Tag Archives: Tenor Saxophone

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

Interviews with Charles Lloyd on WKCR 1994 and 1995

ECM’s recent release  of Charles Lloyd’s first five recordings for the label, made between 1989 and 1996, made me remember a vivid encounter I had with Lloyd at WKCR in May 1994, while he was in residence during at the Blue Note supporting his then new-release (and 3rd  for ECM), titled The Call. I’m posting the full transcript of that session and a much more restrained and less discursive encounter a year later, when he was in NYC to support ECM date #4, titled All My Relations.

Charles Lloyd (Out-To-Lunch, May 11, 1994):

[MUSIC: “Brother On The Rooftop”]

TP:    Billy Hart was the drummer, on top of just about every move Charles Lloyd makes on The Call [ECM] and probably every note you’ll be playing this week, I’d say.  Yes, Charles Lloyd?

CL:    All over me like a wet blanket.

TP:    How long have you and Jabali been hooked up in this particular…

CL:    In this incarnation, what happened was that he heard that I was leaving Cannonball, and I was putting my first group together… This is Jabali telling me.  He said he that he was in Washington, D.C., playing with Shirley Horn, I think, and he said, “Oh, I want to be in that group.”  And somehow, Jack De Johnette called me at 3 in the morning and said, “I want to play with you, man.”  So somehow, Jack’s bodaciousness and… People said, “Well, don’t get Jack because he’s too loud” and stuff, but he turned out to be one of the most tasteful ever.  Jabali said that he was supposed to be in the group, and I didn’t understand the rhetoric until he and I started playing together recently in the last year or so.  It’s like they used to talk about love and stuff like that, you know…

TP:    How about the other guys in the band, Bobo Stenson and Anders Jormin?  Your hook-up with them, a few words about their musical qualities.

CL:    That’s a little strange in the sense that in the early Sixties, late Sixties, I had to go to Europe… You know, America, the beer tavern thing, and I couldn’t get the music to fit right and stuff like that, and when I was trying to play, oftentimes they thought I was too much of a cadet or something.  And I went to Europe, and the people testified, and they liked the music.  And there were these little kids in the audience in Stockholm, you know, youngsters, but they just loved the music so much.  And I didn’t realize that that was the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  We played in Stockholm, like, non-stop, and you’d have to claw your way to get out of the place and stuff like that.  People…they were just so hungry for the music, you know.  And these little boys, years later they came around, and… We were playing at the Seed, and essentially what happened was that… You know, the Vikings came over here way before Chris Columbus, and they took their butts back home.  You know, they didn’t try to claim some stuff that people was already living on.  Those guys heard the music, and they were fearless, and they loved it, and I couldn’t… You know, I couldn’t deny the universal living room.  Bobo is for me one of the best pianists on the planet, and Anders is right there also, always selflessly serving the music.

And I always have to have an orchestra, you know, like people who are just dedicated to the full service of the music.  Because I grew up loving Mingus and Duke and Monk, you know, Lady Day and Trane, just all this beautiful music, the Five Spot, and I was out in California with Ornette and stuff, I was in Memphis with Booker Little… Phineas Newborn saw me at an amateur hour show and said, “Boy, you need lessons bad.”  So all that kind of stuff…

TP:    Well, let’s organize a bit, and…

CL:    I can’t organize!

TP:    Well, I’ll try to do it.

CL:    Oh, okay.

TP:    Maybe we can hook up.  You were talking about Memphis, and you came up in Memphis at a time when there were many special musicians all around the same age performing.  Talk about those days and those experiences a little bit.

CL:    It was very powerful, because we knew at a very young age that nobody could touch our stuff.  I don’t know what it was, but there was something in the water or something, maybe the Mississippi flowing through, and Mister Armstrong south of there, coming from there and stuff.  My father went to school with Jimmie Lunceford.  You know, Jimmie Lunceford taught at our high school before…

TP:    Which high school was that?

CL:    Manassas.  Manassas is where all the bad cats went.  Now, there was Booker Washington, where Phineas went, but that was an earlier age.  Phineas was older than us, you know.  But Manassas, man, there was… Just check.  During my time period, there was Frank Strozier, Harold Mabern, George Coleman had gone to school there, Hank Crawford had gone to school there.  There were a lot of musicians you’ve never heard of.  There was another pianist in Memphis named Charles…oh, man, why can’t I think of Charles’ name?

TP:    Charles Thomas.

CL:    Charles Thomas.  Thank you!  Anyway, he played like Bud Powell in those days.  And I keep asking Harold and James Williams about him.

TP:    He played at Bradley’s here in New York about a year ago.  James Williams set that up.

CL:    Did you hear that?

TP:    I did.

CL:    Well, man, I would like to hear him play.  Because he was beautiful, and he was tall and elegant, and he had this kind of refinement and this aggressiveness on the stuff.  He was always dropping half-steps on cats, you know, and if he didn’t like the way a cat played, he would just half-step him to death and just get him off the stage.

So we came up… George was kind of like a Santini.  Do you remember that film?

TP:    The Great Santini?

CL:    Yeah.  George was kind of like that task-master, you know.

TP:    Elaborate a little bit.

CL:    Well, George, you know, he just was like that with all of us.  There was a trombone player, I can’t remember his name, but I remember we had to learn “Cherokee” in B-flat, and then we called it and George played it in A the next time, and he’d call it in E, and you just… You’d say, “Man, just learn ‘Cherokee.’”  He’d say, “Fine, let’s play it in E right here.”  And George would play it real fast…

TP:    I think he’s still doing that to people.

CL:    Right, I know.  But quiet as it’s kept, I think that was an interesting university that he ran.  But when I go really back, earlier, I have to look at Phineas, because there I was, like, ten years old, playing on an amateur show.  Phineas Newborn comes backstage and says, “You need lessons bad,” takes me around the corner on Beale Street, sits me down at the feet of Irving Reason(?), who is a beautiful alto player, who is here in the city somewhere, or was.  They played in Bill Harvey’s orchestra, sometimes society…

I just love Mandela now.  How many of us can do 27, you know what I’m talking about, and come out with that kind of graciousness and bigness, and just say “Freedom for everyone.”  I’m still dreaming of an ideal.

But back… Phineas…playing with him as a kid… So after I took these lessons, later on Phineas had me in his father’s band.  You know, played over in West Memphis, Arkansas, at the Plantation Inn, Mister Morris Berger’s place, okay, and we’d play for dancing and stuff like that.  But amidst all of that we’d be putting stuff in.  And then there were gigs with people like B.B. King.  Bobby Blue Bland was one of the first gigs I ever had.  He was a singer.  He was not featured.  It was Roscoe Gordon’s band.  You ever heard of Roscoe Gordon?

TP:    Mmm-hmm.

CL:    Mmm-hmm.  Well, anyway, Roscoe Gordon played good, and he had some hits around there.  So you’d come hearing all this blues stuff.  My grandfather had lots of property down there.  There was a man named Mister Poon, you know, and he used to play the guitar, and my cousin and I used to hear him play a blues, the Robert Johnson kind of stuff, and we’d jump up and scream and do somersaults and stuff like that.  So I knew real early I was supposed to be a musician.

But getting back to George, he was interesting in the sense that… First of all, Phineas was very big and tolerant.  He gave us lots of love and encouragement.  George did the Santini, a hatchet-chop.  If you didn’t have the stuff together, you know… The trombone player I was about to tell you about, Harper, he was playing, and he turned around and George was putting the evil eye on him, you know, the ray.  So he turned around and looked at… He said, “What was that change right there?”  George said, “What about all those other changes you just missed?  Don’t be asking about that change.”  So George was right there, you know.

And Booker Little was my best friend, and he and I would meet at Thunderbird Pass every morning, and we’d go to school, and Booker… We’d get up at 6 o’clock and practice until about 8:30 or 9, then we’d get a permit to come to school late, and… Like that.  We just were on it.  We just loved the music.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to go on so much about Memphis.  Do you have a specific question?

TP:    Well, I think you answered it.  Why don’t you talk a little bit more about your relationship with Booker Little.

CL:    Man, could I.  See, Booker was the incarnation of… Pardon my lyrics, but he was a wise man.  He died… I think we buried him, he was 22 or 23.  I can’t think about that, it hurts so much…

See, here’s what happened.  Booker was a saint and a sage.  I mean, in the full sense of the word.  He was a holy man.  Okay?  Now, that doesn’t mean that he didn’t like the barbecue sauce, and the ladies were all over Booker.  But he had a way of… Booker just had a graciousness, and everybody wanted some of Booker.  I remember one… Anyway, I could tell you about that, but it’s not for radio play, so… I like radio, though.  It’s confessional.  And I love the city, I love the energy… Anyway.

So Booker and I were in Memphis, okay, and we were playing, you know, we heard Bird and Diz, and Dewey when he was Dewey, before he put a dress on—and we loved that music.  It just turned us on so much.  Later, Booker came to… He went to Chicago, you know, with Frank… He followed Frank and those guys to the Chicago Conservatory.  And I either was going to go to Juilliard or the University of Southern California.  I chose Southern California, because I loved Bartok’s music, for some strange reason, and they had a professor there, Halsey Stephens, who Bartok was his specialty.  And I don’t know, somehow I… A kid gets a weird kind of notion on this stuff.  So I went to school there.

But later Booker came through with Max Roach, and that was really inspiring.  In those days I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson, Ornette, Don Cherry, Billy Higgins, Scott LaFaro… Now, this is interesting.  In Memphis I was in the right place at the right time.  It was always pregnant with elixir and all these bad cats were just playing their buns off.  Forget Albert(?).  He’d be standing around the corner, peeping, wishing he could be a fly on some of that!  Jamil Nasser.  Jamil said that we remember him as an iceman… I was a swimmer, I used to win prizes and stuff like that, and I quit swimming because I wanted to learn to play the saxophone.  I love the saxophone!

So anyway, when I got… Then I got to California, and I wanted to learn all there is about music.  They only wanted to show me about three hundred years of Europe.  That’s cool, but what about, you know, all this other stuff?  And they didn’t have no elixir ration for that.  So I found out my tribe, you know, in these people I just mentioned.  There was the Coal Man, Ornette, and stuff like that.  He had the Studebaker that went backwards and he ran over his saxophone, and that’s why he later got the plastic one because it ran over the other one.  Sorry.

TP:    I never heard that one.

CL:    After a jam session one day, you know, he backed up… Do you remember those Studebakers?  You couldn’t tell the front from the back.  I don’t remember the years.  But some car aficionados could call in.  So pardon me, I’ll be brief here; I’m sorry about this verbal diarrhea.

What I’m trying to say is that I love the music, I’ve always loved it, I still love it.

So there in California I had all these great people I told you about.  I also played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band.  There are a lot of people I don’t mention.  For example, I forgot to tell you about Willie Mitchell in Memphis.  I played in his band.  Do you remember Willie Mitchell?  He produced Al Green, man, and all that stuff.  I played with Rufus Thomas and all these people, too.

TP:    So you had a whole range of experience.

CL:    I had a whole range of experience.

TP:    You were playing in almost every genre of the music, with a full cultural experience.

CL:    Yes.  And in the high school band, you’ve got to come in contact with Bach and Brahms and stuff like that…

TP:    Who was your high school band teacher?

CL:    Matthew Garrett.  Matthew Garrett!  I hear this girl Dee Dee Bridgewater, that he’s her father.  Now, I can’t research all this because I’ve been in hiatus for years.  I’m not in hiatus, obviously, now.  You can check.  I’m just zooming, because you know, pshew, I’m home.  So happy to be home.  I like the woods, you know, for a minute, but I stayed too long in the woods.  You know what I’m talking about?  Like, remember that t-shirt, “heading out for the woods.”  So I had to check that out.  But that’s the way I am.  When I go into something, I just go knee deep.  Sorry.  I get drowned.

TP:    Who were you listening to in formulating your sound as a young musician?

CL:    Well, I’d stay up all night listening to Yardbird Parker, you know, Mister Parker.  I knew that he flew through the air with the greatest of ease any time he wanted to, and he lived in luxurious penthouses in Manhattan and had people driving him all over the place, you know, and anything Mister Bird wanted to do, everything was cool, you know.  So Bird was my main hero, because think about the… I mean, this stuff came up later about Superman, flying… Bird was my hero when I was a little kid.  And of course, I loved Fats Navarro.  I mean, I heard all this stuff.  And Mister Hawkins and Prez and Lady Day.  Coming up, all that just moved me so much.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins here in New York.  He wasn’t so much into talking; it was just like the saint would impart something to you with just the ray, you know, just looking at me.  I’ve got a photo to this day (I’ll send you a copy of it) backstage at the Vanguard, and I’m sitting at his feet, and he’s just looking at me, and like he’s just elixiphizing me with all this stuff.

So I’m just blessed to be a part of process, you know what I’m saying?  I’m not at all any good.  I want you to know that.  I’m not the dust of the dust of their shoes.  But I love this music.  And I’ll tell you, sometimes the little stuff gets out of the way, and the music comes through, man, and I’m home.

TP:    We’re speaking with Charles Lloyd, who is laying a lot of information on us…

CL:    But let me tell you just quickly about Booker.  Then when I got to New York… Because we found in California that a pineapple hits you on the head, and another day goes by.  Well, what is that?  And you’ve got to drive about nineteen years to get to the gig or something like that, and then the gig was tired.  I played a wedding with Billy Higgins, Don Cherry, a pianist named Terry Trotter, maybe Scott LaFaro was on bass.  Anyway, we get to the gig, and we couldn’t wait to play, you know, because that’s what we loved doing.  And we said, “LA-DA-DU-DO, BALEEDLE, DA-DUT,”  [ETC.] You know what that is, “Doctor Jackyll.”  So we don’t get that far at that wedding.  The father said, “Please, please, please stop.  I’ll pay you.  Here’s the money.  Don’t play any more.  Please stop.”  You know, that’s the type of stuff we had to come up against.  So we knew we had to get to New York.  Fortunately, Ornette came to New York and was playing at the Five Spot non-stop, and that was an encouragement for all of us.  So slowly, slowly… Eric Dolphy left Chico Hamilton and joined Mingus’ group, and Eric recommended me to Chico.  I joined Chico.  I was playing with Bobby Hutcherson then.  I had a bad group with Bobby Hutcherson and Scott La Faro, and I’m trying to think of who was playing drums with us at that time.  There was a lot of great drummers in California.  Lawrence Marable.  There was…

TP:    Frank Butler maybe?

CL:    Frank Butler!  Yeah, oh, man!  Frank Butler told the judge… The judge said, “Frank, you got to do five years.”  Frank said, “I can’t do that much time, your honor.”  He said, “Just do the best you can, Frank.”  I’m sorry.  We laughed as kids.  That’s not laughable now.  But his real message was, you know, if you don’t make five, Jack…

But I don’t like a society or a system where… I want everybody to be able to rise to their full potential.  I mean, on the for-real side.  I don’t like impediments.  So we’ve got to find some way to make this thing a level playing field, where everybody… The big fault of the whole thing… See, this music is the music of freedom, okay.  It’s the music of enlightenment.  It’s the music of transformation.  It’s a music of wonder.  I don’t know what this media thing is all mis-used for.  I come to town, man… You invite me to your show, and I see nobody else wants to talk to me.  That’s cool.  I don’t want to talk to nobody anyway.  All I want to do is do the music.

However, I am a servant.  Okay?  I am a part of this process.  I sat at the feet of Mister Hawkins, the father of the modern tenor saxophone.  And they tell me, “Well, Mister Gumball and them cats don’t want to say nothin’ to your stuff because, you know, it’s not presentable,” or maybe it’s not… Well, quiet as it’s kept, man, it’s their tradition, and not only that, it’s all of our traditions.  And this music is a music of full-on uplift played by great creators.  It does something to you and for you that gets you up in the morning with the right attitude of just, “Yes, how are you,” and you be kind to each other, and you learn to love yourself and the higher principles and eternal verities — and quiet as it’s kept, change your character if you get deep off into it.  So I don’t know what this pablum is all about and all this useless information and stuff like that.  You’ve got the computer and the chip and all that stuff, and it moves faster than the speed and stuff… Well, this music has always moved faster than the speed of light.

When I got to New York, Booker was here, and I came down the first night, man, and Booker was playing with Eric and Roy Haynes and stuff at Birdland.  I went downstairs, man, and it was just… I was just home.  I knew I was home.  And Booker took me to his pad.  He was living up on East 92nd Street then, across from the Y; you know the Y up there.  Booker sat me down and he said, “Man, it’s different now.  We’ve kind of gone into different camps.  But the thing is that you’ve got to be living about truth, and you’ve got to be sincere, and you’ve got to be straight with yourself and people.  And this music, we all loved it, we’ve always loved it, but here we are.  Just keep working on your character.  Your music is great.”  And man, I was dipping and diving.  Booker was on his way out then.  His health thing was in decline.  But he was imparting this wisdom.

Well, man, I got just hit with all of that, and I am a part of that.  Please pardon my lyrics, and I’ll be quiet, because it’s about playing the music.  But I do want to say that there is something behind this music, and I live in adoration of that, because we are spirit, and this material thing… Nobody gets out of here alive, and we ought to find a way where we can all dance here.

I blew a fuse as a young man.  That’s why I went away into hiatus, because I blew a fuse.  Because I just thought… I wanted to change the world with music.  I realized I’d failed at that.  So I said, “Hey, I’d better change my character, as Booker said, straight up.”  And Mom’s love at home is real important.  That really helps kids, you know.  So I’m really for education and for the uplift of the thing.  But music, man, in our lives, we really need it, and we aren’t getting enough of it.  What you do here and what’s happening in some other places gets to us, but it’s just too little, brother, and it may be too little, too late, unfortunately.  But God bless you for what you’re doing.

TP:    Well, everybody’s got to put down only what they can put down, I think.  And I think what we should do is listen to some recent music by Charles Lloyd, then we’ll return for more conversation.

[MUSIC: “Monk In Paris”; “Imke”; “Figure In Blue (Memories of Duke)”]

TP:    Talk about your experiences in New York in the 1960′s.  How has it changed for you coming back here?

LB:    Well, I moved here in 1960 (as I said, I replaced Eric Dolphy with Chico Hamilton), and I first stayed with Booker Little, then later I stayed with Frank Strozier.  Because when you’re a young musician, you know, and haven’t heard Bird, and Bird living in the penthouse, it took a while… I didn’t have the penthouse together, so they let me sleep on their sofas, you know, for a while.  Then later… Fortunately, I was a composer, so I had some kind of publishing thing where I got an apartment at 1 Sheridan Square in the Village.  So that was good for me.  So I lived there.

And my experiences were incredible, because all my old friends from California were here.  Ornette, Eric was here, all of Ornette’s group.  Scott La Faro was here, who was my best buddy.  You know, he used to drive a car like Steve McQueen.  Looked like him, too.  Same thing, he would drive through anything.  It’s unfortunate he went out in a car accident, too.

But my experience here was very… There was just music everywhere.  Bill Lee had this Citroen, you know; we’d all pile up in that, and we’d go from Birdland down to the Jazz Gallery to hear Monk, and then we would go to the Five Spot to hear Saint Newk, and then we’d go over to the Half Note, and then we’d come back up to the Vanguard, and then we’d go back uptown.  It was kind of like that.  Harold Mabern and stuff… We’d just stay up all night and laugh, and we’d go to movies during the day, and we’d practice and we’d play.  It was just living for the music, the Holy Grail romantic notion of that.  That’s what it was like.

It was a simpler time, in a way, and I think there was also… Everybody was deep off into the study and the pursuit of the music.  There wasn’t commerce or anything like that.  It was just purely for the love.  Of course, it was a simpler world and a simpler time.

TP:    Was there a political or ideological component to what was happening in the music, or was that laid onto it by observers from the outside, would you say?

CL:    I think this music has always been (how do you say?) dealing on such a level that it encompasses everything.  So I would be remiss if I would say it was only just… The purity of the pursuit was one that made your scholastic or your scholarship thing… You had to know everything about it.  And New York does teach you that there is something indestructible in the spirit, and you’d better get to that fast.  So the question of was there a political aspect or was that laid on it… Of course, we knew that…

Shirley Horn said, “Ten cents a dance.  That’s what they pay me.  Gosh, how they hurt my toes, fat guys and sailors” — you know.  So we were kind of… I love Shirley Horn down there.  I wanted to sing my little trumpet solo with her, you know, but I just… I mean, my sax solo.  I remember Dewey used to play down there, and she would sing that “Ten Cents a Dance.”  Oh, man, it used to just make me cry in tears and stuff.

We were all optimists.  We hoped for a better world.  And for some reason… To answer your question, frankly, at a certain point, I just blew a fuse and had to go away and try to heal, you know, and to change my character to be able to… I had the indestructibility sutra down where I could live in my lifetime with that; I knew what that was about.  But I still believe that there was a way that I could transcend the madness, liberation amidst the chaos.  And with the music, I wanted to bring something of inspiration and consolation to sisters and brothers and sisterettes and brotherettes around the world.

So for me, I think that on the level that you’re speaking, when you talk about the political arena, I would say that we’d better deal with the spirit.  Because it’s a spiritual quest.  That’s what we really are here, and he who is stepping on who, or who is first and who is last, I mean, all that is misplaced thinking.  I think if we have a world… I mean, obviously… You know, I wanted to marry Lady Day when I was ten years old, and protect her and look after her.  So what can I tell you about any of this, you know?

TP:    Let me ask you about three musicians who you’ve mentioned in the course of our discussion, and who you came into contact with.  In California, you hooked up with Ornette Coleman, and knew him and heard him, and Eric Dolphy as well.  And many people, of course, saw a certain analogy between your approach and John Coltrane, who you’ve also talked about.  And indeed, you also mentioned, when we were off-mike, spending a week at the feet of the Ellington band in Antibes.  So I’d like some reflections from you on each of those musical entities.

CL:    We’re very fortunate that Ornette is still alive today.  I love him very much.  He for me was someone who was very great in my life.  I was an alto player, and when I moved to California to go to college, I was very intense…and there were lots of jam sessions around Los Angeles those days.  Incidentally, I didn’t mention Ellis Marsalis.  He was out there in the Service at El Toro Marine Base, and he would come up, and we’d jam a lot.  He had the Santini School approach to life also, as you can see from his siblings [sic]. Essentially that’s a great school to come from, because in a way…it prepares you for half-steps, you know.

Getting back to these folks you asked about.  Ornette was… I can’t put words to him, because… We used to argue a lot, because my approach and his approach… I used to say, “Ornette, you can’t read and you can’t do this,” and he said, “You know, you can play the saxophone, but that don’t have a whole lot do with music.”  So we would have approaches like that.  I was a kid, you know… One day, Ornette and I stopped arguing.  Because he walked from his house over on Jefferson over to my house over on 36th Street at S.C., and he brought his horn.  He was going to follow all of the… He actually solved the universe for me that day.  He came over… It was a very enlightening experience.  I have to tell you about Thelonious, who also gave me… Thelonious is the one who sent me away into hiatus.  Remind me if I go too far on that…

But Ornette came over to my house one day, took his alto out, didn’t say a word.  He played the lowest note on there, a low B-flat, his B-flat, which is concert D-flat or something.  (I’m not here trying to be pedantic.)  He played the lowest note on the horn, then he played the highest note.  You follow this?  Low note, the highest note.  Then he came up a half-step to the next to the lowest note, then he played the next to the highest note.  You following this?  He did this on the whole saxophone!  He compressed the instrument (you understand?) from the lowest to the highest, and he kept bringing each of them up.  But what he did was, he alternately played each.  He played the low B-flat and he played the high F, and then he played the C, and then he played the E, and he kept compressing it.  But what he did was, he did it in a nanosecond.  He said, WWHHOOMMPP!

And so, we never argued about music any more.  I just said, “Okay,” and I prostrated, and from then on we didn’t have to deal with that.  And he opened me up to something, which was the organicness of the music.  Because I had come from that school where…the Santini school from George Coleman and Ellis and stuff, about not going across the line, you know, and Ornette had blurred the line.  And it turned out that I was very entrancillated [sic] with all that.   (Pardon my lyrics.  I have to make up words.  Because I don’t think that it’s adequate for musicians, especially.)

And Eric also… Now, there’s someone who Eric comes from that’s very important who is still also alive.  That’s Buddy Collette.  I don’t know if you know him.  This is very beautiful, and I’m very touched.  I lived at this place, 1 Sheridan Square, and I’m with Chico.  Remember when Mingus had the concert at Town Hall with the big band, way back then.  Well, Buddy came to town because Buddy was his Gil Evans.  Buddy was orchestrating and doing all the stuff.  Because Mingus had that Corvette, you know, with the Confederate flag and his bass sticking out of the green Corvette, riding around the Village, and Mingus would park his Corvette anywhere, and nobody would mess with his space.  Believe me.  Nobody.  Even the dudes today, they may… I can’t speak… I can only speak in our lifetime, okay.  You can’t say what it would be, because now some other son may cut your foot off or something, or your left (?).

But anyway, Eric was very beautiful and very scholarly.  He came through Buddy, though.  Buddy is a very sweet, compassionate man.

Then when you ask about Trane, I don’t know what to tell you about him.  I loved him also so much.  He for me embodied so much.  You know, like, Bird discovered the atom train, smashed it, you know, and it was kind of like… So much beauty of tone, lyricism, swing.  I mean, you talk about it.  Trane embodied it all!  When I think about the saxophone, I start thinking about Prez and Coleman Hawkins and Big Ben and Don Byas, you know, all of that.  And I’ve just come up, and there’s so many great tenor players, Newk… But you know, Trane for me…you know, it was something very special.  Again, it was that sage, that saintly quality, you see.  Because I always hooked that up with these musicians.  For me, they were guiding us and leading us, and they were talking about it all.  I just had great adoration for him.

And when people say, well, that I sound like him or something… Man, I wish I did!  What I’m saying is I loved him so much, and I take that as a compliment.  However, time has borne out that… I think I have grown to have a sound and an approach that certainly comes from all those great masters…

But again, getting back to Trane, he profoundly affected me, as did the others.  Ornette also.

TP:    Do you remember first hearing him?  And Ornette.

CL:    Dig this.  Do you know where I first heard Trane?  This is very interesting.  I first heard him in 1955 with Dewey, and they were playing at Jazz City in Hollywood.  I had gone to California to interview for the University of Southern California.  This is interesting, because he played in starts and stops.  He would play a little bit… Then Dewey also was doing the Santini thing of sending him off the stage!  He was being hard.  You know how Lady Day…I mean, Dewey could be a nice bunch of guys… So he was sending him off the stage, and all kinds of nonsense like that.

But I just kept following him.  Then I remember they made that record, remember “Stablemates” and all that stuff, and I was listening to that, and it was like…it was so… It was so fulfilling.  You know?  It was so rich.  It was so much quality and so much beauty, and his search and his aspiration.  All I can say is that I always had that in me.  When I wasn’t good as a little kid, I still had the great search.  And that thing we definitely had in common, a great spiritual quest.  And he definitely… As I said earlier, I’m not the dust of his shoes.  But sometimes all these great masters come through and they bless me with this special benediction, and I feel really uplifted.

TP:    You asked me to remind you to say a few words about Monk, and also Ellington if we have time.

CL:    Oh, I’ll be real quick.  Okay.  The thing about Monk was, I was playing opposite him at the Village Gate, and he would kind of dance around the walls and stuff.  You know that beautiful dance he used to do?  And Nica, the Baroness, you know… By this time I was a precocious kid, you know, like youngsters can be.  I thought I knew everything.  I’m in my late twenties, I had the group with Keith Jarrett and Jack De Johnette and Cecil McBee.  So we were playing at the Village Gate.  So I had a special thing in my rider that I had to have fresh orange juice, no more than six hours off the tree, and that kind of nonsense, you know.  I was trying to be a brutarian or something like that.  So Monk would come in, he’d be checkin’ Junior out…

Incidentally, one other thing I have to tell you quickly is, before I joined Cannonball I had an invitation from Monk’s manager to come and play with Monk.  He called me on the phone and said, “Why don’t you go to Monk’s house and play with him.”  I said, “I’d love to.”  He said, “Well, Monk wants you to play with him.”  I said, “Well, great.  Have him give me a call.”  I didn’t understand intermediaries in those days.  So somehow I didn’t get to do that.

But anyway, we were backstage at the Village Gate between sets.  So I told Nica, “Nica, when Monk comes here, please tell him not to drink the orange juice because it’s tainted tonight.”  So Monk comes in and she said, “Thelonious, Thelonious, Thelonious, Charles said don’t drink the orange juice, it’s tainted, it’s tainted!”  And he didn’t pay any attention to anybody, he’s just dancing.  So finally he gets over by the pitcher of orange juice, he picks it up, and he kind of dances over by me, and he just goes [GLUG-GLUG-GLUG...”] — he gobbled the whole thing down.  And he looked straight into my eyes and he said, “Tainted, huh.”  I was reading a book at that book called Milarepa, a hundred thousand songs from this Tibetan saint.  He would take poison and turn into soma or elixir.  So I said, “I’m not ready.”  It was getting to be time for me to leave.

The thing about Duke, I was in Antibes, and Harry Carney and Johnny Hodges, they just took me to their feet, and they took me to Sidney Bechet’s gravesite over there, and they gave me an initiation that remains with me to this day.  And Duke told me that if I keep stirring the soup that one day I’d have something.  They just gave me love and conviviality, you know, and again, they transformed something.

TP:    Made you feel very connected also.

CL:    Oh, man!  And Mister Carney was…both of them were so beautiful.

* * * *

Charles Lloyd  – (5-31-95):

TP:    Last year you came up for an Out To Lunch, and we spent a long time talking about your early years in Memphis.  It was a fascinating show.  It seems to me that the title of this release and the liner notes all refer to Memphis…

CL:    That’s only because of your show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    You tell some of the similar stories.  A few words about what’s behind this record and how you conceived it.  And why would you say it was because of that particular show that you’d start thinking about Memphis?

CL:    I was humoring you.

TP:    Oh, thank you.

CL:    No, Memphis, it’s in Egypt, and it was someplace that formed me and informed me.  I heard Bird, you know.  That’s so great, man.  I have to get up so early in the morning, like 8:20 in the morning, to check Bird out on the air.  That’s wonderful, to be on the airwaves.  No other city does that!

TP:    Where did you hear Bird in Memphis?

CL:    Uh…

TP:    Oh, did you say you heard Bird in Memphis, or you were hearing him this morning?

CL:    I hear him every morning.  I get up.  Even when I play at the Blue Note I’ll still get up to hear the music.  And when I was a little kid, I’d go to bed, and Bird wouldn’t come on the radio until midnight, because this kind of music wasn’t played during the daylight hours on the radios at that time.  So I’d have to stay up all night and fool my mother that I was nuts, that I was asleep, and I’d wait for Bird to come on, and I’d soar.  So it’s always been like that.

TP:    Well, you were around the music from the beginning, because I gather your mother had a rooming house…

CL:    No, she didn’t have a rooming house.  It was just one of her girlfriends, you know, worked at the theaters and knew that these musicians, these great artists, needed accommodations on a very (?) level.  So my Mom had a nice home.  So Lionel Hampton and a few people stayed there.

TP:    Well, you have vivid memories, expressed in the notes, about seeing the musicians in Lionel Hampton’s band as a youngster, and being very impressed.

