Tag Archives: Sonny Rollins

For Sonny Rollins’ 85th Birthday, Three Downbeat Articles from 2000, 2007 and 2009 and a Jazziz Article from 2005

Sonny Rollins, who turns 85 today, hasn’t played in public for several years, and it’s unclear—though much wished for by his international cohort of admirers—that he will  be able to do so again. I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to write about him on a number of occasions since 2000. I’ve posted four of these pieces below. The first, for DownBeat, was a long overview, framed around the 2000 studio recording This is What I Do (this is a “directors’ cut”). https://tedpanken.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/its-sonny-rollins-81st-birthday-two-interviews-from-2000/ In the second, done in 2005 for Jazziz, Rollins spoke about the death of his wife, Lucille, his up-close encounter with the events of 9/11/2001, and his decision to begin to release the first of the Road Shows series, documenting his personal creme de la creme choices from concerts on his own label. The third reports on his 2007 Carnegie Hall concert with Christian McBride and Roy Haynes.  The fourth is a piece for DownBeat‘s 75th anniversary issue in 2009, in which he responded to his quotes in DB articles about him from 1956 until 2005.

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Sonny Rollins (Downbeat-2000):

It’s Saturday night, and Sonny Rollins is about to emerge for his second set at B.B. King’s Blues Club on 42nd Street. The joint is jumping. A rainbow coalition of hardcore fans, package-deal customers off the tour bus, critics in various states of rapture, and renowned saxmen looking to pick up a little inspiration pack the capacious theater basement, which offers good sightlines, a competent sound system, bordello-red wallpaper, a bar as long as a city block, and an admixture of straight tables and strategically placed semi-circular banquettes. Like the theme-park-like facades that line the sidewalk above, B.B. King’s oozes the unsettling aura of virtual reality; it’s a fresh-scrubbed replica of the inner city lounges around the country where the licensor and the evening’s featured act paid their dues as aspirants in the years following World War II.

A hip filmmaker might want to dress the customers in period attire and transform B.B. King’s into Club Baron, a spot on 135th Street where gangsters and glitterati mixed during the Harlem Renaissance, but whose glory days were long behind it in 1948, when Rollins — a teenage devotee of Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Lester Young and Charlie Parker — led a trio there opposite Thelonious Monk. “Monk heard me then,” recalls Rollins, “and saw something in me that he liked. Then he sort of took me under his wing. I began to go to his house and rehearse with his various bands. Guys would say, ‘Man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet’ and all this stuff, and then we’d end up playing it.”

Executing the impossible — shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night — is the operative trope of Rollins’ astonishing career, and although he recently turned 70, his audience expects nothing less. Some already are familiar with his latest album, This Is What I Do [Milestone], a mellow, reflective recital on which the maestro places his singular voice — gruff, burnished, passionate — at the forefront throughout, soloing with transparent vigor on three new originals and three tunes from the ’30s Songbook. He seems to have reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.

None of these effusions mean much to Rollins, who cites Armstrong as his idol, and is acutely conscious of his reputation. “If I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?” he had asked rhetorically over the phone from his Tribeca pied-a-terre several weeks before. “Or an icon, which is even worse. When I come out on the stage, it can’t be, ‘well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,’ and that’s it, good-night. I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall. I don’t like to take money when I don’t earn it, and I don’t like people to be disappointed when they come to see me. In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.”

The reference is to the Williamsburg Bridge, a nondescript symbol of urban decay which connects Delancey Street in lower Manhattan to what presently is a wildly gentrified area of Brooklyn. Then a 29-year-old Loisida resident at the top of his game (several bootlegs of March 1959 performances in Europe affirm the assertion), Rollins appropriated a secret alcove there which for two-and-a-half years he used as a private rehearsal studio “to shore up some fundamental technical things on the saxophone.”

His sabbatical generated extraordinary consternation and speculation within the jazz community. Rollins already was a stylistic role model; had he never again picked up his horn, he would remain a major figure in jazz history. By his 25th birthday, the Harlem native had recorded and gigged as a peer with Monk, Bud Powell, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and J.J. Johnson, composed still-enduring jazz originals like “Oleo,” “Airegin” and “Doxy,” and fought down a serious heroin addiction whose consequences led to incarcerations in 1950 and in 1952. In December 1955, Rollins left Chicago — where he worked as a factory janitor and lived in a room at the YMCA at 35th and Wabash while getting himself together — with the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet. He proceeded to record a succession of enduring masterpieces — including the aptly titled “Saxophone Colossus” — which showcased an immense, speechlike tone, elastic time sense, an unfailing penchant for melodic invention that revealed a romantic sensibility completely devoid of bathos, a sense of humor that some called sardonic, and a seemingly intuitive grasp of spontaneous composition.

“A lot of people couldn’t comprehend why I would stop playing,” says Rollins, whose imposing frame, larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belie the notion that demons of doubt could ever have gnawed at his innards. “But I know I learned something. I felt it was a necessary thing for me to do to have the kind of confidence I need in playing music like this. It was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve, because it was against the grain of public opinion. So outside of the musical benefits, it was also good for my soul.”

Between 1962 and 1964 Rollins released six divergent albums for RCA-Victor, which presented him with a $90,000 advance and unlimited studio access; in 1965-66 he cut three intermittently brilliant albums on Impulse. Picking up on procedures he’d implied on his pioneering trio recordings of the late ’50s (see Way Out West, Live At the Village Vanguard, The Freedom Suite), he documented his exhaustive investigations of the instrument’s sonic possibilities, and moved inexorably towards the principle of improvising from a tabula rasa. In listening to his flights of fancy from this period, it’s interesting to consider that Rollins, who like fellow saxophone visionary Wayne Shorter, was a gifted cartoonist and watercolorist in his youth, noted in a mid-’50s interview that he had only recently definitively decided that music would indeed be what did.

“I liked painting a lot,” he muses, “but of course there was no money in it. I was getting out of school, and in music I was able to play jobs and make some money; there was the promise that this might be a career. Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, I said, ‘Gee, I must be okay.'” Perhaps his roots in shaping imagery and design explain why — as guitarist Jim Hall, his 1961-62 quartet partner, once noted — Rollins began to deploy a sort of synesthetic mojo during the post-Bridge years, exploring motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, imparting to his phrases vivid splashes of timbre with balladic nuance at the fastest tempos.

Rollins built his far-flung abstractions upon formidable bedrock. I convey to him alto saxophonist Gary Bartz’s description a few years back of hearing Rollins at the Village Vanguard during the mid-’60s. “What impressed and helped me,” Bartz recalled, “is that one night Sonny would play like Lester Young all night; he’d play songs like ‘Three Little Words’ that were associated with Prez, and play Prez’s solos sometimes note-for-note with Prez’ sound before going off into his own solo. The next night, he might do the same thing with Coleman Hawkins. Then the next night he would be Sonny. So I used to go every night, as you see!”

Rollins emits a hearty guffaw, and responds bemusedly: “I didn’t approach it that analytically. We were young and didn’t always get an opportunity to see our heroes in person, so we learned a lot by listening to the records and copying the solos. Well, I’d get as close to what they did as I could. I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. In trying to get the style of Prez or Coleman Hawkins, I would try to inhabit their soul, feel what they felt, interpret music the way they did.”

As band-members Stephen Scott and Bob Cranshaw note, Rollins continues to pay private homages to his idols during soundchecks, which certain obsessives in the crowd at B.B. King’s might prefer hearing him do to having sex; they might even sacrifice their left nut to hear him return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time ’50s-’60s style. But although Rollins is the most Proustian of improvisers, able to download at Pentium speed deeply embedded fragments of musical memory which morph into stunning spur of the moment theme-and-variation disquisitions, reenacting times past has never been on his agenda.

“Sometimes I think I would help myself if I listened to some of my old playing,” Rollins muses. “Every now and then, when I listen to something of my own, I hear things I used to do that I forgot about, and think, ‘Wow, I should do that again.’ But I shudder when I hear myself; I’m always saying, ‘Gee, I should have done that’ or ‘I don’t like my tone right there.’ I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to listen to myself objectively, and it probably would help me play better. But I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill. Certain things I don’t want to analyze too closely. I’d rather they just happen.”

That’s the procedure Rollins followed after emerging from a second lengthy hiatus during which he spent long stretches in Japan and India, explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. Following the lead of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock, he turned his attention to contemporary music, adopted a more pronounced vibrato, electrified his band sound and layered it with rhythmic texture, added to his arsenal tunes that featured heavy electric bass vamps and funk beats, addressed a repertoire that comprised more melodic, dance-driven content mixed with exquisite balladry. After releasing the majestic “Horn Culture” [1973] with teen chum Walter Davis, Jr. on piano and the powerful live document “The Cutting Edge” [1974], Rollins issued a frustratingly inconsistent succession of albums, proffering attenuated, self-conscious solos on attractive tunes whose authoritatively played heads barely hinted at the life force he imparted to them when performing before an audience.

“I’m often criticized about the ’70s and ’80s because I used a backbeat and guitars and all, but I don’t understand a lot of it,” Rollins says crisply. “Jazz has to be alive. This gets back to what I said about playing like somebody. If you can appreciate what someone is doing and try to get their essence, then it’s alive. If you copy them to a tee, it probably wouldn’t sound alive. In the ’70s I was trying to find different ways to make my music relevant. I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where I can’t play a calypso or a backbeat. I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid. This is the way I play. The music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics. It’s anti-industrial. But what It is, I don’t know. Every now and then, I’ll get a glimpse, but I can’t get to It as often as I would like. Until I feel satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.”

Whatever one thinks aesthetically of Rollins’ populist, vernacular-oriented path between the mid-’70s and “Falling In Love With Jazz,” the 1989 album that marked his recorded return to hardcore jazz values, it’s of a continuum with his earliest experiences. “I like dancing and I like playing for dancers,” says Rollins, who remembers going to Calypso affairs as a small boy with his Virgin Islands-born mother. “In our teens we did a solitary dance called the Applejack where you’d just do moves to the music. It’s what Monk did when he’d get up from the piano to dance. I remember going to see Dizzy’s band a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom; Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. He would dance the Lindyhop with a chick, and they would really be going to town, with the people crowding around them in a circle.

“When I was coming up with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was one and the same thing. Mostly we played either a club with a dance floor or what we called a function, where everyone was dancing. Sometimes in Harlem we had to play Caribbean-type tunes for dancing only, but a certain musical element was foremost — that’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes. I always did my own variations, tried to change things around a bit. I play a style of calypso which is different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, and it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play think that I’m not really playing calypso. I never broke rhythms down in a methodical way. Anything that I wanted came to me intuitively. I’d say, ‘I can use that’ or ‘that sounds right to me,’ and I just did it. What I do is completely natural, basically off the top of my head; I’ve never had the skill of being able to play the same thing from night to night. Not that I’d want to. I respect the skill of people who can do that, but I think I prefer to be who I am.”

Playing Harlem dances with the likes of Max Roach and Art Blakey, or sessions in late ’40s Chicago with drum legend Ike Day, undoubtedly honed Rollins’ preternatural rhythmic facility, which is one aspect of his magic that even he doesn’t soft-pedal. “I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?” he jokes. Getting serious, he continues, “I remember playing with Art Blakey once at Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way; after he came off the stand he said, ‘Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it, didn’t bother you.’ That gave me more confidence.

“Sonny likes to have the time solid, so that he can juxtapose playing across or under or through it,” says Jack DeJohnette, who first recorded with Rollins in 1972 on “Next Album.” “He is complete; he hears the drums, bass and piano in him, and he plays by himself.” That’s why Rollins has employed bassist Bob Cranshaw off and on since 1959, and why the R&B influenced drummer Perry Wilson has lasted with him for three years. “Bob is a steady player, and as abstract as I often like to get, I’ve always liked to contrast abstraction against something steady,” Rollins states.” “I play a lot of different stuff — Caribbean things, straight-ahead, a little backbeat — and I need a drummer who has a little bit of range, who isn’t locked into one style of playing. A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine. Perry has the range that’s needed to play with Sonny Rollins. I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout; I always have the song in mind regardless of what I do.”

In the manner of his role model Coleman Hawkins — and slightly lesser hero Gene Ammons, with whom he jousted on various visits to Chicago — Rollins is peerless at the operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve approach to balladry. “I love ballads,” he says. “Growing up, I loved a lot of people singing, Of course, I like Nat Cole, the way he phrases and seems sincere and gets it over. Even when he did some things in his later years that were thought to be overly commercial, they didn’t turn me off because it was him. I liked the Ink Spots and I liked Bing Crosby, who I saw in a lot of movies, which might have reinforced my admiration for him as a performer. We had a windup victrola on which I heard some of those old RCA Victor Carusos. I remember as a kid going to the City Center in New York and hearing operettas; when I was really young, maybe 2 years old, I saw a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan’s “Pirates Of Penzance” in Harlem, and later on in junior high school we had to go through “H.M.S Pinafore” and all this stuff. I was the youngest child, my oldest brother was a good violin player, and I’d hear him studying and playing all the time, and my sister played piano in church — so I imbibed a lot of music from them also.”

I ask Rollins to elaborate on his church background. He responds: “I was brought up in a sect called the Moravian church, where I went to Sunday School and got confirmed and so on. It was very straight-laced, with an organ playing hymns and Bach Cantatas. But my grandmother used to take me to a church run by a woman named Mother Horn right there on Lenox Avenue. It was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, and it made a big impression — I remember hearing a trumpet player who was really swinging.

“I went to Chicago for the first time in 1949 with a friend who played trumpet in a gospel group; he and his sister were in a sanctified church, and I used to go there every week, which I enjoyed because the music was so animated. Chicago was very exciting. It was earthier and more blues-oriented than New York, and they had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day. I spent a lot of time there, and met and played with a lot of musicians. It was a very formative period in my life. When I lived there in 1955, trying to get straight and get my life together, an interesting thing happened. I got up early one morning to catch the bus at 35th and State Street to get to work, and I saw in the window of a little record store on the corner a record I had made with Monk, ‘Just The Way You Look Tonight,’ and I was on the cover. An interesting pull.”

“We’re here in the year 2000, so let’s forget the good old days,” says an avuncular Rollins, elegant in a black ensemble, horn-rimmed shades, and liberally salted beard, midway through the second set at B.B. King’s, reacting to exhortations from the happy throng after he executes a dramatic downward swoop with his horn to state the final note of his passionate cadenza to “Moon Of Manakora,” an Academy Award winner in 1937 written for the Dorothy Lamour movie “Hurricane” that is the final track on “This Is What I Do.” Then he kicks into “St. Thomas,” his variation on a melody that he first heard at one of the Calypso dances that he attended with his mother which has been a staple of his repertoire since he waxed it in 1956 on “Saxophone Colossus.” He then croons the theme of Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful,” from “Sonny Rollins + 3 (1996), before hurtling into a lengthy abstraction on which he plays endless games with the time over the surging rhythm section until there’s nothing left to say.

Rollins concludes with “Don’t Stop The Carnival” (“What’s New,” 1962), a Calypso-Highlife hybrid that he uses as a frequent concert-closer. He roars like a lion through a succession of choruses, fingers popping in a St. Vitus dance over the saxophone keys, firing out cascades of notes from the bottom of the horn. Occasionally, for emphasis, he splits the reed to jackhammer precisely calibrated low overtones that seem ready to blast through building’s substructure and onto the tracks of the subway line that runs below 42nd Street. On the final chorus, as his parting shot, Rollins quotes Denzil Best’s “Move” — parrying pianist Stephen Scott’s witty reference to the bop staple in the kickoff solo to “This Is My Lucky Day” 90 minutes before — before a final cadenza on which he states “There’s No Place Like Home.”

“Hardcore Jazz is political,” Rollins had said during our initial conversation. “It’s real art, and it’s got a lot to say about things that are really happening. Unfortunately, a lot of forces out here want to divert people, don’t want us to think about anything; everything is all right, don’t think about the environment, don’t think about any kind of social problems — just go along and consume and make money. That’s what Hardcore Jazz is up against.”

Rollins seems primed for the battle. This Is What I Do caps a decade-long succession of magnificent albums on which the aging titan has confronted his past head-on with a sound that subsumes his entire history — the oceanic linearity of the ’50s, the expressionist timbre of the ’60s, and the groove-oriented populism of the ’70s and ’80s. Rollins lived what’s now called the tradition; he grew up immersed in it, he played no small part in creating it, his memories of it provide the narrative subtext for the vivid declamations he continues to spin. Significantly, he dedicates two originals — “Have You Seen Harold Vick?” and “Charles M” — to colleagues passed on.

“It’s good to honor and recognize fellow musicians,” Rollins declares. “Somebody needs to chronicle the guys that contributed to the whole nation’s musical history and never got heard of, who made life good for a lot of people but never get talked about. Harold Vick was a good player and was beloved by his colleagues. Why not talk about these guys? Why just let life rush on, rush on, rush on as if these things don’t matter?”

He proceeds to reminisce.

“Mingus and I were kindred spirits. We had a lot of problems dealing with the acceptance of the music and the way minorities are treated — the usual crap that people go through every day. He always wanted me to do some things with him, but they never panned out. I did play with him a couple of times. He would come by the RCA studios on 24th Street to play piano with me. And I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to the Five Spot on Eighth Street to play with Eric; in Mingus’ mind it was something like, ‘Man, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool.’ I never got around to recording any of his tunes, though I wanted to record one that Miles did called “Smooch,” which was reminiscent of a ballad called ‘Time’ that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.

“My relationship with Miles continued forever; we were always tight. Once Miles was playing with the group he had with Wayne Shorter at a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet. I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I went by and came in the club, and he didn’t see me. The guys said, ‘Sonny’s here, and Miles almost jumped out of his skin! It touched me, because I realized how much he thought of me. I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols. I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that. But he thought a lot of me.

“When I was growing up, we went to high school with a fine trumpet player whose name was Lowell Lewis, who played with Jackie McLean and all of us. When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce” in 1945, he heard it and he liked the way Miles played. I liked him, too, actually; he took such a poetic solo on one of those tunes. When Miles played with Bird, he took a different tack. Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything, and at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere. He was a god. But he was only four years older than I, which is why I think my relationship with him was more like one of a peer. Dizzy was much older. Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing. Of course, we know Bird was into his own thing. It was really hard to catch the Bird. Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh. But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.”

Rollins hasn’t stopped working since 1972; as he enters his eighth decade, a Buddhist practice as homegrown as his music helps him maintain focus. “I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism,” he notes. “Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me. I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied Yoga. What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga. That’s the way I practice. That’s the way I meditate. That’s the way I seek enlightenment during this lifetime, like the Buddha. And I’ve found out that to play my instrument, to concentrate and get inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things. I’m trying to get some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, to get beyond jealousies and hatreds and envies, all of these little things in life which are so stupid and inconsequential. This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned. I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.”

“You have to stay on it, you know,” he adds, referring to a clarion Tadd Dameron line that Dizzy Gillespie recorded with his big band in 1947. “Dizzy played a beautiful solo. It was very informative, and it taught me a lot about playing. Everything about it was very logical, and I like logical playing. It had all the other elements of great jazz playing, and it made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, the way he came in and the way he left space. It was just perfect.”

Which is what a good portion of the crowd must think of Rollins as they bask in the afterglow of the performance. Reality beckons as they file up the stairs and into a wee hours drizzle on 42nd Street, a mere ten blocks from the legendary 52nd Street clubs Rollins played when breaking in, and two stops on the A-train from 125th Street and the Apollo Theater, where a post-adolescent Rollins would go with “an astute bunch of young guys on my block who knew all about Ben Webster and the Ellington band.” He emphasizes, “We were all into jazz as opposed to guys that, say, were into rhythm-and-blues at that time. I mean, rhythm-and-blues was okay, but we knew the real stuff. I thought of Jazz as something which was extremely special. Yeah, that’s the word. It was special. Everything about it was great. There’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

 

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Sonny Rollins (Jazziz, 2005):
Last December, not long after the death of Lucille Rollins, his companion since 1959, his wife since 1965, and his business manager since 1971, Sonny Rollins decided to conclude his current contract with Fantasy Records by releasing Without A Song (The 9/11 Concert). It documents a Rollins concert at Boston’s Berklee Performing Arts Center in Boston on September 15, 2001, four days after Rollins, whose highrise Tribeca pied a terre was a few blocks due north of the World Trade Center, found himself in the middle of a disaster.

Rollins remembers that he was in no mood to do the job. “My legs were wobbly and I was mentally disjointed,” he says over the phone from his upstate New York home. “I told my wife, ‘Let’s cancel.’ But she convinced me that we should do it. Lucille was a very straight, Middle American-values person, and she hated to renege on a contract in any form. That might have been part of why she insisted. I’m sure there were more noble reasons. Some people suggested that my playing would help other people, which I don’t know if she thought of or not.”

Perhaps no one in the house benefitted more than Rollins, who, on the fateful morning of Tuesday, September 11th, was preparing to run some errands when he heard Flight 11 pass directly above his roof. “Then I heard a big POW!!!!” he recalls. His apartment looked north, up the Hudson River, and he thought a small plane had crashed along the waterfront. He turned on his black-and-white TV, just in time to see Flight 175 slam into the South Tower.

“Then I went downstairs,” he says. “The streets were bedlam, women running around screaming. When the South Tower came down, we started to run, because we thought it would take everybody if it fell over. Since it imploded on itself, that didn’t happen, but a tremendous amount of toxic dust filled the air.”

Downtown Manhattan was already sealed off, and, for lack of a better alternative, Rollins decided to take the elevator back up to his apartment. The phones were still working and he called his wife. Then he started practicing.

“I was definitely in shock,” he says. “Even when I heard the North Tower come down over my radio, it didn’t seem so bad, but even if it was, I was going to practice anyway. I didn’t think it was anything the government couldn’t handle in some manner or form.”

By now, the power was off, and Rollins, who had just turned 71, was marooned. The next morning, a National Guardsman climbed to the 39th floor, found Rollins and three other residents, and ordered them to evacuate. Rollins gathered what he could carry, not neglecting his tenor saxophone and a flashlight, and negotiated all the steps down the dark, narrow stairwell to the street.

“It was like a scene from a World War 2 movie about the London Blitzkrieg, where the place has been bombed, everybody’s out, and the sirens are going off,” Rollins recalls. “There were so many ambulances, firefighters going into Stuyvesant High School for oxygen and new guys coming out. Everybody had to put on masks, because the air was acrid with toxicity.” A CNN cameraman caught Rollins, gear in hand, walking to a bus, which took him to Washington Irving High School, near Union Square Park. There Rollins called his driver, who came in from the Bronx, picked up his charge, and took him home.

The Boston concert was imminent. Rollins arrived there on Friday afternoon, and convened his band at soundcheck the next day. “Everyone seemed more contemplative and thoughtful than usual,” he says of his band’s comportment. “I suppose they were shaken, and the fact everybody knew I was in the middle of it might have contributed. It seemed everything was much more serious and purposeful. Although I hate to think that any other time we play is not purposeful.”

In truth, nothing much happens on Without A Song until the 25th minute, during the final third of “Global Warming,” when Rollins responds to the beats of hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, his regular percussionist since this engagement, and channels the gods on a 6½ minute statement, transforming the lower depths of his instrument into—for lack of a better analogy—a swinging, melodic drum. He spins a three-minute classic on A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, developing and resolving several themes simultaneously, breaking the bar lines, accelerating and decelerating the tempo, veritably speaking through the instrument. He uncorks another amusing, cubist, high-velocity declamation on Why Was I Born, interpolating Stephen Foster quotes into the line. Similar pyrotechnics stamp his opening inventions on “Where or When,” before Rollins begins to lose his embouchure and concludes the proceedings.

Such transcendent moments are not uncommon in Rollins’ concert performances since 1972, the year he returned from a three-year hiatus spent primarily in India and Japan, and began to record for Milestone. But on studio recitals, as observers often remark, the saxophone colossus has resembled Atlas chained more than Prometheus unbound, projecting nowhere close to the creativity and life force he emanates in live performance.

“I think there’s a lot of credence to that,” Rollins comments on the concert-studio issue. “Something about the interaction of human being to human being creates a tension, and I get more involved, which probably changes what I’m doing. I’m not conscious of it. But once I’m out there, those forces obtain.”

Rollins channeled those forces admirably on a succession of masterpieces that established his legend between 1955 and 1966, and began to reestablish studio consistency on Sonny Rollins + 3, a well-wrought 1996 combo date with old pal Tommy Flanagan, and on This Is What I Do, a melody-drenched recital from 2000 that finds the maestro in poetic voice.

“For a long period, the studio was a big inhibiting factor,” he acknowledges. “But I’ve begun to bring that thing from live performance into a studio a little more easily. During my early career, I didn’t feel so inhibited playing on the records with Miles and Max and Monk. So I think it’s just a phase. I don’t know what brought it about. Perhaps it’s because I realized that technology had reached the point where you could overdub and change things, and it was easier to reach for a more ‘perfect’ solo and all this crap.”

That being said, nowhere on the aforementioned sessions does Rollins scale the Olympian heights he accesses on Without A Song, which is one of several hundred privately recorded Rollins concerts, primarily from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, that capture Rollins navigating the high wire. Carl Smith, a Maine-based archivist of this material, has given them to Rollins in hopes that he will approve their public release and thus clarify the scope of his achievement during the second half of his astonishing career.

“Lucille would have killed this guy,” Rollins says with a chuckle. “I am not quite as adamant as she was on that issue. I would have to listen to them, which is hard for me to do, but perhaps that’s another phase I can overcome, as I think I have about recording in the studio. I don’t want to compete with myself, but I’m not averse to releasing some of those in a judicious manner if I hear something really good.

“In fact, I’ve been taping my own performances. This was a point of contention between Lucille and myself. We were at loggerheads. I did it, but she didn’t want me to. Someone else was recording it anyway. I tried to explain that someone like Pat Metheny records all his performances, but we still couldn’t quite agree. I don’t understand exactly why she felt that way. That’s one of the things that she left me here to ponder alone.”

With his wife making the decisions, Rollins was allowed “to play my horn and read my books, and sort of live the leisurely life of a baron.” He pauses for several seconds, and sighs. “It’s all over now.”

Nearing 75, Rollins, in his words, is “just getting into the business aspect,” a tricky proposition for a man who doesn’t operate his fax machine, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t have a cell phone. He gets help from his nephew, trombonist and band-member Clifton Anderson. Still, Rollins says, “I’m doing a lot of things I had never had to deal with before. I’m in a whirlwind right now. There are so many disparate things that I am obligated to do, and I’m trying to get them all done. It fills up 24 hours a day.”

Asked if there’s a therapeutic aspect to immersing himself in mundane details, he responds: “It may be a good thing that I’m able to interact on some things. I grieved for a long time. I’m still grieving, because it hasn’t been that long. After she left me here, I couldn’t play for a long time, man. I took my horn out and tried to play a little bit, a few minutes at a time. Gradually, as I began to accept engagements again, I got back to practicing a little more.”

The words burst forth. “I want to go through the rest of my travails on earth,” he says. “We lived together a long time. I’m laying on the bed my wife died in, and she was right next to me, and I was trying to do things for her, and I’m still here. I don’t need to leave that. Going out and playing is enough contact with people. I feel I’ve had a successful life, and I don’t need to get involved in any other phase of life.

“As long as I am able to play, I’ll be playing. I still have my challenges to surmount. I’m still practicing, I’m still studying, and I want to synthesize what I’ve learned in a way that might affect my playing. I still have the same attitude to music.”

Rollins has chronic dental problems, and whether he will be able to actualize that attitude to his satisfaction is an open question. “Physically, you need your teeth to play,” he explains. “It’s frustrating to want to do certain technical things, to have the physical strength, but not be able to. It’s an extra impediment on top of everything else. But look, man, life is frustration.”

This summer Rollins will undergo “procedures that my dentist assures me will enable me to practice when I want.” If the dentist is wrong, Rollins is well aware that he will face another crossroads in this time of tribulation and transition.

“I never want to get to the point where I’m doing nothing,” he says. “I’m trying my best to do something which I know I should be doing better. If I feel, ‘Gee, this is five concerts in a row where I sound like shit’—no. Then I would probably forget it and stay at home and practice in my studio, and just play for myself. Things have to end. Yeah, there’s nothing like getting to some musical point where you feel satisfied—reasonably satisfied—and having people appreciate it. Although you can’t go by that. People will smile in your face and say, ‘Oh, you sounded great,’ which I know is a lot of crap, because I know how I really sound.

“Probably nothing will fulfill me as much as trying to create music on the stage, with all that entails. But should I have to stop, I can’t be, ‘Oh, my life is over.’ I would go on and do whatever else there is to do. I don’t believe in suicide. I believe we’re put here for a reason, and the reason is to go through all these things we go through. You can’t cut it off by your own choice. So whatever happens, I’ll go through it like everybody else.”

 

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

 

Downbeat Readers Poll Feature, 2007:

“Let’s put Roy in the middle,” said Sonny Rollins, evoking his leader’s prerogative, as he, Roy Haynes and Christian McBride convened for a photo shoot near a piano, not in use during their afternoon rehearsal at Avatar Studios for a Carnegie Hall concert on the next evening.

“Why?” Haynes responded. “Because I’m the littlest one?”

“Little in the middle,” Rollins said, and Haynes acquiesced. “That looks better!” Rollins said.

“Damn,” said McBride. “The mob!”

“Sugar Hill, man,” Haynes chimed in, referring to the Harlem enclave where Rollins, 77, spent his formative years in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and where Haynes, now 82, settled when he moved to New York sixty years ago. “Me and Sonny Rollins, from Sugar Hill. Shit.”

“The Hill!” said Rollins. “You dig?”

“I’m not from there,” said McBride, 36, a Philadelphia native. “But I lived there for a minute. That can count, right? I lived on Edgecombe.”

“Is that right?” asked Rollins, who as a youngster lived on Edgecombe Avenue, down the block from the old Polo Grounds.

“Sonnymoon for Three,” Haynes quipped.

Photographer John Abbott machine-gunned the camera for a minute or so.

“You got the gig, John,” McBride said.

“That’s what Prez told me, man, after I played two tunes with him at the Savoy Ballroom,” Haynes recalled. “He said, ‘You got the gig. But I won’t tell you the words, because they may put it in print.’”

“Are you going to sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’?” McBride inquired, referring to the ballad on the trio’s program.

“‘You got your slave,’ right,” Rollins replied, reciting the lyric.

“‘If you got eyes, that slave is yours,’” Haynes shot back. “You can only say that if you know what you’re saying, though.”

“Mmm-hmm,” Rollins agreed.

Rollins planned to sandwich “Some Enchanted Evening,” a song from South Pacific that he had never recorded, with two long-standing hits: Kurt Weill’s “Moritat,” known popularly as “Mack The Knife,” from his 1956 breakthrough record, “Saxophone Colossus,” and “Sonnymoon For Two,” a discursive Rollins blues signifying on his first marriage that he most famously recorded on a November 1957 gig with Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones that produced Live at the Village Vanguard. Several weeks after that 1957 date, Rollins played those tunes at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert—his first appearance on the hallowed stage—with bassist Wendell Marshall and drummer Kenny Dennis, sharing the bill with Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie with Austin Cromer on vocals, Ray Charles, and the Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane. Carnegie Hall recorded the proceedings, and the Library of Congress unearthed them in 2004, yielding the Blue Note’s big-seller, Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. That release coincided with the death of Rollins’ wife and manager, Lucille, and briefly preceded Concord’s purchase of Fantasy Records, the corporate owner of Milestone, his label since 1972. Concurrently, Rollins launched his own label, Doxy, under the imprimatur of Oleo Productions, both entities named after original compositions that Rollins recorded with Miles Davis in 1954. Now an entrepreneur, Rollins decided to throw a concert commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the event, and to release both the 1957 and 2007 performances on a single CD, following Sonny, Please, his first Doxy title.

At the time of the 1957 concert, Rollins was already a stylistic role model—Miles Davis, Bud Powell and Horace Silver had named him the “Greatest Ever” tenor saxophonist in a poll conducted the previous year by Leonard Feather. But although his immense, voice-like tone, elastic time sense,.penchant for melodic invention, seemingly intuitive sense of structure, and relentless swing thrilled his devotees, Rollins was looking for a [context]. Increasingly, he was finding it by eschewing the support of a chordal instrument.

“Trio playing has been a big part of my musical life for a long, long time,” Rollins had related a few days before the rehearsal  during an extended interview on WKCR. “As a matter of fact, in the late ‘40s, Miles Davis heard me playing with a trio to open for a group of all-stars at the 845 Club in the Bronx, and asked me to join his band. I always can get into myself just playing solo, and when I was a kid, just starting, I’d practice in my room for hours and hours, and I’d be in my paradise. ‘Sonny, come on, time to eat.’ I’d be in my reverie. So the idea that I needed other people to fulfill my musical ambitions came reluctantly. So playing by myself or with as few musicians as possible—with trio—was a normal and natural thing.”

Such tunnel vision perhaps explains why, over the next dozen years, Rollins played so much extraordinary music with trios and two-horn quartets (in addition to the aforementioned, personnels on albums and bootlegs during the period included Ray Brown and Shelley Manne; Max Roach with Oscar Pettiford or Jymie Merritt; Paul Chambers and Haynes; Henry Grimes and Pete LaRoca, Kenny Clarke, Joe Harris, or Billy Higgins; Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones; Gilbert Rovere and Arthur Taylor; even Ruud Jacobs and Han Bennink on a confrontational 1967 performance). Freed from chordal constraints, he explored motifs from every conceivable angle like a cubist painter, coloring phrases with vivid splashes of timbre even at the hottest tempos. It may also explain why it was complex for [Rollins] to retain personnel.

“I’m not like that any more,” he said on WKCR, responding to an observation that he has been famously particular about drummers, to the point of firing individuals, themselves no slouches, a day or two into a week-long gig. Indeed, Rollins now is sufficiently solicitous that, before committing to play publicly with McBride and Haynes, he asked the permission of his working band.

“Whether people appreciate it or not, I am deeply involved with my own group and in trying to get a certain thing happening,” Rollins said. “That is my primary focus.”

Rollins has worked hard to realize this aspiration since he began taking a more populist direction in 1972, after a long hiatus during which he explored Buddhist precepts and learned to meditate. When they’re available, he works consistently with guitarist Bobby Broom, bassist Bob Cranshaw, the versatile trapsetter Steve Jordan, hand drummer Kimati Dinizulu, and— returning to the tenor-trombone front-line format he experienced frequently during his early career with J.J. Johnson and Bennie Green—trombonist Clifton Anderson, his nephew, who works closely with his uncle on business matters.

“Clifton’s role has evolved,” Rollins said. “He’s got a big, beautiful sound, and he knows what to play and where to play it, which I never told him how to do. He just knew how to support me, and what notes to play that would complement my saxophone lines.”

“There are times when I can hear a piano, and other times when I can relate better to a guitar, which is a little less invasive,” he continued. “Bobby is an excellent accompanist for me, because he plays together with the rhythm section and I don’t hear it. If I did hear it, he’d be doing something which would be jarring to me. When I’m soloing, I don’t want to hear anybody. I just want to hear the beat, the groove, the pocket, or whatever way they describe it these days. That’s why I’ve always used Bob Cranshaw on bass, because of his strong foundational beat. With that steady pulse, I’m free to manipulate the time or do abstract improvisations, or anything else I want to do.”

[BREAK]

“Playing with Sonny today, I can’t describe the feeling,” Haynes said at Avatar. “We’re talking to each other musically, and I’m feeling this, feeling that, and he’s listening, I’m sure. The idea that we were together earlier in our lives, and we can do that now is precious.”

“There’s very few people from our era who know what that whole thing is about,” Rollins chimed in. “I’ve played with Roy from the beginning of my career. We speak the same language. We understand each other.”

“Mmm,” Haynes agreed. “That is really something. We’re talking, man, and even when it’s silent, there is some shit going on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Rollins said emphatically. “I’m listening CLOSELY.”

“I could feel that,” Haynes said, placing his hand over his heart. “It’s something spiritual that comes from here.”

The veterans first played together in 1948, on a Capitol recording by bop vocalist Babs Gonzalez; the following year with Bud Powell and Fats Navarro on the Blue Note date that produced “Dance of the Infidels,” “Wail” and “Bouncing With Bud”; and on a 1951 Prestige session led by Miles Davis, with John Lewis and Percy Heath.

“I was hearing a lot about Sonny Rollins up on the Hill,” Haynes said. “I didn’t realize that this was the guy who had come by my house with another friend of ours.”

“Lenny Martinez,” Rollins interjected.

“During that period I was either with Luis Russell or Lester Young,” Haynes said.

“You were with Prez when I was coming by your house,” Rollins said. “I saw Roy play at the Apollo with Luis Russell’s band. I asked him a lot about the singer.”

“Lee Richardson,” Haynes states.

“I’ll always remember he made a tremendous impression on me, because he really had a good voice, good pipes.”

“I didn’t know that Sonny was playing an instrument until one night shortly after that visit, when I saw him with an alto at a restaurant on St. Nicholas Avenue where we used to eat after gigs on Saturday night,” Haynes said. “I said, ‘You play saxophone?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I have a little gig.’ There was another guy who played tenor, who walked slew-foot, bandylegs, and didn’t make it. All the time when people said ‘Sonny Rollins,’ I thought this other guy was him.”

“Will the real Sonny Rollins stand up?” joked Rollins. “Right.”

“Right! You stood. I do remember one gig in the late ‘40s where I hired Sonny. It was the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X got finished. They used to have Sunday afternoon gigs there, two o’clock high and all that stuff.”

“People could dance in the back.”

“That’s what was so great about those days.”

“People would be doing the Applejack in there,” said Rollins, referring to the steps that Thelonious Monk, his early mentor, used to do after his own solos.

“Oh, that’s right,” Haynes said. “Especially at Minton’s sometimes, they’d come up when anybody was soloing, and sometimes when a drummer was playing a solo, people could dance to it. Today, man, they’d be crying the blues, complaining.”

Asked if he’d seen Haynes play with Monk, Rollins responded, “I don’t think so.”

“We played together with Monk for a minute at the Five Spot,” Haynes corrected. “I remember one night Monk said to me, ‘Roy Haynes. You play better when you wear that suit. You agreed with him, too. I had a black suit with stripes on.”

Rollins guffawed. “Well, that sounds like Monk. One of Monk’s pronouncements. Monk got the best people he could. But it wasn’t just getting the best. There were only a few people that could cut the gig. Just like today, there’s only a few musicians that can really do the music as it should be done, so these people are at a premium. I mean, there’s only one Roy Haynes.”

He pointed at McBride, seated quietly at the piano, taking in every word. “This gentleman here is a young chap, I’ve just met him, but he’s on his way to becoming a legend and a ‘one-of’ guy. This is the way it is. It’s not like the old days, man, when Roy and I would get on a gig at the 845 Club, and it would be Lucky Thompson and Bud Powell and Fats Navarro and Bennie Green and J.J. Johnson. Things began changing. In a sense, for the better.”

[BREAK]

Until September 11, 2001, when he had to give up his pied a terre four blocks from Ground Zero, and decided to live full time in the house in Columbia County in upstate New York that he purchased in the early ‘70s to ensure that he would not have to climb a bridge or enter a park to practice at his leisure, Rollins rehearsed his bands incessantly.

“The type of music that I play, guys need to be able to complement where I’m going, and I do best with that kind of intimacy,” he said. “Now, I’m not Count Basie’s orchestra, who would be making precise hits and like that. We try to get inside the music in a much less industrial way. Everybody has a beat center, and I want to hear where that is for Christian and Roy.”

