitchhiked to Roanoke any time a big band came through and played at the Roanoke Auditorium. That was the closest I could get live to anything remotely connected to jazz. Obviously, where I was, as I said before, there was nothing but bluegrass music.

TP:   Bluegrass was such a popular music. Do you remember what steered you away from it?

CREED:   Actually, it was the nasal, bluesy kind of sound that as an adult I understood, not that I… Later in life, I almost began to like a lot of that stuff. But when I was growing up, it was a very unappealing, rough kind of sound to me. Can’t tell you why. Maybe it was because I couldn’t hear anything else, and as soon as I heard something was not bluegrass, it was like, “Wow, this is the music.” So I was able to hear… Virginia Tech is pretty close by. I went to VPI to hear Boyd Raeburn’s big band, which was fantastic. I couldn’t believe it! Then I heard the Elliott Lawrence Band, which was also a marvelous band, at Virginia Tech. I remember coming out of the armory at Virginia Tech, and there was the big bus sitting there for the band, and as they got on the bus… I’m telling a lot of stuff out of school. I jumped on the bus and told Elliott Lawrence, “I’d like to get an audition on the band.” He gave me a card, and said, “Next time you’re in New York, come by. Call my manager.” I was in no condition to play trumpet on that band, but it didn’t bother me. I understood it. So I figured that I could do it.

TP:   You understood it from listening very closely to the bands on records and taking it apart in a kind of home-grown way? Did you have any theory…

CREED:   No, not at all. I didn’t have any music lessons even. I taught myself trumpet, and then harmony, I could play the chord changes, whatever. When it came time to go to college, I picked Duke University because of the background it had with the big bands. Les Brown came out of there, Johnny Long, and I believe Billy May might have gone there… It was okay with my family because they thought I was going to be a doctor.

TP:   You studied psychology, no?

CREED:   Well, I started out with pre-med to satisfy them, and then I switched to psychology because I couldn’t handle organic chemistry, etc. So at Duke I got on the band, which was really quite a professional band, and I learned a lot there. Then I had my own small group, with alto, bass, drums and piano. We played summers at Virginia Beach…

TP:   Society things?

CREED:   No, we were a bebop band. But then something happened with that band, and we lost that job at Bop City, but I hung around and got a job with a society band, a tenor band as they were called—two tenors, trumpet, trombone. I played the rest of the summer there, and I did that a few times. I was playing with dance bands essentially in Virginia.

TP:   So you came to the record business as someone who knew what it was to be a working musician, a professional musician.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   And by the time you got out of Duke, it sounds like you had a firmly established aesthetic as to what you wanted to hear and present.

CREED:   Oh, absolutely.

TP:   You go into the Armed Forces…

CREED:   I was in the Marine Corps for two years, and then I came back to Duke. I was in Korea.

TP:   In combat?

CREED:   Yes. I had a record player with me, and a 10-inch Mulligan-Baker, the original quartet, and then some Zoot Sims records—actually stuff that was recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s. Early on, I listened to Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I loved the solos, and it was at that point… I don’t recall the year…

TP:   He started Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1949.

CREED:   Well, it was something like ‘49 and ‘50. Anyway, before I entered the Service, I listened to a lot of Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I thought these extended solos and these interminable bass solos or drum solos or whatever, just don’t make it. The span of attention can’t handle it. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking anything about the audience participation and the excitement and all that show business.. But that’s when I seriously thought about recording, not knowing anything about recording, but I… This is reflecting. I didn’t know what I was really learning by doing what I was doing at that time, but I could see that it brought me to the point where I was saying, “This is the way I would like to listen to this record, and I think it should sound this way, and there’s no presence on the bass, and if you’re going to use a bass, it might as well be recorded like Rudy Van Gelder can record it.” Things like that were…

TP:   Were beginning to percolate. You certainly didn’t lack self-confidence. The story you’ve told is that you approached Bethlehem and ABC-Paramount and stepped in and did it…

I don’t think anyone lasts 50 years in the record business without a good sense of detail. You do seem to be an advocate of “God is in the details” as an operative…

CREED:   It happened that way.

TP:   Mr. Taylor was telling me about a problem on the website that he has to attend to later. But I was asking about your initial forays into the business. So for several years you’d be fantasizing about what you’d so if given the opportunity to record the people you were listening to.

CREED:   There are many ways to describe that phase of my mentality, personality, whatever. But I would say naive. It never occurred to me to be bothered about being able to do any of that sort of stuff. I wasn’t feeling competitive, and it wasn’t like I had self-confidence or didn’t have self-confidence; that was not the issue. The issue was to go do it. Apparently, just by not being bothered with “is he going to like me; will he hire me”… All of that never entered my mind.

TP:   That’s not unlike your experience as a musician, learning to play trumpet…

CREED:   That’s right.

TP:   Everything but organic chemistry.

CREED:   There was no doubt on that! It wasn’t a lack of self-confidence. No motivation.

TP:   People who grow up in the mountains are pretty resilient. I’ve spent some time in West Virginia.

CREED:   Well, you know that mentality of the culture.

TP:   I gather that when you came to New York, you spent a lot of time hanging out as well.

CREED:   Oh, yes, constantly.

TP:   Do you recall your first day in New York? Did you know someone? Why did you know where to go and what to do?

CREED:   It was easy. I had a first cousin whose mother came from Virginia, and they lived in New York, and he was an architectural engineer… Anyway, they put me up in a hotel on Bryant Park, and every night I would go to 52nd Street, the clubs that you’ve seen photographs of, and I went from one club to another, the brownstone…

TP:   This was before you entered the Marines.

CREED:   Before. Then I’d go back to Virginia and listen to Birdland. Anyway, I heard Oscar Pettiford, Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Billie Holiday, you name it. I spent my entire time… As soon as it got dark and the clubs started working, that’s where I’d be, hopping from place to place. Obviously, I had to go up and spend time with my cousins, but that didn’t take much time. Then I got on the train and went back to Virginia…

TP:   And enlisted in the Marine Corps?

CREED:   Was drafted in the Marine Corps.

TP:   Got out in 1952?

CREED:   I believe so. I was in the Pahmunjong area next to an Army unit. But we were constantly being picked on by the Chinese and the North Koreans, and there was a lot of mortar and stuff going on. It was really very combative. But it didn’t bother me too much. Then I came back into Reserve; we had a month off and two months back in Reserve. Lo and behold, they sent me to Yokohama to baseball umpiring school. I was not even a baseball fan, but I had a special services number.

TP:   What rank did you reach?

CREED:   Corporal. That was it. Any longer, and you became a Second Lieutenant, and you’re dead. That’s just about the pattern. So I umpired ballgames and got out of that alive. It was more frightening than the Chinese mortars. Meanwhile, I had my horn with me, and there were other guys who were also players. We had little jam groups. I tried to get the Marine band, but since I had a Special Service number, because of my psychology background, they wouldn’t take me in the band.

Jumping around a bit, I came back to San Francisco to be discharged. I had a whole month, I believe, on Treasure Island, and every night I would go into San Francisco to hear the likes of Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond and Chet Baker, Cal Tjader and all those guys. I also heard the Stan Getz-Jimmy Raney group at that time. It was a very pleasing way to get out of the Marine Corps, I’ll tell you.

TP:   So you eventually settled in New York in ‘52 or’53?

CREED:   I think it was ‘53.

TP:   And you were continuing to pursue a career as a psychologist?

CREED:   Actually, when I got here, the first thing I did was to go out to American Airlines and apply for a job as a personnel tester. During that period, I also ran into this guy who went to Duke who was a drummer (he wasn’t a very good drummer) who had… Don’t quote me on this. This guy conned a Swiss stock market investor into starting Bethlehem. The way he did this was, his girlfriend was a dancing teacher at Arthur Murray, and she was looking out for some guy with some money so the Duke guy could start a record company. So he started a record company, the guy put his money in, and that was Bethlehem Records. They did a few 78 records that were just before LPs were a reality, and they were just about to go broke. I was hanging around…

TP:   Was this a guy named Joseph Muranyi?

CREED:   Out of the past! No, that isn’t the guy. It was Gus Wildi, Swiss. One day, I don’t remember exactly how, but I said, “Hey, Gus, you’re not getting anywhere with these 78s; why don’t you let me produce a record. I can do one very economically.” It turned out to be Ellis Larkins on piano with Chris Connor, and I think some guitar…

TP:   Not unlike what Ellis Larkins had done with Ella Fitzgerald not long before.

CREED:   Exactly. So Chris Connor had the idea to get Ellis to do this.

TP:   How did you know Chris Connor?

CREED:   From hanging out at a couple of recording sessions. Sy Oliver was doing these elaborate big band arrangements, and I met Chris, and talked to her about doing… She has a great sense of song. She dug up all of these…”it’s the wrong time, it’s the…” “It’s All Right With Me.” She found that song, and she found “Cottage For Sale” and… Anyway, we got along very well. We did that, and I packaged the 10″ LP, Lullaby of Birdland, and got an announcer who was on WNEW at the time to introduce her on the record, so that every time the record was played, it was, “This is Bob McGarrity, and you’re listening to Chris Connor sing ‘Lullaby of Birdland.’” So that record took off. I did little merchandising things. Like, when she was booked into Birdland I had a life-sized statue put out front… At that time, things like that weren’t happening, so it was a good idea.

TP:   How did you know about these things? You were 25 years old. Now, you’d seen combat, you were self-sufficient… But how did you know these things about the business?

CREED:   It’s intuitive. Strictly intuitive. It’s reading, looking around, and just being alive. What are you going to do? These people march into Birdland, she’s there. What a great way to promote the album. If they’re on their way in, they say, “Ah, Chris Connor has an LP.”

[PAUSE]

CREED:   …Verve Remix Volume 3 came out. No comment on that.

TP:   What do you think of those remixes. A lot of it comes from your time.

CREED:   Well, on Remix #3, the voice is filtered to the point where it’s not only unobtrusive, but almost unidentifiable. Obviously, I’ve got a bone to pick. It destroyed the essence of it.

TP:   Well, that’s the essence of what deejays do. But I’d like to get back to this question of your aesthetic. You’ve taken me from your formative years to your first producing efforts. And it seems that in your hierarchy of things, arrangement and presentation is primary. A recording is a different entity than a live performance. That’s something you seem to have firmly established early on. As opposed to a lot of Prestige or Blue Notes dates, which show you how someone might have sounded in Harlem or a 52nd Street club.

CREED:   The Prestige stuff is part of what drove me. I probably wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it was so rough! You had these great soloists, Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and then with all the other stuff that could have been done, on the same day, on the same tune, by maybe changing the drummer or changing… I immediately saw what I could do.

TP:   How did you know which arrangers or personnel you wanted to use? Was it from hanging out at the clubs? By ‘52-‘53, 52nd Stret was pretty much gone. The brownstones were going down. You had Birdland and the Broadway strip…

CREED:   The Copper Rail.

TP:   You start to form relationships with musicians. You mentioned that you met Oscar Pettiford and got along…

CREED:   Oscar and I became very good friends.

TP:   Before you were a record producer?

CREED:   No. That’s how I met him, at Bethlehem. But he was such a jolly fellow. He loved life, and… We were just on the same wavelength. Anyway, I should mention that Bethlehem I think was at 1560 Broadway, maybe at 52nd Street, and I only had to go down to the street and walk a half-block into Charlie’s Tavern. This was the place. In Charlie’s Tavern, I met an oldster like Gene Krupa, Tommy Dorsey, Charlie Parker, Oscar Pettiford, and on and on like that. Phil Woods. Once I remember I went into Charlie’s Tavern… Charlie was a jovial fellow sometimes, but other times he was more like George Steinbrenner. Once Charlie Parker was in a booth, and I don’t know what he’d been doing, but he went to sleep on a table. Charlie came over and picked him up and threw him out on the street. I went up to Charlie and said, “Charlie, how could you do that?! That’s Bird!” “Nobody sleeps in my place.” But everybody loved Charlie… Anyway, that’s how I got…

TP:   An equal opportunity abuser.

CREED:   Right! But you’d go out of Charlie’s Tavern, and there was an alleyway back into Birdland. The guys on their break would come into Charlie’s Tavern and have a couple of drinks or whatever. So it was all a very knit community. I found out things like why does Pee-Wee mispronounce guys’ names all the time. Kai Winding told me, “because if you don’t tip him, he will mispronounce your name.” They eventually realized that if they were going to get up there… He could come up with some of the most outlandish versions of a musician’s name just because he didn’t get tipped.

TP:   Also, in a situation like that, you get a sense of who has chemistry with each other, and how to put people together on dates…

CREED:    Sure. Being in the environment on an active basis. Look, I could walk into Birdland, and you went down steps and there was a glass booth over the steps, and there was Symphony Sid broadcasting the music that I’d been listening to in Virginia. When he was playing the records he’d talk about, “Oh, I see down at the bar, there’s Zoot and there’s Kai Winding, and I think Dizzy’s over there…” Ah, this guy! I’ve got to get up to New York and see what’s going on, because that sounds like the place to be.

TP:   Were you meeting people before you were a record producer? Were you already one of these guys who comes to New York and becomes part of the scene? Or did that happen through your professional capacity?

CREED:   That happened after I was in a position to hire people. What am I going to say? “Give me your autograph.”

TP:   So among the first people you worked with were Oscar Pettiford, J.J.  Johnson and Kai Winding… Did Mingus work with you on Bethlehem by the time you left…
CREED:   He did one thing.

TP:   There must be 20-25 recordings you did with them.

CREED:   I would guess so. I can’t remember what they are now.

TP:   I suppose that would teach you every element of the business. Invaluable. There are so many personalities that we could take a whole afternoon. I wrote down a partial list: Chris Connor, Oscar Pettiford, Mingus, Kai Winding, J.J. Johnson, Oliver Nelson, Coltrane, Ray Charles, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Jobim, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, Gil Evans, Jimmy Smith, Freddie Hubbard, Milt Jackson, Stanley Turrentine, Quincy Jones, Don Sebesky, George Benson, Grover Washington. A lot of people, and that’s just the half of it. But you seem to have developed good relationships with all these people. Alfred Lion did it. I don’t know if Bob Weinstock developed relationships…

CREED:   I never knew him.

TP:   When you were preparing an Oscar Pettiford date, how much of the input would be Oscar Pettiford’s and how much would be yours?

CREED:   That’s a long time ago to really remember the specifics…

TP:   I’m trying to get at when you started to put your own producer imprint on records, and how it began. How it went from supervising a session to putting your personality on all aspects of it, which became your trademark.

CREED:   Well, I liked Chris Connor and enjoyed working with her. She was also a success. I happened to be doing Kai and J.J. at the same time, so I got them together. I would make suggestions at times. Maybe some of the mute changes that Kai and J.J. did… They did a lot of changes in the club. It was a very visual group. I would tell them, “You’ve got such a beautiful sound or blend on this, I don’t think you should use the solo tone mutes.” Being a brass player, I knew  very clearly what the solo tone… I also would have various comments about where they should be in the studio itself. Of course, I also had the good fortune of having a great engineer, Tommy Dowd. Of course, there was Rudy. Rudy has always been a big part of my recording life. He was a trumpet player, too, you know.

TP:   I didn’t know that.

CREED:   Yes. And he had a compelling sensibility about the musicality of the various players. He could put up with any kind of idiosyncratic behavior if he respected the talent. If he got some guy who was acting pretty nuts, then he didn’t work out very well. Anyhow, I formed kind of a buffer between the guys I knew and Rudy. I would not infrequently have conversations with the artist about the date we’re going to do, and there are certain little things that you shouldn’t be doing. So if you know up front, then there’s not going to be any problem. Well, smoking, of course, but back then it was a problem, you don’t smoke in the studio or whatever… The only time I can remember… Quincy and his new wife were living in California, and Quincy came in to do Walking In Space, I think it was, or one of those dates, and his wife came into the control room with a big bag of potato chips and started crunching potato chips. Rudy just was… Never mind the manners or whatever. OUT with the potato chips. She could have been the Queen of England. Out with the potato chips. Rudy appreciated that. And I knew the ground rules…

TP:   How did you meet Rudy van Gelder?

CREED:   I called him up and booked a date in his studio in Hackensack. He used his family living room for a studio. We started talking… He was interested in photography, and so was I and so am I. He liked Mercedes, and so did I and so do I. We became very good friends.

TP:   Both men with an eye for detail.

CREED:   I would say. Definitely.

TP:   Would you before you went into the studio have a very good idea in your mind how the record would sound once the project was complete?

CREED:   I had to say very little. But when I had something to say, Rudy would listen. I stayed very much in the background. That was his department, generally speaking. And it’s continued that way all these years.

TP:   When did the notion of putting your imprint on the entire package start to take form? Was that at ABC-Paramount?

CREED:   Mmm-hmm.

TP:   Was that because you had more resources and you could do it?

CREED:   A combination of factors. ABC-Paramount was recording Paul Anka, Eydie Gorme, all of those Philadelphia rock-and-roll guys, and I didn’t want to be identified with that genre of music. I think that’s what sort of started it. But then I started looking at how the packages looked and sounded, and I thought, “Well, I’m going to put my name on as a signature, as a guarantee to the listener that he’s going to get generally what he expects in quality from this recording.” It was as simple as that.

TP:   But that wound up encompassing the cover design, the whole package…

CREED:   Oh, yes.

TP:   Did a Rudy Van Gelder for Creed Taylor have the same sound as a Rudy Van Gelder record for Alfred Lion?

CREED:   No.

TP:   What’s the nature of the difference?

CREED:   Well, Alfred Lion, for one thing, would take a different rhythm section. He would approach it in a different way. He wasn’t interested in… I certainly respect that. He was interested in the pure ensemble, then blowing, and no nonsense.

TP:   What were you interested in?

CREED:   I was interested in that, plus an entertaining record that might have an appeal that might get a little further out to the general public.

TP:   Did that start with Bethlehem, or was that a function of your job at ABC-Paramount? Or were you always thinking about that?

CREED:   I was always thinking about that. But I got to thinking about it more because of radio as being the prime exposure for selling records. It got so that I had to remind myself that you’re not making this record for a radio. You’re using radio, and they will play your record, but be careful that you’re not just going in a direction that you know is going to get it on the radio at the expense of what it should be musically for the audience you’re going for.

TP:   Also at ABC-Paramount, you had to convince your higher-ups that projects were worth taking on. As Ashley describes, they were pretty tough, self-made guys who grew up in the Depression. They describe you as being very quiet. You’d sit back from the table somewhat to force people to pay attention to you, and you would always have a business plan for each record. “I can do this for this,” you’d give them a price, and then if it went over budget, they wouldn’t argue. Sometimes it did and sometimes it didn’t.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   How did you have the confidence to know that you’d be able to back up your words by that point?

CREED:   I’d feel like I was doing the right thing. If I didn’t think I was doing the right thing, I probably wouldn’t have had any confidence.

TP:   How did you know your audience? Through fieldwork? Hanging out…

CREED:   Fieldwork. Radio. Talking to record distributors and all those people. I had this little test store right across the street from the Paramount building, and they sold everything from belly dance to Chinese rock-and-roll or whatever was going on at the time. I’d talk to the owner and go look through the records and see what genre of music might be selling, if it were available. That’s sort of the way I found Nicola Paone. Nicola Paone had a song called “The Telephone Song.” It was a hit. I think it might have been on Columbia. But the owner of the store said, “You know, if you did a record with Nicola Paone, I think it might work.” So I got Harry Levine, my mentor, and suggested he get in touch with Nicola Paone’s manager and tell him to come and make a record. So I put a barbership quartet together with Nicola Paone, and he sang “The Telephone Song,” and we put it in the package. We shipped the 45 up to Buffalo or Rochester. I knew these radio stations up there that played…I wouldn’t call it ‘ethnic,” but Pop, Italian style. It took off in one place. Nicola Paone built his restaurant on 34th Street with the royalties from that record.

TP:   Is that the one on 34th and Madison?

CREED:   Yeah. He used to come down to my apartment. He and Harry Levine and myself would go in, and Nicola would take us back to the kitchen and show us how he prepared chicken cacciatore or whatever. A very friendly atmosphere.

TP:   Are you more proud of any two or three particular records from your Bethlehem years over others? Chris Connor you always come back to in your conversations.

CREED:   Yes. That’s probably because it was the first. But Kai and J.J., of course, and… [END OF SIDE A]…

We had sort of an interesting date that I did with Eddie Condon, a real Dixieland thing. He had a restaurant just off Washington Square, a bar…

TP:   On 3rd Street, right?

CREED:   Yes. I think it was 3rd Street. I enjoyed that because… I’m not saying that because I like to sit around and listen to Eddie Condon now. Well, I might if I had a record. That was Pee Wee Russell, Wild Bill Davidson, George Wettling and Pops Foster, and it was really an eye-opener for me, because I’d never been interested in that kind of stone Dixie kind of… To sit up in the control booth with Tom Dowd and watch those guys go through two quarts of vodka and still be able to sit up and play, I couldn’t believe it.

You talked about merchandising. What sort of started this off was, there was a priest in Chicago named Brother Matthew, and my wife at the time was a reporter for Life magazine, and she said she thought she could get us a story in Life magazine if we could record Brother Matthew on alto sax. So sure enough, we flew him in, and he sat in with this great all-star Dixieland group, and we got a great story. He couldn’t play very well; Brother Matthew was kind of weak. But that was a merchandising approach without thinking about a lot about is he sustainable as an artist.

TP:   Did you have a philosophy, such as Blue Note, where Bruce Lundvall says he pays for more purist albums through sales by Norah Jones or Cassandra Wilson or Diane Reeves? Did you follow the notion of having bigger sellers subsidize more art music?

CREED:   It didn’t work like Bruce Lundvall and his Norah Jones. I can’t go along with that statement. Here he’s got Norah Jones popped out of the blue…

TP:   Well, Cassandra Wilson and Diane Reeves were the people he used to refer to.

CREED:   Well, they didn’t sell enough to make you feel comfortable with the pursestrings until Norah Jones broke loose, and then he could do no wrong. I’m sure there were various stages in my producing life that affected me about whether I could take a chance with some less potential sales, because I liked the way the guy played. Joe Farrell [CTI] was maybe an example, because he was an enormous talent, but he didn’t have any particular idiosyncracies that I thought a whole lot of people would grab onto. But they are great records, I still think.

TP:   By idiosyncracies you mean?

CREED:   Some sound or stylistic… I instantly can listen to a demo and hear or not hear a sound, I think. By now, I’d better be able to.

TP:   Sounds to me like you could do that fifty years ago as well. Anything you’re particularly proud of during your time at ABC-Paramount? Relationships that springboarded into the next decade?

CREED:   Well, I continued with Quincy, for instance, on the Impulse Ray Charles. Quincy did the first arrangement for me in a recording session at Bethlehem with Oscar Pettiford. He hit New York at the same time I did. We were about the same age. I had a house on Waverly Place, and had parties there with Oscar Pettiford, Quincy Jones, Jackie and Roy, all the players and singers and whomever that would come by. It was just a big social thing. It didn’t just happen in the studio and in the office. It was like a  way of life. We all liked the same things.

TP:   The latter part of the ‘50s. That’s when modern jazz moved into the Village. ‘55-‘56, when the Bohemia opened, the Vanguard started being more of a jazz club…

CREED:   I heard Oscar Pettiford at the Bohemia. I used to go to the Bohemia and stay for the last set, then Oscar  would come by my place on Waverly Place, which was two blocks away. They hired Cannonball and Nat Adderley there when they first came to town around that time.

TP:   I’m trying to elicit ways in which your approach was distinct from the other comparable labels of the time. Which is why I’m asking why a Rudy Van Gelder-engineered date with Alfred Lion would differ from you…

CREED:   Well, I don’t think Alfred ever had marketing per se… I never met him. But I don’t think he had marketing per se or packaging in mind. Well, Francis Woolf was a great black-and-white photographer. That really gave the package some identity. But I don’t think they looked at how we’re going to sell more albums.
TP:   How about you vis-a-vis the Savoy label, which had a very different culture…

CREED:   With Herman Lubinsky?!

TP:   But he had intelligent producers, like Ozzie Cadena.

CREED:   Ozzie Cadena was intelligent.

TP:   The way you said Herman Lubinsky’s name…

CREED:   He sold used radio tubes during the war. At least Rudy told me that.

TP:   In a broader sense, between ‘54, when you started, and ‘61 when you start Impulse, did the social milieu in which jazz existed change greatly? They were certainly years of great change in the country.

CREED:   At ABC-Paramount, prior to Impulse. That’s when I was doing that research across the street. I noticed that there were no drinking songs LPs, so I don’t remember exactly how I got together with this vocal contractor… I think he went to Duke. A professional jingle singer. So we formed a group which I called The Four Sergeants, and I actually started out… I took a tape recorder to Yale University. I was going to record live from the tables down at…you know, “The Whiffenpoof Song,” that kind of stuff. It didn’t  work out, but it led to hiring professional singers to sing the same stuff. So I had a college drinking song, more college drinking songs, drinking songs sang under the table, and then that drifted into bawdy barrack songs, risque barbershop…

Oddly, one of the most successful… This came from my father, actually, who was in World War One. He gave me a photograph or two of where he was in the trenches. Then I started thinking about George M. Cohan and the great patriotic sentimental stuff. I found some sheet music in the attic in my home in Virginia, really old sheet music, and  we had a photographer do the cover for World War I songs. In World War I songs, aside from all the warhorses, I had a great radio voice recite In Flanders Fields. Do you know that poem? “In Flanders fields, where poppies grow amongst the corpses…” Anyway, I put a lot of reverb on it, and we had a bugle-playing Captain, and I kind of dubbed… It became a good-seller for ABC.

So with a few of these things sort of in my back pocket, Harry Levine was easily able to say to Sam Clark, “Look, why don’t we leave him alone, because look at what he’s doing; he’s building up the LP catalog.” Harry and I became great friends. He was a very quiet, nice old fellow. But he was #2 at ABC-Paramount, and he was the real brain-trust. He was the original booker of the Paramount Theater. He dealt directly with Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, whoever the band or the entertainers happened to be, because he had this quiet kind of… He wasn’t a rough Broadway kind of guy as they are portrayed in the movies or on Broadway. So he was able to talk with the artist and/or the artist’s manager, and arrive at an equitable, fair contract. So we built that sort of thing up to the point where I decided now is a good time to do this thing. Because I had Pete Turner and his great photography talents, and I had Rudy, and I had myself, and the relationship with the top jazz players out there—and it was as simple as that. Let’s put together some sort of an umbrella concept and start putting the stuff out.

TP:   What’s interesting to me and to other people who love the Impulse label… The five first albums were Kai & J.J., Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, Gil Evans, Out Of The Cool, Coltrane, and Ray Charles. From my perspective, apart from Ray Charles, the only one who would appeal to a wider audience would be Kai & J.J.  Coltrane had done the Atlantic records, but he was just becoming a leader. Gil Evans was a kind of esoteric arranger…

CREED:   But he had all that Sketches of Spain behind him. He had a bubbling, and he hadn’t done anything like this, Out of The Cool, with a package like that. So some of the music in that original release was absolutely directed at the broader base and at the radio stations which never played stuff like that, and with the display going along, the Out of The Cool or Oliver Nelson or whatever, which was not thrust up in the kind of pop-jazz crossover thing, would go along for the ride. And sure enough, they did. So by identifying all of these records that had quality sound, quality packaging, the people who normally probably wouldn’t go for something like that, would go for all of the Impulse records at that point.

TP:   Also, by 1960 hi-fi was becoming more popular, and stereo was getting into the marketplace. So good sound actually meant something. I gather that your designer actually shared your office at ABC-Paramount.

CREED:   Fran Scott. She was married to Tony Scott, who was really Tony Sciacca. I met tony Scott at Duke University at a Claude Thornhill dance. In the band, there was Gerry Mulligan, Lee Konitz, Tony Scott, and Bernie Glow, and that was the most gorgeous sound I can ever remember hearing. First hearing something like that just made me feel goosebumps.

TP:   Is that an idealized sound in your mind?

CREED:   Oh, I play a Claude Thornhill CD (The Best Of, believe it or not) at home, because it makes me feel good. Fran Warren’s “Sunday Kind of Love.” Just to get away from Debussy or Ravel or something like that.

TP:   What else do you listen to at home?

CREED:   Classical piano stuff. I can’t listen to it all the time when I want to, because I have a daughter and a wife who would like to listen to the blues or whatever the pop stuff is that’s going on. So I’ll go back certainly to Oliver Nelson, and anything by Bill Evans, and anything by Wynton Kelly. That’s the top of my list. Chet Baker and Miles Davis.

TP:   Do you listen to a lot of new releases. Do you hear a fair sampling of what people are putting out?
CREED:   I’m on Universal’s mailing list. Now Universal has the bulk of whatever is jazz or near jazz coming out. So I listen to it, mostly once, unless something comes along. I go back and listen to Focus, Stan Getz. It’s right up there. It could have been recorded yesterday.

TP: Do you feel that you have had an impact on the way today’s producers think about presentation?

CREED:   I’ll tell you something that backfired on me. Being responsible in a very odd way for CD 101.9, that kind of nonentity of floating backgrounds, smooth jazz… Who’s the sax player they used to really love on CD-101.9?

TP:  David Sanborn.

CREED:   David Sanborn said about a year ago, “they stopped playing my records because I’m too close to jazz.” The fact is, that as they got smoother and smoother… He has an identity and it’s something… When he plays, you listen to it, and that’s not the purpose at that radio station. But when they started off, they loved Grover Washington, Jr. I know they listened to those early CTI things that were like that, but I had no intention whatsoever to produce music for background for beautiful people purposes. Then I came along, thinking, “What am I going to do, Emulate the stuff that I really started there?” I did a few records that I’m not at all happy with because I was trying to… Why shouldn’t I be able to do… I couldn’t do it. I won’t even records what the records were.

TP:   CTI began as a division of A&M, and then you evolved it into your own imprint?

CREED:   It began as a partnership that lasted two years. It was going great guns. Wes Montgomery was selling up a storm, and then there were good records by Paul Desmond. Again, this is off the record. Herb Alpert had his niche in the music world, in his style, the way he thinks about music, and it became a problem with me because he wanted to talk about musical details about records, and Gerry Moss, his partner, obviously was listening to him, and I found myself listening to him. “I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be influenced by Tijuana Brass. Enough already.” So it was no big breakup. It was just that  thought that this was something that was hovering…well, that was no good for what I could do. Music when spoken, or spoken about. takes on strange directions.

TP:   CTI was the first time you actually capitalized a label by yourself?

CREED:   Well, in the beginning with A&M, and then it went in…

TP:   But did you buy out A&M?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Your budgets kept getting bigger and bigger as…
CREED:   It started out like this. Wes died in ‘68, and what’s going to be next? They’re looking for billing, and they’ve got Peter Frampton and it’s evolving into a big label. The bigger they got, the more demanding it was to meet the sales quotas. I wasn’t in that party, and it was very comfortable for Gerry Moss to pay me a modest sum to say, “It was fun, but it’s over now.” So I took that and paid for the recording of Red Clay with Freddie Hubbard. It was that simple. I did another record by Kathy McCord, but that wasn’t…

TP:   What did you tell Freddie when you did Red Clay?

CREED:   Freddie had been recording for me, like on Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth, and he was on Quincy’s albums frequently.

TP:   But how did you put your stamp on that sound?

CREED:   “Let’s go in with these players and see what we can get going.” He played that little sketch on “Red Clay,” that funky thing that became so popular, and that was it. Anyway, that was a relatively casual thing, and don’t forget it had Stanley [sic] on it.

TP:   Did you give the drummers instructions on those records?

CREED:   Oh, no. Neither did Freddie. We just knew what he played like. If you hire Idris Muhammad, you know you’re going to get a New Orleans authenticity. You hire a drummer for what he does, not for what you can tell him to do.

TP:   You’re also well-known for having musicians record popular songs of the day, like “A Day In The Life” or  “Let It Be” or “White Rabbit.” Was that organic, just responding to the dictates of the market…

CREED:   I know what you’re talking about. “Let It Be” came to me from Paul McCartney. He sent me the tape before they recorded it, because he liked what Wes did on “A Day In The Life” so much that he said, “Help yourself.” I took it to Memphis, where I’d hired a rhythm section at American Studios, which is where Elvis Presley did all of his stuff, and also Otis Redding. Now, that kind of R&B or blues studio band could just take a sketch and give you a record. Stanley Turrentine didn’t make it the following morning; 10 o’clock wasn’t good, there was something in the contract or whatever. So I called Hubert, and Hubert came down, and we recorded “Let It Be,” and we did the rest of the LP at Rudy’s. But here we had Hubert with the Beatles song, with Elvis Presley’s rhythm section in a Memphis recording studio that is conditioned to have that kind of a dry funk element, including the engineer who did all of the great Otis Redding dates.

“Day In The Life” was a lot of Don Sebesky. Don did these arrangements. Wes came in with a whole studio orchestra, and Don put the part up in front of him… He didn’t know that Wes couldn’t read music, and even if he sort of was suspicious, he thought it would be kind to Wes to make it look like he was reading. The date went on maybe for two hours, and Wes kept getting more and more unhappy. Don talked to him and I talked to him, and he said, “I can’t play this, with all these cats around who can read all this music. I can’t do it.” So he called that, and then we had a meeting with Wes. Don said, “I’ll make a tape before we do the next date of all this stuff.” He made a tape on fender rhodes, mapped out where he plays, and Wes listens to it when he’s on the road or whatever, and when he’s ready to come in, we book a rhythm section only. No strings. That’s the way we proceeded from that point on.

Don worked with me very well. He would bring a complete conductor’s score into the recording booth, give it to me, and when we got to the fourth bar down on letter-B or whatever it was, I would know exactly what to communicate to Don, to say, “Let’s cut it out now so we don’t do it in an editing session.” We communicated over the phone in the studio, so I could talk directly to him and none of the players could hear what I was saying. It wasn’t like I was chopping up Don’s arrangement. But we had a very comfortable relationship like that. Don, aside from being a very talented musician, is a very reasonable, intelligent fellow.

TP:   I’m remiss in not speaking with you up to now about Brazil. For one thing, you had an instinct that it would strike a chord, and didn’t you put in a number of trips to Brazil… Not true?

CREED: No way. Charlie Byrd went down on a State Department tour. He met Jobim. Jobim gave him these songs, and Charlie Byrd recorded sketches of the songs and brought them back up to Washington, and he got on the phone with myself and with Stan, and said, “This is what I’ve got; are you interested in recording?” I said, “Stan, let’s go.” So we hopped on a plane to D.C.  Then the parade of the bossa novas started happening.