CL:    Oh yeah.

TP:    And hanging out with Quincy Jones, approximately a peer of yours.

CL:    Well, he’s got a little more mileage on the chassis than me.  But we were precocious little kids, you know.

TP:    Has this been a busy year for you?  Have you been doing a lot of writing, thinking, performing?  You said you just got back from 20 concerts in Europe.

CL:    Yes, I just played 20 concerts in about a month in Europe.  So I would probably normally be a basket case.  But there’s something strange about this music.  You kind of get energized or something.  Something happens where it goes beyond the physical situation.  Because that travel and all that stuff can be quite arduous, but when you get to play the music and get people to be so touched by it, it’s always been very beautiful for me.

TP:    It’s a different band this week.

CL:    This is true.

TP:    You have Billy Childs and Santi DiBriano.  A few words about the members of the band.

CL:    Well, the tour was with a group that I’ve been recording with, with Bobo and Anders and Billy — with Jabali there.  Coming back home, there were problems in bringing the guys over this time, because two of the guys live in Sweden, and Billy lives in New York — and I’m not quite sure where my home is.

Billy Childs is someone that I’ve been observing over the years, and he makes recordings and such that I can’t quite… I think he has large talent that’s something… and in the wildness of my music I can bring something out in him.  I’m taking on a challenge here.  Santi, of course, comes from Jabali’s world, and Jabali recommended him very highly, as did Billy Childs.  But Billy I think has a very large talent.  And I like pianists, as you probably know; of course, drummers I love.  So I have always tried to develop something, some rapport there.  Billy’s instrument is normally too clean, but I think playing with me it will get a little more ragged, you know.

TP:    Well, let’s hear some more music from All My Relations.  You said that today you want to speak in more or less sound bite chunks…

CL:    Well, no.  I just thought last time I kind of probably OD’ed the airwaves with this verbiage, and I really love music, and so I thought, “Gee, Ted will probably…”  And the listeners, they want to hear music.  I got this kind of monotone on the Memphis thing…

TP:    Well, dynamics are everything, and we’ll be contrasting here.  So let’s hear a little piece from All My Relations…

CL:    You mean I’m not being rambunctious today or something?

TP:    You’re fine just the way you are.

CL:    I don’t want to control this, Ted!  You know?

TP:    Let’s hear “Little Peace,” a flute piece…

CL:    Little Peace.  That’s my dear friend, Booker Little, you know.  Booker Little Peace.

TP:    You knew him from Memphis.  A few words about him before we play it.

CL:    Great sage, great saint, beautiful soul, died at 23, or at least left the body at 23.  In Memphis we played together in various bands.  Phineas Newborn was a real focus for us, or was our big mentor, and all the other string of tradition that you already know about.  Booker had something very special.  When I first arrived in New York in ’60, I joined Chico Hamilton; Eric Dolphy had left and gone with Mingus.  I checked into Prez’ old hotel, because I have some fascination with Prez and Lady Day, as you well know.  Booker said, “no, you can’t stay there,” and he took me home up on East 92nd Street with him, and he talked to me long into the night about the eternal verities and about character building and all kinds of things that we never really talked about in Memphis.  It was like he was a wise man then and ready to… He had made his peace.  And to this day I’m still moved by my relationship with Booker Little.  Very profoundly so.  He was a real… I still hear that saintliness and that sage thing in all of this music, because obviously, you know, this mad hassle, gymnasium world that we all live in, you realize that these music-makers have brought so much great beauty into the world.  So that’s what happened for me.  And then Booker put the other thing on top of it.  He brought the spiritual value home, and was really… I also think that when he died, he was the most advanced on his instrument for me.  I loved him very much.  And it’s kind of strange that Max lost Clifford and Booker.

You know, when Booker left Memphis, he went to Chicago and he stayed at the Y, and he met Sonny Rollins there at the Y, who was doing a kind of sabbatical in Chicago at that period in time, and also he met Clifford and Max and all.  He loved Clifford so much.  And when Clifford died, Booker, who was very young then, a teenager, he said, “Why couldn’t it have been me?”  I mean, how many of us have that kind of compassion or such a big soul?

So I was touched by someone who was extremely profound.  If people sometimes ask… I remember once Freddie Hubbard asked someone, “Where is Charles Lloyd?”  He said, “Oh, don’t tell me.  I know he’s out there in the woods, meditating or something.”  But the point is, Booker and a lot of these sages, like Monk and Milarepa and all of them, sent me packing.  And I try to bring something back now.

[MUSIC: "Little Peace", "Thelonious Theoniyus"]

TP:    I assume from the title of this album that these compositions have many layered meanings to you, and many references.  So a few words about “Thelonious Theonyus.”

CL:    But they have many layers.  I would spoil it by coming in there, putting meringue and stuff on it.

TP:    That’s true.

CL:    I like my mangos.  I still like barbecue sauce, but I put it on corn and stuff like that.  Corn on the cob, you put some barbecue sauce on it.

TP:    When was the last time you had that?

CL:    From my garden, you know, when the season is right.  I have stuff in season.  I have a nice garden.  Have you ever had really fresh mulberries off the tree?

TP:    No, never.

CL:    They’re so sweet, man, but you’ve got to get them really true.  I just love mulberries.  And you wouldn’t think of that, you know, when you think of Mulberry Street.  You wouldn’t get all extaterated, you know…

TP:    While we were on microphone, you were talking about hearing Booker Little with Eric Dolphy and Blackwell at the Five Spot.  You succeeded Eric Dolphy in Chico Hamilton’s group in the 1960′s?  Were you friends in Los Angeles?
CL:    Yes, we were.  We played in Gerald Wilson’s Big Band together.

TP:    [SILENT]

CL:    Oh!  Yeah, I’m sorry, man.  Monk was very important to me.  He had something extremely special, and I’m glad that his music lives on in the airwaves of all of our hearts.  He taught me a lot.  We used to play opposite each other at the Village Gate, and I told you about the orange juice story ages ago.

TP:    I guess you did.

CL:    And Milarepa.  But you know, he’s just so deep and so pregnantly powerful with his silent night stuff, that I just loved him very much.

What were you asking me about?

TP:    Dolphy.

CL:    Now, Dolphy… See, there’s a guy behind all of that.  Buddy Collette was, like, Dolphy’s teacher.  Now, Buddy Collette is a very special cat.  Now, Buddy Collette also was Mingus’ teacher.  Buddy Collette is a very strange individual in that he has not only persevered, but he has sort of…how do you say… He has made peace with himself in the world.  He even went and did studio work out there for years.  But what I’m trying to say is… I’m now looking at this thing that we stand on all the shoulders of all these greats.  Like Lao Tzu was hiking one day, and the guy with plague was happening, and he had all this stuff on his back, and he said to Lao Tzu, “Old man, is this all you got away with?” — and Lao Tzu was walking with his walking cane at about 80, you know.  So he said, “Yes, precisely.”  It’s like a larger nation can always… But it doesn’t work that way in politics.

You asked me about politics last time.  I thought that was such a wrinkle.  Who is not touched in their lifetime by the adversity and the strangeness of the whole mechanics of greed and all that…you know, racism’s grandmother and stuff.  So enough said on that.  I’ve dealt with it, see.

Becoming an elder, the kid in me is still… We’re all ecstatics at birth.  We have that possibility.  So what I’m trying to say is that somehow this music is always… I remember I always had this tricycle.  Like, I was maybe 3, and I’d be riding it around really hard, and I remember my Mom would yell outside, “Charles, Junior, what are you doing on the tricycle?”  I’m trying to get rid of the third wheel.  Because I wanted to leave Memphis, you know.  But I had to meet Phineas and all that kind of stuff.

But anyway, what I’m trying to say is that the ecstatic in us… There’s something about this music.  It’s a music of wonder, played by these great creators.  It’s just… I think we live in a world where people don’t get to hear… The music, it’s sort of… It’s like what happened to me when I was a kid.  I’d have to wait until midnight to hear it.  Now there’s so many layers of Pop stands and Coca-Cola refreshment places or something, that you can’t get to the real Matuki.  You know what I’m saying.

TP:    In the liner notes, you referred to a teacher named Irvin Reason.

CL:    Irving Reason.  I talked to you about him last time.  He and Don Cherry, I’d say, were together.  They met each other in the Tombs and talked about those days in Memphis.

TP:    You played a lot of blues when you were in Memphis also.

CL:    I still play the blues.

TP:    Again, I’m referring to the very informative liner notes.  If you buy All My Relations you get to hear a kind of compressed version of our show last year.

CL:    Yeah, you inspired it.  Then they said to me, “You’ve got to write a book now.”  Then this publisher ran up to me in Italy recently, and he read the liner notes, and he said, “Oh God, these are incredible.  I must have the rights in Italy.  I must have the rights.”  They over there doing programs on the indigenous people who lived over here way before these people, Columbus and these cats, came over here claiming to be discovering stuff.

Where are we, brother?

TP:    “I’m always playing the blues,” you said.  You and a lot of the musicians you came up with in Memphis really cut your teeth on those type of gigs.

CL:    Well, those were the gigs, but that wasn’t what we were really aspiring to.  You understand?  It’s sort of like a guy has to do a day job to do his thing.  I mean, nothing against the Blues, but the Blues was so… I wanted to play up in Mitchell’s Hotel with Bill Harvey’s band, with Irvin and all the cats, Louis Smith, Booker Little’s older cousin.  I did play in Phineas’ father’s band when Phineas and Calvin were in the band.  I played in all those groups.  Willie Mitchell had a big band that played like Dizzy’s big band, you know, and that was a precursor to Gerald Wilson.  Now, Gerald is from down there, around Memphis also.  So there’s something that happens.

But you see, although I am from down there, the Modern thing in New York, it filters through my song, because I came here… I always knew I had to get here.  But I had to take the detour, the pineapple hit me on the head en route to go to California, and then we all finally got here.  But that was quite wonderful when we got here… See, giants roamed the earth then.  It was a simpler time in some ways, simpler in the sense that the neighborhood and the community and the musicians, there was some real simpatico.  Ornette and Eric and I had been together in California.  Billy Higgins and I played together, and we used to love to play… You know, Billy Higgins and I still play together sometimes, man.  It’s come back after all those years, and it just makes me so thrilled.

TP:    You said you were going to be performing with him this summer, with Dave Holland on bass.

CL:    Billy Higgins and Dave Holland and myself, we’re going to play some music together.  That should be interesting.

[ETC.]

Working with you is like another chance to tell the truth, you know?

TP:    What was the Chico Hamilton experience like for you?

CL:    Why do you go there?  Why don’t you talk about my dreams?  My dreams are actually bigger than my memories, quiet as it’s kept.  If you think I’m just a memory lane cat…

TP:    No, not a bit.  I’d feel a little awkward saying “What are your dreams?”

CL:    No, I’m not going to talk about those.  But the time thing that you bring up, you see, there is no time, if you look at it from a pull-back… You know, if you pull back and look at it from a macro level, the time thing gets squashed.  The music happens, there is no time.  It’s the eternal verities and all that stuff, getting back to Booker and that.

What was it like playing with Chico?  I was a young man, and I wrote all this music, you know, and I had a place that I could play it!

TP:    A good workshop.

CL:    A good place to play it!  I got cats to play it with me and stuff like that, and Chico was very open to it, because… Like that, you know?  Then one time we were playing in Canada, and Miles came onstage in Montreal, and he said, “Here’s the cat who stole your band!” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t stolen his band!  We were having a good time.  Chico is very brilliant.  Look who he had in his group.  He had Buddy Collette, he had Eric, he had different cats in the group all the.

TP:    Gabor Szabo, Arthur Blythe.

CL:    Gabor Szabo.  People don’t understand.  Gabor had a little twang.  I liked that.  He heard the gypsies over there in Hungary when he was a kid.

Oh, man, time is ticking away, Ted.  Don’t do this to me, man!  Play some of the music.  Look, here’s what you do.  Play “Piercing The Veil,” “Hymn To The Mother,” and then you play “Evenstide.”

TP:    Well, we have to be off at 3.  So I can only do one.

CL:    Well, this is a university, so you do have your freedom.  And universities are places where you can put ideas in the air.  We all need education, we need love, we need this home thing happening, and it’s important to hear the music in spite of all those filters that go on that keep the music away from the people.

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Filed under Charles Lloyd, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

A 1999 interview with Teddy Edwards

Several people have asked why I’ve kept the blog mostly inactive lately, to which I can only respond a blend of inertia and too much work. However, a Facebook post on Teddy Edwards from a friend prompts me to share this interview I did with him in 1999 for  a liner note for a two-tenor date that he did with Houston Person. He went deeply into his personal biography, but what’s interesting to me is that this recounting came about almost free-associatively, in response to questions about his relationship to each of the tunes. On the top is the liner note, followed by the verbatim interview — I had closely read an oral history that Patricia Willard conducted with Mr. Edwards for the Institute of Jazz Studies, which I had transcribed some years earlier — I’d love to share that as well, but am not at liberty to do so.

* * *
Though Teddy Edwards, sixty-two years as a professional musician under his belt, knows a thing or two about the cutting contest function, he claims that it was never a context he favored.  “I used to do it,” says the 74-year-old tenor saxophonist, “but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn than fight with it.”

Which is not to say that Edwards wouldn’t enthusiastically tie it up with the fastest company back in the day or the here-and-now, nor that circumstance mightn’t occasionally raise the Taurus bull within him.  Iconic tenor champions Edwards locked horns and matched wits with in venues ranging from lowdown after hours joints and prestigious arenas include Gene Ammons, Wardell Gray, Dexter Gordon, Paul Gonsalves and legions of the famous and obscure.  In 1994, Houston Person, the tenorman with the mammoth sound who doubles as a producer, jumped on an opportunity to bring Professor Edwards into Rudy Van Gelder’s studios for a friendly encounter.  That was “Horn To Horn” [Muse 5540], and it came off so well, they decided to do it again.

Each tune is a memory-raiser, evoking complex webs of associations and relationships for the tenor cohorts.  Edwards’ recollections date to the early 1940′s, when he played a major part in codifying the vocabulary of post-swing tenor saxophone.

Consider the spirited version of “Twisted,” an ebullient Wardell Gray line from 1948 which inspired a still-hilarious lyric by Annie Ross (“my analyst told me that I was out of my head…”).  Edwards and Gray met as teenage alto saxophonists making their way up the ladder in Detroit.  “We first worked together in 1942 at the Congo Club in Detroit’s Norwood Hotel, ” Edwards recalls in his hotel room following at week’s engagement at New York’s Iridium.  “It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee, Bernie Peacock, Big Nick Nicholas, Matthew Gee, Al McKibbon and a lot of great players came out of that band — Sonny Stitt, Rudy Rutherford, Milt Jackson, Hank Jones and Lucky Thompson were also in Detroit during those days.  We had a chorus line and we’d get the top acts for the week after they left the Paradise, Detroit’s black theater.  Wardell and I were partners in Detroit and later in California; we studied together through the years, practicing the various saxophone books, playing duets, developing our facilities.  Wardell was very thorough at what he did.  Every morning he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  He was a light-hearted, joyful type of guy with a good sense of humor and a good spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing because he prepared himself.  If he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together!”

Edwards arrived in Detroit in 1940, a 16-year-old professional who’d already worked four years in big bands arouind his native Jackson, Mississippi.  “When I was a kid in Jackson, I learned about harmony, which gave me a lot of security.  I was 12 when I met my father, a strong reading musician who played with Silas Green’s tent show (about the strongest one out there), but he had left an Orem harmony book on our piano, and I started listening to it as well as my cousin’s piano book.  All of the bands came through to play Jackson, which had over 100,000 people — it wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  We had two good big bands in Jackson, with good arrangers, and 19 miles away was Piney Woods College, which had several bands — the Sweethearts of Rhythm came out of there.  My grandfather, Henry Carson Reed, was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.  The people who ran the dance-halls knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come hear the bands.

“Some musicians in my first band talked about how a fellow who came through Jackson had chopped everybody down playing in a chordal style, and I started looking at the chords real seriously.  I learned to transpose them verbatim as fast as the piano called them to me.  I ran up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play, not from records.  I loved Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith, Hilton Jefferson, Tab Smith and a lot of others, but I never copied them.  I learned how to improvise, turn the chords around, and make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies, which is what I call chords.  They aren’t numbers; they’re groups of sounds, and you reach in there and pick the notes you want to get the colors you’re looking for.  People have always responded to me, as far as I can remember.  When I was 12 years old I could always satisfy an audience of adults.  I was born with that.  I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man!

Gene Ammons was famous for doing precisely that; he had an early ’50s jukebox hit with “Pennies From Heaven.”  Edwards met him playing with King Kolax at the Champion Bar on Hastings Street, where Detroit’s sporting crowd held office hours.  “I was young and full of fire,” he laughs, “and I’d go there and sit in with Jug and Lank Keyes, who were just getting their thing together, and fire it up!  Gene Ammons had that big sound and wonderful feeling.”  Edwards and Person take it at the camelwalk clip that drummer Kenny Washington likes to call the grown-up’s tempo.  “I like the song,” Edwards continues.  “It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and nights I play it as a perky thing, talking about the ‘pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.’”

Edwards switched from alto to tenor when he landed in Los Angeles in 1945.  “Howard McGhee decided to stay after he finished an engagement with Coleman Hawkins at Billy Berg’s,” Edwards told Patricia Willard in an interview for the Oral History Project of the Institute of Jazz Studies.  “He was searching around, trying to find a tenor saxophone player that he liked, and he couldn’t find anybody.  So he asked me to switch and hook up with him, and I thought it was a good idea.  I was able to transfer my knowledge of how to get through the chords.  I always had my own sound on both instruments.”

Edwards’ solo on “Up In Dodo’s Room,” a 1946 Spotlite recording, was significant in the evolution of swing-to-bop tenor vocabulary.  “I didn’t realize that the solo had any significance until I met Fats Navarro in 1948,” he told Willard.  “‘Look,’ he said, ‘do you realize that you changed the course of history?  That solo was the first solo by any tenor saxophone player that didn’t come from the Lester Young or the Coleman Hawkins school.’  If I remember correctly, the solo had all the half-steps; it had the major-seventh, which was just beginning to get popular; and it had the flat nine.  I played all the hip stuff that they call hip today in 1945.”

Back at the hotel, he continues: “The main thing I learned from Bebop in terms of harmony was the use of the flat-five, which Howard McGhee pulled my coat to.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  It was a natural evolution, just going with the flow.  I moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands to where I could play fast.”

At the time Edwards switched, Chu Berry, Illinois Jacquet and Lester Young had put their stamp on “Ghost Of A Chance,” a popular vehicle ever since for tenor players of the romantic persuasion, as Edwards and Person are.  It’s primarily a feature for Edwards, who vocalizes his horn to the max, a sour-sweet, been there-done that, never-jaded tone, extracting every bit of emotion from the lovely theme.

Person puts his trademark plush tone and intense melodicism on “Little Girl Blue,” his feature.  “It’s a saxophonist’s song,” says the 64-year-old South Carolina native.  “I’m a big Hank Mobley nut, and he did one of my favorite versions of it, so this was done with him in mind — I just played it like I play it.”

Which is the spirit they bring to “Blue and Sentimental,” a song rife with tenoristic implication since Herschel Evans recorded it as a tenor feature in 1938 with the Basie band.  “I never heard Herschel play in person,” Edwards states, “but the records I remember very well.  This was one of my favorites.  Herschel was in the Coleman Hawkins school, and he had a beautiful touch.”

“I was into Lester Young, and didn’t hear Herschel Evans until later,” Person recalls.  “That was my first song ever in my college band.  They had another saxophone player who played it great, but he was a senior and was leaving, so I got the spot.”  College was South Carolina State, where Person began playing the saxophone after years of diverse listening that spanned Charlie Parker and Illinois Jacquet (his main influence) to Stan Kenton to the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  “We had a piano in the house, which my mother played, and I had experience with the youth choir in church, but that was about it for me until my father got me a saxophone for Christmas late in high school.  I just liked the sound of it.  On the tenor saxophone it just seems you can get all the different sounds that you want.”  Person enrolled in the Army in 1956 and was stationed in Germany, where he encountered Eddie Harris (“he gave me a lot of helpful help”), lifelong friend Cedar Walton, and Leo Wright.  After his discharge, he enrolled at Hartt College of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and began his distinguished career playing all manner of gigs on the New England circuit.

Person often heard soul tenor king Willis “Gatortail” Jackson play “The Breeze and I,” Ernesto Leuconia’s Latinate line which ends the session.  Edwards’ notey, swooping style contrasts nicely here with Person’s blues-shout-style locutions.

Both have played the familiar refrain of “Night Train” — purloined from Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local” by Jimmy Forrest — thousands of times over the years.  “I became very familiar with this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs in San Francisco and Los Angeles in the early and middle ’50s,” Edwards says.  “To eat and support a family, you had to come up with something.  But I learned a lot.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, the biggest thing I got from playing for those strippers was learning how to play the melody real well, because I had time to think.  You could build your strength, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  All those things make you strong.”

Teddy Edwards and Houston Person are self-made men, individualists who found their sounds by inner conviction and diligent work.  “There was a lot of do-it-yourself when I came up,” Edwards states, “because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records.  On the other hand, you came up through bands which trained you.  That was before television, which took away the stages where things would come along naturally.  That’s when bands would travel on the road, really practice, have section rehearsals and get things down.  Now everything is wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell didn’t have band training when I hear them play.  Something about coming through that band era gave you another thing.”

Neither got where they are by looking backward.  As Person puts it, “Cutting contests were a great ritual back then, and it was all done in advancing good musicianship and people trying to establish their turf, so to speak.  But this date isn’t a cutting contest.  We got together with an appreciation for what’s gone before and what’s happening now, trying to pay homage to guys who made contributions.  We tried to show mutual admiration for each other, and tried to have fun.  Everybody’s adding company to the legacy.”

* * *

Teddy Edwards (3-22-99):

TP:    With “Twisted” we have to think about Wardell Gray.

EDWARDS:  He was my first partner.  We first worked together in 1942, and we worked at a club called the Congo Club in Detroit.  It was a great job, a great place.  Howard McGhee came out of that band, Matthew Gee came out of the band, Bernie Peacock, and a lot of great, great players.  George “Big Nick” Nicholas…

TP:    You mentioned also the lead alto player with Lunceford.

EDWARDS:  Ted Buckner.  He came into the band after he left Jimmy Lunceford’s band.  He inspired me to… I was 18 years old, I was playing lead alto, so I said, “Well, I’m going to have to give up this alto chair, this lead chair” when he came in.  He said, “Youngblood, you’re doing fine.  You just stick to the lead, it’s okay; we’ll split the lead little,” and I sat next to him and heard him play.

TP:    And Kelly Martin was the drummer, right?

EDWARDS:  He was the original drummer, but we had two or three drummers while I was there.  Vernon Brown was another fine drummer, and Johnny Allen became a leader… During that time a lot of guys were getting drafted.  Al McKibbon was with the band during the time we were there.  We had a chorus line and we were getting the top acts when they left the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  They had a black theater chain where the bands would go to different theaters…

TP:    In Detroit they’d play the Paradise.

EDWARDS:  They’d play the Paradise Theater in Detroit.  When they’d go to Chicago…

TP:    Was the Congo Club analogous to the De Lisa in Chicago, a similar type of room?

EDWARDS:  Well, I imagine you could say that in the sense that they had a band and a chorus line and different kinds of acts.  But the Congo Club was something very-very special.  It was a beautiful room in the Norwood Hotel at 555 E. Adams in (?) Detroit.  But we were out in California when Wardell made “Twisted,” and then “Stoned” and what’s that other thing…”my analyst said”… [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s “Twisted.”  It still sounds good.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s a great line.  I remember when he made that line.  That was in ’48, when he left Los Angeles to go to New York to record for Prestige Records.  We were real partners.  We studied together through the years.

TP:    You were all playing alto at that time.

EDWARDS:  In Detroit.  But when we got to California we were all playing tenor.

TP:    I know why you switched to tenor.  It was circumstances, because Howard McGhee had been with Coleman Hawkins…

EDWARDS:  He liked the sound.

TP:    Why did Wardell Gray switch to tenor?  Because Charlie Parker was taking up too much space?

EDWARDS:  No, it wasn’t that.  I think he switched to tenor because he liked it.  I think he switched to tenor with a band called Benny Carew, one of the Midwest bands.  But he just liked the tenor, like a lot of guys.  I don’t think it’s that Charlie Parker ran you off your instrument.  He didn’t run me off mine. [LAUGHS] But I think he just picked up playing the tenor.

TP:    You said that the two of you practiced together all the time.

EDWARDS:  We practiced in the books, the saxophone books, playing duets, all the Singerland stuff, developing our facilities.

TP:    You also said that I think the contractor for the Congo Club band helped you with your sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Stack Walton.  He was a tenor player.  He inherited the band.  The band was changing pretty fast in those days, the personnel.  When I first came into the band actually some of the guys preferred Sonny Stitt and Rudy Rutherford who were a little more advanced than I was in playing the saxophone and the clarinet.  But he liked what I was doing; he said, “I like what you’re doing.”  We were playing in a shell; man, that shell was eating my little sound up, so he showed me how to develop my diaphragm.  And I practiced real hard.  I practiced before the gig and after the gig…

TP:    Were you like a big sound alto player, like Willie Smith or Johnny Hodges?

EDWARDS:  I had my own sound.  I’ve always had my own…

TP:    Can you describe your sound on the alto.

EDWARDS:  Well, it’s hard to describe your sound.  You have to hear it.  But I’ve always had my own sound on the alto and even on the tenor.  I think it’s just a matter of me doing it my way, the way I learned how to do it.  I never tried to copy Johnny Hodges or copy Willie Smith, but I loved those guys.  I loved Hilton Jefferson, I loved Tab Smith, I loved a lot of them.  But I didn’t sit down and say “I’m going to try to play like this.”  I never did.

TP:    It was all functional for you.

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    Playing a situation…

EDWARDS:  Right, and learning.  Just learning.  Fortunately I learned about harmony real early, so that gave me a lot of security.  My father had left a harmony book on the piano.  I never saw him until I was 12 years old, but that Orem harmony book stayed on the top of our piano all those years, and then I started listening to it.  Then I’d look in my cousin’s piano book and think about what was going on with the music.  Then I heard the guys in my first band talk about a fellow who came through home playing a chord style named Devarney from Milwaukee.  They were talking about how he chopped everybody down playing these chords, and I started looking the chords real seriously.  I learned to play the chords verbatim.  I could transpose them verbatim as the piano called them to me; as fast as you called them, I could transpose them.  I’d just run up and down the chords, until eventually I learned how to hook them up and make statements.  That’s the way I learned to play instead of listening… I listened to the records, but I didn’t just copy off the records.

TP:    You had a very good opportunity as a kid to play with these very good, professional bands.

EDWARDS:  We had two good bands at home, with good arrangers.  We had two good bands in Jackson, big bands.  So I was very fortunate as a kid.  My grandfather was one of the early upright bass players, so all of the guys knew my family, and they encouraged me and brought me along.

TP:    It sounds like when you were a kid you needed a 36-hour day.  You were working pressing clothes, practicing, playing gigs, going to school and doing pretty well.

EDWARDS:  Right.  My aunt had a cleaners.  I used to press clothes in the morning, I’d clean clothes in the morning and go to school, come back and practice, and go do some more work at the cleaners, and then come back and rest and go to my night gig.

TP:    Say a few more words about Wardell Gray personally.

EDWARDS:  He was very thorough at what he did.  One thing that I saw him do first thing every morning, he’d take that saxophone out of the case and put it on the bed.  That way you’d pick it up.  You see?  First thing in the morning he’d take it out of the case and put it on the bed.  That’s what he would do.  He read all the time; he read all kinds of things, you know.  Every night when we got off, he’d get the newspaper.  He loved to read.  Hampton Hawes loved to read, too.  He had his way about him.  We were good friends.  He was light-hearted and kind of a joyful type guy.  He had a good sense of humor and a good spirit.

TP:    you can hear it in his playing.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Good spirit, a lot of spirit.  He had great confidence in what he was doing, because he prepared himself.  He really prepared himself, much more than I did, in a sense.  Because if he was going to play in a jam session at night he’d get up early in the morning and get his thing together! [LAUGHS] Get his stuff together to bring to the jam session.

TP:    Let’s move on to “Ghost of A Chance.”

EDWARDS:  During the ’40s, “Ghost of A Chance” became popular amongst the tenor players.  Illinois Jacquet had done his recording on it and Lester Young had done it.  So it was kind of a good vehicle for tenor players, popular among the tenor players.  So I was just another (?) to “Ghost of A Chance.”  And it’s a great song.  In fact, I should do it more often.

TP:    Well, for your sound it’s really custom-made.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] Yes, I should do it more often.  I’ve done it once or twice maybe since I did this record.  But it’s such a great vehicle.  It’s got good room for you to work.

TP:    Let’s get back to your being an original stylist even though you were in the middle of things.  Lester Young had such a profound impact on people, and Coleman Hawkins on a lot of the Detroit guys like Yusef Lateef and Lucky Thompson…

EDWARDS:  Well, they came off that tree.  I think Ben Webster and Don Byas later on influenced Lucky more than Coleman Hawkins.  But they came from Coleman Hawkins.  They’re off that tree.  The big tree was Coleman Hawkins and the next big tree was Lester Young.  From Lester, Stan Getz, Wardell, Dexter, Gene Ammons and all of them leaned heavily.

TP:    But for you, what was your relation to that music?  I know you admired it.

EDWARDS:  I admired it.  I listened to all the great players, altos and tenors or whatever.  But when I changed from the alto to the tenor, I just transferred my knowledge.  I knew how to get through the chords.  And that’s been a very-very valuable thing to me, even to today.  I’m so thankful that I learned as a kid about the chords, how to improvise and turn them around and try them…

TP:    Make them melodies.

EDWARDS:  Make them melodies.  You learn how to choose the notes you want to make your statements out of these different sound bodies.  That’s what chords are.  I call them sound bodies.  You reach in there and get what you want.  You might not want but one note out of this one, or you might want three or four of them, then you might want to alter them, learn how to alter the chords, add to them and find the common tones that will work… In fact, I wrote a song called “April Love” that I can play one note all the way through the whole song; just one note is common to every chord in this whole song.  You look for these kind of things when you’re playing.

TP:    So chords correlate to sounds and colors for you.

EDWARDS:  Oh yes.

TP:    They’re not numbers. They’re sounds.  They’re vivid.

EDWARDS:  They’re not numbers at all.  They’re sounds.  I call them sound bodies, groups of sounds.  You pick what you want out of the sound.  I can run up and down, naturally; that’s how I learned how to play.  I can go down… But then I like to alter them, you know, sharp this or flatten that, or add this to it.  It might be a VII chord and I add a IX, or maybe a XIII to it, or raise the V or inflect the IX — anything to get the colors that I want to get.

TP:    Were you into that level of harmony by the time you got to California?

EDWARDS:  I was pretty much in it.  You know, the main thing I learned from the Bebop era as far as harmony was concerned was about the use of the flat-five.  I didn’t know that one.  Then Howard McGhee pulled my coat how to alternate like the V-minor VII to the chord, the VII chord and alternate it.  You can’t be a bebop player if you don’t know how to alternate it.  You’ve got to learn how to work it.