Towards that end, Rollins had called McBride to work through the tunes 48 hours earlier at a Chelsea rehearsal studio, and the bassist was still on cloud nine.

“I’m sure I’ll create a lot of enemies, people knowing I got to play a whole day of duets with Sonny Rollins,” McBride joked before the photo session. “He was practicing on some sheet music when I walked into the studio, and when I asked what it was, he said, ‘These are just some little patterns and scales that I worked out.’ This is the greatest living improviser, and it’s amazing that he’s never rested on his improvisational genius, that he’s practicing with the same fervor that he did forty and fifty years ago. With any giant or icon, if you jump on the end of the train, you can miss the path that got the person to that level of greatness. For example Sonny does these rhythmic things that are far beyond what seems to be happening with the bass or the drums. There’s playing free, and then there’s playing without any sense of the rhythm or the feel of the tune. A lot of tenor players do THAT. Whereas when Sonny Rollins does that, it comes from a place that’s so grounded and rooted. He sounds way different than he did on Way Out West and Live at the Village Vanguard or East Broadway Rundown. Imagine all those years of growth on top of that, and practicing at this still mega-level of intensity.”

As for Rollins, practice time is less a burden than a lifestyle. “I can’t practice maybe 16 hours, like I used to, but I do whatever I can,” he said. “It’s fun. If I don’t practice for more than three or four days, I begin to get physically ill. I think, ‘Gee, what’s wrong?’ If I practice, bang, I’m back in the stream. It’s my form of meditation, my form of prayer—it’s the whole thing. But playing is something else. You can learn more in two minutes on the stage than from practicing maybe five weeks; in a subliminal way, all these things happen, and you really learn.”

He was also learning that entering the brave new world of self-production carries extra-musical challenges. “I’ve played with Roy from day one, Christian has played with Roy, and we got together easily because we’re trying to do the same thing,” he said. “The challenges have been taking care of the business aspects—worrying about tickets and logistics, and also doing a lot of media. I’ll try to change that if something like this happens again, because it occupies a lot of space in your mind, and takes away from the music part.

“But I’m expecting it to be very exhilarating and rewarding. These people are of a high caliber, and I’m looking forward to hearing some things that I haven’t heard before, and being in the middle of the jazz experience, which is what it’s all about. This is the instant creation. It’s like food to me. This is why jazz is the music of today, tomorrow, and forever, because things are happening right then.”

[BREAK]

A rainbow coalition comprising hordes of hardcore fans and more eminent musicians than you could count as the paying customers—as well as an assortment of freeloading critics—turned out for the rare opportunity to hear Rollins return to his interactive, anything-goes-at-any-time style of the ’50s and ’60s. They got exactly what they came for.

From the very beginning of “Sonnymoon For Two,” Rollins developed and resolved several themes simultaneously, breaking the grid, accelerating and decelerating the tempo with sleek lines as long as a rambling freight train, punctuating them with multiphonic honks and long held notes, downloading deeply embedded fragments of musical memory at Pentium speed and interpolating them into the flow. Playing the room magnificently, Haynes tap danced complementary rhythms with his sticks. Facing Haynes directly, with McBride centering the action with impeccable taste and requisite force, Rollins engaged him in a series of exchanges that further developed the themes they had both stated, and provoked more dialogue for another ten minutes or so, until he concluded the journey with one last harmonic abstraction.

With Haynes now wielding mallets, Rollins addressed “Some Enchanted Spring” in the key of A, and bellowed the gorgeous melody like a tenor singer in an operetta, floating gruffly over Haynes’ [richly textured], not quite rubato beats. Upon conclusion, they launched directly into “Moritat,” immediately embarked on improvised dialogue, and sustained the postulations and responses at the highest level for 15 minutes or so; it seemed like they could have gone on all night, but Rollins, aware that [he had another set to play with his band], arbitrarily halted this exemplary demonstration of what an equilateral triangle might sound like in musical form.

That set was another story. While giving his men much rope, Rollins generated sparks on the melody statement of the set-opener, “Sonny, Please,” but blew only perfunctorily on the remaining tunes, “Nu-Nile,” “Biji,” and even “Don’t Stop The Carnival,” on which a mighty dialogue by Steve Jordan and Kimati Dinizulu could not generate further heroics from the leader. Carnegie Hall’s notoriously indifferent jazzcoustics sound didn’t help It was a disappointing, anticlimactic conclusion.

“I was trying, in the back of my mind, to keep track of the time, but had there been no time constrictions I would like to have gone on a little bit with Christian and Roy,” Rollins said a week later, after playing concerts in Portland and Monterrey. “That wouldn’t have happened in a nightclub, which is why people prefer nightclubs to concerts. In the concert we played at Monterrey, I myself played more. We closed out with one of these festive numbers, and the people went crazy, with the girls standing up twirling their torsos around. At Carnegie Hall, with the time factor, I wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to play.”

Rollins’ commitment to his group might discourage him from booking further explorations with the extraordinary trio. But he’s certainly thinking about it.

“I might have to go in a different direction, which would open up some interesting musical vistas, shall we say,” he said. “Things happen with musicians of that caliber. With the drum and the bass, the primacy of the beat didn’t play as big a part. Velocity and volume level is different, and this dictates that the music go in other directions. I have a different role to play.

“When Christian and I played together on the first rehearsal without Roy. I said, ‘Wow, we should do something with just you and I,’ because we were interacting in another way. That is also a possibility sometime in the future, because I heard something with just him and I playing together where we began feeding off of each other. It was very interesting, and portended things to come.”

A fortnight before this conversation, towards the end of his three hours at WKCR, Rollins, who had earlier asked that the monitors be turned down while his music was going over the airwaves, smiled and swayed his shoulders as he and Max Roach threw melodies and rhythms at each other on “Someday I’ll Find You, a Noel Coward song that appears on the B-Side of his classic album, The Freedom Suite, recorded within five weeks of the 1957 Carnegie Hall concert.

“I liked that!” he exclaimed, before realizing he was on mike. He recovered quickly. “This is supposed to be secret. I’m not supposed to enjoy myself, and I usually don’t. I don’t want to give the false impression that I enjoy my own work. The guys that I played with are like redwood trees. I have a high standard to keep up with the people that I’ve been associated with. So I hear my shortcomings when I listen back to myself. Hopefully, too many other people don’t hear them! But I hear them. It’s okay, though. I’m still playing, so there’s still a chance for me to [reach] perfection. As long as I’m still practicing, I have a chance to get closer to my own nirvana, so that’s cool.”

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

Sonny Rollins DownBeat 75th Anniversary Article (#1):

Several hours into retrospecting on a half-century of Downbeat’s copious coverage of his career, Sonny Rollins paused. “I hope you understand that it’s emotionally jarring to go over your life,” he said.

That qualifier aside, Rollins treated the process with customary thoughtfulness and good-humor, offering blunt self-assessments and keen observations on the changing scene described within the seven articles in question. His comportment brought to mind Joe Goldberg’s remark (“The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins,” August 26, 1965): “It is almost impossible to talk superficially to Rollins. He examines whatever is under discussion in much the way he examines a short phrase in one of his solos: over and over, inside out and upside down, until he has explored all possibilities.”

Rollins will observe his 79th birthday in September. Even in his Old Master years, a life stage when artists of parallel stature—filmmakers Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman come to mind—pare down to essences, he continues his efflorescent ways, applying his singular mojo towards imperatives of (as I wrote in Downbeat in 2000) “shaping cogent, poetic musical architecture on the tenor saxophone while navigating the high wire night after night.” In his maturity, as documented on his most recent studio CD, Sonny, Please [Doxy] and the 2006 concert performance documented on the DVD Vienne [Doxy], it seems, as I wrote in 2000, that Rollins has “reached the grail of being able to transmute the most abstract ideas of rhythm and harmony and form into a stream of pure melody, as if you had given Louis Armstrong a saxophone and extrapolated onto his consciousness the last fifty years of jazz vocabulary.”

“It’s like Lionel Hampton,” Rollins joked over the phone. “You’d bring him in the wheelchair, help him up on the bandstand, and BANG, he’s a 20-year-old kid again,. To some degree, it’s like that. Once I start playing, I lose track of the time.”

Over the years, Rollins’ larger-than-life appearance and relentless style belied the notion that self-doubt could ever impede his forward motion. But much of the Downbeat narrative describes a character around whom Bergman might have framed a film—a gifted artist less than fully confident that his abundant talent suffices to satisfy his aspirations, engaging in a continual process of introspection and self-criticism, and, furthermore, possessing the courage to act upon his convictions by removing himself from the public eye during three extended sabbaticals. In short, as Downbeat’s reportage makes clear, the progression of Rollins’ musical production is inseparable from the development of his spiritual life.

How consistently Rollins hewed to his path is clear from a comment that Nat Hentoff places at the end of his 1956 cover story, “Sonny Rollins,” which appeared a mere 11 months after Rollins, already dubbed “saxophone colossus” at 26, had left Chicago, his home during his first self-imposed hiatus. “I was thrown into records without the kind of background I should have had,” he told Hentoff, expressing a concern that his career was developing too fast.. “I’m not satisfied with anything about my playing. I know what I want. I can hear it. But it will take time and study to do it.”

This theme would recur in different variations over the next quarter century, as would several others expressed in Dom Cerulli’s 1958 followup. By then Rollins had already investigated the possibilities of the pianoless tenor trio on Way Out West, Live at the Village Vanguard, and The Freedom Suite, each an enduring classic. He explained this direction as a response to his difficulty in finding band personnel who could fulfill his vision, noting a particular ambivalence about playing with pianists who were not Bud Powell. He also elaborated on the pros and cons of nightclub performance vis-a-vis the concert stage, expressing concern about “setting aside enough time to keep up to his horn” and his “hang-up” with “finding time to rehearse,”

Certainly, Rollins circa 2009 connected to concerns expressed a half-century ago. “Everything here seems like I could write it today.” he stated. Not least is his remark to me in 2000 that “there’s nothing bad about jazz. This is what I picked up then as a kid, and this is the way it is. It’s still so true today.”

Nat Hentoff, Sonny Rollins – Nov. 28, 1956

“Next year I may take some time off, go back to school, and stay away from the scene until I’m completely finished. I’ve continued studying off and on by myself and with teachers. I’ve just started. I’ve just scratched the surface. That’s an honest appraisal of myself, so I don’t dig this being an influence. I’m not trying to put myself down or anything…”
Dom Cerulli, Theodore Walter Rollins: Sonny Believes he Can Accomplish Much More Than He Has To Date – July 10, 1958

“Right now, I feel like I want to get away for a while… I need time to study and finish some things that I started long ago. I never seem to have time to work, practice, and write. Everything becomes secondary to going to work every night.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I’m vindicated. I always claimed that my motive for going on the bridge was as I stated, but people said, no, Sonny’s just going on the bridge because of the ferment in the music world, the competition from new people coming to the front, like Ornette and Coltrane. Everything I said in 1956 and 1958, I still speak about. I still practice every day. I still have a vision which I haven’t yet achieved in my improvisations. I mentioned that I always wanted formal music training, which my brother and sister had. I didn’t. I was always trying to catch up on my education.

“This shows my conscience about the clubs, as well. They were great, and I played in them until I was able to realize my ambition. But they were problematical because of the lifestyle—and also I thought that doing concerts would elevate the public perception of jazz.”

BILL COSS, The Return of Sonny Rollins – January 4, 1962:

“A few weeks ago, tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins returned to the public jazz world from which he had voluntarily retired two years ago. On his opening night at New York’s Jazz Gallery, the large audience had an unabashed air of expectancy more familiar to a football stadium than a night club… When he…moves toward the bandstand, there is a ripple of sound and movement preceding him, shouted hellos and exhortations. It is reminiscent of a championship fight, as Sonny is reminiscent of a championship fighter… Nowadays he even sounds like ex-heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, advocating clean living, study, lots of exercise. ‘I’ve stopped smoking,’ he says, ‘and cut down on the drinking, and I lift barbells every day.’ Then he begins to play, and he wins every round.”

“In order not to disturb others, he looked long and hard for a deserted enough place to practice while he was retired. ‘Then I discovered the Williamsburg Bridge,’ he said. ‘It’s right near where I live. It’s amazing. Very few people walk along it. Probably most people don’t even know there’s a sidewalk on it. But the ones who did walk there paid very little attention to me. You’re just suspended out there. You feel as if you’re on top of everything, and you can see so far and so much, and so much of it is beautiful. I can blow as hard as I want there and be impressed. It gave me a kind of perspective about music, people, everything, really, that I never had before. Everything began to jell afer that. When I quit, I suppose I had the intention of changing myself drastically, my whole approach to the horn. I realized after awhile that that wasn’t what was needed or what was bothering me. So instead, I began to study what I had been doing, and explored all the possibilities of that. I knew I was beginning to control my horn.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“In 1956, I moved to 400 Grand Street, between Clinton and Norfolk, a block below Delancey Street. I was walking on Delancey Street (do you remember the film Crossing Delancey?), shopping in that area, and I looked up and saw the steps leading up to the bridge, and sort of thought about it, ‘Gee, where does that go?’ I walked up there and said, ‘Wow, that’s it.’ There was my place to practice.”

“I didn’t do any performances during those years, although I did go out a couple of times to clubs. I went to see Coltrane at the Jazz Gallery. Steve Lacy had a loft on the Bowery, and I might have gone there. I heard Ornette at the Five Spot when they first came to town. I met Ornette and Don Cherry and Billy Higgins when I went to California for the first time, in March 1957, at the time I did Way Out West. I hadn’t known them before. They all came out, and we got tight and practiced together. After I began to want to change the Bridge group, I remembered their playing and called Don and Billy.”

“Opening night was rough. There was so much hoopla, so much press buildup that I was doomed to fail. But I had to do it. Like Bill wrote, I was fighting like I always do—trying to get something happening.”

Joe Goldberg: The Further Adventures of Sonny Rollins –August 26, 1965

“Rollins showed up to take me to his home. He was wearing blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a baseball cap, was smoking a cigar and driving an Impala. He negotiated the heavy traffic with the ease of the cabdriver he once was. He lives in a Brooklyn apartment near Pratt Institute with his wife, Lucille, and two German shepherds named Major and Minor. The decor consists of paintings by the Detroit painter known as Prophet and souvenirs from overseas trips. The music on the phonograph ranged from old Basie records with Lester Young through Indian and Japanese music to operatic arias.”

“‘The average Joe,’ he said, ‘knows just as much as I do—he knows more than I do. I’m the average Joe, and I think people recognize that.”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I never actually drove a cab. That might have been a little exaggeration. A job was offered to me, but I never did consummate the act, if I can put it that way.

“I really had it together. My wife Lucille, and two German Shepherds named Major and Minor. A Chevy Impala. Nice paintings on the wall. It was a nice, big apartment. I didn’t look like I was suffering any.”

“ I think ‘average Joe’ is an exalted term. To me, it’s really Everyman. What I meant is that the audience is pretty savvy and not to be downplayed. They know what’s happening. The audience pays their money, and it’s up to me to give them what they paid for. If I have a night when I am more or less satisfied with my work at any particular concert performance, the audience is satisfied. Now, there are some nights when I am not satisfied, but the audience may still be satisfied to some degree. That’s ok, because I am always my worst critic.

GOLDBERG:

“Rollins said he never particularly wanted to be a leader, that he would have been content to remain a sideman with none of the non-musical worries and responsibilities that go along with leading and stardom. ‘You’d be surprised how many very famous people told me not to become a leader, you’d be surprised if I called their names.’”

ROLLINS’ RESPONSE:

“I’d give a yes and no to that remark. In the kind of music we play, where everybody is extemporizing and has their platform, you have an advantage over the leader. A sideman can play great or not so great, without responsibility. A leader has to play great all the time. On the other hand, everybody has enough ego to want their name in lights. Furthermore, the fact that you devote your life to creating this music and want acceptance for creating something personal is also a big ego trip—hopefully in a less negative sense. I believe some of my religious teachings that we have to be very careful about the ego, so I try to be careful of THAT. See, I don’t want to be just be playing for vanity. That would be a worthless life. I’m trying to get to somewhere musically, and create some music that I think I hear every now and then. I’m trying to get to that place.”
IRA GITLER, Sonny Rollins: Music is an Open Sky – May 29, 1969

“Rollins had played a very short set, and then emphatically gestured that the curtains be closed. The audience, stunned for a moment, instigated a concerted clamor, and after a few minutes Rollins reappeared, saxophone in hand. His fans, eager to showcase affection on him and listen to more of his music, began calling out their favorite selections. Sonny, at odds with himself and his adulators, responded with halting words of explanation and then played snatches of various standards and an abortive calypso. It must be said that he made an effort, but a lot of disgruntled people left Town Hall that night.”

“…after the concert…at the Village Vanguard, he exhibited that staggering brand of gigantic tenor that makes you feel as if you are the instrument being played. The music does more than surround you with grandeur; it gets into your circulatory system and courses through your body.”

Rollins’ response:

“This is what makes Sonny Rollins’ career so…well, interesting or so different. Once I got a name, everything I did wasn’t a success. I had a lot of unsuccessful concerts, like this one, which was a big venue, Town Hall. I had to regroup and come back. Most people, once they’ve made it, then it’s all staying on that level, or going uphill. But Sonny Rollins was, ‘Oh yeah, Sonny Rollins, terrible concert; gee, how can he recover?’ Then ‘oh yeah, good concert.’ I can create a scenario of what happened on the concerts that were not successful. Technical matters probably played a big part—preparation time, interaction with certain other members. But in exceptional times, I can overcome a lot of things.”

GITLER:

“Constant shifts in personnel has become the expected pattern within Rollins’ groups. Players come and go like guests in a hotel for transients… ‘There are a lot of guys I can work with, and who can work with me,’ he said, ‘but until I get a steady itinerary and offer steady work…’ Why doesn’t a major figure like Rollins work more frequently? In the past, he has chosen to take sabbaticals of varying length, for reasons ranging from dissatisfaction with himself to disenchantment with the jazz scene. One factor these days is salary. Rollins has spent many years to reach his high plateau of artistry, and feels that this entitles him to a certain basic compensation…”

“The saxophonist began studying yoga on a formal basis when he went to Japan in 1963. During the next five years he maintained contact with his teacher, Master Oki, and with the Yoga Institute of Japan. When he returned at the beginning of 1968, he visited temples and shrines and spent time at his teacher’s school in Mishima, near Mt. Fuji. ‘The atmosphere creates an attitude for meditation,’ Rollins said. ‘There is a feeling of peace. Some of the students were jazz fans.’ The Japanese experience led him to India and an ashram—“a religious colony of Hindu monks and women, yoginis”—on Powaii Lake, about an hour’s travel from Bombay… He meditated and took courses in Vedanta philosophy.”

Rollins’ response:

“Business problems certainly would be part of my Sonny Rollins story. I felt always that jazz musicians not only should be appreciated more, they should be paid better. I certainly expressed that, and maybe Ira was right that I was pricing myself out—he might have been close to some of these club-owners, so they may have confided that to him. I consider myself an open sky, and I am open to all kinds of stuff; I’m not a moldy fig, so I felt a fairly substantial amount of interest in everything that was going on, especially Miles—I’d played with Miles. The business was fracturing around that time. A lot of other influences were coming in, and mainstream jazz (if I can put myself in that category) was not getting accepted. Well, it was never accepted, which meant things were even worse for jazz musicians. Everybody knows how the music business is.

“When I first came out on my own, I worked for Joe Glaser, from Associated Booking, and he had an agent handling me who had also worked for boxers in the fight game. He told me, ‘Sonny, I’ve been an agent in the fight game, I’ve been an agent in the music game. The music business is worse.’ So those were the conditions that we had to work under, and I was getting disillusioned with it. Somebody else might feel, ‘This is just the way jazz is.’ Well, I might take it a little more seriously than other people, and want to fight back. I felt that my name would give me the wherewithal to do something. Also, I was getting more and more deeply into my spiritual quests. So that was a perfect time for me to get to India. I’d been there already, because I had been studying a lot of yoga books, and I wanted to see if I could get involved with the schools of some the people I was reading about. Paramhansa Yogananda’s wonderful book, Autobiography of a Yogi, really touched me (I still have an original copy in my library), but he had passed on. But there were other people. Spirituality and music are very close together, and it’s sort of looking for more of a meaning out of life.

Gordon Kopulos: Needed Now: Sonny Rollins – June 24, 1971

“With just two or three other living tenor players, Rollins shares the distinction of having an original tone. It is deep, strong and full-throated, even in the upper register. In the lower ranges, it is reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins, and occasionally in the middle octave he calls Ben Webster to mind. His tone is certainly not without its influences, but the way he twists or bends about every third note sets him apart from everyone else in the known universe. His tone is breathy at times, too, particularly on ballads… Though the full tone isn’t exactly popular, traces of the Rollins approach are discernible in some contemporary saxophonists: Archie Shepp, for instance. Pharaoh Sanders, too, has recently displayed a tone much fuller than the one he was using with Coltrane… [Rollins’] contribution consists of much more than just this, though. Rhythmic innovators in jazz can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare. Rollins is one of those who must be counted… His use of space is possibly the greatest imaginable object-lesson in how to make the absence of sound create rhythmic and melodic tension… Even if Rollins decided to hereafter play only straight melody, he would still be a creative jazz musician. Because by the time a melody has undergone his singular treatment of singing tone and organismic rhythm, it is infused with a vitality that renders it a new thing… Rollins’ experiments in harmony helped to clear the trees for the present harmonic daring of the avant-garde.”
Rollins’ response:

“So far, I like this one the best. Some of the things he’s saying in there are not conventional wisdom. I think he’s very prescient and right-on.

“My sense of time is probably unique to me. The things he says about my tone could have been written any time; I’ve been working on my sound all the time. I really got into harmonics through studying Sigurd Raschèr’s book, Top Tones For Saxophone. He’d demonstrate with a saxophone that had no keys, and would play all these notes to demonstrate the way the harmonics fell in. I wasn’t working so much with multiphonics, which is a term used more by guys who created fingerings that allow them to play two tones at one time. That was a worthy technique, except you couldn’t really control the volume. But I was working on breathing and embouchure to play the natural harmonics, playing two notes at once, to increase the vocabulary of the instrument, and enhance my own expressiveness.

“There is something avant-gardish about my playing, even though people might think of me in terms of Ben Webster or Coleman Hawkins, or more conventional playing terms like bop, hardbop, and so on. Ornette put out a record on tenor, and everyone said, ‘Gee, that sounds like Sonny Rollins.’ People look back and say, ‘Well, he played like this in 1948, and then he played like this in 1953, and he played like this in 1965.’ Well, I have to accept the fact of my history in music. It’s on record…if you’ll excuse the pun. Somebody might hear me today, and say, ‘Oh, Sonny’s gone back and he’s playing tunes again.’ Which is ok. Yes, I was playing tunes at that time. But I’m not going to play the way I did in 1948 or 1965. I don’t like to be caged. I might feel like playing tunes, but then at another moment I might not.. There’s a lot of things on my mind. I need to learn and increase my arsenal of things to do. Performance is when you get a chance to go through the attic, and I can’t perform as much as I’d require to really stretch out and do all the different things I want to do.”
Tam Fiofori, “Reentry: The New Orbit of Sonny Rollins,” October 24, 1971

Q: What were the influences responsible for your playing tunes like St. Thomas and Brownskin Girl?

SR: My mother is from the Virgin Islands, and when I was fairly small I remember going to dances with her and listening to some of this type of music—Brownskin Girl, St. Thomas and calypso things. Of course, when I got into playing jazz they were not thought of as being jazz music, and a lot of people would even try to make a big separation, and I did, too. I didn’t actually begin my jazz career playing those types of songs. I just began to really incorporate that at a later stage. But the fact that I had heard a lot of them as a child made it so that I was able to play them particularly well. Then I felt that it was good if I could play them and people liked them, and it was something I could do in a natural way and it proved to be a sort of a trademark. Then again I’ve heard some African music which is I think somewhat similar to calypso in a way…some of the music they call Highlife… I think a lot of [calypso] and [Bossa Nova] and [rock] rhythms are being used a great deal more, which is good.

Rollins’ response:

“I would say that it’s unfortunate for Sonny Rollins that I made such a searing impression when I came out on the scene, like that was me. Because that’s not me. I’m a very eclectic player. I’m open to a lot of things. Music is an open sky—back to that again. My first guy that I liked when I started playing was Louis Jordan, a real rhythm-and-blues man. I’m a little like Dizzy. I’m serious, but my music is… Dizzy did a lot of things like, “Who Stole My Wife, You Horse-Thief” and so on. I tend to go that way sometimes, and I don’t feel that it diminishes anything else I did, just like it didn’t diminish when Dizzy was playing ‘Groovin’ High.’ So in the period after that article, I might have gone that way, but that was part of me. I didn’t decide to do anything that was antithetical to what I believed in. I’m not a good enough musician to do that. My playing is too natural. If I play some kind of way, it’s got to be that I have a deep feeling about it.

“In the ‘50s and ‘60s I was talking about needing to get away from music for different reasons. Well, during the ‘70s I moved out of the city. I got the place where I live now, where I could practice more or less whenever I wanted to, away from the madding crowd. So I was able to stay ‘active’ and still have the chance to meditate and do the things that I needed to do, but couldn’t do in the ‘60s because I was right in the middle of everything, and had a lot of pressures and so forth. Lucille and I made it so that we didn’t overwork. The booking agency used to call my wife ‘Mrs. No.’ We wouldn’t work that much. We’d only take things that we thought were really good in many respects. That’s probably why I haven’t felt the need to take sabbaticals away from the music scene.

FIOFORI:

Q: Do you think that the music has by now severed most of its ties with Western music other than environmental ones?

SR: “There’s nothing Western about the way I play in the least. The only Western thing is that I play some Western songs.”

Rollins’ response:

“Of course today these guys can probably write down what I do. But the point is well-taken. I’d say the same thing now.

“I think I’m like a diamond in the rough. That’s what George Avakian used to call me. I’m a very rough player. I’m not a polished player, although I’m trying to be—but I’m not. That’s why Fiofori probably had an affinity to what I was doing, because he’s from a Third World African country, and he heard something in my playing, besides some of these calypsos, which probably was reminiscent of that way of playing.”

Bob Blumenthal, Sonny Rollins Interview – May 1982

BB: I hear you’re producing your next album.

SR: I have been thinking about producing for a long time. I was listening to Roberta Flack talk one night, and what she described was similar to me. She was actually producing her own albums; she was selecting the material, picking the people. What I haven’t been doing is talk to the people on the date about money and various arrangements. The rest is something I think I should be doing—it just means more control over what you do. It’s a logical conclusion to end up producing your own things. It’s more responsibility that I should be handling myself.

Rollins’ Response:

“I began to trust my wife’s judgment, which helped me move more or less seamlessly into that side of the business. I was able to listen to her a little bit, and, ‘ok, I won’t get angry if you pick out what you think is the best of what you’ve heard.’ I’d listen at the end, and if it wasn’t intolerable, we’d let it go.”

BLUMENTHAL:

BB: It has become a cliche that Rollins albums don’t capture the spark of Rollins in live performance. Does this mean anything to you as a player-producer?

SR: I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve got to concentrate more on making a studio date have a certain pizzazz, a zing to it that performances would have by virtue of the people and I interacting. That’s something I’ll deal with this time. It’s also a psychological thing on my part, about going into a studio and playing as much like I usually play as possible.

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve thought about this a lot. When I first started recording in the ‘40s, I’d go into the studio, say, with J.J. Johnson and do two takes. There wasn’t any chance to do it over. As time progressed and the possibility of overdubbing arose, I began to think, ‘Gee, maybe it can come out better.’ That had a big influence on why it became more difficult as the years went on. I’ve gotten past that self-doubt; I don’t feel I have to overdub everything. I’m more confident that what I play is the best that I can do at that time, and I won’t feel the need to do one take after another. Of course, live, you don’t have to worry about doing take after take; hence, my live stuff always gets more acclaim.”
Bob Belden, Sonny Rollins: The Man – August 1997

“…when I found out about Coleman Hawkins, I was attracted, I think, to his sound, and then it just seemed like he knew so much music. Just his mental thing and intellectual approach really got to me. Coleman had harmony down to a high art… Hawkins is the one that gave me the sense that this is something beyond even the feel-goodness of music. Not that there’s anything wrong with the feeling-good aspect of music.”

Rollins’ Response

“Music is so fluid. I practiced today, and things came to me that didn’t come to me yesterday. But I am deeply embedded in my roots. Coleman Hawkins, Louis Jordan, Lester Young, all these people that I’ve heard. People I’ve played with. Coltrane. Bird, of course. So yeah, I think I’m close to those people. Sometimes, in soundchecks, I’ll play like Don Byas. This is rudimentary for me to get my chops up. Everything I do is involved in what I’m doing now, and I’m not trying to play like Coleman Hawkins. I don’t consciously think too much about these people unless I’m listening to something by them. But I’m sure the fact that I knew Coleman Hawkins and have tried to play like him, is involved in everything I do. I did a seminar with Gary Giddins last year, and a young guy asked me what I think about the jazz of today. I remarked that…which I thought about later; it wasn’t a complete enough answer…but it may have been… I said that as long as whoever is playing this music thinks about Lester Young in what they’re doing, I would give it my seal of approval.”

John McDonough, September 2005

“Sonny Rollins finds himself on yet another bridge these days. On September 7th he turns 75, and within the last year his wife, Lucille, died. The two had been married for about 40 years.”

“‘I’ve been suffering from an overload,” Rollins says in a husky, hoarse voice, apologizing for being late for this interview. “I lost my wife, and she did most of these things. I’ve been completely swamped with interviews, appointments, taxes. I don’t like to operate like that. When a time is set, it’s not my usual method of operation to be late.”

Rollins’ Response:

“I’ve always been a guy who’s stood out, who’s pretty much been my own man. At this age, it’s better for me to keep everything more compartmentalized, and reduce the things that I have to do so I can just concentrate on my music. I can only practice about two hours a day now. I have a group of people that I feel fairly comfortable working with; it’s somewhat of a loose family, and it makes life a little bit easier. But I still have to oversee everything. I can’t not be involved, like I was when my wife was with me and I could live like a baron and just go out to the studio and play all day.

“You never want to get too accustomed to any other person. We’re born alone and we have to leave the planet alone. So it’s a matter of adjusting to life’s different knocks. I’m able to deal with things a lot easier now than four years ago. I never feel that the burden is too heavy. Obviously, I’m in a very privileged position. I don’t live like a baron now. But I’m making my own statements and doing what I want to do.”

 

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Filed under Christian McBride, DownBeat, Jazziz, Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins

For Gene Ammons 89th Birth Anniversary, a Liner Note for The Prestige Reissue “Fine And Mellow”

No one who loves the sound of the tenor saxophone doesn’t love Gene Ammons (1925-1974) who first entered public consciousness playing alongside Dexter Gordon in Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-’40s, and had the first of his many instrumental single hits in 1947 with “Red Top”. An unparalleled balladeer and blues practitioner  who could more than hold his own in any cutting contest (his solo starts at 7:32—rhythm section is Hampton Hawes, Bob Cranshaw and Kenny Clarke!), as evidenced on a series of recorded ‘jam sessions’ that he recorded for Prestige in the second half of the ’50s, including the 1958 date, Groove Blues, on which John Coltrane played alto saxophone. Ammons spent 7 of his prime years in jail on a trumped-up narcotics charge, which is perhaps why he’s less remembered than he ought to be. He came out of the penitentiary with powers undiminished and a raw edge, recording jazz funk classics, expressionistic ballads, and straight-up swing. He was state-of-the-art; the tunes sound better with time’s passage.

In any event, ten years ago or so, I had an opportunity to document my feelings about the maestro in a liner note for a reissue of the proceedings of three 1972 sessions that were released contemporaneously on the LPs Get My Own and Big Bad Jug, which I’ve posted below.

Gene Ammons, “Fine and Mellow” (Liner Notes):

No tenor saxophonist of his generation understood melody more profoundly than Gene Ammons, whose ability to make his metal instrument emulate the human voice with unparalleled presence and dramatic weight gave him great stature among his peer group.

“Jug’s one of my heroes of all time,” says tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, referring to Ammons by his nickname.  Now 81 and saying more on the tenor than just about anyone alive, Freeman met Ammons, two years his junior, in the middle 1930s at South Side Chicago’s DuSable High School, where both studied under the famous taskmaster Walter Dyett. “I give him a lot of credit, because he sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago. Then again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.”

Freeman is referring to the way individualistic tenormen like himself and Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis, Paul Gonsalves, Wardell Gray, Lucky Thompson and Frank Wess — ’20s-born musicians who assimilated Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young before Charlie Parker entered the picture — blended Hawkins’ charging, arpeggiated, straight-up-and-down attack and thick operatic tone with Young’s relaxed, fluid, float-like-a-butterfly, bel canto conjurations. Ammons played economically, and he could accent his lines with stirring blues vocalizations, like Muddy Waters playing bebop saxophone. He had an unerring inner metronome, honed during an Art Blakey-booted two-year stint in Billy Eckstine’s orchestra; one Ammons note would launch the beat and the swing, and that note would permeate the room — or speaker. Plus, the ladies dug him; Ammons could bleed you to death with a ballad, smooth with quiet fire, like his idol Nat King Cole, or, a la Mario Lanza, oozing vibrato to maximize the melodrama.

Ammons possessed an incredibly powerful embouchure (Freeman recalls once seeing him snap off a saxophone neck while blowing), and in certain ways, his larger-than-life sound, which projected pain and jubilation in equal measure and seemed to emanate from deep in his innards, disguised his extreme musical sophistication. He inherited his rawer musical chromosomes from his father, Albert Ammons, the legendary boogie-woogie pianist-church deacon. He got the finesse from his mother, a music teacher and classical pianist.

“I used to go by Jug’s house,” Freeman recalls: ” They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything, but I didn’t know what I was doing. One day when I was about 14, his mother said to me, ‘Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you.’ She’d been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, ‘The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords. Come over here.’ Then she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  She started me out.”

On the three autumn 1972 sessions that comprise “Fine and Mellow,” the 47-year-old, three years out of his second stint in jail, enters Rudy Van Gelder’s studio with a cohort of New York A-list studio pros, quickly comprehends the form and the texture of the songs and arrangements – here a melange of Billie Holiday material chosen to exploit the release of “Lady Sings The Blues,” MOR pop, and a few elemental originals suffused with funk-tinged blues sensibility – and lays down a succession of declamations that contain a surfeit of heart and soul, with the occasional wild edge, as he had done for the previous quarter-century on a series of jukebox staples like “My Foolish Heart” and “Canadian Sunset.”

It’s the sound and approach that made Ammons the people’s choice in Chicago from 1947, when he formed his own unit after Eckstine disbanded, until his death in 1974. “One night we had five gigs, all dances,” recalls pianist Junior Mance, who joined Ammons not long after he departed from Mercury Records, for which he recorded ‘Red Top,’ his first big hit. “In Gary, Indiana, which was our third gig, Jug’s car broke down and we couldn’t get back to the fourth. The club-owner took Jug to the union, and they called us down. We’re all sitting there, and Harry Gray, the local president, said: ‘You guys know better; why did you follow him in doing five gigs?’  Which was a stupid question.  If anybody offers me five gigs in one night and I think I can do it… Anyway, our drummer, Ellis Bartee, who was just out of the Lionel Hampton band and who was very quick, said, ‘Well, Mr. Gray, I’m just here from Kansas City. When I came here, all I saw was the name Gene Ammons all over everywhere, because he’s the most popular. So I just figured, well, that’s the man to be with. I didn’t know we weren’t supposed to work five gigs in a night.’ They all laughed, and that got us off the hook.”

Musicians as diverse as Johnny Griffin, Clifford Jordan, Sonny Rollins and Henry Threadgill were hooked on Ammons. “Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine,” Rollins told me a few years ago. “He was out there doing it when I was still in school, and he was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal. When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.”

Threadgill recalls a memorable week in 1961 or 1962 when Ammons guested with the Sonny Rollins Quartet at McKie’s, a popular 63rd Street club that Rollins immortalized in a song. “You can often hear things live that will never get on record,” Threadgill stated on WKCR in 1996. “On Sunday night, they locked the doors around 2:30 or 3 o’clock, and wouldn’t let anybody else in. They played until morning. I had no idea Gene Ammons could play like that.  He was playing pieces up in the harmonic section, the altissimo of the tenor saxophone, and never played below that. Very high notes, played all of these melodies an octave higher than Sonny Rollins. It was quite a lesson.”

Tenor players at all levels will find lessons aplenty in these sessions. Listen to Ammons bellow out his statement on “Lucille,” an impassioned love cry penned by Harold Vick. He imparts maximum blues impact with a minimum of notes on the downhome “Tin Shack Out Back” and on “Lady Mama,” the latter an elemental vamp on the chords of “Freedom Jazz Dance,” written by fellow DuSable alumnus Eddie Harris, who as a youngster subbed for pianist James Craig on Ammons dances at Chicago’s Pershing Ballroom.  He squeezes every bit of melodic juice from “Can’t Help Myself” and “God Bless The Child,” and, in the company of maestros Hank Jones and Ron Carter, evokes the surreal ambiance of “Strange Fruit.”

For all his personal problems, Ammons played with remarkable consistency, and these statements, like so much of his finest work, transcend the particulars of time and place and genre. With the reissue of “Fine and Mellow” another piece of his career mosaic falls into place, and we are the richer for it.

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Filed under Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Liner Notes

For Bennie Wallace’s 67th Birthday, a DownBeat Article From 2000 and Three Interviews

In 2000, DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write a feature piece on Bennie Wallace, a tenor saxophonist with a singular tonality whose tonal abandon and harmonic/melodic control began to impress me in the late ’70s, when he released a series of trio and quartet albums for Enja with New York’s finest pianists, bassists and drummers of the day. Today’s his 67th birthday, and I’m posting the “director’s cut” of the piece, incorporating much more biographical information than appeared in the print version, which was 1000 words shorter. It  reads decently, and hopefully will be of interest. I’ve also posted the proceedings of a WKCR Musician Show from Feb. 2000, a portion of an interview at WKCR from 1998 (Bennie came to the studio with guitarist Anthony Wilson, with whom he was closely associated at the time), and a formal interview conducted for the piece.

Bennie Wallace (Downbeat):

On a clear late winter morning, not one man-made object impedes the treetop-skimming southern view of the Long Island Sound from Bennie Wallace’s thickly carpeted second-floor home studio in suburban Connecticut.  The walls are blanketed with albums, CDs (including two Ellington-filled shelves), books on music and a sofa on which Wallace is perched; spread on a long table abutting the window are a Mac computer and mixing equipment.  Wallace is a slender, stoop-shouldered 53-year-old with an iron grip.  He speaks with courtly diction in precisely modulated tones that give away his southern roots.  Clad in a burgundy-mocha crewneck, white shirt, beige corduroys and black soft leather loafers, the tenor saxophone veteran is every inch the country gentleman, with the manner of a tenured professor at, say, the University of Tennessee, where he graduated thirty years ago as a clarinet major, or, perhaps, a Tennessee Valley Authority lawyer in Chattanooga, his home-town.

You wouldn’t recognize the bearded, bluejeaned firebrand whose idiosyncratic style — surging, torrentially arpeggiated lines marked by jagged intervals that limn the instrument’s extremes, articulated in a fat tone marked by a turbulent, almost Gothic timbral sensibility, all at the service of an architectural command of harmony and innate narrative authority — impressed devotees of hardcore jazz on a yearly succession of albums for Enja between 1978 and 1984 with the likes of Tommy Flanagan, Chick Corea, Eddie Gomez, Dave Holland, Eddie Moore, Dannie Richmond and Elvin Jones that still hold up for their individuality and passion.  Seasoned by moderate late ‘80s commercial success and a bittersweet tenure in Los Angeles as a film composer/music director, Wallace in 1998 cut a pair of lyric, songbook-oriented quartet albums with A-list rhythm sections — “Someone To Watch Over Me” [Enja] and “Bennie Wallace” [AudioQuest] — that bring into deep relief his elemental connection to the Coleman Hawkins branch of the tenor tree.