TP:   So “Desafinado” is something Stan Getz wanted to do, and you’re his producer, and he trusted you implicitly, and you just went and did it.

CREED:   Here’s why he trusted me implicitly. When I came from across the street at ABC to Verve, here I arrive with a talent like Stan Getz. I’m not going to march in and say, “Stan, why don’t you do buh-ba-buh-ba.” So I talked with Stan until he got to the point where he said, “What I’d really like to do is something with Bill Finnegan.” Focus couldn’t have been more esoteric. No rhythm, no chords, or anything. Just strings. Well, one cut is Roy Haynes on snare, brushes. But I knew that the critics would like it, Stan’s fans will like it, and Stan will appreciate my having gone along with it, because he couldn’t do something like that with anybody else. I mean, Norman Granz wouldn’t have stood still for something like that, I know. So that made it possible for me to say, “Let’s do this thing, Stan.” From that point on, everything was cool. We had a couple of little altercations.

TP:   His behavior was still erratic during those years.

CREED:   Yeah. But the way it worked for me was, “Stan, if you keep behaving that way, I’m leaving. I’m just going home. I’ll go home, and if you feel like it, call me. But I’m not going to sit here and listen to this garbage.” So he calmed down. “Stan, look…” We’re at Webster Hall. It’s a 10 o’clock date, and he walks in on time, but he walked in with a quart of Dewar’s, puts it on the stool in front of him, and then he puts next to that alka-seltzer, and then he gets ready to play, and he plays. He made the Focus album like that.

TP:   It was a different time.

CREED:   Quite different.

TP:   People had different tolerances. I recall guys like Art Blakey going three or four days in a row and how they did it. You and Coltrane got along quite well, I gather.

CREED:   Coltrane was so quiet. If anybody walked in and said, “Do something this way,” I’m sure he would have quietly said no. He had a lot of spine.

TP:   You did only the Africa Brass date.

CREED:   Yes. I think Coltrane always wanted Dolphy. Dolphy was amazing. I just attended to the comfort of the musicians and the comfort of Rudy, and let it happen. I wouldn’t have walked into that at all. That’s a very involved, totally artistic kind of idiom. I’m not going to produce Coltrane or anybody else. I wouldn’t try to make a whole concept or anything. Whatever he’s doing at that moment in time is what he does, and that’s how that happened.

TP:   If you had stayed at Impulse, would you have been able to work with what Coltrane eventually evolved into?

CREED:   Of course. Bill Evans was another kind of artist, though. He was totally malleable. I didn’t tell him to do “Washington Square Jump.” It’s based on “Frankie and Johnny.” He also did Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” But he would play anything I asked him to play, within reason, of course.  But the only problem was that Bill had this enormous habit. When we recorded, I’d pick Bill up on the West 98th Street, and we’d drive to Rudy’s, and he’d tell me about the latest book he read, what do you think about who’s running for office, and all this stuff. He was brilliant. We’d go to the studio, and he would record, and everything was beautiful! Then maybe 3-4 weeks later he comes into my office at Verve, and I’m not there, but he sees Margot, my secretary. She gives him any promotion copy that we had around, and he takes it. Once I went up to Harlem, on 125th Street, to a club where they had a glass broadcast booth in the middle, and I’m standing up at the bar, and along comes Bill with his box of records. He’s selling the promo copies to the customers, putting it in his pockets, and then he’d go get his fix or whatever. That’s a strange world.

TP:   I don’t think producers these days have to deal with the same level of eccentricity as back then. What’s it been like for you to work with the younger players? Donald Harrison. Charles Fambrough.

CREED: It’s no different. What’s different is the marketplace and the hardware and the technical downloading, the MP3s. It’s taken part of the packaging of recorded music out of the picture. That’s what I find difficult to deal with. Not the changing styles of music or recording. It’s when you can’t count on being able to make a good-looking package to go with a great-sounding record, and getting it to a normal distribution route. What do you do? That is the real problem. You can’t put your finger on the marketplace.

TP:   You’re saying that you can’t put your finger on the marketplace since the Internet and digital distribution.

CREED:   Yes. And predicting what’s going to happen, or at least betting that this is the way it’s going to be. You don’t know. Because one minute, Sony is Sony; the next minute it’s Sony-BMG. Whatever happened to Impulse? That’s Universal. And where is Verve now, or Motown… It’s just so all over the place from a distribution standpoint. I can tell this from being on a mailing list, that there doesn’t seem to be any plan of what kind of artist, how they’re going to be packaged, the individuality of some kind of series. Nothing that’s going to reach the marketplace, other than that it’s another CD.

Well, I think there’s some hope that a dual disk, a DVD plus the CD. That puts it at another level for the pricing, so the record companies are more interested in dual disks, because they can charge… Also, the coming of the high-definition DVD. Everybody is going to have a high-definition DVD disk for sale.

TP:   Is that what you’re thinking about for your next project?

CREED:   That’s what I’m doing for a project that I’m having converted from the old high-definition format, which is a Japanese 1125-line. It’s being converted to 10-8 (?). Then I’ll remix the surround sound at Rudy’s, and we will then have a truly HD-DVD. When it originally came out in 1992, it was called Rhythm Stick.

TP:   Just about Dizzy’s last date.

CREED:   It was his last date. And Teo. And Bob Berg, who was killed a few years ago. Art Farmer.

TP:   Since 2000 or 1997, how many new projects have you done?

CREED:   None.

TP:   When was the last time you recorded a project?

CREED:   I try not to think about that. [LAUGHS]

TP:   So what you’re doing now is repackaging your old catalog.

CREED:   I haven’t even started that. I’m just working on this high-definition DVD project as a leader. Because there’s other stuff in the can. But this is also an hour of film program that’s really good. Brilliant color. Certainly, one that came out of Brazil, I have a whole hour of filming from Salvador with the northern Brazilan percussion players and Larry Coryell.

TP:   Do you own the CTI catalog?

CREED:   The thing Sony has? Sony owns it.

TP:   Do you own any of the work you produced between 1954 and 1992, from Bethlehem to Rhythm-Stick?

CREED:   No.

TP:   So are you licensing it from…

CREED:   Well, licensing… I use the Fulfillment House. The Fulfillment House buys it from Sony Distribution, and they pack it and ship it. I’m a retailer. On-line retail.

TP:   So CTI is now an on-line retailing service.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Do you find that in any way rewarding? Would you like to get back into producing?

CREED:   Yes. I don’t find it rewarding because I’m not a technical person. I’ve been telling you about the shopping cart going wacko on me.

TP:   Looking at the current landscape, what sort of projects would you like to be doing?

CREED:   Oh, I know exactly what I’d like to be doing.

TP:   But you won’t say, because it would…

CREED:   Well, of course.

TP:   If the opportunity arose, you would come in with your feet on the ground…

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP:   When I asked you about the enduring appeal of Creed Taylor, Inc., you said, ‘Look at the artists.” Obviously, there’s truth to that. You worked with the top-shelf artists of the day, and their work was popular. But the situations in which you put Wes Montgomery have a broader appeal than the things he did for Riverside. The situations you put Stan Getz in have a somewhat broader appeal. They penetrated popular consciousness in some ways others didn’t. We could say this for George Benson’s work. So again, we get back to this question of your aesthetic, and how that aesthetic played out in the 1950s, in the 1960s, in the 1970s, three very different cultural eras,. Yet your aesthetic is consistent. You’re dealing with different markets, and your persona, your own tonal personality somehow continues to resonate. I’m wondering if you can in any way summarize that Creed Taylor tonal personality.

CREED:   Look, I don’t know what other producers do, because I only occasionally attended other… But the fundamental thing that goes on, whether it’s the Brazilian stuff, or Bob James doing arrangements for another artist, is we go for a groove. Like, Blue Note went for a groove always, but a different type. We might sit there for an hour on the same 12 bars or whatever, with the rhythm section going… I’m thinking specifically about Bob James, Eric Gale, Ron Carter or Gary King on electric bass, and Steve Gadd. You let them keep playing, and then, when it begins to sound like it’s just about to happen—okay. Then you start to record.

I have an idea that most records are not made with a groove being foremost. Of course, you have to start off with a good song. With the Brazilians, everything was made… Jobim was a genius beyond generations. He singlehandedly put the melody there and the harmonies that made that whole time so appealing. But we would still sit there… He would sit at the piano or on the guitar, and he would work at a samba groove over and over until it finally clicked. Then we would start to record.

Jimmy and Wes were just a natural. I mean, they only did that one record, The Dynamic Duo. That was the thing, that Wes and Jimmy would work a little bit before the drummer started doing anything, and then the drummer would start, and then the bassline would come up. But any record date went for the groove, no matter what idiom of music you’re recording.

TP:   Whereas Blue Note with be thinking about an interactive drummer and soloist, and more shifts…

CREED:   Generally speaking, what Alfred was recording was a group that had been performing in the clubs. They’d do that how many nights in the club. So when they’d walk into Rudy’s, Rudy has to get a balance, but they know what the groove is. They have to play it a little bit. But it was like a band. You walk in with Benny Goodman or whomever. It’s all rehearsed, and you don’t have to do this thing that we did, that I was just talking about—getting great players to finally lock in.

A big factor, I’ve got to say… I really miss Eric Gale. He was an absolute genius for groovemaking, whether it was reggae or R&B or whatever. On “Mr. Magic,” Eric, Bob James and the bass player and drummer, had just done a record with Roberta Flack, and they recorded that song the previous day. So the same rhythm section comes in… I’d asked Eric to look out for a song at one of these sessions that… So he brought in a cassette of “Mr. Magic” that the rhythm group had formed. It didn’t happen for them. He handed it to me, and he said, “Creed, here’s the song. It ain’t shit.” “Well, let’s try it anyway.” So they tried it, and they got a groove going, and that became Grover Washington’s mantle. Huge.

TP:   Were those mostly one- or two-day days in the studio dates at CTI?

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   Did you use more studio time than the average jazz date?

CREED:   Yes, definitely.

TP:   So that’s another factor in why all the details are so precise on CTI.

CREED:   Yes. But another atypical session  would be Gil Evans’ Out of The Cool. We went four days without recording anything, because Gil couldn’t get it down on paper. Finally, Gil was at the piano, and he’s got Tony Studd on bass trombone and he’s got the drummer and… So they finally worked up a little groove, and then Gil took a matchbox, literally, and wrote down the chord changes on a four-bar riff, handed it to Tony Studd, who formed a bass pattern for the thing, and then he did the same thing with the lead trumpet and then the reed players. That became “La Nevada.” I’ve never seen Duke Ellington record, but I understand he recorded in a similar fashion. Strayhorn didn’t come in with big sheets of arrangements, I don’t think. At least he didn’t… When I recorded Strayhorn and Hodges, everything was formal. He came in with complete arrangements. It wasn’t like the Ellington band recording, even though it was the Ellington band.

TP:   But when you were at Impulse and ABC-Paramount, you weren’t spending an hour with the rhythm section looking for a groove. Or  were you?

CREED:   Gil Evans was one of them. Out of The Cool.

TP:   Probably not Blues and the Abstract Truth.

CREED:   Yes, it was. Oliver knew exactly what he wanted, but still took time to get it down. It wasn’t just a matter of reading and telling the drummer to listen to the patterns.

TP:   Probably because it’s Roy Haynes, he makes it sound so spontaneous and organic.

CREED:   Spontaneous, yeah. It’s like practicing the… You’ve got this guy, all the pitchers warming up to come out and win the game. You have to do all the batting practice and everything. Then you come out and perform. I don’t see any difference.

TP:   Except that the game doesn’t go according to a script. You have to use your talent to adapt to the situation at hand. If a lefty comes in to face a lefty… So there’s both, isn’t there. There’s preparation, and then responding…

CREED:   True.

TP:   For a successful Creed Taylor recording, what percentage does improvisation play and what role does the preparation and pre-organization play?

CREED:   Well, you’ve got a foundation to put the improvisation on. Once the improvisation is there and swinging, then you’ve got the…

TP:   But the bedrock is always the groove.

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   It’s not the changes, it’s not the voicings…

CREED:   Oh, everything. But if you don’t have the groove and you don’t have the right song to start with, forget it.

Little things just popped into mind about this. The Brazilian rhythm. When I was in high school playing these dances and things, I was always a clave player. That gave me a foundation to rise above the bluegrass or whatever.

TP:   Did you record the Eddie Palmieri-Cal Tjader collaboration? It’s a seminal date in Latin music.

CREED:   Yes. Cal Tjader was one of my favorite artists to begin with. I loved Cal Tjader. That’s the only time I’d ever met Eddie Palmieri, and it was a little bit of… Eddie wanted to go his way, and Cal would go either way. That’s just my general impression.

TP:   You did Willie Bobo also.

CREED:   Oh, yes. I got along very well with Willie Bobo.

TP:   Your groove philosophy really fit in with those guys. Tell me more about the Latin market in New York in the ‘60s. I still think the contribution of Latin players to what jazz sounds like today is very underrated.

CREED:   Oh, sure. All of these great bands would come in… I did a lot of recording at Belltone Studios at 31st Street and Fifth Avenue. On my way out, the Latin band would be on its way in, and I used to listen to those bands, and they were just fantastic! Machito… Oh, we had a Latino hit with Wynton Kelly, called “Little…” What was the name of it… It was a real hit. That came out of a groove, and on the spot, Ernie Royal, the trumpet player, put the lick  together.

TP:   Well, the boogaloo beat became very popular in the ‘60s…

CREED:   Yes, the Afro-Cuban rhythm. Chico O’Farrill did a lot of arrangements for me. In fact, there was one lost in the stacks, a Candido album that he did. It was a Stan Kenton type of thing for Candido. He’s still around.
TP:   He’s 84 now. I interviewed him in January about Paquito. He speaks really good English, he’s in great shape, and he played a solo where he’d emphasize the beats with his head on the conga.

CREED:   I was also into the Flamenco idiom for a while. Montoya and Sabicas. That was great. We’d bring a wooden platform into Bell Sound Studios, and the dancer would come in, and Sabicas would sit there filing his fingernails in between takes. They drink brandy, 10 o’clock in the morning. These things would really get heated up. I mean, that music is intense. And to produce it in a cold studio on early in the morning…

TP:   Was a challenge to your motivational powers. Please don’t take offense at this question. You’re from the Jim Crow South. You worked with black musicians, formed relationships with black musicians immediately upon coming to New York. I don’t want to talk like a northerner stereotyping…

CREED:   You mean  where the guilt factor comes in?

TP:   You seem not to have any guilt factor at all. You seem to relate to people in a natural way, and your rapport seems unusual to me among producers who operated in that environment in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Alfred Lion seems not to have had that issue…

CREED:   He was German.

TP:   How did that work for you? Was your community not particularly racist…

CREED:   When I was growing up, it was race-less. There was one black family. And the black family’s kids were my playmates. I didn’t have any white playmates.

TP:   So it was never a factor for you for that reason…

CREED:   I don’t know if for that reason. The only time anything ever occurred to me about the racial thing when I was growing up was going to the Greyhound bus station and seeing “whites” and “colored” drinking fountains. That kind of shocked me a little bit. But it’s almost like it was in the movies, like it didn’t happen, the racial thing. It only really got bad, I think, in South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, down…

That’s how the “Red Clay” title came, from Mississippi. Freddie wanted to call it “Slap Your Feet On The Mississippi Mud.” I said, “Come on, that title has no dignity at all, Freddie!” And Red Clay, you know what just happened with Meredith…

The only time I observed anything was at Belltone, when Mingus was on a date…it might have been a Quincy date, and Billy Taylor was playing piano. Mingus was leaving after the date was over, and Billy Taylor said, “See you later, Charlie.” He turned around and said, “If you ever call me Charlie again, you duh-da-duh-da…” Billy was like, “What’s wrong?” “Charles. Charles Mingus.” I figure it comes out of  “Uncle Charlie…” Mingus was a combative person anyway.
TP:   He was also manic, I think. Deep mood swings. Chemical…

CREED:   Like Nina Simone.

TP:   What was it like working with her?

CREED:   That was serious. She had tax problems, IRS problems… Once she played here at the Village Gate, and they took her entire payroll. So she moved to Europe, and the only way for me to make this record was for me to come there. So I brought Eric Gale and Gary King and Dave Matthews, the arranger, to Brussels, put them up in the Brussels Hilton, and every day we would go out to this studio that had been converted to an old barn in Waterloo, and record. She had mood swings you wouldn’t believe! What is that medication that’s supposed to even out the ups and downs…

TP:   I don’t remember. But you were a psychologist. Perfect training to be a record producer.

CREED:   Yeah. She tried to throw a television set out of the window at the Brussels Hilton.

[—30—]

* * *

Creed Taylor (#2) – (July 8, 2005):

CREED:   I started thinking about some of the things you asked about, especially the black and white thing, and the background which produced absolutely no prejudices. I hadn’t thought about this actually… I’d been going to Roanoke, which was absolutely racial…

TP:   You mean it was Jim Crow.

CREED:   Yeah, Jim Crow. That’s a kinder way of putting it. So I went to one auditorium for the big bands, which were all white—by necessity, I guess. I guess Benny Goodman had started having any black guys in the band…

TP:   When you saw him. A little after ‘48 he had Wardell Gray, but not then.

CREED:   Also, I don’t think he would have taken Wardell to the south. Rooming accommodations were one thing. What hotel was going to take a black guy who showed up? Anyway, I started thinking about this. Very nearby… I don’t remember the name of the hall, but it booked all the… That’s why I listed all the guys. I went up there, and it didn’t faze me at all that there were no white people around.

TP:   You were the only white kid?

CREED:   I was the only white kid.

TP:   You could go there.

CREED:   I could go there, sure. It was a one-way prejudice. If anybody looked at me like, “What are you doing; you’re a white kid,” I was not aware of it at all. So at that point, I basically… I hadn’t thought about it until you asked me, actually, that… I thought all of the black people liked this kind of music and all the white people liked the other kind of music, and that’s why they were white down there and they were black up here. Nothing to do with any prejudice floating around.

TP:   This dance hall was on top of the Norfolk & Western railway tracks?

CREED:   Yeah.

TP:   Was it a tobacco warehouse?

CREED:   It might have been. It certainly wasn’t an auditorium like the Roanoke Auditorium, which had all kinds of event. Roanoke didn’t have that much tobacco, but it was a warehouse.

TP:   Did you hear that music on the radio, or were you just hearing the bands?

CREED:   A combination. But the most exciting part, of course, was going down and seeing these guys. I heard Louis Jordan on the radio, because he had a couple of big hits, Saturday Night Fish Fry and so forth. I liked the record so much that (I had just got my driver’s license) I got in the car, and went to West Virginia to look for Salt Pork. Actually, there is a Salt Pork, West Virginia. It’s in the corner of Virginia that butts into West Virginia, not far from Morgantown. Up in the mountains.

TP:   What did your father do? Was he musical at all?

CREED:   No, he was not musical at all. He was a businessman. He had a woodworking hobby. He didn’t understand what I was listening to.

TP:   Was he from that area? Did you have several generations back in Lynchburg or that part of Virginia?

CREED:  Oh yes. Several generations back down into Little Rock, Arkansas.

TP:   And your father settled there.

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   You’d gone to Duke, so I was wondering what your background was. Later you told me you had a farm. So I suppose it was a hard-working youth.

CREED:   Well, I didn’t like some of it. We had a farm and there was a dam with a mill on it.

TP:   Did he own the mill?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   So your dad owned the mill in town.

CREED:   Yeah. It wasn’t a town.

TP:   He owned the mill. So the mill was the town.

CREED:   Virtually, yes. People used to come up with their bags of wheat, and take them in to the mill and have it made into flour.

TP:   So this was during the Depression. So you were doing, or not terrible.

CREED:   Well, I was doing well enough not to be aware that there was a Depression, let’s say.

TP:   You say you heard Gene Krupa at a warehouse in Princeton, W.V. What else did you want to elaborate on?

CREED:   I was thinking that when I got to Duke, I heard those specific records I listed, and they stuck with me as a stylistic kind of musical taste at the time. Certainly Summer Suite/Early Autumn, the Getz solo on it, and the Stan Getz-Johnny Smith, Autumn In Vermont. Also an atypical Stan Kenton, his September Song was a hit, and it was a band with some kind of studio singers and a huge trombone choir playing unison on September Song. I also heard the band in Raleigh, N.C., which is the next town from Durham, where Duke is. That’s where I also heard the Dizzy Gillespie Band, which was a high point of my musical experience. Chano Pozo, Ray Brown and all those guys.

TP:   It had to have been ‘48. That’s when Chano Pozo died.

CREED:   Must have been. Wonder where they stayed?

TP:   They must have stayed in people’s houses.

CREED:   I don’t think they slept on the bus.

TP:   Well, they were doing a tour of one-nighters. But some of the other notes you wrote: When you were in California in 1950, training to go to Korea, you heard Red Norvo, Tal Farlow, Mingus, Mulligan, Shorty Rogers. You heard them live, I guess.

CREED:   Oh, sure. And I talked to them. Shorty Rogers was so nice. I brought a manuscript in with Half Nelson, that Miles Davis tune, and he went through it and analyzed it, and said, “This is what you do when you get here.” I thought, “Wow, here I am talking to Shorty Rogers about this…”

TP:   Did you talk to people when they played at Duke or in West Virginia.

CREED:   Sure. I talked to Thornhill. I met Tony Scott there on the band, because he was playing lead clarinet on the very famous, short-lived edition of the Claude Thornhill band that had two french horns and Gerry Mulligan and Lee Konitz.

I also made a note here, jumping back to Duke, at #8: I actually went to the Durham Armory to see Lionel Hampton. The whole audience was black, and the dance floor was a gym floor—the gym in the armory. Wes Montgomery and Quincy Jones were on that band. I took a photograph of the band. I just looked at the personnel… I did some research, and I remember seeing the guitar player and the trumpet section. I didn’t know his name. I’m just saying it’s a strange world that I sat there and listened to that big band, and then lo and behold, a few years later, I’m recording Wes.

TP:   You were coming up to New York periodically in high school and while you were at Duke, and seeing these cousins and staying at hotels around midtown. When you settled here, where did you live initially?

CREED:   I got my own apartment at 86th Street and Riverside Drive.

TP:   Did you immediately start going out to clubs?

CREED:   Oh, yeah, I sat in with little… There were places to jam in the Village then.
TP:   Do you remember any of them?

CREED:   I can tell you exactly where it was. One was on West Fourth Street off Seventh Avenue. I think it’s still there. I can’t remember the name of the club.

TP:   Was it Arthur’s Tavern?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Randy Weston told me he did his first gig there in 1943 with Lucky Millinder’s guitar player.

CREED:   What do you know?

TP:   Oh, I forgot about the Randy Weston record you did.

CREED:   Right, that was with Freddie.

TP:   Did you keep playing trumpet all the way through?

CREED:   No. After I got connected with Bethlehem, I kind of stopped that.

TP:   So were you getting into the scene as a striving trumpet player? Is that how you started making contacts amongst musicians?

CREED:   Not quite. I got into the thing, and realized just how precocious or presumptuous I was. Thinking I could play with these guys? My God. By then I had a totally different maturity, let’s say. I told you when I jumped on the Elliott Lawrence bus… Nothing would stop me.

TP:   You sound like someone who when you’re determined to do something, you’re not shy.

CREED:   Oh, no.

TP:   The guy at Bethlehem was named Gus Wildi, and there was a  guy named Red Clyde. Was that the guy whose stripper girlfriend was hustling…

CREED:   No, he was the West Coast guy. I barely knew him. He came in as I was on my way out to ABC.

TP:   So you were there first.

CREED:   Yes. The guy I told you about who got Gus Wildi to come in and put up the money to start the record company was… He came out of Duke, too. He was a drummer. He was a very sad drummer.

TP:   But a good hustler.

CREED:   A good hustler. But the hustler only went so far, and then that’s how I came into the picture.

TP:   But Gus Wildi stayed with the label until the early ‘60s.

CREED:   I guess he did. I lost touch with Gus. I think he sold it in the early ‘60s.

TP:   You also wrote that “the dynamics of marketing thoughts might have begun with the perception that black audiences like one thing and white audiences like another, and keep the genre clear and easy to find.”

CREED:   Yes. I was just kind of free associating. I never thought about… The CTI-Kudi labels were coexisting. I don’t know if you know about the Kudi side.

TP:   Explain it a bit.

CREED:   In the first place, for Kudu I had black colors, orange, black and… The same colors as the Jamaican flag. So that was deliberate. And the kudu, as you probably know, is an African antelope. There are whole varieties of kudus. So anyway, I thought it would be appropriate to call it Kudu, because it had a nice ring to it and it was African. Anyway, that music was geared to R&B crossover… The R&B stations at that time, by midnight they’d turn to jazz. Fundamentally. So any of the strong-signal R&B stations did have their jazz slot, and the jazz slot kind of went into the… Actually, I thought that the Louis Jordan Tympany Five thing was… Even though he didn’t have extended solos, it was jazz. It was real swinging R&B stuff.

TP:   Then it was certainly jazz? Because what was jazz then? Jazz was swing music. It was dance music.

CREED:   That’s true. And Earl Bostic, certainly… I loved that stuff.

TP:   Earl Bostic was a huge influence on so many musicians. Even a guy like Greg Osby would cite Earl Bostic as an influence.

CREED:   Really.

TP:   His technique. His chops. His ability to play the horn.

CREED:   I never thought about that. I know I walked up the hill and went to the black venue and heard these great guys.

TP:   So Kudu and CTI in the ‘70s… You were talking about keeping the genres clear and easy to find, and you wrote down the names. “East Coast Jazz.” Impulse…

CREED:   At the time, the cool jazz out of California was popular. That was the Chet Baker era, and the Mulligan-Baker Quartet, and the Lighthouse… Anyway, I thought here we are in New York and we’re recording all this stuff; why don’t we start a series and put them in the category of East Coast Jazz? That was just a marketing thing.

TP:   We talked a little about this, but I’m interested in what you think of the music scene today. Is there stuff out there that you like?

CREED:   Sure. I like Bill Charlap. I knew his father. I think his nickname was Moose. He wrote a lot of Broadway musicals. A real nice guy. Kind of a joker. Not as conservative, I think, as a son.

TP:   Why Charlap? What about him do you like?

CREED:   I like the songs he picks. I like the way he plays piano. I just think he’s such a sincere… Great taste. Who else do I like? I don’t know… Name a few people.

TP:   Jason Moran.

CREED:   I like him. I’m not ecstatic.

TP:   Is he someone you could record?

CREED:   Sure.

TP:   Could you record Charlap?

CREED:   Oh, easily.

TP:   John Scofield.

CREED:   I recorded Scofield a couple of times. Actually, he’s on that thing called RhythmStick with Dizzy, but that hardly gave him room to be John Scofield. I don’t like the Ray Charles record he did. I don’t think he needs to go that way. Why warm up Ray Charles, when he is Ray Charles… I just don’t see trying to do something that Ray Charles would have done sort of the same way. It doesn’t ring true to me.

TP:   He’s trying to exploit the movie.

CREED:   Sure. I can’t fault him for that, but I don’t think he did it well.

TP:   How about Greg Osby?

CREED:   I think he’s great.

TP:   Could you work with him?

CREED:   Yeah… I’m hesitating because I’m trying to think of some of the people I don’t like so much. Pharaoh Sanders. I did not like him. Can’t put my finger on why.

TP:   Then or now?

CREED:   I don’t know what he’s playing like now?

TP:   A lot of ballads.

CREED:   He’s mellowed.

TP:   His stuff is very mellow. He would have been great on a CTI record, the way he plays now. He plays a lot of the Coltrane ballad book. All melody and tone and groove.

I suppose what interests me here is that your aesthetic seems to have been very consistent from the time you entered the business, and yet it produced very different-sounding records, according to the times they were done in. You’re still active, and I’m interested in how you see the scene. If you can tell me what sorts of things interest you without giving up anything proprietary, it would be of interest.

CREED: My brain doesn’t start turning until I get into a project. I go, “This drummer would be good with that bass player,” or, “What about the whole rhythm section with this horn player?” Unless I’m focused on some kind of purposeful project, it’s hard for me to generalize on it.

TP:   It seems you were out three-four nights a week, and really in the scene. Someone told Ashley that you always seemed to be out.

CREED:   That was Fran Scott, the designer.

TP:   But I’m assuming you were doing that in the ‘60s and ‘70s as well.

CREED:    I constantly listened, and there were a lot of things to listen to on the radio, for that matter. Unlike today. This age we’re living in is so formatted. I listen to WKCR. Sometimes it’s great.

TP:   But would not being on the scene as much make it more difficult for you to produce records? It seems you’re matching what Joe Lovano calls tonal personalities?

CREED:   That’s a great phrase. If you had a choice between a Stan Getz or Stanley Turrentine and a Mike Brecker or a Joe Lovano, or now you tell me about Pharaoh Sanders… I don’t know. I know if Steve Gadd would leave wherever he’s living now, and come down and record, I would probably build something from there up.

TP:   Steve Gadd is your man.

CREED:   Yes. He’s the greatest. All you have to do is listen to “Candy” on the She Was Too Good To Me album by Chet Baker. Anything in that album that Steve Gadd is playing on is just amazing. But if I had a Kudu project, my first choice would be Idris to this day. I know there must be other drummers out there. But I haven’t listened in an active way about who I would corral to do… What kind of a record? Is there a song to base the whole theme of the CD on? What?

TP:   The criteria have changed somewhat, haven’t they, in the last 25 years.

CREED:   Absolutely.

TP:   Would you have to have your imprint on a record today as much as before? Would you have to exercise the same level of control?

CREED:   That’s a very relative value. The same amount of control in what situation?

TP:   In packaging. CTI is your name, your design, the grooves are set up, there’s an aura that you’re looking to project. I’d say the same thing is true on the A&M records and maybe some of the Verve things. Blue Note wasn’t “Alfred Lion presents.” Blue Note was Blue Note. You were Creed Taylor Inc. I wonder if you still would want that level of control over the entire product today.

CREED:   It really would depend on the project, or proposed project. I couldn’t answer that. I think that I have a great degree of flexibility within a framework. But do I need that framework to work in? Probably.

TP:  Was there anyone you learned from among the other producers of the ‘50s and ‘60s?

CREED:   No.

TP:   Was there anyone you admired?

CREED:   I guess the discretion of ECM. Manfred Eicher. He certainly knew what to leave out and what not to push. Everything I’ve ever heard that he put out has a great deal of integrity to it. That doesn’t mean I liked it necessarily. But as a producer, I thought he was, and I guess he continues to be the real thing—if you like that genre of music.  Quincy.

TP:   Quincy.

CREED:   Certainly Quincy. Although I can appreciate why… I won’t call it going off the deep end, and why should I with Michael Jackson still around with us… Quincy always knew the right thing to do. Whether I was producing him or he  was producing another record… I think I produced better records than he did, but I admired him as a producer.

TP:   Why do you think your records were better?
CREED:   Because I think that he… Well, don’t quote me on this, because Quincy is my friend. But being in the midst of this stuff… We see music from a different angle. He looks at it from the inside and outside, but I think I’m in a position to look at it from the outside.

TP:   Do you think you have a more objective take on what you’re putting out? Is that what that is?

CREED:   I think so.

TP:   Without putting words in your mouth. I can say that?

CREED:   I guess. But don’t compare.

TP:   I won’t say you make better records. Is that okay?

CREED:   That’s okay.

TP:   What did you think of Alfred Lion as a producer? You did record a number of the same people. Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine…

CREED:   Well, look at our backgrounds. Rudy used to tell me… I never met Alfred Lion. He was always in there when I wasn’t, and vice versa, with Rudy. Rudy said Alfred would come out of the control booth and into the studio with no hesitation and say, “It ain’t swingin’,” without any specifics. Obviously, he was a jazz fan from the beginning of his life, and he knew what was good and what was not, what was swinging and what was not swinging. But beyond that, he didn’t look into conceptual kinds of album production. Either the band had it, or he would have a soloist with the band and let them as extended as they wanted to me. If it’s 16 minutes, that’s fine; if it’s 5 minutes, that’s fine, too.

TP:   In the ‘60s, he did some things that were not unlike what you did at CTI, with Duke Pearson as the arranger.

CREED:   Duke Pearson was participating not only as an arranger but as a producer.

TP:   I think what you’re saying is that your training as a musician enabled you to give specific inputs into the music that would leave no doubt as to what you wanted and what the sound was supposed to be. Whereas with Alfred Lion, he wasn’t coming at it from quite as informed a perspective.

CREED:   Well, that, and also he didn’t bring in what would have been for him foreign elements, like the concert-master for the New York Philharmonic, who became my key guy with Don Sebesky and Claus Ogermann, for that matter. With the strings, it’s not just the arrangement. It’s who was the A-row of the violins, who was in the B-row, and who you don’t hire because in between takes he plays cards or he reads the paper or he doesn’t pay much attention, and also, his intonation is not that hot, and the only reason he’s sitting there is because he gets a lot of jingle dates and he hires his friends, and dah-da-dah. I had a talk with the concert-master, and he said, “No problem, I know what you’re talking about.” So we had a pure…the cream-of-the-crop string guys, the violins, violas or celli, performing at their zenith.

Did you ever go to a session that involved a lot of orchestral people? If you put elements together that are disparate, like string sections or even woodwinds or whatever, the personality of the players and their interest…even if not as a jazz soloist, their interest in jazz brings to the recording an entirely different kind of approach. All you need is one guy who is not very attentive, whether a string player or wind player, and it’s… It’s like the Yankees. If they’ve got one guy who’s not performing, the whole thing goes to hell.

TP:   Do you feel that this kind of production is one way to get great jazz, or are there many ways to get a great jazz  record?

CREED:   Oh, sure. There are many ways. Absolutely.

TP:   Your way being one of many. Do you think your way was the best?

CREED:   Well, don’t we all? Sometimes I wish I’d done it another way, and I sure won’t make that mistake again.

TP:   What are some things you wish you’d done another way, if I may ask?

CREED:   I think they’re long gone into my deep subconscious.

I just got one of those records I talked about. I’ll take a look at it. Def Jazz with Roy Hargrove.

TP:   Sounds like a remix.

CREED:   Well, a remix or it started out that way. Anyway, the first cut is Roy Hargrove. He sounds good. He sounds like Hargrove. The rest of it sounds not unlike that Verve Remix #3. But this is a better record.

TP:   For instance, M’Shell Ndegeocello has a new record with a bunch of venturesome jazz soloists, and she put down all these grooves. Works really well.

CREED:   I know. I’ve heard it, and I love it. The singer that I like is Luciana Souza. She plays with Romero Lubambo, who’s one of my favorite guitar players. I recorded him… He went down to Salvador to do that thing with the Salvadorian percussionist, and Donald Harrison…

TP:    You worked with Donald, too.