TP:    What you’re saying is that the really revolutionary thing in bebop was the way rhythm was approached and not so much the harmony?

EDWARDS:  Oh, the harmony was very important.  And the speed that you needed to play.  Guys were playing fast.  You needed good chops, good technique to play, and we practiced to have that.  No, the harmony was definitely strong.

TP:    Why for you was it such a big break?  Did you align yourself firmly as someone who was a Bebopper as-opposed-to, or was it just a natural line of descent?

EDWARDS:  It was just a natural line of descent.  I just moved into it as the music progressed, and fortunately I was in these different scenes as it was happening.  Naturally, environment plays a part on you, and the songs open your eyes to different things.  Charlie Parker, like Dizzy said, showed us how to really phrase that music, how to get the phrasing out of it.  But it was just a natural evolution, more or less.  Just going with the flow.  But I had this knowledge that I carried with me all the time, and everything else became easy, especially once I got my hands up real good where I could play fast.

TP:    Did you know Lester Young well?  I know he had a house in L.A.

EDWARDS:  Not real well, no.  But I had occasion to meet him.  In fact, he played my horn one night in San Francisco at Bop City.  But I met him after he had come out of the Army, and he was kind of…oh, what I say…

TP:    Introverted.

EDWARDS:  Introverted.  He didn’t want to have too much to do with anybody, because the Army had really…

[PAUSE]

TP:    Let’s talk about “Night Train.”  We can talk about Ellington and big bands and “The Happy-Go-Lucky Local,” and we can talk about Jimmy Forrest and that way of playing the horn.

EDWARDS:  Well, I first heard “Night Train” around ’44 when it first came out.  I was in Seattle, Washington, when I was playing a dance with Ernie Fields’ Orchestra, and I heard it on a jukebox.  Everybody was putting their nickels on this song, and it was very strong, very popular.  But it wasn’t exactly in the vein that I was in.  I was closer to the Bebop vein.  He had the Bebop knowledge thing going himself, Jimmy Forrest, but he chose to make this record, “Night Train,” which later on I found was almost a direct copy of Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local.”  Some might say he’s very fortunate that Duke Ellington didn’t sue him about it, which I don’t think he ever did bring a case against him — because he had a clear case as far as the copyright issue is concerned.  Then Buddy Morrow came along and put his twist to it, and he had a big record on “Night Train.”

Now, I used to play this song when I worked in the burlesque clubs for the dancers.  “Night Train” was one of the themes; they’d make their bumps and all that stuff.  The strippers had about four or five tunes that they really took a liking to.  I used to play it, and that’s how I became very familiar with the song.

TP:    You were still in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  I played in some burlesque places in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  When you had to eat and had a family, you had to come up with something.

TP:    In the later ’40s and early ’50s.

EDWARDS:  Mostly part of the early ’50s and some of the middle ’50s.

TP:    You’d be behind the screen?

EDWARDS:  Well, you would be off to the side.  You wouldn’t be hid behind the screen, but off the scene completely.  But I learned a lot by playing in those burlesque places.  In the first place, I always felt that you make every experience pay off for you, regardless of what it is.  Now, when I played for those burlesque dancers, I studied playing the melody.  I had to play the melody real well.  That’s the biggest thing I got from that, was learning how to play the melody real good, and I’m thankful for the burlesque clubs! [LAUGHS] I had time to think about the melody we were playing.  You could build up your strength in your playing, because you usually didn’t have a bass.  You’d have drums and a piano in those places, and sometimes you’d play two of you at a time, maybe just you and the drums playing 15 minutes and you and the piano player playing 15 minutes, then you’d play 15 minutes all together.  All those things make you strong.

TP:    you’ve been working since you were 12, right?

EDWARDS:  Right.

TP:    In this oral history, after about 3 hours of it, you’re up to age 18.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS]

TP:    There’s an obvious difference between the musicians of your generation and the people who are under 40, say.  Talk about that do-it-yourself quality.

EDWARDS:  During those days there was a lot of do-it-yourself, because you didn’t have a lot of good teachers to go to like you have now.  You didn’t have play-along records to play with.  On the other hand, you had bands to come up through and train.  That was before television.  That’s when bands used to really practice and rehearse and get the things down real good.  Traveling on the road together, you’d have section rehearsals, and before they’d put the band together… You don’t have much of that any more now.  Everything is so wrapped up in a package for you.  I know some real famous musicians who I can tell when I hear them play, like on their records…I can tell they didn’t have band training.  Something about them coming through that band era that gave them another thing.  I could tell.

TP:    It seems for a lot of the guys who came up during your time and a little before, a little after music was a religion.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that’s what it was.  See, television changed things a whole lot.  Television took away the stages.  Every little club had a little stage, and they’d have a tap dancer or something.  Television wiped all that out.  Television took away a lot of things that were coming along naturally.  If you were a dancer and you wasn’t dancing on television, you wouldn’t have nowhere to dance.  You see what I’m saying?  Then the music got that way.  If you weren’t sitting in one of those studio bands recording, you’re not getting too far, unless you’re a big star who can get out here and make it on your own.  But I would never aspire to be a musician, even though I played for the studio; they’d call me when they want what I have — in special situations.

TP:    They want your sound.

EDWARDS:  Right.  Like, I played on the movie, Jane Fonda…

TP:    They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

EDWARDS:  I played on that one, too.  That was Johnny Green.  I did it for George Donen, who did Any Wednesday with Jane Fonda.  He had the contractor call me.  The contractor said, “Teddy Edwards?”  I said, “yes.”  He said, “Mr. Donen wants you on this soundtrack.  There’s a 60-piece orchestra.  Mr George Donen, who wants you on this soundtrack.”   He said, “Do you read music?”  I said, “I’ve been reading it all my life practically.”  “Well, he said he doesn’t care whether you read music or not.  He wants you on here, because he wants your sound on this movie soundtrack.”  Then he had me playing a special thing on clarinet, which I had no idea, with my name on my part, you know, to play this special clarinet part for this movie.

TP:    A customized part for you.

EDWARDS:  He liked my sound.  He had heard my playing with Gerald Wilson, and he loved the sound I got out of the horn.

TP:    Gerald Wilson’s band must have been a nice outlet for you over the years.

EDWARDS:  Oh, that was a great band.  That was one of the finest bands ever been, that’s for sure, the band of the early ’60s — the real band.  We had probably the finest reed section I played with; I liked the way we sounded.  We had Jack Nimitz on baritone, Harold Land on the other tenor, Joe Maini playing lead alto…

TP:    Did you meet Gerald Wilson in Detroit?

EDWARDS:  No, I didn’t really meet him.  He had left when I came there.  I’m trying to think of the other alto player.  He was a good alto player; in fact, I got him a contract with Contemporary Records.  [Jimmy Woods.] Anyway, we had a great blend in that reed section.  I played with Basie, with the saxophone section, but sitting in there it didn’t have that… It was a great section, but it had a lot of individual… Everything is individual in that reed section.  Even though when it comes out, it came out great.  But we were on a one-mind kind of thing with the Gerald Wilson saxophone section.  We were on the same thinking plane as far as the sound of the music.

TP:    And that seems to be a thing that you see throughout with guys from your period, who came up then, probably because of that band training.

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was a big help.

TP:    Now, in Jackson, it would seem kind of a backwater, but a lot of bands came through and you were able to keep up with a lot of music.

EDWARDS:  All of the bands came through Jackson to play Jackson.  Well, we had over 100,000 people in Jackson.  We had a 22-story building when they only had 12 in Los Angeles.  You know what I mean?  It wasn’t a little whistle stop.  It had a lot of fine musicians.  Then there was Piney Woods, down 19 miles at Piney Woods College where they had several band.  They had the male bands, then they had the Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first all-girl band which came out of there.  The Daughters of Rhythm came out of there.  So a lot of excellent musicians were in that vicinity.  Plus the bands that came through playing the dance, and the people who ran the dance-halls, they knew me and what I was doing as a kid, and they let me come up and hear the bands.

TP:    Well, you had a story of being able to hear the Ellington band through the grace of one nice guy.

EDWARDS:  One nice guy, yeah.

TP:    Which we don’t have to repeat here.  But you did say that Johnny Hodges was your early idol.

EDWARDS:  Well, he was the first one who really got to my ears.  But the first song I learned how to play was Wayne King’s theme song, “The Waltz You Sing For Me.”  That was the first song, from the radio, where I learned how to play it.  Then Johnny Hodges came, and I loved that sound and that feeling that he had, even though I never copied him verbatim — but he influenced me.  Then I heard Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway, and that was another thing of beauty to me.  He’s not the most famous saxophone player, but he was beautiful, Hilton Jefferson with Cab Calloway’s band.  There were a lot of different guys who came through. Tab Smith.

TP:    You had to have heard Budd Johnson with Earl Hines’ band which came through the south.

EDWARDS:  Oh, I heard Budd with Earl Hines’ band.  That’s when he had Billy Eckstine.  This was in the ’30s.  Billy Eckstine was with the band, he had George Dixon, the baritone player, who was the guy who played jazz on a flute.  A lot of guys claimed later, but he was the first guy…

TP:    George Dixon, huh?

EDWARDS:  George Dixon.  He was the baritone player with Earl Fatha Hines.  He had the great singer Walter Fuller singing with him, and Madeleine Green singing, and Keg Johnson playing the trombone.  Earl Hines had some fantastic bands.

TP:    But also, you mentioned you heard the beginning of the Earl Hines band that had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie in Detroit.

EDWARDS:  Oh, right, the first gig.

TP:    Bird left McShann in Detroit and joined Earl Hines.  Do you have a memory of the band?

EDWARDS:  Oh, it was great.  In fact, that picture in the book that Francis Paudras wrote about Charlie Parker… Opening up the book, they’ve got a picture of Sarah Vaughan in that band playing piano back-to-back with Earl Fatha Hines.  They had two white grand pianos back to back on the stage.  I was sitting there when that picture was taken.  I said, “Damn, I was there when that picture was made.”  I was at the opening show. [LAUGHS]

TP:    That’s when you first met Charlie Parker, was in Detroit at that time?

EDWARDS:  I met him the week before, when he was with McShann.  But I had listened to him on his recordings with McShann, like “Hootie Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism,” those great solos that he played.

TP:    so you knew right from the top that he was doing something special.

EDWARDS:  Oh, he was doing something special, no question about it.  He had a little tinge of Lester Young in him back then, a little tinge of Lester Young on that alto.  If you listen to him close.  Lester Young was his idol, you know.

TP:    When he did the few things on tenor, you can hear it.

EDWARDS:  The few things on tenor.  But I’ll tell you, he hadn’t played the tenor long enough for his embouchure to get right for the tenor.  It would have been brighter.  It was kind of dark because his chops hadn’t come up to that tenor thing.  It’s another kind of thing.

TP:    Talk about the difference, what the challenges are.

EDWARDS:  The big challenge is that if you play one, your ear gets set to that one.  If you’re playing a tenor, your ear gets set to the tenor, then when you pick the alto up, it’s a fifth away.  So your ear has got to make the adjustment, you see.  But now, if you play them both all the time a lot, then it’s easy.  It becomes natural.  But if you stay with one and go to the other… Then what you have to do, like in my case… You have to use your mind.  I know that this chord goes because I want to play this chord.  I can use my mind that way, see.  But it’s an ear thing, where your ear knows where the notes are.

TP:    A lot of alto players say it’s harder to play the alto than it is to play the tenor.

EDWARDS:  It’s not harder to play.  They have different demands on you.  Controlling the pitch of the alto is a little more delicate than the tenor, because it’s higher.  The soprano is really rough to control.  But the you’ve got to have more wind down on the tenor.  So they have their differences.

TP:    Let’s go to “Blue and Sentimental,” with a real Basie connotation.

EDWARDS:  I first heard Herschel play that with the Basie band on the records.  I never did hear him play in person, but the records I remember very well.  It was one of my favorites, and Lester played 8 bars on the clarinet on that recording of “Blue And Sentimental.”  Herschel was on the Coleman Hawkins school, but he had a beautiful touch. [SINGS REFRAIN]

TP:    Big and gentle.

EDWARDS:  yeah, he was something beautiful.  Died real young.

TP:    Were you as much into the Basie band of that time as you were Lunceford and Ellington?

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Man, when Basie came along, that was a revelation.  When Basie came along with that all-American rhythm section, they had Lester sitting on one hand and Herschel on the other, they had Harry Edison sitting on one corner and Buck Clayton sitting on the other one.  Goodness me.  That was power-power-power.  Papa Jo Jones sitting back there on the drums.

TP:    On the previous record with Houston Person, you were dealing with a little later repertoire, like you did “Equinox” and Richard Wyands put “Moose the Mooche” on the intro to “Lester Leaps In.”  This one puts you more in the older school.

EDWARDS:  I guess so.

TP:    So if someone’s listening to this record, they won’t necessarily know what you’re a modernist player…

EDWARDS:  I imagine they’d be surprised.  Because I had most of the leads in the “Night Train” thing.  I thought about my burlesque days.  That’s going to be a strong song on this record, too.

TP:    Again, I don’t want to put you back as someone who stopped at 1952 in a burlesque house, because I know what you did.  Talk to me about how your repertoire… Do you work all over with a touring band, or do you pick them up when you come to town?

EDWARDS:  Well, mostly I’m picking up bands, because I’m not a big commercial item.

TP:    You’re someone for the connoisseurs.

EDWARDS:  Yes, more or less, the collectors and all those people.  And I gain all the time new people.  My problem has not been with the audience.  If I have a problem, it’s been with the negotiators — the agents and the managers.  They’ve never taken a liking to me.  But people have always responded to me, as far as I can remember, when I was 12 years old.  I could always satisfy an audience.  I never lost that.  I got that.  I was born with that.  Nobody can ever take that away.

TP:    you were born with that.

EDWARDS:  I was born with that.  I can make the people feel what I’m doing.

TP:    And when you were 12 years old…

EDWARDS:  I could do the same.  To adults.  I could do it then.  That’s just a thing that was natural to me.  Well, I understood in later years why I was that way.

TP:    Why?

EDWARDS:  It’s a case of… I’d compare it to a radio set.  You’ve got a transmitter and a receiver.  The audience is the receiver.  The artist is the transmitter.  Now, in order to transmit, you have to generate, and you generate it within yourself.  You see, I generate the feeling within myself, and then it goes out.  And it’s going to get through.  You can be sitting at the bar talking, but I’m going to get through to you in your subconscious.  I’m going to get through to you most of the time.  Because that’s the way I am.  I can project the music that way, because I can build it within myself.  And I know, because these sound waves can go through this building!

TP:    What sound does to people.  And chords are sound.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  You put a little timbre on those chords, you can put some stuff on those notes, man.  It gets real deep.

TP:    Another guy who was like that was Gene Ammons, who I associate with “Pennies From Heaven.”  He had a little hit on that, didn’t he?

EDWARDS:  Oh, yeah, Jug did.

TP:    You met him in Detroit, too, with King Kolax.

EDWARDS:  Yes, with the King Kolax band.  He was playing at the Champion Ballroom on Hastings Street, and I used to go over there and sit in with him.  Because I was young and full of fire.  Jug and Lank Keyes and them, they were just getting their thing together, and I’d go over there and sit in with them and fire it up!  Yeah, Gene Ammons had that big sound and that wonderful feeling.

TP:    But you and he also had that good-natured cutting contest type of attitude… Not cutting contest, but matching sounds or wits or whatever you want to call it.

EDWARDS:  Well, that was going on.  I used to do it, but I was never really a warrior.  I’d rather make love to the horn rather than fighting it.

TP:    That can be a battle, too.

EDWARDS:  [LAUGHS] But that was the thing.  We were doing it.  Okay, let’s tie it up here.  Like, Stanley Turrentine still talks about the time he heard Paul Gonsalves and me in San Francisco.  He said, “I never will forget that as long as I live, the night I heard you and Paul get together.”  But you get together sometimes and the thing will be working.  And it’s good.  I did several tenor things.  I did a tour with Buck Hill and Von Freeman in Holland, on which we had a lot of fun.  It was a friendly fight going on between us.  And Dexter… All the guys through the years, we would tie it up there, and… A tenor player, Joe…

TP:    Joe Alexander.

EDWARDS:  No.  He was a white kid.  Played real good.

TP:    These days?

EDWARDS:  We made a record with Frank Butler together on Xanadu.

TP:    Oh, Joe Farrell.

EDWARDS:  Right, Joe Farrell.

TP:    From Chicago also.

EDWARDS:  Yeah, he was an excellent player.  Now, we kind of got off on a bad leg, but we got close.  I was sitting in the studio waiting on everybody to come in.  But he didn’t know me really.  I’m sitting there when he came in, I spoke to him, and he barely spoke!  So I said, “Okay.  We’ll see about this when they turn the tape on.” [LAUGHS] He didn’t know me.  I could have just been a chair sitting there as far as the way we talked about a greeting.  It kind of raised that old Taurus bull up in me a little bit. “Okay, when they turn the machine on, we’ll straighten all of this out.”  We became real close.

TP:    I was mentioning my associating Gene Ammons to “Pennies From Heaven.”  What was your association to it?

EDWARDS:  Well, I like the song.  It’s a good vehicle, and especially on rainy days and rainy nights I was would play it as a good perky thing, talking about the “pennies from heaven, and good fortune’s blowing all over town, even if your umbrella is upside-down.”

TP:    Do you sing in performances now?

EDWARDS:  No, I never went into singing too much.  I sing on Blue Saxophone, “Hymn For the Homeless,” but anybody could sing it.  It didn’t take a great singer to sing that.

TP:    But you’re a lyrics man, obviously.

EDWARDS:  I’m a lyrics writer.  Yes, I’m a lyricist.

TP:    When you play these tunes, you know the lyrics.

EDWARDS:  I have an idea about most of them.  I might not know what all… But I know what the lyricist is talking about.  I know the subject matter, and that’s important, to help you to express the song and know what it’s talking about.

TP:    Talk a bit about playing with Houston Person.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Houston’s a joy to play with.  He’s just like a big baby boy.  In fact, when he got his job producing with Muse Records, I think he might have been the very first person he called.  I was under contract to Polygram, which killed that, but then later on when we talked again I said, “I can record as a sideman or co-leader for another label, but I can’t record as a leader under my contract.”  He said, “Good, let’s make one together; we’ll co-lead it.”  That’s how we made Horn To Horn.

TP:    Tell me about the rhythm section guys.  Kenny Washington.

EDWARDS:  Oh, Kenny’s a beauty.  He’s steady as a rock.  I always enjoy playing with him.

TP:    He knows what to play, knows what not to play.

EDWARDS:  Oh yeah.  Well, in the first place he’s a music historian.  Not just jazz, many forms of music.  He’s an historian, and he knows what goes where.  He’s very knowledgeable about the subject.

TP:    Ray Drummond plays beautifully on this record.  His solos are like Paul Chambers.

EDWARDS:  He has that sound.

TP:    And Stan Hope?

EDWARDS:  Well, that was my first time playing with him.  The reason he made the date, somebody couldn’t make it, so Houston said, “We can use my regular piano player.”  I said, “If you like him, he must be good.”  And he was wonderful, played great.

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Filed under Interview, Liner Notes, Teddy Edwards

A Downbeat Profile On Benny Golson and Several Interviews, On His 83rd Birthday

To  honor Benny Golson’s 83rd birthday, I’ve posted a DownBeat feature piece that I had the opportunity to write in 2000, and the proceedings of two mid-’90s encounters on WKCR — two 6-hour Sunday afternoon Jazz Profiles show from 1995, on which Mr. Golson was present and chose the selections, and a Musician Show from the following year, on which he played recordings by his heroes and contemporaries, and spoke about them in his inimitable manner.

Benny Golson (Downbeat):

The first question to decide in an account of Benny Golson is the proper sequence of his job title.  To wit: Is he a tenor saxophonist-composer or a composer-tenor saxophonist?

Either description works; Golson, now 71, is an icon in both arenas.  Several dozen of his tunes — he holds full copyright on most — are essential signposts of modern jazz.  During the ’70s he broached the mainstream, writing scores for shows like “M.A.S.H.”, “Room 222,” “The Partridge Family” and “The Mod Squad,” for numerous made-for-TV movies, and for a host of national advertising spots.  Instrumentally, Golson’s sound — an immense tone, by turns airy and burly, informed by a harmonic knowledge wide as the heavens that grounds stories replete with lyric detail and operatic flourish — is singular on the tenor tree.

Golson is an avuncular, erudite conversationalist, whose narrative deploys polysyllabic words in correct context.  He continues to carry himself with the seemingly unflappable aplomb and no-nonsense professionalism that allowed him to flourish and keep focus through a half-century of music business encounters high and low.  He’s seen chitlin’ circuit juke joints, tobacco warehouses, TOBA theaters and inner city lounges that defined “funky” before the word became a musical category; moved comfortably in sophisticated nightclubs and posh concert halls in the capitals of the world; performed his famous requiem “I’ll Remember Clifford” on an enormous organ in the aerie of Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church, where Johann Sebastian Bach served as kapellmeister 300 years ago.  But even Golson’s cool was challenged when Howard University, where he matriculated from 1947 to 1950, called a few years back to inform him that they were instituting a scholarship in his name.

“This was unreal,” Golson exclaimed during a late-December conversation in the living room of his well-appointed Upper West Side highrise.  “I almost cried.  During my third year at Howard, I became a rebel, and took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.   Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want?  Why must the dominant always go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back came one day in class when the teacher played our composition assignments on the piano.  When she got to mine, after the first chord resolved to the second, that red pencil made a big X, then she made another red X at the next resolution.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  She didn’t get to the end.  She looked at me, almost disgusted, and said, ‘Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?’  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt.  I stood up with my hands in my pocket, and rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to, put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, ‘That’s the way I heard it.’  I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and drove off into the sunset.”

As we speak, Golson is conceptualizing separate commissions for March festschrifts in Switzerland and at Jazz at Lincoln Center, and a symphonic piece commissioned by the Guggenheim Foundation.  He’s just finished mixing his fifth album for Arkadia Records, “One Day Forever,” which is distinct in his oeuvre, tempering the longueurs of nostalgic retrospection with the spiritual imperative of relentless inquiry.  It includes a lively 1996 session with the front line of the Jazztet (Golson’s musical soulmate Art Farmer, who died in 1999, and trombonist Curtis Fuller), the well-wrought band that established Golson as a leader at the cusp of the ’60s, and relaunched his performing career in the ’80s.  Shirley Horn oozes sophisticated weltschmerz on Golson’s world-weary lyrics to the title track and “Sad To Say.”  The date ends with a crystalline performance by the classical pianist Lara Downes of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings,” a melodically redolent opus that evokes the ambiance of Chopin and the 19th Century masters who fueled Golson’s imagination as a pre-teen piano aspirant in Depression-era Philadelphia.

No matter how mean times got, Golson’s mother — a “country girl” from Mobile, Alabama who came to Philadelphia in her teens — kept an upright piano in the house; two of his uncles played it with regularity, and the youngster became fascinated with it as he emerged from toddler years.  Eventually she hired a piano teacher, one Jay Walker Freeman, for the then-substantial fee of 75 cents a week.

“After a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Golson recalls.  “Of course, that was aberrational in my neighborhood.  All you heard there was the Blues!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea, and got very good at it.  My mother used to buy records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy. I’d say, ‘How can she listen to that horrible music?’  I was somewhere else with the European music.

“I changed after I heard Lionel Hampton’s band at the Earle Theater.  The curtain swung open, the lights came up, the bandstand rolled dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody was dressed alike, the lights played on the instruments, and the sound of the music live came forth.  The icing on the cake came when Arnett Cobb stepped to the microphone and played that solo on ‘Flying Home.’  From that moment, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, the saxophone took over.”

Golson’s mother supported his new obsession with alacrity, buying him a saxophone as a birthday present when the family was “two years off welfare.”  She even took a singing job (“I’ll Get By,” “Evil Gal Blues”) with him and childhood friends Ray and Tommy Bryant.  Golson listened to records by Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller (“one of my favorite bands in the war years, with the clarinet on top”), by Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller; he memorized Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” Ben Webster’s solo on “Raincheck” and Lester Young’s solo on “D.B. Blues.”

Then, Golson relates, “Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.  I couldn’t believe the velocity with which he moved over that horn, and his huge sound was overwhelming — so natural, not strained or manufactured.  Don’s articulation was amazing.  He played wide intervals, jumping over the notes like skipping up or down a pair of steps.”

One day Golson speculated ten cents (“I figured I couldn’t lose anything”) on a fresh-from-the-jukebox Savoy disk with Charlie Parker’s “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce.”  “It was the strangest music,” he recalls.  “Had I wasted my dime?  But the more I played it, the more I began to like it.”  Soon after, Golson went with his friends John Coltrane and Ray Bryant to a concert at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music by a sextet featuring Byas, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Al Haig on piano, Slam Stewart on bass, and Sid Catlett on drums.

“My life’s first beginning was when I was born of my mother and father; the second was after that concert,” Golson declares.  “Charlie Parker was wearing a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him, like he was going to explode!  When he bent over to make that 4-bar break in ‘A Night In Tunisia,’ John and I were grabbing at each other; we almost fell out of the balcony!  He was playing alto then like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to play like Arnett Cobb.  This wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  What was it all about?  How could we get close to it?  When the concert was over we went backstage and got all the autographs.

“Then we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and onto Broad Street.  He was walking to the Downbeat to play with a local rhythm section — Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.  John carried his horn for the four blocks, and I asked him what kind of horn he played, his reed and mouthpiece — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us.  We were too young to go inside, so we stood outside the club all night, dreaming; when they finished, we walked all the way home to North Philadelphia.”

By the time Golson entered Howard, he was, as he puts it, “trying for all I was worth to play bebop.”  He gigged on the vibrant D.C. scene, violating the school’s curfew (“I had a agreement with the door monitor to let me back in; when the door was locked, I jumped over the wall, which wasn’t too high”), and frequently made the three-hour drive to Philadelphia for weekend jobs.

After his dramatic departure from school, Golson returned to Philadelphia, and some months later, on Ray Bryant’s recommendation, landed a gig with the guitarist Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders in Atlantic City.  “It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer,” Golson says.  “So I took the cup of tea.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it.  On the first night I put on my kilts, and I had to walk the bar.  All the ladies were pulling up my kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on, but nobody told me I had to wear a bathing suit until after the fact.”

It wasn’t all fun-and-games; Grimes, who had been Art Tatum’s guitarist for the first part of the ’40s, took from that experience a penchant for playing any tune, without warning, in any key, keeping everyone on their toes.  And although Golson spent the first half of the fifties playing a succession of similarly functional jobs, he gleaned consequential information from each of them.

“I saw John Coltrane stepping over drinks on the bar,” he relates.  “We all did it.  But none of it was a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  You function according to the situation; if the situation changes, then you change to meet the situation.  No sesquipedalian words in the Rhythm-and-Blues!”

Golson dates his interest in composition to the realization that his home-grown symbology for transcribing solos was insufficient.  “I became pretty good at writing down what they were playing, and realized that if I could do this, then maybe I could write music other people could play,” he says.  Duke Ellington was an early hero; so was Tadd Dameron, whose arrangements Golson played as a teenage member of a well-drilled 17-piece orchestra in Philadelphia led by the young Jimmy Heath.  Later, during 21 months on the road with the popular R&B singer Bull Moose Jackson, Golson became close to Dameron, the band’s pianist; soon he was allowed to recruit serious Philly brethren like trumpeter Johnny Coles, bassist Jymie Merritt and drummer Philly Joe Jones.

“We started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits,” Golson relates.  “Moose enjoyed playing these pieces more than the things he was making his money at, although we never recorded any of them.

“Tadd showed me everything he knew.  Once he was doing an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and let me copy it, which I did for nothing, because I was able to eviscerate what he did, lay it bare, and look at its component parts.  He taught me to be a dearth writer.  He didn’t make two horns simulate a large band, but it didn’t sound abbreviated either.  With two or three horns, you draw upon each instrument’s outstanding characteristics.  The trapset has the bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal; the piano is really three instruments — the high end, the mid-range and the low.  You have to be selective about notes, and pick the two outstanding ones.”

In June 1953, Dameron hired Golson for an extended summer engagement in Atlantic City with his Dameronia nonet.  Then Golson briefly worked with a Lionel Hampton unit that included Clifford Brown, Art Farmer, Quincy Jones, Gigi Gryce, and Jimmy Cleveland.  He toured with Johnny Hodges (Coltrane and Richie Powell were in the band), then joined alto saxophone virtuoso Earl Bostic (“the technician of all technicians”) from August 1954 until June 1956.  Bostic afforded Golson many opportunities to write, including a kaleidoscopic modernist arrangement of “All The Things You Are” that the leader so enjoyed digging into that he doubled Golson’s fee.  During this time Golson penned tunes like “Out Of The Past” and “Whisper Not,” distributing lead sheets “all over the country” to general indifference.  Then he moved to New York.

“I hadn’t recorded anything, but I was no stranger,” Golson states.  “When I was in high school, one of my uncles was a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I visited him a lot!  Teddy Hill would let me in because I was his nephew.  And the various Rhythm-and-Blues groups I played with always came through New York, whether to play the Apollo or meet for rehearsals.  I’d stay over, see the bands, get to know musicians.  But New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  When I moved, things started to pick up.”

Specifically, John Coltrane presented Miles Davis with “Stablemates,” Davis recorded it, and, as Golson puts it, “people retrieved my tunes from under the rug or out of the trash, and started recording my stuff.”  Meanwhile, Golson, who was “getting restless” with the tedium of Bostic’s repertoire, took to detuning the leader’s electric guitar on Delta and Panhandle gigs, escalating the mischief until one night in Seattle, during a Bostic clarinet solo, he raced to the front of the stage, tenor in hand, and pretended to hurl it into the crowd.  A week after Bostic let him go, Dizzy Gillespie hired him to replace the departing saxophonist-arranger Ernie Wilkins, another Golson influence.

“People associate Dizzy Gillespie with the high notes and fast velocities, the force and the power — but he was a compassionate trumpet player,” Golson emphasizes.  “He and Art Farmer were unique in being able to play unexpected notes that were so beautiful and fit so well that your heart intuitively would say, ‘Yes, yes!’  It’s always good to know for whom you’re writing; the rewards are so much better if you write for personalities, as Duke Ellington did or Count Basie’s arrangers.  You know they’re going to do your music justice, and often enhance what you’ve written, which is one of the real rewards.”

In 1958-59, Golson worked with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, where he found a perfect template on which to stamp his sensibility.  He recruited Philly heroes Lee Morgan (from Dizzy Gillespie’s band), Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merrit, and incorporated Blakey’s extraordinary four-limb independence and command of drumkit sonics in new compositions like “Blues March,” “Along Came Betty” and “Are You Real?”  He established the orchestrational sound that defined every subsequent iteration of the Messengers.

Conversely, playing with Blakey irrevocably altered Golson’s attitude towards his instrument.  “One thing that Art taught me to do — painfully — was to project,” Golson notes.  “During my early gigs with him, he might play one of those drum rolls he was famous for four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along, so loud that it drowned me out, and I would stand there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  One night he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done, and then, to make doubly sure I got it, he screamed across the bandstand to me, ‘Get up out of that hole!’  Then it all sort of came together, and I started trying to play more forcefully.