“Sonny Rollins was my first influence,” Wallace recalls.  “My teacher gave me a recording of ‘Sumphin,’ a medium-tempo F-blues Sonny did with Dizzy Gillespie, and told me, ‘Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to his tone, because he sounds like a duck; you should listen to Stan Getz for tone.’  I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  To this day it’s the best blues tenor solo I’ve ever heard.  There was something about the notes and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that you couldn’t put on paper, and it really got me.”

As an early ‘60s high school student, Wallace dual-tracked, playing classical music on clarinet in the school orchestra well enough to win a state championship, while moonlighting in jam sessions from 11 to 4 in the morning at after-hour chitlin’ circuit joints in Chattanooga’s black section, “with people going crazy, playing the blues and bebop tunes with good players who traveled to small clubs around the country.”  He continues: “I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people; a white kid who looked 12 years old up there playing with everybody — I told my parents I was working in a hillbilly club.  The owner took me under his wing and started giving me work.  Before I was out of high school, I did a summer there as bandleader.  I did the same thing in college, in Knoxville.  Jazz became inevitable.”

Which predestined a move to New York, where Wallace arrived in 1971 with $275 in his pocket following an inglorious stint with a poppish big band in Chicago, a year of private studies with Boston reed master Joe Viola, and a few months gigging around San Francisco.  “I rented a studio in Harlem for $5 a week, and began practicing there,” Wallace recalls.  “Monty Alexander, who was stuck for a tenor player for a gig at the Riverboat, heard me, knocked on my door and asked if I wanted a gig — which was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street to a rehearsal, and here were Frank Strozier, Eugene Wright, Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince.  All of a sudden I was in the band; they got me in the union and I played with them all summer, six nights a week for dancers.”

Wallace workshopped in New York’s active early ‘70s loft scene with people like singers Jay Clayton and Sheila Jordan, and bassists Glen Moore, Wilbur Ware and Gomez.  “Bennie had — and has — a unique sound and approach, and a very definite and clear vision of where he wanted to go with what he was doing,” states Gomez, a bold presence on numerous Wallace sessions from then to now.  “Some of our repertoire was Thelonious Monk’s music, some was original; mostly the point was to push the envelope in the improvisation.  His compositions were angular, with difficult melodies; it seemed like pure musical thought and not conceived out of any European tradition on the instrument.  He always had a fat, mature sound which was steeped in the tradition, but the content was light years ahead.  In recent years, he’s self-edited, so the explosions aren’t quite as thunderous.  But they’re just as potent.”

A devotee of the Eddie Lockjaw Davis-Red Prysock school of sax dynamics, Wallace’s attitude diverged from much of his early Baby Boom saxophone peer group, who were obsessed with perfecting the language of John Coltrane.  “In my way, I was as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics,” he states.  “The message I got from Coltrane was his diligence in making his playing better, his dedication to the instrument, and the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.”

Wallace honed in on Thelonious Monk, a key inspiration for his intervallic derring-do.  One day while workshopping “Blue Monk” with the bassist Jack Six, a frequent rehearsal partner, “I spontaneously thought of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths,” he reveals.  “It created the illusion of expanding the tone of the saxophone.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals, play fourths and fifths to put a different read on Bird’s language, and this was a more radical leap in that direction.  My initial concept for the outside edge of my playing came in school, when I played Bartok’s ‘Contrasts for Clarinet, Piano and Violin,’ and started thinking how Bartok’s lines would fit against certain jazz chords.  It opened up my mind, and led me to composers like Elliott Carter and Charles Ives, to a woodwind quintet by Karlheinz Stockhausen, to Pierre Boulez’s “Pli Selon Pli”.  The trick is to create wide intervals that aren’t academic, but make melodic sense.”

Wallace signed with Blue Note in 1985, which set off an sequence of career-shifting strange twists and left turns.  “They wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South,” he notes drolly.  “Which turned out to be a nice idea, because I met Dr. John, who became a great friend and associate.  It gave me a chance to revisit some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid in the way I fantasized about doing them.  It was the first time I got a serious dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  My career became about how many records you sell instead of about music.  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got a call from someone in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in the movie ‘Bull Durham,’ for which he wanted me to write something.”

In 1991, Wallace left his dark Washington Heights apartment for a rented house with an ocean view on the Pacific Palisades, his home base for the next six years.  Wallace scored “Blaze,” and the uncompleted animated feature “Betty Boop,” music-directed “White Men Can’t Jump,” and composed the title track for Jeff Goldblum’s Oscar-nominated short film “Little Surprises,” among other projects, while attempting to sustain his performing career in the diffuse, “no-There-there” L.A. milieu.  “I felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles,” Wallace recounts. “I was very self-conscious that I would stagnate.  One day out of the blue I called Jimmy Rowles out of the phone book and asked if I could study piano with him to learn his harmonic concept and the way he approached tunes.  He told me to come on over, and he educated me, showed me outrageous stuff.  After that we became great friends.  He was restricted from emphysema and wasn’t working much, but I would pick his brain all the time.   His memory was phenomenal and his knowledge was encyclopedic.  When you’d ask him about a tune he wouldn’t just call the changes, like anybody else.  He’d say, ‘On bar 3, the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.’  Jimmy always focused on what a song means — that narrative aspect.”

Rowles’ postgraduate tutelage supplemented earlier lessons on turning notes into narrative that Wallace absorbed during the ‘70s and ‘80s from pianists like Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey at Bradley’s, the iconic Greenwich Village piano saloon.  “One of the things that I admire most about great piano players is that they are great accompanists, able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it,” notes Wallace, who has a sheaf of Rowles’ personal lead sheets, topped by “I Concentrate On You,” on the 1926 Steinway in his living room.  “Whenever I wrote for a film, I’d think, ‘Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?’, and translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for.  What fits?  What enhances it?  The term ‘film composing’ is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Now, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing for orchestras and the technical aspect of the mathematics to make music fit exactly with the frames-per-second.  But in films sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes a string quartet, sometimes for musicians who can’t even read music.  I have to be able to phrase those technical things in language people can understand so that it fits with the picture.”

Two years after resettling on the East Coast, Wallace spent much of 1999 writing and recording scores for 22 episodes of “The Hoop Life,” a Showtime series about a professional basketball team with a “behind-the-scenes” perspective distilled through the lives and dilemmas of five individuals.  Operating out of Brooklyn’s Systems Two studio, Wallace recruited a who’s who of New York improvisers — including pianists Mulgrew Miller, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock, bassists Gomez, Peter Washington, Mark Helias and George Mraz, drummers Alvin Queen, Billy Drummond, Lewis Nash and Herlin Riley, percussionist Steve Kroon, vibraphonists Steve Nelson and Brian Carrott, trumpeter John D’Earth and trombonist Ray Anderson — to express their personalities in relation to the picture appearing before them on the video monitors.

“Jazz is a very personal music,” says Joe Cacaci, the show’s executive producer, explaining why he decided on hardcore jazz rather than retro pastiche or generic hip-hop as the soundtrack for the inner emotions of the characters.  “It’s very versatile, so I knew it would give us the opportunity to handle the deep drama, the absurdity, the comedy, and in some cases reckless, dangerous behavior.  I knew there would be ample opportunity for ‘source music,’ to get in hip-hop and rap and genres more endemic to the younger audiences, which would be a perfect combination.  But for the scoring, the stuff that goes according to the story line for each character, I wanted a jazz composer.  Bennie serves the material rather than the other way around.  He understands what each week’s episode is about, better than a lot of people whose business it is to understand it, and he got into the characters very deeply so that he could start to identify with what everybody was doing and express their essence musically.  I would talk emotionally about the characters, and not make suggestions about the music per se until we got in the studio.  He’s very receptive to ideas, but at the same time has a very sharp and clear idea of what he wants to do, and takes risks.  We had a great working rapport.  He got off on direction instead of thinking that it was an imposition.  I’d talk to him like I was talking to an actor or another writer.  And he also got the most out of the musicians.  He had them into the show, identifying with the characters!  It was scoring from the heart.”

Cacaci sent me cassettes of episodes 5, 17 and 18, on which the music seamlessly complements and comments on the flow.  There are piercing atonal string quartets at psychological flashpoints, a variety of minor trumpet blues counterpointing action-resolution, a thrilling drum chant to accompany a montage telescoping the course of a championship game.  Preparing Drummond, Kroon and Don Eaton for the latter at the final recording session in January. Wallace mentioned the rubato three-feel that Elvin Jones put on “Alabama,” a clear lingua franca analogy that prompted an absolutely apropos response.   Later Wallace picked up his horn, joining Anderson and d’Earth for a precisely calibrated free-for-all on the show’s concluding theme.

“The narrative is in the preparation,” Wallace reflects a few weeks later in the cozy studio.  “Before I recorded “Someone To Watch Over Me” I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every good recording to learn the words and the way great people interpreted it emotionally.  When I actually played, I didn’t think about anything, but just let it all come out.  The experience of writing for narratives in the movies is analogous to playing without thinking about it.  Technique is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions and eliminating the extraneous.  That’s one of the fortunate lessons I learned when I was in Los Angeles.  Every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  You’re there to give it to them.  That’s all they care about.”

In his maturity, Wallace seems comfortable balancing the pragmatic dictates of business in the big leagues of entertainment with the call of pure aesthetics.  “I returned East because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music,” he says.  “When I went to L.A., I thought it would be worth doing if I could make enough money at this to be able to pay my musicians so everybody feels good about the gig, and not worry about pleasing a record company whether my music is going to fit the concept they want.  I did it for a few years, but didn’t get it to the point I wanted.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a big project I got involved in, and I decided I wouldn’t take any more tours until I could afford to.  Finally I reached a point where I couldn’t go on any longer without being back here and playing.  I spent the last two years practicing the saxophone and taking occasional gigs in Europe — getting into ‘Hoop Life’ was a happy accident.

“I did a lot of things in California that weren’t what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I learned a lot of positive things about show business which are very helpful now that I’m back dealing with the jazz business, and things about composition that give me a wider vocabulary on the saxophone and come out in my solos.  I want to bring some of the craft I learned into my writing for albums.  Many of the things we did on ‘Hoop Life’ were just as unconventional for jazz as for film music, and I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  I’ll never again turn down music for money.”

[-30-]

* * *

Bennie Wallace (Musician Show, 2-16-00):

[BW, “Nice Work If You Can Get It”]

TP:    …that rarity among saxophonists who came up in the ’70s and ’80s, a saxophonist with a sound completely his own, yet one related to previous masters in the most organic matter.  First let’s talk about this album and conceptualizing it.  Why a Gershwin album?  I guess it was the centennial.

WALLACE:  Actually, it was a total accident.  We went out to Los Angeles in ’98 and played a week at the Jazz Bakery, and the lady who owns it asked if we’d play a Gershwin set on the Saturday night because they were doing this Film Music Association Gershwin program.  So we put together a set literally a few minutes before each gig earlier in the week, because we weren’t playing any Gershwin at the time except for “I Was Doing All Right.”  So we put the set together and played it on Saturday night, and it was fun and it was successful, so three weeks later we recorded it.  We were supposed to make an album anyway, and rather than record the repertoire that we were thinking about, we just decided to do that.  And quite appropriately, it came out the year after the Gershwin centennial.  Couldn’t do it the regular way.

TP:    Did you choose it by tunes that fall more toward saxophonistic interpretation?  How do you cull down Gershwin repertoire for a project like this?

WALLACE:  That’s not easy.  In the three weeks before we made the record, when I was really thinking about making it an album and adding a couple of more tunes for that purpose, culling the tunes was a very difficult process.  There were a couple I really wanted to do and couldn’t do because they were too much of the same nature as the ones we were doing.  But most of the tunes on there are tunes I have some sort of history with, like the one you just heard.  I never really played it before, but I always loved Thelonious Monk’s solo recording of it.  So the tune I always identified with Monk as much as with Gershwin.  Then those ballads are some of the best ballads in the repertoire.  Each tune had its own little thing that just kind of made it natural for the band.  And also trying to stay away from “Summertime” and “I Got Rhythm.”  To me, that’s been done, needless to say, so many times, and there are so many Gershwin tunes that have their own harmonic identity.  That’s what was attractive to me.  And melodic identity, too.

TP:    Are you intimate with the lyrics to all these tunes?  Do you make a point of learning lyrics on songbook material?

WALLACE:  I try to.  When I’m recording it, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve also got a very short memory.  In fact, in thinking about these tunes for the gig next week, I’m surprised how many of the lyrics I can remember.  But Jimmy Rowles kind of got me into that, of just lyrically seeing what the tune is about, and that kind of shapes your way of approaching it.

I knew Alvin Queen mostly in Europe.  I met him in 1979, and we’ve been playing together ever since, every chance we get.  He’s kind of like family.  He’s one of the most frequent phone calls I get, even though I live in Geneva, Switzerland.  We really love playing together.  Though I must say I loved playing with Yoron on this record, too.

TP:    Let’s start with some third degree.  You’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.  What got you into music?  What impelled you to pick up a saxophone and become devoted to it?

WALLACE:  When I was in the eighth grade, we got a new teacher in our school, and he was a jazz musician, and he used to leave these jazz records around just for us to steal them.  He wouldn’t loan them to us, but they’d all be sitting around.  He started a jazz band, and we had a whole group of kids who became really enthusiastic about the music.  We were actually terrible little snobs, but we were really into Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis and Count Basie and all that stuff.  It was his inspiration that did it, and he introduced me to a couple of really wonderful tenor players who happened to be in the area who took me under their wing and taught me things.  I was real lucky that way.  This was in the early ’60s.

TP:    This was at a time when segregation was strong…

WALLACE:  Racial tension was really ugly.  And I was just kind of coming of the age when I was aware of the existence of something like that.  To this teacher’s credit, through the music, he made us really aware immediately of what was right and what was wrong.  We were going down and playing in black clubs when I was a teenager.  I remember going down to this black jazz club when I was about 14, and a couple of friends and I went in, and the owner (who I got to know later because I worked for him a lot), he was like crackin’ up and let us in, let us listen to music on the jukebox and hang out.  Then we went and got our buddy, Jerry White, this guy who is now a wonderful drummer, who must have looked like he was 8 years old.  When he came in, the owner just cracked and he said, “No-no, I can’t do this!”

TP:    You’re pointing up something that’s such a cultural break between 1960 and today.  You’re talking about Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is not a metropolis, and there’s a jazz club and there’s jazz on the jukebox and there are jazz musicians who are well grounded and a scene for you to play in.

WALLACE:  Yes, it was a very small scene, but it was a scene.  I got my start playing in after-hours clubs until 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and people going crazy, and playing the blues and bebop tunes and stuff like this.  It was a great experience.  And it was a great learning experience as a person  It’s like I was exposed to twice as much of the world as a lot of kids I went to school with.

TP:    I’d say three times as much!

WALLACE:  That was a little conservative.

TP:    So you’re a 16-year-old white kid in Chattanooga playing til 3-4 in the morning at after-hours clubs in the Black part of town, a normal high school upbringing.  Who were the early influences?  Were you thinking of it that way?

WALLACE:  Sonny Rollins was my first influence.  That’s because my teacher gave me this solo in the band, and there was a medium-tempo F-blues that I was supposed to play on, and he had a medium-tempo F-blues of Sonny playing with Dizzy Gillespie… I’ll never forget it.  He gave me the record and he said, “Look, this guy really plays the blues great.  Now, don’t listen to this tone, because he sounds like a duck.  You should sound like Stan Getz for a tone.”  And I’ve been trying to sound like a duck ever since.  I fell in love with that solo on that record.  I was also listening to Eddie Lockjaw Davis, John Coltrane, Red Prysock, Stanley Turrentine — a lot of great guys.

TP:    Did you know at that time that you were going to be a musician?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I didn’t know if I was going to be a clarinet player or a saxophone player, because I was also playing the clarinet at that time in the orchestra and stuff like that.

TP:    So you weren’t just playing jazz and blues.  You were learning the fundamentals…

WALLACE:  I wasn’t studying the saxophone in school, but I was studying the clarinet.

TP:    So what happened then?

WALLACE:  Well, the Vietnam War came along and put everybody in college, and I went to Knoxville, to the university there, and around a similar clique of localized jazz musicians.  It was a real local scene.  I often wish I’d grown up somewhere like New York, where I could hear some of the great musicians…

TP:    You probably wouldn’t have had the same opportunities.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  Exactly.  Because I sounded awful!  But there were great opportunities.  I learned a lot.

TP:    A few words on the dynamics of Eddie Lockjaw Davis’ style.  Another tenor player mentioned seeing a video of Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin playing two tenors in tandem, and the same notes were coming out of the horn but the fingers weren’t in the same place.

WALLACE:  Right.  Well, Johnny Griffin told me that Jaws had his own… Well, I knew that Jaws had his own fingering system.  Because I remember in 1964 they let Count Basie’s band play for about 15 minutes on the “Tonight Show” one night when Jerry Lewis was running it, and they had some closeups of Jaws.  Of course, I knew my saxophone, and his fingers were going where they didn’t belong.  Ever since then, I always wanted to like find out what that was he was into.  I remember going to a club to hear him play, then I couldn’t get close, then we almost made a record together before he died, and he got too sick and couldn’t do it.  But I always wanted to know what he was doing.  I’ve tried to figure out some of it with my ear and my imagination.  But he was quite magical.  In fact, Johnny Griffin was telling me that he even had some of the keys corked down.  I’ve been thinking about that, like, which ones could you cork down that would make a difference but you could still play the saxophone.  But he was totally unique!  I think Jaws could get more colors out of the saxophone than any saxophone player in the history of the tenor.  Ben had that big, beautiful ballad sound, but Ben couldn’t scream like Jaws. Listen to Jaws play “Flight Of the Foo Bird” on that Basie Atomic record — he just comes roaring.  Ben was no effeminate tenor player, you know.  But you know what I’m saying?  Jaws just had this palette of color that was just outrageous.

[MUSIC: Jaws, “Trane Whistle” & “Flight of The Foo Birds”, Ben, “Time After Time”]

TP:    The set reflected some of Bennie’s early experiences as a gigging teenage saxophonist in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and subsequently at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.  So you get out of school, it’s the late ’60s, it’s the middle of counterculture — most of your peers are soaking up John Coltrane.

WALLACE:  Oh, I was too!

TP:    Talk about the things that interested you in those years.

WALLACE:  At that point I was listening to everybody, and I think I was also just about as crazy as everybody at that time.  I don’t think kids today can realize what a confusing place the world was at that time for a teenager.  I think jazz, in a sense, helped me and my friends keep our heads on straight, because there was some semblance of order there and some semblance of a level of craftsmanship to aspire toward and keep us from going completely bonkers.  It’s a very difficult question you just asked, because I was growing up in East Tennessee, and looking back on my life and all the times I’ve been to Europe and Japan and in a sense earned my livelihood abroad… In those days I never even thought of there being anything beyond New York City.  That was just the mecca.  There’s nothing after that.  I never thought about leaving the country or playing or anything.  It was just New York.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw it, in 1966.  It was just like the overused thing, like a kid in a toy shop.  It was amazing.    I came two or three times and visited again I moved here in ’72.  The first time I came, I went to the old Half Note, and it was a double bill.  Sonny Stitt was just playing tenor at the time with the McCoy Tyner Trio, and Roy Eldridge and Richie Kamuca were playing opposite, and I think Anita O’Day might have been singing with them, and Major Holley was playing bass.  I must have been 16-17 years old, and I looked like I was 12.  There was a great waiter down there who was famous for being able to light anybody’s cigarette from anywhere in the room before they could get their lighter out.  He was a real character.  It was a novelty to him that anybody who looked that young was in there.  He introduced me to Sonny Stitt, and Sonny came over to the table during the break and talked to me…

TP:    How many keys are on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Actually, there was none of that, which he was famous for.  I kind of got spared because I looked so young.  He was basically telling me tricks about how to practice and just being very sweet, to tell you the truth. I don’t want to destroy Sonny’s reputation!  I enjoyed hearing Richie Kamuca, too, and Major Holley.  It was an incredible experience.

TP:    When you moved to New York, did you come knowing people, with any connections?

WALLACE:  I knew a few people and met musicians to play with.  Actually, I was very lucky.  I came with $275 in my pocket and no place to stay, and I fell into this very nice man who was a sculptor down on the Bowery, who let me stay at his place, but he said I couldn’t practice there.  So I went up to… Charles Cullen was renting these studios for $5 a week, and so I was practicing up there, and Monty Alexander heard me practicing and was stuck for a tenor player for this gig that he had, so he knocked on my door and asked me if I wanted a gig — and of course, that was an easy answer.  I didn’t know who Monty was at that time.  He took me across the street where they were having a rehearsal, and here was Eugene Wright and Frank Strozier and all these fantastic players.  All of a sudden, I was in the band, and they got me in the union, and I played with them all summer.  When Strozier couldn’t make it, he’d send George Coleman to sub, and Senator would send Bob Cranshaw.  So man, I was in heaven.  “This is my town!”  That was at the Riverboat, and we were playing six nights a week for half the summer for dancers.

TP:    Was your style similar then?  Did you have that intervallic concept and the kind of coloration you put on the horn?

WALLACE:  I think my style was pretty similar.  I think the idea of stretching the intervals out came maybe a year or two later, when I was listening to this woodwind piece by Karlheinz Stockhausen and trying to practice the parts.  Also I was going to the Vanguard and listening to Monk and hearing how he would stretch intervals out.  I remember I started doing that by first taking “Blue Monk” and instead of playing it in half-steps, playing it in minor 9ths.  I was fascinated with the fact that it would make the saxophone sound so big.  So that came just a little after.  But I think my basic concept was there. I wasn’t playing like Stan Getz or imitating anybody.

TP:    So when it came down to soloing, you had your own ideas about how to approach improvising, and you could perform the section function as well.

WALLACE:  Well, some people might argue that.  But see, when I was in school I played the clarinet, and I played in orchestras and wind ensembles and stuff like that where I had to do a lot of reading.  I used to tease my wife and tell her that while I was in high school I was the state champ on the clarinet, because we had these contests, you know, with all the high school kids. I was a real reader in those years.  I could read.

TP:    And you were the state champ?

WALLACE:  I was the state champ.  I think I played the Stravinsky “Three Pieces.” They put your through all these regimented kinds of things, like sight-reading and all this stuff.

TP:    When did you put down the clarinet?  Or did you.

WALLACE:  When I got out of college.  I basically quit practicing it… Off and on over the years, if they had a job that needed the clarinet, I would play it.  But in those days, the mouthpieces and the equipment on the instrument weren’t near as good as they are today, or I didn’t know about any of the good stuff.  And with the mouthpieces I was playing, the clarinet would really chew up your lip and make you bite.  And I wanted to get my sound real loose on the tenor, so I just got as far away from that clarinet as I could when I got out of school.

[MUSIC: BW, “I Loves You, Porgy”]

TP:    In the ’70s, apart from that initial gig, did you go around, meet a lot of people, make yourself busy on the scene?

WALLACE:  Yes.  I was a little bit timid.  I was a little bit overwhelmed with the scene.  I used to play duets with Wilbur Ware, who was another really great friend.  Wilbur had a dubious reputation, but I didn’t see that.  He was really nice to me, and I used to go over to his house and practice with him.  I remember he invited me to come up to Harlem to play with him and Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones.  I can’t remember where, but I was afraid.  I wasn’t afraid to go to Harlem.  I was afraid to go play with those guys.  When I look at it now, I think, my God, if you couldn’t play with those guys… That’s one of the stupidest things I ever did!  But I played around, and met a lot of musicians, and just kind of worked on my music and did a lot of practicing.  I worked a bit with Sheila Jordan, and that was a lot of fun.  The loft scene started up and I was a bit on the periphery of that.

TP:    I was curious about your relation to that.  You’re a musician with obvious solid grounding in blues and vernacular music and bebop, and yet you’re being influenced by Stockhausen in the way you approach your style intervallically, which is an interesting mix of influences.

WALLACE:  Well, when I was in college, I was hanging out a lot with a composer named Doug Davis, who turned me on to a lot of that kind of music and taught me a lot about how 20th Century music is put together.  I had this wild ambition to be able to improvise atonally, and so I practiced a lot of that.  I would learn 12-tone kind of melodies, but I’d always relate them to chords because that was my background.  When I came to town, I guess I was playing farther out than I’ve ever played on records.  A year or two after I’d been here, I had a radio and I started listening to Ed Beach, and Ed Beach would play Ben Webster and he would play Coleman Hawkins, and I remember he played this beautiful record of Zoot Sims playing “Do Nothin’ Til You Hear From Me,” and just all of these amazing recordings.  I used to tape them.  He did a Gene Ammons show… I’m so sorry I didn’t keep the parts where he was talking, because his voice was so incredible.  But then I heard that, and then I started really hearing Duke Ellington in detail for the first time, and really getting it, listening to Ed Beach.  That’s when I decided to go back and really like build the foundation of my roots and learn the music… I remember I heard him playing Don Byas doing “Sweet Lorraine.”  He just had a way of picking the best stuff, to where you’d just never forget it.  That was kind of a conversion, like a born-again experience for me.  Since then my music has always been based on that, but that other thing I studied in school is a part of my vocabulary, or makes me think a bit differently, I think.

TP:    I interrupted you when you spoke of being on the periphery of the loft scene, such as it was.  Did you have a particular clique of musicians that you were around, or…

WALLACE:  Well, I kind of knew the guys who ran the lofts.  I knew Joe Lee Wilson, who was a great guy, and I knew the guy that ran Environ and a couple of other places.  I knew Sam Rivers a little bit.  And those guys would give me gigs from time to time.  In fact, one of the first lofts I played in was Ornette Coleman’s loft down on Prince Street.  We didn’t have any gigs, and that was just like a place to play.  Eddie Gomez and I played together in the lofts, and I played with Glen Moore, I played with Sheila Jordan, with Jay Clayton, a lot of different… There was a little bit of a clique, I guess you’d say — a little community.  People would just call me up.  Sometimes I’d play my own duet and trio concerts.  For a while I had a gig in a restaurant with just bass and tenor, which was pretty hilarious.

TP:    So you were living the life of a New York musician trying to get by week to week and do what came up.

WALLACE:  Just running blind. [LAUGHS]

TP:    We’ll hear Thelonious Monk, a track along with Stockhausen that you mentioned as two kind of poles…

WALLACE:  Well, Stockhausen just kind of came out of my head.  I was listening to a lot of 20th Century music, Elliott Carter and Charles Ives and a lot of different stuff.  But I just remember there was a Stockhausen woodwind piece, and I had the music to it.  But I used to go hear Monk at the Vanguard, which got me to kind of thinking… My ambition was always to be in his band.  Everybody else wanted to be in Miles Davis’ band, but my fantasy was to play with Monk.  When you listen to this tune, listen to what he does toward the end of the bridge with the harmony.  That inspired me in terms of ways to harmonize tunes.

[Monk, “These Foolish Things” (1953); BW, “Skippy”]

TP:    When you made Bennie Wallace Plays Monk in 1981, you’d been here almost a decade.

WALLACE:  Yeah, about 9 years.

TP:    That was about your fourth recording for Enja, so by this time…

WALLACE:  Rocket to stardom, as Lenny Bruce used to say.

TP:    But in some ways your position changes.  Whether it’s a rocket to stardom or a slow boat to China, you still become a fact in the world of jazz with records under your belt.

WALLACE:  I was really lucky.  In the late ’70s I got hooked up with Enja Records, and basically without any kind of contract or anything I was making a record every year, and they were helping me get work in Europe, and so I was touring over there.  It was some great opportunities.  I made a record with Tommy Flanagan the year before I made this one.  My feeling was, well, if I don’t have the opportunity to be in those great bands of the past as a sideman, I’ll create sideman things of my own.  So I chose to make a record with Tommy and then this record of Monk tunes, because I was always really into Monk.  It was wonderful, because Enja didn’t give me any kind of economic restrictions.  I mean, they did in terms of how much money I could spend making a record.  But it wasn’t about selling so many units, as they say today, and it wasn’t about how many records you sell and where you are on the charts or anything like that.  That was really lucky.  Because all we were thinking about was trying to make the best records we could make.

TP:    You worked with some of the most eminent lights in jazz… [ETC.] Were these part of the circle of musicians in your New York experience?

WALLACE:  I’d never met Tommy before I recorded with him.  He came to a rehearsal. I’d been down and sat in with Elvin once, so I kind of knew Elvin a little bit.  And I knew Dave because we were neighbors and we used to shed together.  And Eddie Gomez and I were good friends and played together a lot.  Chick Corea heard us playing in Paris and said, “Let’s do something sometime,” so I took him up on it and asked him to play on that record.  But I knew some of the people…

TP:    In talking to Bennie Wallace about the music for this program, Coleman Hawkins seemed to be the top.

WALLACE:  Yes.  I’ve always loved Coleman Hawkins, and the more I hear him, the more I appreciate him.  I’m stumbling over my words.  He’s known for certain things that he’s incredible at, and then there’s other things that are just… The more I get into his playing, the more subtleties I find.  But the tune I asked you to play here is a recording of “Sophisticated Lady” from 1949, which I think rivals his “Body and Soul.”  I just think it’s stunning.  I remember transcribing it, like writing it out and taking it apart and seeing how it was put together.  It’s a stunning work.  And that tone is just unbelievable!

TP:    Is Coleman Hawkins someone you can describe in three-four words to someone who doesn’t know who he is?

WALLACE:  I don’t think so.  I heard an announcer say one time that he invented the tenor saxophone.  That doesn’t do justice to what he did.  Like, 1929, he kind of defined the ballad style for me on the saxophone; he kind of invented that.  I remember once Sonny Rollins mentioned admiring Coleman Hawkins’ harmonic sophistication.  I didn’t get that for a while, and then when I got farther into Coleman Hawkins I knew what Sonny was talking about.  It’s incredibly harmonically sophisticated and refined.  I mean, Coleman Hawkins was a big opera fan.  I knew a guy who worked at Sam Goody’s, and Coleman Hawkins was one of his customers, and he said to Coleman Hawkins one day, “Why don’t you look at our jazz records?” and he said, “Oh, I make those.”  But he was always checking out the opera records.  The band that he had with Tommy Flanagan with Major Holley and Eddie Locke to me is one of the all-time classic jazz quartets.  It doesn’t get nearly the recognition and appreciation that some other bands at the time did, but that was one helluva band.

[Coleman Hawkins, “Sophisticated Lady,” “Strange Music,” “Buh-de-Dah”; BW, “The Man I Love,” Ellington-Hodges, “Prelude To A Kiss,” “Jack The Bear”]

TP:    The ’80s was a real heyday for piano emporia…

WALLACE:  Yes, the ’70s and early ’80s.  After I made the record with Tommy I got to know him, and I used to go down to Bradley’s and listen to Tommy, and Red Mitchell would come over from Sweden and play for a few weeks, and I remember he’d always play two weeks with Tommy, two weeks with Hank Jones, and two-week shots with Albert Dailey.  Man, you could just go in there and get incredible music lessons every night.  In those days you could walk in Bradley’s for free and buy a drink, and it was usually so crowded you didn’t have to buy a drink because nobody would notice you.  It was just a great scene.  In fact, Tommy and Diana introduced me to Jimmy Rowles down there, though I didn’t get to know Jimmy well until I moved to California.  But that was an amazing time.

TP:    Let’s talk about the arc of your career during the 1980’s.  It took some strange twists and left turns.  You signed a contract with Blue Note in the mid-’80s.

WALLACE:   At that time I had a manager, Christine Martin, who had a hookup with Blue Note records, and they basically gave me a deal, but they wanted to exploit the fact that I was from the South.  Which turned out to be a nice idea, because it gave me a chance to go back and do some of the tunes that I used to play when I was a kid, and do them in the way you would kind of fantasize about doing them.  That’s when I met Mac Rebennack, or Dr. John, and he became a really great friend and associate.  It gave me good exposure, because I got to go to Japan and I got to play more in the States than I’d played before, and I played at the Town Hall and Blue Note Nights and things like that.  Also, I did two records for Denon.  Christine made this happen.  She did a deal with Denon where they were going to have musicians produce albums.  So Christine called one day and said, “Make a couple of suggestions,”  so I said, “Okay, a Lockjaw Davis record and Teddy Wilson with a singer.”  So they came back and said yes to both of them.  Unfortunately, neither one got made.  I talked to Jaws and he was into it, and we had a couple of nice phone conversations about it, but that was right toward the end when he was really ill, and he didn’t get to do it.  Then subsequently I think Teddy Wilson died shortly after that, too.  But I did make a couple of records for Denon, who were very nice people.

So that was a time when I got into some diverse directions.  It’s also the first time I really got a dose of the business, which wasn’t much fun.  I remember in the ’70s Ray Anderson and I used to have a running joke with each other, we hoped that some day we would become exploited.  And it basically ain’t all it’s cracked up to be! [LAUGHS] That’s when my career became about how many records you sell.  You’re really getting into the commercial world, whether they want to admit it or not.  It becomes about that instead of about music, unfortunately.  I started getting in with some of the agents and people like that who you always hear all these horror stories about.  They’re true!  In the midst of it all, out of the blue one day I got this call from some guy in California who had heard my first Blue Note record and wanted to use some of it in a movie and wanted me to write something for his movie.  Like, all of a sudden I’m writing movie music, again by just a total accident.

TP:    You did music for Bull Durham.

WALLACE:  That one was Bull Durham, then I did Blaze and White Men Can’t Jump, and then some smaller films.  I did a short that Jeff Goldblum directed, and the music was kind of a tribute to Thelonious Monk, which was fun.  I did another short that was an animated piece with a jazz score.  Both scores were Oscar-nominated; they didn’t make any money, but they got a little bit of attention that way.  I did quite a number of different things.

TP:    You have a number of original compositions on those Enja records, but in that period I think of you as an improviser, a spontaneous composer on the instrument.  But you’re working in sparse groups, they’re very open-ended.  Was composing always part of your interests/

WALLACE:  I always liked the idea.  And in the early days I used to write a lot of tunes based on standard forms to give me a different perspective about learning more about those tunes.  I used to do that kind of to educate myself.  Then when I was with Enja, they always wanted me to write original music because they had publishing.  And I made a little money off the publishing, too.  But they always encouraged me to write a lot of originals, which stimulated me to do it.  Composing is a lot of fun, because it’s different from playing… It’s not as much fun as playing, but it’s a neat experience to see something formulate in your mind and take a shape and then kind of get edited down to what you’re really getting at.  I like that.  But I never trained myself to write for movies, or never really… I always wanted to play music for movies, but I always was thinking more the way Sonny Rollins did it on Alfie or the way Miles Davis did it on a few of those films he was in, where it’s more about playing and not so much about orchestrating.  It’s ironic that after several years of being out there doing that, and writing for orchestras and kind of learning the craft, I came back here to get away from it all three years ago, and then accidentally came into this TV series, where it really is about playing and watching the picture go by, and really playing jazz as a score.  That’s The Hoop Life.  I kind of got off into that because it’s a full circle thing that happened.

TP:    When did you move to L.A.?

WALLACE:  About 1990.  Came back in 1996.
[MUSIC:  Flanagan, “Bird Song”; BW/TF, “Beyond The Bluebird”]

TP:    Solo piano by Jimmy Rowles, who was a fixture at various NYC piano emporia when he was here…

WALLACE:  He was a fixture wherever he was! [LAUGHS] I met him here, but I didn’t really know him.  It was just an introduction at Bradley’s late one night.  But I met him for real when I was in L.A.  Because I really felt like a fish out of water in Los Angeles.  I was very self-conscious that I was just going to stagnate.  So I called Jimmy one day out of the blue, just out of the phone book, and said, “Look, I’m a saxophone player, not a piano player, but I’d like to study piano with you to learn your harmonic concept and the way you approach tunes.”  So he said, “Come on over,” and he showed me this outrageous stuff.  I went with a list of tunes, and Jimmy talked about “Body and Soul” and “In A Sentimental Mood,” which are the two tunes I thought I knew as well as I can know a tune, and he just like educated me.  Then after that we became really great friends, and any time I got a movie date I’d figure out some way to get him on it.  Not that he wasn’t a tremendous asset, but just any excuse to be there working with him, and hearing him play and hearing him sing.  He and I are both tennis fans, so we had a telephone friendship almost daily.  Like, he would talk about music or tennis.  He was one of those rare human beings.  I loved him dearly, and I was very fortunate to be able to hang out with him and learn from him.  When I knew Jimmy, he was pretty much restricted from his emphysema, so he wasn’t working much.  I used to pick his brain all the time, and it was a chance to talk to a master almost on a daily basis and just pick a tune and start… You’d call him up and ask about a tune, and he wouldn’t just tell the changes, like anybody else.  He would talk about, “Well, bar 3 the last beat is this, and here’s the voicing.”  This guy had a memory that was just phenomenal to go along with that encyclopedic knowledge of tunes that he had.

[MUSIC: Rowles, “Body and Soul”; Hank Jones, “Satin Doll”; Ella Fitzgerald, “Midnight Sun”]

TP:    We discussed the second segment of Bennie Wallace’s career scoring films [1989 it started].

WALLACE:  This thing you’ve got up now is written for string quartet, and it’s not jazz at all.  It was written for a cartoon called “The Indescribable Nth.”  This was done by a fellow named Steve Moore in Los Angeles who I met when I was out there, and we met on a film and became friends and have done several projects together.  We recorded it in Brooklyn by a wonderful string quartet in New York.  It’s Todd Reynolds on violin; Victor Schultz, second violin; Ralph Ferris, viola; and Dorothy Lawson, cello.  I met them in September when I hired them for this date on a recommendation, and since then we’ve done a couple of other things together.  We did a segment of The Hoop Life with them.
TP:    Is there a narrative component?

WALLACE:  It’s really a children’s cartoon.  It’s a story about a guy who sells snow domes, and he has a little boy, and it’s about the little boy and getting his heart broken and all that.  What I like about the story and everything is it’s almost like the kind of thing that we would have seen when we were kids.  It has a timeless quality to it.  These are a few of the cues.

[MUSIC: BW, String Quartet, “The Indescribable Nth”, BW/Dr. John, “St. Expedito”]

WALLACE:  I think Hoop Life was like a who’s-who of New York musicians.  The piano players were Mulgrew, Kenny Barron, Ben Aronov and Kirk Nurock (I know I’m leaving somebody else out).  The bass players were either Eddie Gomez or George Mraz or Mark Helias or Peter Washington, Rodney Whitaker did one.  Herlin Riley did a couple of them, and Alvin Queen.  A lot of my great friends.  Steve Nelson, a wonderful vibes player, played a couple, and Brian Carrott is another really great vibes player.  I met a lot of guys I didn’t know doing this.  It was a lot of fun.

TP:    How would it differ from a normal score you’d do?

WALLACE:  They’d differ from week to week.  One week we had a string quartet with a couple of jazz musicians, but quite often it would be a group like you just heard, and we would literally be watching the picture and playing.  My job was to outline the thematic material and time the scenes and set the tempo and where events are going to happen in the picture.  In cases like that, people would just play.  Then there were other things that were through-composed, and there was very little improvising.  I enjoyed this job as much as any film work I ever did.

TP:    Is it the first time you were able to do that?

WALLACE:  With that kind of freedom, yes.