CREED:   Yes. Donald’s such a pleasant fellow. He’ll do anything, within reason.
I’d like to plug my family. Plug it in however…

TP:    All three of your sons are graphic artists?

CREED:   Yes. They used to draw all the time together, and it rubbed off, I think.

TP:   Did they grow up in the Village?

CREED:   Yes.

TP:   Did they go to P.S. 41?

CREED:   No, they went to City and Country. Blake went to St. Ann’s, John went to Brooklyn Friends, and Creed went to Elizabeth Irwin. Blake was the art director of Fortune magazine. John was art director of This Old House.

TP:   Did you have anything to do with Cecil’s three tunes on Into the Hot?

CREED:   Gil Evans was always a very slow writer. About that time I was getting ready to go to Verve, and he owed Impulse! an album, and he wanted to go to Verve. The only way he could get out of his contract was by giving them another album. So we decided to get Cecil Taylor in on it.

[—30—]

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For Toots’ Thielemans’ 92nd Birthday, a DownBeat Feature—and Interview—From 2006

Earlier this year, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, perhaps the foremost practitioner of the harmonica in jazz music for more than four decades, and an equally expressive guitar player, decided to retire from public performance. Thielemans turned 92 on April 29th, a milestone I’m observing by posting a feature article that DownBeat assigned me to write in 2006, and the verbatim interview that I conducted with Toots for the piece.

* * * *

Several  hours into an afternoon conversation at his Upper East Side pied a terre midway through a week-long booking at New York’s Blue Note last November, Jean “Toots” Thielemans, halfway through his 83rd year, might easily have opted for a restorative pre-gig nap over continued interrogation.

Instead, using his dining room table as a prop, Thielemans launched into an impromptu demonstration on blues aesthetics.

“During the ‘60s nobody made a great living playing straight jazz,” Thielemans said, beginning the back story. “I got a call: ‘Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to do a jingle. We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?’ I said, ‘No, sir, I can’t.’ ‘Do you know anyone who does?’ There was maybe one, but my defense mechanism turned on. I said, ‘No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.’ I was living in Yonkers then, and once a week or so I’d go to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. There were two black gentlemen there who played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we want to play like you.’ But I said, ‘Can I hear what you do?’ I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Mechanically, that is; not the voicings and the sound. I thought, ‘Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.’ I went right to Manny’s Music Store on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. ‘Sir, I am ready for you.’”

Thielemans picked up his chromatic harmonica and blew a pair of nasty 12-bar phrases. “That’s very close, but it’s not funky enough,” he said. Meanwhile, Thielemans’ wife, anticipating his next step, emerged from their bedroom with a black leather bag, which she placed on the table. “Those are my diatonic harmonicas,” Thielemans noted. “I even took that bag to Hollywood for Quincy Jones, in case he needed that sound.” I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.”

Thielemans peeled off the wrapping from the harp. “Have you heard of Howard Levy?” he asked. “He overblows and creates harmonics, and he can play ‘Giant Steps’ on the diatonic. I can’t do it like he does, but I can show what can be done.”

He blew. “That’s too high-pitched,” Thielemans said. He quickly unwrapped another harp, and uncorked a variation, tapping his foot. “If you want to change keys…” Then he unwrapped another, and blew some more. “These guys have tone,” he remarked. He repeated the phrase, bending notes with soulful abandon. “Here you can attack the note,” he said, and offered another passage. “That’s very moody,” he said, before resuming.   “When I overblow like this, you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion.” He elaborated on the sonics. “That’s funky,” he said happily. “Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. ‘Before we say goodbye.’” He stated an emphatic line, put down the harmonica and laughed heartily. “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!”

[BREAK]
“Not everybody likes my sound,” Thielemans had remarked early in our chat. “But I can’t help it. A critic in Belgium described me once in Flemish, ‘shameless sentimentality.’ And I admit that I may be shameless. I laugh easily, and I am very close to tears sometimes when I hear those minor-7 chords. Now, if you analyze a minor 7, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy. The top three notes are major. So minor 7 mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, ‘between a smile and a tear.’ It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, ‘Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tonnes pastels,’ ‘give me your pastel tones.’ That’s my nature.”

Forty-eight hours earlier, on the opening set of his opening night, Thielemans and his superb quartet demonstrated this proposition on a program comprising  bebop, chanson, show tunes, and a tasting course of Brazilian musical cuisines. If he served up no small amount of kitsch and schmaltz, he compensated with many creative moments.  On “How High The Moon,” propelled by Airto Moreira’s effervescent hi-hat samba beat, Thielemans danced through the melody, interacting closely on the improv with guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. After a brief turn by pianist Kenny Werner, he reentered with a vengeance, weaving substitute changes into the flow, leaping through the intervals and swinging hard. On Castro-Neves’ “Felicia and Bianca” and Chico Buarque’s “Futbol,” Moreira orchestrated samba school beats on different components of his arsenal, which included a 22-inch bass drum; his opening declamation that provoked Thielemans to respond with train whistle onomatopoeia. After a long Thielemans melody-to-abstraction improv on Sammy Cahn’s “All The Way,” Moreira ingeniously limned the melodic design on caixa, shaker and tom-tom, setting up  an abstract Werner solo.

There was much shameless melody-milking, too, as Thielemans sculpted the phrases of such ballads as Luiz Eca’s luxuriantly melancholic “The Dolphin”—but also on Jobim’s “Chega De Saudade” and “The Waters of March,” Buarque’s “Joanna Frances,” Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” Michel Legrand’s “You Must Remember Spring,” and the set-closer, “God Bless America,” which Thielemans described as “my idea of what would have happened if Irving Berlin had met Milton Nascimento”—to animate the soulful emotions within.

“To me, Brazil is minor-7 country,” Thielemans said at his apartment. Rio-based harmonica player Mauricio Einhorn “sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested in the harmony,” he continued. After he collaborated on Aquarella do Brasil with Elis Regina in 1969, Brazilian musicians began to regard Thielemans as an iconic figure, as was evident in 1990, when he broke bread with Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Buarque, Djavan, Joao Bosco, Dami Caymmi, Ivan Lins and Eliane Elias on a two-volume collection called Brazil Project.

“His heart is Brazilian,” said Castro-Neves. “He understands the idiom with the ease of someone who speaks fluent Portuguese. But also, he is a bottomless well of ideas. After a take with Ivan Lins, you’d say, ‘Great, Toots, let’s do a second take for the sake of it.’ The second take was totally different from the first. If he’d come from the right, he came from the left; if he’d started on the third, he started on the fifth; he’d have a rhythm figure here, he’d start another rhythm figure there. He is incredible.”

[BREAK]

“You may have noticed that little change I made to ‘How High The Moon,’” Thielemans informed the Blue Note audience. “The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.”

Thielemans in his teens aspired to be a math teacher; he has the kind of mind that hears harmonic equations as sonic poetry. A native of Antwerp, a bustling North Sea port city, he bought a harmonica not long after Germany invaded Belgium in 1940, and “fooled around by instinct” to Benny Goodman Trio records. He continues: “Then the musicians in Belgium started to say ‘jette se joué,’ ‘throw that toy away and get a real instrument.’” Recuperating from pneumonia with extended bedrest, he taught himself to play guitar—a Macaferri—by ear, copying Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian records. By 1944 Belgium was liberated, and soon thereafter merchant sailors were bringing such early bebop classics as “Groovin’ High” and “One Bass Hit” across the Atlantic. While playing guitar at a local boite with the likes of Edith Piaf, Charles Trenet and Stephane Grappelli, Thielemans began to analyze the musical language of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.

“We made acetate copies, although the needles eroded them quickly,” he recalls. “’Groovin’ High’ is ‘Whispering’ in E-flat, and I remember the phrasing Dizzy used to go from A-minor-7 to D-7. I tried to play that phrase – from D-7 to D-minor-7 to G – in every key on harmonica. I continue to find new things. For instance, for sixty years, like everybody else, I played ‘Confirmation’ in F, but recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F.”

He played the “Confirmation” theme in both keys. The version in B embodied the trademark Thielemans sound.

“I first visited the States in ‘47,” he continued. “I was with my uncle in Miami, and we were having a drink at a restaurant where they were playing Nat Cole trio music. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, but I bought the guitar player a drink and sat in.” By happy coincidence, photographer William Gottlieb was at the bar. “He said, ‘Oh, you’re good.’ I looked him up in New York, and he took me to 52nd Street – the Three Deuces. It was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Bags, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, maybe Jimmy Heath, too. Bill took me to meet the band. ‘Who? Belgium?’ The two question marks. ‘What do you want to play?’ In those days, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of ‘I Can’t Get Started.’”

Thielemans demonstrated. “I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine! With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Billy Shaw was there, the agent, the big salesman of bebop. The big cigar.  ‘Shaw Nuff.’ ‘Where you from? You’re good!’ ‘I’m from Belgium.’ ‘Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.’ Typical  Hollywood. ‘Send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.’

While sailing back to Europe—a festival in Nice, where he and saxophonist Bobby Jaspar accompanied Lucky Thompson—Thielemans wrote a progression on Stardust, and recorded it with a string quartet. He played the acetate for Ray Nance, whom he befriended when the Duke Ellington Orchestra visited Belgium in 1948; Nance took it to an agent, who played it for Benny Goodman, then beginning his brief love affair with bebop. In 1949, Goodman summoned Thielemans to London for a gig at the Palladium.

“I played the Charlie Christian chair,” Thielemans says. “After six weeks of touring I said, ‘Benny, I’d like to play another number.’ ‘Play Stardust.’ Benny loved that progression, which went up the chromatic scale instead of down. It worked out well for me. It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, and I had newspaper attention. But I didn’t play the rhythm with the strength Benny wanted, so he didn’t use me after that tour.”

Sponsored by Goodman’s secretary, Thielemans emigrated to New York in 1952 with $2000 in his pocket and  and a burgeoning reputation. While waiting to establish his residence and join the union, he worked for Sabina Airlines, networked at musician bars like the Metropole and Charlie’s Tavern, and played three nights a week at the Downbeat, where he met such fellow progressives as Charles Mingus, Lee Konitz, Billy Taylor, George Wallington and Tony Scott.

“Tony heard that Dick Garcia, who was George Shearing’s guitar player, was  going into the Army, and he brought me to George’s dressing room when he was doing a double bill with Billy Eckstine at Carnegie Hall,” Thielemans recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got the man for you.’ We played Body and Soul together, and George said, ‘If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.’ I knew it by ear. Over the years I developed my guitar chops and got some visibility. On the road we both read the Percy Goetschius book,  Materials Used in Musical Composition—he had it in Braille and I normal. Elementary stuff. Now I can explain every note I play—to which altered scale it belongs, which chord it should go to. When I improvise, I respect the ten commandments of harmony—no parallel fifths, the leading note should go to the tonic, that sort of thing. After a while, George was ready to change faces, and I decided I hadn’t come to the States to be a sideman all my life.”

Instead, Thielemans began to divide his time between New York and Europe, primarily Sweden, where he wrote Bluesette, the breakthrough tune that opened theretofore closed doors in the New York studios. “Talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree,” Thielemans laughed. “I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs, Jewish weddings and everything so I could stay home. But Madison Avenue was looking for different sounds. I’d done some ads where I played guitar and whistled; for the guitar I’d make $37 for 12 weeks, which was scale for an instrumental jingle, but for the whistling I made $50 each time it was heard. Then I got a call for Old Spice. ‘Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?’ That was Class A, coast to coast. Staying home, I made $15,000. That was also the time when Johnny Cash made Ring of Fire, with two trumpets, and I decided to do a melody with two voices. I gave it to the publisher who’d just handled Bluesette, he sent it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert heard it. It’s called Ladyfingers, and it went on a record—the one with the chick on the cover wrapped in whipped cream—that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000. Between Old Spice and Herb Alpert, we bought a house in Montauk.”

By 1979, Thielemans’ c.v. included the soundtracks for Midnight Cowboy and Sugarland Express, the harmonica solo on the Sesame Street theme, a slew of Quincy Jones  big band recordings, and one-offs with pop-folk as diverse as Paul Simon, the Brothers Johnson, Ray Charles, and John Denver. “The phone rang—I said, ‘Okay,’” Thielemans recalled. He wasn’t playing much hardcore jazz, though, and when Bill Evans’ manager, Helen Keane, called to ask Thielemans to play on Affinity, Evans’ first album for Warner Brothers, Thielemans hesitated.

“From a pianist, I can almost say that I need Bill Evans as my ground floor,” Thielemans said. “When Bill was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform and a crewcut, to listen to George Shearing rehearse at the Blue Note in Chicago. Afterwards, he said, ‘I hope we play together’—one of those polite goodbyes. Later on the road, I heard him and remembered him, After I left Shearing, I heard Bill playing with Miles, Trane and Cannon at the Showboat, and during a break Miles saw me talking to Bill. ‘What are you talking about?’ We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment. Miles said, ‘You two should play together,’ quick, and he went on by.

“When Helen called, I was playing with good group – Phil Markowitz, Chip Jackson and Joe LaBarbera – and told her to have Bill come to hear us before he made up his mind to have me.  I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and like a piranha Bill jumped on the lead sheet and said, ‘Come Monday.’ After three or four days in the studio, it appeared that I was going to play on every song with Bill instead of just two. I said, ‘Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much. It could be Toots Thielemans featuring…’ Bill said in my ear: ‘I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that.” No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out. He said, ‘Give me a minute.’ He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. ‘We will double your fee.’ I never heard that one before!”

[BREAK]

On a Wednesday afternoon early in 1962, after a gig-hunting expedition to the Local 802 headquarters on West 52nd Street, Thielemans heard music from a trumpet store next door, and entered. “It was Donald Byrd, and I saw a piano player from the back,” Thielemans recalled. “It was Herbie Hancock, who had recently come to town. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island, and I asked him if he wanted to do it. Donald said,’Take him! He needs the job.’ We rehearsed, and I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. It wasn’t a jazz job. After ten minutes he said, ‘Hmm, I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.’”

Reminded of the comment last March, Hancock laughed loudly. “It was fun to play with Toots because he would always stimulate ideas and inspire me to pull out more things. Now he works off a much broader palette, from familiar things to the cutting edge. He has his own harmonic stuff, and his sound is so haunting and arresting and warm. On one hand, it’s as sharp as a razor, but on the other hand, as warm as a fireplace.”

It was the end of an all-afternoon rehearsal at Carroll Studios for a tribute concert the following evening at Carnegie Hall at which Thielemans interacted with a rotating cast of characters comprising Hancock, Joe Lovano, Paquito D’Rivera, Ivan Lins, and Eliane Elias. After her opening remarks, co-producer Pat Philips brought out an upholstered chair on which Thielemans sat, smiling broadly, as Hancock improvised a richly harmonic solo meditation. Then the maestro moved to the  center stage stool on which he would perch for the remainder of the evening.

After heady duets with Hancock on “I Do It For Your Love” and “Dolphin Dance,” Thielemans played “Body and Soul” and his own “For My Lady” with Lovano, joined Paquito D’Rivera for a pastel-shaded version of D’Rivera’s “Brussels in the Rain,” and illuminated the weltschmertz melody of Jacques Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in soaring dialogue with Werner. The Brazilians came out for the second half, on which Elias sang a Jobim tune and an original ballad in a whispery, sensual alto, and Ivan Lins, fighting off a cold, sang two songs, including his early hit Madalena. As always, the house was filled with an international mix; standing ovations were the rule.

“I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion,” Thielemans said, offering a self-description of his magic. “I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always give me a goosebump. Of course, I try to incorporate much of what I hear. I do feel closer to the loose phrasing of today’s rhythms – on Dapp Theory, for instance, which Gregoire Maret gave me – than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago.  I play my songs differently each time. That’s what keeps me interested.”

[—30—]

* * *

Toots Thielemans (Nov. 18, 2005):

TP:   We’re in Toots Thielemans’ apartment, and there’s a wood fire going on in a Manhattan apartment building, and he’s talking about the contents of his I-Pod. Chris Potter is on it? Herbie Hancock.

TOOTS:   Yes, I can show you. Messiaen. In Belgium, they ask what Charlie Haden is reading? The writings of Claude Debussy. Claude Debussy was French-educated, and he writes such elegant French. He was a music critic under the name of Monsieur Croche. “Croche” is eighth note in French. Monsieur Croche. And he writes such beautiful French. Literary French. They are famous letter-writers from Louis XIV time. Madame DeSegueur, La Comptesse de Segueur. The letter exchanges between him and Stravinsky, his first encounter with Stravinsky’s music. He died only in 1917, and I was influenced by Debussy.

TP: Were you listening to Debussy and Messaien when you were young?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. But clearly (?).

TP:   He’s looking at his I-Pod. Is it 40-gig?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I have… This Englishman, Django Bates. I have him here, too. Steve Coleman. I have it here. [5 records] My managers puts it on. I don’t have a computer. But he puts it… I’ll roll it, and you’ll see what you like to talk about. That’s Django Bates. Teri Lyne Carrington. When she came with Cassandra to Brussels, she gave me that CD. It’s great, with some guys… Definitely George Shearing, from my… I spent six years with George. The live takes was fairly recent.

I’m nervous, of course. I appreciate very much your command of jazz, call it that. I read in one of the Downbeats the word Ouillette used, “the jazz police,” talking about Norah Jones. Would she be accepted by the jazz police? That sort of thing. For instance, in Brussels there’s a lot happening. One evening I went to listen to Norah Jones, and the next was Archie Shepp and the pianist who plays the organ, Amina Meyers… A duo. A lady from Chicago.

TP:   How long have you been playing with this band that you’re with this week. Kenny Werner has been your pianist and you’ve done projects with Oscar Castro-Neves.

TOOTS:   Oscar is the one who had the idea to get the Brazilians together. He was a film producer who did some film producing with Miles Goodman in Los Angeles. Miles passed away… They came to Brussels, and the session was produced for a film, Nothing About Love or something. After the (?), Oscar said, “You should make a record with the Brazilians. They all love you.” He mentioned Chico Buarque, Nascimento, Gilberto Gil. “Are they going to do it?” “Yes.” So Oscar set it up. He did all the calling or the fax. “I don’t believe what you say.” “Yeah, they’d all like to play with you.” So we did one session in Los Angeles, which is fantastic…

TP:   You’re talking now about the two Brazil Project records from ten years ago.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then there was Ron Goldstein who had Private Records. We went to Rio, and we did two songs a day with Chico Buarque and the other guys. Vol. 2 is the same as Vol. 1.

TP:  You used Eliane Elias, Oscar, with tunes by Dori Caymmi, Gilberto Gil…

TOOTS:   Recently Gilberto Gil, if you know his story, he was very (how you say) against the regime, and even went to jail. He and Caetano Veloso…

TP:   He gave you the award.

TOOTS:   Yes. Commandadore Orde de Rio Branco.

TP:   Was Brazilian music part of your repertoire at that time? When did you start getting interested in Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   I must say, I have a friend, a harmonica player in Rio, Mauricio Einhorn, and he sent me records when the Bossa Nova exploded in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and I got interested. In the harmony. I always to say, “to me, Brazil is minor-VII country.” If you analyze a minor VII, the three bottom notes are minor, so moody, close to melancholy, and you have a third… The top three notes are major. So minor VII mixes minor and major, and that’s my little self-description, “between a smile and a tear.” It’s a pastel sound. Not black, not white—in-between. At one film session with Michel Legrand in Paris, he said, “Okay, Toots, donne moi tes tones pastels,” “give me your pastel tones.” That’s my nature. A critic in Belgium, Rob Leurentop, described me once in Flemish, “shameless sentimentality.”

TP: What did you think of that?

TOOTS:   I may be shameless. I am very close to the tears sometimes when I hear some of those minor VII chords. Kenny plays them so well. On my Johnny Mandel left hand!

TP:   So you’ve been hearing and playing Brazilian music…

TOOTS:   Since it came out. Maybe slightly before Stan Getz. I had the records, and then it exploded.

TP:   When did you start playing with Brazilian musicians?

TOOTS:   Oh, Elis Regina.  I made a record for George Avakian in 1955.

TP: This is my collection. They’re all recent. I have 20 selections with George Shearing. With Bill Evans. With Ella.

TOOTS:   Oh, that was pathetic. Norman Granz wanted her to do mostly Jobim, and she had the start of that glaucoma, and of course she didn’t speak Portuguese. So it was like the old TV cue cards with letters like that, and from the booth. She read and sang.

TP:   But Elis Regina got you started. How did that happen?

TOOTS:   That happened in 1969. I was in Belgium, commuting already then, but I didn’t have this apartment that we have. I lived in Yonkers with my first wife. We already had the place in Montauk. I love Montauk. So I went to Sweden. Sweden was the first country… In 1950, I did that tour with Benny Goodman with Roy Eldridge, Zoot Sims, Dick Hyman, Ed Shaughnessy, and a bassist from England. So I was in Europe, and a TV producer… That was the first time Elis came to the MIDEM, that big thing in the south of France, the record…like your NARAS, a big thing. I speak Swedish fluently. He said, “Toots, would you like to make a record? We want to do a show with Elis Regina and you.” They brought Elis’  band. Fantastic. Antonio Adolfo, [(?)Nilson Das Neiras(?)], a drummer. Roberto Scalero(?). He played fantastic guitar. He still does. Then while we were there for the show, the show was presented at the International TV competition in Montreux, “La Rose of Montreux,” ‘the rose of Montreux.” He won the prize with that. While we were doing that TV show, the guy from Philips Records… It was winter, snow, like that. Imagine those Brazilians, used to that heat, in the winter! He said, “You should go in the studio and make a record.” And we did. That was my first.

TP:   Did you take very naturally to the phrasing of Brazilian music?

TOOTS:   Yes. You didn’t hear yesterday… Oscar Castro-Neves… I call him Freddie. Because to Brazilian rhythm, he is what Freddie Greene! [LAUGHS] I sat in the bus so many times next to Freddie on Birdland tours. Across the aisle from Billie Holiday with the chihuahua! Oh, there are so many… But you pick out what you need.

TP: But let’s speak about now.

TOOTS:   Yes, the Brazilians. That is where my first contact with Brazilian lies—Elis Regina. Then I went a few times.

TP:   Have you played with this band a fair amount? Is it a recently formed band? A band you formed a while ago?

TOOTS:   Kenny and I have been touring basically with a duo. Like, in St. Louis a few weeks ago, we did a duo. We have that repertoire. Then I asked Oscar… We had a little budget, and we played Yoshi’s. “Hey, that’s great. Can you come back next year?” That was the suggestion of Yoshi’s, the jazz club there, to add Airto. I never had played with him. [A couple of years ago.] Now we did San Francisco Festival with Airto, we did the Blue Note, and we did the Belgium (?) Festival with Airto…

TP:   So this is basically a new group. Airto makes it a new group.

TOOTS:   Yes. But Kenny is the quarterback, and Oscar can play in that direction. We really never rehearsed. It might not be pure(?) Brazilian music, but you cannot go much… To me, my ears, Jobim, Ivan Lins, and then Chico Buarque. That’s when the record was made, but I haven’t… I played with Maria Schneider. She is my friend. She was very sad. She is going to try to come to the last show Sunday because they are flying in from Europe.

TP: They play next week at the Jazz Standard.

TOOTS:   Yes. But they start Tuesday. We’ll be going back home to Belgium on Monday.
TP:   Ah, you live in Belgium.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   You live in Belgium, you live here, and you live in Montauk.

TOOTS:   No more. We sold Montauk. We were there ten days a year. That’s not enough… With the few pennies we got from Montauk…

TP: It’s not a few pennies in Montauk.

TOOTS:   I love it. And the lobster. Since we were there, Paul Simon, Billy Joel… No, Billy Joel is East Hampton. Did you hear Paul Simon with Herbie on the new record? I think Paul Simon is underrated as a vocalist. He’ll compose and produce or whatever. But with Herbie, he sounds so beautiful. And it’s not his groove. I have a beautiful email from Herbie. I’m very proud…

TP:   Pat told me that he might be in this concert in March.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP:   With Airto, what does he do for your presentation? What does having a dynamic, creative drummer like that…

TOOTS:   [Huguette speaks] Yes. Quincy says sometimes, “Oh, you don’t need anything, with Oscar, Kenny and you,” and she feels the same. But it’s very exciting.

TP: So your wife feels you don’t need Airto.

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   But that being said, how does having a creative drummer impact your band?

TOOTS:   Oh, he is a creative drummer. You should have heard the second show! Many groups you go to hear and they loosen up. Besides that, I was saying, “Hey, Panken’s here.” [ETC.] I have much respect for Ouillette and you. I watch the signatures on the articles. I do. I don’t mean to rub… “brute(?) la matte(?)” means you flatter.” “Rub the sleeve,” that means flatter. [RUBBING MYSLEEVE]

TP:   For instance, when you’re doing a week at a club, do you do the same set every night?

TOOTS:   Many times we have strong numbers. One of our strong numbers is What A Wonderful World. Yesterday, there were Belgians… When I play in Montreal, when I play Ne Me Quitte Pas, Brel, we’re French territory… A 10-minute standing ovation! It was nice. It was Kenny and I, and we had Fresu and Pat Metheny.

TP: Do you approach the tunes the same way every night?

TOOTS:   According… We had Belgian friends, so I play Brel. I don’t like to tell the joke the same way as I did… You know? [Huguette: didn’t like The Dolphin as on the record. Pas ne meme chose.”] I play once in a while… Not every year. But Quincy and I play sometimes a year apart, two years apart. Quincy said… He was in Hollywood at the Capitol Studio, the tower, and I was in Holland, overdubbing one of his things for one of his projects. At the end, he says, “Toots, each time I hear you, you’ve got some new shit.” That’s a good thing. He knows me; I know Quincy.

TP:   How do you know each other?

TOOTS:   That happened when I was already playing on the Street, on 52nd Street, with Shearing in the early ‘50s, and they started to talk about this cat from Seattle who wrote… I remember I was rehearsing something, and Quincy passed through whatever we were doing, and he told me, “You have the most beautiful humming voice.” But I never sang or anything! But we have a great relationship. A beautiful… One of those things I wish I could have kept. A couple of months before Ray Charles passed away, he was still one-nighting, you know, tours. I got a call on the answering machine in Belgium. We’d come back from a restaurant or whatever. The message was Quincy’s voice. “Hey, Stink!” That’s what he calls me. Or suspenders. He gives me suspenders. Because when you inhale a long note on the harmonica, my pants fall down! We exchange once in a while New Year’s presents. So: “Stink, I’m here with Ray Charles” (in Indianapolis or something) “and we’re talking about your black ass.” Now, Quincy, he don’t call so many guys “black ass” who are not black. He said, “Okay, you may be Belgian, but I’m sure yo mama spoke to a brother.” So these are precious… I feel like wearing that!

TP:   When you started playing harmonica… I don’t know who the predecessors… I think you said you heard Larry Adler in a film.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: But stylistically, did you emulate anybody? Or did you learn how to play and adapt the vocabulary?

TOOTS:   No. I first bought a harmonica during the Occupation… I was trying to become a math teacher.

TP:   Good for harmony.

TOOTS:   Yeah, they say so. I can explain every note I play, to what altered scale it belongs to, and what chord it should go to and whatever. I read the same book as George Shearing. He had it in Braille and I normal. Percy Goetschius, Materials Used in Musical Composition. Elementary. We didn’t go very far. But that’s 50 years ago. Call it conservative; I need an explanation for whatever I do. When they say no parallel fifths, or the leading note should go to the tonic—that sort of thing. The big commandments. The ten commandments of harmony. I respect that, even when I improvise.

TP:   When were you studying that book?

TOOTS:   While I was on the road with George Shearing. We both wanted to know what we were playing, George and I.

TP: Before that, you were playing by ear, more or less?

TOOTS:   Self-taught. Oh, yes. So, chronologically: I bought a harmonica. Then I started, no jazz. Then I heard one record, Louis Armstrong and the Mills Brothers, “carry me back…” A 78 with the wind-up phonography. Over sixty years ago! Then I bought other records. People don’t realize that during the German Occupation, Belgium was invaded in 1940. But anything that happened before, we had the records… We had a dear friend, Leon de Mock(?)… He died, but he was a good friend of Clark Terry. And he called to make …(?)… Clark Terry and I somehow project something similar, and Leon, he said, “Clark a ton negatif,” the negative of the photograph. But he had a lot of records. We already had some Benny Goodman Trio, I think. Benny played with Teddy Wilson in the ‘30s. Teddy Wilson, Krupa, Where Or When and things like that.

TP:   Did you know about Benny Carter or Hawkins?

TOOTS:   Yes. Hawkins stayed in Europe.
TP:   Yes, that’s why I asked.

TOOTS:   He stayed in Brussels. He played there for a while. But I didn’t meet him.

TP: Or Bill Coleman or any of those people.

TOOTS:   Yes, the expatriates.  But I had those records, and I started to fool around, not knowing jazz, what to do on blues and so on. But I followed by instinct. Then the musicians in Belgium started to say “jette se joué,” “throw that toy away and get a real instrument.”

TP:   That’s an oft-told story. So you got a guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes. Then, on a bet, I had a friend who wanted to try… He had a lot of money because his uncle sold liquor on the black market during the war, and he wanted to try to play Fats Waller. …(?)… exactly, “want some seafood, mama.” That phrase, if you think, it’s the typical blues phrase. [SINGS IT] I was in bed with pneumonia, and he comes… He had just bought it; this was his day. Wednesday is my day for guitar. I’m in bed, and I play. I said, “Gilbert, je sais joué salon moi dix minutes; je sais joué…” On one string I can play [SINGS REFRAIN], “For the …(?)…, I want some seafood.” Then he gave me the guitar.

TP:   And you taught yourself the guitar.

TOOTS:   Yes.

TP: You listened to Django records, and you bought a picture of him to see the way he held the guitar, or something… Or did you see Django play?

TOOTS:   Yes, when he played during the war. He just had written Nuages, and he played with Hubert Rostaing on clarinet. Stephane was in England at the time. That was in ‘43 or ‘44.

TP:   So you played accordion as a kid, and when did you start playing harmonica? Before guitar or after guitar?

TOOTS:   Before guitar. Then it was sure that I wasn’t good enough to become a math teacher, and then my parents… My father was very… They spoiled me, allowed me to do what I… And I was practicing the guitar.
TP:   So you played for fun. You played accordion for fun, you played harmonica for fun, you played guitar…

TOOTS:   Yes. Still now. [LAUGHS] I wish that for everybody. First to get to 83. My birthdate is the same as Duke. Stevie Wonder is also Taurus. He told me after one of his shows in Brussels… You know, the blind guys go like that. His firm, his Black Bull publishing firm. He said, “Toots, maybe I’m Black Bull, but you sure are white bull.” [LAUGHS] Isn’t that beautiful?

TP: When did you start playing professionally?

TOOTS:   After liberation. It might have been… No, not during the Occupation. Then I played guitar. Nobody wanted to hear that toy. I had still like a Macaferri guitar, the Django type. It was an acoustic guitar. I saw Django’s concert, one night with the quintet, and he broke strings. Then he gave his guitar to… He had one of his cousins or something that plays rhythm guitar [MIMES boom-chick, boom-chick, boom-chick, boom…] then he gives it to the cousin, and the song didn’t stop, just that the guy tuned up, and he came back. Django was fantastic.

TP:   When did you start hearing bebop vocabulary? Because Django started to get into…

TOOTS:   No, he wasn’t. Many musicians couldn’t jump… They called it a hurdle for a minute, an obstacle you have to… Charlie Parker. My first bebop records were… We had the French (?)s from Antwerp who knew the sailors, and they brought back Groovin’ High, the historic Guild record, with the yellow; One Bass Hit, both sides, small group and the big band. Then we made acetate copy of that. They didn’t last long, because we used those needles, you know; they erode quickly with it. One historic thing I remember is Dizzy… First of all, Groovin’ High, the phrasing those guys used to go from A-minor-VII to D-VII… Groovin’ High is Whispering in E-flat, and the second time in… I tried to play that phrase in every key. So I went from D-VII to D-minor-VII to G, the VI-V in every key…
TP:   You did it in every key on the harmonica and practiced it.

TOOTS:   Yes. You may have noticed (or maybe you didn’t) that little change I put instead of the normal How High The Moon. The third chord, instead of G-minor-VII, C-VII going to F, I go first to A-flat-minor-VII, B-flat-VII, and then G. It makes a Brazilian song out of it.

TP: You said that on stage.

TOOTS:   Yes. Once in a while, I find things like that. Or practice… For instance, I play Confirmation, which was another first hurdle through. [sings refrain] I played that for sixty years in F, like everybody. But recently, I played it in B. That’s like shuffling the keys in the piano around, if you have cliches built up in F. I tried to play, and I got… But I am basically a tonal musician. Kenny wants to push me outside of it. [plays theme of Confirmation on harmonica in F.] Now I play it in B. [Plays it in B.]

TP:   That sounds like your sound. It transformed into something I could recognize as you.

TOOTS:   [Continues] Well, these are the things. Also, the release of Cherokee. Even Bud Powell, I think, made the release on the chords of Cherokee.

TP:   So those are the things you practiced.

TOOTS:   Yes. Chico Buarque is fantastic, this song. [PLAYS IT] And here is pure Monk. [plays refrain] That’s so deep, you know. And I did that in every key, too.

TP: Sounds like you keep yourself sharp and alert by doing these mental exercises. It helps you keep your mental agility.

TOOTS:   My strongest (?) is Jaco Pastorius. [Points to ipod] He has those records, Live In New York, and when I had my stroke in 1981, and I was recuperating here in Lenox Hill Hospital… I had played with him on the word of mouth. Herbie was there. The Breckers. How is Michael?

TP:   He just went to Minneapolis for an experimental treatment…

TOOTS:   Anyway, where were we? On Jaco. We had this session. The way I met Jaco, he had just broke up with Weather Report. They’d gone each their own way. And in ‘79, he was alone in Berlin, solo concert. A journalist asked him, “You see here a list of the performers at the festival, Mr. Pastorius. If you were going to do a duo with someone…” He said, “Get me Toots.” That’s how it happened. And I never called Dizzy and said, “Dizzy, hey…” Everybody I played with…

TP:   Why do you think? Being objective about yourself, thinking about the type of musician you are, why do so many people want to play with you?