“One night during my first week with Art at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in.  When I came off the bandstand, he said to me, ‘You play too perfect.’  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  Art Blakey was standing on the side, snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said, ‘You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.’  I thought about that.  The next night I came in, and played like a man taking leave of his senses, trying to get away from the well-worn patterns I’d fashioned for myself, like mathematics — and music is anything but that.  I was jumping off cliffs and bridges, standing in front of trains!  That started to move me out of where I was before — ‘mellifluous,’ ‘sweet.’  ‘charming’ are words people used.  I wanted more fire and articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, where your tongue doesn’t touch the reed much, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue also has to work, to define, to separate notes and ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.”

In 1959, Golson decided it was time to venture on his own, and formed the Jazztet with Art Farmer, a companion on numerous ’50s projects.  “What attracted me to Benny was the warmth of his ensemble writing,” Farmer recalled in a 1994 interview on WKCR.  “He writes melodies that sing and stay in your head once you hear them, and constructs a harmonic framework that the improviser feels very comfortable with — not that it’s always easy — to construct their own melodies during their improvisation.  I don’t know where I would be without his tunes.”

Piggybacking off a high-visibility debut at Manhattan’s Five Spot opposite Ornette Coleman’s quartet in its first New York appearance, the Jazztet had a successful four-year run, playing numerous engagements and making six records before it disbanded in 1962.  With a young family to raise, Golson became more involved in New York’s commercial scene; in 1967, at the urging of Oliver Nelson and Quincy Jones, he moved to Hollywood, shed “tenor saxophonist” from his c.v., and after a humbling initial rough patch became a profitably busy studio freelancer.

“For seven or eight years I didn’t play my horn at all,” he says.  “I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.  I did not like my sound or my style, what I was playing wasn’t reaching my heart, and I didn’t know what to do about it.  I was studying composition privately, I wanted to do some things I hadn’t done before in composition; once I moved I put all my energy into that, and the playing fell aside.  But the thinking process was working the whole time, and when I finally picked up the horn again in the late ’70s, I sounded different, although it took about ten years before I felt comfortable again.  I had to get my imagination oiled up.”

Golson emerged from improvisational hibernation in 1980 fully committed to hardcore jazz.  “I take more chances now,” he says.  “I don’t know if I can jump over the hurdle, but I’ll feel compelled to try.  To move ahead you have to take chances, otherwise, you’ll level off, and time, in its indefatigable forward course, will relegate you to history.  “

Golson and Farmer hewed to the freedom principle when they reconstituted the Jazztet in 1983, and that spirit underlies every Golson album and performance from then until “One Day Forever.”  “We used less written music the second time around,” Golson says.  “Let’s allow the personalities to express their inner thoughts rather than see how they can play as an ensemble what I’ve written.  Jazz is all about improvisation.  Nobody comes to hear the melody chorus after chorus.”

Speaking of melody, Golson has tickets for a Metropolitan Opera performance of “Il Trovatore,” and our conversation is winding down.  Before we part, he offers a few final words of wisdom.

“Schools teach the rules, and we should know them,” he offers.  “But I concern myself with ‘Why?’  And ‘Why not?’  ‘You can’t because the rule says you can’t.’  ‘Why not?!’  I do what I do because I want to do it.  And at this late date, I want to get better at what I do.  I’m not a young man any more.  But why should I be satisfied with what I’m doing?  I’ll never be satisfied.

“I often use young players.  Many of them are innovative, and are ascendant when they join me.  Hearing them keeps my mind sharp; I don’t get jaded with the music that surrounds me.  That helps me retain the spirit of adventure that all jazz musicians should have — walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown, waiting for things to jump out at you, to free things from the confines of your imagination, things sometimes you didn’t even know are there.  After I left Howard, I drove a furniture truck.  Jazz is so much better!”

[-30-]

Benny Golson Profile (10-15-95):

[MUSIC:  Messengers, "Are You Real" (1958-Olympia)]

TP:    I’d like to start with the third degree right away and take you back to Philadelphia and your early days in music.  You were born in Philadelphia in 1929.  Was music always part of your background?  Was your family musical?  Was it something you took to right away?

GOLSON:  No, I didn’t take to it right away.  I had two uncles who played piano, and at that time I fancied that they were absolutely extraordinary.  But as time went on, I realized that they weren’t very good at all.  What used to amaze me… It seemed like we always had an upright piano wherever we were, and before school, pre-school age (I guess  I was 3 or 4 or something like that), I used to hear them play this piano, and when they would finish I would go over and look at the keys and wonder how did they get those keys to say all of the things that they were saying musically.  As I got older, I decided that I would try to see what I could do.  I think I was even worse than they were.  But I kept at it; it fascinated me.  Finally, my mother asked me, “Would you like to take piano lessons?”  Well, I’d never thought of that.  And I said, “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea.”  Well, that was quite an investment during those days.  I mean, the piano teacher would come to the house, like they did during those times, 75 cents a week for the lesson.  Which was quite an investment.  I mean, at that time things were a little mean.

I really got into the piano, so much so that after a few years I fancied that I wanted to be a concert pianist.  Of course, that was quite an aberration in the area I lived.  All you heard was the Blues there!  Yet I proceeded to try to follow that idea…

TP:    So your reading skills were well developed as a child, I’d take it, if you were going in a Classical direction.

GOLSON:  Oh, yes.  I’ll tell you about that in a minute.  My teacher used to give piano recitals.  This was the time to show off all the students and let the parents know that they’re not wasting their money.  I was scared to death every time these things came up, once a year.  But I got very good at it…until I heard Lionel Hampton’s band, live at the Earle Theater in Philadelphia, and a fellow named Arnett Cobb came out to the microphone and played that solo on “Flying Home.”  And from that moment on, the piano began to pale.  My mother let me off the hook, because she wanted me to learn to play the piano and play the organ in church, and I had agreed to all this because it sounded okay at the time.  But she let me off the hook.  The piano just sort of fell by the wayside, and the saxophone took over.

TP:    I guess the hormones were starting to rise, and the saxophone was a more charismatic instrument.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, I was into it by then.

TP:    Had you had any experience with wind instruments prior to hearing Arnett Cobb?

GOLSON:  Absolutely not.  That was all foreign to me.  It was all piano as far as I was concerned.

TP:    The name of your piano teacher.

GOLSON:  Jay Walker Freeman.  Nobody ever asks me that.  He left me after about five years, I guess, and he went to teach at a university.  By the time I got to college, though, I didn’t really want to pursue the piano.  I wanted to pursue the saxophone, but piano was mandatory for the first two years — so I’d had a little head start.

TP:    As a kid, what sort of repertoire did he have you playing?  I take it you were at a point where you were able to play certain pieces in the repertoire.  What interested you and what were you performing?

GOLSON:  I remember, I guess at the height of my brief career as a pianist, on one of the recitals that I’d rehearsed quite… Everything we had to commit to memory for the recitals.  There was a piece called “The Bumblebee.”  Not “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” but it was certainly reminiscent of it, and it moved along quite swiftly.  The night of the concert… Sometimes when you hear your name called, it strikes fear in your heart.  “And now, Benny Golson.”  And at that moment, I forgot everything.  I couldn’t even remember how it started!  And as I was walking up to the stage, I was thinking, “So this is how it ends.”  I couldn’t even remember what note it started with.  It was incredible!  But as soon as I got to the piano, I put my hands over the piano, and it was sort of automatic.  I was so scared that I played that piece faster than I have ever played it.  And my teacher marvelled at it.  That was my high point.  Then after that I took a dive.

TP:    Concurrently, playing Classical piano, were you listening to Jazz and vernacular music on the radio or records or whatever?  Was that part of your experience?

GOLSON:  I used to hear the Blues.  My mother used to buy these records by Lil Green and Big Bill Broonzy and things like that, and I used to say, “How can she listen to that horrible music?”  No, I wasn’t there.  I was somewhere else with the European music.  I changed later.

TP:    After hearing Arnett Cobb, I guess, or around that time.

GOLSON:  Yes.

TP:    What brought you to the Earle Theater to hear Lionel Hampton if you were so exclusively interested in Classical music?

GOLSON:  Young curiosity.  That was it.  I mean, Earl Bostic was in that band at that time, the technician of all technicians.  He came out and he played, as we said, snakes.  He played everything playable on that darn alto saxophone.  And I just sat there and listened.  But when Arnett Cobb came out… See, I wasn’t prepared for any of this.  The whole thing got me.  Watching the curtain swing open, the lights come up, the bandstand roll dramatically forward toward the audience, everybody dressed alike, the lights playing on the instruments, and the sound of the music coming live… I’d never seen anything like this.  I was overwhelmed by it.  And the icing on the cake was Arnett Cobb coming out playing that solo.  I became a groupie.

TP:    On Arnett Cobb, huh?

GOLSON:  Sort of, yeah. [LAUGHS]

TP:    So did that then start taking you into studying other tenor saxophonists, the major stylists of the time?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.

TP:    Let’s talk about the process of your development as a tenor saxophonist.

GOLSON:  Arnett Cobb was my first influence.  He was the one responsible for my going in that direction.  Quite naturally, being an aspiring saxophone player, you start buying saxophone records.  Believe it or not, I listened to Tex Beneke with Glenn Miller, and that was one of my favorite bands at that time, and Bud Freeman and Eddie Miller, and Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.  But somehow, Don Byas walked into my heart, and occupied a large part of the space there.

TP:    Which of his performances did you hear that affected you?  Perhaps you could go into detail, taking yourself out of being an aspiring 14-15-year-old saxophone player, and talk about Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and what they were doing in the 1940′s.

GOLSON:  Well, I heard Coleman Hawkins before I heard Don Byas, his classic solo on “Body and Soul.”  It was so popular that it was on all the jukeboxes in our neighborhood — and it was a Black neighborhood.  You could walk down the street any day and hear Coleman Hawkins playing “Body and Soul,” which is quite unusual today, to go to neighborhoods and hear anything like that.  But eventually, I heard Don Byas play on a recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “52nd Street Theme.”  I couldn’t believe it, the way he got over that horn.  He became my idol at that moment.  Of course, I continued to like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, but Don Byas to me had something a little special.  His sound and the velocity that he had when he moved over the horn.  It didn’t sound strained or manufactured.  It sounded quite natural, the way he did it, and I was straining like I don’t know what to try to do that.  I was a neophyte then.

TP:    Were you going around to hear a lot of bands at that time?  When the big bands would come along with a tenor player, would you try to catch them in person?

GOLSON:  I was a little too young to go to the clubs.

TP:    But at the Earle Theater you’d go to hear bands?

GOLSON:  Oh, yeah, whenever I could.

TP:    So did you get to see Don Byas with Count Basie, let’s say, coming through?

GOLSON:  No.  By the time I got to see him live, I got to know him as a friend… No, during that time I didn’t, unfortunately.

TP:    I heard a story from Jackie McLean where Charlie Parker had come back from Europe, Jackie McLean was maybe 19, he said, “How was it there?” and Bird said, “I had a wonderful saxophone lesson over there.”  Jackie McLean thought it might be Marcel Mule, the great Classical saxophonist, but Charlie Parker said, “No, it was Don Byas.”

GOLSON:  Absolutely.

TP:    Did this interest you very much then in Bebop and the new music coming up in the 1940′s?

GOLSON:  Oh, definitely.  It changed my life.  Dizzy Gillespie changed my life.  My life had two beginnings, Ted.  When I was born of my mother and father and when I heard Dizzy Gillespie.

TP:    When was that?

GOLSON:  1945.

TP:    Earle Theater?

GOLSON:  No, it was Academy of Music, a concert.  Elliot Lawrence’s band was there, featuring a young new trumpet player at that same concert, 17 years old, named Red Rodney.  Don Byas was there with Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Slam Stewart on bass, Al Haig, I’m not sure who the drummer was.  But the rhythm section hadn’t really caught up to what Charlie Parker and Diz were doing.  John Coltrane and I and Ray Bryant were there, and when we heard them play this music we just couldn’t believe it.  John was playing alto like Johnny Hodges and I was trying to sound like Arnett Cobb, which is completely different.  Ray Bryant was sounding somewhat like Eddie Heywood and other piano players of the time, I guess.  When we heard them play, for example, a song that was so strange, it was quite aberrational to us then, John looked at me and said, “It sounds like snake charmer’s music.”  I looked at him and agreed, “Yes, it does!”  It was “A Night In Tunisia.”  We’d never heard any Jazz like that.  It was foreign!  They played an interlude, and Charlie Parker made the 4-bar break where he doubles up.  We almost fell out of the balcony!  We’d never heard anything like that.  It wasn’t just a good performance.  We heard music that we had never heard before!  I mean, our blood must have been boiling in the veins, we were so effervescent.  We were so taken by all of this, that when the concert was over we went backstage (and of course, as kids; I think I was 16 and John was 18) and got all the autographs.

But we followed Charlie Parker out of the theater and into the street.  Now, Don Byas was my idol.  But what Charlie Parker was doing that night was so completely different than I had ever heard, I had to try to find out what it was about.  So we proceeded to walk up… He was on his way over to another club about four blocks away called the Downbeat, where the local rhythm section was going to be playing with him.  The rhythm section was Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland and Nelson Boyd on bass.

TP:    In 1945?

GOLSON:  Right.  They were just a little older than us, and they had a jump on us.  While we were walking on Broad Street, John asked him could he carry his horn, so he was carrying his horn for him, and I was asking him what kind of horn did he play, and what kind of reed, and what number reed, and what did he do — all these dumb questions.  But he was nice to us! [LAUGHS] And when we got to the club, we were too young to go up there.  The club was on the second floor.  So we just stood outside all night, until they finished, dreaming, “What if?  Suppose.”  When it was over… We were in South Philadelphia, where the club was. We never had any money.  So we walked from South Philadelphia back to North Philadelphia.

TP:    A dangerous walk sometimes.

GOLSON:  Oh, it wasn’t dangerous at that time.  We weren’t aware of anything but the music that we had been hearing that night, and we were dreaming, forecasting… We were trying to be some kind of harbingers.  We wanted to be a part of what this was.  And we didn’t know what it was, and we didn’t know how to even start.

John called me a little bit later, and he said, “Did you try any of that stuff that Mr. Parker was telling us?”  I said, “yeah,” like what kind of horn and the reed and the mouthpiece.  He said, “Did anything happen?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Me either.”  We didn’t even realize it wasn’t those physical things; it was what the man had in his mind, his concept!

TP:    I take it you subsequently took every possible opportunity to hear Charlie Parker play, when he’d come through Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  Not only Charlie Parker.  Whoever it was.  Whoever it was, I figured it could help me, as it were, to climb another rung in the ladder, to wherever.  And we didn’t know wherever we were going, but wherever it was, we wanted to try to go anyway, and find our way along the way — searching.

TP:    What was your studying process?  Would you listen to his records, transcribe the solos, or did you have a teacher in high school?

GOLSON:  You bet.  All of the above.  I had a teacher.  We would listen to the records.  In fact, that’s how I got interested in writing.  Writing the solos out.  I had my own crude way of doing it, because I didn’t know the syncopation, so each note that they played, I just made a circle, a goose-egg.  So I had the right notes, but I was the only one who could play it.  I was the only one who knew the syncopation to it.  But I realized later that that wasn’t good enough; I had to actually learn how to write it the way they were playing.  Then I got pretty good at that, and then I realized, “My goodness, if I can do this, then maybe I can write music so other people can play it, and groups of people can play together.”  That’s when I started to become interested in arranging.

TP:    This gives me an opportunity to combine two questions, your arranging and your contemporaries and peers in Philadelphia.  You just mentioned some very heavy names, John Coltrane, Ray Bryant, Philly Joe Jones, Nelson Boyd, Red Garland I guess had come to Philadelphia after his time in the Army… Talk about your coterie, your circle of friends, the types of situations you performed in, and where you were musically at the time.  Well, you told us that you were into Bebop.

GOLSON:  I was trying to get into it, but it was quite hard for us.  It wasn’t like it is today where the musicians from my time period try to encourage the young ones coming along.  It was just the antithesis of that.  When I was coming up, the older musicians who played the other style, the other style being the style before Bebop…I hate that name, but before that style…tried to discourage us.  They would make very disparaging remarks, like:  “Where is the beat?”  “Where is the bass drum?”  “Where is the melody?”  “You guys sound like you’re playing with a mouth-full of hot rice.”  They didn’t understand.  They put us down.  And the more they put us down, the harder we tried to find out what it was all about.  Jimmy Heath, he was there; he was playing alto at the time…

TP:    He and John Coltrane were a few years older than you?

GOLSON:  John was two or three years older than me, and Jimmy about the same.  Percy Heath wasn’t even a musician then.  He was a pilot in the Air Force, I think, he came home, and he learned how to play quickly.  It was amazing how quickly he learned how to play.  Then he became a part of the scene.  Then other musicians you probably wouldn’t know about, if I mentioned.

TP:    Well, name some names.

GOLSON:  Calvin Todd was a trumpet player there who had a big band.  He was young, a teenager or in his early twenties, and he had a big band that was pretty good.  Jimmy Heath had a big band, and John and I were in that band.  Nelson Boyd ended up being the bass player, Specs Wright…

TP:    That’s the band that tried to play a lot of Dizzy Gillespie’s arrangements.

GOLSON:  You bet.

TP:    That’s very advanced for a group of teenagers.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  All the seats in that band were coveted.  I’ll tell you, everybody wanted to be in that band.  But John Coltrane and I were fortunate enough to be in it, somehow, and we were so happy about it.  And it wasn’t about the money.  We weren’t making any money.  But we were having a lot of fun, and then we were learning as we were going along.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the band because he liked the idea that these kids were trying to do something of value, trying to move ahead.  Another arranger named Johnny Acea wrote some things for us.  Leroy Lovett.  These were all professional arrangers.  Then Jimmy was trying to write some things, I was trying to write some things.  So they helped us.  It was like giving birth.  Every time you’d write something, you had a chance for somebody to play it, and you’d sit there hoping that the baby turned out to be normal.

And our parents encouraged us.  We’d go down to Jimmy’s house, and his parents were so sweet and loving… We would push the furniture to the side, and make enough room for 15 guys, and have a big band rehearsal.  We’d rehearse during the summertime, the windows were up, and the whole neighborhood would sit out on the steps and listen to the band.  And the same thing at my house.  Just move the furniture out, move everything into the kitchen.  We couldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been for the support of our parents.

TP:    A lot of your contemporaries playing saxophone were captivated by Lester Young, and their styles went in that direction, and you haven’t mentioned him in your list of influences.  Did you admire him at that time?

GOLSON:  I loved Lester Young and I love Lester Young.  But I can’t be two people at the same time, so I had to make a choice.  And it had to be the school that I chose — Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas, Ben Webster, and later Dexter Gordon.  Lester Young was fantastic, but I chose not to go in that direction.  Unfortunately, people overlook Lester Young, I guess because he was laid back the things he played.  But I heard him play things that were fast!  Incredible.  He knew what he was doing.

TP:     You entered Howard University at age 18, which would have been 1947?

GOLSON:  It was ’47.

TP:    Did you go there as a music major, with the intention of developing your musicality in the academic environment?

GOLSON:  Yes, with those things that you mentioned.  But the curriculum that I found myself in was one wherein I would wind up being a teacher.  Which was a little discouraging.  Because I stepped back and looked at it, and I said to myself, “These teachers had someone teach them what they’re teaching me.  They’re going to teach me what they have been taught, and I in turn will teach someone else what I have learned from them, and they will teach someone…”  I said, “When am I going to get a chance to use it?”  There were a lot of rules, you know.

My third year there, I became a rebel.  They would say things like “the fifth, the dominant has got to resolve to the tonic, this note has got to resolve here,” and I thought to myself, “Well, suppose it resolves somewhere else instead of there?”  “No, no, no, you can’t do that.”  That discouraged me a little bit.

So I took to doing my assignments the way I felt that I could do them.  Why do them any other way.  I remember the straw that broke the camel’s back.  I went to class one day, and she put the assignments on the piano and played them.  The classes were small, maybe 10 or 12 of us in the class, and she’d play.  “Ah, Neapolitan 6th, Mrs. Brown.”  “Oh yes, deceptive cadence here; oh, very good.”  Then she’d play the next one.  “Oh yes, I see you’ve done this.  Oh, very nice.  But you must not use fifths.  Ah, no parallel…”  Then she got to mine, and she played the first chord.  But the first chord had to resolve to the second chord, and that red pencil made a big X, then she went to the next one and she made another red X.  She looked like Zorro with the whip.  Finally, she didn’t get to the end of it.  She turned around, almost disgusted, I guess, and looked at me and said, “Oh, Mr. Golson, what have you done?”  I tried to think of all kinds of ways that I could show my contempt. So I stood up and my hands in my pocket and I sort of rolled from side to side, the way Thelonious Monk used to do, and put my head back looking halfway up the ceiling, and said, “That’s the way I heard it.”

TP:    To which she responded?

GOLSON:  I didn’t go over big at all. I don’t remember what she said, but it didn’t go over too big.  The next day, I put my things in my little broken-down car, and left — drove off into the sunset.  No, I wanted to do something else.  I didn’t want to follow the rules.  Why should you do everything always the same.  Music is an adventure.  It should be an adventure!  It’s not just something that happens when you walk down a corridor of time.  You want to find doors when you walk down that corridor.  You want to open those doors and find some surprises.

TP:    Well, before we send you off into the sunset, I want to find out what Washington was like for you, because there was a very strong musical community there.

GOLSON:  Oh, it was great.  Absolutely.

TP:    Were you gigging after classes, on the side, let’s say?

GOLSON:  Yeah, and that was a no-no.  But I had a agreement with the monitor on the door at night.  He would let me in.  And when the door was locked, the wall wasn’t too high; I’d come over the wall.  I was even going to Philly doing gigs on weekends.  I was playing at a club about six blocks from campus called Little Harlem that was frequented by a lot of people.  I came up to do a set, and there was one of the theory teachers sitting on the front table.  We’re not supposed to be doing that!  I said, “Oh, man, this is a drag.  They’re going to kick me out.”  It was over.  I had to play.  And he sat there.  He was cool.  Sterling Thomas; I’ll never forget his name.  After the set was over, he said, “Can I see you a minute?”  I said, “Yeah, this is it.”  I went over, and he said, “That was a nice set.” [LAUGHS] That was it.

TP:    What sort of music were you playing?  Was it a Bebop set?

GOLSON:  I was trying for all I was worth to play Bebop.

TP:    Who were you playing with?

GOLSON:  A trumpet who’s dead now, from Cleveland, Ohio — Carl Fields.  A piano player who later became Billie Holiday’s pianist, Carl Drinkard.  Fats Clarke was the drummer.  I can’t remember the bass player’s name.  But we were trying as hard as we could to do that.  Whatever the risk was, I had to do it.

TP:    Also in Washington at that time… Well, John Malachi had left Billy Eckstine and not gone back out…

GOLSON:  He was there during that time.  And subsequent to that he went out to play with Al Hibbler.  Leo Parker was still around, in and out of town during that time.  Charlie Rouse was there.  We looked up to him, because he had sort of “made it.”  Wesley Anderson, the trombone player, he was pretty good; he was in and out of town.  There was a tremendous saxophone player there named Carrington Visor(?).  He lives in Los Angeles now.  Oh, that guy could play.

There were a lot of good musicians there, and there were a lot of clubs.  During that same time, there were a lot of clubs in Philadelphia.  It was like they’d found a new way to life as far as Jazz was concerned.  Then unfortunately, they died.

TP:    Also in Washington and Philadelphia you had the theaters, and still throughout the ’40s the bands were coming in; in Philly, the Earle Theater and Academy of Music, and in Washington primarily the Howard Theater.

GOLSON:  Well, there was more than that in Philadelphia.  There was a theater out in West Philadelphia that was called The Fay’s, then they later changed the name to the Fans for whatever reason.  The Earle Theater was the main one; that lasted the longest.  But earlier on, there was one called the Nixon Grand, which was only three blocks from my house. Duke Ellington came there, as did Slim and Slam; those are the only two I remember seeing there.

TP:    Were you simultaneously a fan of any of the big bands that were coming through, or were you more exclusively into the Bebop combo aesthetic.  I’m talking about apart from Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Did Duke Ellington thrill you as a 20-year-old, or the Basie band, or the other top bands  of the time?

GOLSON:  Ted, you have to understand.  I was young, I was aspiring and therefore I was highly eclectic.  I was trying to get it wherever I could.  Fats Waller came there with a band, and yes, I went to hear Fats Waller with Al Casey on guitar.  I never saw Duke Ellington’s band there.  He was there, but I didn’t see it; I was too young to know what it was all about, I guess.  There was a local band, Jan Savitt, who played there.  Georgie Auld came through there.  I’m trying to think of some of the other bands.  But I went to see a lot of them.  Some of the music I didn’t particularly like, but I thought I should know what it was about, so I could be broad enough what this thing called music, and Jazz in particular, was all about.  So I listened to lots of people and lots of music.  As I told you, during the war years one of my favorite bands was Glenn Miller, with the clarinet on top, and the way Tex Beneke used to sing and the way he played.  That appealed to me at that time.  I didn’t try to play like that.  But I loved it.

TP:    So in 1949-50, you’re driving off into the sunset from Washington, and where did you land?

GOLSON:  I landed back in Philadelphia, on my feet, thank goodness.  Right after that, the fellow that used to play with Art Tatum, Tiny Grimes, the guitar player, had a group.  Ray Bryant was already in that group.  Now, it wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I had no other offer.  So I took the cup of tea, and went out with Tiny Grimes and his Swinging Highlanders.  We wore Scottish kilts and the little tam with the tassel on it, the whole thing.  I remember the first night with them, we were playing Atlantic City, and I put my kilts on.  Nobody told me anything.  And I had to go step out on the bar and walk the bar.

TP:    In kilts.

GOLSON:  In kilts.  I wasn’t prepared for what happened.  And all the ladies were pulling up my skirt, this kilt.  Well, I had my underwear on.  Nobody told me.  And the guys were laughing.  I think they purposely didn’t tell me.  But then they said, “Benny, you’ve got to wear a bathing suit under it.”  I said, “Well, thanks for telling me after the fact!”  I mean, I could hardly play.  It was incredible.

TP:    Well, it sounds like you played some very entertaining venues during your formative years.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    Any others that are particularly memorable you’d like to speak of?

GOLSON:  Well, I did some other gigs like that.  I worked with Bullmoose Jackson.  Now, you might laugh and think what a waste of time, but none of it was a waste of time.  You have no idea how those jobs helped to broaden you and help to spread your appreciation for the whole scope of what jazz was about.  I played gigs where I had to sway from side to side with funny-looking ties on, and singing “Rag Mop” and things like that.  We all did it.  I walked in one day and saw John walking on the bar and stepping over drinks.  We all did it.  We had to survive.  But it wasn’t a waste of time.  It gave you a feeling straight across the board what jazz was all about, where it came from.  Even the Gospel stuff.

TP:    In relation to what you’re saying, I gather that in the Bullmoose Jackson band, Tadd Dameron was briefly apart of that, Philly Joe Jones as well… Very strong musicians.  Was there any working out of let’s say higher musical ideas off-hours, on the road?  Talk a bit about the climate within the band, the attitudes and interactions.

GOLSON:  Okay, I’ll tell you about it.  Tadd Dameron was there, and it was a complete aberration, an anomaly.  Tadd Dameron and Bullmoose Jackson, whose name was Benjamin, were both from Cleveland, Ohio, and they knew each other as kids growing up in Cleveland.  Bullmoose ran into Tadd one day in New York and just happened to say, “Are you working?”  Tadd said, “No, I’m not working right now.”  He said, “Look, I need a piano player, and I know this is really not your kind of thing, but come down, make a few gigs and make some money with me, and when you’re ready to leave, you can leave.”  Tadd thought about it and said, “Well, okay.”  I’m so happy he did that, because when I joined the band he was the piano player.  Oh, you have no idea!  Because he was one of my idols as far as the pen is concerned.

Now, someone told Bullmoose Jackson about me, and he approached me about joining the band.  He happened to be Philadelphia with his group, and he’d been asking about tenor players in town.  I might have taken Frank Wess’ place.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, Bullmoose and the road manager, who was also the alto saxophone player, wanted me to come to their hotel room to play some music with them — they wanted to see if I could read music.  So I went down, and we did, and they liked it, and they said, “Hmm, do you happen to know of any trumpet player who might want to play who can read?” — because they had a lot of written music.  I said, “Yeah, I know one.  He’s an excellent reader.  Johnny Coles.”  They approached John, who didn’t have to take a test because they took my word for it; he could read really well.  They said, “Do you know a bass player?”  I guess he was revamping the whole band.  So I recommended Jymie Merritt.  Fine.  And they wanted a drummer.  I said, “Okay.”  “Has he got any experience playing this kind of music?”  “Yeah, he used to play with Joe Morris; he’s played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates.” (That was before Rock-and-Roll.)  That was Philly Joe Jones.  Philly could play anything.  We used to have a gig locally, and Philly used to be the singer!  You never heard him sing, but he sang great.  And he played bass, and he played piano, and he was a comedian, too…

[END OF SIDE A]

We had some arrangements that he had written that belied the sound of the rhythm-and-blues band we were a part of.  Then Tadd had showed so many of his things to me that I began writing some things sounding like Tadd.  He would pull my leg a little bit and say, “It’s really a drag; people come up to me and say, ‘Oh, that was a great arrangement you did on such-and-such, Tadd,” — and it was an arrangement I had done.  He said, “what a drag.”  But he didn’t really mean that.

TP:    Would he sit down with you first-hand and show you how he was constructing things?

GOLSON:  Absolutely, he showed me.  This guy was great.

TP:    What were some of the devices that made Tadd Dameron specific for musicians out there that were the trademarks of his style?

GOLSON:  He taught me how to be selective about notes.  When you are a dearth writer… A dearth writer is when you are writing for a small number of instruments.  It’s much easier to write for a larger array of instruments.  Not easy, but easier.  Because you don’t have to approximate, you don’t have to simulate, you don’t have to try to sound like something — you’ve got the sound there. But when you’ve got two horns, you’re not going to sound like a 15-piece group with 15 musicians.  So you have to try to simulate, you have to try to give the impression.  Then doing that, you have to draw upon all the outstanding characteristics of all the instruments — really.  The bass drum, the snare drum, the cymbal, the ride cymbal, the hi-hat cymbal, the piano — which is really three instruments, the high part of it, the mid-range and the low.  And picking the best sounding notes.  If you’ve got two horns, you’re only going to pick two.  You’ve got to pick the two outstanding ones.

I learned those kinds of things from him, and I went on to develop my own kinds of things, too.  But he gave me a jumping-off point.  I remember while he was in the band he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington, and he let me copy it.  I copied it for nothing, because I got a chance to sort of eviscerate what he had done, and lay it bare, and look at it in its component parts there, and that was helpful.  I did that, Quincy did, we all did those things.  We would get arrangements by people we liked, and look at the score, and tear it apart, and see how did they arrive at this.  We had already heard the recording; “so this is how they got that sound — mmm-hmm,” and you file it away.