TP:    You said this was your aspiration when you started scoring films.

WALLACE:  Well, long before I scored films, I always wanted to PLAY with the film, play jazz and react to the picture.  This is the first time I’ve ever really had an opportunity to do that.  A little bit out there, but never with such consistently great musicians.  It was also quite a treat to hear really wonderful jazz musicians come in and react to a picture.  Some of them I think were doing it for the first time.  I can’t think of one experience that was anything less than really a lot of fun.

TP:    Why is this the type of show that’s amenable to an improvised, as it were, score?

WALLACE:  Well, it’s a show about a professional basketball team.  But the reason it’s amenable is that the producer, Joe Cicachi, has a real creative head, and is… When he called me up he said, “I want some real cutting-edge kind of stuff.”  He knew my records probably more than my film work.  Well, I don’t know; he’d have to say that.  Quite often in film work you’ve got to cater to tastes for people who aren’t very sensitive to music at all, and quite often they’re just paranoid about whether or not their film is going to make any money.  But this guy was really very creative to work with, and let us loose.

TP:    How does the music get edited within the final cut?

WALLACE:  Oh, they never change the music.  What we do goes to the picture because it’s composed or played to the picture and for the picture.  I don’t recall them ever taking anything out.  For a few weeks we were having trouble because the people in Los Angeles who were mixing the show down at the network were dialing the music way down, and we had this great editor up in Toronto, where the show is done, and he just kept pumping the music louder and louder, and finally they gave up.  So finally, after episode 5, you could hear everything okay.

TP:    How has the film writing and the music affected your relationship to the instrument?

WALLACE:  The unfortunate thing is that when I’m really in the act of doing it, it takes me away from my horn.  The real frustrating thing about something like this is I would have all these wonderful players in the studio, and then I’d be blowing the dust off my horn and trying to remember how to finger it as we started recording, rather than being in shape as I’d like to be.  But on the other hand, again it’s taken me to some areas of music that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise and taught me some things I wouldn’t have learned.  When we were talking earlier in the show about some of the 20th century music I’ve listened… It made me listen a lot more to Ravel and Stravinsky, and I’ve been listening a lot to Olivier Messaien, and learning different kinds of coloristic techniques, and then those start finding their way onto my horn.  So I like that.

[MUSIC: “It Ain’t Necessarily So”]

[-30-]

* * *

Bennie Wallace (3-3-00):

TP:    Are you from a musical family?

WALLACE:  No.  I had a great-uncle who was a fiddler, but that was it.  When I was 12 years old, they came in and said if you take up a musical instrument you get out of school for an hour a day, and so I went.  I wanted a trombone, but my arms were too short, so they gave me a clarinet, and that evolved into the saxophone.  I was just playing for fun.

TP:    But you took to it.  You had a sort of innate musicality, I guess.

WALLACE:  Yeah, I took to it.  But about a year or two later, Chet Hedgecoth, this incredible musician, became our teacher, and he really built a fire under everybody.  He came in with Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie records, and John Coltrane records and stuff like that, which is stuff we had never even dreamed of, and just introduced us all to a whole new world.  It was funny, because we were out there in this real kind of reactionary community, and all of a sudden there’s this pocket of young kids who are just like fanatic jazz fans!  I remember we were listening to Charles Mingus…

TP:    Chattanooga, 1962.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And we were right there in the middle of it!

TP:    What kind of town is Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  As one of the locals once told me, “the only thing you can do in Chattanooga is work.”  There is a pocket of some of the wealthiest people in the country down there, and they kept Chattanooga for their own little private place.  It could have been Atlanta.  It was the first choice to be the big city in the South, and these rich people just totally vetoed it because they didn’t want it growing up and getting out of their control.  So the middle class and the lower class there just… There was really very little to do.  I remember when I was playing in those after-hours joints, the legal clubs could only sell beer, and they had to close at 11 at night — and we started playing at 11 at night.

TP:    Were you a middle-class family?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  My Dad worked for the phone company.  We were just a typical middle-class family.

TP:    Were you a rebellious kid?

WALLACE:  Of course.

TP:    I just want to talk about this whole after-hours thing.

WALLACE:  Well, I just totally lied to them.  It was funny, because I used to tell my mother…

TP:    What was the name the place you played?

WALLACE:  There was two of them.  One was called the Am-Vets Club, and it wasn’t an Am-Vets Club, but it had that name.  Then there was another one called the Malibu Club.  For a brief time I worked at a third place called the Stardust Lounge.  That was the only one that was rough.  That was kind of where you could go for jazz and heroin.  But the other two places were basically like older…you know, a middle-aged crowd of people who… One of the regulars there was a guy who went to high school with Jimmy Blanton. [who’d get drunk and tell him every time.] Actually, when I look back on it, it was more sophisticated than the crowds in any of the White joints down there, even the very wealthy country clubs.  And it was totally safe.  The only problem… Sometimes White people would come down there and make trouble because we were integrating.  But as far as the clientele, it was as harmless as you could imagine in a nightclub.

TP:    Was the clientele all Black?

WALLACE:  Yes.

TP:    So White people didn’t patronize the club.  It was just your group of kids from the White school would go down…

WALLACE:  Well, see, what happened is a group of us kids went down one time.  Well, I think I was about 14, and we went in just to see the place.  The owner saw how young we looked and he was kind of humoring us.  But after that, my teacher started taking me down there, and I would jam with the musicians.  There was like an underground circuit of jazz musicians who would travel around the country, but not the big-name clubs, but little small clubs.  So that was going on, and so my teacher would take me down there to jam with musicians who would come in — really good Bebop players.  Remember a guy named Fred Jackson?  I played with him when I was in high school when he was down there.  I guess I was a total curiosity to all those people, because here’s this White kid who looked like he’s 12 up there playing with everybody.  Anyway, the owner kind of took me under his wing and started giving me work.  And by the time I was out of high school, I had a summer down there that I was the bandleader.

TP:    Was it a Black band?

WALLACE:  Mostly.  Actually it was funny, because the first night we played down there it was an all-White band, guys I’d played in school with.  Then it wound up being that the guitar player was White and the bass player and the drummer were Black, so two and two.  And we had singers came in, and… There was a great singer down there who sang kind of like Joe Williams style.  Actually that summer, Lou Rawls had that big hit on “The Shadow of Your Smile,” and so we played “Shadow of Your Smile” all summer.  But that was a great experience.  Then when I was in college in Knoxville, we had the same kind of thing, because we had after-hours joints up there that weren’t so safe.  Some of the joints were totally cool and some of them weren’t cool.  But they let us play whatever we wanted to play.

TP:    Did you have to keep the shuffle rhythm, or whatever you wanted to play?

WALLACE:  No, we would play everything.  Our version of commercial music at that time was Cannonball Adderley tunes, “Work Song” or “Sack of Woe,” or Horace Silver tunes… That was as commercial as it got.  But we were playing Bebop tunes, and…

TP:    You were a tenor player from the getgo as far as being a performer.

WALLACE:  yes.

TP:    But there’s a dual track for you which runs through your life, where you’re dealing with reading and…

WALLACE:  I’ve tried to eliminate that other stuff, but it always keeps coming back up on me.  I was only studying the clarinet and classical music in school, because they didn’t teach jazz down there then, and only performing on the saxophone.  Basically, I was in school to stay out of the Vietnam War, otherwise I would have been gone…

TP:    But you were state high school champion, a good sight-reader.

WALLACE:  I was a very good sight-reader.

TP:    I know you’re downplaying this stuff, but it sounds like you had a pretty immaculate technical training.

WALLACE:  Oh, the best.  I had a wonderful clarinet teacher, actually two wonderful clarinet teachers.  And I was very serious about it at the time.  When I was in high school I was really into both of them, because I had such wonderful teachers who were such great role models on both instruments.  So I was torn about it.  But when I got to college, I think… Being able to play jazz in college was frustrating, and that’s where my energy went.  The classical music was right there in front of me, and I started getting bored with it.  Had it been better classical music, I might not have gotten bored with it.  But jazz just becoming more and more important.  It was always inevitable, though.

TP:    Was it a different sides of your personality type thing?  I know you listened to Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, but it sounds like you started off as pretty much a gutbucket tenor player, or is that not true?

WALLACE:  Well, I think it’s somewhere in the middle.  Like I told you the other day, when I heard Sonny Rollins, that’s the first time I experienced Art, like really got into something that really touched me.  The first time I heard Coltrane, it was the same kind of thing, but it wasn’t quite as deep for me.  It’s like there was something about that Sonny Rollins solo that was something more than just the notes.  Not to say that Coltrane wasn’t.  But I mean, the first Coltrane I heard was “Giant Steps,” and when I hear it to this day… I was watching TV the other day, and they were interviewing Cornell West, and at the end he played “Spiral” from that album.  I hadn’t heard it in years, and it took me back to my childhood.  So it was a very strong impression.  But there was something about the Sonny Rollins solo that was the notes and the pitches and the rhythms and the pitches between the beats and between the notes that produced art that was something that you couldn’t put on paper.  That really got me.  It was an F-major blues, and they called “Sumphin'”.  That’s just an incredibly classic performance.  I mean, to this day that’s the best blues tenor solo I ever heard in my life.  And Dizzy plays great, Ray Bryant plays great on it.  It’s a magical performance.  Then there’s a fast blues right before that called “Wheatleigh Hall,” and I also really liked that one.  I’ve rarely ever listened to the other side of the record.  I’ve still got the jacket around here somewhere.  I stole my teacher’s copy of it when I was in high school.  He never gave us records; he always left the around for us to steal them.

TP:    What was he like?

WALLACE:  He was a wonderful jazz drummer.  His favorite… Well, he actually went back in the history of the music a bit.  He was into Davey Tough and Don Lamond, but he was mostly into Philly Joe Jones, and he also was a big fan of the Count Basie band with Sonny Payne.  And Max Roach.  He was really into the down-the-middle great players.

TP:    He swung.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah!

TP:    so when you were learning, you had a good swinging drummer behind you.

WALLACE:  Well, he didn’t play with us so much, but he really taught actually three really wonderful drummers just at our high school, then he taught a couple of others who went to other schools.  Then one time I’ll never forget, he brought a bass player, one of his buddies that he grew up with, and we were playing our F-blues with the band, and I’ll never forget the first time I played with a great bass player.  Who was actually… Did you ever hear of Edgar Meyer?  It was Edgar Meyer’s father, Ed Meyer.  Her came and played with us one day, and boy, what a thrill that was.  And he could walk!

TP:    What lie did you tell your parents to get to…

WALLACE:  I told them I was playing in a hillbilly club.  And the hillbilly club I told them I was playing in was a really rough joint, but they didn’t know it.  Then inevitably at some point, somebody at my Dad’s job went to that club and I wasn’t there, and… [LAUGHS]

TP:    Did you graduate from U-Tennessee?

WALLACE:  Yeah, in 1968. [degree in music]

TP:    But by then you knew you were going to go on and be a professional.  But there’s a practical side to you.  One half of you is this sort of go-for-broke wild guy and another part that seems very pragmatic.

WALLACE:  Well, that didn’t come into play until I got married.

TP:    But you graduated.

WALLACE:  I graduated because of the Vietnam War.

TP:    Maybe that made you pragmatic.

WALLACE:  That made my whole generation pragmatic.  It not only made us pragmatic, it made us innovative.  Everybody had to figure out their own way to get out of the Army, and everybody had to come up with something different, because those guys get onto it if everybody comes in with the same affliction.

TP:    The impression I got was that you spent a couple of years as a wandering musician.  You didn’t go right to New York.

WALLACE:  Right out of college, I got a job playing in a big band in Chicago.  It wasn’t a jazz band, it was like a pops orchestra.  It was a job that I was totally ill-suited for.  I was playing lead alto and flute and piccolo and alto flute and clarinet and all this stuff.  I did that off and on for the first year, and then I went to Boston and took some private saxophone lessons from Joe Viola there.  I wasn’t in school.  And I was working with a composer friend of mine who played piano there.  Then I went to San Francisco for three or four months, and then a friend introduced me to Gary Burton.  This was an older friend who was kind of worried about me because I was so crazy and seemingly without direction.  So he played Gary some of my music and introduced me to Gary, and Gary said, “Well, the way you play, you should move to New York.  You don’t belong anywhere else.”  Actually, Gary was quite nice to me.  So he made sure that I knew some people to play with.  And my friend gave me $275 to go to New York, and I did — and I’m still here!

TP:    So you got here in ’72.

WALLACE:  Yes.  That’s when I just accidentally met Monty Alexander and got that gig.

TP:    I have that story, and the story of being scared to play with Wilbur Ware, Philly Joe Jones and Red Garland.

WALLACE:  I was scared to, because I figured, “I’m not ready to play with those guys.”  And like I said the other night, in retrospect, how much more easy could it be than THAT?  And those kind of guys were always so encouraging to young musicians.  That’s one thing I’ve been very lucky with through my whole career, is great musicians have always given me a chance and been encouraging.  I think it’s because great musicians, that’s just part of their nature, to hear what’s good about your playing, and I think near-great players or not-quite-great players, their inclination is to find what’s wrong with you.  I think that’s been pretty consistent through all my life.  Some of the most intimidating people in the business… I mean, Charles Mingus heard a tape of me playing and invited down to play with him, just without meeting me or anything.  That’s when Ricky Ford was in the band, and Jack Walrath, and Dannie and Walter Norris.  Practically all the really-truly great musicians I’ve met have been like that.  Great musicians have no time for jive, no time for guys who don’t do their homework and don’t play.  But I’ve always found them to be very encouraging.

TP:    One other thing that seems to mark you is, no matter how crazy you were, it always seems linked up with work.  The work ethic seems to be part of your thing from the very beginning.

WALLACE:  It was.  Literally from the very beginning.  I remember when I was in high school I’d get up at 6 in the morning to practice an hour before my parents got up.  I always practiced, even at the height of the ’60s. [LAUGHS] That’s always been there.  It’s a part of my life.  At the beginning I think it’s a discipline that great teachers instill in you, but then after a while it becomes a way of life.  I don’t time the number of hours I practice a day or anything, but when I’m conscious I’m thinking about music and I’m attracted to it, and I’m either playing my saxophone or playing the saxophone or listening to music.  It becomes a way of life.

TP:    Let me ask you a bit about the Rollins-Coltrane polarity.  I know you have other influences.  But in your generation, most people, even if they loved Sonny Rollins, were going in the Coltrane direction.  When I’m talking about your generation, who was in New York in ’72, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Steve Grossman…

WALLACE:  Those guys are my age.  But…

TP:    You sounded so different.  You just sounded very fresh.

WALLACE:  When I was a kid, like I told you, Lockjaw Davis was a big influence on me, and still is.  And all the guys who played with Count Basie.  Budd Johnson was a big influence on me.  I  don’t know if I told you, but I actually got to play with Budd before he died.  Frank Foster, Frank Wess, all those guys who played there… I listened to everything on all those Count Basie records.  And when you’re a kid, there’s a certain thing of what’s in fashion, and to us that was in fashion.

TP:    But to most people your age, that’s what was out of fashion.

WALLACE:  But see, I’m talking about 1960 in Chattanooga.  At that point we didn’t know about the band with Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams.  To us the Miles Davis band was Coltrane and Red Garland, and we’d heard that it had broken up, but… And we were very much into Count Basie and Woody Herman’s band, Sal Nistico… I listened to Sal a lot, and actually met him in those days when he came through town.  The point I was getting at is it was right after that, when I went to college, that I discovered Prez and Bird.  My teachers in high school kind of started introducing me to Charlie Parker’s movie, which I liked, but there was something that was a real hero-mentor thing about Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, and also Jaws… There was something about it being the tenor.  But then in college I got into Prez and all the Prez kind of players.  I remember my teacher was a huge Stan Getz fan, and I listened to Stan Getz a lot when I was in college.

TP:    He told you to go to Sonny Rollins for playing the blues, but he sounds like a duck, go to Stan Getz for tone…

WALLACE:  That was my high school teacher.  I’m talking about my saxophone teacher, who to his death tried to play like Stan Getz.  But that was just kind of a detour for me, because I was really into these other players.

But to get back to what you’re saying about when I came to New York: In my way, I was just as much into Coltrane as those guys were, but I wasn’t into imitating him.  The thing that I always imitated about Coltrane was his diligence to making his playing better and better, his dedication to the instrument, and also the fact that he kept exploring and changing — and that he didn’t sound like anybody else.  That was the message of Coltrane to me.

TP:    So the idea with you was the ethos you find with a lot of Black musicians in the ’40s and ’50s and before — finding your own sound.

WALLACE:  Exactly.  To me, the idea of playing like Coltrane was totally antithetical to Coltrane’s set of aesthetics.  And maybe I’m right and maybe I’m wrong, but for me, that’s the way I feel as an artist.  To me, Art is about self-expression, and past the learning stages it’s not about emulation.  The craft is about emulation, but the art isn’t.

TP:    Another thing, you seem more comfortable navigating racial tensions than a lot of your white peer group in terms of the musicians you were able to play with.  Just talking about hooking up with Monty Alexander and fitting right into that band… Do you attribute that in some way to being from the South…

WALLACE:  Well, I grew up playing with Black musicians, playing in Black clubs.  But in those days… You’ve got to remember, things were politically a lot different.  In those days, when I was a kid, crossing racial barriers was making a very strong and sometimes dangerous political statement.  Between the black and white musicians — and not only the musicians, but the people in the clubs — there was a real sense of fraternity.  Which I think goes all the way back through the history of jazz, when you look at it, up until the more recent times when the politics has gotten really, I think, stupid.  But in the days I was growing up, the sociological message with jazz was that all that separation was such bullshit.  Read anything about the history of jazz, and it’s about brotherhood and it’s about the human experience.  That’s the overbearing social evil that’s always stood in the way of jazz, and that jazz has always stood up to.  Look at Norman Granz.  And the great… This whole thing about…

TP:    That accepted, but I’m trying to get to something about your aesthetic.  Which seems to me very fundamentally different than your peer group at that time.  I think a lot of those guys were so obsessed with Coltrane, it was hard for them to get their individuality at an early age.

WALLACE:  Well, the same thing happened the generation before that of alto players who were obsessed with Bird.  But those guys seemed to find more of their own personality.  To me, Frank Strozier sounds nothing like Bird, Cannonball doesn’t sound like Bird to me — although they are heavily influenced by Bird.  I think the thing is that Coltrane’s playing was so technical that by the time those guys figured it out, they had lost the chance to find themselves.  And that’s very sad.  Except I think another thing about our whole generation is that I think there’s the potential for guys to find themselves later in life.  In the business, Jazz is a young man’s business, but as an art it’s not as much a young man’s art as it was in the earlier days, because in the earlier days the actual elements of the music were a lot more basic and there was more of an open, fertile field for new things.  Now I think the music has evolved to where there’s so much history and so many demands, I think there’s the potential for people finding themselves when they get older.   I hope!

TP:    I think that’s really a rule of thumb.  People in this generation start to sound good when they’re 40.

WALLACE:  I was playing with Ray Anderson — who I’ve known for thirty years and always loved his playing — on the television show a few weeks ago, and I hadn’t heard him for a few years.  Ray just keeps getting better and better and better.  That’s the other thing that I really loved about doing that TV show, is I got up close to a lot of my favorite musicians and got updated with them, and everybody is just getting better and better.  Look at Mulgrew.  Mulgrew’s growing by leaps and bounds, and    I think he’s really going to be the next great master piano player.

TP:    The other thing about the ’70s is the Avant Garde, free jazz, the AACM oriented thing where people were blending contemporary classical music and jazz.  You made a comment that when you got to New York, you were playing about as wild as you ever did, then listening to Ed Beach’s shows and hearing the absolute classic, purest examples of consonant jazz affected you in a profound way.

WALLACE:  Yeah, it really sobered me up and made me realize where I was coming from, and that I didn’t have enough of the foundation of that.  Since then it’s been a matter of trying to refine both polarities of… Like, the sound of my music that I really feel and hear is jazz.  It’s like that tradition.  But a lot of the notes that I play to get to that are out of the tradition of European composed music, 20th Century music.  And to varying degrees, that can be said of all the great jazz musicians.  There’s connections of Duke Ellington to European music, obviously.  Bix Beiderbecke, Charlie Parker.  Coltrane’s got it all over his playing.

TP:    Mingus had it, too.

WALLACE:  Right.  In a sense, that’s one thing that distinguishes jazz players from blues players.  Cornell West was talking about Jazz coming out of the Blues.  Well, some Jazz does come out of the Blues, but Coleman Hawkins doesn’t come out of the Blues.  There’s a lot of great jazz that comes out of that renaissance of music that was happening in the first half of the century.  Anyway, my music  kind of comes from all those things.  As I get older… My perception of music, and I think most artists’ perception of music is constantly in a state of change.  I think a guy like Teddy Wilson who stayed the same for all of his career is really an exception. That’s not a criticism, because I love Teddy Wilson.  But I just keep hearing it in a different perspective.  The Classical elements and the Jazz elements and the Blues elements, all those things, seem to constantly have a shifting degree of importance to me.  But most of those sides have always been there, and I keep trying to learn more about those.

TP:    What are some of your extra-musical interests in the ’70s?  Were you a reader?  A film goer?

WALLACE:  No, I was more of a reader.  I think I read just about all of the Faulkner novels, which is mostly because he was so great, but partly because I’m from the South, and living out of the South, you see that experience from a different point of view.  I remember reading Celine’s novels… Mose Allison turned me on to Celine.  I read a lot of different stuff.  I’ve always been very fond of the poet John Berryman.  And I always like reading about writers.  I used to get those “Paris Review” where they’d interview writers about their work habits.  I’ve always been very interested in how artists in all fields approach their craft.

TP:    Are you very analytical about your playing?

WALLACE:  When I’m practicing I really take it apart.  I have trouble listening to myself, like, after I’ve done something.  I fight it.  I’ve got a bunch of tapes and CDs and stuff of things that I’ve done that I’ve never listened to.

TP:    What’s your favorite record you’ve done?  Always the last one?

WALLACE:  [LAUGHS] It seems I’m stealing Duke’s cliche.  But these last two I’m very happy with.

TP:    I’d like you to analyze yourself, how you’d say your playing has changed from when you were first recording?  Then you had a sort of torrential style.  Stuff was kind of pouring out of you.  Now it’s become almost classic in form, you take a few choruses, say what you have to say, almost like a short story.  That was just one set; it might have been totally different in another.

WALLACE:  Well, I hope it would.  In fact, the night before you were there we played three sets, and I really liked that night, and the thing I liked about it was each set was totally different.  That’s the thing… I won’t say I try to do it, but when I’m happiest with my playing is when each set or each night has a totally different feel to it, and that it’s as musical and spontaneous as possible.  That’s really what I try to get at.

As far as how it’s changed over the years, I think my playing has mellowed out a bit over the years… I’m really not the right person to ask that, because I don’t analyze myself.  I don’t go back and listen to those old records.

TP:    I just wanted an impressionistic answer.  “Mellowed out” is fine.  You also were saying in the interview that you were interested in composing, but you started doing it for publishing purposes.

WALLACE:  Well, I actually started writing a bit in college…

TP:    You had a friend, Doug Davis, who introduced you to 20th Century theory…

WALLACE:  Right.  And he taught me a different way of writing tunes.  Then before I met Enja Records… That first record for Enja I produced myself and sold to them.  I think there were five originals on there, and those are all tunes I just wrote because I wanted to write them.  It wasn’t because of any pressure or any ulterior motive or anything.  Then when Matthias Wincklemann heard them and we started talking about subsequent albums, he said, “Look, you’ve got to write a lot of originals, because that’s where you’ll make your money.”  Also I like the idea of writing.  It’s a different challenge.  It’s a pressure when I’ve got a record date and I need to come up with them.  But at this point in my career, I only write tunes when I feel the inspiration, or as an outgrowth of a film project I get an idea.  Now I think I can say with complete integrity that I only write… I mean, I always wrote tunes from my heart, but right now I only do it when inspiration just hits me.  I really love playing standard tunes, and I have reasons for liking to play standard tunes, and there are so many of them that I want to record and play that I never can get to.  For that reason, I have no ambition to write any more, though writing just kind of seems to happen.

TP:    I’m always trying to find some sort of metaphor for the abstraction of music in some way.  As someone who’s involved in writing a lot of programmatic music, I wonder if you see the process of taking a solo or a composition as a narrative unto itself.

WALLACE:  I think I can explain that from my point of view real simply.  When I practice and when I compose, it’s a very self-conscious process, and it’s really… Particularly when I practice.  It’s like if you were doing something consciously to expand your vocabulary, to learn more about the English language to write.  Like, I’m learning more about the musical language to play.  And when I play, I don’t think about anything.  If I’m thinking about something when I’m playing, something is wrong.  And I just let those things… I try to provide the environment to let those things come out as naturally and as unconsciously as possible.  It’s a matter of what inspiration I get from the other musicians I’m playing with, and what happens in that moment.  So in that sense playing is very different from practicing, from any kind of preparation.  When I play a solo, I try to really think about the emotion of the tune that I’m playing if I’m thinking about anything.  All right, let’s try to really get inside of it.  It’s hard to express it verbally.  It’s a communion, is what it is.  It’s a little bit of a lofty term.  It’s a communion with myself, it’s a communion among the musicians, and it’s a communion by the musicians with the audience.  At the expense of being quite pretentious, it’s really like a spiritual or religious experience when it’s right.

TP:    There’s four people or five people in real time from whatever diverse backgrounds, dealing in the same language and saying something within it.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  And saying something together.  Saturday night during the last set, we played this blues I wrote for an earlier album which is called “At Lulu White’s.”  It’s a medium-tempo blues and it’s real simple.  There’s this little phrase in there that kind or reminds of something that Jaws and Johnny Griffin might have played together.  Two bars of melody that’s got my stamp on it, then there’s this answer.  Saturday night, Mulgrew and Peter and Alvin started playing that with me, and something happened.  And with those notes that were written out that were played… It’s not like an improvised experience; it was something about just playing the head.  To me it was the highlight of the weekend.  I don’t know what those guys were doing with that, but they took it to another place.  And that’s what I’m talking about.

[END OF SIDE A]

TP:    Let’s talk a little more career now.  We went into not that much detail on what you did in the ’70s.  But between gigging with Monty Alexander at the Riverboat and your first Enja record in ’78, talk a bit about the network of friendships and relationships… The first record was with Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore.  How did you meet them, let’s say?

WALLACE:  Okay.  I met Eddie Gomez when I was playing with Jay Clayton.  She had a little group with her husband and Larry Karrush(?); it was a trio, and they would have guest artists for these loft concerts.  Sometimes I was the guest artist and sometimes Eddie was the guest artist, and even one concert he played one half and I played the other half — but they didn’t let us play together.  Then one day we played a concert and we all played together.  And that’s another memory I’ll never forget, is the first note that Eddie Gomez played when I was playing with him.  It was just like “My God!”  Because I’d always heard him with Bill Evans, and didn’t realize he had this other side to his playing.  It was such a big, deep, down-the-middle of the pitch sound.  Eddie and I decided that we wanted to do some things together, and he and Elliott Zigmund and I played a couple of concerts together.

Then my girlfriend at the time, who I was living with, who later became my first wife, she was a painter, and a really brilliant artist… But anyway, I was always listening to Sonny Rollins, and she didn’t like Sonny Rollins.  She just hadn’t got it yet.  Because she was usually very astute about musicians.  One night Sonny was playing at the Gate, and I was playing with Eddie Gomez I think at Rashied Ali’s place, and I said, “You go hear Sonny Rollins and see what you think.”  I said, “I think you’ll get it.”  She went and she heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “If you get a chance to go backstage, tell him I said hello, say hello for me, tell him I’m sorry I didn’t come tonight,” or something like that.  So she came back home and her eyes were just lit up, and she says, “First of all, he’s incredible.  Now I get it.  I was totally wrong.”  And she says, “But there’s something else.  I found you a drummer.”  And she had met Eddie Moore.  Now, I had never heard of Eddie Moore.  So she hooked me up with Eddie.

Then there was a guy named Gus Statiras, who was making these low-budget jazz records, and he heard me playing in Chuck Israels’ band, and Jimmy Maxwell recommended that he record me.  So Gus said, “Put together any band that you want, any rhythm section you want, and  just tell me when you’re ready to record, and we’ll make a record.”  So I called Eddie Gomez and I called Eddie Moore, and we rehearsed a bit, and we played a couple of loft concerts or gallery concert kind of things, and played a couple of gallery concert kind of things, and I called the guy and I said, “I’m ready.”  He says, “Well, the money will be here in two weeks; let’s go on and record.”  I said, “No, when the money gets here, let’s record.  But I don’t want Eddie Gomez and Eddie Moore looking for me.”  So this went on for six months, and Glen Moore introduced me to David Baker, and David called Gus Statiras, and called me back and he said, “This isn’t going to happen,” then David put it together and made the first recording happen.  Then he sold it to Enja records.  So I owe David a great bit for getting me started.  Because I had no direction about a career.  I was just trying to naively learn how to play the saxophone.

TP:    Did the record sort of give you a direction?  You started doing about one a year.

WALLACE:  Well, it gave me I guess you’d say not a musical direction, but an opportunity, a palette to create from, and that was really wonderful, because there were absolutely no commercial restraints on it.  I just could make my own agenda.  The second one was “Live At The Public Theater” with Eddie and Danny Richmond.  So the next album that I made which was really a conscious decision was the first album I made with Tommy Flanagan.  I decided that I wanted to create… That’s when I made my first career choice.  I never thought about it until right now.  But I decided that I wanted to create a track record for myself of playing music that really had substance and credentials to it.  And Tommy Flanagan I just admired incredibly, so I wrote a series of original tunes based on very common standard song forms from bebop for that recording.  Then I made a record of Thelonious Monk tunes.  Thelonious Monk was always the guy I really wanted to play with.  I used to go hear him at the Vanguard . He was still living at the time…

TP:    It’s right before he retired, really.

WALLACE:  Right.  I used to hear Monk when he had… It wasn’t T.S.  It might have been Ben Riley, and it was Charlie Rouse playing tenor.  I heard him once with T.S. and Larry Ridley and Paul Jeffreys.

TP:    You said that listening to him kind of got you into your style.

WALLACE:  That’s right.  I used to hear him playing all these angular kind of things which I never really articulated enough or never really analyzed enough to say it’s this or it’s that.  But one day I was playing duets with this bassist Jack Six, who I’ve worked out a lot with, and we had been listening a lot to various 20th Century music.  I was thinking in terms of wider intervals for various reasons, and we were playing “Blue Monk” one day, and I just had this spontaneous idea of playing that chromatic descending figure in ascending minor ninths.  When I did it… I’ve got a tape somewhere of that rehearsal.  It was like, “Wait a minute; this makes the thing sound like something totally different.”  We just worked it out right there on the spot.  It created the illusion that the tone of the saxophone was actually bigger than it was.  I’d heard Sonny Rollins expand intervals a little bit in his solos.  Like, where other guys would play thirds, he might play thirds and fourths or fifths or something, and put a little bit different read on Bird’s language.  So this was kind of like leaping off in that direction, but a lot more radically.

But I think the thing that inspired me to that was the composers I’d been listening to — Elliott Carter, Charles Ives and a woodwind quintet piece that Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote that had a lot of stuff like that in it.  Pierre Boulez wrote a piece called “Plies a lan Plie(?)” that’s got these incredible intervallic things in the soprano, and I used to listen to this recording a lot, and listened to this lady who was singing these incredibly wide intervals but making the m very melodic.  Also, my composer friend Doug Davis wrote with a lot of expanded kind of melodies, and he also did it and does it in a very melodic way, which makes me realize that that can really be lyrical.  To me, to this day, the trick to that is to make it melodic, to make it where it’s not just an academic wide interval but to make it where it makes melodic sense.

TP:    Do you find yourself going in and out of that style?  Does that style ever become any sort of mannerist trap?

WALLACE:  Yeah, it does.  And I’ve…with probably meager results, I try to not let that happen.  It’s kind of become a part of my language, and it can be to its detriment, yes.

TP:    I want to ask you about Bradley’s.  It seems like you’ve drawn a lot of your inspiration from piano players.  It’s like the first part of your life you were drawing it from tenor saxophonists; in the second part, a lot of it has come from pianists.

WALLACE:  Absolutely.

TP:    To that end, it seems Bradley’s was seminal, apart from the hanging.

WALLACE:  Well, I wasn’t really that much in the hanging because I wasn’t that much in the clique.  I was a little bit shy, to be quite honest about it.  But I used to go in there a lot.  The obstacle at Bradley’s was to be able to get close enough to the piano to where you could hear it over the crowd.  Although if somebody like Tommy Flanagan or Hank Jones was in there, it got a lot quieter!   But there was this one place at the bar that I would always gravitate toward that was kind of close to the piano.

TP:    Front corner.

WALLACE:  You got it.  And I always used to lie for the times when Red Mitchell would be around.  He would usually come in and he would play, it seems like it was two weeks at a time, with Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Albert Dailey.  Those were my three favorites.  When those guys were playing, that was school.  And another guy who wasn’t a piano player who influenced me listening in those kind of situations — not at Bradley’s but in other joints — was Jim Hall.  Jim was playing a lot of duet gigs with bass players at the time, and I would go listen to him.  He played the tunes so clearly that that’s where I learned a lot of my repertoire, was listening to Jim.  Because the way he played the changes was so tasteful and so clear.  But I learned a lot from those guys.

I remember Albert Dailey would play, and one night he was playing “There Is No Greater Love,” which was one of those tunes everybody played at jam sessions, like “Oh great, here we’re going to play those changes again.”  A digression.  But an interesting thing, everybody played that tune in B-flat, but Sonny Rollins played it in E-flat, which was the same key that Billie Holiday sang it in.  If you listen to Sonny’s recording of it, maybe the only time he recorded it in the studio, and listen to Billie’s recording… I don’t know, but I’ll bet he was listening to it.  But anyway, I heard Albert… Everybody used to play it in jam sessions in the key of B-flat, and it became another one of those cliche tunes.  Then I heard Albert play it, and he did these harmonic substitutions on it.  I remember going out of there, and I was so excited, and got home, got my horn out and played through his changes to it.  Boy, all of a sudden, the tune made sense.  To this day I enjoy playing that tune because of that.  Albert also used to play these incredible cadenzas on the piano.  He was also an incredible rhythm section player.  He used to have a jam session thing in Folk City, and I went in and played with him, and it was this young bass player and drummer who I knew who didn’t have their sense of swing totally together yet, and he had those guys sounding like a major league rhythm section.

TP:    So we’re getting into the mid-’80s, about ’85, and you’re 37 years old or so, and you sign with Blue Note…

WALLACE:  Eddie Gomez introduced me to a manager, Christine Martin, who took me on.  She was hooked up with Blue Note, and she talked them into signing me.

TP:    Why did they want you to do southern themes?  Because you’re from the South?

WALLACE:  Well, record companies, for better or for worse, they need an angle.  And maybe they know what they’re doing.  That’s the subject of a whole interview.  I was working in Hollywood many years later with Bones Howe, who is a wonderful producer, and Bones said, “Let’s make a record together.  You tell me what you want to do, and then I’ll turn it into a concept to tell these people about it so they’ll give us the money to do it.”  He said, “That’s my job, is to make it one of these packages.”  Well, the southern thing is what got me in the door.  Actually, I kind of liked the idea at the time, because I’d been working with some gospel singers from Nashville on my last Enja record, and I was really kind of into that aspect of the roots at that moment.

TP:    Do you come from that type of church background in your family?

WALLACE:  Oh, no.  When I had to go, I went to this white church and the music was dreadful.  That was some pretty gruesome stuff.  But anyway, I found the idea of making a record…of going back and looking at the music that I played when I was a kid and all those… We were talking about the Black after-hours clubs, but I also played at a lot of dances, and I played a few times in roadhouses, and just to look at all of the spectrum of Southern music and then do it from a jazz musician’s point of view was a very attractive thing to me.  I enjoyed that.  Joel Dorn introduced me to Mac Rebennack.  I didn’t know Dr. John’s music at all, but he and I became fast friends, and I learned a lot of that music from him, from his world of music.

TP:    How did that add to your concept?  Did it give you a sense, say, of cutting to the chase and maybe sacrificing complexity for greater emotional impact and meaning?  Did that help you get towards film composing in some way?

WALLACE:  Well, in a very blatant way it did, because a film producer heard that album and basically dragged me into the business.

TP:    But in the pure world of aesthetics.

WALLACE:  In the pure world of aesthetics?  I don’t know if… It’s like if my next album had been an album of standards, the same thing would have probably happened in that world.  I think the real place that album took me was just really looking in more detail at the various aspects of the way that Blues approaches the music.  Because of the music on that record has some relationship to Blues, whether it… I think there’s a couple of Blues on there, but even things that aren’t Blues.  And putting me around musicians who are really great Blues players, like Bernard Purdie and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Bob Cranshaw, who I’d never recorded with although I’d played a couple of gigs with him — and particularly Mac.  When you’re playing with those guys, really in a non-verbal way it teaches you a lot about the thing that they’re really great at.  So I think that’s the thing I came away from it with.

TP:    Would you consider yourself a good blues player at that point?  You said Coleman Hawkins wasn’t coming out of the Blues particularly.  But were you coming out of that?

WALLACE:  Boy, somebody could read this and tear me apart for it.  But I think I come out of the Blues more than Coleman Hawkins does.  But as far as calling myself a great Blues player… Sonny Rollins and Lockjaw are great Blues players, Red Prysock is a great Blues player… I think the best way to put it is that my past experiences throughout my life have included quite a bit of Blues playing.  But up until that point that we’re talking about, I’d been doing less of it… When I got long-winded earlier and came down to one word and it was what you wanted… Over the course of these albums I’d been making, I’d been playing a lot of very challenging music.  This gave me the opportunity to play music that wasn’t so challenging as far as being difficult sets of chord changes and forms.  The only two tunes that were difficult on that album were “It’s True What They Say About Dixie” and “Tennessee Waltz,” where I really totally knew complex harmonies through those really mundane tunes.  But everything else is just two chords of the Blues on Twilight Time, but there was nothing really difficult in there.

TP:    What are the challenges of that?

WALLACE:  Of playing those simpler forms?  Is making music out of it.  But I think the thing that’s unique about it is, there’s not that much of a challenge to it.  You just relax and play.

TP:    So within four years, you’re writing the music for Bull Durham, which came out in ’89.

WALLACE:  I think it was ’88 that we did it.

TP:    So it’s a big change in a lot of ways.  Your lifestyle changes, because you get access to more money…

WALLACE:  Actually at that time, I didn’t get access to more money.  We got ripped really good.  It’s not uncommon.  But Mac and I went out and recorded the music that we did for Bull Durham, and we both fortunately just happened to be out that way.  We did it, then I came back home and resumed my career.  But that led to more work, so I wound up doing more movies.

TP:    I’d like to get some sort of precis of your film career, not so much a filmography as your concept of writing for films and how it evolved.

WALLACE:  As you were saying about piano players influencing my music, one of the things that I admire the most about great piano players is that in addition to being great soloists, they are also great accompanists.  Tommy Flanagan is the first name that comes to mind.  But Keith Jarrett is a great accompanist.  Herbie Hancock is a great accompanist.  There’s this thing of being able to tune in to what somebody else is doing and make one thing out of it.  I really admire that.  Whenever I would be writing for a film, I would think, “Well, what would Tommy Flanagan do?”  If you were going to translate that to whatever instruments I was writing for… Basically, it’s like what fits?  What enhances it?  The term “film composing” is very misleading, because it’s really film accompanying when it’s done right, to my mind.  Like, I threw myself into learning about the craft of writing, about writing for orchestras.  Also a big part of film composing is just the technical aspect of making it fit exactly with the picture, and that’s a whole craft which I had to learn.  It’s really about mathematics and numbers and timings.