TOOTS:   I don’t know. Still now. Maybe you should ask some of the people. Maria Schneider… I call Maria very often, or she calls us. I was the first one to ask for Maria. She was in the north of Sweden. They have this bands on salary, this jazz orchestra. Luleå. Anyway, there’s a lady up there who’s booking, and she has a band, but they need soloists. “Mr. Thielemans, would you like to work with Ms. Maria Schneider?” I had heard her on the corner there, where she played every Monday. [Visiones] “Yes, I’d like to!” And we started a correspondence, and that’s where I played with Maria. We have some live tapes here. [points to Ipod]

TP: That’s a virtual mind in that Ipod.

TOOTS:   That’s 60 years. I knew you were coming! So I got a little, just in case something…

TP:   But let’s step back. What you said was fascinating about studying Groovin’ High and Confirmation and the release of Cherokee, and playing them in all the keys. But when Benny Goodman heard your acetates and asked for you, and you wound up playing with him, you’d been doing it…

TOOTS:   I was a full-fledged bebopper then, and that’s already 1950.

TP:   Were there people to play with in Europe at the time?

TOOTS:   In Belgium there were a few. Bobby Jaspar, Rene Thomas, but not many more. I saw Bobby with Miles just before Coltrane!

TP: Rene Thomas was a helluva guitar player.

TOOTS:   Yes. Sonny Rollins liked him. My first visit to the States was in ‘47. I was with my father’s brother in Miami, and there was this “Straighten up And Fly Right” by Nat Cole in the restaurant. Trio music with “Route 66.” That was the era. I was still self-conscious about my harmonica, that people don’t want to hear that. Then I buy a drink to a guitar player, and we talk a little bit, “Yeah, I play the guitar and also the harmonica,” and I sat in. But who was there? None other than Bill Gottlieb. So hears me, and he buys me a drink. “Oh, you’re good.” Whatever. Then Bill Gottlieb took me to the Street.

TP:   He heard you in Miami, and then you looked him up when you came to New York.

TOOTS:   I was just having a drink and sitting in. Then he took me to the Street, the Three Deuces.  I think it was the Howard McGhee All Stars. Hank Jones, Percy Heath, the drummer was Joe Harris, and Bags, and Jimmy Heath, too, I think. If you ask Bill Gottlieb, he’ll probably remember. He took me to meet the band. “Hey, guys, I’ve got this guy who plays the harmonica.” “Who? Belgium?” The two question marks. “What do you want to play?” In those days, the big identity, the key to the bebop door was the third and the fourth bar of I Can’t Get Started. [PLAYS IT] I played it almost like that! The whole band fell on the floor. I was in after two measures. That was enough. And I sat next to the piano; I sat in the chair next to Hank. The alternating group was Lennie Tristano. Imagine? With Billy Bauer and Arnold Fishkin. Then the agent, the big salesman of bebop then was Billy Shaw. Shaw Nuff. That’s one of the traffic lights! “Where you from? You’re good!” “I’m from Belgium.” “Oh, I know. That’s in Copenhagen.” [LAUGHS] Typical  Hollywood. And the big cigar with it! “Oh, send me some records. I’m going to make you the Belgian King of Bebop.” I swear to you.

TP:   After I Can’t Get Started like that, I can see why.

TOOTS:   No, I was close to that. But the fundamentals were there. Now I’ve got some alternate scales into this, heh-heh. Then I wound up… I had to go back to the south of France with the boat. New York-Genoa, and then go to Nice, where there was a jazz festival, and where I was playing with Bobby Jaspar, representing Belgium. We were also accompanying Lucky Thimpson at that festival. Louis Armstrong was the top. On the boat, I wrote… I will play for you the progression I wrote on Stardust. I did it with Benny Goodman. I can play what Benny heard me play on the acetate there, you know….

TP: 50 years ago.

TOOTS:   55! [PAUSE] For instance, on the day of my birthday, the 29th of April, in a stadium in Norway, a football stadium – soccer. It was cold! I think I had gloves to play the guitar. And Zoot… Roy was there, Zoot was here, and Benny in the middle. Benny would play, and he would turn to the next soloist at the end of his chorus, one way or the other. But in that stadium, I never forgot, Zoot was waiting his time to solo, and he hadn’t played a note. It was freezing. For 15 minutes easy. If you remember Zoot, his horn is hanging and… [TP: Looking blank [HEAD DOWN, STOCK STILL] Then Benny… He didn’t expect to play. Benny turned to his side, and instantly, like a transistor – DOODLE,DA-DA-DA, DE-DE. Typical Zoot. Fantastic. That was my first contact with… I wasn’t in the States really. My first live contact with that kind of spontaneity like Zoot. He was so great. Then, of course. We didn’t play often enough together after that..

TP:   What was Benny Goodman’s demeanor like when you touring with him? You were his guitar player and…

TOOTS:   He wasn’t bad. I played the Charlie Christian chair.

TP:   So you had nothing but good experiences with him.

TOOTS:  Yeah.  And after six weeks touring: “Benny, I’d like to play another number.” Play Stardust. He loved that progression, where the guys went down and chromatically… I went up… That was revolutionary almost. [PLAYS UPWARD CHROMATIC SCALE] That I wrote, so to speak, it was in ‘47. Because I only played it in ‘50 with Benny. I had time to make the record, send it… And Ray Nance…we were buddies. They came to Brussels with Ellington, and I played that… I don’t have that record any more with the strings. I was able to take Duke into a record store, [(?)La Deux Des Midi(?)] in Brussels, and to make him listen to that acetate which wound up on Benny Goodman’s phonograph. Those are great memories.

TP: When was that experience with Duke?

TOOTS:   Oh, I never played with him. In ‘47, I came back…

TP:   Maybe it was ‘49 or so?

TOOTS:   In ‘48. The beginning. So that wound up, and in Europe after that I didn’t play with him. I didn’t play the right rhythm he wanted to hear. Not enough strength. Guys like Bucky Pizzarelli did that much better for him.

TP:   As far as rhythm guitar. So what decided you to come to the States? Did you make a decision to move here?

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. Because I had already applied for the immigration. The secretary, Muriel Zuckerman, who died… [HUGUETTE: She came to our wedding.] She was Benny Goodman’s secretary. She volunteered to be my affidavit…
TP: Your sponsor.

TOOTS:   Sponsor. Made it possible for me… She would be responsible if I did something wrong to the United States life. She would pay… So that was a great responsibility. She became good friends with my wife, Nettie.

TP:   So you came here with your wife…

TOOTS:   Yes, with $2000 in my pocket and a suitcase.

TP:   That wasn’t bad in 1952. That was a lot of money in 1952!

TOOTS:   Then my father… Of course, the regulations of the union were very strict. The Local 802, even if you came from the Chicago local, you had to establish residence in the Local 802 area, and wait for… I made $40 a week sending posters for the Belgian airline, Sabina. But we lived very…it was not…

TP: Not like this.

TOOTS:   No. We paid $20 a week in a hotel that’s a welfare hotel now, the Marquis, at 31st and Madison. The lady at the Belgian Embassy found us a place. Nothing. No cooking, just a hot plate.

TP:   But when you got here, you’d go around to the clubs and hang out.

TOOTS:   Oh, yes. I could work three days… No steady job. Or a record date, but nobody asked me. Also, Monte Kay, who became Diahann Carroll’s manager, and also the Modern Jazz Quartet, he had a club, the Downbeat, where everybody played. I got $15 a night for three nights, and that was a big week. 45 plus 40 is $85! You could eat at least. Some nights there was Mingus. Everybody. Lee Konitz.

TP:   Were you playing guitar or harmonica?

TOOTS:   Both. But mostly guitar. Billy Taylor was there and George Wallington, and Charlie Smith, the left-hand drummer. Billy Taylor, who wasn’t Doctor yet. Slim Gaillard playing piano! [LAUGHS] You know who came hanging around, and we started a friendship which we never developed any further? Paul Bley. He came from Canada. “Bon chez, bon ja(?),” they say, like Papa’s son comes to the big city. We talked a lot. Never technical; “okay, let’s play.” Nothing like that. Then…

TP: So you come to New York and start hanging out with your peer group, or people a bit younger than you…

TOOTS:   I was 30 years old.

TP:   Well, Billy Taylor and George Wallington… But you’re hanging out with the most progressive musicians…

TOOTS:   Yes. Lee Konitz, too.

TP:   They’re hearing you play the harmonica. Were you playing bebop on guitar as well?

TOOTS:   Yes. The next step was George Shearing. Tony Scott was hanging around all the time also, and helping. For instance, they had a party, and Bird was at the party, and get, you know, PUFFS, whatever…the hospitality… And Tony introduced me to some black ladies. [LAUGHS] He said he’d heard that George Shearing was going to lose his guitar player, and Dick Garcia had to go into the Army. George was doing those double-bill things with Billy Eckstine – Billy Eckstine-George Shearing at Carnegie Hall, and touring. This was 1952. Then across at the Metropole or Charlie’s Tavern or one of those bars where musicians hang out between sessions… There were a lot of recording sessions going on then. I went there to try to meet the guys, and Tony said: “Come with me.” He took me to meet George Shearing, and he pushed…at the stage door at Carnegie Hall, all he had to do was say, “Yes, I know so-and-so”… “I am a good friend of Mr. Shearing.” And he pushed me into George’s dressing room. George was relaxing. “George, I’ve got the man for you.” “Ah,” George says. “He plays the guitar, too.” So I played “Body and Soul” together with George in George’s dressing room. Then George says, “If you cut the guitar book…” Those were the words in those days. “If you cut the guitar book, you’ve got the job.”

TP: So you studied the guitar book.

TOOTS:   Well, I knew it by ear. Then there were those big hits by George. Then in the meantime, I had that offer to go with Charlie Parker to Philadelphia, on the Dinah Washington show. George came, too, to double-check on me backstage at the Earle in Philadelphia. We were going to rehearse. There was a Rendezvous Jazz Club in Philadelphia. Ava Gardner used to come listen to George Shearing all the time. Not all the time, but once or twice. Maybe she had relatives in Philadelphia. Then I went to my guitar audition with George, and that started six years.

TP:   Talk about the six years with George Shearing, and how you developed musically. It sounds like that was your first steady gig playing the function in a working band.

TOOTS:   Yes. My only! It was always interesting, because some of those jobs you’d get into, you’d leave one town and drive at night, with no day to rest or anything, and sometimes you arrive in a town at 5 o’clock and you’ve got to play at 7:30. We all were tired, but George always interested me very much. I never was bored.

TP:   You were studying the same harmony book, too.

TOOTS:   That was interesting. And I developed some great chops on the guitar. I mean, my kind of chops.

TP: Did that gig have any impact on the way you conceived the sound of the harmonica?

TOOTS:   I was playing it once or twice a night. I was there mainly for the guitar book. That’s why I’m happy I could play both then. I wouldn’t have a job with harmonica alone. So I learned a lot. It was always interesting. In those days, it was Brubeck, Mulligan and Shearing. Right? And the rest were big bands. I was a major league player.

TP:   Top of the heap.

TOOTS:   I had visibility, call it that, for a minute.

TP:   I don’t know how much you were in direct contact with Charlie Parker…

TOOTS:   Oh, he liked me. I had met him in Paris. Because in Billy Shaw’s office he had heard me. And Al Haig, too, was in Paris.

TP: Was that in ‘49, when he came to the Festival?

TOOTS:   Yes, when they all first came to Paris. Al Haig was there. Miles Davis. Kenny Clarke. James Moody. With Bird, there was Kenny Dorham. They had a thing called “Prince Albert,” a variation on “All The Things You Are.” After the Benny Goodman tour, I had to work. I didn’t have my papers yet to come to the States. I worked in Sweden. They were very responsive. I had newspaper attention. It’s the first time that a European… It was shortly enough after the war that it was sensational for a European to be hired by a top name in America, which Benny was still…

TP:   He had Stan Hasselgard.

TOOTS:   Yes, that was before. Benny tried everything before he found out that Waiting For the Sunrise was what he wanted to play. But he tried everything. But Charlie Parker played in Stockholm while I was playing in Sweden with that Swedish organ player, a Swedish Shearing type, blind – Reinhold Svensson. We were very popular, and I played the guitar, not whistling yet. He heard. “Hey!” And he came to listen to me. I saw him. Of course, our organ player didn’t see him. He was blind. I said, “Reinhold, stop. Bird is in the house.” I went into Lover Man. Those were the days of Camarillo. Bird said, “Hey, how you doin’?” He wanted to give me money.

TP:   He was in a grand mood. Probably drinking schnapps.

TOOTS:   I said, “No, Bird, I’m working.” I have a book, To Bird With Love that Chan did. There’s a letter that I wrote from Belgium to Bird, and thank you, and he kept it, or somebody kept it.

TP: When you played in Philadelphia with Bird, did he call you on it?

TOOTS:   That was just one gig.

TP:   In the ‘60s, you moved back to Europe?

TOOTS:   I didn’t move back. Now we live more there than here. We have a big house and a pool and three dogs.

TP:   Any children?

TOOTS:   No. But then I started to make a living in the States. But still going back a lot to Europe, because it wasn’t so hot in the late ‘50s. A lot of guys like Clark Terry, Dexter Gordon, Art Farmer, they didn’t do so well in the States. I was doing a movie score. That was in the ‘60s somewhere, and at the session, there was Red Mitchell. He said, “I’m tired politically and I’m disgusted with this country – where should I go?” I said, “Go to Sweden.” I told him! He drove me back to the hotel after the film session, and he moved. The same with Kenny Drew. He also wanted to go. I said, “The two places you could go are either Paris or Copenhagen.” He went to Copenhagen.

TP: How many languages do you speak?

TOOTS:   In Belgium, if you want to be a serious student, you can… I speak French and Flemish. But I’m French-speaking, doing his best in Flemish. But then in English and German, and then, by being so often in Sweden, I can speak Swedish fluently.

TP:   One thing that’s immediately apparent from your repertoire is how many different cultures you draw music from. You deal with chansons and musette, with bebop, with blues, with Brazilian music, with the songbook, with this very harmonic film music…

TOOTS:   Yeah, Midnight Cowboy and Sesame Street!

TP:   Did you write something for Sesame Street?

TOOTS:   No. I didn’t write that. Joe Raposa(?).

TP: But you’ve been addressing this repertoire for a while, and 25-30 years ago it wasn’t so common to hear that sound, but now it seems more…

TOOTS:   The variety.

TP:   The variety of things you play and the many strategies you take to play them.

TOOTS:   I like to believe that my strong point is projecting emotion. People cry when I play Smile, the Charlie Chaplin thing, or Ne Me Quitte Moi or What a Wonderful World. I am very impressed with the hot guys today, but they don’t move me all the time. It’s a lot of fingers, a lot of range, a lot of fast scales, and it doesn’t always make my heart…give me a goosebump. Of course, much of what I hear I’d like to incorporate, because… I hear some guys. I don’t want to name names. They’re very famous. But they haven’t changed a note in their language. They use the same… And I know. That’s what I spend time on, to listen to my old records. Even my famous…my big traffic light with Bill Evans, if I played with him today, or played the same songs today, I will play them differently. I like to believe I evolved. Like Quincy said, “Each time I hear you…” It’s not much maybe after fifty years… You can maybe ask a painter what he did fifty years before. But that’s what keeps me interested very much.

TP:   Finding new ways to approach old friends.

TOOTS:   Yes. I’m still trying to capture the Nefertiti album, Miles…

TP: Wayne Shorter you like.

TOOTS:   Wayne! For me, there’s many musicians, and then there’s guys like Hancock and Shorter. I feel I can learn from them. Herbie can play, man! He played with me before he joined Miles. That happened in 1962 in New York. I did everything in ‘62 – Jewish weddings, jingles, everything. Every Wednesday afternoon I went to the union, 252 West 52nd Street. There was the Roseland Ballroom, and there were meetings there, you could find gigs if you wanted to. Then on the way back, there was a trumpet store, Giardelli(?), 10 yards from that union. I passed by, and I hear music. This trumpet store, a repair… They had little rooms where they had a piano, and they’d rent them for rehearsal. I go upstairs. It was Donald Byrd. I see a piano player from the back. It was Herbie. I didn’t know. He’d just got in town then. I needed a piano player for the weekend in an Italian restaurant in Long Island. I said, “Herbie, do you need this piano job on the weekend?” I didn’t know. I hadn’t met him. “No, take him! He needs it.” He needs the work, the job. That’s how I met Herbie. So we played and we did the little rehearsal. You’d better check with him if he wants that to be known. After a few checks, you know, on what songs we were going to play… It was not a jazz job. I found right away that he knew all the standards. Very professional. You accept the job, you’re going to do the job, do what is requested. We checked. And after ten minutes he said, “Hmm, I think I’m…” This is Herbie in ‘62. “I think I’m going to have to dig a little deeper into my Bill Evans bag for you.” In my ear. He sent a nice email about that thing with Stevie Wonder. “I want to do this, but I’m going to…”

TP:   Is Stevie Wonder going to be part of your concert at Carnegie Hall?

TOOTS:   I am not sure. We are afraid to ask that. Now, we could ask Pat Metheny, too. He might like it. I played on his record, too.

TP:   How did you meet Bill Evans? How did that relationship…

TOOTS:   Bill when he was a soldier in the early ‘50s, he came, in uniform… Imagine. A crewcut. A Jack Armstrong crewcut. He came to listen to George Shearing at the Blue Note in Chicago. He admired George. He had respect for George. There was the Blue Note later, but in the basement, in the lower level. We were rehearsing there, like that… Afterwards, he said, “I hope we play together.” One of those polite goodbyes. Then I’m on the road, and I hear this guy. I didn’t know the name. “Hey, that’s my guy.” Then after I left Shearing, Bill was playing with Miles, I think with Trane and Cannon at the Showboat. During a break, I say hello, “Hi, Miles…” Miles sees me talking to Bill. “What are you talking about?” We were talking about background solos, the approach to accompaniment and… Miles said, “You two should play together,” quick, and he went by to the men’s room or whatever. But I remember that. And we wound up doing it in ‘79. Then Helen Keane calls me, and he had just signed the contract with Warner Brothers. It was his first album. Helen calls me and said, “Toots, we’d like you to play a couple of albums on Bill’s upcoming session.” I said, “Helen, I’m not sure if I’m up to date to play with a giant like Bill today.” In ‘79, I was freelancing all over, just playing with Paul Simon and all those movies, all the jingles, like Old Spice and stuff.

TP: So you were on the New York studio scene in the ‘70s.

TOOTS:   Yes. I had a group. There was a club, Trotter’s, very close to the Village Vanguard, the other sidewalk. Slam Stewart played there with Bucky, Stan Getz, and I played there. I’d been teaching for one week, I think, a workshop at Eastman School of Music as a media application, what you can learn to be in the media – jingles, movies and stuff. Phil Markowitz was there. I remembered him from Eastman, so I hired him. My group was Phil Markowitz, Joe LaBarbera and Chip Jackson. That was a good group. I was playing, and I tell Helen, “Before you make up your mind to have me at the session, tomorrow he can come to listen to me.” I played the Paul Simon song I Do It For Your Love, and Bill said… Like a piranha he jumped on the lead sheet by that song of Paul Simon, and he said, “Come Monday.” That’s a great song.

Then in the studio, the only time… I don’t know if it’s to be printed. I played for so many people. But after three or four days in the studio it appeared that I’d play on every song with Bill instead of just two – with Larry Schneider. Then there was Marc Johnson and Elliot Zigmund, I think. Not yet LaBarbera. Bill heard LaBarbera with me. Then I go on a break and I say, “Bill, this is your record; don’t you think I play too much.” It could be Toots Thielemans featuring… Bill said to my ear: “I want people to know you can play straight-ahead like that, meaning song… No fancy vamps, arrangements, nothing. Song, chorus, song out.” He said, “give me a minute.” He goes to talk to Helen Keane. He comes back. “We will double your fee.” I never heard that one before!

TP:   That took care of your strictures.

TOOTS:   Of course, that record really gave me a lot of credibility, I guess. Some of your colleagues said, “What the hell did they get Toots Thielemans for?” I read that. This guy Lee Jeske wrote, “The next thing I need is to buy earmuffs so I won’t hear the harmonica.” He was reviewing my Brazil Project in the New York Post.
TP:   You need a thick skin in this business.

TOOTS:   But not everybody likes my sound or whatever. But I feel… I don’t know. I can’t help it. This guy who said, “shameless sentimentality.” I admit it. That’s me. I cry easy and I smile easy. A smile and a tear. I am a minor-VII person. You do what I have to do.

[END OF TAPE 1]

TP: We’re talking about the concert. Stevie Wonder is being approached, Quincy Jones will be in it, Paul Simon wanted to make it, but couldn’t… You told me this anecdote about Stevie Wonder. Did you record with him?

TOOTS:   Never. We’re on the…

TP:   But you’re both harmonica players.

TOOTS:   I learned a lot from Stevie. I play maybe more notes. When he came out, it was more than forty years ago. I am always impressed… First of all, I am very responsive to the black sound, the African-American… Sometimes I say I respond to “What are you thinking,” blah-blah. I would not be the same person or the same musician if it had not for the blue note that came from Africa via America. I feel that way, and I respond that way, and that’s the way people like Quincy responds to me so much, too, apparently. But you’ll have to ask them. “I am so proud of your black ass.” Ray Charles, he called me “Mr. T.”

TP:   Did Quincy Jones get you into soloing on film scores?

TOOTS:   Yes. I have a photograph. It was his first engagement in Los Angeles, the last film that Cary Grant ever made, Walk, Don’t Run. I have been on most of his recordings during the Creed Taylor era, and also in Los Angeles.

TP: He likes to paint pictures with sound, and no one gets that sound but you.

TOOTS:   The harmonica can underline a scene in a movie where not much happens. The last thing, I was very disappointed… They called me. The best movie score financially was in London. I won’t say the name. There was only gunshots. The composer told me, “Play there a little bit something nice” – with gunshots and explosions. But then a guy, one of the composers, he used to be Barbra Streisand’s boyfriends…

TP:   Jon Peters.

TOOTS:   No. He wrote the The Fugitive. Anyway, he said, “Toots, don’t worry. When I make you play, they’re just holding hands and taking a walk in the country” or something like that.

TP:   When you improvise, what are you thinking about? The notes?

TOOTS:   Yes, the notes.

TP: Anything more abstract in your mind?

TOOTS:   It’s an abstract process. But I try to play in a linear way. Make drawings, sound drawings sometimes. Okay, I’m working out… [PLAYS] That’s the introduction to Round Midnight. I try to sing also. When I play Brel, I try to play the words. There’s words like, “I want to be in the shadow of your hand, the shadow of your door. Do not leave me.” [SAYS THEM IN FRENCH]

TP:   Do you think of singers? Is the harmonica sort of a voice?

TOOTS:   Maybe. I like some songs to stay close, like The Nearness of You… If it’s a ballad, to try to make sense according to the lyrics a little bit. But maybe I should play more loose with Kenny. He had take wild chances.

TP:   Did anybody, apart from maybe Larry Adler, influence you on the harmonica?

TOOTS:   No. I am very impressed with Gregoire Maret. He came to the opening night. He gave me that record, Dapp Theory. Are you hip to him?

TP: He plays with Steve Coleman, too, and Cassandra…

TOOTS:   But Andy Milne. I’d like to get…

TP:   That would be a different sound

TOOTS:   I feel, if I may say.. .I feel closer… I can play more myself and closer to the loose phrasing of the rhythm that happens, for instance, on Dapp than on the pop records of 10 or 15 years ago. The rhythm of today is closer to what I feel.

TP:   A lot of those are odd meters, 7/4, 11/4…

TOOTS:   I’m not so hot with that

TP: You have Steve Coleman on your Ipod. Do you like his music?

TOOTS:   I want to hear it. As I don’t have that much time to play a lot, what… But I bombard  myself with new music, or if not new, at least something I can learn from. Gregoire makes me think, if I make a comparison… 55 years ago, I came to this country, and pretty soon I played with Charlie Parker and then with Shearing. Now he comes, and he’s great. I’d like to hear him in two-three years.

TP:   This brings up a point I touched on before, that the music now is such an international hybrid. Fifty years ago, jazz was coming from blues and the American songbook and so on. But now, things that were exotic many years ago are no longer exotic. In some way, the music has caught up with what you’re doing. It’s a very international proposition now, and there’s something in your tonal personality that embodies that meldjng of cultures.

TOOTS:   The responses I get, if you ask some people around… If you read the liner notes that Kenny wrote about me on our album, “Everybody likes Toots…” I get compliments from David Murray, the saxophone player! “Hey!” I don’t know. It’s not for me to say.

TP:   One thing I’d like you to try to talk about is what you see as your accomplishment. You’ve been a professional musician for almost sixty years – six years in Europe, 53 years in the States. Your sound is a very recognizable signpost on the jazz landscape, and you’ve played with enough people that there will be a Carnegie Hall concert filled with musical celebrities who want to pay homage…

TOOTS:   I don’t know. I was trying to get an answer for myself before you came. I don’t know. Accomplishment? I don’t know. When my wife and I received the title from the Belgian King, Baron… I am a Baron. You need a credo. Like arms.  A coat of arms, whatever. I had met… In Chicago about fifty years ago, somebody said to me, “Oh, man, I just want to be myself.” And then there is a Council of the Arts in Belgium. It can be done in Flemish, in French, or in Latin, one of the three. Then I asked the man, “Can I do it in English? Can I have a full English phrase defining what I…” Then I said, “Be myself, no more, no less.” “Connaitre toi-meme.” Know yourself. Then the man on the panel… They had a discussion, and they told me a few days after they thought that “myself” was too egotistical, too me-me-me. They said, “Mr. Thielemans, would you be satisfied with ‘be yourself, no more, no less’?” That’s what I like to be, and be accepted as.

I don’t know what I accomplished. Judging this, there’s two sides of the coin. Much of the public likes me. They cry when I play… We were in Seattle. Some people drove 500 miles to come and listen to me! Things like that. Oyster Bay, from Oregon or something.  In St. Louis, some guy came from Little Rock, Arkansas. They have my records, my old LPs! In Europe, the same thing. I don’t know what I accomplished. I did my best. Somebody asked Jim Hall, “Did you make concessions?” He said, “Nobody asked me.” Oh, no. “Did you ever sell out?” Jim said, “nobody ever asked me.” So I don’t know what I might have done…

TP: But there’s something about you that’s very individualistic and very selfless at the same time. With Elis Regina, you play yourself and also your own sound. Same thing with Bill Evans.

TOOTS:   My sound. The session started with two numbers. When we’re getting in the studio, he jumps on that Paul Simon song, which Paul redid with Herbie. But for three days I played all through the record, and Bill says, “I want people to know you can play like that.” That’s 1979. So I’m still doing my best.

TP:   Did you do a number of records with Paul Simon?

TOOTS:   I played one solo, and I didn’t think he liked it. It was at the old studio, 48th Street, where the union is now – A&R, West 48th Street.  Phil Ramone calls me. “Toots, can you come and play for Paul Simon?” “Yeah, Phil, but I have to take a plane to go to the Monterrey Festival, but I can be there at 1 o’clock.” If you listen, that was the first record that Paul Simon made on his own, after Garfunkel. There was a late game… Paul is a great baseball fan, and there was a melody…a song about a pitcher who dies on the mound. He makes me fill all the tracks. Paul has a blank face. He is not very demonstrative. There may be an explosion here, and he goes, “Hmm…’ “Can you play a little there,” I play, then “Bye, Toots.” I had to take my plane. I thought, “Jesus, I laid an egg here.” I flunked. I laid an egg. I get to my room in Monterrey. “Please call Mr. Phil Ramone,” they said. Paul had played with all the tracks. “Paul loves you!” Oh, yeah!? That was a great experience. Sanborn. Steve Gadd. Michael… No, I’m not sure if Michael was on it. Hugh McCracken on guitar. I think Ralph McDonald was playing percussion. Anyway, that was fantastic, and we played in England and in Holland and Israel also.

TP:   Oh, you toured with Paul Simon.

TOOTS:   Yes, about 15 days altogether. I learned a lot from him.

TP: What did you learn from Pop music as opposed to jazz? Do you think about a situation like that differently?

TOOTS:   No. The few people I’ve played with, like Paul or Billy Joel, they like what they hear when I play, and they say, “Hey, I want some of that.” I like hillbilly music, too. I have one little trio picking that you won’t believe. I was on that Jimmy Dean Show in the early ‘60s. I was trying to stay home, and Peter Max, the conductor, and Jimmy Dean… It was ABC network. All the guys from Nashville came up. They knew me. “How you’all doin’, Toots? You’all gotta come down and pick with us.”

TP:   You were playing guitar on the JimmyDean Show?

TOOTS:   No.

TP:   You were playing harmonica.

TOOTS:   Things like that. That was in the time when Johnny Cash made records with two trumpets, the Ring of Fire. I said, “Hey, I’m going to write something like that, a melody with two voices,” and then I give that to the publisher, who’d just handled Bluesette, and he sends it to Los Angeles, and Herb Alpert hears it, and that went on a record that sold domestically 6 million. 6 million cents is $60,000.
TP: Bluesette?

TOOTS:   No, not so much. That tune is called Ladyfingers, on Herb Alpert, with the chick on the cover wrapped into whipped cream or whatever. You know? That enabled me… That and some… You talk about lucky breaks that fall far from the jazz tree. Whistling for jingles. Bluesette comes out and gets a lot of play in ‘63, and Madison Avenue, they look for new sounds, different sounds. John Glenn went into orbit, and the music writer, Jimmy Fagas, he was a fan. I’d been scuffling, playing bar-mitzvahs and everything – to stay home! Bluesette comes out. “Toots, you’re going to make money.” I never had money outside of working – you work for the money. I sign a piece of paper, and John Glenn goes into orbit – that’s a Class A spot, Screen Actors Guild. If you talk and sing you become a… If you whistle for a commercial, you become a Screen Actor, and that’s another union.  I did some things where I played the guitar and whistled. For the guitar, I received $37 for 12 weeks.
TP:   Scale.

TOOTS:   Yes, scale of the instrumental jingle. For the whistling, I received $50 each time it’s heard! Then when I whistled for Old Spice, in one hour… They asked me, “Mr. Thielemans, we know you’re a great whistler. But can you whistle like the man in the street who cannot whistle?” [LAUGHS] I already have made a little money, so I knew the rates. “This is for Old Spce, but we look for a sound like the man who gets off the boat and throws the bottle of Old Spice. [WHISTLES REFRAIN] Now I can’t do it any more. When I do that sometimes, in a concert… That followed by [BLOWS ON HARMONICA] “going to Sesame Street.”

TP:   It’s good to get some laughs.

TOOTS:   But for Sesame Street, that’s instrumental and educational. They use it for 15 years. No residuals. But lately they’ve said, “Yeah, we’re going to give a little extra anyway.” So for 15 years of use on TV, maybe I made $500. But for Old Spice, in one hour in the studio… And then at football games, that’s Class A, coast-to-coast. Some of those jingles are only seen in Chicago, but Old Spice is all over. So I made, staying home, $15,000, in the ‘60s. So the combination of that and Herb Alpert, we could buy the house in Montauk.

TP: I guess once you got in the studios, it was hard to get out.

TOOTS:   I had two years where they said, because I don’t read fast enough and all that, and there were better guys for the guitar work… But between the three, the whistle, the guitar and the harmonica, there was a saying, “Call Toots, he’ll find something to do.”

TP:   Guitar players are a dime a dozen, but harmonica players and whistlers are not.

TOOTS:   Yes. So that was the making a living value.

TP:   You’re talking about listening to country pickers and these Nashville guys liking you. Did you ever play the blues? Did you listen to blues harmonica players?

TOOTS:   I listened to them, yeah. Have you heard Howard Levy? He plays chromatic or diatonic. I have him in the IPOD. He’s a great musician. He plays the piano. He composes. He’s amazing. But Gregoire, I’d like to…

TP: But the Chicago blues type of thing.

TOOTS:   No. But these guys do that well, you know.

TP:   How about Bob Dylan?

TOOTS:   Are you ready? Again, I wanted to stay home, not travel. I was mostly in Europe and playing not jazz much in the ‘60s. Nobody made a great living playing straight jazz. So I got a call: “Mr. Thielemans, we’d like you to come and do a jingle. Can you play like Bob Dylan? We know you’re a great jazz player, but can you play like Bob Dylan?” He had the diatonic. I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” “Do you know anyone who does?” My defense mechanism. There was maybe one. I said, “No, I don’t. Sorry, sir.” Then they called me… I was living in Yonkers then, on North Broadway. I did go once a week or so to the Lighthouse for the Blind in White Plains. Blind people enjoyed hearing me, and as a good gesture. There were two black gentlemen, blind of course, both of them, and: “Mr. Thielemans, I want to play like you.” They played the blues like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, those wolf calls and all that. “Oh, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown…” “We want to play like you.” But that’s another world. “Can I hear what you do?” And I thought it was so easy to do what they did! Not like them. The voicings and the sound, no. But mechanically! I thought, “Oh, that’s the Bob Dylan guy.” [LAUGHS] I rwent right into Manny’s on 48th Street and bought 12 diatonic harmonicas. I called that jingle promoter. “Sir, I am ready for you.” I got a box… I have a whole bag of the diatonic harmonics. I even took a bag to Hollywood for Quincy, in case he needed that. I was just an all-over handyman, so to speak.

TP:   You have to do all that to play in the studios. But in the first few tunes the other night, you take a lot of tonal liberties on the harmonica…

TOOTS:   You bet. Howard Levy, for instance, he overblows, and he can change on the diatonic. When my wife comes, I can show you… Not like he does, but I can show what can be done.

TP: But where I’m going with the question, if you’ll bear with me for one second…

TOOTS:   [BLOWS THE BLUES ON A CHROMATIC]  That’s very close, but it’s not as funky as… Listen. The blues player calls the chromatic “the chrome.” “I don’t play the chrome, but I play the harp.” That’s my Quincy Jones bag. I got them all in the wrong keys.

TP:   A big leather bag of diatonic harmonicas.

TOOTS:   Yes!

TP:   But did this become part of your vocabulary after the ‘60s, or the way you embellish your voice…

TOOTS:   No. [BLOWS] That’s too high-pitched. [UNWRAPS ANOTHER ONE AND BLOWS SOME BLUES, TAPPING HIS FOOT] If you want to change keys… [BLOWS ON ANOTHER ONE]

[BLOWS] He can play Giant Steps on that. But these guys have tone. And here you can attack the note. [BLOWS: BENDS THE NOTES] That’s very moody. [BLOWS] But this guy Levy, he overblows, and then he creates some harmonics I don’t know. I can’t do it. [BLOWS] See, you can blow, but you hear some sort of Ben Webster distortion. [BLOWS] [BLOWS] That’s funky, but that’s where… Stevie Wonder gets those sounds. I learned a lot from Stevie. Before we say goodbye. Come on, girls. [BLOWS A BLUES LINE] “When I woke up this mornin’, baby!” [LAUGHS]

TP:   How did the relationship with Ken Werner start? Earlier you played with Fred Hersch and Joey Baron for a long time.