Then you come up with your own things, too.  Walking two steps into the darkness of the unknown is healthy, because in doing so you will always discover things awaiting your discovery of them.  They’re there.  You just have to find them.  And when you find some of these things, you can make them your own.  You don’t always have to be eclectic and copy other people’s things.  That’s a beginning.  But as you advance, you come up with things of your own.  And the next thing you know, people are trying to find what you’re doing.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron/Clifford/BG, "Theme of No Repeat" (1953); Dizzy Gillespie, "Birks Works" (1957), DG Octet, "Blues After Dark" (1958), DG/E. Wilkins, "Left Hand Corner" (1958), DG Octet, "Out of the Past" (1958), Diz BB, "Whisper Not" & "Stablemates" (1957), Diz BB at Newport, "I Remember Clifford" (1957)]

TP:    Listening to those right now, what’s your assessment of these recordings?

GOLSON:  I am reminded all over again what a genius Dizzy Gillespie was.  I mean, he plays with such compassion.  On the opening of “Stablemates” he played that melody with such compassion that one might have thought, if they didn’t know the melody, that it was another kind of song.  When people think of Dizzy Gillespie they usually think of the high notes and all the fast notes, and the force and the power — but he’s a compassionate trumpet player.  And the thing about him (Art Farmer has it, too) that’s so unique, they’re able to play what I call other notes when they play.  Some people play and they play predictable notes.  But trumpet players like Dizzy Gillespie and Art Farmer are able to play other notes, unexpected notes.  That does something to you emotionally.  The notes they play are so beautiful and they fit into the scheme of things so well that your heart is intuitively saying, “Yes, yes.”

TP:    I’d also imagine that, as a composer and arranger, it spurs you to fresh thinking when you hear such imaginative soloists interpreting your work.

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I’ve always contended that as a writer… I don’t like to use the word “arranger,” because an arranger as such does more; he composes and all of these things.  I call them a writer.  When people write, it’s always good to know for whom you’re writing, if possible.  The rewards are so much better if you write for personality.  Duke Ellington did it for his band.  Whoever did Count Basie’s arrangements knew who the personnel was at the time.  They didn’t come and go too quickly, so you could plan things around certain people, and you know what to expect before you write it.  Otherwise, you’re writing vague and hoping that things come off.  But if you write certain things with people in mind, you know that they’re going to do your music justice, and many times even enhance what you’ve written — and that’s one of the real rewards.  Dizzy was like that.  Art Farmer is like that.  John Coltrane was like that.  They bring so much to it that it helps to elevate what you’ve already done, to make the spotlight a little brighter.

TP:    Well, it was a long road from 1953 and your Rhythm-and-Blues experiences up to joining the Dizzy Gillespie band in 1956, and in this conversational segment we’ll seek to explore some of those pathways.  Someone called shortly after we began the music in that set, and asked me to ask Benny Golson about Daisy Mae and the Hepcats, which he said John Coltrane also played with.  He wondered about your memories of that situation.

GOLSON:  Now, whoever made that call is somebody that really knows something.  They’ve got the inside track on it.  I don’t think I would have mentioned that group by name.  But yes, Daisy Mae and the Hepcats were from Philadelphia, and John Coltrane was a part of that group.  They used to wear these funny kind of clothes, the funny ties and rock from side to side and sing things, and the little cocktail drums with the foot pedal that hits up underneath of it, and the singing… It was an entertaining group; that’s what it was.  But like I said, the rent-man didn’t care about aesthetics.  All he wanted was his rent.

TP:    What were the rooms like you’d play in with those bands, the milieu and the layout?

GOLSON:  People came there to drink and to be entertained.  A group coming in there to play some fantastic jazz wouldn’t have made it.  They had to have an entertaining group.  People were buying the drinks and clicking the glasses, and not only did they want to feel good from what they were drinking; they wanted to feel good according to what they were hearing.  And I worked in places like that, too.  The same person might remember Jimmy Preston, who was an alto player, and he sang — and it was an entertaining group.  We worked every weekend in Lawnside, New Jersey, at a nice place, indirect lighting, state-of-the-art furniture — and we came there to entertain the people.  That’s exactly what we did.  Jimmy used to get off the bandstand and walk around, and while he was playing with one hand he would take the other hand and drink anybody’s drink.  They didn’t know that he was serious about that.  That really wasn’t part of the act; he liked to do that! [LAUGHS] That’s what we did. We must have stayed at that place two or three years.

I’m just driving a point here.  There were many groups strictly to entertain the people.  What’s interesting is that what entertainers do is second-guess the public.  In other words, they do what they think the people want to hear.  Now, there is nothing wrong with being an entertainer.  But the primary difference between an entertainer and an artist is that an entertainer’s first  obligation is to play what he thinks the people want to hear.  On the other hand, an artist’s first obligation is to do what he feels in his heart.  Not annoy the audience, but hoping that they like it.  But he has to answer that thing inside of himself first, and that’s the primary difference.

TP:    It’s interesting, because let’s say twenty years before that there wouldn’t have been such a distinction between entertainment and art where instrumental jazz was concerned.  No?  The big bands, the dance bands were playing very creative music, and it was the popular music of the time.

GOLSON:  That’s right.  But they pulled apart somewhere.  After Dizzy Gillespie came on the scene, the road sort of divided, and they got further and further apart.  But each music is still consequential.  There is nothing wrong with the music that’s played when people are entertained.  That’s a certain kind of music, and who is to say that kind of music shouldn’t exist.  It should.

TP:    And it does.

GOLSON:  [LAUGHS] And it does.  Absolutely.  No one should decry anybody’s efforts when it comes to creativity.  Creativity is a global phenomenon.  It doesn’t belong to any one person or people, and we all share in it on one level or another, whether it’s taking a safety pin when you lost your button and fastening something or building a rocket that goes to the moon.  We all share in creativity.

TP:    I’d like to talk about some other stops along your developmental path.  You and John Coltrane both worked with, at one time or another (and I’m not sure if it was at the same time), Earl Bostic and Johnny Hodges.  Discuss the circumstances and the personalities of both those incredible alto saxophonists as leaders.

GOLSON:  I think John played with Earl Bostic first.  He was the one who told me, although I sort of intuitively knew by things I’d heard Earl do in person with Lionel Hampton… He told me what a technician Earl Bostic was.  I didn’t join right after him, but when I came in a few saxophone players later, I discovered that Earl Bostic is probably one of the best technicians I have ever heard on the alto saxophone.  There were others who are very good.  Al Galadora, Rudy Wiedoft, Marcel Mule in Paris, Dick Stabile is another one… These names are popping into my mind as I talk.  Great.  But none of them could best Earl Bostic.  This guy was incredible, like a machine.  I was in awe of his technique.  I’m not talking about style, now.  I’m talking about raw technique and ability to get over the horn and do things.  He was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody who’s gone beyond him technically, not even John — because John used to rave about him.

TP:    Just another question about Bostic as a leader.  Was there ever room for, say, creative and modern jazz within his set, let’s say on late sets and whatnot?  Was he interested in that?  Was he up on the new music of the early 1950′s?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  He afforded me many opportunities to write.  I remember I wrote an arrangement one time on “All The Things You Are.”  It changed keys, it did all kinds of things, and he loved it.  One night in particular he really got into it, and it was just fantastic.  He was so taken by it… I remember after it was over I knew he was taken by it, because he came to me, reached in his pocket and said, “How much did I pay you for that arrangement?”  Whatever it was, I quoted the price.  He said, “Well, here’s some more,” and he gave some more money — and I don’t remember the amount either.

Oh yeah, he liked other kinds of music.  We played Baltimore once, and we had to play a matinee.  During the course of playing a matinee, he showed up on the bandstand with his clarinet, and he played fantastic clarinet.  We played “Cherokee” or some tune like that, and we played it through the keys — and he chewed it up.  Chewed it up.  He was a fantastic musician.  I asked him, “Earl, do you have just natural talent?  What happened?  How did you come to put all this together?”  He said, “When I was Oklahoma [I think he was from Tulsa], I knew I was coming to New York, and I had to get ready.  So what I did, for years I went to work.  At 8 in the morning I started playing, I took a lunch break, and I stopped at 5.”  He said, “I did that every day.”  And he when he came to New York, believe me, he was ready.  Because people like Sweets Edison, Don Byas, they told me when he came, boy, he was awesome.  He didn’t have to apologize to anybody.

Now, you asked about Johnny Hodges and John Coltrane.  When I first met John, he was playing alto, and his idol was Johnny Hodges.  One of my high school chums, who also played alto, told me about a new person who had moved into the projects, and it was John Coltrane.  He said, “He’s fantastic.  He plays just like Johnny Hodges.”  I said, “What?!”  This was before Bird and Diz.  The music was somewhere else.  If I can meet somebody who plays like Johnny Hodges, this will be fantastic.  And he’s our age, 18… So he said, “Well, I’ll bring him by your house tomorrow.”  So he did.  The doorbell rang, and I opened the door, and there was Howard, and standing down on the sidewalk was John, sort of like a country bumpkin, biting the side of his thumb.  He came in the house, and we just sort of stood there.  Kids are so stupid.  He was standing there by the couch with his horn in his hand, and his hat and coat on — [LAUGHS] and I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “Play something!”  He was waiting for it.  He took his hat and coat off, whipped his horn out, and went into “Sunny Side of the Street.”  Well, my mother happened to be upstairs, and after he finished playing she said, “Who was that?”  I said, “It’s a new fellow I met named John Coltrane.”  After a while we started having sessions at my house, and sometime during that session she would holler down, “Is John down there yet?”  He would say, “Yes, Mrs. Golson.”  And we knew what that met.  We would have to stop and let John play “On The Sunny Side of The Street.”

TP:    A small price to pay for rehearsal space.

GOLSON:  Oh yeah.  I was a little embarrassed by it, so I said to her one day, “Mother, it’s kind of a drag.  We try to get together and do some things, learn some new things, and you holler down for these requests, mainly on ‘Sunny Side Of The Street’…” She didn’t let me finish.  She said, “This is my house; I’ll ask for what I want.”  I guess she was right.

But it turns out that John Coltrane later joined his former idol, Johnny Hodges.  He was playing tenor then.  I asked him, “Did you ever tell him that at one point he was your idol?”  He said, “No, I never said anything about it.”  It was like Charlie Parker.  He was playing somewhere, and Charlie Parker came in.  John was still playing alto at the time, and he was playing so much, Bird said to somebody, “who is this guy?”  Of course it was John Coltrane.  I heard the story, and when John came back to Philly, I said, “But did you tell him we were the two kids who were walking down Broad Street with him?”  He said, “No.”  Well, he wouldn’t have remembered anyway.

TP:    What was it like being on the road with Johnny Hodges in his own group?  Was it all a vehicle for him, or…

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  He gave other people a chance to play.  You know, as you’re coming along and you meet people, that’s one thing.  But when you meet them and then you play with them or in their group, it’s like little dreams coming true.  And here I was with Johnny Hodges.  I used to listen to him with Duke play all these great things, one of which was “On The Sunny Side Of The Street,” and then I’m in his band.  But how I got there is, John was already there, and they were enlarging the band to go on a special tour with Billy Eckstine and Ruth Brown and a group called the Clovers.  So they needed to enlarge the band.  Johnny wanted another saxophone player, and he asked John, “Do you know of any saxophone players?”  He said, “Oh yeah,” and he told them to get me, and that’s what happened.  So I got there.  So I did this tour with him.

TP:    Was it mostly blues and ballads and things he was famous for?

GOLSON:  That kind of thing, yeah.  Billy Eckstine sang his ballad, and Johnny did “Castle Rock,” and he had other things he played, and we played the Clovers’ music, and we played “Mama, Treat Your Daughter Mean” with Ruth Brown, and those kind of things.  It was a show.,

TP:    So you’re in your mid-twenties, traveling around the country on the Black theater circuit primarily and in the clubs, garnering a really broad range of functional experience.  When your first recordings came out, you were not known to the broader public, but you developed a range of contacts around the United States within the jazz community basically.  Fair to say?

GOLSON:  True.

TP:    The events that led you into Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

GOLSON:  Fortuitous.  I was with Earl Bostic, and we were out in Seattle… Well, let me back up a little bit before that.  Because something was happening to me, my mental state I guess you could call it.  We were playing the same tunes every night, and for the large part they featured Earl.  We played on certain tunes, but the tapestry really was Earl Bostic.  I sort of got tired.  I wanted to do something else.  But I had a job, I was making money.  When we went down South, he would bring this electric guitar of his on the scene, and he would play things that people liked in Texas and Mississippi and Oklahoma and wherever.  I did some terrible things.  During the intermission I would tighten one string and loosen another string, and tighten another string.  Now, when he came up, he never did re-tune it.  He would just pick it up, turn around and call the number, and kick it off and start playing.  I did that one night, and he started to play, and it sounded just terrible — and it was trying to tune it while he was playing it.  I guess he didn’t know what happened.  It would have been all right if I had let it alone, but I did it again some other night.  He started to suspect something.  But he still didn’t know it was me, see.

Another night we were playing somewhere.  I was getting restless.  I guess I wanted to be fired or something.  We were playing somewhere, and boy, he really had the crowd… He really knew how to get the crowds.  Some of the people were dancing, but most of the people were standing at the foot of the stage.  He really had them going.  I remember seeing Illinois Jacquet do something with his horn, and I thought that I would do it while Earl was playing his solo.  This is what got me fired.  He was playing his solo, and he got the crowd going.  I went to the back of the stage, behind the drummer, and I took the saxophone loose from my strap, and I came running from to the front of the stage with my horn back like I was going to throw it, then I flung my horn forward like I was going to release the horn — and the whole audience ducked.  They ducked down.  It was distracting.  That bothered him.  Well, I guess he had every right to be bothered.  And after the show, he said… He called everybody Partner, “Part-noh.”  He said, “Part-noh, I think I’m gonna have to let-cha go.”  Well, that was in Seattle.  He said, “I think you’ve had your time here.”

I understood, and I guess I was kind of happy.  But it came at the right time.  Because Ernie Wilkins, who was writing for Dizzy’s band and had been playing saxophone, was leaving that same week, and somebody mentioned me, and they said, “Well, I think he’s with Earl Bostic, but give him a call anyway.”  I had come back to New York, and they called me, and I was home — and I got the gig.  I’m glad I got fired!

TP:    You said you’d moved to New York by this time.

GOLSON:  Oh yes, I’d moved to New York.

TP:    When did you come to New York?

GOLSON:  I came to New York around ’55.

TP:    Had you making regular trips to New York?

GOLSON:  Oh yeah, definitely.

TP:    Did you go to 52nd Street, let’s say?

GOLSON:  No, that was before my time.  But my uncle used to be a bartender at Minton’s Playhouse, and I would come over to visit him.  Oh, I visited him a lot. [LAUGHS] And he would take me around.  Because I was his nephew, I could go in there.  I mean, they don’t allow kids in there, but Teddy Hill would let me in.

TP:    This was in the ’40s?

GOLSON:  It was before I got out of high school.  The mid-’40s, I guess.  I was a kid.

TP:    What are your memories of Minton’s?

GOLSON:  Well, when you came in, there was a place where the bar was in the front room, like, and I can’t remember if you went up some steps to where the band was playing, or you went down or it was on the same level.  It seems to me like you walked up some steps.  But this is where the bandstand was, and it was a little more intense back there than it was out at the front bar.  This is where the musicians were, and this is where the people came to really hear the music.  The people that sat out in the front I guess were just concerned with having conversation and drinking, which is fine if they made the distinction, because otherwise they’d be going on concurrently with the other people who were interested.  So it worked out all right.

,    And I got on that bandstand once.  Eventually I did.  I can’t remember that tenor saxophone player’s name… Jackie McLean called his name a couple of years ago, and I’d forgotten it.  When he called the name, I jumped up.  I don’t think he ever recorded, but boy, this guy could play.  Anyway, I played there once.  Gildo Mahones I remember was there; Joe Guy, a trumpet player, Lockjaw… I can’t remember all the different people there.  Some of them, I didn’t know who they were as a kid.  I just knew this guy was a trumpet player, or this guy was a saxophone player; I didn’t know their name.  But later I found out how famous the place was, after the fact.

TP:    Did you continue to see Charlie Parker play, or go out of your way to do it when he was around?

GOLSON:  I didn’t know Charlie, didn’t get to know him personally, unfortunately.  But I got to know just about everybody else.  Sometimes people escape you knowing them.  Once I said to somebody who we all know (I can’t remember who it was), “Why is it that we never met?”  Just circumstances weren’t that way.  But mostly everybody else, I did.  All the pictures that I had, all the photographs I had down at the foot of my bed on the wall as a teenager growing up, all those idols… Max Roach and I laughed.  I said, “Look, you occupied a very prominent place on my wall at the foot of my bed for years!” [LAUGHS] As did Charlie Parker and Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie.  You lay in bed, you look at their pictures and you dream.

TP:    Then you play with Dizzy Gillespie and arrange a piece for Coleman Hawkins and…

GOLSON:  Yeah, you get to know them all.  Don Byas gave me a box of reeds after I got to know him, and it said, “To my man Benny, from Don.”  I kept that box until it was falling apart because it was from him.

TP:    When you got to New York, a number of your contemporaries were living here, such as Philly Joe Jones, Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Tadd Dameron.  So I imagine it wasn’t huge adjustment for you on settling here to begin establishing yourself amongst the very elite group of New York musicians.  Or was it?

GOLSON:  Oh, no.  I was no stranger.  Because when I was playing with various Rhythm-and-Blues groups, we would always come through New York.  We would play the Apollo, we would meet here for rehearsals or whatever it was, and I’d stay over, I’d go see bands, and I got to know musicians, so I wasn’t really a stranger.  But I was a stranger at the same time to the scene, certainly to the recording scene.  I hadn’t recorded anything.  But I had to be here.  New York is a strange place.  You can’t go back and forth.  Either you’re here or you’re not.  So I decided I should move here, and I did — and things started to pick up.  When you’re here, people pick up the phone, and you’re wherever they want you in 15 minutes or whatever it is.  You don’t have to get a bus or a train.  You’re here.  And that worked to my advantage, I think.

TP:    Was this when your real heavy period of writing began?  A lot of compositions from this period, ’55-’56-’57, you’ve performed ever since in various ways?

GOLSON:  Actually, the heavy period of my writing began before anybody knew about me.  But it’s a strange thing about talent.  Talent in and of itself doesn’t mean anything unless you have opportunity.  You can be the most talented guy, but you might be stuck out in Wacannomock(?), Wisconsin, and nobody ever knows about you.  You do need the opportunity, and I didn’t have the opportunity.  When I was traveling with these bands, Earl Bostic, Bullmoose Jackson, I was passing out lead sheets like they were calling cards.  Nothing ever happened.  I think James Moody recorded one of my things, a blues, and there was a long period before anything else happened.

John Coltrane was playing so great, and Hank Mobley was leaving Miles Davis.  Philly Joe had already left, gone to join Miles, and Miles asked him, “Do you know of any tenor saxophone players?”  Philly said, “Yeah, yeah.”  Miles said, “Can he play?”  Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He said, “Yeah, he can play.”  As though, “Well, I guess, you know…”  So Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “John Coltrane.”  “Well, see if he wants to join the band.”  We found out about it, because we’d been rehearsing and playing jobs together and playing in various bands, and we used to be together all the time, almost every day.  So we all found out that John was going to join Miles Davis, and vicariously we all took the trip with him.

I saw him about two weeks later on one of the main streets in north Philadelphia, where we lived, Columbia Avenue, and I said, “John, how is it going?”  He said, “Oh, it’s great.  But you know, Miles needs some new tunes.  Do you have any tunes?”  I thought to myself, “Do I have any tunes?!”  But if you give people too many, it becomes confusing.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  So I didn’t send a whole lot of tunes.  I sent one tune.  And I didn’t think any more about it, because I’d been giving tunes out half my life, it seemed, and nothing happened.  I ran into him about a month later, and I said, “Well, how is it going now?”  He said, “It’s going great.  You know that tune you gave me?”  “Yeah.”  “Miles recorded it.”  I said, “What?!  He recorded my tune?”  He said, “Yeah.  Man, he dug it.”  That was “Stablemates.”

Now, a strange thing happened.  All these lead sheets I’d been passing out all over the country, people must have heard the tune, seen my name on it and said, “Wait a minute; is this the same guy that gave me such-and-such?”, and maybe they went and got it wherever it was, from under the rug or in the trash.  They started recording my stuff.  That’s what got me started.  Miles Davis and John Coltrane are responsible for getting me started as a writer.  If it hadn’t happened that way, it might have happened some other way, or maybe it wouldn’t have happened at all.  You need opportunity, Ted.

TP:    Well, Dizzy Gillespie certainly provided an opportunity to record a number of your tunes in the big band situation, like “Whisper Not” and “Stablemates” and “I Remember Clifford”, to be specific.

GOLSON:  That came later, though.

TP:    In ’57.  But I was going to try to get to…

GOLSON:  Lead in, huh? [LAUGHS]

TP:    Yeah, you know how it is.  But I wanted to talk to you about the experience of being part of the Dizzy Gillespie band and how he functioned as a bandleader with you, and some of the personalities you encountered in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1956-1957 big band?

GOLSON:  Mmm-hmm.  You want to know it now?

TP:    Right now.

GOLSON:  Yeah, I can tell you.  Dizzy gave all of his men so much room to express themselves, those who were soloists.  Of course, we didn’t express ourselves individually when we came to play.    We had to become a composite person as it were.  We were given a greater expression as a group, so we had to strive for that, of course, but when it came to soloing and things like that… Now, Lee Morgan was in the band at the time, 18 years old, young upstart, and yet Dizzy featured him.  Some of the songs that he used to play, he gave to Lee to play.  He let him play on “Night In Tunisia.”  You have to take pride, insecurity and all that stuff, and throw it aside.  Apparently, Diz wasn’t affected by those things.  He recognized talent when he saw it, when he heard it, and he gave Lee free rein.  And he never tried to tell us how to play or what to play.  We were our own person when it came to playing the solos.  And we had many opportunities.  After he broke up the big band, for example, he formed a sextet, and lo and behold he chose me.  I thought he was going to pick Billy Mitchell, because Billy had more of the solos, but he chose me and a trombone player from Atlanta named Silly Willie.  We did that for just a little bit, then that was the end of it.

He was good, and he was fair.  Now, we didn’t make a lot of money.  But I learned so much.  Diz was one of those didactic kind of people.  He was a natural teacher, especially when it came to rhythms.  Boy, he had that rhythm down!

TP:    For instance, in the arrangements we heard earlier of “Stablemates” and “Whisper Not,  were Charlie Persip’s drum patterns Dizzy’s idea or something Charlie Persip worked out?

GOLSON:  No, that was Charlie.  But other things, like “Tin Tin Deo” and “Night In Tunisia” and “Begin The Beguine”, he told them how to play it, the beats, how to do it.  Charlie admitted that.  We learned a lot from Dizzy, from the way he played, and just listening to him talk and recalling things that had happened.  You pick up a lot like that, you know.

TP:    Well, the band was also a clearing house for some very talented arrangers apart from yourself, like Ernie Wilkins, who I know you wanted to say some things about, Quincy Jones, and some others.

GOLSON:  I learned so much music from Ernie Wilkins as far as big band writing.  It’s too bad that people like Ernie don’t get the credit that they deserve.  This was one of the finest arrangers on the scene.  He happens to be ill at the moment, and he’ll probably never be himself again.  His time is probably limited now, unfortunately, his wife told me.  But when he was going, boy, this guy’s music…his voicings was like plugging in to an electric outlet.  It was electrifying, almost physical sometimes, the sound, as though you could close your eyes and reach up and touch it and grab it and hold it.  That’s the way the music was.  And it was fresh.  His concept wasn’t dated, even though he was a little older than me.  He wasn’t afraid to take chances.  He had multiple things going on sometimes.  If you looked on paper you’d say, “Hmm, that might not work,” but it worked.  I learned a lot from him.  I’m sure Quincy did, too.

TP:    He seems to be one person who can work effectively in what might at first glance seem like different genres, such as the Basie band… Well, in your mind, in the 1950′s how distinct was the Dizzy Gillespie big band concept from what Basie was doing at the time?

GOLSON:  Different, but not necessarily better.  Just different.  I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to think that just because we were having so much fun, and it was modern, and it was so hitting and forceful and electrifying that it was better than anything else.  It was just different.  It was different than Basie.  It was different than Ellington.  It was different than the late Jimmie Lunceford.  Yet each one of those names I mentioned was consequential, and they could stand side by side with one another, and exist and give pleasure to a lot of people.  Good music.

[MUSIC:  Lee Morgan, "Domingo" (1957); BG, "Whisper Not" (1958); J. Cleveland, "All This and Heaven, Too"; BG, "You're Mine, You"; BG 6, "Out Of the Past"]

TP:    The next segment will focus on the relationship that in a sense catapulted you from your initial prominence coming to New York and also catapulted Art Blakey from being a well-known drummer to the leader of the Jazz Messengers.  Benny Golson had only a year-long relationship with the Messengers, from spring 1958.  I’ve heard you tell the story many times, but like Coleman Hawkins’ solo on “Body and Soul,” it’s endlessly entertaining…

GOLSON:  Boy, I’ve told it so many times.  I had just come to New York, and I decided that I didn’t want to travel at that particular time.  This was after Earl Bostic, after Bullmoose Jackson, after Dizzy Gillespie.  I wanted to stay in town a little bit so I could establish myself.  You’re peripatetic, you’re running around, you can’t get any roots.  You’re ubiquitous.  You’re everywhere at the same time.

TP:    Parenthetically, did the “New York Scene” and the early Riverside recordings from late ’57 happen before or after you left Dizzy?

GOLSON:  After.

TP:    So you’re starting to record and get your stuff out there.

GOLSON:  Right.  But this is even prior to that.  I got a call one evening from Art Blakey himself, asking me could I come down to sub at the now-defunct Cafe Bohemia.  I said, okay, I’d come down.  I went down, and we played.  They didn’t have a lot of things that were difficult as far as arrangements; it was just a little better than a jam session.  At the end of the night he asked me could he come the next night, because he was still having problems with whomever it was, something…a police car or something.  I enjoyed the first night so much that I said, “Yeah, I’ll play the second night.”  When I played the second night, he asked me, “Do you think you could make some gigs with us?” — which meant that I would have to go out of town.  I told him, no, I was sorry, I wanted to stay in New York and be kind of settled.  He said, “Okay, but can you finish out the week?”  That was my mistake.  I said, “Yes.”

I finished out the week.  But during the week, I had the occasion to sit down with him.  I knew during that time, he wasn’t making as much money as he should have been.  I don’t know how I found that out.  I said to him, “Art, you should be world-famous.  Have you been to Europe?”  He said, “No.”  I said, “You should have been to Europe many times.  You should be making a lot of money.  Your name in the jazz annals should be a household word!”

At any rate, at the end of that week he said, “I’m playing Pittsburgh next week.  It’s just one week, just six days; can you make it there?  I won’t keep you away too long.”  Well, now, I’ve already played a week with him.  Now I’m of a different mind than I was before because I’ve got a taste of him.  So I wanted a little bit more, intuitively, I think, because I said, “Yes.”  I must have.  So I went to Pittsburgh.  And as we neared the end of the week, he said to me, “Now, next week we’re in Washington; do you think you could make that with us?”  Now I’ve had two weeks of him and now I’m really digging it.  I’m really not speaking with the same mind now, because I said, “Yes!” again.  Besides, I went to college there; it was like my second home.  And after that I  never said anything about not wanting to leave New York again.  I became a member of the Jazz Messengers.

TP:    Who was the band?

GOLSON:  Bill Hardman on trumpet, John Houston from Philadelphia on piano, Spanky deBrest and Buhaina.  So we talked some more about the band. I said, “Art, you really should be in a different place than you are musically.”  and he looked at me with those big, sad cow-eyes, and said… I never expected this, really, because nobody knew who I was.  I was a young upstart in town.  He said, “Can you help me?”  My goodness, I never expected that from Art Blakey.  And I never expected what I said in return.  I said, “Yes, if you do exactly what I tell you.” [LAUGHS] I mean, I can’t imagine… The nerve of me!

TP:    Well, you’d seen maybe a thing or two during your years on the road with these various groups.

GOLSON:  A thing or two.  Not more.  And he said, “Okay.  What do I do?”  I said, “Art, you need a new band.”  He said, “Okay, tell them they’re fired.”  I said, “You tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  “No, you tell them.”  Anyway, I don’t know who told them, but he said, “Who are we going to get if we get rid of this band?”  I said, “Well, I know a young trumpet player.  He plays pretty good.  He was with Dizzy.  He said, “Who is he?”  “Lee Morgan.”  “Can he play?”  I said, “Yeah.’  He said, “How old is he?”  I said, “He’s 19 now, I think.”  “19!?  Well, can he really play?  Can he come up to what we’re trying…”  I said, “Believe me, we can.”  And I added that he was from Philadelphia; I don’t want to leave that out.

“Okay, who can we get on piano?”  “There was a guy who used to play with Chet Baker and various other people.  He plays nice piano.  His name is Bobby Timmons.”  “Do you think he could do this?”  I said, “Yes.”  “Where is he from?”  “He’s from Philly.”

“What about the bass player?”  “Oh, there’s a guy who played with us with Bullmoose Jackson.  He also played with B.B. King.”  “Wait a minute.  Wait a minute!  We’re not playing that kind of…”  I said, “Trust me, Art.  This guy can play.”  “What’s his name?”  “His name is Jymie Merritt.”  “Where is he from?”  “From Philly.”  He said, “Wait a minute!  What is this Philadelphia shit?!”  So I said, “No, they all just happen to be from Philly and I know them, but you won’t be disappointed.”  So I called each one of them in turn, and they said, yes, they’d like to be part of the band.  We put the band together and I wrote some things for them…

TP:    Did you have a sound for the band in mind?  The band on Moanin’ has a distinctive aesthetic, where you take advantage of his ability to do a shuffle  and put his own imprint on that, or a march, or various styles.  It had a cohesion that may not have been evident in earlier versions of the Messengers from the past couple of years.  Did you have that sound in mind when you were writing the book, or did it just come out that way?

GOLSON:  I’m going to be monosyllabic to what you just said.  No.  I didn’t have anything in mind other than the music.  It just happened to turn out like that, fortunately.  But what I did say to him was, “Art, you need something that really features you.  I’ve heard you play, and you’re just like any other drummer.  After everybody else has played and said what they have to say, they leave the trimmings for you at the end.  You need something where you start playing at the very beginning.”  Then we were sitting there, thinking.  I said, “Now, what could you do?”  Then I thought about that introduction he played on “Straight, No Chaser,” where he showed his independence, two hands, two feet doing something entirely independent.  I said, “You’ve played everything there is to play, Art,” and I started to play.  “Except the march.”  Oh, how we both started laughing.  I said, “Wait a minute.”   And he said, “No!  You’re kidding!”  I said, “No, I’ve got an idea.  I’m not talking about the military.  I’m talking about with a little funk and soul in it, like Grambling College.  You know how they play, how they jazz up things and make it funky and syncopate.”  He said, “No, man, this is a jazz band.  We can’t play a march!”  I said, “Trust me.”  Somehow I used to say that to him all the time — “trust me.”  I couldn’t even trust myself.  I said, “Let me go home tonight and see what I can come up with.”