TP:    Did you learn by yourself, by trial and error?

WALLACE:  Yeah, pretty much.  It was on-the-job training.  There was kind of an old pre-computer way of doing it, with… There’s this old book of numbers that the old-timers used to use, and somebody gave me one of those books, and I just got in there and started… It’s a lot of work, but it’s not higher math or anything.  But you have to translate it from frames-per-second into music, and into something that the musicians you’re working with understand.  One of the things that’s a part of what I have done for films is, sometimes I am writing for an orchestra, sometimes I am writing for a string quartet, and sometimes I am writing for musicians who can’t even read music.  And I have to be able to put those technical things in a language that those people can understand so that it fits with the picture.

TP:    I remember one thing you said during the episode 22. You wanted Billy and Steve Kroon and the other percussion player to get a rubato Elvin Jones feel, and you mentioned one particular recording of Elvin’s.  At any rate you used a verbal analogy that was absolutely clear.  It became a lingua franca between you and them.  That’s a fairly unorthodox process in film writing…

WALLACE:  Well, I’m a fairly unorthodox film writer.  I think that’s it right there.  The first real score that I did, where I was writing the whole film score, was Blaze.  I had Dr. John, Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, and one of the Dr. John’s drummers, and I had Elvis Presley’s guitar player, and a fiddler who played with Bill Monroe, and Greg Leisz, who at that time was playing dobro and steel guitar with k.d. Lang.  Most of those people, the bluegrass players particularly, don’t read any music.  I would go out to Byron Beuerlein’s(?) garage and teach these guys the song by rote, and then figure out a way to make it fit the picture, and then figure out a way to tell them how to make it fit the picture.  Another example is when we were doing Hoop Life.  I was bringing in these jazz musicians, and sometimes the music was note-for-note right there on the paper, and sometimes it would just be an emotional direction with some way of communicating how to make it fit the picture.  It’s a lot like being a jazz bandleader, and there the great role model is Duke Ellington.  I try to bring real personal musicians into my scores and find a way to let them express that in relation to the picture, and then I come out looking good.

TP:    I noticed in the things I saw that you use atonal string quartet things for the more psychologically dramatic points, action gets minor trumpet blues… It’s interesting in this period to hear this blues type thing.  You get so inured to hip–hop beats, particularly dealing with something like basketball.  Do different musical situations, idiomatic vernacular conventions have certain resonances for you that have evolved over the years?

WALLACE:  I think so.  You’re talking about the trumpet.  John d’Earth was just an invaluable guy on that.  I’ve known John since he was 19 years old, and he was fabulous then.  John has an incredible dramatic sense in his playing.  See, that’s another thing, is finding musicians who have that talent of being able to understand the relationship with narrative pictures and music.  Again, you were talking about what’s the job about.  It’s about distilling the music into the appropriate emotion — and when you’re writing music for movies or when you’re playing music for the movies.  John is really brilliant at that.  Just about everybody I used was.  I’m proud of the musicians that I chose, but I’m also very proud of how they were able to rise to the occasion.  Because everybody can’t do it.  There’s guys who are great virtuoso jazz musicians who just don’t get that.  It’s just not part of their way of thinking.

TP:    That’s what I was getting at as well when I was asking if you have a sense of the narrative in your playing, in your musical discourse, as it were.

WALLACE:  When I’m playing jazz?  Like I say, I try not…

TP:    So those are two different entities for you.

WALLACE:  No, not really.  Because when you’re preparing, all that stuff is there.  When I’m learning the tunes, I’m learning the words, I’m listening to the way that great people have interpreted it emotionally, and that’s all part of exactly what you’re talking about.  But when I actually do it, I don’t think about that.  It’s the Zoot Sims school of playing.  I try not to think of anything.

TP:    So the narrative is in the form.  It’s almost like you’re a channel for it.

WALLACE:  The narrative is in the preparation.  Like “Someone To Watch Over Me.”  I know what that tune is about.  Before I recorded it and before I played it, I listened intently to Frank Sinatra singing it, I listened to Gene Ammons playing it, I listened to every recording that I could find and every good one that I could find, and what emotional thing and what narrative thing that tells me about it.  But then when I play it, I just let that come out.  But when I’m writing for movies, it’s… I think the experience of writing for narratives in the movies carries over to when I play without thinking about it.  It has to.  Because when you’re playing music for movies, technique doesn’t mean anything.  The number of chords that you use, like anything that is part of the aesthetic of jazz, is out the window.  It’s all about expressing the emotions.  And that was one of the very fortunate lessons that I learned a lot about when I was out there.

TP:    Was Dr. John helpful with that, too?

WALLACE:  Absolutely.  That’s a lot of what he’s about.  I learned that mostly about him when he was producing my records, what he would… Sometimes the thing that I would think was the best part of what we were doing, he would say, “No, that’s extraneous.”  And not to say, you know, who’s right and who’s wrong, but to look at here’s a totally different point of view that’s incredibly valid.

Jimmy Rowles taught me a lot about that, because Jimmy’s a lot about what the song means.  He taught me a lot, when we would be playing a tune or working on a tune, about what that tune means — that narrative aspect.  And every good filmmaker is going to demand that.  They shouldn’t have to demand it.  But that’s what you’re there for, is to give them that… That’s all they care about.

TP:    So you were in L.A. really from only ’91 to ’96.

WALLACE:  Right.  Six or seven years.

TP:    A lot of people think you were off the scene for longer than that.  If you can give me a paragraph about the L.A. experience.

WALLACE:  I think what we just said is basically the L.A. experience.  It was about getting thrown into a craft that I had never done before, and giving myself a crash course in the rudiments of actually the craft, and learning on the job and trying to bring what I do to it, with what I do that’s different from what everyone else does.  The way I got my first real scoring job, for Blaze, was because there was nobody out there that really understood southern music.  I grew up around it.  I mean, I actually played in bluegrass bands for a short period of time when I was down South. I played with some GOOD guys.  So I knew what that was about.

TP:    You were right in the middle of bluegrass country, southeastern Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  And of course, I had those Blues experiences… I grew up in the South, and I actually grew up in the South almost in the period of the movie.  Then what I had learned from making those two records with Dr. John gave me a preparation for doing that music that the usual suspects out there didn’t have.  Otherwise, I would never have got the job.  They would have hired one of those guys to do it.

TP:    White Men Can’t Jump, what was that score like?

WALLACE:  That was a very frustrating job, because it started out with a really great idea, and a bunch of bureaucrats pretty much stepped on it, and by the time it was over, it was nothing like what it started out to be.  But with that said, it gave me the opportunity to work with Jon Hendricks, Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, three wonderful singers, and that made me start focusing on what singers bring to music, which I carry to my music.

TP:    Is that the last major film you did?

WALLACE:  I worked on several more.  The “Betty Boop” film was the biggest film I ever did, and we never finished it because of some sort of executive squabble that really had nothing to do with the project.  The rest of them were more minor… Well, I wouldn’t say more minor, because some were among the best things I was involved with.  Working with the animator Steve Moore was probably as gratifying an experience as I had out there, and working on Hoop Life was incredibly gratifying.

TP:    You started on Hoop Life May ’99.

WALLACE:  They called me up and wanted me to write the music, and I met with them in early May.  We had an incredibly fast deadline.  We had to do the first three hours of film in just a very few weeks.  All of a sudden I was just in the middle of it.  The first five or six weeks I think is the hardest I ever worked in my life.  I’ve never been so tired.  But they were filming very fast and we were working very fast, and I was also trying to get things organized, because this was the first score I’d recorded back here on the East Coast, so I had to get hooked up with a staff, with a studio, musicians, contractors, and all the people who go into doing this — setting up shop here to do that.  So it was fast and furious there for a few weeks.  Also, I didn’t know exactly what they were going to want or how happy they were going to be with my music until we got in the studio.  Then once we got in there and saw that we were really in tune with each other, from that point it was a lot of fun and it was more relaxed, and it… I never enjoyed a job more than that one, once we got through the first part.

TP:    Apart from the notion of bringing in personalities and the notion of improvising, was there any particular overriding musical themes that span the episodes?  Did you know the arc of the narrative of that whole series at the time you started…

WALLACE:  It was more about the characters.  Since I didn’t know what was coming up and where it was going to go, I wrote music that was about the characters.  The character of Marvin was the central character.  Marvin is an older basketball player, so he was more about the Blues than he was about Hip-Hop — like me!  Also, we had some problems with executives in Showtime who wanted a commercial Hip-Hop kind of product, so that drained a lot of energy right at the beginning.  But then we got that cooled out.  I actually found a happy result of that, because I have a good friend in Holland, the tenor player Hans Dulfer, who has had a lot of success with what I call a heavy metal kind of rhythm section.  What he does, he plays like Red Prysock over one of those kind of rhythm sections, and he does it beautifully, and he’s had huge hits in Japan and in Europe.  We’re buddies, and whenever I go over there we’re hanging out, and he’d given me some of his records.  So I started applying some of his stuff to those situations, which is a lot of fun.  I always tell him I’m America’s foremost Hans Dulfer imitator.  And I found this fellow named Stephen Callow(?) who is really brilliant at those kind of things.  So we would make tracks with Stephen, then we’d bring him in and have the jazz musicians play with him.  We did a little bit of that, and it was kind of fun, because we kind of did something different with it.

But the real body of the score was about these characters, and it was really about personal stories.  There was a romance with Marvin and Paula, so I had a romantic theme for that.  And Craig, the white player who was a womanizer, I had a thematic thing that I wrote for him.  That was an interesting challenge because we had an episode where the film had that pay-for-cable soft-porn kind of feeling to it, and I wanted to give it some music that didn’t sound like what you would expect, that had some class to it.  I had Steve Nelson and Mulgrew Miller play this theme that I wrote, and my model in mind for it was Milt Jackson and John Lewis.  I remember giving the music to Steve and saying, “Think Milt Jackson when you do this.”  I started walking across the studio, and by the time I got to the other side, he and Mulgrew were playing “The Night We Called It A Day,” and they had it nailed so beautifully and so convincingly that it was just chilling.  Then when we played my thing, they let that influence their own personality.  So that thematic part of it had a lot of harmonic sophistication to it.  Then there were things that more blues-like.  t
There were things where I would use the kind of intense, almost free kind of playing we were doing back in the ’70s, like, to play anchor and play kind of intense emotions.

[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE 2]

TP:    Before the albums in ’98, you did two in ’93, for AudioQuest and Enja.  You mentioned, as do many, that L.A. is a frustrating place to be because of the lack of a center, the lack of a scene, there’s a lot of great musicians there but not much to do.

WALLACE:  Not active.

TP:    Was that the main source of frustration for you?  That’s why you left?

WALLACE:  Yeah.  Because I was missing my music being the focal point of my life rather than writing film music.

TP:    Remuneratively that would be a risky decision.  Or not?

WALLACE:  Being a jazz musician!  How much more risky can you be than that?

TP:    Well, that’s what I mean.  You were doing film music and probably making more money in those three-four years than you’d made in your whole career as a musician, I would think…

WALLACE:  Probably.

TP:    You had a house on the Palisades and playing tennis and this and that.  So something in you doesn’t want to get too comfortable, obviously.

WALLACE:  Well, it’s like my purpose in my life!

TP:    Of course, here I am in this house looking out over this illusion of unspoiled territory in rural Connecticut.

WALLACE:  Well, that’s just the luck of Nature.  We could as easily be doing this in the apartment I had in Washington Heights in the ’80s.  But when I made the conscious decision to… When I found myself living there… I didn’t even quite move there; just all of a sudden I was there.  I decided to pursue that because I was really disgusted with the business of jazz.  Not with the music, but with the business.  My role model I think I told you the other day was Charlie Barnet.  I thought if I can make enough money out here doing this to where I can pay my musicians to where everybody feels good about the gig, and we can go out and not worry about any of that other stuff, and me not worrying about whether a record company likes me or whether my music is going to fit the concept that they want, and not worrying about pleasing any of those people, then it’s worth doing.  I did it for a few years, and I didn’t get it to the point that I wanted it.  Somewhere along the way I had to turn down a European tour because of a very big project that I got involved in, and I felt, well, that’s not fair to the promoters, it’s not fair to anybody, and so I’m not going to take any more tours until I can afford not to.  Then I reached a point about three years ago where just as a person I couldn’t go on any longer and not be back here and be playing.  I had met Anthony Wilson and Willie Jones and Danton Boller, and we’ve started playing.  I’ve finally met some young musicians who are really good and really serious about playing, and that took me over the edge of what already had been stewing inside of me for a long time.  We started playing at a club in Long Beach, and I was really feeling alive.  Then I found out that two of those guys were moving back here, and it was time for me to do it.  We came back, and then getting into Hoop Life was just a happy accident.

TP:    Well, you’d been here for two-three years.  What were you doing during those two years before Hoop Life?

WALLACE:  Practicing the saxophone, and I would occasionally go to Europe and play some gigs.

TP:    Any film or TV projects?

WALLACE:  No, I didn’t do any… I turned down a film that came along right before I made the record with Tommy Flanagan and the Gershwin album.  It was, “Okay, you can make this film and make some money or you can make your albums,” and it was an easy choice.  It was also during that period that I played on Anthony’s record.  That was exactly what I said  I was going to do when I came back, is I’m not going to turn down music for money.

TP:    You expressed your distaste for the realities of the jazz business as such.  But you were navigating with a certain aplomb something that makes the jazz business look like a Mom-and-Pop candy store.  You do seem to have a very pragmatic side.

WALLACE:  See, that’s something that I really learned from those people out there.  In the entertainment business, that’s the big league.  We’re not talking about Art… In the world of Art that’s the big league.  But in terms of the entertainment BUSINESS, jazz is… You could take the money that I wasted making White Men Can’t Jump and I could make ten great albums.  But I learned a lot, for lack of a better term, about show business out there.  A lot of positive things.  Now that I’m back concentrating on… Well, it seems like I’m doing both.  But now that I’m back dealing with the business of jazz and trying to perform on a regular basis and work with great musicians, the things that I learned out there are very helpful to me.  My disgust with the business at the end of the ’80s was not all “their fault.”  Part of it was because of things that I didn’t know about business and realities, whether I liked them or not, that I wasn’t really dealing with in the right way.  I think I could deal with them much better now.  Not to say that there wasn’t some stereotypical business stuff going on then.  But I think I know a lot more about dealing with it now, and I’m older.

TP:    That said, you’re older now.  Do you foresee yourself when you’re 60, that this is the track you want to be on?

WALLACE:  When I’m 70 I want to be playing!  What I want to do is, I want to make my music as good as it can be, whether I’m playing or whether I’m writing or whether what I’m doing is a combination of the two.  I did a lot of things when I was in California that were not what I would do as an artist, but they taught me a lot about the craft.  It was always a learning experience.  I could spend a lifetime out there learning the craft, but what I want to do now is take what I know about and make as good a music as I can make, whether that shows up on a movie screen or whether it shows up in an album or in a concert.

TP:    Do you think that you might start using some of the musical forms that you’re using in the films that are not vernacular jazz, as your recordings are… Do you think that might start seeing its way into…

WALLACE:  I think in a very subtle way, it already has.  But in a more concrete way, absolutely.  Just as we were saying earlier that my music is a part of those two worlds right from the very beginning, I think that what I… My experiences out there are going to enable me to take that to another level.  I mean, there are things that I learned about composition when I was out there that come out in my solos, that since I learned them, it’s, “oh, you can do that when you play the saxophone,” and all of a sudden it gives me a wider vocabulary.  But now I want to expand that into writing for albums in such a way that I’m taking some of the craft that I learned out there and bringing it to that.  Really the fact that it hasn’t happened yet is just a matter of circumstance.  I really wanted to make a couple of piano quartet albums before I did anything else, because that’s a very important part of the direction that I want to pursue.  Because I played with chordless instruments quite a bit up til the middle ’80s, and in the second half of the ’80s I was playing with guitar players a lot because of the nature of that music.  I really love the classic piano-bass-drums-and-saxophone quartet, and I’ve had an opportunity to record with a couple of the masters.  But had it not been for that, those album could have just as easily been things involving more writing, more an outgrowth of what I did out there.

See, I wrote for two films.  One was Betty Boop, which the film company didn’t finish, and I wrote four tunes for that which I really want to record.  They even have lyrics.  Then I wrote a score for another film, for this little film company, and they… How do I say this without getting myself in legal trouble.  They proved to be less than worthy of business people.  And I pulled my music out of the film, and I still own that music, and I want to record that.  Those two projects were written for a little bit larger jazz group.  Also, playing with… Many of the things we did on Hoop Life gave me ideas for albums that I would love to do, and a lot of it is very unconventional.  It’s as unconventional for jazz just as it is for film music.  I met musicians on that project who I want to record with.  So I’ve got several ideas of things I want to do.

[-30-]
TP:    Bennie Wallace, you were in Los Angeles for how long?

WALLACE:  Six or seven years I was out there.

TP:    You were doing a lot of film music.

WALLACE:  Right.  That’s the sole reason that I went out there.  Actually, my wife and I went out with a suitcase, and before we knew it, we had leased a house.  It just kind of happened.  It wasn’t a plan or anything.  God help us if it had of been.  I moved back to New York in June.

TP:    What’s your assessment of the scene in Los Angeles?  Cosigning Mr. Wilson here?

WALLACE:  Well, let me put it this way.  There’s a couple of places that are struggling to bring in really good music.  There’s a little place down in Long Beach and there’s two places in L.A.  But L.A. is just not set up for Jazz.  It’s really not set up for human habitation.  It’s just not a Jazz town.  I remember the second time I played there.  About five years ago I did a tour with my band of Europe, then we went and played a week in L.A. and a week in San Diego, and the week in L.A. was just awful.  The owner of the club was really nice, and they were trying to do something there.  But you felt like you were trying to play jazz in a Pentecostal church or something.  You just didn’t feel like you belonged there.

TP:    It’s a paradox that because of the studios so many talented musicians gravitate to L.A., and it’s the base for many others, but so few places for it to be expressed.

WALLACE:  The only positive thing I heard about L.A.: I heard a wonderful interview on the radio one time with Red Callender.  They said, “Why do so many musicians move to L.A.?”  He said, “There’s two reasons.  You don’t starve to death and you don’t freeze to death, but I can’t think of another one.”

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Bennie Wallace on WKCR, circa 1998:

TP:    I’ll bring Bennie Wallace into the conversation.  How did you encounter Anthony Wilson and this group of dynamic young musicians in Los Angeles?

WALLACE:  I first met Anthony on that gig I was telling you about where it felt so strange.  He came up and introduced himself, and we traded numbers and kind of became friends in Los Angeles.  Then just a couple of days before he did this recording session, he called me up and said he had a tune he wanted me to play on.  So he came over to the house and showed it to me, and I went in and recorded it with the band.  We set it up that we’d record my tune right after a break so we’d save time for the band, and I’d do a microphone check while they were taking a lunch break.  So during that time we played a tune with the rhythm section.  Actually I’d had my eye on Brad Mehldau, because I knew how brilliant he is.  So we played this tune to get the mike balanced, and I’m listening to Brad first, and I’m trying to give him these left turns to see if he’s listening, and he’s right behind me everywhere I went.  Then I started checking out the way these guys were playing.

I’d just scored a short movie for Jeff Goldblum, the first thing he directed.  Jeff calls me up about a week later after this date, and said, “I need a drummer for my gig on Thursday night” — he’s an amateur jazz piano player.  I said, “Call Willie Jones, because he’s really good; you’ll like him.”  He calls me up the next day and says the bass player can’t make it.  I said, “Well, call Danton Boller; they play well together.”  He calls me the next day and says, “I got Danton; I need a guitar player.”  So I told him Anthony.  So sure enough, he called two days later, and said, “My tenor player can’t make the first set.”  “All right, Jeff, I’ll come down and do it.”  So I went down and played, we played a two-hour set, and just had a ball.

That’s when I decided to book some gigs with the rhythm section.  So I called this club in Long Beach where I knew the owner, and he gave us some gigs.  So we played down there some.  Danton, Anthony and I did a lot of shedding together right before I left L.A.  Since then Danton and Willie have moved here, and if Anthony would come to his senses he would move here.

TP:    I’d like to give you a little bit of a third degree if you’re amenable to it.  You mentioned you’re from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

WALLACE:  Right.

TP:    How did Jazz come into your consciousness within your background?

WALLACE:  When I was about 14 years old, a fellow named Chet Hedgecoth came to my school as the band teacher.  He was a jazz musician and a big jazz fan, and he wanted to have a jazz band with the kids.  He started this band, and he used to leave his record collection around.  He wouldn’t loan us the records, but he’d let us steal them.  So we’s steal his records and trade them around.  That’s where I heard Sonny Rollins, and I said, “Wait a minute.”  It was my first real artistic experience, when I heard him play this Blues solo. That’s when I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

So I started playing in some of these after-hours joints that were going around in Chattanooga.

TP:    Was Chattanooga that kind of a town?

WALLACE:  What’s not known is that a lot of those towns had an after-hours scene.  It would be in the Black clubs, and it was totally illegal.  We would start at about the time the White clubs had to close, and we would play for most of the night.  I would worry my mother to death.

TP:    Were there some good musicians in Chattanooga?

WALLACE:  There were a few.  There was an excellent tenor player down there named Ed Lehman, and there was a piano player named Jimmy Hamilton who moved away and went to Detroit — and he taught Bobby Watson and Prince at his high school.  Then there was a very good bass player and piano player named Otis Hayes who went to L.A. and is still playing around.  Occasionally a good player would come through.  I remember I got into a jam session when I was still in high school with this tenor player named Hurricane Jackson.  I can’t remember his real name [Fred Jackson], but he had a couple of Blue Note records, and he was one of those walk-the-bar blues players.  Then I met a bass player down there named Stan Conover who had played and recorded with Ike Quebec and Eddie Davis, and grew up with Gene Ammons and Wilbur Ware in Chicago.  He and I became pretty tight, and I got to play with him a lot.  He played a lot like Wilbur Ware, and it was a great experience working with him.

TP:    So it sounds like you were playing a lot of Blues, or that sort of Blues-Bop crossover within that situation.

WALLACE:  Yeah.  I was really into Bebop and the more sophisticated end of the music, but you had to play… I love playing Blues, too; don’t get me wrong.  But I remember we had to play so many Blues things per set, so many Cannonball tunes or Jimmy Smith tunes, or the people would just go… They just didn’t want to hear it.

TP:    It sounds like you were already at a certain level in high school.  Were you playing music for a while before encountering this band teacher?

WALLACE:  Yeah, I was a clarinet player.  He knew that a clarinet was similar to a saxophone, and so he gave me a saxophone to play in this band.  But basically, I just fell in love with the music.  This guy Ed Lehman gave me a couple of Coltrane records, and between that and the Sonny Rollins record, that’s the first Jazz I really knew.  That’s pretty overwhelming.

TP:    But it seems to me that apart from being involved in the sophisticated harmonic end of Bebop, you got very involved in sound.

WALLACE:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Your sound really marks you.  And you’re one of the few players in today’s scene… You know the old cliche, hear a couple or three notes and you know it’s him.  You hear a couple of notes of Bennie Wallace, and you know it’s Bennie Wallace.  Who were some of the tenor players whose sounds really struck you.

WALLACE:  At that point in my life, when I first got into it, the guys whose sound really killed me was Sonny Rollins on the album with Dizzy Gillespie, Lockjaw (I listened to everything I could get by him), and Red Prysock.  I liked Stanley Turrentine, too.  But Red with Tiny Bradshaw and Jaws with Basie (or Jaws with anything) and Sonny, that was what started it.  From there I got into Hawk and Ben and Prez and all that stuff.

TP:    So blending the older players with the more contemporary or progressive or modernist styles has always been part of the way you’ve approached the saxophone.

WALLACE:  Well, see, I’ve always loved more traditional jazz.  There’s contemporary things that I like, but the thing I’ve always really loved is the tradition of the music.  Where I got kind of the outside edge of what I do with my playing, I was studying the clarinet when I was in school, and I started studying Bartok’s music.  I played this piece called the Contrasts for Clarinet and Piano and Violin.  My composer friend tells me I’m the only one in the world who relates this stuff to chord changes.  But I started looking at the way Bartok would write these lines, and thinking of how they’d fit against certain jazz chords, and it kind of opened up my mind, and from there I went to other composers.  But that’s what got me going in that direction.

TP:    What circumstances led you to being a professional jazz musician?  From Tennessee what were your next moves?

WALLACE:  Well, I went to college in Tennessee.  It was Vietnam time, so all good Americans went to college.  Then I convinced them that I was unfit for military duty, and headed for New York.

TP:    And then?

WALLACE:  Well, I got real lucky when I got here.  I came to New York with $275 and no place to stay.  I lucked into a loft.  A very nice artist named Bill Barrett gave me a place to stay.  But I couldn’t practice there, so I went up to Charles Cullen’s(?) and rented a studio for 10 bucks a week, which I paid from time to time.  After three weeks, Monty Alexander came in there one day, and I didn’t know him from Adam.  He says, “Do you want a gig?”  He got me in the union and got me this gig six nights a week, and the band had like Gene Wright and Frank Strozier and Cecil Bridgewater and Roland Prince, all these great players, and I kind of met people and made friends and kind of got on the scene a little bit.

TP:    That was about 1970?

WALLACE:  That was probably 1971.
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TP:    Bennie Wallace, I haven’t heard (not consciously anyway) the film scores you’ve done.  Is your writing related to your blowing type thing, or is it a different entity?

WALLACE:  Not a whole lot.  The first film I worked on was Bull Durham.  The guy heard one of the Blue Note records and had me write a thing, and Dr. John wrote some lyrics for it, and we recorded it together for an in title for that tune.  They used a couple of other things in that movie.  Then I did Blaze, and Mac played a lot on that, too, and it was a Southern kind of movie so it kind of drew on stuff I knew when I was a kid.  But with Hollywood movies, you get a problem, and you just try to figure out something in there you can do that will make it interesting.  Like, when I did White Men Can’t Jump I got Jon Hendricks and Bill Henderson and Sonny Craver, and we put together this street band of singers, which to me was the most fascinating thing about the movie.  They were supposed to give us a couple of weeks to record it, and they turned us loose for a couple of weeks.  So I’ve got all these tapes of this group, which they didn’t use, because some commercially minded idiot decided that they should make it a big Hip-Hop hit, which it wasn’t, and it went right down the tubes because they snubbed Black radio — like real brilliant minds up there.

You’ve just got to do guerilla warfare with those things most of the time.  But occasionally you get to do something that’s a lot of fun.  With Jeff Goldblum’s project, he wanted a Monk-oriented thing, so we did kind of a little homage to Monk for his thing.  Then I did a cartoon for Disney last summer for Steve Moore, a brilliant animator out there, and we did a Jazz score which Disney wasn’t used to at all.  Once they got used to it and realized they were stuck with it, I think they liked it.  I hope so.

TP:    Are you continuing this on the East Coast?  Has that curtailed these activities?

WALLACE:  Well, I really want to concentrate on the music that I’ve spent my life working on.  I have a wonderful lady in Los Angeles who is my agent, and she’s out there looking for work for me, but I don’t intend to live there again.  I’ve learned a lot from it.  I don’t mean to sound like I’m real negative about it.  I want to be honest.  But at the same time I learned a lot about orchestra writing and a lot about music in general just from the things I was exposed to, that I wouldn’t have been.  But I really want to write and play real music, music for music’s sake, that kind of non-popular music that I’ve always spent my life on.

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TP:    Bennie Wallace, the tenor saxophone is the most vocal of instrument, some way — maybe people who play other instruments think differently.  Is that an active component of the way you think about playing and conceive your sound on the saxophone?

WALLACE:  Sure.  There’s something about the saxophone, particularly the tenor saxophone, that’s just in and of itself.  I’ve heard the expression “vocal quality” many times.  But Henry Threadgill and I were talking off the mike a few minutes ago — Lockjaw Davis epitomizes it.  There are so beautiful colors that can come out of that instrument, and he got most of them.  I heard that when I was a kid, and there’s just a fascination with it.  You can tell so many different kinds of stories with that.  Like, you can express so many different kinds of emotions, like the warmest kind of thoughts in the world and the most angry kind of thoughts.

To me, all art is about emotional expression, and when I get inspired by something that someone in another art form has done, it’s the emotion that comes from it.  Anthony and I were listening to music yesterday, and I’ll confess, we listened to George Jones and Olivier Messiaen.  Now, that pretty much covers the spectrum.  But the thing that’s common to all great artists, to me, is that emotional expression, whether there’s any intellect to it at all or a lot of intellect.  That’s a mouthful, too!

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Filed under Bennie Wallace, DownBeat, Tenor Saxophone, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR

For Freddie Hubbard’s 75th Birth Anniversary, A DownBeat Piece From 2001

In 2001, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with the late Freddie Hubbard for a DownBeat profile. It took a bit of negotiating, but Freddie met me at the appointed hour, and spoke at length about his life and times. In this case, I have to depart from the  “raw and uncut” policy I’ve followed for the most part on the blog, and will decline to print the verbatim conversation—it’s a bit too real and profane, and he named names. But I was able to distil from it for print what I thought was a reasonably compelling first-person account, which I offer on the occasion of his 75th birth anniversary.

* * *

During his lengthy prime, Freddie Hubbard embodied excellence  in trumpet playing.  He had a big sound, dark and warm, almost operatic.  His breathtaking facility allowed him to play long, melodic lines of saxophonistic complexity; depending on the situation, he’d cover all the changes or navigate lucid paths through soundscapes comprising the most abstract shapes and timbres.  In every situation, Hubbard projected the persona of trumpeter-as-gladiator, an image of strength, force and self-assurance that told several generations of aspirants, “I’m Freddie Hubbard and you’re not.”

Hubbard blew out his upper lip in 1992, and has since lived through a hell-on-earth that might make Dante pause and reflect.  The recent recording “New Colors” [Hip Bop] — Hubbard on flugelhorn fronts the New Jazz Composers Octet through well-crafted David Weiss arrangements of seven choice Hubbard originals — makes the problem clear in the most poignant way.  Hubbard’s ideas sparkle, but he plays tentatively, with a palpable lack of confidence, and has trouble sustaining his sound for any duration.

At a conversation in the coffee shop of New York’s Mayflower Hotel last May, Hubbard retrospected candidly on his life and times.

* * *

My sister played trumpet, and I picked it up as a competitive thing. I followed her to Jordan Conservatory, and studied privately with Max Woodbury, who played first trumpet with the Indianapolis Symphony. I wanted to play like Rafael Mendez, able to triple-tongue and so on. My brother played piano just like Bud Powell. He had all the records, the Dial Charlie Parkers and so on, and he got me interested in this music. The record that really turned me around was Bird’s “Au Privave.”

Wes Montgomery lived two blocks from me, across the railroad tracks, and to get to the conservatory I had to pass by his house. I’d hear Wes and his brothers rehearsing, and one day I stopped and went in. At the time, everything I knew was reading, and it amazed me how they were making up the music — intricate arrangements, not jam stuff — as they went along. After that, I was at his house every day, and then Wes started inviting me to a Saturday jam session in Speedway City. The Montgomery brothers didn’t care about keys. At home I was practicing in F or B-flat, but at the jam session they’d play in E and A — the funny keys. Practicing in those keys opened me up, made me a little better than most of the cats.

My brother had the records by Mulligan and Chet Baker, and we played the solos that were transcribed in the books. That motivated me. Then I heard “Musings Of Miles,” with Philly Joe Jones, Oscar Pettiford and Red Garland. That record made me start skipping school. Miles’ style was melodic and simple, and I could hear it. Then I started listening to Fat Girl (Fats Navarro) and Dizzy, which was quite a contrast. Then Clifford Brown. Clifford was a conservatory type of cat, and I tried to play like him. I’d sit with James Spaulding, who lived up the street, and transcribe Clifford’s solos and play Charlie Parker’s tunes.

Indianapolis was a bebop town. It was a filler job for guys on their way to Chicago. Charlie Parker might come through, or James Moody, or Kenny Dorham. I invited a lot of musicians to my house, had my mother wash their clothes and and give them a good home-cooked meal. We had a nice house. My father worked hard in the foundries, and everybody was clothed and clean and had money. Whatever I wanted, my mother tried to get for me. She took me to the music store in downtown Indianapolis for a trumpet. I said, ‘Mama, we’ve got no money for this.’  She said, ‘No!’  She told the guy, ‘Let him take it home and practice on it.’  She was a very strong lady; they KNEW that they would eventually get their money.

While I was going to Jordan Conservatory, Spaulding and Larry Ridley and I formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked gigs all over town, all the weddings and concerts, until I got busted on suspicion of burglary. I was on a date with this white girl, a nice girl — we were just friends. I’d been aiming to be a teacher, but I had to leave school. Hearing Clifford’s music kept me going. It made me say, “Forget it. I can’t let this stop me. The music is forever.”

A friend named Lenny Benjamin, who was from the Bronx and wrote for the “Indianapolis Star,” told me he was going back to New York, and offered me a ride and a place to stay. I’ll never forget coming into the Bronx. It was July, and it was hot. It was like “The Blackboard Jungle.”  I’d never seen so many brothers and different people in the street.  For the first five days I didn’t come out of the house, I was so scared. I just looked out the window. I saw anything imaginable — robberies, cutups, shootups, a couple of attempted rapes.

After a while, I moved into a small pad Slide Hampton had in back of the Apollo Theater. I used to follow everyone backstage — James Brown, Wilson Pickett, even Moms Mabley! — and hang out. At the time Slide was working with Maynard Ferguson. I would watch him write out arrangements without a piano; it helped my reading. Then he got enough money to buy a house on Carlton Avenue in Brooklyn, and I moved there with him. The house was like a conservatory. Eric Dolphy was in there blowing on his horns; also [trumpeter] Hobart Dotson, and “Prophet” Jennings, a painter.

I was in California with Sonny Rollins when I first met Eric. He was working with Chico Hamilton. He sounded like Cannonball then; it surprised me in Brooklyn how much he changed his style. Maybe he wanted to play like that all the time; in California he invited me to his house, and the music was so weird his mother made him practice in the garage!  Eric could play some Funk and get deep down and play some Blues, but he didn’t want to. He really wanted to get into Ornette’s thing. He was a better musician than Ornette, but he didn’t have that swing that communicates. Some stuff he wrote sounded square, like kindergarten music. But the way he would play it!  He was such a jubilant, happy guy. I liked his spirit. A lot of people wouldn’t give Eric gigs. They thought he was trying to be weird on purpose.

Sonny had heard me at Turbo Village, at Reed and Halsey in Bedford Stuyvesant, where I started playing four nights a week shortly after I came here. Philly Joe Jones lived in Brooklyn; he’d come by the club to play, and he started inviting everyone to come listen to me. One night he brought Bud Powell to sit in; the next thing I know, Sonny was coming by. I stayed there about a year and a half, I met all the other musicians — Hank Mobley, Paul Chambers, Walter Davis. Those were the beboppers, and by me liking bebop so much, we hooked up.

Sonny called me right before he quit. He didn’t have a piano, and he was still playing songs like “Ee-Yah” real fast; he played “April In Paris,” which sounds weird without a piano, and I had to learn the chords. I learned so much about being on my own, playing by myself. Sonny’s way of playing is rhythmic. He would practice by going over and over his ideas, and he taught me how to do that — make it stronger. He brought my chops up. Coltrane’s concept was more linear. I’d take the subway to Trane’s house every day he was in town. I had a headache when I left there because he was practicing so much.

I thought trumpet players weren’t able to express themselves as freely as saxophone players. Playing like a saxophone is harder on the chops, but it opens you up; saxophone isn’t so brassy and doesn’t attack your ear. I figured if I could mix it up, it would make me sound different from Dizzy and Miles. I was expecting Newk and Coltrane to play Charlie Parker’s stuff, but they’d learned that, and they were studying books like Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales,” which Coltrane introduced me to. You can’t compare them. They had strength in different ways. But for some reason, I leaned more towards Sonny.

Philly Joe was the first one who hired me to work at Birdland. It was a Monday night session, and we were playing “Two Bass Hit.” I had copied Miles’ solo note-for-note. When I opened my eyes, I saw him sitting down at the front of the stage. I almost had a heart attack!  I knew he was thinking, “Who is this motherfucker playing my solo?”  Anyway, he saw me make up my own ideas, and right there in Birdland he told Alfred Lion to give me a contract. Sure enough the next day, Ike Quebec called me.

I’m the only one from VSOP who wrote a song for Miles — “One Of Another Kind.”  Miles was one of the strangest, most arrogant individuals, but so beautiful. I’ve never seen anything black that pretty. He glowed. That’s the way his sound was to me. He wouldn’t speak to me for a while, but after he heard me with Sonny, we became tight. I’d go by his house, and sometimes he’d let me in and sometimes he wouldn’t. I think he liked me in a funny, uncanny way, even though he started messing with me. Did you ever read that article in Downbeat, ‘Freddie Who?’  When I asked him about it, he’d say, “Do you believe everything you read?”  It was like he wanted to keep me at a distance. Which I can understand. I mean, the man’s been great so long, then comes along a young whippersnapper and all of a sudden he’s going to jump?

When Booker Little came to New York, we started hanging out. He was a nice, clean-cut cat with nothing bad to say about anyone. I’d met him at jam sessions in Chicago around 1956-57 when Spaulding and I would drive up from Indianapolis to sit in. After I heard him play, I said, “I’d better go in and practice before I mess with that.”  He was like a machine. I mean, he had a way of playing so FAST, man. I used to try to play out of the books with him, but I never could play those duets. I wasn’t that advanced!  We ended up working together around town with Slide Hampton’s Octet. Every night it was good to go to work because there was going to be a challenge. We’d try to kick each other’s behind, but we liked each other.

Same thing with Lee Morgan. Lee was ahead of both of us, because he had been with Dizzy, played with Coltrane and Clifford Brown. That boy could play. He had a bigger name, he was from Philadelphia, and he was cocky. I could relate to Lee better than Booker, because we had more of a street thing. Lee knew how to SWING; Booker never got to the swing like Lee. When you’re young and up-and-coming, people start comparing you, and there was a competitive thing between me, Booker and Lee at that time around New York. After a while I thought: Why am I beating my brains up trying to out-do Lee Morgan?  Let me work on MY thing. I took some of Sonny’s stuff, some of Trane’s stuff, put it into my style and made myself different.

I’d go to Birdland every night to hear Lee and Wayne Shorter with Art Blakey. They were blowing so hard that when Art asked me to join, I wondered if I was ready. Art took a lot of younger trumpeters out; the harder you played, the harder he played. Art taught me about uniformity, that the group must be presented as a GROUP. It was like old show business. And he made us all write something. He’s a Messenger, a Muslim, and he said, “Here’s what your message is.”  We’d rehearse a piece, he’d listen and then come up with a drum feel hipper than what you can think of. He knew dynamics from playing in all those big bands. The difference between Art and other drummers is that he could go down and come up. A lot of people think Art was crazy. I mean, he had his periods. But almost everybody I know that worked with that man became a leader. I’m still a Messenger.

One of my dreams was to play with Max Roach. Like I said, my main influence was Clifford Brown; I carried the records he made with Max anywhere I went. I wanted to play like Clifford Brown played with him, stuff like “Gertrude’s Bounce,” but I guess Max didn’t want to play no more of that. Max got me into a thing where I stopped liking white people. I’m basically a country cat, and I think everybody’s nice until they fuck with me. But going back to what had happened in Indiana, I was getting ready to explode!  I was hanging out with the Muslims, and I almost joined the Nation. Being with Max — reading the books he suggested, meeting people like Nina Simone and Maya Angelou at Abbey and Max’s place — gave me a consciousness. We were the guys who were not trying to say that we aren’t aware of what’s happening to us as a race. Max enlightened me as far as life. But I couldn’t work with him because he was too intense. Art could get intense and get loose. He was down to earth, and he knew all the same things; he’d been hit on the head, too, on racial stuff.