TOOTS:   Yes, when they were available, that was my… Fred, Marc Johnson and Joey. We made a nice record. Where I play Ne Me Quitte Pas for the first time, and where I played with Fred Stardust. We had played in Fort Lauderdale here, and the plane stopped in Washington, and from Washington to Fort Lauderdale. On the stretch between New York and Washington, there was Benny Goodman. He said, “Hey, Gene (he called me Gene), how you doing?” “I’m okay, Benny.” Blah-blah-blah. He was in first class, of course. “Come and sit next to me.” I said, “I am only in economy back there…” “Ah, fuck them. Sit next to me.” He spoke that way in the plane. The hostess comes, and he says, “Oh, this is my dear friend; this gentleman must sit next to me.” I sat there, and I started to talk. Benny was legendary for not paying a cent more than he had to. I said, “I started to make a bit of money, Benny.” He said, “I’m tired.” He had to go to an award thing in Washington at the White House or something. “Yeah, I’m starting to make…” “Oh, really?” he said. “Really?!” One of those. “I’ve got to go to Fort Lauderdale. Bye, Benny.” Then I hear on the media that Benny Goodman died. I have the chorus of Stardust always with me, and in Brussels at the Ballets du Beaux Art, the Carnegie Hall of Brussels, I told the people… I had played the same Stardust, the same chorus that you heard with Benny in ‘50. I told the people, “this is very touching for me; I am sitting here, playing what I played with Benny Goodman forty years ago, and we will play it the same.” You’ve got to hear that.

TP: I want to ask again what you’re looking for in the people who play with you. Ken Werner and Oscar Castro-Neves are very important to the sound you’re looking for.

TOOTS:   From a pianist, I can almost say I need that Bill Evans ground floor.

TP:   Just like Herbie Hancock said.

TOOTS:   Yes. The ground floor. Then it’s like this, but you need your own decoration. But Fred Hersch, the first time I heard him was in Tokyo. He was playing with Red Mitchell and Elliot Zigmund. Then I asked for his phone number. We met here, and I heard this touch. But I’ve played with other guys that get a lot of fame, even win polls, and I don’t hear that ground floor, so I’m not attracted to that so much. Don’t write it, but Kenny Barron doesn’t give me that ground floor. That was my band, Kenny, Ray Drummond and Billy Hart – at Greene Street. But don’t write that. Hank Jones does… Joe Lovano is a great fan of mine. Scofield, too, about my guitar. Last New Year… We were eating New Year’s Day in Brussels, the phone rings, and it was Scofield calling from here to wish me greetings. With Shearing, I had done a great solo, I thought, on Little Niles, Randy Weston’s song. “Hey, Toots! This is Sco.” “Thanks for calling.” “I am listening to what you did fifty years ago with Shearing on the guitar.” So I know where the good stuff is, but my fingers won’t follow.

TP:   I’m impressed with how up to date you are.

TOOTS:   I listen to everything. I have the latest Chris Potter record. [POINTS TO IPOD] I don’t want a computer. Then I get email, and I have to answer. But my manager…

TP: I should give you some rest.

TOOTS:   This is stimulating for me. But I am still very close to Wayne Shorter. All those guys send greetings. And the guys who play with Wayne want to play with me. Patitucci, Danilo and Brian Blade. Bill Frisell. Sco. I played a few times… He was my guest in Montreal.

TP:   Did you do a week…

TOOTS:   No, I just played each time… This time I did a duo with Kenny, and we had Paolo Fresu. He plays good. Pat Metheny. As they say in French, “ne pas frotte(?) la mange,” “I don’t want to rub your sleeve.” One of my first tastes of American humor, with Benny Goodman, at the Palladium: There was a Jewish comedian, Herky Stiles. You never heard of him? “Oh, you should meet my girlfriend. She has only one tooth, but it’s a nice brown one.” You still laugh at that today! Fifty years ago. “Oh, she has the hottest kisses. Why, she never takes her cigar out of her mouth.” “Last year I had a great year. I sold wedding rings to Artie Shaw.” He had one about Les Brown, too. “I used to work for Les Brown, but now I work for less money,” sometimes with Benny Goodman. [LOUD LAUGH] These are my… I know that since ‘49! Things I don’t forget.

In Sweden, I became a matinee idol in a revue, and when I played Brazil, therefore, the first time on the harmonica… I speak Swedish, and they gave me a monologue to say from slang, 300 years ago, the way they spoke in the north of Sweden. How can you compare that? You ask a Frenchman to speak in America with a Nashville accent. A famous Frenchman. It’s called a thing about Napoleon. Napoleon is Bonaparte in Swedish. The guys goes… It was a big triumph, doing that monologue. And in the summer later, after, I went into the parks. I’ve got to play you some of the stuff with whistling and guitar in Sweden. A guy in the back of the hall yelled, “Hey, do your monologue, man!” That was the time, the period… Look, in ‘63, I was trying to hold on to the Coltrane wagon. Giant Steps. [BLOWS Giant Steps] With Kenny we do that on the duo thing, and we make a tribute with Naima. [BLOWS Naima]

Again, I don’t try, but I am very happy… This is no more, no less. You seem to respond to me and the music, but you don’t change your pen for me. Write what you really feel.

[—30—]

 

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Harmonica, Interview, Toots Thielemans

A 1996 WKCR Interview with Ray Brown, Born 85 Years Ago Today and Some Interviews About Him for A Downbeat Obituary in 2002

For bass king Ray Brown’s 85th birthday anniversary, here’s a piece that ran on the http://www.jazz.com website a couple of years, incorporating the proceedings of a 1996 WKCR encounter on which he joined me in the studio with Christian McBride. The introduction draws deeply on the obituary I wrote for DownBeat when Brown passed on July 2, 2002. After reading the WKCR interview, feel free to read the transcripts of my conversations with McBride, Geoff Keezer, Ron Carter, Monty Alexander, Herb Ellis, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Benny Green, Quincy Jones, and Ed Thigpen, all of whom generously agreed to speak with me for the DownBeat piece.

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Ray Brown’s supple sound, elemental beat, harmonic wizardry, and ability to create striking melodic lines at any tempo made him the definitive bassist of modern jazz. During his 58 years as a professional musician, he played with virtually every consequential figure on the scene. In the first stage of his career, he played on the first Gillespie-Parker combo recordings (“Shaw Nuff”), later making such influential sides as “One Bass Hit,” “Two Bass Hit” and “Ray’s Idea” with Gillespie’s seminal big band in 1946.  He joined fellow Gillespians John Lewis, Milt Jackson and Kenny Clarke in the first iteration of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1951, at which point he had been touring regularly since 1948 with singer Ella Fitzgerald, his first wife, and with Jazz at the Philharmonic. Indeed, Brown’s relationship with Norman Granz led to numerous sideman appearances for Verve and Pablo until the latter 1980’s.  A short list includes recordings with Louis Armstrong, Gillespie, Parker, Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Ben Webster, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, Phineas Newborn, Jimmy Rowles, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington.

Many of those recordings found Brown in a rhythm section with pianist Oscar Peterson, whom he met on Peterson’s first Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in Montreal in 1949, and whose trio—first with guitarists Barney Kessel and Herb Ellis, and subsequently with drummer Ed Thigpen—he famously anchored from 1952 to 1966. In 1966, Brown came off the road, and settled in Los Angeles, functioning simulaneously as a musician and businessman. Over the next two decades he managed such artists as Quincy Jones and the Modern Jazz Quartet, contracted for the studios, co-founded the L.A. Four, co-owned a nightclub called Club Loa, and continued to freelance extensively.

In the mid-’80s, Brown returned to the road with pianist Gene Harris and drummer Jeff Hamilton.  The trio recorded a series of albums for Concord and Paddle-Wheel, evolving an ensemble sound that blended harmonic sophistication with grits-and-gravy blues imperatives.  Under contract to Telarc during the ’90s, Brown continued to challenge himself, sustaining trio excellence with such hand-picked young talent as pianists Benny Green and Geoff Keezer and drummers Greg Hutchinson and Karriem Riggins, and organizing Super Bass in 1996.

“When Ray laid the rhythm down, it was like a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine,” Monty Alexander told me in a tribute piece that Downbeat ran after his death. “He was the greatest support player, yet he wasn’t about to be a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.”

“Ray gave me confidence,” Peterson remarked. “I never had to wonder and worry about where things were going harmonically or rhythmically. He listened to each performance that everyone gave, and adjusted his playing to you on different nights, which not a lot of bassists do. He would walk different lines behind me, change the harmonic pattern, just to see what I would do.”

“If you isolated Ray’s basslines and superimposed them over the chords in, say, a higher register, you’d find he was creating beautiful contrapuntal melodies all the time,” Keezer said. “I felt I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted — and I took it pretty far out.”

“Ray’s approach to teaching wasn’t ‘Try this scale on this chord,’ Clayton stated. “Instead he would say, ‘Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record, or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.’ He turned me on to Eddie Gomez, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro. People forget that Ray Brown played Bebop, and when it hit, people thought it came from outer space; more jazz lovers could not relate to it than could. And Ray continued to search and stretch and experiment. His later arrangements involved more unpredictable voicings, chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years before.”

“He saw at an early age with Norman Granz in JATP how to run a business and take care of the musicians,” Jeff Hamilton noted. “He related that Norman once pulled the entire tour off of an airplane because, even though he’d bought a ticket for it, they wouldn’t allow his bass on board. Ray’s pride and sense of self-worth influenced his business techniques. ‘Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.’ They would inevitably call back. Ray said, ‘No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.’ That kind of self-confidence came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and doing business off the bandstand.”

“After he moved to Los Angeles, we started working a lot together,” said Quincy Jones. “We got closer and closer. After a while, Ray started to take care of booking gigs and travel. He was an astute businessman. Old school played everything. We all played chitlin’ circuits. And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man. You played it, and tried to make it all sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and not wanting to be a victim. We wanted to be more in charge of our own destinies.

“A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being, and Ray was a very confident, take-charge person. He played bass like that and lived like that. He ate 17 different dishes like that. Wherever we were, whatever was good, Ray knew what it was. He’d probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  To me, he was the absolute symbol that if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full. Give it up every time, man. Don’t save nothin’. I learned more and more about that from him all the time. In everything.”

On the final night of Super Bass’ debut gig at the Blue Note in 1996, Brown and McBride joined me on New York’s WKCR for a discussion about his life and times. An edited version appears below.

[MUSIC: Ray Brown/Basie/Roker, “One” (1975); Ray Brown Trio, “Con Alma” (1993); Ray Brown with Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, “One Bass Hit” (1946)]

I’d like to get things started by giving Ray Brown a bit of the third degree on his early years in music.  Hearing Count Basie and Ray Brown together puts you in touch with two-thirds of your deepest musical roots, because when you were 11 years old or so, you got to hear the Basie band on a fairly regular basis, didn’t you.

Oh yeah.  I went down there every day…

This was at the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh. You sat under the piano, right near Walter Page.

Right, in Pittsburgh.

How did you find out that this was happening, and what was the cause of your interest at this time?

Oh, I knew everything about music.  We had a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  We had two theaters that had live shows 52 weeks a year.  We had jam sessions at the union every night of the week, and the guys from the theaters came down there and jammed with the local guysThere was a big band in each theater, and a big band played a concert once a week in Pittsburgh.  There was a ton of music.

What was the source of your being inclined to it?  Was music in your family?  Were your parents musicians?

No, they weren’t musicians, but they loved music.  When I was a little kid my father wanted me to be a piano player, and he loved Fats Waller.  We used to sit up and listen to Fats Waller, and he’d say, “Listen to that left hand; listen to that guy play.”  Of course, Fats Waller was fantastic, one of the best of all time.  Then he came in with another record and he said, “Yeah, I got another guy I like; you’d better listen to this guy.”  Then he put this record on, and it was Art Tatum.  So you get pointed in the right direction.

Did you have private teachers?

Yeah, I had piano teachers.  The first one was kind of uppity.  She would pass me in the street… I’d be playing marbles, and she’d stop the car and pick me up and say, “All right, let’s go.”  I had to go home and wash up and come in there.  She’d inspect my nails.  She was a very proper… I told my mother I didn’t like that piano teacher.  So my mother said, “Well, what do you want to do?”  I said, “Well, there’s a couple of ladies… There’s a lady named Ruby Young I want to study with.”  Ruby Young had her own band.  There were two bands in Pittsburgh at that time led by women.  One was Gertrude Long and her Nighthawks, and this was Ruby Young and her band.  So Ruby was teaching lessons.

How old were you when you started playing?

Oh, God.  Young.  10, 11, somewhere around there.  But anyway, I took my first lesson with Ruby Young, and after the lesson I said, “Can you play some jazz for me?”—and she struck out then!  I told my mother, “Now, that’s it.”  She just sat up and played some stride and everything, and then I was very happy.  This is what I wanted to do and this is what I wanted to hear.

I gather you lived next door to a trombone player who played with Gertrude Long’s Nighthawks.

Right.  I used to go over and sit on the floor while they were rehearsed. I was around music all the time.  And my father liked Fats Waller so much that when my folks gave parties, he hired a guy who looked like Fats Waller, who played very little piano, he sang a little bit, but he wore tails and a top hat just like Fats Waller, and my father would tell all the guests, “After you get a few drinks, he sounds real good.” [LAUGHS] This guy would imitate Fats Waller, singing “Your Feet’s Too Big,” sang all those songs, and he played the piano.  My father couldn’t get Fats Waller, but that was the best thing he could do.  So there was music all the time in my house.

So come 1937 with the Basie band sort of on their workshop month preparing for their sojourn in the north, you were there regularly.

That’s right.  He had Sweets and Buck Clayton and Dickie Wells.  All those guys were in the band.  Jo Jones, Walter Page, Freddie Green.  So I met all these guys when I was a kid.

Do you remember the interaction, things you asked them, what they said to you?

No.  I just remember sitting there listening.  So that record has two people who were very-very influential to me, Dizzy Gillespie (who we don’t even have to talk about) and Count Basie.

But you weren’t playing the bass at all in 1937 when you saw Walter Page.

No, I wasn’t playing the bass at all.

That happened when you heard Jimmy Blanton, I gather.

Well, it didn’t happen right away, but I was aware of Jimmy Blanton, and then when I started messing around with the bass it became very prominent.

How did it come about that you made the transition from being a piano player to a bass player?

Well, it was very simple.  I went to junior high school, and I signed up for orchestra, and they had about, I don’t know, 28 piano players and they had 3 basses and only 2 bass players.  So every day, there was a bass laying on the floor, doing nothing.  And I’m sitting over there waiting for my 15 minutes a week to sit down to the piano.  It’s difficult for teenagers to sit around all day and not do anything and stay out of trouble.  So I asked the teacher, “Hey, if I was playing that bass, I could play every day.”  He said, “That’s right.  We’re looking for another bass player.”  I said, “Okay, you’ve got one.”  And that was it.

Was there a good teacher there?

No-no.  I just played it.  Just figured it out.  The schoolteacher showed me what… He had to show everybody every instrument.  He tuned up everybody’s instrument and he showed you, gave you five minutes maybe, and then you were on your own.  But I was bringing these things home; I was practicing with the records.  And I luckily played a lot with Duke Ellington, because the guy who was on that record sounded best to me.  So I played with that record all the time.  Any Duke Ellington record.

So Jimmy Blanton was the guy you played along with.

Daily.

When did you start gigging on the bass?

When I got to high school, a guy who I used to deliver papers to named Henry Foster was looking for some guys, and I said, “Hey, I play the bass and my friend plays the piano” — a guy named Walt Harper.  He hired both of us, and we started working with them on Friday and Saturday and Sunday, making $3 a night.  That was a lot of money then.  There were no taxes either.

What type of places would you play, and who was coming to hear you?

Just local people.  I don’t know… A lot of that stuff is dim now in terms of me giving you accuracy about the people showing up.  All I can remember is playing and learning the tunes.

Was it piano-bass-and-drums…

Piano, bass and drums and saxophone.

Do you remember what kind of repertoire you were playing at the time?  Did you ever have room for features for yourself?

Not really, no.  But we played just the tunes of the day.  “Tea For Two” and “Satchmouth Baby” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”

And all this time you’re still going to the theaters to hear the big bands…

Oh yeah.  Well, when I got to high school we started playing hookey to hear… We were listening to Lester Young, Bud Powell with Cootie Williams, Oscar Pettiford with Charlie Barnet, way before he ever joined Duke Ellington.

In Pittsburgh what was the top level of bass playing you could hear when you were coming up?

I guess the top bass players were a guy named Bass McMahon, who wound up playing with Eckstine’s band.  Then a guy who wound up here in New York, who they called Crusher, named Carl Pruitt, and he was with Roy Eldridge’s band.  They were the top guys in Pittsburgh.

Hearing Roy Eldridge’s name, and he being from the Pittsburgh area, makes me want to ask you which of the many famous musicians who emerged from Pittsburgh were you in contact with, were your peers when you were coming up.

There’s more famous people out of Pittsburgh, I think, than any place in the world, which is just ahead of maybe Philadelphia and Detroit.  You go back to Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge and Maxine Sullivan and Billy Strayhorn and Billy Eckstine, and come up to Art Blakey and Erroll Garner and Stanley Turrentine and Tommy Turrentine, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson… It’s a long list.  Dakota Staton.  Henry Mancini.  Pittsburgh had zillions of bad dudes come out of there!  A lot of people came out of Pittsburgh. So there was a lot of music in Pittsburgh.  I think in towns (Philadelphia was like that, Detroit was like that) where there’s a lot of music going on, I think it inspires young people to get into it.

<Now, the only guy I ever had any contact with (I didn’t know Roy or Eckstine or any of those people) was Erroll Garner, who was a few years older than us, but we used to play hookey, go over to his house and listen to him play the piano.  He used to come by, this little band that we worked with… He lived around the corner, and on Sunday night we played this North Side Elks; he’d slip in there around 11:30 and come in there and jam with us.  It was a lot of fun when he showed up.

Was he playing the same then as later…

Well, he swung the same way.  But he was playing more like Fats Waller then.

Did you get to see Jimmy Blanton play in person?  Do you remember that experience?

I saw him at the theater, yes.  The problems with the bass back in 1940-41, which is when Blanton was very prominent (or any other bass player), there were no amplifiers. There was a microphone in front of the band, and the saxophone player came up and played solos off it, the singers sang, and the leader would make announcements on it.  I mean, there was just one microphone up there.  Until Duke Ellington showed up and had a special mike on Jimmy Blanton standing in front of the band, you never heard the bass that well.  I mean, you heard the guy playing, but you couldn’t do anything fast on bass because nobody would be able to hear it.  So Blanton was an oddity in the first place, and a lot of people didn’t understand it.  They said, “Why does Duke Ellington have this guy up there playing all them bass solos?”  “Hah!  Yeah, sure.”

From you, a quick evaluation how Jimmy Blanton changed the face of the bass.

Oh, he just changed it.  From black to white.  That big a change.  Just picking it up, he was different.  I mean, he had the best sound you ever heard.  He played the best lines.  He played the best solos.  He did everything!  And everybody was into Jimmy Blanton.  I mean, I delivered newspapers to Carl Pruitt’s house, and I don’t care when I went by his house; he was playing those records and practicing with the records just like everybody else.  This must have been done around the world.  Everybody said, “What?”  They heard a guy play a bass like that… PSHEW!

Let’s take you from Pittsburgh in a capsulized way to 1944 to New York and hearing Dizzy Gillespie.  What were the circumstances of leaving Pittsburgh?

I would have left Pittsburgh before I finished high school, but my mother said if I did she was going to have me picked up by the police.  So I had to finish high school.  Schenley High School.  What happened, really, Cootie Williams’ band was at a big theater downtown with Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots and some dance team, Cook & Brown or something like that.  It was a big show.  They had Benson & Hedges’ hot record, “Put Me In Your Brass Bed,” or whatever the name is… Anyway, that show was hot.  The bass player in that show got picked up by the Army because he didn’t pick up his draft notice.  They came and got him from backstage, put him in a truck and drove him off to the Army base.  So now they’re looking for a bass player, and they got Crusher, Carl Pruitt, and he finished out the week.  But somebody told them about me, and I went down there, and they tried the jacket on me — and Carl Pruitt was too big, the jacket fit me, and they offered me the job. [LAUGHS] So I ran home and told my folks.  I said, “I got a job with Cootie Williams’ band.”  They said, “You have no job.”  You’re going to school.  And I cried and rolled over and died a few times.  But my mother said, “You’re going to finish school.”

So you had to stay in Pittsburgh a little while more.

Absolutely.  If you knew my folks, you would have stayed, too.

So after high school, then what?

As soon as I finished high school, I went on the road.  I went to Buffalo with a guy named Jimmy Hinsley in ‘44.

Wasn’t Hank Jones in Buffalo at that time?

Yes, that’s where we met.

I’ve read about you meeting after the show, drinking milkshakes and then going to hear Art Tatum after you were done.

Yes.  What happened was, I got a room at the YMCA, and a couple of days after I’d gotten there I was coming down going to someplace I was going.  I used to take the stairs down, and you passed a door that was the door to the cafeteria.  They had a piano, for some reason, in the cafeteria.  And I heard what I thought was this record we had at home of “Begin The Beguine” by Art Tatum, which I knew very well.  I played it many times.  I knew it practically by heart.  And I heard this record playing, and I stood outside the door and I said, “Wow, there’s that Tatum record,” and I sat and listened to it and it played — but when it got to the end there was some more playing!  I said, “Whoa!”

I went through the door, and there’s a guy sitting up there playing the piano.  I walked over to him and said, “Hey, man, that was that Art Tatum record, ‘Begin The Beguine.’”  He said, “Yeah.”  I said, “Oh yeah!”  That was Hank Jones.  That’s how we met.  So after that, every day I would bring my bass home, and we would go down to the cafeteria and play — every day.  We were on different jobs, but we just played together every afternoon.

What sort of things would you play?

Anything he wanted to play, and I followed him.

You were part of the first group of musicians where the general level of knowledge required seemed to be more.  How much do you think your piano background helped you in dealing with the music you had to play later on?

Well, the piano has always helped me in music.  The bass helps you hear the chord, but the piano then spells it out for you, in case you don’t know what the other notes are.  The piano plays all the notes.  So between the bass and the piano you have everything.

Let’s get you back on course to New York City.  You’re in Buffalo with Jimmy Hinsley, you meet Hank Jones, you’re playing in the cafeteria.  The story I hear is that you were on the road with the Snookum Russell band, then you left that band and went to New York City.  Snookum Russell was one of those band that had major figures before they became major figures.

Well, everybody in those days… There were a ton of big bands, and when you left school and went on the road, you normally went, in those days, with a big band, and you would play with the big band and then you would get better and you would move up to a better big band.  Eventually, you would wind up with one of the major big bands, as you became better.  Two guys who were in Snookum Russell’s band just before I joined it were was Fats Navarro and J.J. Johnson.  Those are not too bad names!

What kind of music was he playing?

I guess you could call it almost a commercial jazz band.  He covered the hits of the day.  If Lucky Millinder had a hit with Bull Moose Jackson, “Who Threw The Whiskey In the Well,” we would be doing that.  What happened was, I joined Snookum, and then he found out that I knew all of this stuff that Jimmy Blanton and Duke Ellington had done, so he started doing it between the two of us — because he of course loved Duke Ellington.  So he started featuring me doing the Blanton stuff.  There was a saxophone player in that band named Charles Carman(?) out of Sandusky, Ohio, and this guy was a Lester Young freak.  He knew everything Lester Young ever made—every note!  When I met him, and we were talking (after he’d been in the band for a little while), he said, “Do you know anything about Prez?”  I said, “Sure.”  He said, “What do you know about him?”  I said, “Well, what do you want to know?”  He said, “Do you know any of his solos?”  I said, “Call one.”

What you need to know is when I was going to high school we had a club of musicians, and every record that came out, as soon as it came out, you’d buy it (and it cost like 29 cents, a ‘78), you had two days to learn any of the major solos on there, and if you didn’t learn it in two days then nobody would let you in the house, because you had to sing it before you could get in the guy’s house.  So you had to learn every solo off of every record.

So I said, “Which one do you want to hear?”  He said so-and-so and so-and-so, and then I started singing it to him.  I couldn’t get rid of him after that.  Now, Lester Young and Slam Stewart had these records with Johnny Guarnieri and Sid Catlett, and we started doing those things—““Sometimes I’m Happy,” all that stuff.  So we were covering everything.

So Snookum Russell was a stimulating experience.

Oh yeah.

But you left.  It’s a funny story I’ve heard, there were four or five of you, they were going to leave the band, and they backed out…

Well, we all said we were going to go to New York and try our luck.  We had been with Snookum about eight months, and we’re reading Downbeat magazine and reading about Coleman Hawkins and 52nd Street and all these things.  We said, “We’ve got to go to New York.”  Because you had to go to New York to make it then. You couldn’t make it anyplace else.  You had to come to New York.  I said, “Well, then, let’s go to New York.”  So five of us decided we were going to go to New York.  And the night before we were supposed to leave, I started packing, I looked around, and everybody was sitting around.  I said, “What’s going on?”  One by one, they said, “Naw…”  The other four guys backed out.  So I started to back out, and then I said, “No, I’m going.”  I had talked to an aunt in New York and she said I could stay with her.  So I said, “I’m going.”

How did you travel?

On the train.  Took two days.

What happened when you got here?

I went to my aunt’s, washed up, she gave me some dinner, and I asked her son, who was my age, “Where is 52nd Street?”  He said, “Well, you’ve got to get the subway to get down there.”  I said, “Well, as soon as we eat, let’s go down there.  I want to see it.”  And he took me.

And who was on the Street?

Oh God, I can’t remember every band, but it was frightening.  I know the Downbeat, the second club on the right, had Art Tatum and Billie Holiday.  Stuff Smith was across the street (I can’t remember the other band).  Benny Harris and Don Byas.  There was one band that I went to see every night for a month (I didn’t miss a set), which was a trio with Erroll Garner, J.C. Heard and Oscar Pettiford.  Never missed a set.  Never did miss a set.  It was ridiculous.  You would have died if you could heard that group, man.  Obnoxious.  But anyway, the third place there had Coleman Hawkins featured, and Billy Daniels was singing intermissions, and he was being accompanied by a piano player, and it said, “Hank Jones.”  So I ran in there, and I asked if Hank Jones was around.  They said, “Yeah, he’s back there,” and I went back there, and we sat down and started to talk.  While we were talking, “Oh, there’s Dizzy Gillespie coming through the door.”  I said, “Oh yeah?  Introduce me.  I want to meet him.”  Because I had heard all his records and stuff.  So he called Dizzy, and Dizzy came over, and Hank said, “This is a good friend of mine; he’s a good bass player; he just got in town.”  Dizzy looked at me and said, “Can you play?”  I said, “Well…” I mean, what are you going to say?  Hank said, “Yeah, he can play.”  So he said, “You want a job?”  And I said, “Yeah!”  And he gave me a card and said, “Be at my house tomorrow night 7 o’clock for a rehearsal.”  I got up there, and there was four guys in there—Bud Powell, Max Roach, Dizzy and Charlie Parker.  Can’t beat that.  If you won the lottery tomorrow, it wouldn’t be as good as that.

What happened then?

Well, I had a heart attack first, and then we started to play some music.

What did the music sound like to you?  Was it along lines you were thinking about?

Like nothing I’ve ever heard before. They played tempos and keys and songs that I had never heard of, and you’re just standing there watching and trying to keep up.  Dizzy and Charlie Parker played so good, it was a frightening experience.

Dizzy Gillespie was famous for showing musicians how to play the music that he developed.  Did he do that with you at all?

He did that with all of us.  He used to show Max a lot of stuff.  They were very meticulous about what they wanted from the drums, especially Dizzy.  But if you’d ask him, then he would show you.  I know after I had been with him for about three or four weeks, I said, “How am I doing?”  He said, “Well, you’re doing pretty good, but you don’t play the right notes.” [LAUGHS] So I said, “What do you mean?”  He took me over to the piano and showed me.  He said, “Now, this note is right.”  Then he played the chord and showed me.  He said, “You play this note.  It’s right.  But that’s not the note I want.”  They were using a lot of substitutions.  So I would be playing a D, but he would want me to play a B.  I didn’t hear that at first, and then after he showed me I started finding out.

A few words about your relationship with and impressions of Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker was unique.  I don’t have to tell anybody in their right mind how well this man played his instrument.  But what you don’t realize is, he’s the only guy I ever heard who could cover <b>everything</b>.  If you wanted to play “Cherokee” as fast as you could play it, he would eat it alive.  If you wanted to play some swing, like “Now’s The Time” or something like that, he would kill that.  If you wanted to play a ballad like Bird with Strings, he would eat that up.  And then,  he was the best blues player you ever heard!  He just covered everything.  There was nothing he couldn’t do.When you ask me for a few words about Charlie Parker, in a capsule that’s covering it pretty well.

Did he always play fairly short solos?  Was the way he plays on records or the various broadcasts with four or five choruses the rule, or did he extend…

He stretched out a few times.  But I’ll never forget what he told me.  One night somewhere we were playing, and after one of the sets I walked up to him and I said, “Bird, it feels so good when you play, why don’t you play more?”  And he looked at me and he said, “Raymond, if I played any more, I’d be practicing.  I do my practicing at home.”

A few words about Dizzy Gillespie.

Wow, that’s difficult.  I don’t know where to begin.  He was responsible for a lot of things that happened to me.  And he taught me a lot of things.  This is something that we as musicians don’t talk a lot about to people, but we learn many things from our mentors or people who we work for or who we admire or who are in front of us.  You don’t even realize how much you’ve learned from them.  You carry it with you all your life, and then you pass it along.  I just learned a tremendous amount of things from Dizzy Gillespie. Needless to say, he was a magnificent trumpet player, and he was a prolific songwriter, and he was a prolific arranger.  But I just keep going back to his knowledge of music.  Because in that band, which was a fantastic band that I just talked about… In fact, they picked up Milt Jackson a couple of weeks later.  Dizzy organized all the music.  He laid all the music down.  What can I say?  It’s history!

Were you in there at the very beginning of the big band?

He had a big band before, but it didn’t go, and he had to give it up.  I joined him when he had given up the big band and was getting ready to start another small band.  That’s when I showed up.  Then when we came back from California, he told Milt Jackson and I, “Listen, I’m thinking of getting another big band, and if you guys want to stay with me, you let me know.”  So we both said, “Absolutely!”  Then we opened up on 52nd Street.

What were the early rehearsals like?  Is it true that Monk was involved…

Monk was the piano player in that big band before John Lewis.

Was that a similar experience to hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in 1944 on coming to New York?  Did it sound like anything you’d ever heard?

No, not like any big band I’d ever heard.  Very exciting.  The music, the writing, the approach was all different.  The harmonies.  The only guy who experimented with harmonies to that extent was Duke Ellington, and he was always ahead of his time.

How did your first and still famous features for the band come to be?

Well, most leaders look at a band and they see who they have there to exploit, who has some talent that they can feature.  When he looked at this band, I guess it was Jackson and I, and James Moody who enjoyed a lot of the solo space along with Dizzy.  Other guys got solos, but we got a lot of space.

It was a great opportunity to really develop your conception in a variety of ways.

Yeah, but all these things are designated by the leader.  It’s like Jimmy Blanton joins Duke Ellington, and six months later he’s standing in front of the band playing solos all night. So Duke Ellington saw something and he was right.  He was absolutely right!  Here’s a guy who had under his thumb at any given time, Johnny Hodges and Ben Webster and Harry Carney and Ray Nance and Cootie Williams—all those guys!  But this was a diamond he had just discovered, and he did something with it.

In talking about Blanton before you were mentioning the difficulties bassists had in big bands because of the lack of amplification.  Now, you had to play very fast with Dizzy Gillespie.  Did you have amplification by that time?  How did you deal with…

Well, I didn’t play fast solos.  We were just playing fast tempos.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  “Things To Come”! [LAUGHS]

When I was talking about playing fast I was talking about the way Christian McBride plays now.  20-30-40 years ago you wouldn’t have heard all those notes he’s playing.  Now you can hear every one of them.

But then, from what I gather, people heard you pretty clearly, and those are some tempos that haven’t been caught up with yet!

We’re not discussing tempos, now.  We’re discussing solo lines.  That’s a big difference.  Nobody dared play anything that fast because you couldn’t hear it.  Oscar Pettiford played some magnificent solos, and you didn’t really get to hear him until he joined Duke Ellington.

I’d like to talk you about Coleman Hawkins and your impressions of him.  I read a story that you and Hank Jones were trying to work out ways to trick him…

[LOUD LAUGH]

…on “Body and Soul” or something, and he just threw them right back at you.

That’s what I was talking about with all of the great saxophone players, how they differed.  For instance, let’s take Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.  We were on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and Coleman Hawkins was playing “Body and Soul,” which he had to play whenever he took his saxophone out.  Hank Jones and I rehearsed in the daytime, we devised about 15 different sets of changes on “Body and Soul.”  And it didn’t make any difference.  Whatever we played, he just ate it up!  He just turned around, looked at us and said, “Hmm, THBBF,” and would go right through it.  We just broke up.  But it was good.  This guy had a magnificent ear!  On the other hand, Lester Young, you could play what you want back there.  Doesn’t matter.  He’s playing little stories.  He makes up melodies of his own, so he’s not interested in the changes.  He didn’t miss the change, but then he had his own interpretation of how to do it.

McBRIDE:   What about that story you told me about Ben Webster, when you were doing one of those Jazz at the Philharmonics.  That one wasn’t as smooth, huh?

Well, but that’s how you learn, though.  That’s why I can play songs in all the keys now.  He’s kind of responsible for that.  They had a ballad medley on Jazz at the Philharmonic, and each guy would walk up… They had ten horns.  Each guy would walk up two bars before the other guy finished and tell the rhythm section what he was going to play in what key.  So Coleman Hawkins would say, “‘Body and Soul’ in D-flat,” then he’d go out and play.  Roy Eldridge would come by and say, “‘The Man I Love,’ E-flat.”  It was just like that.  Until you get to Ben Webster, and Webster would come up and say, “‘My One And Only Love,’ B-natural.”  And we’d be back there scrambling for those changes!  So after the show was over, I would be in the back, packing up my bass, and somebody walked up behind me and hit me on my head.  I turned around and it was Ben Webster.  He said, “You messed up the chords tonight.”  I said, “Man, you were playing in B-natural.”  He said, “Don’t you have a B on that bass?”  Enough said.  Christian likes that story!