So I went home and came up with this thing and called it “Blues March,” because it’s a blues and it’s a march.  So we got to the rehearsal, and he said, “Okay, how do we start it?”  I said, “You start it.”  He said, “What do I do?”  I said, “Play like you used to play when you were in the drum-and-bugle corps.  Just play some rudiments.”  “How long should I play?”  “Play as long as you like.”  “How are you all going to know when to come in?”  I said, “Play the roll off?”  “What do you mean?”  “JUMP-DUMP, JUMP-DUMP, DURRRRHHH-RUMP-DUMP.”  When you do that, we know we’re supposed to come in.”  He said, “Oh, man, I don’t think this is going to work.”  I said, “Let’s try it.”  So he did it and he gave us the roll-off and we came in.  The structure of the melody is a little different than just the ordinary blues.  but don’t worry about that.  After we play the melody, we’ll go to the regular blues.”  So we did.  And it kind of worked out nice, and he put kind of a shuffle feeling in it.  He said, “Yeah!  Maybe it might work.  And it did.  The rest is history.

[MUSIC: Art Blakey, "Blues March," "Just By Myself," "Drum Thunder Suite," "Along Came Betty"]

TP:    I’d like to discuss your style as a tenor saxophonist and the evolution of your style.  In the liner notes to the St. Germain CD from 1958 you say that the experience of playing that one year with Art Blakey had a huge impact on your approach to the tenor.

GOLSON:  Yes, it did.  Before I joined Art, I didn’t have much articulation.  On some of the things, it’s still not as much there as it is now.  But one of the things that he taught me to do, painfully, was to project, to play a little more forcefully.  When I went in to sub that night with him at the Cafe Bohemia, and some of the weeks that followed, he would play some of those drum rolls that he was famous for.  It might be four bars before the end of the chorus.  They had a way of getting louder as they went along.  Well, right in the middle of that drum roll, it would get so loud that it would drown me out, and I would just be standing there pantomiming, for all intents and purposes.  I guess he thought I didn’t get it.  He did that a couple of weeks, and one night he did the same thing again, but he added a few downbeats on the bass drum and a few strokes with the cymbal to underscore what he had done before that.  And to make doubly sure that I got it, he uttered some words.  He screamed across the bandstand to me, “Get up out of that hole!”  And when I heard the words, it all sort of came together and I thought to myself, “Maybe I am in somewhat of a hole.”  Because when he does those drum rolls, I just disappear, as if I’m in a hole.  So I started trying to play more forcefully.

And someone else helped me.  While we were there, when I was subbing that week at the Cafe Bohemia, Thelonious Monk came in one night, and after the set… If you knew Monk, you would appreciate this story more.  But let me try to describe it to you.  He was standing, when I came off the bandstand, with his hands behind him, and rocking from side to side slightly.  He said to me, “You play too perfect” — sort of dry like that.  When he included the word… You’ve heard people say, “You play perfect” or something similar.  But when you hear the word “too,” that means an exaggeration, a caricature, superfluous, or whatever.  I knew it wasn’t a compliment.  And while I was standing there, stewing, Art Blakey was standing on the side (he knew Monk so well, I guess he knew what he was talking about), snickering like that little dog in the cartoon.  Monk let me stew for about 15 or 20 seconds, looking at me all the time through his sunglasses with the bamboo temples on them, and he said to me, “You’ve got to make mistakes to discover the new stuff.”
I thought about that.  Mmm, bingo!  The next night I came in, Ted, I was playing like a man taking leave of his senses.  I was playing so crazy, trying to get away from that well-worn that I’d fashioned for myself, knowing that this works and that works, and I can do this here and do that there, like mathematics (and music is anything but that).  I decided to take chances.  I was jumping off of cliffs (metaphorically, of course) and jumping off bridges, standing in front of trains!  I was doing some crazy stuff.  But that started to move me out of where I was before; that was the beginning of it.  Of course, I stopped for a while.  But over the years, I’m of the conviction that you have to take chances if you want to move ahead.  Otherwise, you’ll just sort of level off.  And time, in its indefatigable course, moving always forward, has a way of relegating you to history.  You know?

TP:    I have to say that listening to things you recorded before Art Blakey, you sound like a very dynamic tenor player with a modern vocabulary, a distinctive approach for people among your generation for your assimilation of Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins.  But you in your liner notes were describing your sound as “smooth and syrupy.”  That doesn’t make sense to me.  Are you being overly self-critical, or is that an objective way of describe how you played pre-Art Blakey?

GOLSON:  That’s the way I felt.  Other adjectives.  “Mellifluous.”  “Saccharine.”  “Sweet.”  “Charming,” some people have said.  But after a while, I wasn’t satisfied with that.  I wanted a little fire into it and get more articulation.  I had a lazy tongue; that old style, your tongue doesn’t touch the reed too much, the notes just kind of flow on your fingers, and your fingers do all the work.  But the tongue has to do some work sometimes, too, to define, to separate things and separate notes and separate ideas.  That’s what I worked on.  I guess I’m still working on it.

TP:    It sounds like you had an impact on Art Blakey’s conception of himself as a drummer-bandleader.  Because it sounds like your compositions oriented him to focusing on certain sonic components of the trap drum set, and that you got him into presenting his different techniques on the drumset as part of the whole performance rather than just the straight-ahead, more unformatted playing than  before.  As evidenced particularly on “Drum Thunder Suite,” on which you said to him, as you were telling me off-mike, “don’t pick up the sticks.”

GOLSON:  Right. [LAUGHS] I wanted him to use the mallets.  I said, “You use the sticks and the brushes all the time.  Let people know what you can do.”  Let them know that you can play mallets, that you can play no your tom-toms.  Do other things.  Don’t always just do the same thing.  Of course, the mallets are not tools you’re going to use all the time.  Sticks are what you use most of the time.  But it’s good to color with other things sometimes.

You can’t do the same thing all the time.  People want to hear “Along Came Betty” and “Killer Joe” and “Blues March” and those things, and I appreciate it.  But you can’t just keep doing that.  I have a new thing I’ve written called “Lenox Avenue Soundcheck.”  When I first moved to New York, I lived one block from Lenox Avenue, on 7th Avenue.  But when I was going to take the IRT, I used to have to walk down to Lenox Avenue.  So I was down there a lot.  And being on Lenox Avenue, you’d hear certain music coming out of different places, the jukebox, and you’d hear people saying different things, some nice, some not so nice, and the police sirens… You’d just hear a multiplicity of things.

TP:    Urban sounds.

GOLSON:  There you go.  And I decided to write a tune dedicated to all of that.

TP:    Next up is a version of “Stablemates” on United Artists from Benny Golson With the Philadelphians with your old friend Philly Joe Jones, who you recorded with a number of times.  You mentioned hearing him as far back as 1945 in the clubs of Philadelphia.

[MUSIC: "Stablemates", "Blues On My Mind" (1958)]

TP:    You mentioned that after you left the Messengers it was hard for you to play with another drummer for a while.

GOLSON:  Absolutely true.

TP:    You’ve played with great ones.

GOLSON:  You can get used to playing with people, just like you can get used to wearing your favorite suit, or go to the Chinese restaurant and order the same thing all the time because you like it.  It sort of grows on you.  You’re not aware of it until it’s not there any more.  That’s what happened to me.  Art Blakey is one of those drummers, Kenny Clarke is another… In fact, both played with us at a concert in Paris.  But Art Blakey swings so…how can I put it… His sounds don’t only reach your ear.  They reach your heart as well.  His style is motivational.  What he does makes you do things that perhaps you wouldn’t normally do because of the impetus… He said, “You stand out there and play, and if you’re not doing something, I’ll give you the bass drum.”  “What does that mean?”  “Every time you hit that bass drum, you’ll grab your rear end and say, ‘Oooh!!’”  But it’s that kind of thing.

It’s more than the bass drum, of course.  It’s the whole kit that he plays, and the way that he plays it.  He’s able to reach inside of your emotions.  There’s nothing cursory about him.  There’s no wasted effort.  There’s nothing wasted about him when he plays.  It’s meaningful, it’s logical, it’s reasonable, and it sounds fantastic.  And when you get used to playing with this kind of a drummer, even though you play with other kinds of drummers, and they might have even been great drummers, his style was such that you didn’t want to hear any other style.  I’m trying to make this up as I go along, because I’ve never had to formalize it into words; it was just feelings before.  when you hear him play, that’s it.  That’s the epitome of SWINGING.  What is there?  You’re already in heaven.  Where are you going after that?  So when you play with another drummer, it’s not that that you’re hearing.  Not that the other drummers are not good, but you’re not hearing what you’re used to hearing.  And that was the problem.

I happened to mention this to Freddie Hubbard, just in passing, as an aside.  And he looked at me and said, “You too?”  He had the same problem.  I found myself turning around, looking at drummers, which is very  unprofessional, and I don’t like doing that.  But it was almost irritating.  It was almost like the drummers were tuning up, preparing to play all night.  Because I wanted to hear them go into what Art used to go to!  But of course, I got out of it. [LAUGHS] I can play with other drummers.

TP:    One thing you mentioned in a liner note is the way Art Blakey would shape your solos, and the way his accompaniment behind you would almost make your statement take a logical course of its own with him.

GOLSON:  Very logical.  You’re very observant.  Absolutely true.  That’s why I said it.  He’s motivational!

TP:    And he’d set up something different for everyone in the band.  I remember a number of years ago he was forming a new band, and he had a big band at Sweet Basil that was being pared down.  You’d hear him set up behind everybody a different solo, and as the week went on, you could hear him settling into what he was going to do behind each person.  More about Philly Joe Jones and his inimitable style, the great precision and expoobidence with which he would boot you.

GOLSON:  Highly inventive, courageous and daring.  He would do things that were unexpected.  He would do unorthodox things.  We were playing once, and he played paradiddles between the bass drum and the hi-hat cymbal, rather than play them with the hands and the sticks on the snare drum.  I mean, he did all kinds of things.  One thing I liked about Philly, he was a listener.  Some drummers will close their eyes, turn their head sideways ride that cymbal, and it’s all about how they feel about what they’re doing at the moment.  But Joe would listen.  You would play a phrase, and leave a little breathing space, take a little breath before you set up the next phrase, and he might play a drum ruff — FRPPHHH!  Just that.  It’s perfect, and it sets up the next phrase.  Or he might go, BANH-BANHH-BAM-BAMM!  Or whatever it is.  It’s so logical, so right.  And these things just carry along.  It’s like flying a plane.  You just put your seat back and relax.  You can lean on that kind of a drummer.

TP:    Take us back to the 1940s.  You may not be able to recollect this specifically because you were so young at the time.  But you recollect Philly Joe performing in 1945-46, when you were 16 and 17.  What can you tell us about his sound then.  Had he assimilated Kenny Clarke and Max Roach by then?

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you that, Ted.  It was too early in my development.  I don’t know what I was listening to.  I just know I like what he did.  I couldn’t define it and break it down into its component parts.  All I knew is that I liked it.  I didn’t have enough experience.  That came later.

TP:    The great eye for detail that marks his compositions also marks his story-telling.  He’s been writing liner notes for some young tenor players, like Dan Faulk and David Sanchez, which are worth reading for an education in aesthetics and spinning a narrative.  Let’s move now to a couple of wild card tracks, one featuring an Benny Golson with Eric Dolphy, alto sax, Gunther Schuller, french horn, Herb Pomeroy, trumpet, on John Lewis’ composition “Afternoon in Paris” from an Atlantic release entitled “The Wonderful World of Jazz,” from 1960.

[MUSIC: w/ John Lewis, "Afternoon in Paris" (1959); w/ Betty Carter, "Isle of May"]

TP:    We’ll hear some collaborations between Benny Golson and Art Farmer for United Artists between 1958 and 1959.  Your comment about him is that he plays with tremendous integrity and sound selection and intent, concentrated consciousness… It sounds as though he’s the ideal improviser for you.

GOLSON:  Quintessential.

TP:    A couple of words to describe his improvisational personality.

GOLSON:  He’s a bright person, first of all.  He’s one of the thinkers.  He cogitates.  He does the same thing when he plays.  He thinks about what he’s going to play.  But he doesn’t think so much about it that it becomes an intellectual encounter with the music.  No.  He thinks enough to give it meaning and direction, and coupled with experience, he usually comes up with a nice bill of fare musically for what he’s doing.

TP:    That sounds like a textbook recipe for what is an improvisation.  How about for yourself?  Over the years you’ve made very conscious changes in your style and approach in your sound on the tenor that you want to project for  yourself.  I was complimenting your solo on “Afternoon In Paris,” which was reminiscent of the way Coleman Hawkins played in one of my favorite periods for him, and you said, “Ted, I don’t play that way any more; that’s in the past; we must move forward.”  What is that mixture of forethought, intent, intellect… I guess bringing to bear the intellect on improvisation and the direct flow of thoughts that make a successful one?  How do you assess that balance in your own process?

GOLSON:  Well, we all have to think to a certain extent when we play.  Some players think more than others.  Some players don’t quite know how to think.  You have to know what to think about when you’re playing.

TP:    What do you think about?

GOLSON:  I think about whatever satisfies my needs.  When we think, we should think about what satisfies our needs.  What is it that we need at the moment?  Do I need something for my sound?  Do I need something for my melodic concept?  Do I need something for my rhythmic perception of things?  Or do I need them all?  And if you do, you’ve got a lot of thinking to do.  But experience makes it easier as you go along.  The more you do a thing, the easier it gets as it goes along.  Mind you, I didn’t say “easy.”  The easier it gets.  And me, I feel that I have certain needs.  I have a lot of them.  Beginning with my sound.  I am so critical about my sound.  I am going through a phase right now where I am talking with the reed manufacturer, and they are making special reeds for me, and when I go back out to the Coast in December I am going to meet with them again.  It’s getting close.  But there’s just one  element I want to get out.  That’s me.  People say, “Oh, it sounds great to me.”  And that’s fine. But I have to satisfy myself first.

TP:    You may never get satisfied.  It may be that’s what keeps you going and searching for new challenges.

GOLSON:  You know, that’s what Sonny Rollins.  He said, “No musician ever dies who is completely satisfied with himself.”  And I believe that.  If I get to like my sound, it might be something else that I’m not happy with.  That’s the way it is.

TP:    Some musicians will set themselves a challenge on a given night, like a particular tenor player will say, “I’m going to be Lester Young,” and then another night will try to be Coleman Hawkins, or taking it farther… Setting up that type of challenge to spur interest and play something different night after night.  Did that have anything to do with your approach?  Or was it purely about developing musical ideas?

GOLSON:  That was never part of me and it never will be.  I don’t set out to sound like anybody.  I’m struggling hard enough to try to sound like what I want to sound like.  Why would I waste time trying to sound like somebody else and put banners up for them?  That’s testimonial to them!  I’m not trying to set a testimonial for myself, but I am trying to play things that at least satisfy me and my needs.  I can’t waste… I use that word advisedly.  I can’t take time trying to sound like Lester or somebody else.  There’s enough of that going on now.  So many people sound like John Coltrane.  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  That should be left where it is.  Who is going to best John Coltrane?  Maybe the next century.  But we should spend more time trying to sound what we want to sound like, expressing our own feelings and revealing our own musical personalities.  We don’t need any carpet paper around.  We should try to sound like ourselves.  And the litmus test is applying ourselves, trying to find out what it is that we want to do, and trying to optimize whatever it is we’re trying to do at whatever opportunity we have.  Rather than to walk through anything (I don’t think anybody does that nowadays), we should put forth our best effort, like our lives are on the line.

Case in point.  Tom MacIntosh had a group called the New York Jazz Sextet, trumpet, tenor, trombone and rhythm section.  At one point, Freddie Hubbard was the trumpet player.  I hadn’t thought much about it.  But every time we had a rehearsal, when it came time for Freddie to play his solo, he played like he was at Carnegie Hall at 8 p.m. on a Friday night with a full auditorium.  That’s the way he played.  Me, before that, I would just kind of walk through the changes.  This is just a rehearsal.  I used to laugh and say, “Hey, it’s only a rehearsal.”  But he played like his reputation was at stake.  He really did.  And I learned something from that.  You do the best you can whenever you get a chance to do it.  And if you do that, it can become a part of you.  But if you spend part of the time minimizing it and throwing it away, then that is time taken away from a good effort that you could be applying to yourself in the direction that you want to go.

[MUSIC: Golson-Farmer, "Fair Weather," "Like Someone In Love," "Five Spot After Dark," "I'll Walk Alone," "Minor Vamp"] [MUSIC: "Blues March" (1983)]

TP:    We have to cover about 35 years of music, so compression is of the essence.  We ended the last show with one of your most famous compositions, and one which took crossover context, “Killer Joe,” performed by the Jazztet, a group that lasted in its first iteration from 1959 to 1962.  Let’s talk about the formation of this group and the early personnel.  It got you together with Art Farmer, for one thing, on a somewhat permanent basis after several years of musical flirtation, as it were.

GOLSON:  That’s absolutely true.  Art and I met in the summer of 1953, right after Tadd Dameron’s band broke up in Atlantic City, which included Clifford Brown and Gigi Gryce.  They went on to join Lionel Hampton, and the condition that we could all leave was that I would stay  there and make sure that whoever was coming in to replace us would play the music right.  So they left and I stayed.  Then a few weeks later, I joined them in South Carolina.  In the band at that time was Art Farmer.  In fact, that’s where I met him.  Quincy Jones was in the band.  That’s where I met him.  Monk Montgomery was there, Jimmy Cleveland, and of course Gigi Gryce came along from Atlantic City, and Clifford Brown, who was also there with us.  There’s no else I can think of right now who people would readily know.

That’s when Art and I began our relationship, and when we went our separate ways from Lionel Hampton, we wound up in New York doing different things, making ends meet, and we were thrown together many times — radio commercials, TV commercials, jingles, various record dates for different people.  Although we already knew each other, we got to know each other even better because we saw each other in between socially many times.  So I guess it was inevitable that we would want to do something else, and it just so happened that we decided we wanted to do something different at the same time, without either having knowledge of the other.

So I picked up the phone one day and called him.  I said, “Art, I’m thinking about putting together a sextet.”  Not a quintet.  So many other people had quintets.  A sextet with that other horn would make it just a bit different; there are not so many sextets around today.  He started laughing.  I said, “Why are you laughing?  Is this idea that absurd?”  He said, “No.  You know, I was thinking about putting a sextet together, and I was going to call you later today.’  I said, “Well, why don’t you come by, and we could talk about it.”  And he did.  He picked two of the personnel and I picked two.  He picked his twin brother, Addison Farmer, who was alive at that time, for bass, and he picked Dave Bailey, who now heads Jazzmobile here in town, as the drummer, because they had worked together with Gerry Mulligan.  I picked Curtis Fuller.  Well, there was no disagreement there.  But when I came up with the name McCoy Tyner, he said, “I’ve never heard of him.  How is he?  Can he play?”  I said, “Oh yes, he can play.”

TP:    Before you continue, how did you know about McCoy Tyner?  Now, there’s an obvious Philadelphia connection.  Were you keeping the ties to Philadelphia?

GOLSON:  Keeping the ties had nothing to do with it.  It was the talent.  But the important thing is that I met him in Philadelphia.  I went to do one of those Sunday afternoon concerts, and the rhythm section was there, awaiting my arrival.  He played so well!  So I said, “Let me see what he can really do.”  So I played something in a strange key, and he just romped through it.  He was only 19 years old!  So I kept that in the back of my mind, not knowing if anything was going to happen or if I was going to do anything where he was involved.  But the Jazztet came up, and obviously he was the first person in mind.

TP:    Were the germs of McCoy Tyner’s mature style present when you first heard him at 19 or 20 or in the Jazztet?

GOLSON:  Oh, sure.  That’s what appealed to me.  Of course, after that he built on it.  He didn’t just stay here.  He migrated ahead to other things, which is logical for a truly creative person.  But it was interesting, so funny because when I approached him about the job on the telephone, it was like he had been awaiting my call.  “Yes!”  But then I reminded him that Philadelphia was 90 miles from New York, 180 miles round trip every day.  “McCoy, can you do this?  Are you up to it?”  He said, “Well, I really want to move to New York; I’ve been thinking about it.”  So as it turned out, to make a long story short, Art and I found an apartment for him and got it.  So he and his wife were on their way over, and a friend was bringing them over in a car, and the car broke down on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He called me.  He said, “Benny, we’ve broken down; can you come out and pick me up.”  I said, “McCoy, I don’t have a car.  Call me back in an hour and let me explore and see what I can do.”  So I found a friend who had a car, and we went out and picked him up, sure enough, and loaded him into this person’s car, and we took off.  I don’t know what happened to the person who was bringing him there.  It was terrible.  I guess we drove off and left.  I don’t quite remember what happened.  But as it turned out, the person who took me out to pick him up was John Coltrane, because he lived just a couple of blocks from me!  And about a year or so later, McCoy joined his band.  So the next time I saw John, I said to him (I knew him very well, of course), “A fine friend you turned out to be.  You stole my piano player!”

TP:    I’ve heard the story, which may or may not be apocryphal, that McCoy Tyner at an early age told John Coltrane he wanted to play with him.  And he was friends with Lee Morgan, a young colleague of yours from Philly.

GOLSON:  I don’t know if the story is apocryphal, but it’s probably not.  At 18 or whatever age that he approached John, he probably did want to play with him, and he let it be known that he did.  But I’ll tell you, in the intervening time between when he asked him that (if he did in fact ask him that) and when he joined him, he wasn’t sitting still.  He was moving forward in high gear.

TP:    I’m sure the challenging compositions and arrangements and the high degree of professionalism required within the Jazztet had a lot to do with McCoy Tyner’s development during that interim period.

GOLSON:  It might have had some.  But I think he developed more with John.  John was going in a better direction for where McCoy’s concept was.  I have to be honest about that.

TP:    I was just trying to give you a nice segue to talk about the Jazztet.  Talk about what you wanted to achieve with this group.  It immediately took on a very distinctive identity.

GOLSON:  That’s it exactly.  That’s the first word.  I figured we had to have an identity.  Otherwise, we were just another sextet thrown together to do various musical things.  To give it that identity, I tried to bring complete organization to what we were doing.  Of course, later I abandoned that, because I thought it was too much organization, and the second time we got together it was much looser.  It was just a bit too organized the first time out.  Too preconceived.  I felt we needed to be a bit looser.  And for me, and I think for Art too, it worked a lot better when it was looser.

TP:    What I gather is that your initial performance was at the Five Spot opposite the Ornette Coleman Quartet in their New York debut.  Which sounds to me like quite a scene.  So I’ll ask you to use your considerable descriptive powers to give your first-hand impression of the Ornette Coleman Quartet in 1959 at the Five Spot.

GOLSON:  I’ll never forget it.  Ornette had created quite a controversy about himself and about his music.  He had a lot of supporters, people like Leonard Bernstein and John Lewis, even Dizzy Gillespie.  Well, Dizzy Gillespie had perspicacity anyway.  He was able to look ahead, and he probably saw this music going in another direction that had some validity to it.  But not everyone really felt like that, and it was a big question mark.  So it was like someone going to a new restaurant.  Here you had two new groups, two bills of fare, so to so speak, under the same roof, and the place was jammed.

TP:    Very different approaches to music as well.  Were you familiar with his early recordings that preceded his New York appearance?

GOLSON:  Yes, I had heard some.

TP:    But you were somewhat familiar with the compositions and the group.  What did you think?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t sure.  Later, as I got to know Ornette, I called him up and sort of made an appointment, if you will, and I went down, and we talked about it.  I wanted to find out what he was doing before I had… I figured I had no right to an opinion until I actually knew what he was doing.  So I made it a point to go find out what he was doing.  Interesting.  Right after that, we started… In fact, the Jazztet played one of his songs; I can’t remember one.  We tried to interpret it the way he was interpreting it.  And it worked out okay.

Everyone has a right to speak and to have his own voice.  No one should be deprived for what they do.  Whether we choose to like it or not is up to us.  But everyone should have the privilege of speaking.  Voltaire said, “I disagree with everything you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”  That’s how I feel.  No matter how this person or that person who even I feel about it in a negative way, they have the right to do it, and they should go ahead.  That’s the way we move ahead.  Otherwise, everything stays the same, and it becomes more predictable and more predictable.

TP:    But there you were at the Five Spot with a kind of factionalized audience, two new groups, a packed house every night…for how long?

GOLSON:  Both of us stayed there for two weeks, I think it was.  Or a month.  I can’t remember.  But it was longer than a week.  It was interesting.  We had all kinds of people coming in there.  I mean, Leonard Bernstein himself came in.  I don’t think Dizzy came.  John Lewis might have come.  And some other people would have given him support, I guess, by the nature of who they were themselves, showing up there.  And we had people come to see us, too.  It was great.

[MUSIC: Jazztet, "Park Avenue Petite," "Round Midnight," "Bean Bag"]

TP:    Coming up are more albums by Benny Golson from 1961 and 1962 while the Jazztet was still working.  The band had a fair amount of success during their couple of years.  I imagine you were booked quite a bit and did a fair amount of travel.  Talk about the course of the group.

GOLSON:  Yeah, in the beginning we did have quite a few bookings, because, honestly, we were new, and with the albums coming out at the time, people were able to hear us, and if they really liked what they heard, then they wanted to see us also.  So we were booked in quite a few places around the States.  We never did go to Europe, though.  But with any group that’s ongoing, things happen indigenously [sic], and it brings about changes sometimes from within the group.  For whatever reason.  It’s inevitable, most of the time.  And we had a change of our trombone player, we changed bass players, drummers and piano players.  The only two that didn’t change were Art Farmer and Benny Golson, I guess!  But everything else around us changed for a certain period of time.

TP:    Did the band begin to open up somewhat?  Certainly on the live album we can hear the format opening up and freeing up some?

GOLSON:  Yeah, it was a bit looser, and Art and I felt a little better.  It was just too organized the first time.  It was all right, and it made its mark, I guess, because it was organized and it was different, and hopefully, it was consequential enough that people thought we had something to say that they wanted to listen to.  But then, you know how it is.  You get used to hearing the same thing, and you feel that you have to make a change.  Everything should never creatively always be the same.

TP:    Is this a conscious thing for you?

GOLSON:  Yes!

TP:    Do you see yourself getting into a rut and say, “I’m going to do something different.”

GOLSON:  Yes.  Not just for the sake of just being different, but for the sake of fulfilling a need within me.  If you just change to change, that’s arbitrary.  But if the change comes about, it should come about in a natural, creative way, just as the substance of what you’re doing comes about in a natural way.  So the changes come about likewise, or the desire for a change comes about in the same natural way.  That’s usually what happens with creative people.  You don’t wear a blue suit one day, and then the next day it’s, “I think I’ll wear a red suit just to attract attention.”  You’ll buy a brown suit because you’re tired of the blue one all the time — that kind of a thing.

TP:    What do you remember about the circumstances of Take A Number From 1 to 10?

GOLSON:  Wondering whether or not the idea was going to come off.  It wasn’t my idea.  It was someone else’s idea.  And yet, I thought it might have possibilities, which is why I did it.  After we finished it, I thought it was consequential enough to have been recorded and to put it out for the public to hear.  It was okay.  I don’t know if I’d do it again.

TP:    Well, it seems like an ideal vehicle for someone whose interests lie so strongly in the areas of composition and arrangement, and who is so serious about your personal sound on the saxophone.

GOLSON:  You’re right.  Starting out with myself, just playing unaccompanied, the spotlight is purely on me, and eventually it lines up to the other part of me, that is, the writing.

TP:    In my brief acquaintance with Benny Golson he’s never expressed any real satisfaction with his tenor saxophone sound, and I’d like to read a comment you made to Nat Hentoff in 1961 from the liner notes.  It may sound familiar to you 35 years later in its sentiment.  You say, “We all go through stages.  There are, after all, so many roads to take.  Now I’m on the right track for myself.  I know what I want to do.  I’ve been working hard during the past year, for example, on an even bigger tone, with more roundness and warmth, even in the extreme high register.  I want to make the whole horn sound warm.  I also want to play melodically instead of just running over the horn, as I was at one time, but I’d still like to have a command of velocity at my fingertips when I need it.  I feel very much better about my playing these days.  At one time I didn’t know whether I was coming or going, but I guess it was necessary to try different ways to be sure of my own.”  It sounds like you’ve been consistent in your sentiments over time.

GOLSON:  How long ago was that?

TP:    It’s a 1961 recording.

GOLSON:  I mentioned something about being on the right road.  But you know, roads have a way of wearing thin.  Roads can become a rut.  Really.   I’ve found that out since then!  So even if you’re on the right road one day, you might want to get on another road another day.  And we have to remember, too that today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  So things have to change.  So I said that then, but I wouldn’t say it now!

[MUSIC: From Take A Number From 1 to 10, "The Touch," "Time"]

TP:    Benny Golson expressed about as enthusiastic a comment as I’ve heard from him on “Time” — that doesn’t sound too bad.  You said you hadn’t listened to it for 25 years.  We’ll hear some quartets from 1961-62.  At this point, in addition to the Jazztet, were you doing a lot of singles, either with a working rhythm section or travelling around the country with pickups?

GOLSON:  I wasn’t doing too much.  We were primarily concentrating on the Jazztet.  But when we signed with Mercury, they signed the Jazztet, and then they signed Art and they signed me as individual artists.  I don’t remember how  many albums we did with the Jazztet, but in addition to that we each did one or two albums — I’m not sure.  One of the notable things about Turning Point is that the rhythm section with me was Miles Davis’ rhythm section at the time, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb.  I felt I was stealing just a bit!

TP:    How was it different for you to play as a solo voice than in the more arranged format?  Do you approach your improvisations differently?  Is it simply a matter of having more time to stretch out?

GOLSON:  You hit it right on the head.  If I’m playing with a quartet (not even with a trumpet, which would be a quintet), much more freedom abounds.  If I’m not playing with an arrangement of other instruments around me where I have to fit into slots here and there, if I don’t have backgrounds that have to stay out of the way of me, or I have to rise above them, then I have complete  freedom.  And in a quartet I do.  I can play a melody any way I want to.  If you play it with another instrument, then you both have to play it the same.  So you have to decide how you’re going to play it.  When I’m playing by myself, I might play it this way tonight, I might play it that way tomorrow night.  I might add a little something to it one night… Just complete freedom.  That’s one thing I enjoy about the quartet.  Within reason! [LAUGHS] Provided you’re up to it.

TP:    On Turning Point you have the sublime rhythm section of this period, which brings me to the question of what you’re looking for from the different members of the rhythm section.  In a piano player what are the ideal qualities?

GOLSON:  It’s different things, because individuals have different things to offer.  It’s a matter of what you want to hear.  Do you want to hear what this one is offering.  Do you want to hear what that one is offering?  It’s a terrible thing when you hire a person and you tell them you want them to sound like somebody else.  You hire him because you want to hear what he does.  Either it’s something that you have in mind and he meets your needs, or he has something that appeals to you that you feel you would like to have.  So when you hire them, you hire them with these kinds of things in mind — intuitively. It’s not anything you have to go home and turn off the radio and pull the windows down and think about.  Intuitively, you know these things.