I did a lot of avant-garde stuff with Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers, Andrew Hill and guys like that. They were kind of militant, too, trying to voice their protest. There was a whole movement in the Village. I was a mainstream cat, trying to make some money and get famous. But when they talked to me, I went over to see what was going on. Me coming from Indiana, I knew what they were talking about, and it was a chance to voice my opinion. It was good musically, although I knew some of that stuff wouldn’t work — I don’t care how good they played it. There was no form. I had met Ornette and Cherry in California with Sonny Rollins, before they came to New York. I had no idea where they were going, but their music didn’t seem that avant-garde to me. I could hear melody and form. When Ornette did “Free Jazz,” I think that’s when he wanted to break out. Free. No bar lines, nothing set except what he and Cherry knew. I went to Ornette’s house to practice. The first thing he did when I came in was play all of Bird’s licks. And he had that Bird sound.

I put two tunes on “Breaking Point” in the style of Ornette, and one funk tune that got radio play. I’d brought Spaulding and Larry Ridley to New York, and recruited Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan, and we practiced for about six months until we went out. We went to this club in Cincinnati, and the place was packed. Like a dummy, I opened with a free thing. The people got up and started RUNNING, not even walking toward the exit. I said, “Is there a fire in here?”  I don’t think we got any money for the week. We kept that group together, but made the music more mainstream.

Atlantic was my funky period. That’s when a lot of people got confused with me. One minute I want to do one thing, then I want to jump over and do something else. Then Creed Taylor brought me to CTI. Creed got my recorded sound to my liking, made it stand out. I’ve had people who know nothing about jazz tell me how pretty and clear my sound is on ‘First Light.’  Creed made me more popular to the masses, but I got a lot of flack from the musicians because I jumped out and started thinking about making some money.

I got even more flack when I started making records at CBS. A couple of them sold, “Windjammer” and that stuff. I was at the Roxy, and playing venues in New York that no jazz cats ever played. The money went way up. I was getting ready to get a divorce from my first wife, and she was messing with me, coming to clubs. I decided to move to California. People said, “Man, Hubbard, don’t go out there. Ain’t no Jazz out there. You’ll get fat and die.”  I think it was a mistake. Ever since then, my playing went down. But I was doing movies, making record dates with Elton John, earning good money and living the way I wanted to live, up in Hollywood Hills with my new wife. We’re still together.

During the ’70s Herbie, Tony, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson and Chick Corea all moved to California. Everybody was trying to include Pop and Fusion. In California, everybody’s spread out; you get projects and see each other in the airport. In New York, you’re close, you can go to somebody’s house. When I went to California, it was party time, and I got hung up in that. Which was cool. I wanted to hang. But it had nothing do with maintaining embouchure and playing good.

In the ’80s, I had together whatever I was going to do. It had become a Freddie Hubbard sound. I was a free agent, sinking or swimming, doing a lot of singles, making dates where I’d play 16 bars and get 3500 bucks. I was making ten a week just myself. I was so busy recording in the studio that I wasn’t practicing as much as I should, and I started playing licks, not trying to come up with no new shit. I thought it was automatic, that I didn’t have to warm up, like when I was young. Though I started thinking like that, I was still trying to play all the high stuff and play real hard. By the late ’80s, I was going to Europe and Japan every month by myself for some all-star group or clinic. I was doing too many different things. I was switching styles so much, one time I woke up and said, “What am I going to play today?”  Keeping that schedule, plus going out to hang — it waxed me!

I saw it coming, but I decided I’d continue and make as much money I could. I should have stopped and got some rest, worked on some new ideas. But if you were getting $3500 for an hour’s work two or three times a week, what would you do?

I was playing so long and so hard that my chops got numb!  They didn’t vibrate. It got so bad that I didn’t think I would ever play again. Now I’m beginning to get the vibe back to want to play. I’m beginning to get a feel. Whenever I pick it up, I’ve got to get over the feeling aspect of it. Is it going to hurt like it did before?  It gets progressively better.

If you want to play like Freddie Hubbard, I don’t know what to tell you. It took me about ten years of hanging out with the people I hung out with, picking up certain ideas and putting it into my thing, to develop that style of playing. Young people will never get a chance to do that. They’re able to jump right in behind a certain style, but they weren’t here when the styles had to be developed. I used to have gigs with Maynard. I’d be trying to blow high notes, acting a fool, and luck up, and hit them!  How would a young cat know what I know from hanging out with Maynard?  Who you going to get to fuck with Maynard?  Clifford?  Miles?  Dizzy?  They were so strong!  Donald Byrd, Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell were right here, too. Woody Shaw went through it. He was so worried about me, he finally had to break down and say, “Fuck Freddie Hubbard; I’m going to go and do my thing.” I spent half my life trying to develop something to make it me.

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Filed under DownBeat, Freddie Hubbard, Interview, trumpet

For David Murray’s 57th Birthday, a Jazziz Article From 2007 and a DownBeat Blindfold Test From Ten Years Ago

David Murray turned 57 a few days ago; he’ll be in NYC next week to present his latest project, a big band collaboration with guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, a partner on various projects over the last 35 years. I’ve appended a feature piece that I wrote about Murray in 2008 for Jazziz, framed around the release of Banished, and also a Blindfold Test from the early ’00s.

* * *
“I’ve always been around poets,” said David Murray, in New York City in January to play the Knitting Factory with his quartet. “They bare their soul so much. When I get my hands on a good poem, I can see the music jumping off the page. The word is powerful.”

Recently arrived from his home in Paris, Murray was having a pre-gig dinner at Chez Josephine. The walls of the West 42nd Street bistro are festooned with photographs and memorabilia of Josephine Baker, the famous African-American dancer-chanteuse out of St. Louis, who sailed to Paris in 1925, at 18, and transformed herself into a staple of French popular culture. After the second world war, she adopted a dozen impoverished French orphans, one of them the proprietor, who reinforces a tone of soulful Francophilia, both with the menu — fried chicken and collard greens share pride of place with snails and bouillabaisse — and the entertainment, provided by an elderly black woman in her Sunday best singing to her own piano accompaniment and a woman of similar vintage blowing melodies and obbligatos on trumpet.

Murray and his pianist, Lafayette Gilchrist, sat near the piano, facing Valerie Malot, Murray’s wife and manager, and Jim West, who runs Justin Time Records, which recently issued Sacred Ground, Murray’s 10th release for the label. On Sacred Ground, Murray and his Black Saint Quartet stretch out on seven songs — on two, Cassandra Wilson sings lyrics by Ishmael Reed — that the leader wrote for the soundtrack of Banished. The PBS documentary film, which premiered in February, examines three towns in Georgia, Missouri, and Arkansas from which residents of African descent were forceably removed during the years after Reconstruction, and which remain lily-white today.

Banished is the most recently realized of an ambitious series of projects, all touching on Afro-diasporic themes, that Murray, 52, launched after he migrated from New York City to the City of Light in 1996 to join Malot, with whom he has two children. It follows Pushkin, a fully-staged quasi-opera, as yet unrecorded, on which Murray wrote a suite of songs to French, English, Creole, and Bantu translations of texts by the immortal Russian poet, himself the great-grandson of an Ethiopian prince. During his dozen years of self-imposed exile, Murray, among other things, has composed big band and string music for Cuban ensembles, and created repertoire for bands comprised of musicians from Guadeloupe (CreoleYonn-de, and Gwotet, Senegal (Fo Deuk Revue), and the Black American Church (Speaking in Tongues). Later that evening at the Knitting Factory, he intended to touch base with poet Amiri Baraka, the librettist of “Sisyphus Syndrome,” scheduled to open on May 19th, Malcolm X’s birthday, for which Murray had as yet completed only five of 15 songs. In two days, he would fly to Cuba, to audition a string ensemble to perform as-yet-to-be written arrangements for a proposed celebration of Nat “King” Cole with Cassandra Wilson.

After ordering the fried chicken, Murray took his glass of vin rouge to a quieter spot at the front of the bar. “Next week I’m going to be writing like crazy,” he said. “But the deadlines keep me motivated. It’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘If I want to get something finished, all I need is a deadline.’ But between Banished and Sisyphus, I have music to play with my quartet for the next two years.”

In the summer of 2006, Banished director Marco Williams, a Murray fan since the saxophonist’s New York glory days in the ’80s, contacted Malot about Murray’s availability and sent a two-hour rough cut to Paris. “He wasn’t quite sure if he wanted to use me, but I forced myself upon him,” Murray said. “I stopped everything else I was doing, didn’t wait for nobody to give me no money, started writing songs, and had Valerie tape them and send them to him over the Internet.”

“It was a challenging process,” Williams relates. “David is not someone who’s going to write notes that hit a certain cut. Frankly, I couldn’t tell whether the music was going to work or not. But I wanted a collaborator, not someone just to score the film. And it was completely evident that David got the movie, it meant something to him, and he wanted to express something. The music was so beautiful, so evocative. I told my editors, ‘We’ll just get all the stems, and cut down as needed.’”

“Basically, this is ethnic cleansing,” Murray elaborated. “You see that monster, you got to cut the head off. My way of trying to cut the head off was to send him tunes.”

Without much prodding, Murray revealed that the film’s particulars resonated with his own family’s experience.

“Most black people who know their family history talk about how they got ran off,” he said. “We don’t know the terms ‘banished’ or ‘ethnic cleansing.’ We say, ‘We got ran off.’ When a town decides it don’t need you no more, that’s just how it is.” Murray cited his maternal grandfather, George Hackett, a sharecropper who went to Midland, Texas, and struck oil. “They ran him off the property, but he managed to sell his oil rights, and moved to California,” he said. “He was very enterprising. He went north to the Bay Area, but that was too far. A black man at that time couldn’t do nothing with the sea. Then he remembered he’d seen cotton in Fresno. He knew cotton, so he turned around to go where the produce was. He bought a block in Fresno, called Hackett Flats. It still has that name, and I own property on that plot.”

By Murray’s account, his paternal grandfather, a Nebraskan, was less fortunate, leaving his wife six months pregnant with Murray’s father when he fell from a scaffold in a gusting wind. Born in 1925 and full-grown in 1940, David Murray, Sr. hopped a train from Nebraska to Los Angeles, started a body and fender shop near Central Avenue, sent for his mother and older brother, and at 17, lied about his age and joined the Navy. Decommissioned in 1946, he moved to the Bay Area, tried out for the San Francisco 49ers, even joined the circus as an acrobat, but then returned to body-and-fender work, raised his family, and played guitar at church in a band with his wife, sons, and two nephews. Murray played bongos, but for one evening’s gathering, having just received an alto saxophone from his junior high school band director, Phil Hardiman, he brought his new possession.

“I didn’t know jack-shit, just squeaked and squawked,” he says. “I probably sounded a little like I do now, but now I actually know what I’m doing. It was like, ‘Wow, that young Murray is exuberant. He’s got a lot of energy.’ Then a couple of weeks later, ‘He’s starting to learn the songs now. Oh, yeah!’ I knew the melodies because my mother was always playing them. You can say that I am an on-the-job training type of guy.”

Physically mature like his father during high school, Murray, who ran a 4.3 40-yard dash, starred as a football tailback, got good grades, and earned money playing music. “I was always a leader,” he said. “From 13, I was bringing money home to give to my dad. We won a youth contest to play all the Shakey’s pizza parlors in the Bay Area. We had a gig every weekend for three years. We’d do any song, like ‘A Taste of Honey,’ and I’d improvise, not even knowing that I was playing jazz. Then I began to learn it. I’d heard Sonny Rollins play a solo saxophone concert at the Greek Theater, and he was a mighty influence. That’s when I started playing tenor. Later I had a funk group called the Notations of Soul, one of the tight bands in town. We played all the dances and proms. We played a lot of James Brown, of course. They started calling me ‘Murray-O,’ after Maceo Parker.”

During Murray’s teens, post-bop titans like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw settled in the Bay Area, but Murray — who was slowing down Coleman Hawkins LPs to 16 r.p.m to analyze his solos — opted for the freedom principle, particularly the high-intensity post-Coltrane direction emblemized by Albert Ayler, himself a son of the sanctified church with early R&B experience. On a tip from trombonist Ray Anderson, whom he met during a successful audition for a horn section, Murray matriculated at the University of California-Claremont, and spent the next few years refining his craft with the likes of Arthur Blythe, Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Butch Morris, all regulars at informal sessions at the house of Stanley Crouch, then a playwright, poet, and professor on the Claremont faculty, and a  drummer under the sway of Sunny Murray.

In 1975, Murray moved to New York City, sharing a loft with Crouch over the Tin Palace, an ultra-hip bar on the Bowery.

“All my Dad said was, ‘Just go out there and make some money — you’ll get good,’” Murray said. He followed that advice, performing as a peer of such A-list outcat elders as Sunny Murray, Don Pullen, and Lester Bowie, as well as Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and Hamiett Bluiett, his future partners in the World Saxophone Quartet. In 1979, he assembled an octet, hiring the likes of Olu Dara, Anthony Davis, George Lewis, and Henry Threadgill. As the ’80s progressed he gigged frequently with two quartets, one a boisterous harmolodic unit with Blood Ulmer, the other a quartet with hardcore jazz masters like pianist John Hicks, bassists Fred Hopkins and Ray Drummond, and the iconic drummers Edward Blackwell and Andrew Cyrille. He also led ad hoc encounters with Randy Weston, Jack DeJohnette, and Milford Graves, and conceived elaborate homages to such heroes as Hawkins and Paul Gonsalves.

“I figured out that I could actually call the best musicians in the world and they’d show up, that I’d have one of the best bands just by hiring the best rhythm sections,” Murray said. “They taught me how to play. But I became a man in the World Saxophone Quartet. I’d be saying too much about myself if I said I was their equal when we began. But after five years, my sound started getting bigger. Finally, I became their contemporary — and they let me know it.”

Murray attracted a worldwide fan base through the lyric swagger and raw edge of his tonal personality. He drew criticism from many ’80s “young lions,” who attacked him as a poseur, suggesting that his predisposition to blast off to the outer partials stemmed less from an independent aesthetic decision than insufficient grounding in the tropes of tradition. As Crouch, who had championed Murray during the ’70s, joined forces with Wynton Marsalis to establish the Jazz at Lincoln Center juggernaut, Murray was unceremoniously deleted from the mainstream conversation. He recorded ever more prolifically, for multiple labels, and toured regularly with his various ensembles, but he was falling into a rut, and his rambunctious lifestyle was beginning to take a toll.

“I was troubled, and I needed to leave,” Murray recalls. “I had Paris in my sights.” For one thing, Paris was a magnet for African musicians. For another, Malot, who grew up in North Africa and whose sister’s husband, Klod Klavue, is a master Gwo-Ka drummer from Guadeloupe, understood — and through her booking and production experience was in a position to actualize — Murray’s desire “to get closer to my African roots and do a little personal research” on them by traveling to and performing with “groups of people in Senegal, in Ghana, in South Africa, in Cuba I’d met that I could relate to.”

“Jazz has the primal feeling of African drums and the sophistication of the city,” Murray says. “A primal force, like [drummer] Dudu Ndiaye Rose, brings very complex rhythms. I bring the harmonies and melodies. It  makes me want to play and sweat, like praising the Lord, going into a trance and getting back to roots. I’m trying to get to the core where the musics fuse.”

Today, Murray is less enamored with Paris than he once was. (“[The French] have an attitude that gets on your nerves.”) Nonetheless, Murray finds family life a sanctuary that provides space to think and focus, to work more systematically than the distractions of the New York City allowed.

“I used to put out five albums a year; now I put one out every year or 18 months,” he says. “I worked all the time and took pretty much any gig; now I take select gigs, maybe 120 concerts a year. I’m in Paris half the time, moving around the other half.  I’m not aligning myself with the avant-garde or the bebop, I’m just David Murray. I take my kids to school at 8:30, then I exercise, and I’m home at 9:30. I write until noon, and practice the rest of the day till 6, going through my books, trying to keep my chops up and my mind open. When a project comes up, I get very serious, and don’t study nobody else’s shit but mine. That will last for three months, and then there’s no project. Then I go back to my little everyday shit.”

He’s restless, though, and perhaps another journey is imminent.“One year I’m going to take my saxophone and go around the world myself,” he said. “I’ve got to do it soon, before I’m 55. What kind of music do people make in Tibet? What are people doing in India? I want to play with them.”

* * *

David Murray Blindfold Test:

1.    Charles Mingus, “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” (from “Live at Antibes,” Atlantic, 1960/1994), Mingus, bass, composer; Booker Ervin, tenor sax; Eric Dolphy, alto sax; Ted Curson, tp.; Dannie Richmond, d. (5 stars)

That’s Mingus.  “Better Get It In Your Soul.”  I just love… I heard this on the radio in Paris the other day.  We were in a car.  Everybody said, “Who’s that guy back there?”  I said, “That’s Mingus.  He’s pushing the band on.”  He’s saying all kind of stuff.  We need people like this guy.  We need more people like him.  Is the trumpet player Lonnie Hillyer?  [It’s not Lonnie Hillyer.]  Who’s that bald-headed guy, that trumpet player?  [Ted Curson.] That’s Ted!  I could be wrong, but I get the Clifford Jordan vibe from the tenor player. [No.] So it’s Ted Curson, Eric and…goddamn, who is it?  [Well, how did you like the saxophone player?] I loved him.  It wasn’t a long solo.  He was kind of breaking up there at the top, but I liked him.  And definitely it’s before the period when George came into the band.  It couldn’t have been him.  I’m trying to think of who was in that band, because I’ve never seen that band… [Should I tell you?] No, not yet.  Because I might come up with it.  [How would you describe his sound?] What’s the characteristic of his sound?  [Warm.  A little brittle at the top.  [Do you get a sense of where he’s from?  Could you locate him geographically by his sound?] Texas. [You got it.] Texas.  I’m just trying to think who the heck it is.  What’s that tenor player…Red Conner? [No.  But this guy was under Red Conner.] Under Red Conner. [He heard that when he was young.  People say he sounded very close to Red Conner.] That’s a very good hint.  Under Red Conner.  And this guy is still around. [No, he died.] Oh, boy.  Texas.  Who’s from Texas.  He sounds like a few different people to me.  That’s why I thought it might have been Clifford, because of the way he started that solo.  Because Clifford always had that restraint, then you’d wait for him to bust it, then he finally busts it at the end.  To me, that’s Clifford.  When I was playing with the Mingus All Star Big Band on that record we did in Paris, I was sitting between Clifford and…who’s that alto player, that guy who’s riding on the horse… He did like one of them slick tunes.  I can’t remember his name.  He teaches at University of San Francisco. [Not John Handy.] Handy.  I was sitting between Clifford and Handy.  Damn, this guy is dead, huh? [For many years.] From Texas.  The only guy he sounds like to me… [AFTER] Goddammit.  I love Booker.  Man, I love him.  I should have got that. {How about the Mingus band?  Did it have an impact on you?] I heard that a lot.  In fact, that… [Your octet reminds me of that sort of feeling.] Sure, of course.  Because I love Mingus’ music.  My son is named Mingus!  That kind of explains things, too.  Just having those three horns or however many horns he’s got, and me having five horns, you get a balance… You could go many ways, especially if you have at least five horns up there.  It could go so many different ways.  Mingus taught me that, how you could try to make a small or middle sized band sound sometimes like a big band, sometimes like a small group, have that flexibility.  Booker Ervin, what a beautiful player. [You have to give stars.] On a recording like this, it’s stood the test of time.  It’s got to be a 5.  Of course.

2.    Charles Lloyd, “Homage” (from “Voice In The Night,” ECM, 1998), Lloyd, tenor sax; John Abercrombie, guitar; Dave Holland, bass; Billy Higgins, drums. (4 stars)

He’s got that Trane thing happening.  Coltrane influenced a lot of people, man.  The guitar, that’s interesting.  I wasn’t expecting the guitar.  Man, there was like a budding genius… I forget his name.  He played tenor and guitar and piano.  Remember that guy?  He died. [Arthur Rhames.] Arthur Rhames. [It’s not him, though.] But he had Trane down, though.  Is tenor his only instrument? [He plays flute, soprano, but primarily tenor.] Wow.  [He was very well known thirty years ago.] Is he still alive? [He’s still alive.  This is a recent record.] This guy did an album of Billy Strayhorn… [Oh, Joe Henderson.  It’s not Joe.] It don’t sound like Joe. You got me on this Bay Area thing, though.  Who the hell was this… I got out of the Bay Area so fast.  As soon as I got out of high school, I was gone. [Should I tell you?] No, let me hear it out. [You might want to think about who the drummer is, too.] [MIMICKING THE STROKES] Sounds like Billy Higgins.  [It’s a studio band, though they did tour.] He just loved Coltrane, whoever the hell he is!  But everybody loved Coltrane when I was growing up. [Where does he sound like he’s from?] Is this guy really old? [Not really old? [Not really old.  The generation right before us.] Who’s this tenor player, he plays a lot in the studio… He had the same piano teacher who I studied with.  He’s from the Bay Area, but he wouldn’t be the next generation before us.  He would be 25 years before me.  But he doesn’t sound like him.  Tell me. [AFTER] Charles Lloyd!  That’s Charles.  He had that Trane thing down.  I love Charles Lloyd. I guess he was in the Bay Area, but I always thought he was hanging out in L.A.  Yeah, that’s the second time I’ve been stumped by Charles Lloyd.  They played a piece for me in Japan one time, and all I could think of was John Coltrane.  But that lets you know how well he absorbed the Coltrane legacy.  He doesn’t necessarily sound like Coltrane that much now.  But during that period he was certainly all over. [Well, that was the one piece on the album that was in Coltrane’s style.  How many stars?] I’d have to give it at least 4 stars, because Billy’s back there playing and boppin’, and I’ll leave off one for creativity perhaps.  How can I say it… Coltrane is such a large figure that… Can’t nobody do it like Coltrane.  I don’t care who you are.  That’s why, in my explorations of Coltrane, I tried to stay away from trying to sound like him, because that’s too easy.  All the notes are written somewhere.  When he studied Coltrane, I’m sure he absorbed it mostly from the records.  In old times, you could slow it down and put it on 16 and get the solo, and then speed it back up.  But now you’ve got all these Coltrane transcriptions.  I have a book over here with all of the different versions of “Giant Steps,” transcriptions of just “Giant Steps”…

3.    Michael Brecker, “Freedom of Expression” (from Milton Cardona, “Cambucha,” American Clave, 1999), Michael Brecker, ts; Milton Cardona, shekeres, doo-wop vocals; Sergio Cardona, percussion (bells). (3½ stars)

Doo-wop with like the shekere, an African kind of thing — that’s nice!  That’s creative.  I want the tenor player to play more.  When was the recording made? [’99.] My first reaction would be… I know it’s not James Carter.  What’s that guy?  Who are some of the new guys… Whoever it is, they like me.  I mean, I don’t know if they LIKE me, but they’re influenced by me. [That’s questionable.] Well, I hear it.  [This guy is older than us.] Well, then it is questionable. [And he was very prominent when you came to New York.  Although in a different area.  Do you know who the shekere player was?] He’s an old guy.  Chief Bey. It sounds like him on those shiko drums, that low drum.  Can you play it again for me? It was so sparse, I could never get a fluidity thing. [I think that was in the arrangement.] Probably so. [Because it wasn’t his arrangement.  He was playing someone else’s concept.  I’ll give you a hint.  This is a Kip Hanrahan project, and Milton Cardona is playing shekere.] Oh, Milton, yeah!  He has a strident kind of tone; maybe it’s the recording.  Is this guy alive? [Oh yeah.] [AFTER] I would have never got that.  I like Michael Brecker.  He can play his ass off.  But it’s not something that I listen to often. [I was playing that because you’ve done so many things with African rhythms.] It’s interesting.  I like the doo-wop part of it.  He always comes up with good ideas. [It was Milton Cardona’s project, and they used him.] I’ve never consciously listened to Michael other than I used to hear him play sometimes at Seventh Avenue South through the wall, because I used to live through the wall there.  I like him, but I would never have named him.  3½ stars.

4.    Von Freeman, “Solitude” (from “Never Let Me Go,” Steeplechase, 1992), Freeman, ts.; Jodie Christian, piano; Eddie DeHaas, bass; Wilbur Campbell, drums. (5 stars)

Ah, this is “Solitude.”  He has a nice touch.  Is he from Chicago? [Yes, he is.] Sounds like Von to me.  You know, that motherfucker is so bad.  I was in a bar… He plays at the Apartment Lounge I think every Tuesday night or whichever night of the week.  But whenever I’m there, it’s a must to go hear Von, because he’s one of the last great tenor players.  See, I have a problem in general with… Certain people’s sounds stick in your head, because it really is their own.  That’s probably why I got this one and didn’t get the others.  I hear parts of people in other people’s sounds, but I hear pure Von.  That’s him, man.  He’s great.  It’s just the way that people from Chicago play.  When you hear Johnny Griffin, there’s a certain kind of distinctiveness between the beat.  He’s going to fit as many notes, but it’s the way he lands that makes you know it’s him. [SINGS SUPERSONIC GRIFFIN PHRASE] Damn!  How’d you get all those notes in that couple of beats there.  Incredible.  I’ll give that 5 stars for being Von, for all of the things he’s done and all of the people he has influenced, including his son, who is also great.

5.    Charles Gayle, “Touchin’ on Trane, Part B” (from “Touchin’ on Trane,” FMP, 1991), Gayle, ts.; William Parker, bass; Rashied Ali, drums.

Sounds like Frank Wright.  Is it that guy who used to play with Cecil?  You know the guy who does those festivals… [William Parker.] Is that William?  [Yes, that’s William.] [AFTER RAISING HIS EYES] I keep making these facial expressions because… Maybe it’s David Ware or somebody.  I don’t know.  [Not David Ware.] I don’t want to be negative, but I… Let me not be negative. [Be constructive.] What’s that guy that used to be homeless? [Charles Gayle.  That’s who it is.] He wears a clown suit sometimes.  In Europe, Sunny Murray did a gig with him, and he said he was wearing a clown suit.  There’s a struggle that you can do when you play with your horn.  When it’s not really relaxed, it sounds like you’re fighting your horn or something like that.  That’s why I keep grimacing, is because I’m not hearing the fluidity.  But what I do hear, I like the mood of the piece.  I like what William Parker is doing.  Let me think about who the drummer is now.  It’s somebody I played with.  That’s Andrew, it sounds like. [No.] I don’t know. [It’s Rashied Ali.] Rashied, okay.  It’s hard to tell who’s playing when they play brushes.  He knows how to play the brushes.  I’ve got to give it 3 stars.

6.    Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge” (from “Ben Webster with Strings,” Verve, 1954/1995), Ben Webster, ts; Billy Strayhorn, piano, arr.) (5 stars)

That beautiful string arrangement that Billy did.  You know, I did a string arrangement kind of based on his string arrangements when I did the Ellington thing this past summer.  We had a big band, plus we had 20 strings with 2 harps.  So I kind of listened to what Billy had done with the arrangement he did for Ben. It’s beautiful, so I took that and tried to add to it.  I had 20 strings.  He only had a couple.  But it sounded like a lot of strings; it sounded great.  That’s the way the saxophone is supposed to be played.  There’s no struggle.  It’s like he’s having a conversation with you.  Now, in the Billy Strayhorn book, he said that Ben was kind of proud of Billy, and he kind of took care of him like a little… I can see that happening, because he LOVED him, because he knew how great he was.  They appreciated one another for their music.  That’s what I aspire to be. [LAUGHS] I want to be just like that when I grow up.  Shit, man, this is pure music.  And it’s not the genre even.  No, it’s not the genre.  Like, the last thing… Well, I don’t want to go back.  They could have been playing anything.  But it’s just the way that you hold that horn, the way you use it as your form of expression, it’s almost like you love it… Do you love it, or is it just a piece, a thing that you use to spit through?  Do you love it?  He loves that horn!  Shit.  I don’t know if you were around when I did that string concert at the Public Theater years ago.  I did all ballads.  I think I had 14 strings.  That was one of my most successful concerts, because people were actually weeping in the concert.  I wasn’t weeping, but I had a little funny reaction, and then a couple of years after that this family comes up to me on the street and there’s this little baby, and they said, “You know, we have to thank you, because our son was conceived that night you played this concert; it made us really fall in love.”  I did my job!  To me that was the highest compliment that anybody ever paid.  And Ben and Bird with Strings… Every saxophone player has to realize his potential in playing in front of the strings.  I think it’s a wonderful. [So I don’t need to ask you how many stars for that.] Oh, man, if they could give more stars, they could give him the tip-top.  That one stood the test of time, jack!

7.    Eric Alexander, “Straight Street” (from “Solid,” Milestone, 1998), Alexander, ts; John Hicks, piano; George Mraz, bass; Idris Muhammad, drums. (4 stars)

This is a classic recording.  This is the one, right?  Oh, it’s a remake of it!  Oh, they got my piano player.  That’s John Hicks, for sure.  It sounds like Ray, too.  Wait.  No, that’s not Ray.  Hell, no.  He’d kill me!  Let me put my thinking cap on.  I like this one. [LAUGHS] Is that Curtis Lundy? [No.] I like his sound.  He sounds a younger guy, but with that old sound.  Whoever it is, he’s got it down.  I can’t say I know who he is.  I could take a wild guess, though.  When was this recording made? [’98.] Who are some younger tenor players?  I don’t really know who’s around. [AFTER] He sounds really good.  He sounds excellent.  I’d give it 4 stars, because it’s a remake of a legend.  I’d give it 5 if it were the real thing.  But John Hicks gets 5 stars for just being John Hicks, man!

8.    Sonny Rollins, “Cabin In The Sky” (from, “Plus 3,” Milestone, 1995),  Rollins, ts; Stephen Scott, piano; Bob Cranshaw, el. bass; Jack deJohnette, drums. 3½ stars.

I know this guy.  I don’t want to be stupid too soon.  I think I have a good idea already who it is.  It’s not who I thought it was at first.  I don’t know this guy’s name, but he is a contemporary of mine, this guy… No? [He’s older than you by a fair piece.] Is he living? [He is living.] It’s Sonny Rollins when he was going through his teeth problems.  That’s  what it sounds like.  He’s going through his teeth problem.  Because it ain’t CLASSIC Sonny.  Ah, how can I say this without being negative to Sonny.  It just sounds like he’s dealing with serious dental problems.  Let’s talk about it.  Let me say something different.  Sonny Rollins, but… Let’s just say it’s not the period of Sonny Rollins that I really, really am fond of.  I think Sonny Rollins… Sonny is such a… That’s why I was grimacing during that.  Because when you play tenor, when it’s a struggle to play certain notes for somebody that great, you know there’s something physical going on.  You can tell.  Because some of the notes that he was struggling with, somebody with regular dental work wouldn’t have.  So it probably was during the period of time when something like that was happening.  Well, I loved it!  It’s Sonny Rollins.  I love Sonny Rollins.  I mean, I love him for being Sonny Rollins.  That’s not one of his best recordings, I would say.  3½ stars.  He’s going to kill me.

9.    Sam Rivers/Tony Hymas, “Glimpse” (from “Winter Garden,” NATO, 1998), Rivers, tenor sax; Hymas, piano. (5 stars)

Whoever this is, they have a very nice sound.  You know, the saxophone is the kind of instrument, when it buzzes, you know you’ve got something.  When you don’t hear that buzz, you get a flat sound.  It’s too straight.  This horn has got a buzz.  It’s alive.  He knows his horn.  Now let me figure out who it is.  Is he from this continent? [Yes.] I like the tune.  It’s beautiful. [The saxophone player wrote it.] It’s great.  He’s a good writer.  It’s got that real international kind of sound.  I’m not quite sure who it is. [He was also very prominent in your scene when you got to New York, and he was already in it.] Oh.  In my scene.  [Or parallel.  And he’s old enough to be your father.] Okay. [And you’ll kick yourself if you don’t know who it is.] I will kick myself.  Who’s the brother who teaches in upstate New York… [Not him.] Play me a little more.  I don’t want to be kicked by myself.  I love it.  Whoever it is, I really dig it. [PLAY “Impulse”] My father is almost 75 years. [That’s how old he was when he made this.] Incredible.  Is it Sam Rivers?  He’s the only guy it could be!  Sam Rivers is such a great person.  He gave me my first gig in New York.  It sounded like somebody who just knew… He’s probably forgotten more shit than most people know.  It sounded like somebody like that.  It really helped this other tune.  I may have never gotten it with just that ballad.  That’s a beautiful song.  You know when you hear a song and it sounds like it doesn’t matter what year it was made… [It’s like Classical music.] Yeah, it’s like Classical music.  It’s always going on.  You could sing it in a different language, and it will still work. [Why did you ask if the saxophone player was from this continent?] Because at first it sounded like somebody from Brazil, like what somebody Ivo Perelman might do.  I like Ivo.  But then as it went on, it sounded like somebody more mature who has been through generations.  And when you said he was old enough to be my father and you put on the faster song, I could hear Sam’s rhythms.  Rhythmically, Sam has a different kind of expression because he’s been through so much, I guess.  His rhythm is not like Sonny Rollins, where it’s like BOM-BOM, right on your head, the way he attacks.  He’s snake-like; he kind of slides through.  But he’s got that sound.  God bless Sam Rivers, man.  I hope he lives to be 100.  I’d give that tune 5 stars.

10.    David Sanchez, “Lamento Borincano” (from “Obsesión,” Columbia, 1998), Sanchez, tenor sax; Edsel Gomez, piano; John Benitez, bass; Adam Cruz, drums; Richie flores, Pernell Saturnino, percussion.  (4 stars).

Is it a recent recording? [Yes.] Everybody loves Coltrane, man!  He’s probably the most quoted tenor player since Bird, I guess.  I take it these are Spanish musicians. [Hispanic-American, U.S.-based.  But mostly from Puerto Rico.] I’ll just take a guess that it’s David Sanchez or somebody like that.  One time this guy had a funny idea to do a Three Davids —  David Murray, David Sanchez and  Fathead! It was funny, man.  People run out of themes sometimes.  So we did this thing.  And it was nice.  We did it with an organ player.  I kind of remember his sound from there.  I kind of like David Sanchez.  He’s still young.  He’s got a ways to go.  But he’s going to be one of the great ones.  I think in about two years he’ll be where he wants to be.  It takes time to be… You’re thrown in there, and there’s this big fray in New York, and they expect you to be great already.  And I’m sorry, it just doesn’t… I didn’t get my own sound til I was about 28, and I feel like I got it early. [So you feel you didn’t get your own sound until about ’83-’84.] Something like that.  I had to absorb all this stuff around me, people saying this about me, they’re writing about, “Oh yeah, you’re the next blah-blah-blah.”  What the hell, I don’t know, man.  I’m trying to play my horn.  So David Sanchez, he’s getting a lot of recognition, but at the same time, this is a young man.  Give the guy a chance to develop.  He’ll be good.  I’ll give it 4 stars.

11.    Paul Gonsalves/Sonny Stitt, “Perdido” (from “Salt and Pepper,” Impulse, 1963/1997) Gonsalves, Sonny Stitt ts; Hank Jones, p.; Milt Hinton, bass; Osie Johnson, drums. (4½ stars)

It’s two tenor players.  Paul sounds different than before he really got plastered! [You think this is before or after?] This is before.  When he gets really plastered… Here I am going negative again.  But before he’s really libated…he slips and slides even more when he… Before that, he sounds more like a normal tenor player.  You know what I’m saying?  when he plays his little figures.  But when he gets plastered, he sounds like he’s in his own zone.  And I hate to say it for the youngsters, but the guy sounds good when he’s plastered! [LAUGHS] I don’t know!  It’s like no abandon, just pure… I love Paul.  He’s my favorite tenor player, man.  This is definitely pre.  He seems pretty sober here. [Then you have to figure out the other one.] Let me see who’s in the right here.  Paul is in the left.  This is like a separate recording from an Ellington project.  This is not an Ellington project at all.  They both sound wonderful.  That’s all I know.  He’s not an Ellington tenor player. [No.] Not at all. [Not at all.] This is from a whole nother zone. [He had his career as a hired gun.] Okay!  With the correctness of the way he plays, it sounds like it could only be Sonny Stitt.  What comes to mind is the Sonny Rollins-Sonny Stitt thing with Dizzy where they both play their ass off, then Dizzy ends up smokin’ them both!  You’re not going to find two better tenor players on the planet anywhere than Paul Gonsalves and Sonny Stitt. [Any idea who the piano player is?] Let me hone in.  Is he alive? {The piano player is alive.  He’s an elderly guy now, but this was 40 years ago.] [AFTER] I couldn’t really get his left hand, but I should have figured that was Hank Jones.  I played with Hank once in a tenor battle in 1978 at the Northsea Jazz Festival in the Hague.  It was Archie Shepp, Lockjaw, Fathead.  Hank Mobley got sick and I took his place.  Illinois Jacquet was running the session.  Hank Jones was on piano and Max Roach on drums and Wilbur Little on bass.  That’s when everybody in Europe recognized me and said I hung pretty good with the old guys.  So that was my moment.  I’d say 4½ stars for this, only because I’ve heard Paul play better, I guess maybe for the reasons I mentioned!  I don’t know why.  But it passed the test of time again.

12.    Branford Marsalis, “Attainment” (from Jeff Watts, “Citizen Tain,” Columbia, 1998), Marsalis, ts; Kenny Kirkland, piano; Eric Revis, bass; Watts, drums. (5 stars)

Is it one drummer?  I like the tone of the sax player.  I’m waiting for them to get into it.  It’s nice how they got into it finally, like a lilt kind of.  [4 minutes.] I’m not quite sure who this is, but the spirituality of it is something that I can sort of relate to.  Is this a young player, or an older one? [A little younger than you; not too much.] Sounds good, though. [He’s someone you have encountered over the years.  You’ve had a dialogue.] A word dialogue? [I just mean a dialogue.] Oh, a dialogue.  That sounds good to me.  You mean we played together. [I’m just going to say you had a dialogue!] Okay, man.  I’m trying to figure out… It sounds familiar.  Somebody that I know.  Geez… It’s not Chico.  [Okay, you played together.] I’m trying to think what tenor players I played with.  A tenor player that I played with and is younger than me.  [Not that much younger, but definitely affiliated with a different generation than you.] Branford Marsalis.  He sounds good, man.  The spirituality comes through.  It sounds good! [So you can probably figure who the other guys were.] I guess with his band perhaps.  Jeff Tain and the brother who just passed away, Kenny Kirkland.  It was a very nice piece.  I’m impressed.  We encounter one another in Europe all the time.  He’s playing a lot of soprano.  He don’t play tenor that much on the gig.  But I admire him.  He’s a great player.  I’ll give that 5 stars because the spirituality is there, and you feel something. [That was Tain’s record, not Branford..] Tain did a good record, then.  God bless him.