McBRIDE:  I’m sure we’ve all been through that a couple of times!

But it’s good for somebody to bring that to your attention.  All it does is, it improves you as a musician.

All those saxophonists had very different sounds and different approaches to projecting sound.  Ben Webster, for instance.

Oh yeah.  That may be the best saxophone sound I ever heard in my life, just the sound he made coming out of that horn.

You once described it, I think, as he and Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges had the most mature sounds that you had heard.

Well, Charlie Parker used to call Johnny Hodges the Lily Pons of the saxophone.  Now, Lily Pons was a famous opera singer; what a beautiful voice.  That’s what Bird called Rabbit, the Lily Pons of the saxophone.

Staying on various personalities, Hank Jones was obviously very important to you at that time.

We call him “Mr. Piano.”  There’s just not a lot of people around who are that prolific on that instrument as he is.  He plays everything well.  I mean, he’s sort of like I said about Charlie Parker; this guy just does it all.  Magnificent player.  Wouldn’t you say so, Christian?

McBRIDE:  Oh, definitely.  I’d like to ask Ray about the short movie clip of Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band, Jivin’ in Bebop?  You were saying how Duke used to put Jimmy Blanton in front of the band, and Dizzy does that to you on the video where you guys play “One Bass Hit.”

Oh yeah.  Well, they didn’t have to put me up front, but I guess if you’re featured on a tune, doing this movie the tendency was to bring the soloist up front.  It was unusual for the time, but they did it even with a bass player.

McBRIDE:  Every note you played came through crystal-clear.

Such as it was.

I’d like to talk to you about some of the drummers you’ve played with, since bass and drums are so interlocked.  First of all, Kenny Clarke, a fellow Pittsburgher.

That’s right.  I didn’t name him, but I left out a lot of people.  Kenny Clarke was a special drummer.  I never will forget, I would come to work on 52nd Street… Because he was in that first rhythm section, Monk, myself and Kenny Clarke.  He said, “Now, I want you to stand behind the bass drum, because I want your bass notes to go through the bass drum so it doesn’t come out BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  It will sound almost like a bass coming out of there.  And he would come down early and have a damp cloth and wipe down his bass drum and tune it, and then tell me exactly where he wanted me to stand, because he said that makes the rhythm section sound better.  Most guys aren’t that meticulous about music.  He was special.  And he could swing.  That’s another thing about those Pittsburgh drummers.  Art Blakey, PSHEW!  Boy, those guys had some beat.  They had a beat, man.

<But we were talking about Hank Jones.  We did a session, and I challenged him on this… I said, “Do you ever remember a song that Fats Waller used to sing called ‘Your Feet’s Too Big’?”  He said, “Hell, yeah, I knew that tune.  I grew up with that.”  I said, “Well, let’s play it.”  And we played it on this record date.  So this is just for Hank Jones.  I hope he’s listening, because he’ll fall out.

[MUSIC: RB/HJ, “Your Feet’s Too Big” (1976); RB/HJ/Bags, “Nancy” (1964); OP/RB/Ella, “Street of Dreams”]

That was Ray Brown’s selection of music with your first wife, Ella Fitzgerald.

Well, there’s been so much since she passed away.  They’ve done so much.  I’ve heard it on the radios everywhere we’ve gone, Europe and the United States.  We’ve just lost one of the best ones.  A magnificent woman and a magnificent singer.  One of the best who ever did it.  I have great memories just for the fact that… The first trumpet player, and one of the best of all time, Mr. Louis Armstrong, he and Ella did a lot of stuff together, and I was fortunate to be on a lot of that stuff.  But I’ve been overly blessed to play with all the way back to Louis Armstrong and all the way up to guys like Christian McBride now.  And I’m just elated to still be able to go up on the bandstand and play.  It’s a great feeling!  And to have gone through all of those people I’ve played with.  All of those saxophone players, Prez and Hawk and Ben and Sonny Rollins, Johnny Hodges and Bird and Cannonball.  Sweets and Roy and Fats and Dizzy…Clark Terry.  I can’t name everybody.  All the piano players I’ve played with, all the guitar players, and all the drummers.  Just I’ve worked with almost everybody in this business, and that’s a blessing.  can’t describe it.  It’s just too overwhelming.

Just a few words on how This One’s For Blanton came to be.

Well, I made maybe half-a-dozen sessions with Ellington, whom I had always wanted to play with ever since I was knee-high to a duck.  But Norman Granz said to me, “You and Duke ought to do some things like he and Blanton did.”  I said, “Oh, I don’t know about that!”  But I said, “Well, let’s talk about it.”  He tried for years to get us together.  We were just in different places all the time.  Duke was busy and he was someplace, and I was busy someplace.  Of course, this was the last record he made before he passed, and I was fortunate enough to get in the studio with him.  The second session we did, he was pretty sick.  He had a fever. But he came in and played magnificently.

***********************

REMARKS ABOUT RAY BROWN:
Christian McBride

TP:    Talk about Ray Brown’s legacy in the music, in a synoptic way.

CHRISTIAN McBRIDE:  If I can make this as simple and poignant as possible, I would have to say that Ray Brown was to the bass what Charlie Parker was to the saxophone.  He revolutionized the instrument.  He took what Jimmy Blanton started to an entirely new level.

Ray Brown was arguably the very first bass player to revolutionize note lengths.  Most bass players before Ray Brown played very short, choppy notes, and Ray Brown revolutionized the sound of the bass in that his notes were very long.  Every note got its full value.  A quarter note was actually a quarter note.  A half note was actually a half note.  A whole note was actually a whole note.  How Ray Brown came across playing that way during a time when nobody did, it will always be beyond me, but I guess being in the company of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and the man who I’m with now, Roy Haynes, I’m sure greatness and innovative ideas would run rampant.

TP:    When did he build his technique?  Did you ever get that from him?

McBRIDE:  Well, he always had that technique.  But I never really got a chance to talk much to him about any of his teachers or his early studies.  But Ray always talked about Jimmy Blanton.  That was his main man. That’s what made him want to play bass.  And it’s quite amazing that Ray Brown… When Jimmy Blanton hit the scene, that was really only seven years before Ray Brown hit the scene.  So there really wasn’t that large of a gap in age difference between the two of them.  That just proves how much of a sponge Ray was, to be able to pick up what Jimmy Blanton did.  And not to slight all the other bass players who were around then, like Milt Hinton, of course, or his fellow beboppers, like Al McKibbon and Nelson Boyd and Tommy Potter and Curley Russell.  But Ray, in most people’s eyes, was head and shoulders above the rest.

And his intonation was impeccable.  That was another one of his calling cards throughout his entire career.  Every note was always perfectly in tune.

TP:    I guess there was a hand-in-glove type of thing going on between he and Oscar Pettiford.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely.  Ray talked a lot about Oscar, too.  But even talking to a lot of guys who were there, like Roy Haynes or Hank Jones… Needless to say, Oscar Pettiford was a revolutionary in his own right, not just bass playing, but playing the cello and being able to play all those wonderfully melodic lines that Charlie Parker and Dizzy were playing, and incorporate that into the bass.  But his sound, the way he played his notes, still came from an older style.  Oscar Pettiford’s notes were still kind of on the short side, and Ray Brown elongated them. The bass had much more of a forward motion with the notes ringing out that much.  They almost ran into each other, his notes were so resonant.

TP:    How did his sound evolve over the years?  This is someone, it seems quite evident, who kept his curiosity, and particularly in the last ten years nurtured young musicians.

McBRIDE:  I think the fact that Ray Brown never stopped playing… I mean, even after he left Oscar Peterson’s company and moved to Los Angeles in the ’60s and started working on a lot of television and film, the “Merv Griffin Show” and whatnot, he never got away from the groove and the swing.  He played that style every day all of his life, and of course, when you do something like that every day, you can only get better and develop.  He never lost focus of his strength.  All during the time when people would think that being in Los Angeles and working on film scores and doing a lot of things that weren’t very jazz friendly, he might lose his chops.  But he never did.  I think the fact that he was able to stay so active during his time in L.A., when he really wasn’t traveling a lot, going on the road with other bands… When he decided to start a trio again and go back on the road, people realized, “Oh my gosh, he sounds better than ever.”

TP:    I’m looking my file of the interview, and he told the story that in junior high school he signed up for orchestra, and there were 28 piano players and 2 bass players, and there was a bass lying on the floor, so he asked the teacher if he could play it, and the teacher said he could.  He said he just figured it out himself without a teacher.

McBRIDE:  I totally believe it.  I never heard him mention having a private teacher. That’s testament to the man’s genius.

TP:    Talk about your personal relationship.  Of all the young musicians, you and John Clayton might have been the closest to him.

McBRIDE:  I can only say that a lot of musicians tend to call older guys “Dad” in a very loose manner.  But Ray Brown was not only a father figure to me, but I know he was to John as well as Benny Green and Diana Krall, or even people like Dee Dee Bridgewater.

One thing I loved about Ray more than anything else was that he took a very simplistic view toward life. Ray was not into over-conceptualizing.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter without doing a lot of dancing around any type of subject.  That’s the way he approached his music.  You watch a lot of musicians, and sometimes we have a tendency to do that, to over-think, to always want to try to get to that next level by thinking it out and a lot of trial-and-error.  Meanwhile, Ray had this ability to see it and go for it.  I’ll give you a perfect example.  Ray and I were talking about playing with the bow one time, and of course, traditionally there’s a way you hold the French bow and a way you hold the German bow.  I was talking to Ray about that one time, and Ray said, “I don’t see what the big deal is; it’s nothing but hair.”  He said, “If you hold it with your fist, you’re still going to do an up bow and a down bow, and it’s still going to sound okay.”  I said, “wow, I’ve never heard anybody quite put it like that, Ray.”

TP:    He wasn’t joking, though.

McBRIDE:  He wasn’t joking.  He was dead-serious.

TP:    So it was a totally pragmatic thing for him.

McBRIDE:  Totally.  And he lived his life like that.  He was always able to get right to the crux of the matter, and not being evil or being indignant; that’s just how he felt.  He was able to get right to the core of the matter.

TP:    He was a very standup guy also, I gather.  Someone you didn’t want to cross in any manner.

McBRIDE:  Absolutely not.  He was a very astute businessman, too.  He had that jazz club in L.A. for a long time, the Loa, and of course, he managed the MJQ for a while, and he also managed Quincy Jones for a while, when Quincy was really starting to heat up in Los Angeles, writing for Sanford and Son and Ironside and all those shows.  So this man had it together on both sides of the fence.

TP:    Would you describe for the 8-millionth time how you met?

McBRIDE:  I met Ray Brown at the Knickerbocker.  He was in town playing at the Blue Note with his trio, which at the time was Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton.  Mary Ann Topper, who was manager to Benny Green and I at the time… I was playing in Benny’s trio at the time.  Mary Ann said, “Listen, Ray has got to hear you guys.  There’s no way in the world he wouldn’t dig you guys.”  So Benny and I were playing at the Knickerbocker, and Mary Ann got Ray to come over.  Needless to say, Benny Green and I were scared out of our wits.  I think a lot of times… I know some guys are different, but a lot of musicians, the last thing they want to do if they’ve been playing all night is go hear somebody else play.  They just kind of want to chill out, have a drink, and be cool and just vibe with the cats.  So Ray comes over, and we could tell he was tired, but he sat down and listened to us, and gave us some really nice words of wisdom, not anything too over the top, but he said, “You guys sound great; keep it up; you guys have really got it together; come see me play tomorrow night.”  So Benny and I went and saw Ray; it was his last night, a Sunday night.  Much to our surprise, he acknowledged us from the stage.  He said, “Last night I went to this club around the corner, the Knickerbocker, and I heard these two young men, and they were swingin’ like dawgs.”  I’ll never forget, those were his exact words, “swingin’ like dawgs.”  He asked us to stand up in the audience.  And about eight months later, Benny became Ray’s pianist, took Gene Harris’ place, and about four months after that, almost a year after we met, he started the new version of Super-Bass with John Clayton and myself.

TP:    What was it like playing with him?

McBRIDE:  All I can say is, I always wanted to know what a drummer felt like, playing with a really, really great bass player.  I always used to hear Billy Higgins say that when he played with Sam Jones, the drums played themselves.  He was like, “I don’t have to do anything; I can just put my stick right up on the cymbal, and it sounds good, because Sam is just laying it down.”  When I got to stand next to Ray Brown and hear him walk…I mean, feel him walk… I mean, physically the stage moved.  “Man, I’ve never felt perpetual motion like this!”  I was supposed to solo on top while he was walking, but I just couldn’t do it, because I was so amazed at the energy and force his bass lines created.  I was stuck for a minute.

TP:    What do you think Ray Brown’s legacy is going to be in the music?

McBRIDE:  That he was able to make the most simple musical statements with such ease… Like I said before, his music was like his whole outlook on life.  It was very direct and to the point, and it felt really good ,and I don’t think there will ever be another bass player that will be able to physically move a band quite like Ray Brown did.

TP:    Why is that?

McBRIDE:  I don’t know.  To kind of follow on Ray’s simplistic viewpoint, I really believe there are some guys who are just born with it and some guys who aren’t.

TP:    Are you talking about a specific quality or his essence?

McBRIDE:  I’m talking about a specific quality.  Because you would think that, the way Ray Brown plays, there would be a lot of other guys who would kind of… Because it’s a very simple style to figure out.  But nobody has really quite done it like Ray Brown.  You listen to somebody like Miles Davis.  Miles Davis has a very singular style that’s very easy to figure out, and you can analyze it for days and years and decades, but nobody will ever be able to quite do it like that.  It’s the same thing with Ray Brown.

Geoffrey Keezer

GEOFFREY KEEZER:  You’re never prepared for something like this, since he wasn’t ill, really.  It kind of took us all by surprise.

TP:    He had a sort of indestructible vibe to him, didn’t he.

KEEZER:  That’s a good way of putting it.  I think it was the quality of his generation.  Art Blakey was like that, too.

One thing that I could say that seems to be consistent from that era, whether it be Art Blakey or Ray Brown or Roy Haynes or Art Taylor or…not so much Hank Jones… Generally, they really hit hard!  Every single time they play, it’s as if it could be the last time they ever play music.  I always felt that these musicians always gave 150% every single time.  That’s a quality which I think doesn’t always migrate to younger players.  I think there’s something in the way these older people lived, there’s something that they survived early in their life that gave them this kind of warrior quality.  I think things are just generally easier.  It’s easier to live now.  We’re not dealing with the same things that they were dealing with.  We don’t have segregation, among other things…

TP:    Not so many gangsters now either.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  I remember one conversation, I don’t remember where, but I was in a dressing room with three generations of bass players.  It was Milt Hinton, Ray and Christian McBride.  The conversation went something like this.  McBride was complaining about the hotel or something that we were staying in, and then Ray said something to the effect that when he was young they stayed in real fleabag hotels, with bugs in the bed, just really bad conditions.  Then Milt Hinton jumped in and said, “Yeah, at least you had a hotel.  When we were young, we stayed in a hole!”

TP:    They’d go to town and black families would board them because there was no hotel.

KEEZER:  Yeah.  Not having lived it myself, I can only speculate.  But I think perhaps life was harder, and I think the music took on this sort of warrior quality.  From being with Ray for three years, besides all the musical things I got, I also was able to observe him on a daily basis, just how he handled the business side of things.  In contrast to someone like Art Blakey, who was a little bit more chaotic, Ray was really meticulous about business.  He would be up at 6 o’clock every morning on the phone; he would call Europe early in the morning; then he would go play golf; then he would be on the phone more in the afternoon. He never had an agent or a manager; he always did everything himself.

TP:    Well, he was a manager himself.  He managed Quincy Jones and the MJQ, plus he functioned as a contractor for the studios.  And did that carry over to the way he organized the band, his approach to setting up sets or repertoire?

KEEZER:  There was definitely a quality of attention that he brought to whatever he did.  In terms of what he did on stage, Ray was aware of the show-biz side of things, and he was definitely an entertainer as well as a great artist.  I think actually some young musicians take the whole thing way too seriously!  Of course, you have to take your practice seriously and take the music seriously, but I’ve always felt that it’s also entertainment, and he really understood that side of it.

TP:    I think that might be another characteristic of the generation.  They played shows.  They’d go on a show, and there’d be a dance act, a chorus line, some comedians.

KEEZER:  So he was always sensitive to the kind of audience we were playing for, and he would adjust accordingly.  If we were playing for an older, gray-haired kind of crowd, he would usually play more kinds of old standards, favorites, swing-oriented things, and if we were playing for a younger crowd he would throw in more Funk.  Especially in my last year in the band, we had a lot of guest stars.  We would have guest vocalists, somebody like Marlena Shaw or Diana Krall or Kevin Mahogany, or sometimes Stanley Turrentine would play with us.  So he was aware of the value of presenting interesting packages.

TP:    That’s evident on the “Some of My Best Friends” series.

KEEZER:  He was just as adept as a businessman as he was as a musician.  Which I think is a good quality to have.  And for him, I think it was in balance.  For some musicians, they’re all about business, and the playing suffers.  The reverse is also true.

TP:    Let’s talk about him as a bassist.  Talk about the quality of playing with him on a nightly basis, how he played and created basslines under you.  The dynamics of operating in a high-level trio with Ray Brown.

KEEZER:  I’m so glad that I had a chance to tell him this the last time I saw him, which was at Catalina’s in L.A. about a month ago.  With some distance and really being able to hear his trio from the audience as opposed to being in the middle of it, because sometimes when you’re in the middle of it, it’s harder to hear everything that’s going on, because you’re so sort of involved in what you’re doing at the moment… But hearing his new trio and how much Larry Fuller had improved in the couple of years he was with Ray… He went from being a good pianist when he started to being a really exceptional pianist.  I had a chance to tell Ray how much I appreciated playing with him every night for three years, and how I thought it was really the best thing I ever did for my piano playing.

TP:    Why was that?

KEEZER:  Number one, just because we’re playing every night.  Number two, because what Ray brought was such a wonderful kind of support.  For me, Ray embodied every quality that I like in a bass player.  He did everything really perfectly, and he did all the things that you can’t really say to a bass player, but all the things that you just wish they would do! It’s almost like with another bassist, you want to say, “Why can’t you do what Ray does?” but you don’t want to say that.  I’m trying to think if I can explain a little bit more clearly.

First of all, his beat was so huge, and he swung really, really hard.  Also harmonically speaking, he was so completely aware in every moment of what I was doing, and I felt that he was truly accompanying me. Even though he was the leader and it was his band, I felt like I had complete freedom to go whatever direction I wanted.  If you heard some of the records we made, you know I took it further out than any other pianist.  I only remember one time when he sort of said something about what I was playing. I started playing the Darth Vader theme in the middle of something, and he leaned over and said, “Jazz, please!” But other than that, I got to do as much as I possibly could, and he was right there with me.

TP:    [READS RAY’S QUOTE ON KEEZER]

KEEZER:  What I appreciated is that he let it happen.  There’s another thing about his bass playing which I always talk about in workshops.  That’s his understanding of how to play a walking bassline.  Very few people really understand this.  What he was doing at all times was playing melodies.  And a lot of younger bass players play four notes to the bar, and the notes they choose usually relate to the chords in some way, but the actual notes don’t connect up to any kind of melody.  And with Ray, if you isolated just the bassline and superimposed it over the chords, let’s say in a higher register, you’d have a beautiful melody all the time.  This is similar to what Bach does.  But what that means is that not only was he aware of the chords and being a rhythmic instrument, but he was also creating these melodies all the time underneath everything that I was doing — contrapuntal, in a way.  It’s really an advanced level of bass playing.  There’s only a couple of guys I can think of off the top of my head who can do that — Ron Carter, Dave Holland, Ray Drummond, and a handful of younger players.  It’s a very subtle aspect of playing bass, which hasn’t really migrated well to the younger generation.

John Clayton

TP:    Can you talk about how your relationship began and evolved?

JOHN CLAYTON:  When I was 16 years old, I was getting serious about the bass, and started my first Classical lessons.  Also around that time, I heard my first Ray Brown record, with the Oscar Peterson Trio, and my mind was blown.  So I mentioned the name to my Classical teacher, and asked, “Have you ever heard of him?”  He said, “Sure, I know him; he’s a friend of mine.”  My eyes got wide.  Then he took out a letter from Ray Brown that said, “Dear Mr. Segal, would you please tell your students about a class I’ll be teaching at UCLA called ‘Workshop in Jazz Bass’?”  That was my last Classical lesson with that guy.  I paid $65, and I enrolled in the extension course at UCLA.

TP:    What was Ray Brown like as a teacher?

CLAYTON:  Phenomenal, because he knew the importance of correctly learning the instrument.  In the beginning, Ray Brown was self-taught, as are most of us.  But then at some point, Ray Brown, while on the road with Dizzy Gillespie and Oscar Peterson and those kinds of people, started to hook up with principal bass players in major orchestras, and he had lessons in between his gigs on the road.

TP:    So he set up a network of teachers for himself, taking advantage of his travels?

CLAYTON:  Yes.  And he did that really, frankly, in terms of studying and practicing…he did that until he died. He practiced.  Ray used to tell me, “A lot of people say, ‘Boy, you’re just so talented and so good,” and he’d say… He’d usually use an expletive and say, “They don’t understand I PRACTICED to get together what I have together.  I’m not as talented as most people think.  I had to WORK on it.”  That was very enlightening.

The course at UCLA then led to me following him around to gigs and studio sessions and all of that sort of thing, basically doing whatever he told me to do.

TP:    Once getting past fundamentals, did he teach principles of improvising or playing basslines in a functional situation, that sort of thing?

CLAYTON:  He only led me to other people, not himself; how other people would do it.  He never talked about, “Try this scale on this chord” or that sort of thing.  He never had that approach.  Instead he would say, “Check out what Oscar Pettiford did on this record or what Israel Crosby did with this bassline from Ahmad Jamal.”  He’s the guy who turned me on to Eddie Davis, Richard Davis and Scott LaFaro.

TP:    It seems he kept his ears open to everything happening in the music.

CLAYTON:  As long as you were serious about the music and you were doing something that had something, Ray… People forget that Ray Brown played music that people thought came from outer space — Bebop.  And when bebop hit, there were more people who could not relate to it — I mean, jazz lovers who could not relate to it — than people who could.  So it was a very inside music.  That hasn’t changed.  That was a part of Ray Brown that was in him all the time.  If anyone ever does a thesis on Ray Brown and his music, they’ll see that he continued to search and stretch and experiment.  His later arrangements involved a lot more unpredictable chord voicings and chord changes and melodic movement than things he did five and ten years ago.

TP:    As a friend and someone who deeply analyzed his playing, what were the essential elements that made Ray Brown be Ray Brown?

CLAYTON:  Sound.  His bass sound was absolutely separate and distinguishable from every other bass player on earth.  Sound, his bass lines and his melodic bass solos.  And of course, oops, his drive.  Those things to me really set him apart from everybody else.

TP:    As you’ve implied, he befriended musicians from many walks of the music and many different generations.  But it seems like after the band with Gene Harris and Jeff Hamilton broke up, he made a real choice to go with younger musicians and use them in his touring bands.  Maybe that was in part a practical decision, but what’s your take on why he did that?

CLAYTON:  Because he wanted to keep the youth in his music.  The only practical part of it might be that some of the older musicians that he would ask were busy with their own groups. But also, like you pointed out earlier, he had his ear to the ground, so he was really digging what a lot of these younger musicians were doing.  So it sort of also evolved on its own.  It goes from Benny Green joining the group, and when Jeff Hamilton finally leaves, then Benny can recommend another one of his friends that plays swinging drums, and next thing you know, you’ve got Greg Hutchinson.  All of those guys helped keep Ray up on what was happening in the younger jazz world.

TP:    So they stimulated him.  He needed that constant stimulation.

CLAYTON:  Well, they did stimulate him.  I think all artists need that.

TP:    It sounds like he got some of that as well from Super Bass.

CLAYTON:  That was sure stimulating for me.  Ray and I had actually done a Super Bass record together before he put the group together with Christian.  It’s on Capri Records.  That, of course, kind of set the idea going in our heads.  And when Christian McBride came along, then at some point Ray asked what I thought about putting together a Super Bass group with Christian.  I said, “Are you kidding?  When can we start?”  Of course, we all got along so well together, it really became a family trio.

TP:    Were there any particular stories or incidents that you can think of that get to his essence?

CLAYTON:  There’s one which I told at his funeral, in my eulogy, which really sums up Ray Brown from my perspective.  This is in regard to his concern for musicians.  When I was following him around to the studios, I got star eyes.  I just loved what he did in studios, and was enamored by this whole life of the studio musician, working with all these stars, and I’d see his name stencilled on his equipment, and it all looked so impressive.  So I asked him if he could help me become a studio musician when I got out of college, and he hit the ceiling!  He cursed and screamed, and told me I didn’t even know how to play the effing bass, and the first thing I needed to do was learn how to play it from top to bottom, and then get on the road and play some music, and then if I want to come back and play this garbage in the studios, it will be here waiting for me.  He and I laughed about that a lot in later years, because he was really pissed at the idea that I might get sucked into something that was not helping me to develop as a musician.

TP:    He was also a very practical man, wasn’t he?  A good businessman, a manager, an entrepreneur.

CLAYTON:  I know that for the last twenty years of his life, he did not have a manager.  He handled all of his business, he booked all of his concerts; if it was Carnegie Hall or a funky dive someplace, he booked it.

TP:    And he handled all the details.

CLAYTON:  He did.

TP:    I gather his routine was to get up at 6-6:30 every morning, do business, play golf, come back, do more business, practice, take his nap, and if there was a gig, go to the gig.

CLAYTON:  That pretty much was it.

TP:    A very disciplined man, then.

CLAYTON:  He was.  It wasn’t always 6, but it was early in the morning.  You’re right.

Ron Carter

TP:    When did you first hear him, and what impact did it make on you when you did hear him?

RON CARTER:  The first time I saw him was with the Oscar Peterson Trio with Herb Ellis at the Village Vanguard, right I came to New York in August 1959. Oscar brought his piano in, of course, and that was quite impressive to know a guy could get a gig and bring his own piano.  Up to that point, I hadn’t known piano players to have the command to do that.

What I hope his legacy is, Ted, is that bass players remember that the bass player also plays time.  I think most of us kind of got away from that part of the process of playing bass with a group.  One of his legacies to the bass community is how great his time was and how he always commanded attention by the way he played great time.

But what impressed me at the Vanguard, THEN, was his professional approach to the instrument.  I’d seen Wyatt Ruether, Bull Ruether, one of the early bass players who was with Chico Hamilton when I joined the band.  He played the bass without a lot of skill level, and while he had the interest, it just didn’t seem to have the command of the instrument that Ray had.  Later on, I saw George Duvivier play in New York with Lena Horne and Chico Hamilton, and again, I was impressed by their professional approach to the instrument.  I mean, they were playing it like a bass, not like a baseball bat.  They used a different combination of notes and great intonation.  Those things impressed me with Ray when I first heard him.

TP:    Did you become friends with him?

CARTER:  Much later.  I’m fortunate to say that I saw him when he was last in New York at Birdland with the flute-led quartet.  He and I and Sandy Jackson had a great talk.  I hadn’t seen him for a while.  The last time I’d seen him was at the Blue Note, and he was just thinking about undergoing some knee surgery or hip surgery.  He looked in great shape.  We had a nice conversation.

TP:    But did you ever at any point analyze his playing, or wasn’t it like that.

CARTER:  No.  When you kind of have your own track in your head, the most you can do is just appreciate people who have found their own track.  He was clearly out of the Jimmy Blanton school, but he had his own sense of where to play the time.  There was no question he thought that the time belonged right here.  He wasn’t afraid to play where he thought the beat was, and he would play it until everyone agreed with it.  He just kind of towered over the rhythm section.

TP:    And it seemed he got stronger and stronger up to the end of his life.

CARTER:  Yeah.  I was as stunned as anyone else to know that he passed away, whatever the circumstances, because he seemed so vital and he sounded great that night I heard him at Birdland.

One doesn’t know when their last chance to play the bass is going to be.  I’ve been telling my students for a very long time that you’ve got to play the bass like this is your last change to get it right.  And he always brought that kind of energy to the instrument.  He never fooled around, never spun the bass, he never told jokes.  He just played the bass like it was his last chance to do it, and he was going to appreciate the Creator’s intent for him and he was going to do it.  That’s that whole mindset that’s escaped some of the bass players, I think, who see the bass as a tool for something other than creating a good level of music within a group.  That wasn’t his mentality.

TP:    So your main point would be that his impact on the way bass players play grooves and play in time.

CARTER:  Absolutely.  He made it that way.  There’s a record, “For Musicians Only” with Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Dizzy Gillespie, Herb Ellis, Ray and Stan Levey.  It’s a fabulous record of how to play time.  This was 1956 or something like that.  He just nails it in place, man!  What a perfect example of how a bass player who wants to really oversee the rhythm section, making things Stan plays… Perfect example, man.

Herb Ellis’ Written Statement and Remarks

“Ray never met a stranger.  He was the friendliest and warmest-hearted man I ever knew, always willing to help any musician, giving lessons and tips for playing not just the bass, but he was able to help anyone become a better player.

His sense of humor is almost as well known as his unbelievable talent.  That he was one of the greatest bassists and innovative leaders is a given, changing the role of the bass into more than just a rhythm instrument.  His love of music, life, friends — and, of course, golf — are legendary.

I feel so blessed that he was my friend for over fifty years, and that I got to play with him for so many years.

He is missed now, and will always be missed for all who knew and loved him, and will always be in our hearts.

TP:    Do you recollect when you first met?

HERB ELLIS:  I first met Ray in Boston when I was playing with a group called the Soft Winds.

TP:    Did that coincide with your hearing him for the first time in person?

ELLIS:  Yes, it did.

TP:    What was your impression?

ELLIS:  I was just blown away.  I couldn’t believe his talent.  And fortunately, I got to play with him much of my musical life.

TP:    In the Oscar Peterson group, within that trio format, do you recall his role in putting together the voicings and arrangements in the group?

ELLIS:  I’ll say that he was the very best.  You could take the bass notes he gave you and take them anywhere in the world.  He was the epitome of bass players.

TP:    John Clayton mentioned to me that when he was on the road, either with Oscar Peterson or the JATP, in different cities he would take lessons with symphonic bass players.  Do you remember that?

ELLIS:  Yes, I do.  And Ray was always willing to give lessons, which was …(?)… to work at being a better bass player.

TP:    Do you feel that he evolved very much as a musician during his career as he got older?

ELLIS:  Yes, he did.  He became better and better.  He was getting better right up to the very end of his life.  He always was trying to be a better bass player.  Not that he needed to, but that’s what he strove for.

Monty Alexander

TP:    When did your association with Ray Brown begin?

MONTY ALEXANDER:  It began around 1966 or 1967.  I saw him on several occasions, and he saw me as a tiny kid who just wanted to get to know him better.  He didn’t hear me play music or anything; I just phoned him and started hanging out with him, and he welcomed me into his social life, and he came to New York, and I remember we met, and I took him to a club with mutual friends of ours, and I was talking about Wynton Kelly and Sam Jones, and I took him to see them play at a little bar.  I saw the camaraderie between them, and we hung out and had a lot of laughs. Then I took him to see Coleman Hawkins down at the Half Note, and he saw his old friends… So he liked it, and I ended up being in his company.

Then I saw him in Los Angeles a few months later, when he was doing the “Joey Bishop Show,” which became later the “Merv Griffin Show.”  I went to say hello, and he invited me to hang out with him again.

But the real association happened one evening when I went to where he was playing.  They were on an intermission, and when the time came to play a tune, just to sign off for the night… Because they weren’t really listening to the music; it was a sort of Hollywood club.  The pianist had one drink too many (I won’t call his name), and I said, “Can I sit in?”  Ray said, “Yeah.”  We started playing.  And in a few bars, I could hear his joyful sound, and mine too.  It was the beginning of knowing Ray Brown in music.  We just played some blues.  Then I got off the bandstand, and he asked me if I could join him in (?) that summer, just like that.  This was 1968.

TP:    When was the last time you played with him?

ALEXANDER:  We made what probably was his last recording.  He and I and Russell Malone have a release coming in October on Telarc.  We were all very happy to be together.  We had toured Europe last year, then we made this album, just the trio, and had all these dates in October and November, and next year we were going to tour Europe.  We were just happy to be together, and everybody loved the band — and we loved the band.

TP:    And you played with him with varying degrees of frequency and consistency between 1969 and early this year, then, on various gigs and recordings.

ALEXANDER:  With varying degrees of consistency is a great way to put it.  Because for a while, there was a lot of activity, and then I just went off doing what I do, and he started touring more and playing with Gene Harris and a trio.  He would have a trio.  Before that, Herb Ellis and I and Ray played in a group that everybody called The Triple Threat.  We made about five CDs for Concord.  We were playing and having a good thing.

TP:    Over the 34 years of knowing him well, did you hear him evolve as a musician?  Did Ray Brown in 1968 sound different than Ray Brown in 2002?  I assume the answer would be yes, but I wonder what the quality of his evolution would be.

ALEXANDER:  Ray Brown was like Art Tatum.  I’ll tell you why.  The first time you hear Art Tatum play, it was so incredible… I mean, his first recordings, whatever he did, to many us that heard it, it was as incredible in his latter days as in the beginning.  So it was already beyond words.  And Ray Brown was that.  Ray Brown was a continuous circle of beyond normal.  There was nothing on the planet… And I’m not just saying it out of emotion and sentiment.  In my opinion, what he stood for, just when he laid that rhythm down, it was like… I used to conjure up terms to try to explain how it was, and it was a Mack Truck with a Rolls-Royce engine.  That’s what it was.  I mean, that’s just my little parlance.

To me, the last times I played with him, every time from the beginning there was that sense of excitement that I would get, that I’m playing with this guy who is like a royal duke.  He’s a king.  He’s not a normal level of bass player.  He had something in him that was brilliant, just brilliant.

TP:    It seems he would play exactly in the right manner for any situation, and always make his personality shine, and yet never make himself outshine the situation.

ALEXANDER:  He was the greatest support player, and yet he was so strong with what he did, and you knew it was him.  He wasn’t about to be just a nameless character in the background, just doing the pedestrian work.  He was definitely so unique, that sound he got just from those fingers on the strings and what he heard.  A musician plays what he hears, and Ray heard this thing.  It was just a fat, beautiful tone.  I think as the years went by, it wasn’t so much an evolution; it was just a matter of, as you age, you don’t want to pull the strings as hard — so maybe he lowered the strings a little on the fingerboard.  Maybe.  But I couldn’t prove it.  I was always astounded.