First in a piano player, I am concerned about his feeling for the piano.  A piano is not one instrument.  Literally it is.  But it can function as three different instruments.  It has a distinct sound at the top.  It has a distinct sound in the middle, where most piano players are.  And it has an even more distinct sound at the bottom end.  That bottom end of the piano cannot be duplicated by any of the other instruments in the repertoire of instruments.  He’s down there.  He’s got that to himself.  Solitary air space.  Now, a good piano player knows how to use all of that according to what’s happening at the moment, and can make you feel good and can urge you on to try to best yourself — that’s the kind of piano player you want.

When he’s functioning in these different areas of the keyboard, he has something to say that’s going to not only support you, but encourage you because it sounds so good to you.  I just had that last week.  We were down at Sweet Basil.  These three guys, they had something to say.  And I’ve got to tell you, I felt like playing every night, every set.  That hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.  Because I had three guys who knew what to do.  They knew what to do as individuals.  They knew what to do as a group.  I mean, the things that they did together was as though they had gone out and rehearsed without me, and decided what they were going to do to support me.  It was so together, it was incredible what was happening up there.  And if you can get this, if you can find these kinds of qualities in individuals that you select to be your rhythm section… And the things that I said for the piano basically are the same for the bass and the drums.  It’s just different instruments.  But it’s a matter of having affinity for the instrument, having affinity for each other as a rhythm section, and having affinity for the soloist who is out front.  And if you can get all those things to spark and jibe, if you can get that kind of potential to cross paths with reality, then you’ve got something that’s really noteworthy.

We’re going back in time now.  This rhythm section to me was quintessential.  It was the best, the essence of what one would expect in a jazz rhythm section.  That’s why I chose them.  And Miles had no objection, I must say.  Very nice.  Because he knew what I was going to do!

[MUSIC: "Turning Point," "Little Karin," "I'm Afraid the Masquerade Is Over," "The Best Thing For You Is Me," "Shades of Stein"]

TP:    “Shades of Stein” refers to Gertrude Stein, and in your conversation we hear many references to philosophy and literature.  Is there any direct relationship you can discuss in terms of your reading vis-a-vis your playing?  Your liner notes are eloquent and very much to the point.

GOLSON:  I’m not an avid reader.  Actually, my wife Bobbie reads more than I do.  Anything that comes from what I read is just casual.  Gertrude Stein happened to appeal to me because of the way she took a phrase and used it over and over, “a rose is a rose…”  I tried to capture that in the melody, because you hear the melody over and over.  It got a little boring.  To make sure it didn’t get too boring, to break away from it, I made the bridge as far out as I could that time.  You could hear where it was going, like up a flight of steps, and the chords were going along with it, and it was a little difficult to play on.  But I think we needed a contrast from that Gertrude Stein influence in the beginning to sort of let it stand out by itself.  The more you do a thing, the less it means, so I broke away from it.

TP:    Is there any implied narrative or story in your compositions, or are they just musical ideas?

GOLSON:  Most of them are just musical ideas.  But what I do try to capture is a meaning in my titles.  I think the title should give one who is about to listen privy to what it is going to be about.  Now, with few exceptions, I’ve done that.  A few times I fell on my face.  I can write a song maybe in a day or two, or in a week, whatever, but I agonize over a title sometimes for two or three weeks or a month, trying to come up with the appropriate title.  When you hear a title, it should be more than a title.  You should be able to step inside, just a little bit — if not into the house, at least into the vestibule, to get out of the cold.

TP:    Improvisers seek their individual voice, and of course the common phrase is to tell your own story, and your antecedents on the tenor saxophone all had their various ways of telling their story.

GOLSON:  Playing your own ideas.  Most of us play our own ideas as best we can.  The reason I say that is because sometimes, intuitively, and depending on where we are in our development and how much we are influenced by the things that surround us… Intuitively many times we will play things that “belong to other people.”  It’s their kind of thing.  It might be a lick.  It might the way something is played, a certain inflection.  The way Sweets Edison takes a note like he’s milking a cow, the half-valve kind of thing.  That’s associated with him.  And the moaning and groaning that he does with the horn.  When I hear it, the first person I think of is Sweets Edison.  But for the most part, most people, with a few exceptions, try to play their own thing.

TP:    Another aspect of this is that for many years (I guess it’s still true, although the way information gets passed along has changed so much) is oral tradition, of listening to people you admire and trying to grapple with their ideas and coming up with your own conclusions based on that, a continuing, ongoing narrative, many voices converging.  You described your process of learning as similar, that you would take solos off records, and study and transcribe.  So I wondered if there were any analogies we could draw between the verbal and musical arts of storytelling.

GOLSON:  It’s very much like storytelling.  Sometimes the words differ, but the essence or meaning is usually the same.  Sometimes extra little words creep in so that the story begins to enlarge and unfold in a different way, so that down the road maybe it doesn’t even resemble the first or the original story.  We do that in our playing sometimes.  Sometimes we modify things that we’ve heard.  Sometimes what we come up with are mutations, if you will, of what we’ve heard.  And sometimes they are merely jumping-off points.  I wouldn’t like to think that people stay there.  The only exception I hear to that now is some tenor players.  John Coltrane has really gotten into their blood, and we don’t always hear their personal voice — we hear shades of John Coltrane.  That’s a great testimony to John Coltrane, but it doesn’t say much for their own development and for their own possible or potential voice.  I think that’s regrettable.  Because it takes away what they would be as a creative source.  We all have something to say, and we say it differently.  And it should be different.  We don’t walk the same, we don’t eat the same kinds of food.  Our habits are different.  The life is different.  So why should we try to clone or become a clone of someone else when we pick up the instrument?  And when we talk about John Coltrane at this point… My goodness, who at this point is going to best John Coltrane, who had years in which to do it?  John Coltrane was John Coltrane.  Sit back, listen to it and enjoy it.  Why try to become John Coltrane?  The time could be spent in a better way.

TP:    These quartets mark the last performances by Benny Golson as a solo saxophonist, apart from a few cameos, that we hear from about 1963 to 1980.  It was a real loss to the jazz world not to be able to hear your voice and your story through almost two decades of writing and orchestrating and establishing yourself as a very busy and commercially viable writer and arranger.  The next two tracks show more of the expansion of what you were doing then.  This is called Pop Plus Jazz Equals Swing, and it’s a sort of stereo gimmick album arranged and orchestrated and conducted by Benny Golson from about 1960.

GOLSON:  It was originally recorded on Audiofidelity, which was a label that prided itself in coming up with things that sounded authentic.  They would come up with versions of sounds of trains passing by, glasses breaking, people hammering nails, somebody tap-dancing, firecrackers, those kinds of things.  And a fellow named Tom Wilson, who had the Transition label in Boston, eventually gave it up and settled in New York, and began to produce for different companies, and at the time when we did this, he came into the fold of Audiofidelity.  Stereo had just come out then.  So he came up with a gimmick whereby the stereo could be optimized, and helped people to see really what it was.  And he decided that it would be a good thing to use jazz to do it.  So the way he figured it out, the rhythm section would always sound in the middle, which meant that it was a little each to the right and the left; on the right side it was little to the left and on the left it was a little to the right side.  So it sounded in the middle.  On the right side, I think, he would have a jazz group, and on the left side he would have what’s called a “legit” group with french horns and flutes and a few strings and things like that.  What we would do was come up with standard tunes to be played by the group with the strings and flutes on the left, and on the right side the jazz group would play the figures that had been written on it.  On the song “Whispering,” the legit group would play [SINGS ORIGINAL MELODY] but on the right side, the jazz group was playing “Groovin’ High.”

TP:    A subversive way to hip people to the mechanics of bebop as well.

GOLSON:  Exactly.  He showed what stereo was and how tunes are based on standard.  Same thing with “How High The Moon” with the legit group, and “Ornithology” on the right.  “Moten Swing” and “You’re Driving Me Crazy”.  “Out of Nowhere” and “Nostalgia.”  With “Stella By Starlight” we gave a different treatment on the left and the right, but the same song.  We did a blues with the jazz group and “St. Louis Blues” for the legit.  It worked out.  It was an adventure; it worked out.

[MUSIC: "Groovin' High"/"Whispering"; "Stockholm Serenade," "Swedish Villa," "Out of This World," "Stockholm Sojourn"]

TP:    Here we’ve come from your early arrangements with Dizzy Gillespie to these very involved, multi-layered arrangements for a 23-piece orchestra.  Would you talk about your studies in composition in the eight-year interim?  Was it all pragmatic?  Was it all empirical?  Or did you do some formal study at this time?

GOLSON:  I set out to do some formal study when I went to college, and I was all geared and revved up for it.  But when I got there, it was a little  disappointing for me, because I saw what the students who had gone before me were doing, and I was saying to myself, “Gee, that’s not really what I had in mind.”  I think I mentioned to you last week that when I get to my third year, I had become somewhat of a rebel.  Because when I was studying, we learned all the rules.  All the rules!  The dominant has to go to the tonic.  And I’m saying to myself, “Why?  Why?”  When I did “Killer Joe,” that wasn’t it.  So I started to do things that I knew were wrong.  I’d get the assignment, and I’d break all the rules and take the stuff in — and boy, they’d pull out the whip like Zorro, and just X my assignments in front of the class.  I was belligerent then.  I’d stand up and simply say, “That’s the way I heard it.”  It’s amazing how things can happen like that.  And I have to question: Why does it always have to be the same?  Why can’t it be different?  Why can’t I have octaves?  Why can’t I have fifths if I want to?  Why does the dominant always have to go to the tonic?  Why can’t I come from the leaning tonic?  I mean, I started asking things like that, and they looked at me like I was crazy.

TP:    These are the kinds of questions that could only someone who had assimilated the lessons rather well would be inclined to ask.

GOLSON:  So a lot of it was empirical.  I’ll tell you, I got absolutely nothing from there that you would hear in my writing.  It was all empirical, trial-and-error, a priori, from observation, things like that.  Now, I’ll tell you, I had some good teachers.  I listened to people like Tadd Dameron, Duke Ellington, and doing more…

TP:    How was Duke Ellington a teacher?

GOLSON:  Oh, the voicings.  Voicing those chords.  Take that baritone off the bottom and put him up at the top there, you get a different sonority.  People think of the baritone as low.  It doesn’t always have to be low.  You can do aberrational things with instruments if you’re familiar with individual sounds and familiar with blend of sounds.  You can get all kinds of things.  Then there are things that you try sometimes that might seem crazy, but you try them anyway.  All you can do is fall on your face.  I mean, no one is going to kill you.  So hopefully, you’ll have a chance to do that again.  Well, I fouled up that time, but the next time… The ballplayer loses the game.  Wait til the next time.  Every day we open our eyes as creative people.  We have to think, “I’ve got another shot at it today.”

TP:    What qualities did Tadd Dameron impart to you?  Of course, you knew him rather well from roadlife with Bullmoose Jackson.

GOLSON:  He was a great dearth writer.  He knew how to use few instruments and get the most out of them to maximize whatever it was they were doing.  With Fats Navarro and Charlie Rouse… I said, “How can he get two horns to sound so full like that?”  He got them to sound full because he maximized the instruments who were playing with them, the piano, himself, how he voiced the chords.  Making use of the full drum set.  Not just TINK, TINK-A-TING on the cymbal and the bass drum here and there, but using all of the set.  Because the drums are functional enough to accomplish many things.  The tom-toms accomplish one thing, the snare drum, the hi-hat the ride cymbal, the sticks, the brushes — all of these things make a difference.  The bass.  All these things work.  Then I finally got a chance to meet him, and this guy was an open book.  He didn’t hide anything, and he shared what he knew.  I remember he did an arrangement for Duke Ellington once, and he let me copy it.  I didn’t charge him anything.  Because I was getting a lesson!  As I was copying, I was taking information in.  Well, what did he do here with the third alto?  Or how did he use the baritone?  Well, how did he use the reed section with the brass section?  And how did he voice the trumpets with…? Hey, this was a learning process for me.  So I did a lot of listening.  I eviscerated some things.  I took them apart, laid them out, looked at the component parts.  Why do they work?

And another one that helped me a great deal (he wasn’t even aware of it) was Ernie Wilkins.  This man knew what to do with a big band.  I kid you not. The people don’t know about Ernie Wilkins.  I ran into him in Aarhus, Norway, a few years ago, when he had 12 pieces — he called it his Almost Big Band.  We were on the same bill.  We went to the hotel and we were in the corridor, and I said, “I should let him know this,” and I told him that, and he was astounded.  He said, “Really?”  I said, “Yes, indeed.”  I said, “You have no idea of the times that I took your scores, and looked at them and broke them down.”  This is how you learn.  I didn’t learn it in college.  Today it’s possible.  But during the time I was coming along, it just wasn’t possible.

TP:    Did you take apart the scores of European composers at that time?

GOLSON:  Of course.  It was nothing that would change the cosmic balance of the universe.  But they did know… Everybody talks about Verdi when you talk about opera.  But Giacomo Puccini, he was a much better orchestrator, for my money.  And besides, I found out just a couple of years ago, he used to go around to some of the jazz clubs, so you know he had to be all right!  His orchestrations had much more involved sonorities.  The concept of how he’s using the orchestra.  Background for some of the things, but strong backgrounds.  Verdi was a little flowery for me.  But Puccini sort of rolled his sleeves up and took that pencil up very seriously when he went to work.  Good orchestrations.  They’re using a lot of chords, I-III-V, VI maybe sometimes, minor VIs.  But the way they used them and the sound they got when they used them, you see… When we got to jazz, we just built on things like that.

TP:    Your fondness for opera is something you share with your stylistic mentor, Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  Well, I’ll tell you, I used to hate it until I met my wife, Bobbie.  I really learned to appreciate it through her, as I did ballet and some of the other things.  It’s beautiful.  Some is more beautiful than others.

TP:    What’s becoming apparent is that the musical components that comprise the totality of what you do range from the most functional music that you played for years on the R&B circuit and with Earl Bostic to the very progressive music of the ’40s and ’50s to classical music — all in the pot.

GOLSON:  It gives you insight.  You listen to something like “La Traviata,” and they can almost make you cry, they’re so beautiful, when you hear those voices.  You go from there to rhythm-and-blues to jazz.  She taught me to appreciate Country-and-Western.  Those Country-and-Western tunes will make you get on your knees and cry!

TP:    Well, this is what makes music the magical entity it is, that it can evoke that range of emotion.

GOLSON:  Thank goodness.  Thank goodness that it’s open-ended.  It goes on and on and on.

TP:    But for all those years, you applied all those skills to very functional purposes, in Hollywood and the studio.  You didn’t bring any of the music from this time…

GOLSON:  I thought it would be too boring!  Really.  Episodic music.

TP:    But you were quite successful at it.  You wrote for most of the top Pop singers of the ’60s and ’70s.  The EOJ of the ’70s says you wrote for Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, Sammy Davis, Diana Ross, O.C. Smith, for M.A.S.H. and other television shows.  Is there some separation?  How do you go about writing something for these very specific, project-oriented assignments?

GOLSON:  I guess there is a line of definition there.  But sometimes, if you’re adventurous enough, you can blur the line.  You can cross over.  That can be exciting.  We were doing a show once at Universal, maybe It Takes A Thief or Run For Your Life or something.  Tom Scott was in the orchestra; the contractor had called him.  I took the melody of “Stablemates” and I just permutated it a bit, gave it another harmony and lingered on certain notes, and if you didn’t know “Stablemates,” you wouldn’t know what it was.  After the take, Tom was laughing, because he knew “Stablemates”!  You can get away with it.  Music is music.  It doesn’t always have to be the same.

TP:    What’s some of the music that emerged from that which you’re proud of?

GOLSON:   They publish the things, so you don’t come away with them.  I wrote a lot of songs when I was out there, and Universal published them or 20th Century published them.

TP:    You were on salary and they owned the rights…

GOLSON:  No, I wasn’t on salary.  I was for-hire.  I came in and I did the job.  But it was a known fact that they would publish it.  You never discussed it.  the only two people who published their own material were Earl Hagen, who did I Spy, Gomer Pyle, Andy Griffith, and Henry Mancini.  They were the only two that kept their publishing.  To this day, I don’t know how it happened.  But if I had come out there as a newcomer with my foot in the door, talking about I wanted my publishing…out of town.

TP:    What chain of events led you to Hollywood and putting the saxophone away for as long as you did?

GOLSON:  Quincy Jones.  My ex-roommate in Dizzy Gillespie’s band.  He went out there first, and he told me that Henry Mancini had been trying to make the way open for him.  Then he left.  (We used to live in the same building.)  After he got out there, eventually he called and said, “Well, this is happening, that’s happening, you ought to come out.”  His agent was Peter Faith, who was the son of Percy Faith.  I wasn’t sure.  I took a trip out there,, my wife and I went out, and looked around to see what was going on.  I think we stayed about a week or ten days.  It looked pretty good.  So I came back, and packed up myself, and went out there.  I wanted to be very sure before I pulled up roots here.  I got a little studio apartment.  And I went to work right away!

I got a call from the Goldwyn Studios.  Alex North was doing The Devil’s Brigade with William Holden, and he wanted someone to do some source music.  Alex had called my teacher who had been teaching me weekends, who was at Bennington College, and wanted him to do the source music.  He told him he couldn’t do it, but that one of his students had just moved out there.  That was me.  He wanted me to write some period music.  The source music is not the underscoring for the picture, but if somebody puts a record on, or if there’s a band playing in the place when people come into the club or the restaurant.  That’s period music, but not the underscoring for the action and emotions and drama of the film.  So there was quite a bit of period music.  I think I wrote a gavotte; for some reason, it went back that far.  I had to do a Dixieland thing.  And I did a George Shearing type thing and some other things.  This was known as source music.  And many times, depending upon the stature of the composer, he will assign the source music to other composers and just concentrate on the music for the film.  Well, I had just gotten out there.  What could I demand?  No, I don’t want source music; I want a feature film!  This was a way of getting people to know you and know your work, and so I did it.

Eventually, through Quincy, I got into Universal.  As a matter of fact, I got the same agent, Peter Faith.  He was really in at Universal, so Universal is the first studio I began to work at.  At the time I got there they had just put together a new show with Robert Wagner called It Takes A Thief.  Now, Dave Grusin was already there, and he had written the theme for the show, but he was busy doing some other things, and they needed someone to write the music for the show.  He had done the first one, which they premiered, and I started on the second show.  And it worked out all right.  They said, “Do you want another one?”  I said, “Yeah.”  So I did the third show… It went on like that.

TP:    It keeps building up.

GOLSON:  Yes.  Eventually I went out to 20th Century Fox, who had a new show starting out.  Jerry Goldsmith, who became a good friend, had written the theme for it, and they didn’t have anybody to do the show.  They asked me if I wanted to do it.  So I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  So I did Room 222.  And Johnny Mandel had already done the theme for M.A.S.H.  Now, they had had some composers from before, but they wanted something a little different.  I was out there with Room 222, so…

TP:    So you were a new sound, which was why producers wanted your services.

GOLSON:  Maybe so.  Anyway, I went to work also on M.A.S.H.  I did Room 222 for two-three years, and M.A.S.H.  I did for three years.  That was a great show.  And I got to know the people on the show, like Alan Alda.  They’re real people.  So it was really nice working out there.  They didn’t put any pressure on me.  At Universal, the pressure was always  on.  I was beginning to feel like a humpback in the back room, working from early morning until late at night.  You’d get to the middle of the show, and they’d call you: “Do you have Reel 3 done yet?”  You’re on Reel 2, you haven’t gotten to Reel 3.  “But we need it.”  The pressure was always on.

TP:    Why did you put down the horn?  Or did you entirely put it down?

GOLSON:  Yes, I did.

TP:    you didn’t play it at all.

GOLSON:  I didn’t play it at all.  I could have used it as an ornament or put dirt in it and planted flowers.

TP:    It must have hurt you.

GOLSON:  No, it didn’t.  Because at that time I did not like the way I was sounding on it.  So it wasn’t too hard for me to put it down.  But a strange thing happened.  In those 7-8 years I didn’t play it, the thinking process was working, and strangely enough, when I did finally pick it up again, I did not sound the way I sounded when I put it down, though I had not actually been playing it.  So the thinking process does help sometimes, along with the practice of playing, of course.

TP:    What caused you to pick it up again?  We’ll hear records from 1980-81.

GOLSON:  That’s around when I picked it up again.  It was a little frustrating, though, because I picked it up and I didn’t sound the way I sounded before, but I did not know how I wanted to sound then — not entirely.

TP:    Had you been listening a lot to music in the previous decade?

GOLSON:  Constantly.

TP:    And what was your impression of the music in the ’70s?

GOLSON:  Interesting.  Interesting and moving forward.  It should always move forward.  Because we had new blood coming.  We had people who you never heard before, coming out from Wokonomac, Wisconsin, and from Iron Mountain, Michigan, places you never heard of, coming onto the scene, and they had their own voices and things to say.  And some of them represented great potential.  Since that time, many of them have gone to become big names in jazz.  This was all happening.  It was fertile.

TP:    What impressed you of the electric music, the fusion of the period?

GOLSON:  Some of the things impressed me.  But all in all, it wasn’t really my cup of tea.  But I didn’t decry it.  I didn’t put it down.  I didn’t vilify any of the players.  It just wasn’t for me.  Some of the things were interesting.  To this day, I like some of the things.  I like some of the Rock-and-Roll, some of the Rhythm-and-Blues.  Oh yeah.  Consequential things.

[MUSIC: BG-Fuller, "California Message"; w/ Bu, "City Bound," "Just By Myself," "I Remember Clifford"]

TP:    Do you remember when you first heard Clifford Brown?

GOLSON:  Yeah.  It was in a club in south Philadelphia, Broad and Lombard Street.  I remember the name of the hotel above the club — the Douglas Hotel.  I don’t remember the name of the club, but I remember one of its features.  It began with a matinee on Monday, 4 to 7.  You opened with a matinee, and then you played that night from 9 until 1, four sets.  I heard him there with an entertaining group, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames.  They sang these little songs and had their choreography, even if it was only moving from side to side and the music had a beat that kind of appealed to the people — it wasn’t a swing kind of thing.  The aberration was Clifford Brown.  He joined in, he was a part of all this, but when he started to play his solo, he stepped out there in solitary air space by himself.  High above the circle of the earth; that’s where he was.  It was so distinct and it was so good, even the people who liked the entertaining quality of the group were aware that this fellow had special ability.  And he did.

TP:    How would you reconstruct his sound of the time?

GOLSON:  Like Fats Navarro, but more Clifford Brown.  I mean, he wasn’t trying to be a carbon copy of Fats Navarro, but he was out of that school.  It was more than Fats; it was different.  He had a fat sound.  He was maybe a bit more fiery and a bit more daring because he came after Fats, so some of the things he did were based on newer things, and he was searching for things in the chords and how to put things together.  So it was very exciting to hear him play.  What eventually happened with that group, not only did people come to hear Chris Powell sing those songs and what it was that they did; they came to wait for these solos by Clifford Brown.  That’s when he started to be known, while he was with Chris Powell and the Five Blue Flames.  It was a complete anomaly, his being with that group.  That’s how he began to be known, with that group.  Of course, he soon left after that.

He lived 30 miles from Philadelphia, in Wilmington, Delaware.  So we weren’t together, oh, every day and through the week like John and I were.  But he would come to Philadelphia quite often, because compared with Wilmington, Philadelphia was the place to be.  South of Wilmington, the next place further than Philadelphia, was Baltimore and then Washington.  So Philadelphia was a lot closer, and there was actually more happening in Philadelphia.  So he was there quite often for the jam sessions and gigs and whatnot, and we got to know each other pretty well.  Later, of course, in 1953, we both joined Tadd Dameron’s band in Atlantic City, and we were together almost every day there.

TP:    Was he consistently creative player from night after night?

GOLSON:  I’m sure in his own mind he had his inconsistencies.  But as a listener, yes, he was consistent!

TP:    You’ve told the story of your friendship with John Coltrane in many places, and two weeks ago you spoke of meeting him in 1945.

GOLSON:  I was 16.  He had just gotten out of the Navy.

TP:    You spoke of hearing Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Don Byas in one of the Philly theaters in 1945, and he brought “Stablemates” to Miles Davis in 1955.  But This is For You, John is a tribute recording, and in the liner notes you relate some telling anecdotes about his practice habits, about his passion for the horn.  You recollect the first time you heard play saxophone, on a job with Eddie Vinson where the tenor player walked off…

GOLSON:  Eddie Vinson had come to town, and he was working the Eastern Seaboard — New York (and probably Chicago), Washington, Baltimore, maybe even Philadelphia.  At that time, he decided he would get a band from the East Coast.  John was one of the players playing alto saxophone.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player.  I can’t remember who else was in that band.  But they were all from Philadelphia.  They were playing a job in Philadelphia or Delaware or someplace like that, and Louis Judge, the tenor player he’d hired, had an argument with Eddie.  He was pretty fiery.  Right after the argument, they went on intermission, the half-hour intermission.  Then it was time to come back (it was a dance type of thing), and Louis, pouting, did not come back.  He wasn’t going to come back right away; he was going to punish Eddie.  And all of the musicians left their horns laying on the chair when they went out.  They came back, John picked his alto up, and Louis was nowhere to be found.  So they began without him.  Eddie had this particular song that had a tenor solo.  Eddie played alto himself and John played alto; the only tenor player in the group was Louis.  And for some reason, he wanted the tenor solo!   The tenor solo was coming up, and still no Louis.  So Eddie looked over to John and said, “Play Louis’ horn.”  John was a little reticent about doing that.  Eddie said, “No, play his horn; I want a tenor solo.”  So John picked the horn up (this was the first time he’d ever played tenor, you know) and he began to play.  Strangely enough, he didn’t sound like an alto player.  He sounded like Dexter Gordon, or from that school.  And it sounded so good, he was playing so much stuff, wherever Louis was, he came running to the bandstand.  “Give me my horn!”  He didn’t want anybody playing like that!  He would really lose the gig!

And John liked it.  I remember he told me,  “I tried it, I liked it,” and the next thing you know, he had gone and bought a tenor saxophone.  The tenor sax was kind of a novelty to him.  He ended up working with a former member of Dizzy Gillespie’s band, from Philadelphia also, named Johnny Lynch, a trumpet player, and they were working at a skating rink every week in South Philadelphia on Broad Street.  It might have been the E-Lite(?) Ballroom.  It was a three-hour concert every Sunday afternoon.  John would bring the tenor, and he might play one number on it.  He was primarily an alto player.  Then as time went by, he was playing more numbers on it.  And after a while, he was playing tenor and lot equally.  As time went further on, he was playing more on the tenor and less on the alto.  And finally, he sold the alto.  He was a tenor  player.  He loved the sound of the tenor saxophone.  So that’s how it got started.

He went through phases, just as Picasso went through his periods of squares and cubes… He went through phases on the saxophone, trying to find out who he wanted to be, what he wanted to sound like.  So Dexter disappeared.  I ran into him when he was working with a fellow named Gay Crosse out in Cleveland, Ohio.  I was with another rhythm-and-blues band, and I went by the hotel room where he and Specs Wright were playing.  Specs was practicing on the practice pad, keeping the rhythm, and he was playing his horn.  I noticed he sounded a little different.  Each time I heard him, he was a little different.  Because he was finding himself on the tenor saxophone.  I think he was constantly doing that, right up until the end.  At the same time, he was putting all these things together, the chords and… He was a person who practiced all the time, that Spartan-like practice, like a person who had no talent — and he had an abundance of talent.  So you hook that up, a person who had an abundance of talent and who practiced all the time, you’re going to get something pretty redoubtable!  And he was.  And he became that.  As I heard him, boy, he was awesome.

One thing led to another, and eventually, Philly Joe left town to join Miles, and Hank Mobley was leaving at the time, and Miles asked Philly did he know any tenor players in Philly.  Philly told him, yes, he knew a tenor player, and Miles said, “What’s his name?”  “His name is John Coltrane.”  Of course, Miles had never heard of him, so he asked him (he wanted to be sure) “Can he play?”  And Philly probably made the understatement of his life.  He nonchalantly said, “Yeah, he can play.”  John joined the band, and… Did I tell this two weeks ago?  Anyway, he eventually brought “Stablemates” to him and Miles recorded it.

TP:    Let me take a detour here, and ask about your good friendship with Jimmy Heath in the 1940s.  He was perhaps the most advanced of you in the 1940′s, with the big band.

GOLSON:  He was, definitely.  Jimmy was only 19 years old and I was about 16, John was 18.  And this guy, Jimmy Heath, had the ability to play chords.  We were still struggling, still spelling, A, B, C… He had the ability to play chords.  Until this day, I don’t think I’ve heard Jimmy Heath play a wrong chord.  He is fantastic with those chords!  Anyway, he was into it!  And John came to town, and he heard about Jimmy, because they were both playing alto at that time.  John was sounding like Johnny Hodges.  Jimmy had heard Charlie Parker, and he was trying to sound like that.  John eventually met him, and when he came to my house again he said, “Oh, I met Jimmy Heath; boy, he’s a crazy cat” — which meant he was all right, he was really on it!  Eventually, Jimmy formed a big band, a 15-piece band.  Boy, I’ve got to tell you, those seats were coveted.  But somehow, John and I made it. [LAUGHS] Because we weren’t playing that great.  We finally made it.  I was playing fourth tenor.  A fellow named Sax Young was playing second tenor.  He had most of the solos.  I was coming along.  John was playing third alto, and a fellow named Duke Joiner was playing lead alto.  I forget who was playing baritone sax.  Then we had some other guys in the band.  Jimmy was writing some of the music, then I started trying to write and John started trying to write.  Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  Hen Gates (James Forman) was playing piano.  Specs Wright was playing drums.  It was really sounding great.  Everybody wanted to be in that band.  We were so happy because we were in the band.  To this day I call Jimmy “boss” whenever I see him, because of that band.  Whenever I call him, I say, “Hey, boss!”  We were talking about that the other day.  I called him on his birthday, as a matter of fact, about three or four days ago.

We rehearsed a lot.  We had a vocalist.  But we didn’t work too often.  Tadd Dameron wrote some things for the group.  Because these were young kids, and the band was sounding good.  Johnny Acea, who was an arranger living in New York, was from Philly, and he wrote some things, and there was another arranger from Philly named Leroy Lovett, big-time arranger, writing stuff for Nat Cole and everything, and he was writing things and giving it to us.  We were in a privileged position.  But the band never really took off.  We were trying to get a booking agent like Shaw or ABC or Glazer or somebody to take us, but it never happened.  I guess people just didn’t have faith in these kids.  Eventually the band broke up.  But it was a good experience.

TP:    Had we another hour or two past 7, I’d quiz him more about Philadelphia in the ’50s, but we don’t.  The next recording pairs him with Pharaoh Sanders.  This is the only “tenor battle” I can think of.

GOLSON:  I’ll tell you how this came about.  I knew John at the beginning.  At the very beginning, we became good friends.  Now, Pharaoh met him later along, when he became the John Coltrane.  And for me, Pharaoh is the one who comes closest to what John Coltrane was all about.  We’re not talking about the velocity and running all over the horn.  I’m talking about the sound and the way he projected and the way he could play one note, like John, and lay you out.  One note!  I thought it would be a good idea to come up with a tribute to John, play a couple of the tunes that he played, with me as one who knew him early on, and Pharaoh, who knew him later in his development.  We put the date together, and we came up with This is For You, John.