13.    Joe Lovano, “Fort Worth” (from “From The Soul,” Blue Note, 1991), Lovano, tenor sax; Dave Holland, bass; Ed Blackwell, drums. (4 stars)

It kind of sounds like Dewey. [Dewey’s influenced an aspect of his playing.] Dewey’s son. [No, it’s not Joshua.] Okay.  He definitely likes Dewey.  But he sounds good.  I like the composition… [Who’s the drummer?] I wasn’t even listening for that.  Give me a few more minutes, a little glimpse of the drummer.  I’ll play you the one before, a duo. [PLAY “Modern Man.”] It’s definitely not Dewey now.  He sounds completely different now to me. Is it a recent recording? [1991] I think I need a clue. [The saxophone player has become very prominent in this decade.  This was a sort of breakthrough recording for him.  And he’s a year or two older than you.] Oh, that’s great.  Gee.  A year or two older than me.  It’s not Don Braden or someone like that.  I don’t know who it is. [AFTER] Oh, I know Joe.  I should have known that.  I don’t really know his sound.  He sounds good, though.  I’ve seen him over in Holland; we were hanging out in Amsterdam.  I don’t really know his sound, so I probably would have never guessed that. [Who’s the drummer?  Do you know?] [AFTER] That’s Blackwell?  No shit.  4 stars.

14.    Ornette Coleman, “Feet Music” (“In All Languages,” Verve, 1987/1997).  Coleman, tenor sax; Don Cherry, tp.; Charlie Haden, b.; Billy Higgins, drums.

It sounds like they’re out of the Ornette Coleman school.  Which is a great school.  Sounds like Dewey to me.  Is that Dewey? [No.] That’s Ornette on tenor!  No wonder it’s out of the Ornette school! [LAUGHS] There’s one note Ornette always play when he plays tenor.  He plays like he’s playing alto, and it just hits that note!  I think he can play any saxophone.  But I’d like to hear him play baritone one day.  He probably could play the shit out of that, too.  People have to recognize that there are… If we’re lucky enough while we’re here, we’ll come across maybe 3 or 4 geniuses whose music really is something that has a lot of influence, and Ornette is one of them.  There aren’t many of them out here now left that their concept was maybe the strongest thing… The concept supersedes even the playing itself.  That’s what brings his genius into it.  That’s why you can hear his… When he did this thing at Lincoln Center, I heard about it.  I heard it was wonderful.  I want to hear some recordings from it.  But those kinds of things Ornette is brilliant on.  We need to hear him more.  He gets 5 stars for all the abuse they’ve given him over the years

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It’s Sonny Rollins’ 81st Birthday: Two Interviews From 2000

In November of 2000, I had the privilege of being assigned to write a lengthy cover feature for DownBeat about Sonny Rollins, whose new recording at the time was This Is What I Do, which happens to be one of my favorite studio recordings by the maestro. Next week, Rollins — who turns 81 today — will issue volume two of his Road Shows series,  this one documenting, among other things, four tracks from his 2010 Beacon Theater concert that included encounters with Ornette Coleman, Jim Hall, and Roy Hargrove. Rollins will launch his next series of concerts in a fortnight, beginning with three engagements in California between September 18th and September 25th; he’ll resume on October 25th, launching an 8-concert European tour that lasts until just before Thanksgiving. Below, I’ve posted the verbatim interviews that comprised the DownBeat piece.

* * *

Sonny Rollins (11-2-00):

When did you first start writing music?  You have “Mambo Bounce” on your first record.  Did you start writing then, or before that?

Let’s see… I started writing when I started getting better at playing.  I started writing pretty early on.  I would write melodies that I would use in my playing in little band we had and all of that.  So I’ve been writing for quite a while.  When I was really a kid, before I got known playing professionally, I was always writing actually.

So when you were 14-15-16, getting proficiency.

Yes.

Did any of that material surface in your early recordings?

Let’s see… Probably not the early stuff.  Not the early stuff I was doing.  I think my proficiency, such as it was, grew along with my playing proficiency, so that they sort of coalesced and came together.  But I did a lot of what I guess I would call amateur things that I never used again when I got into playing more on a professional basis.

Did you start playing professionally right after high school, or was it during high school?

Actually, I remember the first job that I ever had where I got paid… We were living on Edgecombe Avenue and 155th Street, and there’s a viaduct that goes across into the Bronx.  There used to be a shuttle train there.  Anyway, I played on Jerome Avenue in a dance hall.  This was my first job, and I remember playing, after I came back, and my mother was waiting for me way up at the other end of 155th Street, on the Manhattan side sort of.  They were both in Manhattan, but it was sort of almost halfway, closer to the McCombs Dam Bridge going over to Yankee Stadium… Anyway, I remember that because my mother was sort of waiting…I saw her waiting, this solitary figure, waiting on the other side of the bridge for me to come back.  But that was my first job.  Now, that must have been… I was fairly young then, to have her waiting for me like that.  So I don’t remember the age, but I must have been fairly young.

So you must have been playing for two or three years at that time?

I actually started playing when I was 7 or 8.

For some reason, I had the impression you were playing piano, and then the saxophone when you were 10 or so.

I started piano around 6 or so, but it didn’t stick, and then I started the saxophone fairly early.  I started saxophone around 7 or 8.

I think I read you say you had an uncle with a saxophone, and you saw it, and you loved the look of it, and then BANG.

Right, I liked the look of the horn.  And then I had an older cousin who played alto who I sort of looked up to.  simultaneously I had been exposed to a lot of Louis Jordan records, and then Louis Jordan was performing in a nightclub that was directly across from my elementary school, and when I used to come out of school in the afternoon I saw his picture there with the tails, the tuxedo and all this stuff.  So these things sort of all coalesced.

Was the saxophone always a vehicle for you to improvise? Did it always have that connotation?

Yeah, sure.  Because I had always heard a lot of music around my house as a kid growing up.  My older brother played, my older sister played.  There was a lot of music.  One of the very first songs I remember fondly was “I’m Going to Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter” by Fats Waller. There was that and a lot of other music around the house.  I loved Fats Waller.  Then when I began to listen to Louis Jordan, of course, and listened to big bands on the radio and everything… We always used to listen to Amateur Night in Harlem from the Apollo Theater, and they would always have a band.  So I got to recognize the sound of the saxophone and all of that.  So I guess the whole idea of improvising and playing on the saxophone all sort of came together.

Do you see your writing generally as a continuum of your playing, or setting up things to blow on?

I’d say that’s true.  Sure.  Everything is really about setting things up for me to improvise on.

So for you it’s not about any sort of system, as let’s say Coltrane was developing forty years when he was working out his ideas very systematically, and it’s not so much about arranging within the sound of the total band; it’s about finding a vehicle for you to improvise.

I’m not sure exactly what Coltrane was doing in the approach he used for writing.  But in my case, I would say it was about soloing, but I loved melody, so I always had melodies in my mind, even though a lot of things that I didn’t compose… I always loved melodies of all sorts of songs that I would hear, and Gilbert & Sullivan, the whole thing.  Things I heard in school and things I heard on the radio.  So I always loved melodies.  Now, when I composed, I guess I still had a strong bent toward trying to have something melodic as the song.  I’d try to have a melodic song.  I was big on melodies, and I still am, I guess.

It seems you’ve gone more and more and more towards melody in your improvising.  Sometimes when I hear you play, it sounds like one continuous stream of melody.

Really.

When I heard you in Damrosch Park this last year it really hit me.  You were playing this endless stream of beautiful melody!

That’s great.  I’ve never heard that expressed before.

It reminded me almost of Louis Armstrong, but if you took all the vocabulary that was developed after Louis Armstrong, and it all seemed to be coming out through you.  I truly believe this, and I feel this current record exemplifies that.  But anyway, in your body of work, it would seem to me that that session with Miles Davis where you put out “Airegin,” “Oleo” and “Doxy” are the first compositions that lasted.  Am I right about that?

Probably so.  Yes.

Were those things that were done for that date?

No, they weren’t done for that date.  They were just songs I had composed.  Around that time I was performing and I was also composing.  So those were just some songs that I had composed.  At the time of the date, Miles needed some songs and I pulled those out.  He said, yeah, he liked them, and he recorded them.  But as I said, I have been composing all along really.  So yeah, my compositions culminate in a saxophone solo and that may be where I’m going, but also I’m always composing simultaneously.

How much formal studying were you doing as a kid?  Did you have theory lessons?  Was it all sort of homegrown, picking up something here, picking up something there?  In a certain way, it must have been natural to pick up the harmonic innovations of Dizzy Gillespie, and you knew Monk and Bud Powell in high school, so it was first-hand.  It must have been very natural for you.

Actually, I had music in high school.  In those days one of your classes was music.  I remember the name of my teacher, Mrs. Singer.  I remember some of the songs… It was very elementary stuff.  It’s hard for me to even remember what we did in that class, but I think she may have taught us songs.  She played the piano, and I think we might have just sang songs or learned songs.  I’m not sure if there was musical notation or anything of that sort.

Where I’m leading with the question is: Is it usually emanating from melodies that are coming up in your practice, or are there more theoretical ideas that come into play when you’re documenting your music?

You’re asking did I have a lot of training.  No, I didn’t really have a lot of training.  So when I write, it was basically completely things that I heard, that I hear, that I put together, stuff like that.  I never really had the training to write really in a theoretical way.  I’d write something, and other people would then take it apart and theorize on what I did here, but a lot of times I didn’t really have that kind of training.  When I went to high school, i remember that I started to play then, but I was in the high school band, and I remember that I did study counterpoint and theory in high school.  But I had a very intimidating teacher who didn’t really like me.  She was a woman who looked just like George Washington.

I had a sixth grade teacher who was the spitting image of George Washington!

Her name wasn’t Mrs. Redman, was it?

It was Mrs. Marlowe.  She looked just like George Washington.

Isn’t that something.  So she didn’t like me.  I remember we had elementary harmony, and things like never write parallel fifths and all these things.  She had a very detrimental effect on me, because she really made a lot of things that should have been easy for me seem difficult.  Now, there was another teacher I had in school whose name I can’t think of now, but she was very nice, and with her I learned a little more.  But Mrs. Redman was the main counterpoint teacher, and she made things very difficult for me to understand.  That was about my formal training in high school.  Now, when I got out of high school, of course, I studied with various teachers and all of this stuff, and probably towards the latter part of high school also I started studying with private teachers and getting more real information.  But in school I really didn’t learn much.

Wasn’t that also around the time when you started knowing Monk and Bud Powell and people like this?  You were 15-16? Right. How did they teach you?  Was it very hands-on?  Was it just a come along for the ride type thing?  Would they take things apart?

With Monk it was really an experience.  Because with Monk, I’d be invited over to his house where we would rehearse some of this music.  I remember different people being over there like the trumpet player Idris Suleiman, or maybe Kenny Dorham, and another saxophonist you’d see over there, a fellow from Brooklyn, Coleman Hoppen, and some other people who I can’t recall…

You were 16 or 17 then?  This is around when he did his first Blue Note recordings.

Yes.  But at that time it was… I had met Monk actually… I worked at a place called Club Barron’s in Harlem, and somehow I was working in there with a trio, and Monk was working opposite me with his group.  Monk heard me at that time, and he saw something in me that he liked, so then he sort of took me under his wing.  Then I began to go over to his house and rehearse in his various bands.  This was around ’48, though.

So after the first Blue Note recordings, and you were 17-18.

I was probably 17 or 18 when I started to go over there.

Did his music seem very natural to you?

Well, I had heard Monk on the record with my idol, Coleman Hawkins, “Flyin’ Hawk,” and one of the other sides is “Drifting On A Reed.”  I mean, I was a real Coleman Hawkins man by that time.  When I heard that, I really liked Monk’s work.  So I was ready for him.  When I heard him, I mean, I was into him.

There’s something about the way you phrase, your cadences, when you talk about Monk, his effect on you sounds almost inevitable.

Mmm-hmm.

Would he take things apart?  Would he make comments?

No, Monk never… Monk or Miles Davis or any of those giant guys that I started playing with, they never dissected or tried to lead me into any kind of soloing that I can remember.  They accepted what I was doing, and it was never about that.  The only thing was… For instance, at Monk’s house, I remember it was guys playing Monk’s music…always guys would say, “Oh, man, it’s impossible to make these jumps on the trumpet” and all this stuff,” and then we’d end up playing it.  But no, I can’t recall Monk or Miles, who were the early guys I played with, and Bud Powell…they never… I mean, as far as my playing was concerned, it certainly wasn’t on their level in my mind, but whatever it was, they accepted what it was.

You could keep up.  I talked a lot to Andrew Hill for a Downbeat piece. He said he and a friend would listen to all of Monk’s records in 1948 and ’49 and ’50, and would have a competition to see who could get his tunes most quickly off the records as they came out.  He said that the music at that time was a folk music, as he put it, and it was everywhere.  People could pick up extremely sophisticated concepts because they were in the air, they were part of the culture, part of the zeitgeist.  Then later it changed.  Is that a fair assessment of the way it was for you at a similar time?  Or course, New York was very different.

Well, at that time jazz was a much more insular music.  Guys were doing it for the love of it, and there wasn’t a big thing about what people were doing and all this stuff.  The critical aspect of it wasn’t as prominent.  People just played with each other.  But as to his point that it was sort of in the air, I guess you could say that.  That was definitely a dominant music at that time and it was certainly out there.  And if he wants to call it a folk music, I could even go along with that certainly.

I guess about a year after those first recordings I think is when you first went to Chicago?

I went to Chicago in ’48, if I’m not mistaken.

Right after high school?

Yeah, around that time.  That gets fuzzy.  I know I was there in the ’40s.

Once I read 1950 and ’54-’55.

I was also there then.  But I first went there in the late ’40s.

I ask because Jackie McLean once made the point that spending a summer or a longer amount of time in one of the Carolinas (I can’t remember whether it was North or South) after growing up in New York, had a great effect on his aesthetic, because it was an exposure to a deep blues aesthetic, and the culture was a bit different in New York.  I’m wondering if going to Chicago did something similar for you.

Oh, yeah.  Definitely.  Chicago was a more earthy place, and a more blues-oriented place, of course.  Also, the music aesthetic in Chicago… They had clubs where people would play 24 hours a day, and it was a really exciting place.  So yes, I would say that I found a lot of that in Chicago, as opposed to being in New York.  So I really enjoyed Chicago.  I loved Chicago.  I still call Chicago my second home.  I spent a lot of time there, and the time that I spent there I met a lot of musicians and played with a lot of musicians, and so on and so forth.  So it was really a very formative period, I think, in my life.  So I would agree with Jackie on that.  I think there was something going into the interior of the country.

I remember asking you when I interviewed you about 12 years ago about [drummer] Ike Day.  You played a lot with him.  Could you provide a few recollections of him and of Gene Ammons and some of the other musicians you met there?

Well, Gene Ammons I had known in New York.  Gene Ammons was sort of an idol of mine from New York.  He was sort of out there doing it when I was still in school.  So I really looked up to him.  He was one of the older guys that I looked up to and respected a great deal?  When I got to Chicago I had the opportunity of playing several times with Gene, and got to know him more as a colleague.  But I looked up to him in New York more as one of my idols.  Ike Day was a very great drummer that I had the opportunity of playing with.  It was great playing with Ike.  He was a guy who really knew his way around the drums, and once you heard him hit the drum, you knew that he was something special.  He really covered the drums.  It was a great learning experience for me, playing with him.  Now, of course, these guys liked me also. [LAUGHS] But coming from my way to him, I really looked up to him.  Of course, he liked what I was doing, too, but it was a learning experience.

By the way, did you ever play drums yourself?

No, I didn’t.  I wish I did.  I love drums.

Because you’re so rhythmic.  It sounds like you never get lost in the time, ever-ever-ever.

Right.  I could give Elvin Jones a run for his money, right?

I guess you give Jack DeJohnette a run for his money, too, at this point!  And I guess dynamic drummers are what you’re about from the beginning.  Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Max Roach…

Right.  Well, I remember playing with Art Blakey one time when we in Birdland, and the rhythm got off some kind of way, so after he came off the stand Art was saying, “Boy, Sonny, you didn’t let that mess you up; you were really right on it; it didn’t bother you.”  That was great. That really gave me a bit more confidence in myself.

Was confidence an issue with you for a long time?

[SIGHS] Well…

It’s hard to imagine.  Because looking at you from the outside, you’re an imposing figure.  You’re a big guy, you have a very imposing kind of look…

Right.

…and then you play with this sort of gruff authority. I’s hard for an outsider to imagine that confidence would be an issue for you, but we can’t be inside your head.

The thing is this, Ted.  When you’re really young… For instance, there was a period in my life when I was actually cocky.  You see?  I mean, I look back at it now, but I actually was cocky, and I thought I was so good…

You probably had some reason to think that, because you were getting praise from everybody.  People were into you when you were 24-25 years old.  You were a stylistic role model.

Yes, and getting a lot of praise and everything.  But I should have been wiser than that.  But at any rate, I look back at it and I’m ashamed of myself for being that way.  So I went through periods like that, but at the same time, I don’t think it really lasted long, because certain musicians that I came in contact with, Clifford Brown and people like that, really showed me the way, that this is something that is not that easy to do, and it’s something you have to work on!  So that period of cockiness didn’t last a long time, I’m glad to say.  But my style of playing probably wouldn’t sound like I was in any way unsure of myself.  I think that’s just sort of the style of playing I have that you mentioned, rhythmic and all this stuff, so there’s not too much room in there to betray any kind of unsureness, just in the actual style.

When you said “cocky,” for a second I thought you said “copy,” but then I knew you didn’t say it.  I know when you were much younger you would memorize Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, just like later people would memorize you.  Gary Bartz once described going to hear you every set in the ’60s at the Vanguard, and he said one night you would be Coleman Hawkins all night… [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Lester Young all night. [HEARTY LAUGH] Then the next night you would be Sonny Rollins!

ROLLINS:  [HEARTY LAUGH]

I guess his observation  was accurate. I think I’ve heard Joe Henderson say that he’d do that as a challenge, to keep himself interested for the evening or something like that.

Well, I didn’t approach it that analytically.  I just really love and respect all those musicians.  Say, somebody like Don Byas, he was a big influence of mine, so…

That’s right.  You said you got the single of “Ko-Ko” for the other side, which was his version of “How High the Moon.”

“How High The Moon” with Bennie Harris on trumpet.  I didn’t even know about “Ko-Ko.”  I was following Don Byas, so I got that, and there happens to be this record on the other side by this guy named Charlie Parker, an alto player.  I wasn’t interested in that.  I was interested in Don Byas.  So these guys taught me how to play, listening to their records.  So I made some… When he says I played Coleman Hawkins all night, it sounds a little…

It’s a bit of an exaggeration.

Right.  But I was doing it out of complete… I was immersed in what I… I wasn’t doing it to show, “Hey, man, listen to me, I’m playing like Coleman Hawkins.”  And it was something difficult really to pull off.  So it was all part of my musical…it was all part of me, really.

It’s all different components of your personality and the things that went into making you Sonny Rollins.

I think so.  I hope so.

So the idea being that you internalized what they did, and their ideas and their manner so thoroughly, that it really just became you.

Right.  Well, that’s wonderful.  To me, that’s a supreme compliment, to be able to actually get into the great music those guys were playing.  And a lot of that stuff we took from the records, in those days especially.  Jackie might even tell you the same thing.  We listened to a lot of records and copied the solos.  That’s really how we learned a lot of that stuff.  It was really wonderful.  We were pretty young, and we didn’t always get an opportunity to see these guys in person.  But the records… And it’s hard to copy, even… When I say “copy,” in my case anyway, I’d get as close to it as I could get.  I could never copy a guy note for note, because for one thing it’s very difficult to do. Guys who can copy people, that’s a different type of musician.  There are people who can do that, and that’s a skill that I admire certainly.  But I could never copy a guy.  I would just sort of try to get inside what he was thinking in that sense, and some of the exterior things on the outside.  But basically, it was his real soul that I was trying to inhabit.

You were trying to inhabit the soul of Coleman Hawkins?

Yeah!  Or Lester Young.  I mean, I was trying to feel what they felt, and interpret music the way they did.

That was a conscious thing for you.  You’d say “what were they thinking of here?”

Well, not consciously say that.  But in trying to get his style, these things would all be happening.  In trying to copy his style, interpret his style.  I’m just saying I would get inside of his soul, I know, but that sounds a little…

When you came back from your second hiatus in 1972, you haven’t had another one since.  You’ve been playing pretty much through for the last 28 years.

I would say so, yes.

In the ’60s, I guess you went through a lot of different things, from the abstractions when you were using the people who played with Ornette, to these very pithy, diamond-like recordings with Herbie Hancock on “The Standard Sonny Rollins” type thing, to these incredibly complex, baroque improvisations like “Three Little Words,” and there’s a very famous bootleg that you probably know where you play “Four” for forty minutes.

No, I don’t know about it. I try not to.

Nonetheless it’s a legendary one, where you play for forty minutes and don’t repeat a phrase, you keep building and developing and your tone conveys the nuances of a ballad at incredible velocity, and things like that.  So it’s impossible to categorize your playing.  But it seems that this orientation of really focusing on melody begins after this hiatus.  Now, I’m a fan and it’s my interpretation, and I can create whatever fantasy I want in my mind.  But putting it in print is a different sort of responsibility.  Is there any accuracy to that?  Is that a conscious goal, or is it something that’s just happened, or am I off-base?

Well, no, the thing is that… Like, when you just said, “Gee, you sound like you’re playing total melody.”  This is something I’ve never heard before, really…

Maybe I’m wrong.

Well, people have told me that I play melody, of course.  But I mean, your interpretation that it all sounds like a continual melody, even through the different songs and everything like that… Well, this is great.  I’ve never heard that.  It sounds great to me to be able to do anything like that. I’m flabbergasted by hearing that.  This is great if I do that.  But I’m not sure when I got into that.  Because to me it’s continuum of trying to amass different things.  It’s just like I tried to find out what Don Byas was playing, the way he approached his music and approached the horn and so on.  So I am going through different phases to try to get to the point where I can really express myself.  I’m not sure that that began when I came back in the ’70s; it very well may have.  This is for you to really analyze.

For one thing, in the ’70s you started getting more deliberately into vernacular music and aspects of popular music, put more of a dance feel into your music.

Well, I think that in the ’70s I certainly wanted to be… As I always have.  I always wanted to be relevant to music.  I’ve gotten a lot of…a lot of people talk to me about the ’70s and all that. I’m often criticized about that because I used a backbeat and I used guitars and all.  But I don’t understand a lot of it.  Because all of this is just part of my own quest to try to… I mean, jazz is sort of a music which has to be alive.  If it’s not alive, if it’s stale… For instance, I couldn’t copy a guy to a T and then expect it to really sound alive.  Which gets back to what we were saying about playing like somebody.  Now, you can play like somebody and appreciate what they’re doing, and try to get the essence of them, and it’s alive.  If you just copy, it’s not alive.  It probably wouldn’t sound alive. So in the ’70s I guess I was trying to keep finding different ways to make my music relevant and make my own playing… I’ve never thought of myself as being on some pinnacle where, you know, I have to be there and I can’t play a calypso or I can’t do this, or I can’t play a backbeat.  I mean, I’ve never thought of myself like that.  And I’m surely very honored that a lot of my fans think that one period puts me up there with great people and all that, but to me it’s always been trying to get to It, and It is a thing which is alive and is fluid.  This is the way I play.  I am always trying to sound like that.  Until I feel I’m satisfied, you’re not going to hear me play exactly alike any time.  So that’s probably what I was doing then.  It’s just something I was trying to stay alive with, you know.

You mentioned in our interview 12 years ago that your mother would take you to all the calypso dances, and it’s something that’s in you from very early.

Right.

Are you a good dancer?

Well, I think I’m a pretty good dancer actually! [LAUGHS] Yeah.  There used to be a dance we used to do when we were in our teens.  It was called the Applejack.  It was a dance that you did… In fact, if you ever used to go to see Monk, Monk would get up and dance by himself.  Monk used to get up from the piano and dance.  So it was this solitary dance, and you’d just do moves to the music.

Is he dancing the Applejack?That was the Applejack.  So yeah, I did the Applejack, and I consider myself a fairly good dancer.  I remember going to see Dizzy a long time ago at the Savoy Ballroom when his band was up there, and Dizzy thought of himself as a good dancer, and I guess he was. [LAUGHS] He would dance with a chick, you know, and they would really be going at it, doing the Lindyhop, and the people would be crowding around, making a circle around him, and they would really be going to town.  So yeah, I like dancing and I  think I tried to dance.  Plus, I like playing for dance music.

Did you play a lot of dances when you were younger?

Yes.  I think a lot of dances we played at, basically, when we were coming up… I mean, the time I was with Jackie McLean and Arthur Taylor and all these guys.  We played dances.  There were very few places we played where there wasn’t dance floors there.  It either was a club with a dance floor or it was just what we would call a function, which was all people dancing.  So I played a lot of dance music, and I think it’s an integral part of what we’re doing.

Another thing that was going on so much in New York when you were coming up was Latin music.  Were you into that?  Was that a big part of your world?

Well, I liked a lot of Latin music, because as you may know, I like all kinds of music.  I heard a lot of guys.  I heard Tito Puente, and I remember when he came out with the Mambo, which was a sort of… In fact, the last time I saw Tito, I mentioned a song, one of the first sides which I had heard from him, “Donde Esta (?)Bas Two(?).”  I mentioned that to him.  In fact, I saw him at Moody’s party some years ago.  We were talking, and I said, “I remember this,” and he said, “wow, that goes back!”  But I heard not a lot of Latin music but I heard some Latin music.  There were some guys that I heard…

I can only think of one record where you went into using a bunch of hand drums and so on, with “Don’t Stop the Carnival” and “Jungoso.”  I wondered because of the connectedness of rhythms in the Caribbean if that was a big part of your formative thing.

ROLLINS:  Right.  Well, actually, there’s a little… When I go to the Caribbean on vacation… We go down sometimes on vacation.  We used to go every year.  But anyway, when I hear some of what you would call the authentic calypso, it’s different from the Latin-American stuff a little bit.  It’s a little different.  But there is some similarity.  Now, that brings me to saying this.  I play a style of calypso which is actually different from the authentic stuff I hear when I go to the Caribbean, so in a way, it may be that Caribbean people who hear me play  think, “Well, gee, this guy is not really playing calypso.” I mean, it’s possible.  Because the stuff I play, I hear a little bit differently.  It doesn’t sound like the stuff I hear there, but it’s similar. But to get more to your point, there is a difference between the Latin thing and the Calypso thing, although they are related.  Well, if you keep digging deep, they are all related, as Dizzy proved when he did his stuff, and Bird did “Mango Mangue” with Machito.  I mean, it’s all very related.  But you could really put it in a pot together, and it works.  But I didn’t hear a lot of Latin music.  I heard some.  And when my mother would take me places, I heard more calypso than Latin as a small child.

So a piece like “Salvador” on this record is more implying the spirit of Salvador through your filter, rather than dealing in an idiomatic way with rhythms of Bahia.

I would say so, yes.

Did you ever, in your investigations… You were in India for a while.  Were you breaking down those rhythms in an analytic way, or breaking down aspects of clave or African rhythms, or is it always that you sort of take things in and then experiment with them…

Intuitive.

It’s all intuitive.

Yeah, really.  I hear a lot of stuff… When I was in India, I went to a couple of those LONG concerts that they would have with those guys, and they really have long concerts… I mean, concerts would be 5 or 6 hours.  I heard people playing in the hills, where it was… I’d hear… But no, I never broke things down in a methodical way.  Anything that I wanted, I mean, it came to me in an intuitive way, and I’d say, “I can use that” or “that sounds right to me” or something that I can relate to, and I just did it.

So on “Salvador,” you sort of found this melody and you developed it…

Yeah.  “Salvador” is a melody I developed.  Certain parts of the melody reminded me of Brazil a little bit, and then I sort of… Somebody was asking me what.. They said, “Oh, it’s a Calypso.”  I said, “Well, it’s sort of a Calypso-Samba.”  They said, “Oh, that’s a new genre.” [LAUGHS]

And Jack De Johnette is the drummer on that one.  Did you give him any input into how you wanted it?  Or did you just run down the tune and he comes up with what he does?

Well, both.  We didn’t rehearse that until the day we made the date.  He heard some material, but he didn’t get a chance to look at it, to listen to it, you know.

You’d played some of the tunes with the band on the road, but Jack didn’t rehearse it.

Right.  So then when Jack came, it was a completely different thing.  Because the drummer really sets the mood and the time of the piece, which changes everything, really.  So it took us a lot of takes to get the feeling I felt comfortable with, and then I could sort of explain to Jack SORT OF what I wanted.  But see, I never want to explain things, especially to a drummer of Jack’s caliber, because they have something to contribute that I don’t want to inhibit their contribution.  So I always kind of want to leave as much…to let them do what they feel.  You see what I mean?  But it took us a while to let us get to a mutual agreeable interpretation of it.  It wasn’t done in one take.  We did quite a few, because we were rehearsing it and recording it at the same time actually.  So I wanted it to be free so that I could really get the benefit of his knowledge, really.

Is practice still for you kind of the same thing as performing?  You said 12 years ago there wasn’t a difference.

That’s basically still true.  I mean, outside of the fact that I might go over some musical passages that are difficult, or I might go over some scales, or… But basically, what I’m doing is practicing playing.  I’m practicing performing.  It’s really playing.  It’s really a miniature performance when I’m practicing.

Barry Harris made the comment about Monk that Monk might sit down and play “My Ideal” for a hundred choruses, keeping the tempo or something… And someone else said they went to see Bud Powell in the morning, he was practicing something, then they went out, they came back, it was five-six hours later, and he was still playing the same thing.

Mmm-hmm.

It sounds like that’s a methodology that you internalized or became very natural to you.

Well, it’s very apropos that you should say that.  Because yesterday I was practicing a ballad for I think it must have been an hour, the same ballad over and over again, the same thing — not the same way, of course.  So I guess I practice the same way, yeah.  You try to find things which complement the melody.  In the case that you might be playing a ballad, “My Little Brown Book” or whatever it might be… But by playing it over and over you’ll find different ways to really illuminate the song.  So I was doing that yesterday, playing not that song, but another song.  I thought for a minute, “Gee, I wonder if anybody is…”  Well, somebody was hearing me, I know.  There’s a musician who plays on my floor.  He must have thought, “Gee, this guy is playing the same thing over and over and over again.”

The Mingus piece.  Since you never recorded with Mingus, I didn’t think of the two of you as being very close, but I suppose you were.  Was that a friendship of long standing?

Well, I was very close to Mingus.  He always wanted me to do some things with him.  They just never panned out.  I would go by and play with him when he was at the new Five Spot on 8th Street, I think.  I remember when Eric Dolphy was giving him some kind of trouble, so he brought me down to sort of, you know, play with Eric, sort of to, in his mind, “Well, here, man, look, I’ve got Sonny here, so you’d better be cool,” something like that.  So I played with him a couple of times.  But we were also friends.

So after your first comeback.

Yes.  That would have been…

Were you playing things with Mingus like “Meditations” or one of those extended pieces?  Actually there’s a phrase in the second section that resonates directly to it, though I can’t catch it exactly now.

Well, I’m not exactly sure.  It was reminiscent of it.  But I didn’t write it trying to recall.  It was something subliminal. This was after I had signed with RCA, which was in ’61.  Mingus used to come by to the… You know, one of the things which I put in my contract with RCA was the fact that I could have free access to the recording studios on 24th Street, so I could go by there 24 hours a day, and practice and use the facilities…

So you could get off the bridge, huh?

Right, exactly.  So Mingus used to come by there a lot, and he’d play piano, you know, and I’d play and so on.  It was in the ’60s.

So you’d workshop in this very informal way together.

Sure.

Did you ever tape any of those?

No, I didn’t.

Did that piece start off being for Mingus, or did it become for Mingus once you realized what you were doing with it?

It became for Mingus after I had it done.  I just put it together some time…I don’t know how soon I did it, but I put it together.  And after I sort of had it together and it was a completed melody, then it dawned on me, “Hey, man, this sounds like Mingus.”  The Mingus that I knew.  To me.  It may not sound like Mingus to anybody else, but it sounded like the Mingus that I knew and was very reminiscent of him in my mind.

Did you ever record any of his tunes on your records?

No.  But I wanted to record one of his tunes.  There was a tune that he did that Miles did.  It was a ballad.  It’s reminiscent of a ballad that Richie Powell wrote when I was with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I think he called it “Time.”  It was something similar to that.  Miles did it with a quartet, I think.  It was really beautiful.  And I always had wanted to do that, and never got around to it.

Did your relationship continue through the ’60s?

My relationship with Miles Davis continued forever.  We were always tight.  Miles and I had a close relationship.  In fact, I remember one time… This is just a little story.  At one time, Miles was playing with his group; I think he had Wayne Shorter with him, that group.  They were playing in a place in Brooklyn called the Blue Coronet.  Anyway, I hadn’t seen Miles in a while, so I went by, came in the club, and he was standing at the… He didn’t see me.  So I sort of was behind him.  So the guys said, “Sonny’s here,” and Miles almost jumped out of his skin!  He was just glad to see me.  I mean, it really touched me, because I realized how much this guy thought of me.  The way he jumped, you know.  So Miles and I were very close.  I was surprised, because Miles is one of our idols.  I wasn’t putting myself on his plane; I would never do that.  But he thought a lot of me.  So we had a tight relationship.

A naive question.  Why was Miles one of your idols?

I’ll tell you why.  When I was growing up (and Jackie would remember this also), there was a trumpet player who we liked a lot whose name was Lowell Lewis.  In fact, we went to high school together.  He was one of the guys who Mrs. Redman (George Washington) liked; she didn’t like me.  But anyway, Lowell was really a fine trumpet player, and he played with Jackie, played with us all.  And he liked Miles.  When Charlie Parker came out with “Now Is The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce,” which could have ’44, or maybe earlier, I’m not sure…

It was done at the same session as “Ko-Ko,” in 1945.

Okay.  But Miles was on “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s The Time.”  And Lowell really liked him.  Of course, prior to that, Dizzy Gillespie was really the man, and he was still was, but Lowell really liked Miles.  He said, “Wow, man, I really dig the way this cat plays.”  I liked him, too, actually.  And it was very interesting, the way that Miles would play with Bird.  He took a different tack.  One of the solos that he played on one of those records, I don’t know whether it was “Billie’s Bounce” or “Now’s the Time,” but it was really such a poetic solo.  A blues solo; it was really great.  So when I say why he was my idol?  Of course, Bird was my idol and my hero and everything.  So at that point we began thinking of Miles in that rarefied atmosphere.  He was just up there with Dizzy and… I liked his playing, and also the fact that he was working with Bird.  He was a god.  That’s why I said that he was an idol.

He was only four years older than you.

He was only four years than I, and I think that’s sort of why we kind of got more friendly.  Dizzy was much older.  Of course, Monk was older, but Monk was different, because Monk kind of took me under his wing.  But my relationship with Miles was more one of peer.  But nevertheless, I held him in the utmost esteem.  I mean, he was really one of the guys.

So Charlie Parker, even though he was friendly to you and extremely solicitous of you in many ways, was somewhat inaccessible.

Yes, in many ways.  I mean, Bird was just too… Of course, we know he was into his own thing.  It was really hard to catch the Bird.  Chasin’ the Bird…heh-heh.  But he was very generous to us and very avuncular and everything.  When I first met Miles and he wanted me to play with him, we got much tighter.

In our conversation thing 12 years ago, you related a comment that Monk made to you, “You know, Sonny, without music, this would be a sad world.”  That really resonated with you.

Oh, it resonated completely.

Does it still resonate?

Well, of course.  I mean, I’ve lived so many more years since he said that, and I’ve really just internalized it!  I don’t even think about it any more.  But it really struck a chord, because this is exactly how I felt, but I didn’t know how to express it.  But that was it.  When he said that I said, “Well, wow, yeah, that’s what it’s about.  Of course.  Right.  Music is it.  It’s the reason why we’re here.”

You said it’s the only thing that makes you believe in God.

Well, by this stage, there are other things that make me believe.  But certainly that’s one of, I would say, God’s gifts to us.  But by now, I’ve studied and learned a lot about different spiritual pursuits and all of that.  But no, there’s nothing untrue about that at all, of my saying that.

I can’t imagine you as being from anywhere else but New York City. That’s one reason why I think I relate to your playing the way I do.  I’m from Manhattan, grew up on Bleecker Street, and something about when you play… It sounds like home.

That’s wonderful.  I’m happy to hear that.

But I’ll end it on this sort of corny note.  What is it about being from New York?

Well, I know that a lot of the musicians wanted to come to New York.  Like we were saying earlier, guys would go to Chicago, and Jackie said he went to North Carolina and got a different slant and this sort of stuff.  One time I was kidding about Monk, and I said, “Oh, man…”  And he really took umbrage, because Monk really wanted to be a New Yorker.  I mean, he really felt to be the quintessential New Yorker.  There’s something about the… I guess there’s so much happening here, good and bad, that if you can sort of be of New York, I guess you have a lot of things covered.  You have sort of everything covered.

* * * *

Sonny Rollins #2 – (11-14-00):

Stephen Scott  told me that you’re quite a good pianist, that you sound something like Tadd Dameron.  Can you talk about how your experience playing piano intersects with your approach to the saxophone and the way you think about music?

Could you be specific?  Kind of center it in a little more?

I can try.  When you spoke about playing the piano, you said you started playing when you were 7 or 8, you took lessons, and then it kind of dropped by the wayside.  Did it totally drop, or have you continued to play piano all these years?

What I meant is that my parents started me with going to a teacher,  in the wake of my sister and older brother, who had both started out that way, and had more or less training.  I didn’t do as well, because my mother indulged me, and I wanted to go out and play ball, so I would say… Being the youngest son, I would say, “Let me do that.”  I had a mother who really was in my corner a hundred percent, and she really indulged me or loved me, whichever way you want to put it… Anyway, I didn’t have to go and practice for the teacher and play scales and all that stuff.  So my piano playing is very…you know, the things I do are very elementary.  But I didn’t really retain any of that, how I started off as a kid… When I got into the more serious career of being a musician, I didn’t really retain very much of that at all.

I think what he meant by Tadd Dameron is that you do very full, beautiful voicings, and he said you play a bit of stride.

Well, that’s very generous of him. [LAUGHS]

I think he meant it quite sincerely.

No, he’s a serious person.  He wouldn’t joke around.  He doesn’t joke around too much.  Well, let’s say that I would love to play that way.  I love the stride style.  So he might have heard me sometimes messing around, playing added, as they used to say.  But I certainly wouldn’t… It’s very, very elementary attempts at trying to play it.  But I love it, so probably, yes, maybe that’s what he hears coming through, my love of the style.  Then I’m able to get a few notes in here and there that may be reminiscent of the real thing.

You compose on the piano.

I do compose on the piano, yes. Well, where I live, I don’t have a piano.  I have a couple of keyboards.  So I don’t have a regular upright piano.  I’ve been thinking about getting one.  But I have a couple of keyboards, and I play on those, and they seem to be sufficient for me for what composing or what voicings and stuff I have to do for my composing.

I guess what I was getting at when I was asking you about how it intersects with the way you play saxophone is… Jack DeJohnette mentioned that when you play the piano, you have a global perspective of everything that’s going on at one time.  It’s like having the orchestra at your fingertips.  And it’s always been noted about the way you play that you’re kind of hearing everything at one time.  So I wondered if you had any speculations on whether your piano experience had been beneficial to you.

I think piano experience has been beneficial to me, in the fact that I use it to compose sometimes, and figure out chords and like that.  But I don’t think it has anything to do with my… I mean, I can’t, now that I think about it… But you were saying that I play in the way that I hear all of the instruments.

I’ve heard musicians say that.  I can’t claim that as an original observation.