TP:    Why do you think he went to younger bands in the last 10-12 years of his life?

ALEXANDER:  Well, the old guys were fading away also.  Whether or not he used young guys is not the point.  The point is that there weren’t that many older men that he would lock in with that would have the enthusiasm or spirit or the spirit of swinging that he was all about.

TP:    So it was because of his own exceptional energy that he wanted someone to match that and sustain it.

ALEXANDER:  Exactly.  And you have a better shot when you get a young, growing, fine musician who is also so desirous of matching his strength.  Which, by the way, was still leaps and bounds in terms of endurance.  Because whenever I saw him playing with anybody, it was like they were trying to keep up with him.

TP:    As someone who started off as a student and evolved into a peer, what would you say were the greatest lessons he imparted to you that impacted what you do as a musician?

ALEXANDER:  Well, I was never a student.  When I got on the bandstand with him, I felt like I was right there shoulder to shoulder.  That was my attitude in music from the beginning.  I was just so stubborn and ignorant!  I would say in many ways his mentoring to me was more about life and attitude than how you play.  Because he sensed in me from the beginning that I understood why and what he was, and I would play… When I played with him…  And I think Benny and Jeff would say the same thing.  We didn’t play with him; we played for him.  It was like we played together.  At least, that’s what I saw and heard.

TP:    So his lessons to you were life lessons.

ALEXANDER:  Yes.

TP:    Comportment and sustaining yourself within this big sharkpit.

ALEXANDER:  You said it well.  It was about fortitude and straight-ahead, and no matter what, don’t stop.  It’s like the way he played.  In other words, if the stuff is falling apart, keep on rockin’!  That’s what he did.  You hear that bass, from the first time you heard it, you knew it was this exceptional thing.  He told me, “Man, I got tired of playing out behind all them horn players at Jazz at the Philharmonic.”  The horn players would take 50 choruses apiece, no matter who they were.  Enough was enough.  And as he got older, he didn’t want to do that any more.

TP:    I’m sure that kind of pretty formulaic for him after a while.  But it would seem like no matter how formulaic the situation, he would never sound…

ALEXANDER:  The point is, no matter what he had to put up with, if he had to put up with it, it would never sound like there was any kind of backing-up.  He never backed up a thing.

To me, whatever note Ray played was like the first and the last note of his life.  He played like his life depended on that note.

I can’t get over the fact that man isn’t alive.  Because he was larger than life.  Most of us couldn’t consider the fact that the day could come he wouldn’t be alive!  This is emotional and personal.  He was almost like an uncle, a father, a big brother.  But he was so larger-than-life that it’s like… He was a survivor, and he… With all the new technology… Ray didn’t have a cell phone.  I mean, he finally got one, but he didn’t use it.  He didn’t do email, he didn’t do all this stuff.  But yet, he was so busy.  Larger than life, man.

Benny Green

BENNY GREEN:  If it’s all right with you, since you edit things down, I’m going to err on the side of giving you too much information.

The first time I heard Ray in person was 1978. It was also my first time hearing Oscar Peterson in person.  The band was a trio of Oscar, Ray Brown and Louis Bellson at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. It was 15 or 16, and it was the first time as a child, basically, that I had been moved to laugh out loud and cry tears all in one sitting through the music itself, through the depth of emotion that was being conveyed. That was a lot for me as a kid to be feeling, and that was the level that these gentleman were communicating on.  I was overwhelmed with this sense of heritage, which also was a big concept for a young person to be able to understand.  But that’s again how clearly and powerfully they conveyed their lives through the music. Ray had his bass turned up quite audibly, and you could just feel the vibrations from Ray’s bass throughout the seating area of this amphitheater.  It just resonated.  He was speaking the truth, his truth, playing the music he had devoted his life to.

TP:    So you fell in love with his sound right then.

GREEN:  His sound and his feel.  His time was like…I know of no better way to describe it than to say it was akin to a heartbeat, something that organically resonates within the listener as a human being.  Oscar was playing all that piano, and yet Ray was just at the bottom of everything, holding everything together and directing traffic, and doing so with such consummate grace.  It was really apparent to me as a young person that I was witnessing mastery and just the greatness of the music.  Now that Ray has passed, I understand more clearly that that beat and sound I felt and heard is, in fact, a direct connection to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Lester Young and Charlie Parker, and all of the real pillars of the music who he actually played great music with.  Not just made casual record dates with, but he was obviously personally involved with these people, the way I can say I was involved with him and Art Blakey.  He had countless just geniuses in his life who were very proud to get to play with him.  They weren’t doing him any favors.  He is the music.  He isn’t just someone who plays it well.  He is the real thing.  Anyway, I was able to feel that as a kid who hadn’t really lived too much, and that’s how effective the music was.

Moving a few years forward: The first time I got to speak with Ray Brown, I’m pretty sure the year was 1984.  I was working with Betty Carter.  I must have been 20-21.  We were playing a festival in Canada — Edmonton, Alberta.  We finished our concert that evening with Betty, and I went to another venue at the festival where Ray had the quartet — I suppose it was co-led — with Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton and Mickey Roker.  They played this version of “Misty,” and it was so beautiful.  Again, it was the same thing I experienced, where Ray’s bass notes were at the bottom of everything, just affirming this sort of truthfulness, this authenticity to the song.  He was really portraying the essence of Erroll Garner’s song.

I was so moved that I finally got up the nerve, as shy I was, to actually speak to Ray, and after they finished their set, I went up to this icon, who even physically was like towering over me, I was so small a guy in those days.  I mustered up all my courage, introduced myself, and I asked him if it would be all right to put a musical query to him.  He said, “Sure.”  I asked him, “What were the changes you were playing in the fifth and sixth bar of the bridge of ‘Misty?'” Ray leaned down, got right up in my face, like almost nose to nose (man, I was petrified), and he stared me down and he said, “The right changes.”  I said, “Okay, thank you,” and sort of backed away.  Thereafter, I would go see Ray in the next few years with Gene Harris and Mickey Roker, but I was terrified to speak to him.  He really dropped something on me when he said those three words, because he completely demystified his whole image to me by saying that. It wasn’t like some magical secret that he held.  He was saying to me, “If you want to know what changes I’m playing, go pick up one of a hundred albums where I’ve recorded that song, and learn it!” — just like he did with Jimmy Blanton, Oscar Pettiford and Slam Stewart.  “Just learn the music.  It’s there for you.”  He gave me that message with those three words.  It’s not about trying to read his mind or figure out this mystic, intangible thing.  It’s like the information is there on the records.

TP:    He himself had started off as a pianist, and was a huge fan of Tatum.  Wynton told me that he sent him the Tatum complete solos, and told Wynton to study the harmonic language.  Wynton said, “I did.”

GREEN:  He knew Tatum and he told me a few stories about Tatum that I can tell you if you have time.

TP:    I remember not long after you joined him, we were on the radio, and you made a comment I thought was very telling.  You were very much into Gene Harris and the Three Sounds, and your trio with Christian was very much influenced by that.  So here you are replacing Gene Harris, and then I think you said it that Ray Brown was hearing you be a little too respectful, maybe, to the Gene Harris sound, and said, “I didn’t hire you to play like that; I hired you to play like yourself.”

GREEN:  True.  Which is the exact same thing Betty Carter told me about John Hicks.  These great bandleaders have some things in common. As well as having their own unique facets, these people are really about the music, and it’s clearer than ever when they pass on and you look at their legacy.  You say, “This is what they were devoted to.”  Once the smoke clears and you have a little hindsight, you realize they did everything within their powers to perpetuate their music and pass it on to the next generation, and recruit anyone who ever heard them play to become lovers of this African-American art form.  That’s what their life was devoted to.  And part of that whole legacy is finding that natural, honest balance between embracing the heritage and all your influences and bringing something to the plate that’s your own at the same time.  Otherwise, you’re not really contributing to the music.

TP:    Perhaps you could tell the story I related back to you in your own words.

GREEN:  The thing is, Ray and Oscar Peterson have a musical language, and they’re like brothers.  Oscar’s whole approach to the piano is so largely inspired by Art Tatum and Nat Cole and Hank Jones in particular, and he would say the same… In fact, Oscar told me that every time he sits down to play, he endeavors to pay homage to those three, if at all possible.  Ray Brown clearly comes out of Jimmy Blanton, Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford, and these people are proud to embrace their influence every time they play, and yet, when you hear Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson play, you know it’s Ray Brown and you know it’s Oscar Peterson.  Nothing about it feels derivative.  It’s not one or the other.  It’s both.  You hear the influence, and yet they are just clearly their own men.  That’s where it’s at.  They’re teaching by example when they play.

So in getting back to what Ray stressed to me:  The influence from Gene Harris was an honest one.  His music felt good to me.  That’s why I’d been soaking up those Three Sounds records and attempting to absorb what he was doing with Ray’s trio.  That sort of aligned me with the privileged position of actually getting to play with Ray, because I was honestly pursuing this path that Ray was about.  Ray had a certain approach to music and to his trio, where pianists like Hank Jones, Oscar Peterson, Monty Alexander and Gene Harris were just part of a language, a palette that he heard when he put together a trio arrangement.  These were musical personalities that became part of the fabric of Ray’s trio sound.  So it was natural for me to be pursuing this music, which was infectious to me, which felt good to me, and it also put me in a musical position where, when Ray heard me, he understood beyond any words that I was a young person who was eager to be a part of that heritage.  I wasn’t listening to Gene Harris so I could cop the gig.  I was doing it because I loved the music.  Thankfully, that resonated with Ray.  So he heard Christian and I play…

TP:    The story Christian told me is he was at the Blue Note that week, you guys were at the Knickerbocker, Mary Ann Topper said, “You’ve got to come hear them,” and maybe on the Saturday night he came over and heard you, invited you to the Blue Note the next night, and then called your name from the bandstand.

GREEN:  That’s exactly right.  Shortly thereafter, Christian and I were playing with a group that opened up for Ray’s trio in Japan.  As soon as we finished our set, Ray grabbed me backstage to say, “Would you be available to record?”  Obviously, without batting an eye, I said, “I would love to, Mr. Brown.”  So he said, “Give  me your information, and I’ll be in touch.”  So I wrote down my number, and he called shortly thereafter and invited me to fly to L.A. to record a record date with James Morrison, himself and Jeff Hamilton.  That was my first opportunity to play with Ray.

The first thing I remember noticing about the feeling, once I connected with Ray musically, was, one, how easy and buoyant he made the music feel.  To me that’s always a measure of musical maturity.  Because anyone can be difficult to play with.  An absolute beginner can be hard to play with.  But to really manifest the attitude of “What can I do to make you feel more comfortable; how can I lead you down this garden path?”, that takes not only experience and seasoning, but also just a certain attitude, a certain willingness to help and support.  The other thing I noticed was that this man takes a lot of chances when he plays, and he always lands on his feet.  He always lands on one, on the perfect note to ground what’s happening in the ensemble.  But he wasn’t just playing some sort of stock bassline. He was all over that bass, and filling and doing all sorts of rhythmic and melodic things, and would always land, BAM, right on ground one to support everything else that was going on.

TP:    So he was fearless.

GREEN:  Oh, most definitely!  He really, really went for it.  He went for the jugular every time.  He played with such passion.  There was more than just testosterone behind his confidence.  It was the fact that he knew, through this life devoted to music, that the music was his.  It wasn’t something he was trying to get towards.  He owned the legacy that had been given to him by all his forefathers, and he wasn’t afraid to stand tall and say that “Jimmy Blanton and Slam Stewart and Oscar Pettiford have left us, and I’ll never be quite like they were.”  He was like, “Okay, I am the bass now.”

TP:    So it was a fresh experience every night, being on the road with him, no matter how similar the repertoire.

GREEN:  Oh, in so many ways.  When we finished that record date, he told me the trio was going to be going to Australia soon for a lengthy tour, and that Gene Harris wasn’t going to be able to make the first two or three weeks, and asked me if I’d be interested in playing.  I said, “Are you kidding?  There’s nothing I’d be more grateful to do.”  He said, “Okay, what I’d like you to do, then, is pick up some of our CDs, and why don’t you learn about 10 or 12 of our tunes.  I’m not even going to tell you which ones to learn.  Just learn the ones you’re most comfortable with, and that will give us something to play.” At that point, I wanted to show Ray more than tell him how much I wanted to play with him.  I already owned all the CDs, but for the next few months before that tour came up, all I did was woodshed that music, just sleep with it, practice to it… [END OF SIDE]

When we got together to rehearse in Australia for the first gig of that tour, I told Ray that I knew all the tunes in his book, and we could rehearse and play anything he wanted.  So he proceeded to call tunes, and I knew them all.  He didn’t say a word, but just kept going through tune after tune after tune.  He said, “Okay, we can take a break now,” and he stepped outside to get some air.  Later on that day, Jeff Hamilton told me that while they had stepped outside, Ray turned to Jeff and said, “I can’t believe he learned all of that music.”  But to me, he didn’t say a word.  He was just scoping me out.

When we finished that tour, I said to Ray, “Listen, I know that you have a band right now, but if you ever are at a point where there’s going to be personnel changes, I want you to know that I would be so grateful to get a chance to play with you again.”  “All right, I’ll be in touch.” And thankfully, he called me a few weeks later from Australia, to say that Gene was going to be leaving the band soon, and asked me if I wanted to join the trio.  I was so excited.  So I began playing with him in the early spring of ’92.

One of the first things I noticed about Ray as a professional is that he was always punctual.  When there was a lobby call, he would always be downstairs, clean, a few minutes before the time we were actually expected to meet.  And to be honest with you, at that point I had a habit of being 10 to 15 minutes late all the time, and thought that was okay.  I didn’t understand at that time that when you do that, you’re not even being part of the band.  You’re just being a single agent.  It’s incredibly selfish, and it ultimately does enter the whole vibe on the bandstand when you do that.  Eventually, after the few gigs, I noticed that every time I came downstairs, even if I was only 5 minutes late, instead of 10 or 15, Ray was always down there.  So one day I said to him, “I see you’re not of the mindset that the bandleader can afford to be the last one downstairs.”  He didn’t even look up.  He said, “Nope.”  I then realized that it was unprofessional and disrespectful for me to be…that the young kid in the band is having Ray Brown waiting on me.  So I got it together.  I was never late again.  And to this day, I have Ray Brown to thank for that.  I know that however long it takes me to get ready, if it takes two or three hours, to allow that much time, and not start getting dressed five minutes before the lobby call.

TP:    He was an immaculate businessman, wasn’t he.

GREEN:  Completely.  But the interesting thing is that he told me there was actually a defining moment in his life when he got that all together.  There was a time prior to that defining moment when he was more like the old stereotypical image of a musician who didn’t care, who didn’t take responsibility for business.  He hadn’t been paying his taxes for a few years.  He was with Jazz At The Philharmonic, and they’d been sending him notices, which he just disregarded, and one day they played a concert with Jazz at the Philharmonic somewhere in the Midwest, and the evening after the show, the curtain went down, and the Feds were there to physically haul him off to jail.  Norman Granz, as you know, had a lot of money, and he bailed Ray out right then and there on the spot, so they never took him.  He just coughed up the cash and had a talk with Ray.  He said he was a changed man from that moment forward.

But obviously, the Ray Brown that you and I knew was so incredibly balanced with the left and right brain.  He could be so creative and so plugged into the music all the time, constantly honing the band’s arrangements, staying at the very top of his game and continuing to challenge himself as an instrumentalist.  No matter what time we were in, he woke up at the crack of dawn, getting on that phone and fax machine, doing business, booking gigs one or two years down the road.  That’s very rare for someone… There are obviously musicians who are great businessmen, and oftentimes, on some level, the music suffers.  Sometimes the people have so much talent that they’re able to carry it off, and you don t realize what you could be hearing were they totally putting all their eggs in the basket.  But with Ray, God, you could never say, as much as a sharp-shooter he was as his own booking agent and manager, that anything ever, ever suffered in the musical arena.

TP:    Do you think that part of that constant imperative to develop as an instrumentalist from the high level he had attained was one reason why, in the last decade of his life, starting with you really, he started using young musicians on a regular basis?

GREEN:  With Ray and Art Blakey and Betty Carter, something… Art was doing that from early in his career.  But in the case of Betty and Art, there was a period where initially the bandleader was more playing with their peers, and then at some point they really got this bug to have like new young blood in the band, and they really found personal gratification in helping the young musicians, and, with whatever surface idiosyncracies people could observe them as having, their pure love for the music clearly showed.  They were passing it on, really kicking their young players in the behind, challenging them, making them reach beyond a superficial comfort zone, and really pull the depth of their untapped reserves of talent out of that.  In fact, they instilled that kind of fire in their sidemen, hopefully so that these younger players could go out there and perpetuate the music.

TP:    But do you think there was reciprocal benefit he garnered from using young talent? He said that using you or Keezer or Larry Fuller forced him to practice so he could play the way he used to.

GREEN:  I can’t say for Geoff or Larry, but I can tell you first hand that Russell Malone and I played a private party for Ray in St. Paul a little over a month ago, and, man, he kicked our tails in the most positive way.  This guy is 75 years old, and when he gets on the bandstand, the whole level of musicality is so profoundly elevated.  You really get this deep sense that you’re on the bandstand with the same lifeline as Duke Ellington.  You feel it.  It can’t even be put into words.  But you can feel it in your body, you can almost taste it…

TP:    Oh, I understand that.  What I’m saying is, he thought of his trio as the Ray Brown Trio, not Ray Brown Plus Two.  So he’s incorporating the musicality and musical personalities of the people he has in his band.

GREEN:  Oh, definitely.  When I joined the band and was trying to play like Gene, he said, “Okay, for these first few weeks, we’ll continue playing these arrangements that I wrote specifically for Gene, but the more we play, I’m going to scope out what you do and I’ll start writing new arrangement that embrace your sound and feeling so we can help you develop.  He took pleasure in that.  Obviously, nobody can play something in a slow bluesy groove like Gene Harris.  Nobody can do that.  And that certainly includes Benny Green.  I would try to, but I wasn’t raised in the Black Baptist church, I didn’t have Gene Harris’ life, and I wasn’t physically built like Gene Harris.  Ray knew that.  It’s almost not honest to try to force yourself to play like someone you love.  That love can come through naturally once you accept it’s there and live in the moment as yourself.  So Ray was encouraging me to do my own thing, and he started to write arrangements that incorporated more swift tempos, more linear kind of things that he felt were more suited to what he heard as something that was a more natural part of what I inherently did.

TP:    It seems he revisited and reinterpreted a lot of areas from his earlier career with you and Geoff, a lot of bebop tunes that I don’t think were too much of the repertoire with Gene Harris.

GREEN:  That makes sense.  And I’m sure once Keezer joined the band, he probably opened up that much more harmonically because of what Geoff can do.  Not to get anything real specific and narrow anyone’s approach down, but he prided himself on doing that.

Once early on in the band, we did a show, and I ended a couple of tunes with an Ahmad Jamal ending that Ray hadn’t written, just the patented two-note ending that Ahmad plays on most of his trio arrangements in the trio with Israel Crosby and Vernell Fournier.  Ray didn’t say anything on the bandstand.  He came to the dressing room afterwards, and he was livid.  He said, “That is not my sound, that is not what we do in this band.  Don’t play that any more.”  And I didn’t.  He was very clear about it.  At the time, I felt, “Wow, it’s just two notes; why is it such a big deal.”  With the passage of time, I came to see it was a very big deal, because he wasn’t just playing the music, however it might come across.  He had a very specific language, something I couldn’t possibly understand as someone who wasn’t even born when Ray was already a past master.  So I just respected that this man knew what he wanted.  Betty Carter and Art Blakey both were the same way.  Certain things weren’t appropriate.  They didn’t want their approach to the music to just become sort of homogenous.  There was a certain sound and feeling, and when we hear it, there’s things they do and things they don’t do that give us a specific feeling as a listener.  So it’s very much a language.  A younger person, no matter how talented or intelligent or soulful they may be, is not really going to get that in the way that someone who has lived it all their life who is a veteran of the music knows down deep.

TP:    You played with Ray Brown what years?

GREEN:  From the early spring of ’92 to the fall of ’96, 4-1/2 years.

Two things I’d like to say I think are very pertinent.  One (and I’m sure every other musician who worked with Ray will tell you the same thing) is that I never once asked him a question about music that was uncool to ask.  I never asked him a question and got a non-verbal communication that it was something he didn’t want to discuss.  Every time I asked Ray a musical question, he would sit with me, look me in the eye, and talk for however long it took.  Everything else going on would stop.  And he wouldn’t stop talking until he felt that I really understood what it was he had to say.  It was never about telling me how to play.  It was just about being a better musician, and just bringing this feeling, imparting life experience through the music — never about how to play or a style.

The other thing which I’ve really been feeling strongly about Ray since he passed is how much of an ambassador he was, like Louis and Duke and Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, among others.  Sometimes we would play venues, concerts or festivals where the bulk of the audience were real jazz aficionados, and they loved the music, they knew who he was, and they appreciated him.  But other times, we would play some places where the crowd would be quite stiff, maybe a money crowd, and they weren’t really passionate about jazz.  And I can tell you first-hand that any time we played for that latter type of an audience, by the end of the performance he would have made absolute converts for life out of every single person in the house, where they left loving the music, wholly disarmed, coming up to us and talking, showing their emotions, and showing by example, by doing that, that that’s the level we need to aspire to when we bring the music… That we can’t just be satisfied with playing to impress one another, but any time we have an opportunity to play this music for someone who has never heard it before, whatever our individual approach to the music is, we really need to bring something of an emotional substance that any human being can relate to.  I interpreted it that this was his ultimate homage to those great masters that he played with.  Because we know that Louis Armstrong did that and we know that Duke did that.  You couldn’t help but love this music, no matter what you’d heard about it or what you’d been told or what you’d heard that you didn’t like.  When you heard them, you knew this was like something really great and about some love and some life.

TP:    You played with him just a couple of weeks before he died.

GREEN:  Yes.  It was perfect.  Lord knows, I didn’t know it was going to be our last time.  But everything from the time he entered the room was a lesson, and I remember it vividly.  First of all, at the soundcheck, he did what he’d always done.  He was showing me a tune that I had heard from Nat Cole’s repertoire but never played, “I Just Can’t See For Looking.”  He was ready to leave the bandstand before we played and get comfortable, but I still wasn’t quite secure with the melody, and I asked him to stay and help me out, and he did just that.  Whatever it was he wanted to do off the bandstand was on hold, and he stayed up there on stage with me, made sure I had it together, and after he was done he said, “Do you have it now?”  I said, “Yeah.”  He said, “All right,” and then he walked off the bandstand.  That’s how he always was, no matter how physically fatigued he might have been.  Nothing came before the music.

After the gig, he said one of the most beautiful affirmations to me.  He said, “Benny, you don’t have to worry about anything; you just keep playing the piano.”  That meant so much to me coming from Ray Brown.  Then he sat up with me for about two hours.  We didn’t leave the venue.  He just sat with me and talked about the music, and talked about the great pianists.  He was teaching me.  I think back on what he was saying and how he tied his conversation about different pianists all together with the message he was trying to give me about me and the piano.  Then I left him for a moment again, not knowing this was the last time I was going to see him, and I went to the piano on stage and started to play, and then he walked over to the stage and just stood there and listened to me play, and talked about the songs I was playing.  God, as long as there was music going on, he never wanted to go to bed. I’m so thankful that before we said goodnight I gave Ray a big kiss, and I thanked him for charging my battery, and I told him that no matter how much I might not have understood things he’d said to me in the past at the moment he said them, that they were all inside, and that so many gems he’s given me continue to come up as I play music, and that I’m thankful for what he’s given me.  That’s how I left him, and I’m so thankful we had that beautiful closure, because no one was ready for this.

It’s a blessing he was taken so peacefully, so mercifully, doing what he loves. We’ll always remember Ray being strong and vital and taking no prisoners.  He never faded.

Jeff Hamilton

JEFF HAMILTON:  I met Ray in 1976 at the Lighthouse in Los Angeles.  He was booking Milt Jackson, and had booked Milt with the Monty Alexander Trio, and came into the club to see how we were doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  I asked him that night if I could meet with him and ask him some advice on what I should do with my career.  I was all of 22 years old.  He said, “Sure, we can meet — if you buy lunch.”  So that was the beginning of our long friendship.  Based on what he heard that night, he kept me in mind, and hired me for the L.A. Four when Shelley Manne left.

TP:    I haven’t spoken with a drummer yet about the experience of playing with him.  Can you talk about the qualities of his playing that made him distinctly and identifiably Ray Brown, from your perspective behind the kit?

HAMILTON:  My first awareness of him was listening to him on an Oscar Peterson Trio record with Ed Thigpen, and wanting immediately to pick up a stick and hit a cymbal with that trio, play along with that groove that the three of them had together.  And the more that I listened to it, I kept keying in on Ray more and more, and thinking that I really wanted to play with his quartet notes.  The older I got, I realized that it was the intensity in his playing, in his beat and his time and his sound, that was so big and full that it just raised the band and urged them to get into that same groove that he was playing, and invite them into his sound.  That’s what I felt as a drummer, that I needed to crawl into that big sound of his and match the sound with the intensity of the drums.  It also has a big full sound, and the trio would come out sounding like a big band.

TP:    That means in some ways you would match the length of his notes through the way you articulate beats?

HAMILTON:  Not so much the length.  Just the urgency of how important every note is.  The first night that I played with him, I thought, “Well, this is a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be from listening to the records.”  When I was able to adjust to that and make that happen, then I thought, “Okay, now I can play with Ray Brown.”  Then the first time I played with Ray and Oscar, it was that next level of intensity.  I thought, “Man, I’ve got to step this up.”  Not so much in nervousness or frantically trying to keep up with them.  I don’t mean that.  I just mean bringing your intensity to the time and to the music, like you’re in a conversation with two other people and they’re really going after it, and you’re kind of sitting there going, “Uh-huh, uh-huh.”  It doesn’t work.  So you’ve got to jump in and join the conversation with them.

TP:    You did many tours with him where you shared a bandstand night after night for a month or six weeks for a good chunk of the year.

HAMILTON:  For 18 years!

TP:    Was he a very creative player from night to night?

HAMILTON:  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing from night to night.  First of all, his stamina from night to night was something that I had never witnessed before.  I have played with musicians who wanted to be great every night and were trying to do it, and had that in mind.  But I’ve never seen anybody like Ray, be able to get on the bandstand and play like it might be his last night.  I don’t know where that came from, but it was such an intensity… I keep going back to that word, because that’s Ray Brown. In every walk of his life, he was very intense.  And the need to get up there and really stretch out and try to push us was I think maybe instilled by the days with Dizzy, and playing with Bird, and having that need to play some new music and try to push the arrangement into something else.  I think that’s evidenced by looking at the evolution of his own trio.  When I go hear those arrangements we did with Gene Harris, and they’ve changed with every trio.  They’ve gotten a little more modern, and Ray is at the bottom, changing things around.

TP:    That raises another question, which is the level to which playing with you or playing with younger musicians like Benny Green or Geoff Keezer affected his conception.  Benny described it that when he first went out with the trio (I guess you were the drummer), he was very much influenced by Gene Harris, Ray knew it, and Benny said that the trio would play those arrangements, he’d scope Benny out, and would try to write new arrangements that suited him.  You could hear it, because he played more bebop, modernist material.  I’m wondering how you evaluate the presence of younger musicians within his orbit having impacted what he did, if at all.

HAMILTON:  Well, he was smart.  One of the great things I learned from him was how to make everybody in the band sound as good as they possibly can.  So he would go to their strong points, and he’d play music that fit everybody in the band.  That was his thought with every personnel change, “how can this person’s influence change this musically, and yet we can all still vibrate together.”  So he would arrange things. I think that was probably influenced by Duke Ellington’s writing for personnel in his band.

TP:    I’d like to get back to the nature of your relationship, personal or musical.  He befriended you when you were 22 and he was 50. Benny described him as being an unfailing mentor.  Any time he had a musical question, he would be there to answer and would take as long as necessary.  Does that jibe with your earlier relationship?

HAMILTON:  When Benny came in, he really took Benny under his wing.  When I came in, he looked more to me as “you need to be an equal with me,” and I think he kind of classified me in his generation. There isn’t thirty years between us.  And I’ve always kind of been old for my age anyway, and I think he picked up on that.  I’ve been pretty mature for my age — and musically.

TP:    When you were 20, you were playing with Hampton…

HAMILTON:  I’d already played with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Murray McEachern, and with Lionel Hampton, Monty Alexander and Woody Herman.

TP:    So you’d had a full complement of experience by the time you joined him.

HAMILTON:  Right.  I had some touring under my belt.  So he knew he wasn’t getting a kid, and that I’d listened to his music and grown up with his music when those records came out.  I didn’t have to wait and get them on CD twenty years later.  I talked to him about that.  I had a different relationship with Ray, and I think he tried to make me an equal because of the L.A. Four situation.  He hired me, and everybody was a leader in that group.  Shelley Manne had been an equal part of the L.A. Four, and that’s what he needed.  They weren’t trying to make a kid grow into the seat; they needed someone who could come in and do it.

TP:    Another common thread everyone has mentioned is that he played always as if it was the last time he was ever going to play.  They also mention how deftly he was able to balance his creative life with the practicalities of business.  It seems he was incredibly disciplined.

HAMILTON:  I think that goes back to him being smart, and being in the right situation with Norman Granz in Jazz at the Philharmonic, and seeing how business could be run in jazz, and what jazz musicians deserve, and having somebody go to bat for them to get what they deserve.  That was instilled at an early age.  I think he kept that pride factor for what he thought his self-worth was, and for other musicians, and that entered into his business techniques. “Well, if you don’t want me for this amount, you must not want me very much.”  And they would inevitably call back.  Ray said, “No, that was the amount you offered two weeks ago; now the amount is this.”  He kind of played hardball with some of these guys just to get his point across, that you can’t just take advantage of a jazz musician and offer him $50 to come and play for you.  So I think there was a combination of the pride and the smarts, and being smart enough to learn from those early days with Jazz at the Philharmonic.  He always referred to Norman as taking care of the musicians.  He once told a story about Norman Granz pulling the entire tour off of an airplane because they wouldn’t them bring his bass on board — and he had bought a ticket for it.  So Norman announced that everybody had to get off the plane, if the bass wasn’t going to go on.  The plane took off about 15 minutes later.  It’s that kind of thinking of, “Listen, this is what I think my self-worth is, and this is the self-confidence I have in myself,” and that came through every part of Ray Brown’s personality, musically and off the bandstand, in doing business.

TP:    John Clayton said that he was constantly practicing all the time, right up to the end.  Would you practice together?  Oscar Peterson describes him and Ed Thigpen sitting in the room rehearsing harmonic and rhythmic patterns so they could be prepared for anything.  Did you do that?

HAMILTON:  Not so much.  Our arrangements weren’t Oscar-like, so that we had to sit down and digest things together.  The other thing is that Ray and I really didn’t have to think too much about what we did.  It was a pretty natural hookup.  So we’d just look at each other.  In fact, I was reminded of this on the 75th birthday tour last July, where there was a guest artist, and Ray just turned, gave me a look, and I knew what he meant.  We went into this introduction, and the person said, “How do you guys know to do that?  Nobody said anything.”  But that’s just sort of what Ray and I had together, and we grew into being able to raise an eyebrow and know that meant an “and-a-4” or some kind of beat we’d played before. Or he’d just say a word, and it would trigger something.  I think because of that, we didn’t have to rehearse a lot.  He would go to Hawaii for a month every January with his wife, Cecilia, and he would write new arrangements for the trio.  He was so excited about coming back and starting about three days of rehearsal in February, before we’d go on the road.  But that’s about all we rehearsed.  It wasn’t really knock-down, drag-out rehearsals.  But he did talk about those Oscar Peterson rehearsals.  In fact, he and Herb Ellis roomed together, and start playing those arrangements that sounded so tricky!

TP:    Oscar Peterson also described that they’d play the London House, and after the room closed at 4:30, they’d stay til 7 working other things out.  So they did the other end of the hang, too, I guess.  When you met him, he was still in the middle of his period of being extremely busy in the studios.  I’m an East Coaster and a bit younger than you, so I’m not sure how much the L.A. Four was working.  Did that mark the beginning of his move back out of the studios towards more hardcore performing?

HAMILTON:  That was part of it, I think, but that group was more in the studio, actually, with Laurindo Almeida and Bud Shank, and Carl Jefferson of Concord Records, which was pretty new at that time.  I think that’s how that group got off the ground.  But I think the actual idea happened in a recording session with Laurindo and Bud.  That was partially responsible, but I think, too, he’d been working with Milt Jackson at that time, and kept sneaking out of the studio to do these records at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, and still was playing jazz, still was doing tours during all that Merv Griffin stint.  I think that after a while, real jazz players really can’t take the studio that much any more, and are looking to get out when they can.  That was a period where his not getting out of the studio was one of the things, but it also made him think about, “I’ve got to get my own trio.”  So he would do things with Monty Alexander and Gene Harris and Mickey Roker and with Jackson, and so that got him… All those things got him back in the loop.

TP:    So it was a gradual process of weaning himself out of what he’d gotten into.  Do you have any particular favorite anecdotes that might get to the essence of who he was to you? Someone told me you would have some golfing stories.  Was there an analogue between his his approach to golf and his approach to music?

HAMILTON:  Again, intensity! [LAUGHS] Intensity on the golf course.  He wanted to play really well, and he wanted everyone else to play as well as they could when he was playing with them, so he would offer comments to help you.

TP:    Would they help?

HAMILTON:  Of course not!  Just like on the bandstand, in the heat of the battle somebody turns to you and says, “Hey, do this now!  Try this!”  You go, “Uhh…okay, but I’m trying to do everything else at the same time.”  But it was all meant well, and we used to laugh about it.  He said, “Anybody who opens their mouth on the golf course will get an automatic penalty stroke.”

TP:    What was his handicap?

HAMILTON:  For a while, he said he was around an 11.  Somebody told me he was an 8 at one time.  I think when he was in Toronto, with the Oscar Peterson-Thigpen school up there, they were playing every day, and I think he was probably down to an 8 then.  But in later years he was around 11.  After he had the knee surgery, he started to get his game back, and he was playing an awful lot.  I never beat Ray on the golf course.

TP:    Was that psychology or talent?

HAMILTON:  I think mostly talent, because I didn’t start playing… I was a tennis player for thirty years, and I had elbow surgery from tennis.  He was so mad at me, because I had to take time off from the trio to get the surgery!  He said, “Why don’t you play golf?  You’re not going to blow your ligament off the elbow playing golf.”  So I finally did, and then he gave me a set of clubs that he had won at a tournament.