Right.  No, I’ve heard that, too.  But I don’t think the piano is in any way basically related to that particular aspect of my playing.  As far as my best guess about that, I would say it’s probably not.  I think that just comes from more of a general appreciation of all of the different instruments and sounds, but not so much piano… Although everything is related, so it’s hard to say that it hasn’t.  But I think in my saxophone playing, I do try to… When I’m playing unaccompanied, I do think sometimes about some piano players, like trying to play like Art Tatum and things like that on a saxophone — in other words, playing all the parts.  But generally, I think people mean that not so much in my unaccompanied playing.  I think that some people have said that about my playing in general, that I seem to have a rhythmic… Basically I’ve heard that more.  I think that’s what they mean, that I can play the rhythm by myself, that you can feel the rhythmic accompaniment to the saxophone lines and so on.  So I think that’s the basic part of that comment that people make about me, rather than the sort of pianistic approximation on the saxophone.  I think that’s what they mean.

Was there ever in your…early on, from rehearsing with Monk, playing with Bud Powell early, trying to incorporate things like their phrasing in any conscious way?  Do you think that filtered into you in any palpable way?

I would say probably more Bud Powell than Monk.  Monk was too unique and his style didn’t lend itself to horns really.  But I certainly listened a lot to Bud Powell, and he had that left hand-right hand style which is more closely related to horn players playing lines.  So I am sure I got something from Bud along those lines.  As far as Monk, no, I don’t think I tried to.  I might have gotten… People have told me that I have assimilated other things from him, but I don’t think so much his piano sound.  I never thought of trying to do that, and I never consciously attempted to approximate his sound on the saxophone.  It was something that I just didn’t feel was possible or really would do me any good.

You spoke about Monk hearing you the first time when you had a trio at Club Barron, and Monk was playing the other end of the show, and he heard you.  Not to go into excruciating detail, but when you had these teenage bands, were you playing Bebop?  Were you playing the new music or were you doing things that were maybe more for the people?  Was that one and the same thing?

Well, that was one and the same thing.  Playing for the people and playing whatever I was playing was really one and the same thing.  The only thing that I would say would deviate somewhat from that is when we would play a lot of dances in Harlem, and sometimes we would have to play some Caribbean type tunes, like that.  So that would be playing something for dancing only.  Although even in that, there was a certain musical element which was foremost.  That’s why I still play those Caribbean tunes.  But those tunes, in those days, we played them for dancing.  So in that sense, we did.  But other than that…

You played the straight tunes or you would do your own variations on them?

Well, I would always do my own variations.  I was having a conversation recently with somebody, and we were talking about commercial players, and commercial…how some very successful commercial artists.  And I really feel that I respect those people a great deal, and I envy them, to be able to have the kind of skill to really do things that are really crowd-pleasing and do them to such an extent, that they can really do it.  I can’t do that.  I could never do that.  I’m not that good a musician, in a way of speaking, to be able to do that.  What I do is completely natural and off the top of my head basically, and I can’t really always play from night to night something which is… That requires a certain amount of skill.  I mean, as much as people might feel it’s banal, it requires a certain skill to do that.  And I’ve never had that kind of skill.  Not that I’d want to.  I think I prefer to be who I am.  But I still respect the skill of other people.  So whatever I do, even when we’d play for dances, I was still trying to change things around a little bit and so on.  But the basic imperative was to play for people dancing.

When you had those bands, was that, say, Arthur Taylor and Kenny Drew, and you were 16-17 years old, and those were the first bands you led, and they were sometimes for dancers and sometimes for listening?

There were always people that liked to listen to music.  I remember when I first began getting into the “big time” when I was playing places like the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem, and I was playing with Miles Davis and other people, I remember that a lot of those functions were called “dances.”  In fact, I went to some before I got good enough to play in them.  But they were called dances, and the people would dance, but there would always be a group of people standing up near the stage, and they would just be listening.  But they were still dances, and that was the name of the function.  Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Max Roach.  So maybe it was around the time when the two elements were sort of reaching a point of separating.  But there were always people who were up in the front, right by the bandstand, and they were observing and appreciating what the musicians were doing on their instruments.

Moving it back to today, that dance element has been so pronounced in the last twenty-five years in your bands.  I’ve now read Nisenson’s book, and you said in there and have said in other venues that that’s the music that was vivid and living, and the people you admired were going in that direction in the ’70s.  But for these purposes, was there some decision on your part that you needed to get that sense of dance back in your music?  I mean, the ’60s weren’t really about that so much, at least in the recordings we hear.

Probably the ’60s weren’t.  But I have always been a person who has… That’s maybe more of an element of my music than it is of other people, maybe people who are identified more with the ’60s than I might be, I’m sure, which I’m sure is a lot of people.  But I’ve always had a strong element of dance appreciation of it.  I always laugh when a lot of these jazz writers and critics…when Monk used to get up and do his dance on the stage while his group was playing, and nobody knew quite what to make of that.  Because after all, here is the High Priest of Bebop, and he is not sitting down there, solemnly playing.  He is getting up and dancing on the stage.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Monk.

I’ve seen a video.  But you said he was doing the Applejack.

He was doing the Applejack. [LAUGHS] Now, to me that was normal.  That’s the dance we did.  And I think that dance feeling was prominent in Monk’s playing, or at least in his consciousness, so that he felt impelled to do that.  I would say that probably I am a player who has that sort of rhythmic thing perhaps more prominent in my playing.  I don’t know.  I’ll have to leave that to people to discern why it feels like you hear that so much in my music.

In our last conversation, you were talking rather vividly about how rhythm was always a strong point.  Was ballads part of your 16 and 17 year old self?  Did you have to play a lot of ballads?  Does “My Ideal” go back to that time?

I love ballads, of course.  Because one of my… I mean, I love music, so that I loved a lot of people singing.  I mean, I loved the Ink Spots; they sang some beautiful songs.  As you know, I love all kinds of music.  So I loved those kinds of things as a really small boy, growing up.  But even when I began playing the saxophone, I had my model, Coleman Hawkins, who as you know made a great practice of playing these ballads, American Standard ballads.  It was his forte.  He made some beautiful ones, “How Deep is The Ocean,” of course “Body and Soul,” “Talk Of The town,” “Just One More Chance.”  All these are beautiful vehicles for his saxophone playing.  So naturally, he was one of my prime idols.  So ballad playing was something that I strove to do.

It was maybe more imprinted in the culture in the ’40s than for, say, a 17-year-old today trying to get to that emotion.  You were saying you love all sorts of music.  Do you listen to a lot now?  Do you buy CDs?  Do you stay on top of what’s going on in different genres?

I’m afraid that I don’t have the…what’s the correct word… I don’t have the time right now.  I love listening to music, but I have so much to do right now with music as it is… I just listen to music in snatches when I’m listening to the radio.  Like, I just heard a program on the radio where they were playing some Ravel and Faure, the impressionist period.  So I love all kids of music.  But no, I don’t buy music.  Of course, I’ve got a collection of music, but in the last years I haven’t had a chance to sit down and enjoy listening to music.  It’s something which, because of my avocation, it’s just too close.  Creating the music and then sitting down and be able to enjoy listening to music, right at this point in my life I can’t manage both things.  They seem to be at odds with each other.

When were you last in a music-listening mode?

Well, maybe 25 years ago.  Well, all through my life up to the ’60s I was listening to… I had a lot of music that I would purchase and listened to a lot of music.  Maybe in the ’70s I was listening to some things.  But around that time, there were too many things I was trying to think about, and I couldn’t reconcile listening and… Then I couldn’t just relax and listen to music like I would like to.  So that’s one of the things I had to give up.

Do you listen back to yourself at all?  Do you tape yourself practicing, or do you strictly not listen back to what you do?

No, I don’t tape myself.  I am one of these people that shudders when I hear myself, because I’m always saying, “Gee, I should have done that” or “Gee, I don’t like my tone right there.”  It’s too hard to really… But I don’t deny that it would be instructive and constructive to do that, if you were able t do that as a performer, if you could listen to yourself and objectively say, “Oh, yeah, I’ll change that…”  It would be great, and I know I would learn something from it, and it probably would help me play better.  But it’s a little bit too… It’s one of those things I haven’t been able to climb over that particular hill.  It’s a barrier where it’s just too difficult listening to myself back.  So the only time I listen to myself is when I’m doing a new recording and I have to choose the particular takes that we want to play.

Is that torturous for you?

It’s excruciating, yes.  You see what I go through to play for people?

I can imagine.  I can kind of sense what you’re going through to talk to me right now.  It doesn’t seem like a great time.  But I’ll try not to…

No-no-no, that’s okay.

This particular band seems so stable, and I’d like to speak with you about the personnel, how you recruited and how you see their roles within it.  Perhaps we can start with Clifton Anderson, which is a close, long-standing relationship.

Right.  You know he’s my nephew, right?

Is that the sister who played classical piano?

Yes, exactly.

Is she a talented pianist?

Yes, she’s very talented and she has a very good voice and everything.  She is a very good musician, actually.  She never played professionally, but she’s talented and she knows about music, has good taste and everything.  Anyway, I got…I believe I am speaking correctly… I got Clifton a trombone… I think he liked the trombone when he was a little boy.  So I believe I got him his first trombone.  I may be wrong about that, but I think I did.  Anyway, it doesn’t matter.  Anyway, he liked music.  His father also played organ in the church, so he came from a musical background.  His father played organ, and so he had a lot of music around the house.  At any rate, when he began… He went to Music & Art High School in New York, a very good music school, and Manhattan School of Music, things I never had a chance to do, so I was happy he got a chance to go that route.  At any rate, when he got old enough and he wanted to play jazz, we would get together… So when I figured that he was good enough to really play professionally in the group, why, it was a good opportunity to have him.  I like the trombone.   It’s always been one of my favorite instruments.  I have a background playing with J.J. Johnson, who had me…one of my first records was with J.J.  In the ’60s I would use Grachan Moncur.  I’m saying that to say that I like the sound of the instruments together, so that when I had an opportunity to use Clifton, and he was advancing and coming along, why, I took it.  He’s a very good musician.

Before he came in, you often were using two guitars?  Did he change up your options, give you a chance to do certain types of arrangements or certain backdrops off which to springboard?

Yes.  I think with the guitars I was thinking a little bit differently, so it was a little strange to go back to horns.  On this last record I did, there are a couple of tunes I was thinking about using guitar on.  I’m not saying that playing with guitars is over. I’m just saying it had reached a point of rest in that phase of what I was doing at that time.  So it was good to play with another horn.  It was another set of experience.

Stephen Scott came in around ’93, was it?

I found out about Stephen through Clifton.  Since I don’t get out too much to the clubs and everything, I sort of said, “Clifton, what’s happening?” — because he goes around.  He recommended several people, and all of these guys were busy with other people, of course.  I had Kevin Hays for a while and different people.  Anyway, Stephen became… I liked his work, but he was doing a lot of other stuff.  So finally, I was able to lock him up a little more.

What is it about him that suits you so well?

I’m not sure.  I can do without piano players, really.  Sometimes I don’t want to hear a piano player.  You can tell that from my career, right?

Well, as I said to Stephen, “What’s it like playing with someone who sort of developed the notion of discarding the pianist?”

Well, I don’tknow whether I want to hear his answer.  Anyway, Stephen relates to me, especially soloing.  So when I play with Stephen and the band, it’s a way of having a continuity and having a band which sort of is on the same page.  I think he empathizes with the way I play.  So it makes the band… It’s not like one guy playing one way, and then here comes the piano player and he’s playing a completely different way, and then you have the trombone player and he’s playing different… It gives us a little more unity . Yet, of course, it’s in a completely free context, as you know.

Maybe it’s because he’s so cognizant of Monk and Bud Powell in a way that a lot of people his age probably aren’t.

Yes, I think that’s possible.  I know he does like both of them.

Bob Cranshaw, that’s a 40-year relationship.   He mentioned that you first heard him at the Playboy Jazz Festival in Chicago when you asked Walter Perkins to get a bass player, he did it, you liked him, you corresponded with him for the next few years, and when you came back from your hiatus you called him.  What is it about Cranshaw that made him so pleasing — and lastingly so — to you?

Well, he was a competent bass player, and when I think we came in… We didn’t have a lot of time to rehearse.  We just rehearsed one day, and we had to perform that night.  And I did something that night… In the midst of a song that we were playing, I made a modulation.  Now, it was a perfect place for a modulation, I would say, after the bridge of this song going into the last portion of the song, which would be a natural place to modulate.  And I modulated there, and he made the modulation with me, which impressed me a lot.  I said, “Well, this guy is sort of on my wavelength.”  He’s always been a steady player, and I’ve always liked a steady… I’ve always liked to have a contrast between the steady player, so then you can have something abstract against something steady, rather than having a whole band of everything abstract.  So that Bob’s playing was steady; the bass was steady, the rhythm was steady, and then I can be abstract if I wanted to be, which I often do.  So this is sort of why I like Bob, because he provides that role of the bass fiddle, the heartbeat of the band.  I have had that concept for a long time, of playing one thing against another.

You can bob-and-weave, and go in and out of the time, and go anywhere you want, and you have a cushion, and he keeps you on the mark, so that if you’re going off somewhere you have something to come back to.

Exactly.  He’s always there, and keeping… If we’re playing songs, which I do play a lot of songs in my repertoire, why, the songs can be accurate and people can say, “Wow, all of that thing, and they’re still playing the song,” which as you know, is the way I play.  I always have the song in my mind regardless of what I do.  So this seemed to me a good marriage, to have a steady beat and being able to then have an abstract thing against it, and they would be together.

Is that how you want the drums to be as well?

Well, yes.  I think the drums as well have to be steady.  Now, we are playing time music, so if we’re playing time music, why, the drums and the bass have to be steady.  Now, the drummer, of course, has an opportunity to also play more offbeats.  But he still has to have his basic beat there.  I’d say more than most bass players, he can be a little bit more abstract, but as abstract as it gets, I demand that the basic pulse and the chord structure be present throughout what I’m usually calling on them to do. The thing that’s so hard about playing with me for a drummer is that I play a lot of different stuff.  I don’t just play straight-ahead.  A lot of jazz drummers are great at straight-ahead, but if you want to go into something else the feeling is not quite as genuine.  So in other words, I need a drummer who has a little bit of range.  I don’t want a guy who is just locked in to one style of playing. You need a certain range  to play with Sonnyi Rollins. I want to play Caribbean things, I want to play straight-ahead, I want to play part backbeat… I don’t want to be locked in… I want to have enough leeway so that the band doesn’t sound the same way all the time.  I don’t care how good the guys are playing.  You have to have some variation.  So that’s something that I’ve always liked, to play in as any different styles as possible.

How large a book of material do you draw upon in any particular concert?  Is that defined?  Does it change from month to month or year to year?

I’ve got a lot of material that we use.  But I try to… It’s tricky, because you want to play something which people are familiar with, just because the guys like to be comfortable when they go out in front of an audience.  A large audience is going to be critical and really expecting a lot.  So sometimes I don’t want to go out and sort of play something that we haven’t been playing, because the guys don’t feel as comfortable, and it’s not going to come off as good.  So I try to restrain my adventurous side.

That is tricky for you, because it goes against your entire grain.  No?

Very much so.  So I have to sort of find ways to temper that and find ways to work in little things.  But I get… Just the last few concerts we’ve had, I’ve started playing something I haven’t been playing for a long time… After we play a song for a while, too, I want to change.  There’s so much music out there. So I try to change up.  Of course, I’ve got a new record out, so I’ve got those things to draw on, and it’s good to try to let people hear some of the things we did on the record.  [LAUGHS] Although it’s not going to sound the same as they did on the record!  But that aside, it’s good to maybe present it and say, “Oh yes, I’ve got a new CD out” and so on and so forth.

You were talking about coming out and people expecting a lot.  What is it you think they expect?  I know what I think I’m going to get when I come to hear you.  What do you think people are expecting from you? [LAUGHS] I’ve heard you discuss the pressure of public expectation on a number of occasions.  What to you is the nature of that expectation?

When people come to see me, I imagine they know… I mean, if I am to believe my press, I am supposed to be a legend, right?

Well, you’re still around, so you’re not a legend.

A legend in his own mind, anyway, as the saying goes.

Well, we can call you an icon.

Icon.  Okay.

I prefer that.

Well, that’s even worse.  But when I do that, it means…

I can’t be totally objective.

[LAUGHS] Okay.  So if people… You may think of me that way, but they may also think of me as an icon.  So therefore, here I come out on the stage, here’s this icon… I can’t, you know, “well, okay, he’s an icon, folks,” and that’s it, good-night.  I mean, I’ve got to do something in between being an icon and them leaving the hall.

You’re only as good as your last two concerts, let’s say.

Sure!  So I feel I’ve got to always be sharp and on top of the music, and the band has to be gelling, and the whole thing.  I mean, it’s not going to happen every night.  This is the nature of the music.  It’s not going to happen all the time.  But I’ve got to do something that makes them feel… I don’t like people to be disappointed in coming to see me.  I’m one of these people… In fact, people being disappointed coming to see me is why I ended up going on the bridge in 1959.

Please elaborate.

I was playing with a group, I think I had Elvin and some people with me… This was sometime in the’ 50s.  I was getting a pretty big name.  I remember playing in Baltimore, and I had a big name, you know, for jazz…

Was it one of Gary Bartz’s father’s productions?

I remember I played for him one time.  No, this wasn’t for him… Well, it could have been.  I did play for his father, though.  I knew his father very well.  He was a very nice guy.  At any rate, I was playing there at a club which was quite crowded, everybody, “Yeah, Sonny Rollins,” but I felt I disappointed the audience that night.  I know I did.  The music just didn’t… It was really a drag.  I mean, I felt that I didn’t want to do.  In other words, I don’t want to take money from somebody if I don’t earn it.

In Nisenson’s book, you said you basically went on the bridge so you could get your fundamentals together in a certain sense…

Yeah, there were some fundamental things I wanted to work on.  There were some technical things, definitely, that I wanted to work on.  But I wouldn’t go too far beyond that.  Because the whole thing has been inspiration, so I never wanted to get away from that.  I just wanted to get some more skills.

Simultaneous to the thing I’m writing about you, I’m also writing a piece about James Moody, and we’ve had several conversations.  He said that when he made his famous recordings, “Moody’s Mood,” “Pennies From Heaven,” he was playing totally by ear, and he felt like he was just winging it.  He said he was flying blind.  And he said that caused him tremendous insecurity, and he attributed to some extent his drinking to that, and so on.  I guess around ’59 or so, when Tom McIntosh came in his band, he got Tom McIntosh to teach him theory, the chord changes, in a very elementary way, and it transformed him.  Was it an analogous experience for you, or was it a different entity?

No, not really analogous.  I wasn’t winging it.  I wasn’t just playing.  I think I know what Moody was talking about.  He felt he didn’t really know a lot of changes and all this stuff, so he was just playing it by winging it.  No, that wasn’t exactly the case with me.  I knew changes and I had been playing with Monk and all these guys, so I had to kind of get into that part.  So it wasn’t quite that.  But it was other technical things that I wanted to shore up on, things that had to do with the saxophone.  I actually took some harmony…piano…harmony and keyboard.  Also I wanted to learn a little more about arranging—I wanted to be able to write arrangements and orchestrate arrangements and all of that.  As I said, I didn’t really have all that formal schooling like my older brother and sister, so these were things I always wanted to do.  Besides doing the things on my instrument and trying experimental things, I also studied harmony and sort of orchestration with a fellow.  But I understand Moody.  I think I know what Moody was doing.  Moody wanted to play more chord changes and things like that.

It seems to me in those years after the Bridge, you were doing an exhaustive investigation of the timbral possibilities of the saxophone.  Everything seemed to be about sound.  Now it seems you’ve retained all that timbral extravagance within this real groove that you do.  It sounds like it was a tremendously beneficial period for you.

Well, thank you.  I hope it was.  There’s a lot of people… I remember when I first came back from the bridge, a lot of guys would say, “Geez, Sonny, why did you go to the Bridge?  You sound the same as you did when you went.”  This guy said that, and I said, “Well, I had to go, man, because it was something I wanted to do.”  Well, a lot of people didn’t know why I went, couldn’t understand why I would stop playing.  They couldn’t really comprehend it.  But at any rate, yeah, I’m sure I learned something.  I know I learned something.  Also, one of the big things about doing that is that it was something that I wanted to do, something against the grain of public opinion, something that I said, “Well, I’m going to do this for myself; I don’t care what other people think about it,” etcetera, etc.  So it was very good to be able to show that kind of resolve.  I think a lot of people want to get away from their jobs and spend a year on a hiatus, or you know, get their life together and then come… A lot of people want to do that, but for certain reasons they can’t.  I’m not criticizing people.  But I know it’s something that people would like to do.  So outside of what musical benefits I got out of it (which I agree with you, I got a lot; I know I did), it was also good for my soul, because I did something which I had figured out had to be done, and I wanted to do it, and I felt it was necessary for me to have the kind of confidence I needed in playing music to do this.

Maybe I’m wrong about this.  There’s an interview you did around ’55 or ’56, and you said that you had just recently decided that you were going to be a musician for life, that you had been conflicted between that and painting or drawing, which was an equal love of yours.  I think this is a two-part question.  One, in your process of playing, is there a sort of synesthesia going on?  It is sort of like a painting-through-sound type thing?  Secondly, were you involved at all in the art world either of the ’50s or ’60s?  I know culturally there was a lot of interconnection between the artists and the jazz musicians.

Right.  Well, the last one first.  No, I was never really involved around… Although I knew some artists.  I knew some people, like the artist Bob Thompson.  I knew Bob.  In fact, I was discussing him not too long ago with several people that know him.  I knew some other artists.  I knew this fellow called Paul Boussing(?), who used to hang out with Charlie Parker on 52nd Street.  He moved to Jamaica, I think he was actually from Jamaica, an Indian who came from Jamaica — he was an artist and I met him.  But I never really got too much into the art world. But, you know, I did this when I was really a child.  When I was growing up, I used to make cartoons and staple them together, and had my little cartoon books, and I had my little superhero characters and all this stuff.

Wayne Shorter was like that, too.

I know! [LAUGHS] I’ve heard! [LAUGHS]

Interesting, you and Wayne Shorter being two visionaries of the instrument.

[HEARTY LAUGH] And then I liked watercolors a lot.  I think I’m talented at it.  There’s a guy, a photographer who came to my house in the country some years ago.  I had done some watercolors, not really… I did watercoloring on some blank windows on my front door and the porch door.  Anyway, he saw the and he liked them a lot.  So it set a spark, “gee, I can do that.”  I am good at it or I’m talented at it.

So it continues to be an outlet for you.

Yeah, but I don’t do it any more.  That’s the only thing.  I think I could always do it.  Maybe, if time or circumstances allow, I’m sure I would like to get back to it.  But I haven’t done it in years and years and years.  I just did those for really another reason.  I didn’t do it as a painting; I did it for another reason.  At any rate, I liked that a lot, but of course, there was no money in painting, and I was getting out of school, and I had to find a job and all of that.  So music was there, I was able to get working in music and at least make some money.

Well, you were making money from I guess 15 or 16.  Even earlier.

Yeah, sure.  I was getting to play jobs.  I mean, it wasn’t much money, but at least it was the promise that this might be a career, whereas Art was something which was completely… I mean, there was no future that I could see.

So there was a practical, pragmatic aspect to playing music.

I think so.  Between music and art, music just came to be the one where I was able to begin working more.  Then, of course, as my idols began showing interest in me, then I said, “Well, gee, I must be okay.”

They are so different.  There’s a social aspect to music, and painting and drawing is such a solitary activity.

That’s true.

You seem to be a very well-read person.  I’m wondering what books have inspired you, and continue to.  Is reading something you spend a good amount of time doing?

Yes, I like to read.  I’ve got a lot of books, and every time I hear about a new book coming out, I get it.  And I try…I don’t get through all of them, but at least I read some of each book that I have.

Fiction?  Non-fiction?

I’m not too much into fiction.  I don’t care for fiction unless it would be something really fantastic, based on real life.  But I don’t really read fiction.  I am more interested in political books, inspirational books; books that might have to do with health, diet, vitamins, things that might have to do with taking care of your body; political books.  These kind of things I’m really interested in. I’m reading several books right now.  The book I’m reading at the moment and that I’m taking with me on the road (I had it with me last week, and I’m glad I did) is called Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance by Ellen Schwartz and Suzanne Stoddard.  It’s excellent.  It’s in paperback. It sounds very relevant to you. Yeah, I really love it.  They’ve got some excellent things.  One of the people who gave it a nice blurb was this fellow David Horton, and I read one of his books recently and liked it a lot, When Corporations Rule The World.  Another one is Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia by Stephen F. Cohen.  This book is really an eye-opener to what’s been going on.  It’s shocking to think of the things that happen that people don’t know about.  There’s another one… You got me started; I’m going to give you one more.  It’s a very informative book, which I have had for a while, and I keep it with me, which is Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen.  It’s an excellent book; it speaks for itself.  And one more, When Harlem Was In Vogue by David Levering Lewis.

In our first interview I asked what you meant by “hardcore jazz,” and you were saying that you thought it’s very political, it’s much less easily manipulated for commercial formats, which are some reasons why it’s not so viable in today’s economic world.  Then I mentioned that there’s an honesty in it, a truth-telling, and you said “it’s real art, and has a lot to say about things that are happening,” and a lot of forces out here want to divert people, have them not think about things and so forth.  Without getting into your explicit politics, do you see what you do as being political as well as artistic, as well as aesthetic?

Yes, of course I do.

It’s an implicitly political act, almost, what you do.

Yes.  Now, what do you mean by that?

I think when you talk about taking back your life from corporate dominance, your aesthetic is to get as deeply into whatever it is that you have to say at any given time through the horn, within the ritual of performance, and I guess there is nothing that can mediate that except you.  By “mediate” I mean that there is nothing really between you and what you’re expressing at that moment.

Of course.  And it’s something that’s coming from inside.  Corporations want you to get outside of yourself.  They don’t want you to think inside.  They don’t want you to contemplate.  They don’t want you to think about what’s really happening or ways to really change your self.  They want you to always feel you have to look outside of yourself to find satisfaction.  So yes, definitely, I think that music is political, and jazz music especially.  It’s very political.  I think you have to realize that and think about that when you play.  Which is one reason why I don’t like Smooth Jazz.  Although going back to what we were saying earlier tonight, I admire the skill of people playing that music… I have a reluctance to criticize, because I also am a Buddhist, and… Well, I retain elements of different kinds of Buddhism.  I shouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.  But I believe in a lot of the practices.  And I don’t believe in criticizing other people because I have my own life to straighten out.

Do you use any elements of the rituals of Buddhism to bring out your music, to bring yourself out in performance or prepare yourself mentally?

Well, not really.  I’ve studied some Zen and I’ve studied things.  But what I’ve gotten out of my study of Yoga and a lot of these disciplines… What I’ve got out of it is that my music is my yoga.  See, that’s the way I practice.  That’s the way I meditate, that’s the way I seek perfection like the Buddha…and enlightenment, rather.  So that’s what it is.  Trying to draw specific lines to it I’ve found doesn’t work for me.  And I’ve found out that my playing my instrument, and concentrating and getting inside of that, which is getting inside of myself, is my way of doing all of these spiritual things.  So it makes it easy for me in that sense.

You made a comment at the very end of Nisenson’s book, you said it two years ago, “there is something I’m trying to get to, it is clear at some times and not as clear at others, and it’s difficult to embrace the whole thing.”  After a few other sentences, you said, “Basically, what I am trying to do is play a more primitive kind of music.  By primitive, I mean less industrialized, more basic.  Maybe one note instead of ten.  There are more basic tones that convey a deep meaning which was just as important as far back as man can recall.  Sounds closer to Nature.”  Is that ongoing for you?  Is that really where you are now in your aspiration, and kind of the eternal quest?

It’s very difficult to describe music, as we know — to talk about music.  That’s why music is what it is, I guess.  I mean, it’s something different than the spoken word.  But yes, as far as I can put… I think he was asking me about what I was trying… Yeah, the music I am trying to get to is probably like my politics.  It’s anti-industrial.  But what it is, I don’t know.  Every now and then, when I play and I get close to it, like say I get a glimpse of something that has signs in that way, I say, “Okay, wow, that’s it.”  But I can’t get to it as often as I would like too.

Let me ask you a saxophone question.  How particular are you about the type of saxophone that you play?  How long did it take to find it?   Are you satisfied with the horn that you have now?

Let me see how I can put this.  In my career, and in my professional career, I have played several makes of saxophone.  They each have certain qualities which are unique to that particular instrument and to that make.  You find yourself in a position where one saxophone will give you one thing which you desire, and then it might not give you something else which another saxophone will give you.  Now, the other saxophone, the other make or brand, which gives you something else, but not what this first one gave you.  Then you might try another saxophone and say, “Gee, maybe I can get them both, everything I want in one saxophone.”  Then you may get another saxophone, and so on and so on, down the quest.  So after all these years, I would say it’s very difficult to get a saxophone which is going to give you everything that you feel you want to get out of yourself.  Also, you have to remember that you have a mouthpiece, you’ve got all these things that go with the instrument which affect the way it sounds also.  But the saxophone itself, the sound and the way it responds to what you want it to do is different each time; with each horn it’s a little different. And this is another thing that kind of makes music more like an art rather than a science you see.  Although, of course, we know music is a science.  We know that.  So it’s hard to really get it right there, BANG, I know, I’ll pick this up and WHAM, I can do everything with that.  So you have to compromise, in a way, and say, “Okay, I’ll do this because I’ll play this, and at least I can do this, I can’t do that, but this may be a little more essential for me to do this thing better than do that thing.”   So this is what it is.  You have to make choices.  And to complicate matters, especially as you age, the choices are based on your own physical body.  Playing one of these instruments is a very physical thing.  So to complicate matters, then it’s not just the instrument; it’s your own physical condition, health-wise and things like that.  You might say, “Well, gee, I can play this instrument much easier; it helps me to play it.”  It doesn’t sound as good, but it’s easier to play because… Say, for instance, I can’t lift this instrument, it’s really heavy, whereas this other instrument is lighter, I can lift it.  But I like the sound of this heavy one, but gee, at the same time, wow, I can’t lift it, so I have to… So there are all of these little things which always are at play.  I mean, it makes it interesting. [LAUGHS] It’s certainly not a cut-and-dried thing.

How long have you had the same saxophone you’re using now?  I’m sure it’s customized for you.

Well, yeah, it’s been customized, sort of.  But this particular instrument I’ve had for some time.  I’ve been playing it, I should say, for some time.  But again, a lot of it, as I said, has to do with other factors.  There have been some other instruments, and mouthpieces and things which I thought about playing.  But you have to sort of find the things that work the best for you overall.  I will say that I am very-very fortunate to have this instrument.  I love my horn madly, like Duke Ellington would say.  I don’t want this to be interpreted by my horn, who I think is listening to everything we’re saying, as in any way meaning that I would play another horn.  I don’t think I would.  I think I would always come back to this horn.  Because I have had it for a while now, and we have gotten to know each other.  It’s like a ventriloquist and his dummy.  I could say that, really, except maybe I’m the dummy and the horn is the ventriloquist.

You talked about music being the practice.  Do you see yourself (and I don’t mean this in a grandiose sense at all) as a messenger, as having a higher purpose, as being subject to forces stronger than yourself in what it is that you do?

I wish that could be true.  I wish that I could be performing some really service to mankind. If I am, that’s wonderful.  Because I definitely feel that life is about giving.  That’s what it’s about, and it’s really the only joy in life is giving, so you have to give.  Now, I enjoy playing and I love to play, but if I was just playing and I was getting more out of it, then it wouldn’t be right… Whether I have that grandiose…

I didn’t mean it as you seeing yourself in grandiose terms.  I wonder whether that aspiration is part of your personal imperatives.

Well, it probably is part of the fabric of it.  But Ted, I’m trying to be like the Buddha.  In other words, I’m trying to achieve Enlightenment during this lifetime.  Now, we all have to make our attempts and see how far we can go.  But this is what I want to do.  This is what I’m trying to really accomplish, getting some understanding of life and how people interact with each other, and jealousies and hatreds and envies, and all of these little things in life which are really so stupid and inconsequential.  If we can get above them… So this is what I’m really trying to do.  This is my great work, as far as I’m concerned.  I’m so happy that I have the instrument which is giving me sort of a path to travel with.

So you’re looking for that kind of ultimate detachment, in a certain sense, from the concerns that you’re talking about.

Yeah.  Really.  Actually.  That’s the only way you can really deal with it.  Well, it’s just like when you say, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Well, I want to be detached from that.  I don’t want people to praise me, “Oh, Sonny, you sounded…”  Yeah, okay, great.  I’m happy that I do, in a way.  But that’s not what…  I do want to be detached, in a way, from having to depend upon things like adulation and all of this kind of stuff.  So this is my higher aim, my higher goal.  I’ve got a long, long way to go, but at least I think… I know this is what I want to do.  But it’s just a matter of not getting…feeling that you can’t do it.  You have to stay on it, you know.  As Dizzy Gillespie said in that song a long time ago, “Stay on it.”  Which is a great song.  And that said, you’ve got to stay with it. That was Tadd Dameron’s tune. Yeah,  “Stay On It,” with Dizzy’s big band, and Dizzy played a beautiful solo.  It was really a very informative solo, which taught me a lot about playing actually.  Everything about it was logical.  It was a very logical solo.  It had all of the proper things to it, but it also was logical.  It wasn’t just, you know… I mean, I like logical playing.  I think everybody does who likes anything.  You want something that makes sense.  So it made a lot of sense, and it had all the other elements of great jazz playing.  It made a lot of sense, the way he played with the band, on top of the band, and the way he came in and the way he left space.  It was just perfect.

Did you have a church background when you were young?

Yeah, we had to go to church and Sunday school and all of that.  I mean, my parents took me to church.  I was brought up in church, and I had to go to Sunday School and got confirmed in church and all this sort of stuff.

Was it African Methodist or Baptist…

Actually, we went to a church that was a church of a sect that came out of Europe.  I think they’re prevalent around different parts of the United States.  They were called the Moravian Church.  They are a Christian church, but they’re very…not…it wasn’t gospelly or anything.  It was very straight hymns and Bach Cantatas and all this kind of stuff.  It was later in life, in my teens, when… Well, I shouldn’t say that.  My grandmother used to take me to a church.  There was a woman named Mother Horn.  I’ll never forget that.  She used to take me to church right there on Lenox Avenue, and it was one of these real sanctified churches that had band instruments playing, which was… The Moravian church never had that.  The Moravian church was very straight-laced with the organ and this type of thing.  But she took me to Mother Horn’s church several times, and that made a big impression on me.   I remember hearing a trumpet player playing with Mother Horn’s church who was really swinging. But then later I went to… I think we were talking last week, that I went out to Chicago.  I knew a girl that was in the sanctified church. A friend of mine had played trumpet out there, and I got involved with his sister, who… They had a gospel group.  Anyway, they were in a Sanctified church and I used to go there every week and everything. She was a really nice musician.  She’d compose a lot of stuff.  But I enjoyed going to the church, too, because I enjoyed the animated music.  The music was very animated, and I liked that.

You said in Nisenson’s book that you were there in ’49 and again after you left the Lexington facility in 1955.

Right.  I was there before I went to Lexington and then after I got out of Lexington.  So I was there probably in ’54.

Bob Cranshaw said that people would say, “Oh, I heard Sonny play this or that today,” and people would go outside the Y where you were living and listen to you rehearse, and then bring back reports.

Well, that was after I came back from Lexington and I was trying to get my life together and get straight.  I had a day job, not much money, so I had a nice little room at the Y… In fact, I used to rehearse at the Y with the great trumpeter Booker Little.  I don’t know if you remember him.

He made a comment about how incredible it was to rub shoulders with you as someone who had rubbed shoulders with Charlie Parker and Monk, that he wouldn’t have had that opportunity otherwise.

Yeah, that’s great.  He was really a nice player.  Anyway, I was staying at the Y, I had a day job, and in the evening and during the weekends, I would be able to practice in the room.  Booker used to come by and play, and a couple of guys.  But that was a very nice experience.  That was down on 35th and Wabash.  One of the interesting things that happened was one time when I was working, and getting up and going to work on State Street, catching the trolley, and there was a little record store on State Street right by the bus stop and I came out there one morning early to get on the bus, and there I saw in the window my record.  It was a record I had made with Monk, “Just The Way You Look Tonight.”  There was this record with me on the cover.  It was very interesting, because there I was on the cover of this album in the window of the record store, and I was on my way going down to work as a janitor in a factory.  Interesting pull, you know.

You said that you did manual labor deliberately at that point, and I guess you described as a way of getting healthier.  Was that moment a sort of inspiration to keep focused on music?

Well, I was doing manual labor basically I wanted to… Well, let’s put it bluntly.  It was the only thing that I was able to make a living at.  And so I really had to work.  But in doing it I found a certain…there was something good about, working with your hands.  I mean, remember what Gandhi said.  There’s a certain wonderful release.  There’s a spiritual feeling when you really  work and do something.  So I was working and doing something. [LAUGHS] Plus I was trying to get away from the nightclub drug scene until I was strong enough to go back.  So it was good.

Is that sense of the beneficialness of labor part of what remains attractive about living in the country?

I still think labor is wonderful.  In the country, I don’t do too much of it.  We have a small farm but we don’t really work it.  So it’s really not that.  Living in the country for me is just a place where I can blow my horn and not disturb the neighbors, and get some fresh air, like that.  But the sense of work, I think, is a beautiful thing, and it’s something which is lost.  People go to work now because they have to.  But you have to love what you’re doing.  You have to find a way to love what you work at, and then it’s worth something to work.  You don’t just work and you come home and you’re mad, and somebody is abusing you all day at work and you come home and sit down and turn on the TV, and that drains you, drains more energy and life out of you… This is an incorrect way.  Anybody can see that.  Everybody can see it, but we have to kind of take that first step to change it, you see.

At the beginning of this conversation, you were not in the best mood.  Do you love what you do?

Do you mean the music?

I mean the whole thing.

Yes.

Being a musician is your life, your career, your occupation; not just the pure music, but all the ramifications of being a musician.

Sure.  Not only do I love it, I’m extremely grateful about it.  But look, this is what we’re here for.  We’re here to suffer, in a way of speaking.  This is what life is, I mean, and you have to… So yeah, there are sometimes… Today they have to… I’ll run this down to you.  Just to give you an idea why I might have sounded a little bit put out of sorts. They had to change the pipes up in the roof of my building.  I happen to live on the top floor.  So the whole ceiling is torn out, and the wall is all torn out and exposed, and there’s hammering and everything.  Then we were away, we played in Philly last weekend, and I came back and went in the bathroom, and one of the workmen had made a mistake and tore through the wall into my bathroom tile.  Which was… I mean, this is an example, by the way, of maybe somebody doing something they don’t like to do when they go to work.

Good to draw lessons from that experience in the good Buddhist manner.

[LAUGHS] So anyway, I had to deal with that, and then the guys coming in and going through my wall…

So no practicing today.

Well, actually I did.  Here’s what happened.  I had a headache today, too, so I was really upset with all this stuff.  Plus, to add to that, down on my street they’re excavating.  The whole sidewalk is completely…all these back hoes and trucks and (?) and everything.  Some guys got the idea they wanted to gentrify Greenwich Street.  They make to make it beautiful, so-called.  Anyway, so that’s a mess down there.  You can hardly walk in the door.  But anyway, this, coming upstairs… But did I get any practice?  Yeah.  There was something I wanted to try.  I always like to play, because it’s very important, even if it’s a few minutes.  The time was short after they got through, because I only practice certain circumscribed hours over here.  So the time was short but I still was able to take out my horn, and for a few minutes, maybe 15 minutes or so, I was able to go with something that was in my mind.  So I actually did get in a little playing today.

I think I’ve taken enough of your time.

I’ve told you the story of my life there, almost…

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