TP:    What a practical man!

HAMILTON:  Yes! [LAUGHS]

TP:    Was he also a practical joker?

HAMILTON:  Are you kidding?  The funniest one to me is the Oscar Peterson anecdote at Jazz at the Philharmonic, when Oscar went to Norman Granz and asked Ray to be introduced last out of the group.  Just to keep peace among the group was the way Oscar presented it to Norman.  Norman said, “Oh, really?  Because I’ve been announcing you last.”  “No-no.”  So Oscar goes out first, and sits down at the bench, and Ray’s bass was laying on the floor next to the piano bench.  While Norman is announcing Herb Ellis, either Jo Jones or Buddy Rich, Oscar leans down and detunes Ray’s bass.  Then “Ladies and gentlemen, Ray Brown!” and Ray Brown came out and picked up the bass.  They had already started the introduction to the tune.  Ray started to play, and of course he sounded like he was underwater.  “And Ella Fitzgerald!”  So Ella came out, turned around, and said, “What is going on back there?” Ray just kept tuning up with his left hand and plucking with the right, and said, “Just keep singing; I’ll be there.”

The next time that he got Oscar Peterson… He told him, “I’ll get you.”  They were in Japan. Do you know about Pachenko?  It’s a game with little round silver balls, like a vertical pinball machine.  Ray hit the jackpot, and all these balls drop into a metal tray and make a lot of noise, then you cash them in.  Instead of cashing them in, he put the balls in his pocket (he had about 20-25 balls, I guess), and walked right over to the concert hall, and lined the balls up in the piano strings of the piano.  And that night, Oscar Peterson was the last musician introduced, and he came out, they’d already started playing, and Oscar played like two chords, and all these balls started bouncing out of the piano.  I guess Oscar’s feet came off the floor about two feet!

TP:    Did he ever get you on a good one?

HAMILTON:  Oh, boy.  There are so many funny little jokes.  There was one night at the Blue Note… I have a pretty loose grip, and sometimes my sticks will fly out.  He used to kid me about it.  This night the stick hit him in the chest, and rolled down on the other side of his bass, and off of his bass onto my hi-hat, and rolled onto the snare drum and over to the mounted tom, and then back to the snare drum, and I picked it up and continued playing.  He said… Well, I can’t tell you what he said!  He said, “How the hell did you do that?!”  And I didn’t do anything.  Just the stick happened to land where I could pick it up and play.  A lot of funny things like that on the bandstand.TP:    You met Ray Brown in ’48, and when was the last time you played with him?

Oscar Peterson

OSCAR PETERSON:  I guess the last time I played with Ray was when I did a couple of dates in New York with he and Milt Jackson.

TP:    That were documented on the Telarc record, “The Very Tall Band”?

PETERSON:  Yes, that’s right.

TP:    So 50 years of making music with him.  He was already an extremely experienced musician when you met him for the first concert, and when your partnership began.  Was there any way in which he help show you the ropes or helped you get grounded?  The broader question is what impact he had on you as an instrumentalist and musician?

PETERSON:  He gave me one thing, and that was confidence.  That’s probably the most important thing that a bass player can give anyone that he or she is playing for.  When I played with Ray, he gave me confidence, because I never had to wonder and worry about where it was going either harmonically or rhythmically.  And if you can reach that plateau with any bass player, you’re in the right place at the right time.

TP:    So he never threw you any curve balls.

PETERSON:  No, he never did.

TP:    And if he gave you a 95-mile-an-hour fastball it was something you could hit.

PETERSON:  [LAUGHS] I more than likely would see it coming!

TP:    You roomed together.  You probably saw more of each other than any other person.  What does that level of proximity do for musical communication?

PETERSON:  I’ll tell you one thing.  It gives you a better insight into the inner weaknesses and strengths of your roommate.  I mean that professionally.  You can tell just from conversations with them… I knew right away the people that Ray admired musically, and including bass players.  I don’t want to mention names, but I knew who he admired and who got to him and who reached him, and I knew the bass players he didn’t care for.  So you get to know the innards of a person a lot better.  And he knew the pianists that I admired and revered and he also knew the pianists that I did not like.  With this kind of information, we had a better insight into what and how to play with each other.

TP:    Did you tend to share the same likes and dislikes?

PETERSON:  I have to say yes to that.

TP:    He was a reasonably proficient pianist.

PETERSON:  Ray was what I call a compositional pianist! [LAUGHS] Ray would sit at the piano and would harmonically play what he wanted to play, and would sing the melodic things that he wanted to go over, because he didn’t have that kind of dexterity on the piano.  He was a bass player.  That wasn’t his instrument.  But you could tell that he knew where he was going.  In fact, one of my gifts to him one year was to give him a keyboard he could travel with, so he could write tunes on the road.

TP:    John Clayton said that at a certain point — and you would know this better than anyone — he started forming a network of symphony bassists in the different cities you would visit, either with the trio or JATP, and would then take private lessons going from city to city.  The larger point being that everyone says he practiced and strove to improve incessantly, without letup.

PETERSON:  He did.  He really worked at it.  People think that it was just raw talent, which it is, but it was not the complete talent.  But Ray, to be very honest with you, had great respect for what the classical bassists could do with music, because he knew that it was a very difficult instrument to in play in certain aspects as far as being in tune and certainly in time.  He was always working to try to perfect these fine points of the instrument.

TP:    But it’s correct that he did this rather systematic study with different people in various places.

PETERSON:  He did that, and he also did it the other way around.  He would do that with classical bassists, because they wanted to get an insight into his playing.  So quite frankly, it worked both ways.  But he also would hold his own little clinics in his room with different local bassists, as he went from city to city.

TP:    In hearing him for fifty years, looking back, what would you say were the qualities of his playing that evolved most noticeably?

PETERSON:  First of all, I have to say his concept of time.  That’s the essence of all of jazz, I think.  Secondly, his harmonic sense from an accompaniment standpoint when he was playing with someone.  He knew what to play, where, when he was playing for and with someone.

TP:    So he refined those skills, and made them better like fine wine, as it were.

PETERSON:  That’s right.  Certain things that he would play behind me, or certain things that I played… And it could be the same tune.  But certain nights, he could sense… He was a great listener.  There’s one of the things.  He listened to each performance that everyone gave.  But certain nights he’d play a certain way for you.  He played differently because you were playing differently!  That’s something a lot of bassists do not do.

TP:    So along with you, he helped make the trio a creative entity every night, even when you’re in the middle of four sets a night, six nights a week.

PETERSON:  Oh, yeah.  It was a challenge.  He would walk different lines behind me different nights, just to see what would happen.  He would go a different way.  He didn’t have a set routine harmonically for me.  He would change the pattern different nights, just to see what I would do with it.

TP:    Did he always have his keen penchant for business?  His business skills after moving to Los Angeles are somewhat legendary.  Did he always possess this acumen?

PETERSON:  I think so.  Norman Granz used to tell him, “Why don’t you just be a booking agent and get it over with?”  He said, “Pick one or the other.  Either be the world’s best player or the world’s best booking agent.  Take your choice.

TP:    I guess the exceptional thing is that he was the world’s best player and a pretty darn good booking agent.

PETERSON:  I’m not going to dispute anything you say or anything Norman said.  I think it was Ray’s choice, and he lived his life the way he wanted to.

TP:    It sounds like you’ve been able to do the same.

PETERSON:  I’m trying.

Quincy Jones

TP:    I know he was managing you and working with you.

QUINCY JONES:  He was.

TP:    Before we speak about that, may I ask when you first became acquainted?

JONES:  Ray Brown?  On records, when I was about 13 years old.  We used to listen to 78 records at Sherman & Clay, a record store in Seattle.  We couldn’t afford to buy them. I’d just discovered music two years before.  They had glass booths where you could play the 78s, and didn’t have to buy it.  I’d listen all day long — Dial Records, and Charlie Parker and Dizzy and Miles and Slam Stewart.  We were working in nightclubs at that age… Because Ray Charles got up there a year later.  When I was 14, Ray Charles was working up there, too.  He was 16.  During the war.  Seattle was jumping during the war.  It was really jumping.  Because it was the last stop before Japan, what they called the Pacific Theater.  So we were absolute junkies with all the bands.  Everybody.  Dizzy’s band…

We were at the Washington Social Club one night, and I saw this guy come in with just a little stingy brim hat, an Italian suit on, and real cool kicks (what we used to call shoes), and he had a trenchcoat on.  They said, “That’s Ray Brown, man.”  Since we were kids, we were trying to determine who the hell we were.  Because in the ’40s, man, music… There were no TV shows.  Radio, forget it.  And the books, too.  So the definition of who you were, you had to just try to figure it out through the people who came through, sailors and so forth… I know I’m making this a long answer here, but this is what happened.

Then I started to see the bands come through, like Basie and Duke and Erskine Hawkins and Louis Armstrong, and then Dizzy’s band came through.  I’d sit there, and I knew then I was hooked on 5 saxophones, 3 or 4 trombones, and 4 trumpets and a rhythm section the rest of my life.  I’d sit there just mesmerized all night long.  How do they play all at once and not play the same note?  Not only that, but these brothers are dignified, they are unified, they’ve got wit, they have fun, they’re talented, and they’re doing what they want to do.  They had everything.  I said, “That’s the kind of man I want to be.”

TP:    They were clean, too.

JONES:  Oh, clean as a chitlin’!  Please, man.  And all the girls… They had everything, man!  The sailors, they were pretty cool.  We used to dress like sailors for a while, when we were 11.  But man, when the musicians… I said, “No, that’s it, man, please.”  Because they had the music going.  And the sounds… It just took over my soul.  When I saw Ray Brown… I can’t even express it because it was just so powerful.  We didn’t have any connection with anything.  There was no MTV or anything else.  You’d hear everything on the grapevine, with the guys coming through, like blues bands, they’d say, “Charlie Parker just put some dexedrine in Peg-Leg Bates or Rubberlegs Williams’ coffee or something…”  And all the tunes, “Little Willie Leaps” and all the things… Personally, I learned how to write music then.  I’d write all the stuff down.  We were just like totally obsessed.

TP:    You’d take the stuff off the records?

JONES:  Yeah.  And people would give you copies of it.  It would travel around like the Dead Sea Scrolls or something.

TP:    It was a true oral tradition then.

JONES:  It was!  And they were like griots, you know.  All the bands.  We’d go backstage in our little bebop bags, and try to play grownup and sneak in, because we couldn’t afford to see the bands, and everything was cool when it was Duke and Basie, but then the first time they said, “Where are you going, man?” I said “We’re in the band.”  It was Les Brown!  “No, you’re not.” [LAUGHS] Or Skinny Ennis or somebody with Gil Evans’ arrangements.

TP:    So Ray Brown was one of the people who formed your conception of what music and the life was.

JONES:  Yes.  See, a skilled writer can say that in one word.  It takes me a half-hour.  Basie was, too, and Clark Terry was.  Those three guys were very important.  Ray Charles, Clark Terry, Basie, they were something.

TP:    So before you were a professional musician, these are the three people who really affected you…

JONES:  We were professional then!  We were playing clubs!

TP:    But before you got out in the broader world.  And you wound up playing and becoming involved with all of them.

JONES:  Exactly.  But that was the first bite.  And just what the lifestyle was about, the intelligence and wit — everything.  It just was so addictive.  Then I didn’t see Ray for another few years…

TP:    You didn’t see him for a number of years.

JONES:  Right.  But I kept up with him.  The grapevine was very strong then about what was happening in New York.  Because we had never seen New York; through our imagination was the only thing on 52nd Street and all that stuff.  Then finally, I got a scholarship to Boston at the Berklee School in the fall of 1950, which was the Schillinger House then, and Oscar Pettiford played across the street at the Hi-hat.  It was just love at first sight.  I’d go to the nightclub every night.  [b.1933]

TP:    So Ray Brown is only seven years older than you, but nonetheless…

JONES:  Right!  But he was 21 then, and that’s a huge difference.  He was big-time.  Ray Charles was two-three years older.  Anyway, Oscar Pettiford took me to New York while I was in school there, and said, “Would you like to write two arrangements for my record date?”  He saw some of the tunes I wrote while I was in school at the Hi-Hat.  I lived across the street.  Then he said, “I would like you to come down and do a session with me.”  Mercer Records.  Leonard Feather was the A&R man.  That was my first New York minute, and I was like Dracula at the blood bank.

That was the first time I saw New York.  I met Mingus… It’s ironic, because you’re talking about    bass player, and Oscar introduced me to Mingus and Art Tatum, and then I kind of followed Ray around on 52nd Street.  We still hadn’t hooked up, though, you know.  Then to make a long story short, in the ’50s, when I was working out in L.A. to do some arrangements for somebody, I went to see Sidney P…Poitier (because we started together almost at the same time, in New York, starving to death together) at the Knickerbocker Hotel, and Ray was… I was going to Sidney’s room (this must have been in ’55 or ’56 or ’57), and Ray was playing golf in the hall. [LAUGHS] He was putting down the hall.  That time we hooked up, and it was forever.

One thing led to another, then he did a record date with me in 1959 on my Birth of The Band album, and I was just… They had to put cold water on me just to cool me off.  The idea to even have Ray Brown play on your music, it just blew my mind.

TP:    Did you follow the Oscar Peterson Trio during those years?

JONES:  Oh yeah.  I was a Jazz at the Philharmonic junkie.

TP:    Talk a little about Ray Brown’s role in JATP and the trio.

JONES:  That was equivalent to the Rolling Stones today, or whoever you want to say…about Voodoo or whatever… It was the same thing.  They had the crowd screaming, man, and Ella and Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, Bird, Flip Phillips — everybody.  It was incredible.  That was our Rock-and-Roll.

TP:    I understand.  But I’m asking about Ray Brown’s function within that situation.  Because I think it was quite a special one.

JONES:  Well, at that time he was married to Ella Fitzgerald.  That’s a pretty big function, playing all that bass and Ella Fitzgerald’s husband, too.  At that time, everything was bigger than life to us.  That was probably the most influential thing — that and the big bands — for a whole life.  It was not just the music; it was the lifestyle, too.  And bebop, with all this freedom and this exploration, of breaking out of the entertainer role for black musicians.  I guess that was one of the key things, too.  It wasn’t so much about entertainment. It was serious, serious musicians.  And we heard the word about Oscar Peterson, and then Ray and he hooked up… I don’t know, just the grapevine was so strong… I know I’m not on a straight line here.  I don’t know how to do it.

TP:    You’re saying it was no more about entertainers, but it seems Ray Brown was very much an ambassador, as was Oscar Peterson, through their comportment and level of commitment to being on every minute…

JONES:  Everybody was like that, Ted.  Oscar Peterson.  Nat Cole was like that.  Earl Hines.  Everybody was like that then.  That was the tenor of the times.

TP:    It was like a different way of being an entertainer.

JONES:  They were on another planet. I remember when the Big Band school went into Bebop, and there was a little friction there at first.  You know, Pops wasn’t crazy about that.  Louis talked about Dizzy playing all that weird stuff.  I loved both of them, big bands and bebop.  But bebop was my heart.  And Ray was the personification of bebop.

TP:    But then at JATP, he’d be playing with Prez and Illinois Jacquet, swing guys…

JONES:  The best in the world. And that was probably the metamorphosis of swing into bebop.  Because Dizzy came out of Cab’s band and Bird came out Jay McShann, and then they converged with Earl Hines, and then Billy Eckstine took ALL of them over then.  The whole bebop workshop was going on over there, you know, with Sassy and Art Blakey and J.J. [sic] and Dizzy, Fats, Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, everybody.  That was the real melting pot, Billy Eckstine’s band.  That was a pure bebop band.

That’s how I learned how to write, when I was really getting into writing.  I remember I asked Ray Charles, “How do they play all this stuff and not play the same notes?” I was 13 or 14.  And Ray hit a B-flat-7 chord and a C7 on top of it; it was like a B-flat-13 with an augmented fourth.  BANG!  Why, it just opened up a whole passageway.

TP:    So you were heavy into the Jerry Valentine charts.

JONES:  All of them.  Gil Fuller.  Everybody.  Everything he played, man.  The Cuban stuff.  Cuba was BIG then.  “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” and “Manteca.”

TP:    They were all playing on top of each other on 52nd Street.

JONES:  Chano Pozo.  Mario Bauza, man.  I worked with him as recently as eight years ago.

TP:    Oh, right before he passed you worked with him.

JONES:  Yes, indeed.  We were at the Montreux together.  There was a big band in Montreux.

TP:    So ’59 is the first time Ray Brown plays with you, and you meet him around ’55-’56-’57 in the hotel and make that connection.  So you like each other…

JONES:  Yes.  As people we hooked up together, and then musically we hooked up in ’59, and it just never stopped.

TP:    Talk about what he was like at a session.  Most of these situations would have been sessions rather than live performances or tours.

JONES:  Right.  But for arrangers it didn’t make any difference.  You had to put all the stuff down on paper before you got there, and know who your soloists are and let them stretch.  I always loved that, to keep a big band mentality but have a little band sensibility about the solo stuff.

TP:    What I specifically want to get at with this question is his manner in his studio.

JONES:  A man never plays more or less than they are as a human being.  Ray was a very confident person, a take-charge person.  He played bass like that and lived like that.  He ate 17 different dishes like that.  That’s the eatingest sucker… At the eulogy, everybody had their own little focus.  Mine was on the eating.  Ray could EAT, man.  Whoo!  We ate everywhere on the planet, man.  France, you name it.

TP:    What was his favorite meal?

JONES:  Oh, whatever was good.  Kobe beef and Shabu-Shabu in Japan; and Peking Duck in Hong Kong; foie gras at Lafont; or ham hocks or whatever at Sylvia’s.  Wherever we were, what was good, Ray knew what it was.

TP:    From downhome haute cuisine to haute haute cuisine.

JONES:  That’s right.  I started that way and still am.  If they’ve got fresh produce and they know what they’re doing, I’m your man.  And Ray was, too.  But Ray… [LAUGHS] I’ve never seen… We were in Japan once with Mr. Nakashima… He was my manager by then.  We took the big band over there in the ’70s or ’80s, and we stayed over after the gig.  He took us all to great restaurants… Nakashima was a great promoter over there and a great friend.  He said after three days, “I think you guys have eaten up all the kobe beef in Japan.”  Ray said, “Man, you’ve been so nice, I think we’re going to stay over three more days.”  He said, “Oh, no-no.”  He drove us to the airport.

TP:    How did you begin the relationship of manager-artist?

JONES:  Well, all of these things just sort of evolved.  We started doing dates together, and then he came to me… A lot of record dates.  Movies.  I mean, TONS of movies.  Like, remember In Cold Blood?  Well, that was Andy Simpkins and Ray played the two killers, Bobby Blake and Scott Wilson.  They were the metaphors in the score for the two killers.  Richard Brooks… It was amazing, on the way to Ray’s funeral, Richard told me about Rod Steiger leaving us, too.  But we did dozens of movies together.  We did record dates, we did TV shows, we did the Cosby Show, and we got closer and closer together.  After a while, Ray would just say, “Man, I’ll take care of this,” and “I’ll take care of this…”  We’d do tours in Japan, he’d get with the promoter and stuff, and we’d just do it.  We did a tour with Roberta Flack, one of the best concerts I ever did in my life.  All of us… We had 37 musicians at the Greek with Roberta Flack.

TP:    I heard a story that Norman Granz once said to Ray Brown, “Why don’t you just become a booking agent and be done with it?”

JONES:  He did!  Ray had the ability to do that.

TP:    What does it take for a musician to be such a creative… I don’t think word “genius” would be misused with Ray Brown.  So he’s a creative genius and an extremely gifted businessman…

JONES:  An astute businessman.  It takes using all of your brain. [LAUGHS] It’s all in there.  You just have to use it.

TP:    The left side and the right side is there with him.

JONES:  That’s right, the left-right brain thinking.  There’s a great book out called Six Thinking Hats, and Ray’s was… That’s what it’s about, is using all of your brain.  The stuff he uses for booking gigs and travel and all that stuff is using a part that you don’t use when you’re playing the bass.

TP:    Did his management activity with you begin after 1966, when he moved to Los Angeles, or had he started to do this before?

JONES:  It started around that time, yes.  Because I didn’t get out there permanently until ’64 or ’65.  I came out to do Cary Grant’s last movie, is when I started to stay — Walk, Don’t Run.  I was in a house, and I was like all New Yorkers, talking loud about California, about the palm trees and all this stuff. [LAUGHS] Nobody said anything.  And then you have to eat your words, because that Christmas I was out in my backyard, picking some oranges off of a tree at the place I had leased, and I said, “Man, I don’t need three other seasons.  This is it.”

TP:    Basically you did so much work together, it would be hard for you to pinpoint anything.

JONES:  God, it’s just so much, Ted!  I think of the things… The Ellington special.  One of my passions was to do a special with Duke Ellington on a network.  They resisted it so much in the beginning, but finally, a guy named Phil Capece(?) said, “Let’s do it.”  Clarence Avon, a friend of mine, helped me get that connection together.  We were trying to find out who to go to.  Ray was involved.  I think from that spot on, we started to work together.  We did the album of “Walk In Space,” all those things… Then Grady Tate… A thing that stands out when he and Grady Tate first met each other. Man, it was a match made in heaven.  Amazing.

TP:    Did he ever indicate frustration with you at any of the limitations of studio playing?  Eventually, he did get out of it and went back to touring.

JONES:  Frustration?  No!  Ray did the shit out of whatever he was doing.  We didn’t get into that.  Because, you know, old school comes from… Also Clark Terry, who was my teacher when I was 14.  They come from Silas Green’s Circus, man.  They played everything.  He’s older than Ray.  But they’ve been around.  They’ve played chitlin’ circuit… We all played chitlin’ circuits.  And you didn’t sit around whining about what you had to play, man.  You played what you had to play, and tried to make all of it sound good.  That’s what I loved about Ray. That’s where I think our chord struck, in being very curious about what the business side of it was and tired of always a victim — not wanting to be a victim.  That’s the same thing in Ray, and he saw it in me.  We wanted to be a little bit more in charge of our own destinies.  Then I had the good fortune in 1957 to live in France, and live next door to Picasso.  Man, Picasso was totally in charge of his life. Lithograph plants.  He didn’t have to take any shit from anybody.  And I LOVED that idea.  Because I heard all the victims… Black musicians were HUGE victims in the ’50s.  And I watched it.  I watched my idols… Like the Duke, the man who’s like the god of American music. We were producing a show once, and saw him in Vegas, and it just tore my heart out.  He was 75, man, and he was playing in a lounge in Vegas.  It just killed me!  Because the man I used to watch in the white suit with Al Hibbler when I was 12, 13 or 14, and he’s playing in a lounge, and Paul Gonsalves was walking around the tables, man, like a violinist.  It hurt me.  It hurt me for him.  It really hurt me.  Basie and I used to talk about that all the time.  Basie was like my father, you know.  From 13 years old on, he took care of me.  Brother, father, manager, everything.  He’d get gigs for my band — everything.

TP:    He was a true survivor, wasn’t he.

JONES:  Oh, what a beautiful man.  I feel so blessed to have come up from that school, with Dizzy and Basie and Ray Brown and Ray Charles.

TP:    You’re a modernist with old-school values.

JONES:  Yeah.  I came up in the middle of the best damn thing, in the ’40s, after the war.  I was a kid.  Then I was with Lionel Hampton for three years, ’51 to ’53, and Dizzy’s band, and writing for Basie.  So jazz and big band was just equal ambidexterity.

I’d like to add one thing.  I never saw him do it… Going back to the eating thing.  As a bass player, he’s the King of Humididing and Spangalang, please!  And he could probably eat a 249-pound catfish if he tried!  Ray could eat that.  We used to have so much fun.  I guess it’s that campfire thing.  After you do all your other stuff, it’s always sit at the table around the campfire.

TP:    Well, another aspect of people from your day is that they all knew how to have a good time.

JONES:  Absolutely, man.  Ben Webster taught us how to drink.  It was great.

I’d like to say one more thing about the man I love here.  Ray to me was the absolute symbol of if you empty your cup every time and learn to make it a habit, it always comes back twice as full.  What I’m saying is give it up every time, man.  Don’t save nothin’.  That we definitely shared, and I learned more and more about that from him all the time.  In everything.  In relationships.  Everything.  Give it up.TP:    You said you first met Ray Brown at a JATP concert in Tokyo in 1953.  Was that your first experience listening to him?  I’m sure you’d heard the records before hearing him live.

Ed Thigpen

ED THIGPEN:  That was in 1953.  When I went into the Army, I was with Cootie Williams, and I hadn’t really been exposed to… Well, I had JATP.  But when did Oscar go down there?

TP:    He started going out in ’49, but would do more of a feature, and I think in ’50 he started going out as a duo act with Major Holley, and then he linked u with Ray Brown in ’52, around the time when his relationship with Ella Fitzgerald was dissolving.

THIGPEN:  Okay.  That puts things in perspective, because Ella was on that concert in ’53 in Japan as well.  Prior to that, I had heard JATP, but I wasn’t really into… I got out of high school when they started out, and I’d been working with territorial bands… I got to New York in ’51, but I was working with Cootie Williams.  I was on the road with Dinah and rhythm-and-blues bands.  I’m a little more than four years younger than Ray.  Whatever.  But anyway, it was ’53.

TP:    But you knew the records with Dizzy.

THIGPEN:  Oh yeah, I’d heard that in high school.

TP:    So you knew who Ray Brown was from when you were very young, and a formative musician.

THIGPEN:  Yes, but you know and KNOW who he was.  I didn’t have a record player when I was in high school.  I didn’t get a record player until I was a grown man.  But I heard a lot of live music growing up in L.A.  Anyway, that’s another story.

TP:    All of this is a roundabout way of asking what was your impression of his sound and his aura as a musician.

THIGPEN:  To be honest with you, the group was just so overwhelming with Herb, as I told you in the letter.  That pretty much summarizes what I thought. What impressed me was his kindness.  He was a nice guy.  Everybody played… I was looking at Ben and Benny Carter and J.C. Heard.  But mainly, when I met him, he was a nice person.

TP:    Good enough. Then I’m going to jump ahead to 1959, when you join the band, and the orientation of the trio changes from piano-bass-guitar, very orchestrative, to you kind of driving the band from the drums.  The way Oscar Peterson put it, they would change their articulation to suit the type of fills you would do, and this became more part of the structure of things.  First, how were you recruited to the band?  Through Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, I guess so.  As you said, Oscar said he recommended me.  I remember that in 1958 I was working at the Hickory House in New York, and Oscar came in.  He didn’t say anything to me.  He just came in at dinner, like Duke Ellington used to do at the Hickory House…

TP:    A steakhouse.

THIGPEN:  A steakhouse, right, on 52nd just off Broadway.  Earlier I was working there with Billy Taylor, Jutta Hipp, Toshiko and different people.  I was working with Billy during 1957-58.  But he came in, and that summer I got a call from Norman Granz saying that he wanted me to join Oscar Peterson.  There was a little discrepancy in the money… Anyway, I didn’t go with him right away.  Which I was very shocked by it.  I said, “What have I done?!”  Anyway, six months later, it was just at Christmas break, he called me again and said, “Okay, we’ll give you that.”  Boy, I said, “Thank you, Lord.”

TP:    So you’d never played with Ray Brown up until…

THIGPEN:  Oh, yes.  We had done a record with Blossom Dearie prior to that.  I’d started getting on the scene because I was in New York, working with Billy.  critics started liking my work, and I was getting recognition.  I’d go see Ray, and somehow we hooked up, and we did this date.

TP:    But that was just in the studio.  So your first bandstand experience with him was the rehearsals and then going on stage with the Oscar Peterson Trio.  Tell me about the experience of playing drums with Ray Brown.  What were the qualities that made Ray Brown, Ray Brown?

THIGPEN:  Well, his sound and his time, his attack. And it wasn’t just playing fast, it was the whole approach, the musical approach for me. In other words, taking your instrument and making it an orchestra.  How do we play together?  How do we blend together?  It was much of the tradition that I’d heard from Kenny Clarke and Jo Jones and my dad about how a rhythm section functions.  It was very dominant.  But they had an edge, playing on top of the beat, laying in the middle of it, laying behind it, shifting gears… But sound.  How our sound blended.  So on my own… He didn’t tell me what to play, but it was like how he played.  And I loved it so much — same with Oscar — that I developed techniques of my own that I thought would be compatible with what you were doing.

TP:    You played with him night after night for 6-1/2 years, maybe 200 nights a year…

THIGPEN:  We worked ten months a year.

TP:    That’s 300 days a year.  Was he an extremely consistent player?

THIGPEN:  Extremely.

TP:    And was he an extremely creative player from night to night?

THIGPEN:  Extremely musical, creative… It was…

TP:    That’s hard to do.  On the road for ten months a year?

THIGPEN:  It isn’t as hard to do when people are compatible.  It’s hard not to do because it’s not acceptable not to do that.  You don’t lay on… It was never coasting.  Oscar and Ray were at another level altogether, and their penchant for excellence was dominant.  But Ray was never forceful with me.  Just you wanted to be the best it was at what you were doing.  So you were giving your all every evening.  And once you get used to that, it’s unacceptable to come below that level.

TP:    Did you rehearse a great deal with Ray?

THIGPEN:  Oh-ho!  Well, we lived together.  He shared a room with me.  He was like a big brother, taking care of me, guiding me — just a lot of things in general.  We would practice every day.  After two weeks, I said, “I guess we got it.”  He said, “not yet.”  And two years later, we’re still practicing how to play time together, and dynamics, and me play his part, sing his parts and play mine, and vice-versa.  What was Oscar doing?  Then when we’d do things with the orchestras, when it was augmented, how to shift… How to work a rhythm section, how to really make it work.  We worked at that every day.

TP:    So he never rested on his laurels.

THIGPEN:  Oh, no!

TP:    By 1963, he’s Ray Brown, the heir to Jimmy Blanton, but he’s continuing to work on himself and perfect what he does.

THIGPEN:  I wrote (and I took some time to word this correctly in the email) at the end that Ray Brown was a worker at everything he did.

TP:    You said he “was a natural leader, dominant but not forceful, he was consistent, a very persistent, patient hard worker. Brownsk was in the trenches with you leading by example.”

THIGPEN:  That’s it.

TP:    It’s wonderfully put, and I’m talking to you for elaboration and examples, which you’re giving me.

THIGPEN:  That was Ray.  Everything he did.  He came home, he studied all the time, he practiced all the time, trying to improve all the time.  I think all great artists are like that, but the ones I’ve had the pleasure of working with are really exception.  Like, he would get together with symphonic players; he wanted to improve the bowing, he wanted to do this, and they would come down to see what he was doing.  He was always open.  But there were some things that were definite that they had stylistically that worked, and those things they were very adamant about, because they worked.  I’m speaking of Ray and people of that caliber.  We’re talking about the very top of the heap, now.  Whether it was Buddy Rich or Oscar Peterson or Ray Brown… Ray Brown, after he heard his father play Oscar Pettiford, he came off the road, and went back and learned everything Oscar Pettiford was doing before he’d go back out there again.  Oscar Peterson didn’t feel he was ready to come down when Norman asked him, and when he felt ready he came down, and jumped right to the top of the line.  So those guys are going to be the best possible, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to lay on it.  Because that instrument is challenging and the music is like that.  The instrument tells you.  There’s always somebody coming along, like a new fast gun.

TP:    I interviewed him in 1999, and he said he had to practice all the time so he could execute all the stuff he used to play.  I think that’s one reason why he had young musicians in his trio.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  He told me, “When you go out…”  Because I’d been off, I was raising my kids and blah-blah-blah.  But he said, “You get you some young boys, because they’re gonna be on top of it.”  So that’s what you do.  You’ve got to get where the energy is.

TP:    So your friendship lasted the duration, after leaving Oscar Peterson.

THIGPEN:  Oh yes.  My spiritual brother, Donald, and every… Oh, Ray was more than just a friend on the bandstand.  Ray spiritually was like a big brother.  He didn’t press you for anything, but if I needed to know something or whatever…encouragement… Ray was always there.

TP:    Was his business acumen always extremely evident?

THIGPEN:  Well, let me put it this way.  I knew he was a fast study.  I certainly couldn’t keep up with him.  But he would try to pull my coat about certain things which I just couldn’t grasp until later years.

TP:    You mean business things.

THIGPEN:  Business-wise.  But he’s one of these guys who could read the “Herald-Tribune” in 15 minutes, and you ask him a topic and just give him the page number and the subtitle, he’d tell you everything in the paper.

TP:    So to use the word “genius” wouldn’t be overstating the case with him.

THIGPEN:  No, I don’t think.  “Genius,” dictionary-wise, says a person of exceptional talent, unusual creativity and talent, and how to use it.  That’s the dictionary form of the word.  I think he fit the category.  You have nuances.

TP:    Well, everyone has their idiosyncracies.

THIGPEN:  But as far as these extra-special gifts that he had, and how you use them is what’s important…

TP:    Can you think of any one or two anecdotes that really get to his essence?

THIGPEN:  Yeah, my last little paragraph.  I thought this out; it wasn’t just random.

TP:    What I mean is that over the forty years of friendship, any thing you remember happening that brings into relief his qualities and his character.

THIGPEN:  What I mentioned is that he was consistent, and as I said before, he’s a very caring and thoughtful person.  This is very personal.  He became a very integral part of my life, as I said, as a spiritual brother and by example as a human being, thinking of me as a person… Unlike a lot of people, they talk to you and they don’t really listen to what you have to say from your perspective. He was one of the most fantastic listeners.  He knew how to listen to people for what they had to say.  Not for what he was perceiving them to say, but what they HAD to say.

TP:    That exactly correlates with what he did on the bandstand, too.

THIGPEN:  That’s right.

TP:    As you know, Oscar Peterson has an incredible feel for people’s voices.  How they speak, how they phrase things… It’s uncanny, and it really adds to the book.  He said he was doing his job, because he had to listen to them, because he had to play with them…

THIGPEN:  That’s right.  I mean, I always felt like that. My father had told me that, and that’s a deep-rooted scene.  And you learn that as an accompanist.  He was the perfect accompanist.  That’s an art.  You’re not afraid of losing your identity by being subservient or serving up something good to enhance another person’s performance. That was him.  When I said he was a caring and thoughtful human being, he was a caring and thoughtful musician in everything that he did, and it was like, “‘How do you make it better?”  And that was the thing that… That put it on for me.  And living with a person like that, when you’re able to practice it every day on the bandstand, then that’s something else.

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