[MUSIC: BG-Pharaoh, "Times Past: This Is For You, John"]

TP:    Were you listening to John Coltrane’s music throughout the ’60s?  Did you keep up with everything he did before he died?

GOLSON:  Well, not everything.  But I listened to him, of course.  He had a lot to say.  We had to listen to him.

TP:    Did you keep in touch personally throughout?

GOLSON:  From time to time.  Not as much as we did earlier, of course, because our paths were going in different directions and our music wasn’t the same either.  But we did see each other from time to time.  We would always recall some of the things that happened earlier-on as young teenagers.  He came down to see me at the Five Spot.  We were on intermission.  I saw him coming across the street, and he had this cigar, and he’d put on a little weight.  I said, “Wow!”  He said, “Man, I’m taking Metrecal but nothing is happening.”  I didn’t think much of it.  Then finally I said, “Well, how are you taking it?”  He said, “Well, I eat my meal and then I drink a Metrecal.”  I started laughing!  No weight loss.

TP:    We’ll hear recordings from 1986 and 1988, one for a studio date with Freddie Hubbard and one with the reconfigured Jazztet.  You mentioned earlier that for the second incarnation of the Jazztet, you made the arrangements less restrictive, more freedom for the soloists.  Did this inspire new writing for you?  Was it a project you could devote new energies to?

GOLSON:  Absolutely.  I came to appreciate that less means more.  Or, to look at it from another view, the more you do a thing, the less it means.  So that’s what I did, and we felt better about it.  Writing evolves just like playing does, or any other creative thing.  My writing started to take a turn.  I did a thing on one of those sessions called “Vas Simeon,” which had no form to it at all, no form whatsoever, but yet we had to blow on it.  So for the blowing part, I constructed a little area of chords that we would blow on, and once that was over, we went back to this nondescript kind of thing as far as form was concerned.  It was so different than what I had written theretofore, that the piano player, Mickey Tucker, said to me, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”

[MUSIC: BG-Freddie, "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing"; Jazztet, "Vas Simeon," C. Fuller 5, "Love, Your Spell Is Everywhere"]

TP:    The next recording is a special project, based on the Brandenberg Concertos.

GOLSON:  I didn’t defile Bach at all.  I have to say that.  Because the solos are not based on things he wrote; those things were added.  It’s another project that wasn’t my idea, but a very interesting one.  When they proposed it, it seemed like a challenge, which I accepted.  I had heard Bach all of my life.  But this time I had to eviscerate him.  I had to really look at what he was doing.  Because I knew I had to come up with things in addition to what he had written, and yet these things couldn’t sound arbitrary, like they were just picked up and tacked on to it.  They had to sound like part of the whole tapestry.  So it had to be in the style or concept or feeling that he had.  When I wrote these things, I remember, for the first person I played it to, it went into a section I had written, and they mentioned Bach, as though he had written it.  That let me know that I was on the right track.  I said, “No, that’s mine.”  But it had to be that way, otherwise it would be neither fish nor fowl.

Now, he had a certain number of instruments when he did the Brandenberg Concerti.  This CD represents about half of them.  I added some horns he didn’t have, and I added some female voices which he didn’t have.  So I had to write original parts for the voices that would go with his things, and I had to assign these additional instruments things to play, and it had to be in keeping with what he had done, and the transitions going into the jazz had to work, too.  So all these things represented a challenge.

[MUSIC: Brandenberg #1 w/ Mulgrew, Art Farmer, Rufus Reid, Smitty]

TP:    Here’s another selection from the private archive, dedicated to Bessie Smith.

GOLSON:  This is from last April.  NPR called me and asked me to compose a composition in tribute to Bessie Smith for her 100th birthday.  It didn’t have to be too long, and for solo piano.  I told them I thought I could do it.  After about a week I came up with this.  We hired Bill Mays, who was my pianist while we were in California, to do this.  They played it, and they sent me a copy.  The voice you hear will be Odetta, who narrated it.

TP:    You mentioned last week that you listened to a lot of blues as a kid, that it was played in the house a lot, and that some of your earliest experiences may have been listening to Bessie Smith and the classic blues.

GOLSON:  I had no choice.  And two of my uncles played piano similar to what you’re going to do here.  Not quite as well, though. [LAUGHS]

[MUSIC:  "Bessie and Me"]

TP:    Now some selections for the Benny Golson Quintet for Dreyfus, an in-studio date with new arrangements of previously recorded material.  I’d like to talk about reprising and reworking older material.

GOLSON:  “Domingo” is what we’ll hear.  I wrote it for a date for Lee Morgan, maybe his first or second.  It’s one of those tunes that was recorded and never even played again; it continued to live on the album.  Many years went by, and I never thought about the tune any more.  Many years later, Phineas Newborn recorded it.  Geoff Keezer played it for me, and I went, “Hey, how about that,” but I still didn’t think about it.  Then Mulgrew Miller knew about it and he said, “Hey, you ought to start playing this tune again.”  Then James Williams said the same thing.  I said, “Well, maybe I should!”  The style didn’t change too much.  The concept, the solos may be a bit different because time has moved on.

TP:    Is that how it is with most of your older material.  You have so many classics of the jazz lexicon, so I’d imagine just to keep yourself interested… Do you try to put little twists and turns in and update arrangements, or do you hew to the older version?

GOLSON:  No.  Even as a composer, they’re not sacrosanct.  I feel compelled to do something a little different.  I’m of the opinion that things should not always remain exactly the same.  In classical music they do, and the only difference is the quality of the performance, the conductor and the tempos.  But jazz is different.  We can express the same thing in so many different ways.  It’s a real adventure, and I’m privileged to be a part of it!

[MUSIC: "Domingo"]

TP:    A woman called as that was playing and asked me to ask you: If you were listening to yourself blind over the air, how would you know it’s your tune?  What are the distinctive characteristics by which you recognize your compositions?

GOLSON:  I don’t know if she meant if I’m playing it or if it’s just my composition?  If I’m playing it, it’s just like hearing my own voice.  I know my style.  But if it’s my composition and someone else is playing it, there are lots of parallels.  It’s like hearing your mate’s voice.  When you hear that voice, you know it’s his or hers in a crowd.  You can pick it out.  Sometimes you even know the smell of your mate.  He or she can cough in a crowd, and you can identify them by the cough.  You can see a bunch of children playing, and they’re making lots of noise, they’re rambunctious, and yet, with your back turned you can tell whether or not your kid is there if he’s joining in with his voice.  There are lots of parallels.  You can tell the way a person walks from the rear that it’s him or her, if you know them really well.

It’s the same thing with music. The structure, as you said.  Yes, you know the structure.  You know the very nature of the song.  You don’t even have to hear the melody.  Before they get back to the melody again, you know it’s yours.  It might sound complicated, but it’s extremely easy.

TP:    I think an implication of the question is, what are some of the salient aspects of the Benny Golson writing style and, perhaps also, the improvisational style, since you function as a composer-improviser?

GOLSON:  Saliently, it would be the structure, the very nature of the tune.  What chord follows what chord.  Which determines the structure or the concept of the tune.  The melody is the same thing.  You have one note, you have nothing.  You have nothing of any consequence until you get the second note.  You’ve got the beginning of a melody.  The first note doesn’t mean a thing.

TP:    So it’s how you get from Point A to Point B that makes Benny Golson Benny Golson.  Do you see your identities as composer and improviser as separate, as related, as sometimes separate and sometimes… Certainly, there’s sometimes an element of spontaneous composition in the act of improvising.

GOLSON:  Always separate for me.  When I’m playing, I don’t think about the writing.  When I’m writing, conversely, I don’t think about the playing.  The two never meet.

TP:    Do you have to clear your head, or is that just the way it is?

GOLSON:  No, it’s just natural.  I pour myself into each aspect, totally.

I got a Guggenheim fellowship last year, and under their aegis I will be writing another symphony, a second symphony.  The first was a combination of the jazz thing and this, but this will be straight-out classical.  Don’t know where I’m going.  I have my premise, I’ve done my research, and all I have to do is translate these things into music.  Haven’t written a note, but I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, reading a lot of books, and when I get ready to put pen to paper, hopefully things will happen.  And I’ve been commissioned to write a new ballet by a ballet company in Columbus called Ballet-Met.  I’ve been out there, I’ve talked with them, they have great facilities.  They’ve got two studios that look like airplane hangars.  It’s incredible.  Their facility takes up a whole block.  People in New York would kill for that. [ETC.]

[-30-]

Benny Golson Musician Show (2-7-96):

TP:    When we started running down the musicians on whom we wanted to focus, the first you mentioned was Lucky Thompson.  Most of this show will be devoted to tenor players from the Coleman Hawkins school – Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, Hawkins — who are the people who pulled you in when you were beginning and feeling your oats on the tenor.

GOLSON:  Lucky sort of grew out of Don Byas, that school of thought Don seemed to come up with, a former alto player.  Lucky’s approach was even smoother.  He tended to flow one thing into another.  He would come at melodies from different angles; he had a good knowledge of chords.  Though he’s still alive, I have to say “had,” because he is no longer playing.  What we’re about to play is one of the last things he recorded before he bowed out  It was so good, it’s one of the best things I ever heard from him.  I heard it a few months ago, a friend had it, and I was taken aback.

TP:    When did you first hear him play, become aware of him?

GOLSON:  It had to be ’53, or something like that.  I heard him after I heard Don Byas.  And although the styles were similar, oxymoronically, they were different at the same time.  He says some of the same things that Don used to say, but in a slightly different way.  They’re from the same musical neighborhood and concept, so to speak.

TP:    You referred to Don Byas a converted alto saxophonist.  Do you feel that his having played alto saxophone first had a significant impact on his style as a tenor saxophonist?

GOLSON:  I’m not sure, but I suspect that he did.  He sings in his melodies when he plays like a lead alto.  If you listen closely on his ballads, he sings those melodies like Charlie Parker used to sing the melodies.  Singing in the sense that he’s pouring out his heart, almost vocally, through the saxophone, through the sound of the saxophone.  That’s what we used to call “singing.”  That’s the way Don played his melodies.  Now, Lucky didn’t play his melodies quite the same.  If you played them back to back, you might be able to hear that.

TP:    Eddie Lockjaw Davis said in an interview that Don Byas was able to incorporate the ideas that Art Tatum was playing in his left hand on the saxophone, and was one of the very few who had the technique to be able to realize that.  What do you make of that?  We know he was very influenced by Tatum and had tons of Tatum records?

GOLSON:  Well, I’d have to say he was ambidextrously talented, because he not only played what he played in the left hand, he played quite a bit of what he played in the right hand, too.

TP:    Well, it’s a literal quote.  But he did have prodigious technique, and was a saxophonist from the ’30s who was really respected by the young generation who came up after World War II.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Let me tell you, I happened to be talking about him with Harry Sweets Edison, and Sweets said to me, “When Chu Berry was in town we used to have jam sessions, and Chu would always want to get with Don.”  I said, “What was the outcome when they’d get together?”  I can’t repeat verbatim, but he said Don did him in each time.  And Earl Bostic used to tell me about him; he would go to the sessions, and nobody could keep up with him, I guess other than Earl Bostic himself, who was really quite the technician.  Oh yeah, he could play.

TP:    And also in 1944, when Dizzy Gillespie went on 52nd Street and Charlie Parker was in Kansas City, he hired Don Byas for the front line.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.

TP:    When did you first hear Don Byas?  I believe you saw Dizzy and Bird in  person for the first time in ’45 in Philadelphia.

GOLSON:  It was ’45, yes.  We were sort of getting into that… When I say “we,” we who were aspiring professionals.  Ray Bryant was at that concert.  John Coltrane and I went together.  I think Jimmy Heath was there in the first row with some other piano player from Philly, locally.  When we heard this concert, it literally changed our lives.  We could feel something happening to us inside that we’d never felt before.  Because not only were we hearing a fantastic performance, we were hearing a kind of music that we had never, ever heard before.  You have to imagine the impact on 16- and 18-year kids.  That’s what we were.  All the way home, we were “supposing” and “if.”  We were looking into the future.  We wanted to know what that music was all about, really.  And I am still trying to find out what it’s all about.  Because music is open-ended.  You never really complete it.  You never finish it.  It’s malleable, you reshape it and you put it here and you put it over there and you add something to it, and it continues to grow.  Even the styles… How can I say it?  Today’s adventure is tomorrow’s commonplace.  That’s because Jazz in particular has such a forward motion to it, it’s always evolving out of itself and it’s moving forward, so that the styles that are great today might be a little dated tomorrow, but it doesn’t go into obscurity.  You just move it over on the shelf and make room for the newer things.

TP:    And the day after tomorrow, it may be fresh again.

GOLSON:  Well, the future is always a second away or so.  So as we move forward in the stream of time, and making time our confederate, we indefatigably move ahead with it — if we are truly creative.  And that’s what we do.  No musician that I know of is ever completely satisfied.  I mean, I’ve heard Dizzy play, and Charlie Parker, J.J. Johnson, John Coltrane.  And when you’d talk to them, you’d always hear, “I think I could do it better if I had done so-and-so.”  And you’re saying, “What?”  It’s a relative thing.  No matter where we are, what strata, what level we’re at in ability, we’re always stretching.  We’re never satisfied.  We’re always reaching.  That’s part of the adventure.

[MUSIC:  Lucky Thompson, "When Sunny Gets Blue," "Blue and Boogie" (1970)]

GOLSON:  Unfortunately, on “Blue and Boogie,” the sound was not quite right.  He must have been a little disappointed with that.  But the performance was good, what he was playing was fine, but the sound was a little constricted.  That wasn’t really his sound.  I know his sound.  It’s one of those things that’s happened to me; it’s happened to many of us from time to time.

I guess the next thing you’re going to play is “52nd Street Theme” with Dizzy and Don Byas.  When I heard this, during that time the saxophone players were playing kind of smooth and mellow and flowing.  The tongue didn’t touch the reed too often.  It was just the style.  So here comes Don, with great articulation… You notice the way he plays, especially when he goes into the bridge, and you notice that he’s playing wide intervals.  The notes are far apart.  He’s not going smoothly, like going up a pair of steps or down a pair of steps.  It’s tantamount to skipping steps, jumping down steps, jumping up steps, over the notes.  He knew his horn that well, you’ll notice, as he plays what he does.

[MUSIC: Byas-Diz, "52nd Street Theme"; Byas, "Candy," "How High The Moon"]

TP:    That reflected in many ways what was happening on 52nd Street at the time, the mixture of musicians of different sensibilities and eras, and playing a song that was the anthem of the young beboppers… Benny pointed out that he wanted to hear Don Byas’ break when he went into the bridge.

GOLSON:  That “52nd Street Theme” is notable because it epitomized what was happening musically at that time.  You’ll notice, as you listen to some of those things, the rhythm was kind of boom-changy, which was sort of a reflection from the past.  Keep in mind that when this music started…oh, whenever they started… I’m not sure exactly when it started but I heard it in 1945.  When I say “they,” I’m referring to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie.  And when we first heard them in Philadelphia live, we weren’t even sure who Charlie Parker was when they first started to play.  But they had Slam Stewart on bass, I think Big Sid Catlett was on drums and Al Haig was playing piano.  We didn’t realize then that the rhythm section hadn’t caught up with what Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were doing.  On some of those early things, Bird and Diz were hitting it hard, in this new direction, but the rhythm section was lagging a little bit behind.  Later on they got with it, with Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and some of the others.

TP:    What exactly were they lacking?

GOLSON:  they were lacking the spirit of the new concept that Bird and Diz had come up with.  Of course, jazz had existed before Bird and Diz were playing what they played, so they were playing  what they knew best, what they used to play before Diz and Bird came on the scene with this epochal music.

TP:    What did they add rhythmically?

GOLSON:  Well, on that tune you hear the bass drum on every beat.  BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM, BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.  That doesn’t happen so much now.  The more you do a thing, the less it means.  Now when the bass drum is played, it’s played a little lightly, and when you accent certain things, then it means something.  But if you have it BOOM-BOOM’ing all the time, then you really  have to hit it hard, and it would be overwhelming.  Things like that.  The bass selection of notes, the notes then on the bass were thumps, THUMP-THUMP-THUMP-THUMP.  You played them, and they died immediately.  I call it the rubber band sound.  You hear Ron Carter, Ray Drummond, Rufus Reid, they play those notes like they don’t want to die.  They ring fully until the finger touches the string to play the next note.  They ring.  They fill up.  It gives you a different feeling when you’re playing with these kind of players, too.  And it makes the music sound different.

TP:    Now, when you were a kid, listening to this for the first time, going to the Earle Theater to hear Bird and Dizzy, what kind of records  were you listening to and assimilating?

GOLSON:  I was listening to Lionel Hampton.  Arnett Cobb, he was my hero.  He was the one that was responsible for me picking up the tenor saxophone.  That’s where we were.  If anyone knows about the Lionel Hampton groove on “Flyin’ Home,” to me, that was the epitome of saxophone playing.  That was the epitome of what a big band could do other than Duke Ellington.  I didn’t understand everything he was doing, but I knew it was something unusual, and I liked it.  But I liked Lionel Hampton better at that time.  It just had a certain spirit for me.  I was coming into it not really knowing much about jazz, and it was one of the things that first struck my fancy.

TP:    How did you pick up on the new bebop records?  Was it word-of-mouth among your peer group?  You heard it on jukeboxes?  On the radio?  How did you become aware of it?

GOLSON:  It was the strangest thing.  By accident, really, there was a place in Philadelphia that sold used records, records which had been played on the jukeboxes.  It was 78′s.  Though they were only 37 cents brand-new, you could go and buy these used records for a dime apiece!  I saw this thing, the very first one was “Billie’s Bounce” and “Now’s the Time.”  I’d never heard of Miles Davis.  I’d never heard of this fellow called Charlie Parker.  Only 10 cents!  I figured, after all, I couldn’t lose anything.  So I bought it.  And I took it home, and I put it on, and I listened to it — and it was the strangest music.  Had I wasted my dime?  It was quite unlike the things I had been hearing before.  But the more I played it, the more I began to like, not really understanding what it was all about.  So in the middle of all of this, I got a chance to hear Bird and Diz, not even really knowing who Bird was.  This guy dressed in a double-breasted pinstriped suit with all the buttons buttoned, and it looked too small for him — it looked like he was going to explode in it!  And when he bent over to make that 4-bar break in “A Night In Tunisia,” I almost fell out of the balcony.  John and I were grabbing at each other.  We’d never heard anybody play like that before.

TP:    Did he have a big-big sound, Charlie Parker?

GOLSON:  Yes, he had a big sound.  And the things that he played… John Coltrane was playing alto at that time.  He was into Johnny Hodges!  That’s where he was.  I was into Arnett Cobb.  And to hear Charlie Parker come out and play that 4-bar break by himself… Man, we were going crazy!  What was this all about?  How could we get close to this music?

But there was another fellow who came along.  I had been into Coleman Hawkins and Don Byas and Lucky Thompson and Ben Webster and Arnett Cobb.  He was such an aberration.  He was so different  that he drove me out of my mind, too, and it was the next recording you’re going to play by Diz — “Blue and Boogie.”  When I heard him play…I’m repeating myself.  Inside I was going crazy, my emotions.  Because it sounded so great, so good to me… it’s like meeting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your life or something like that.  It got me, and it started to change my concept about the saxophone.  It helped me to move on.  I told him that once.  He laughed.  I said, “It’s true!”

TP:    Talk about the advances that Dexter Gordon brought to the tenor saxophone vocabulary.

GOLSON:  It was just his approach to it.  Actions speak louder than words… If you just put it on and let the audience hear it… Some will already remember it anyway.  But they will hear that what we’ve just played is totally different.  He’s going in another direction, and I wanted to go along with it.

[MUSIC: Diz-Dex, "Blue and Boogie"; Bird-Diz, "Dizzy Atmosphere"; Bird-Diz-Byas, "Sweet Georgia Brown"]

GOLSON:  When Dexter Gordon came along with that style… Oh, it doesn’t amaze me about him any more, so much has happened since then.  But at that time, no one had played like that before him.  So it had quite an impact, first of all on the musicians, and maybe even some of the people who listened to it.  But it affected so many musicians… Let me tell you what happened.  John was playing alto, and he had begun to play like Charlie Parker after that concert I told you about, in which he and Dizzy were playing together.  He was playing I think in Eddie Vinson’s band.  In that band, there was a tenor player.  Johnny Coles was the trumpet player, because Eddie had come to the East Coast for a string of dates up and down the Eastern Seaboard, and he used all Philadelphia musicians to do these jobs with him.  The tenor player and Eddie had a falling-out, so when the time came for intermission, he laid his horn on the chair (as all of us did for the half-hour intermission), and when it was time to come back, everybody came back except the tenor player, who I guess was pouting.  Nobody knew where he was.  Well, Eddie had to go on playing, so they played whatever this tune was, and in this tune was a tenor solo coming up, so Eddie told John to pick up Louis’ horn.  John was a little reluctant.  He said, “No, pick it up and play it!”  So John picked it up.  And when he picked it up and started to play, who do you think he sounded like?  He sounded like Dexter Gordon.  Not Charlie Parker.  He adopted a new mental attitude for the tenor saxophone.  It sounded so good… I wasn’t there, but Johnny Coles told me about it.  Wherever Louis Judge was, he came running up to the bandstand.  He felt that his career and his job was in jeopardy, and he said, “Give me my horn!”  But John had had a taste of it, and that’s what prompted him to buy a tenor saxophone.  That’s how it happened.  And he started playing tenor saxophone sort of as a novelty, and then what eventually happened, the alto began to fade into the background and he became a tenor player.  Like with lots of other alto players — Jimmy Heath, Don Byas, George Coleman; many of them were alto players.

But Charlie Parker, I have to go back to him again.  Although he was an alto player, and on that concert where I first heard him, my idol was on that concert, Don Byas… But when the concert was over, and after John and I went back and got the autographs (you know how kids are), we found ourselves following Charlie Parker up the street.  We followed him for blocks.  And John was carrying his horn on the left and I was on his right, like kids.  “Mister Parker, how do you do this?” and “What is this?” and “What is..>”  I guess we drove the man crazy, until he got where he was going; he was on his way to the Downbeat club, which was about four blocks from the concert hall, and we were too young to get into the club, so he left us there — maybe he was glad too get away from us!  “Okay, kids, keep up the good work.”  It was up on the second floor.  And we spent the rest of the night just standing outside, listening to this new music being played by Charlie Parker, who was being featured with the local rhythm section, who was Red Garland, Philly Joe and Nelson Boyd was playing bass.  We didn’t know any of them at the time.

TP:    In 1945.

GOLSON:  Yeah, we were kids.  They didn’t know us and we didn’t know them.  We wanted to know them, though.  And we stayed there all night until it was over.  Certainly Charlie Parker influenced John’s playing as an alto player.  But I think he influenced many of us.  Til this day.  Barry Harris sounds like Charlie Parker playing piano!  But he helped take us on our voyage to nowhere, because we didn’t know where we were going.  We didn’t know whether we were going to be successful or not.  But we didn’t care.  We were compelled to do what we were trying to do.  And each day we woke up, it was great to open our eyes, because we knew we had another shot at what we were trying to do.  So we used to have lots of jam sessions.  We used to get together.  And when I heard this playing here, and you could hear the bass drum playing this 1-2-3-4 heavy THUMP… Around that time, the rhythm sections hadn’t really caught up to what Bird and Diz were doing.  As I said, they did later, and it really began to smooth out, and everybody began to go in a similar direction in their development.  But this is what we were living, those of us in Philadelphia at the time.  I didn’t know anything about Chicago or New York or anyplace else, just what happened in Philadelphia.  This is where we were, and these were the kinds of things that were helping to move us forward — all of us.  Jimmy Heath, Nelson Boyd, Percy Heath, Philly Joe.  We were all trying to get into this new music, and eventually we did.  Some of us were successful enough to leave Philadelphia and come to Mecca, New York City, and go to various places around the world, and some weren’t.  I feel, as many of us do, that we were privileged to be a part of that and develop it to a point that we could go out and show our wares, as it were, to people all around the world, and they would appreciate it in varying degrees.

TP:    In the decade before you were able to come and settle in New York, you undertook a comprehensive, extended apprenticeship in many different bands and many situations, playing music for many different functions.

GOLSON:  Oh yes.  Lots of rhythm-and-blues.  We didn’t always play jazz.  None of us.  Because at that time… When we started, it was hard for us, because the older and well-established musicians would ridicule us.  They would say, “Where is the melody?  Where is the bass drum?”  Or “You play like you’ve got a mouthful of hot rice.”  It wasn’t like the musicians today who are older, who encourage the younger ones who come behind them.  I think it’s great when I see the younger ones come on the scene.  I think I and many of the others, probably all of them, try to encourage them.  We got no encouragement at all.  They were always trying to put us down.  Until so many of us came on the scene, that the scene changed!  Time marches on.  But it was a troublesome period for us.  You didn’t get called for many gigs, and we had to take some gigs that we didn’t like.  Gigs where you had to get up on the bar and walk the bar and step over drinks.  I did it.  John did it.  We all did it.  We were trying to survive.

TP:    You spent a couple of years in Washington, D.C., at Howard University, and I know you spent a fair amount of time sneaking out.  But tell me a bit about the Washington scene, which was very active, dynamic and proficient.

GOLSON:  It was during that time.  But then, so was Philadelphia.  Somewhere along the way, they both died.  But during that time they were alive.  They were vital.  It was fertile, both cities.  I thought it was going to stay like that forever.  I was so happy about it all.  Music was everywhere.  There were groups playing everywhere — trios, quartets, quintets — in Philadelphia and Washington.  I suppose, to a large extent, they were happening in other cities, too, in Chicago and Detroit, probably in Los Angeles, New Orleans, wherever.  It was a happy time for us, because more and more people were beginning not only to play the music, but to understand it.  So people were buying records.  People were plunking their money down to come and see the groups that came to appear in the clubs and in the theaters.  Because a lot of the theaters were still open then.  The Earle Theater in Philadelphia, the Apollo in New York, the Royal in Baltimore, the Regal in Chicago, the Alhambra in Los Angeles, the Roosevelt in Pittsburgh.   There were many places where groups and orchestras were still appearing live.  It was great!

TP:    That was also a time when there was a circuit of black entertainers, so it wouldn’t just be the bands coming into these theaters, but a whole show would be coming in.

GOLSON:  A whole show with some of them.  Oh yes, we had to play those shows.  Sometimes it was a drag.  But when you find yourself in a situation, rather than let the situation get you down… Charlie Parker had a way of existing, and his personality always came through, no matter where he was.  He said that everyone had something to say.  They might say it a little differently than you or him, but he had something to say, something of value.  So when we found ourselves in situations, we made the best of it.  We tried to maximize that situation.  Because we were still going through a learning process.  So when we down to the chitlin circuit, when we went through Mississippi and Georgia and we played those tobacco warehouses and so on, it helped us to get our soul together and to find out what feeling was all about.  So it wasn’t wasted time.  It was a part of our education.

TP:    What were some of the bands you played that circuit with?

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson.

TP:    Describe it.  Within that band were the seeds of some of the most consequential music of the 1950′s.

GOLSON:  Bullmoose Jackson was a player who had played with Lucky Millinder.  He got the name Bullmoose because his appendages were long, he had thick fingers, big feet, a long face, his lips were very thick, his head was long.  They gave him that name.  But he had a beautiful voice, and that’s what helped to get him started in his own group.  He had a 7-piece group.  Frank Wess, I think, started out with him.  He had become successful to an extent, as far as it was possible during that time, and he had many recordings out.  When I met him, he was in the process of changing the band around.  So he asked me would I like to join the band.  I had an audition.  I had to come to the hotel room.  The manager of the group was also the alto saxophone player.  They gave me some things to read, and I played it with them.  They said, “Well, you’re not wearing glasses for nothing.  Do you know of a good trumpet player we could use?”  He wanted to change the band around completely.  So I mentioned Johnny Coles, who was an excellent reader.  Then he wanted a drummer.  As I told you, we didn’t always play jazz.  The drummer turned out to be Philly Joe Jones.  Well, he wanted a bass player.  Jymie Merritt was the bass player.  So we had a nice group.  When I got to the group, the only one that he didn’t let go was his manager, who played alto, and the piano player, who was his friend (also from Cleveland, where he was from) who happened to be Tadd Dameron, who wasn’t working that much at the time, so Moose said, “Why don’t you come out and play with me until you decide you want to do something else.”  So when I got there, Tadd was there.  So we had this plethora of new blood, new musicians, and we started to play some of Tadd’s things in between Bullmoose Jackson’s hits.  Then he got me to write things, and at the same time I was picking Tadd’s brains to find out how he arrived at certain things.  And the man was so friendly, he showed me everything he knew, which helped propel me along in the direction I wanted to go.  So I began to write things, and Moose enjoyed playing those kinds of things more than the things he was making his money at.  The group got so good and so diverse, that I remember, when we played a club in St. Louis, I can’t remember the name…

TP:    The Riviera?

GOLSON:  No, that was a large one.  This wasn’t quite that large.  But I remember the Riviera.  But it turned out we had two audiences, the people who came to hear Moose sing those songs, and people who came to know what the group was about.  Now, we never recorded any of those things, but by word of mouth, people began to talk about this band that had Tadd in it, and Philly Joe and so forth.  And we would play his hits, and then we would do our thing.  It was great.  It made it tolerable, because we had a chance to do the things that we really wanted to do in that band, and the leader loved it, too.
So it was great…until it ended.

TP:    The tenor player who as much as Bird affected the sensibilities of many young tenor aspirants performing in the aesthetic Benny Golson is talking about is Lester Young, and the music he cut after World War, after his supposed decline, were hits on jukeboxes in black neighborhoods around the country.  You were checking Prez out a lot, and the next selection is “D.B. Blues,” done right after he got out of the Army.

GOLSON:  It was so popular, that I had to learn how to play what you’re about to play note for note.  When we played locally at the dances… We didn’t play at the clubs then.  We weren’t that great.  But we used to play these local dances, and the younger people would come to the dances, and they always wanted to hear this tune.  My claim to fame was playing this next tune, “D.B. Blues.”  I had no identity of my own!

[MUSIC: Prez, "D.B. Blues"]

GOLSON:  You see what I was talking about.  The rhythm section still had not quite come up to where it is today.  I guess that’s a lot to ask, to come up to where it is today.  But they eventually caught on to what was going on, the spirit of it, and the rhythm did change.  It wasn’t so much hi-hat cymbal as it was then, you know.

But your speaking about jukeboxes in the black neighborhoods before brought things to my mind.  And Coleman Hawkins comes to my mind.  In my neighborhood (they used to call them tap rooms), there was a bar, a saloon, a block from where we lived.  I remember walking by that saloon and hearing this beautiful saxophone playing this tune.  Well, I wasn’t playing then.  I hadn’t begun to play at all then.  I was still playing piano (playing at it anyway).  I later found out that tune was “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  And everybody liked it!  It’s not like today, where most of the people like Rock-and-Roll or Rap or whatnot.  Everybody in the neighborhood loved “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins.  Later, when I started to play the saxophone, somebody transcribed it.  Like I said, I was so eclectic then, and we really didn’t have a voice of our own.  We used to play these things at high school and go visit other high schools.  I got this transcription of “Body and Soul” with every note that Coleman Hawkins played.  I played the notes.  Sad to say, it didn’t sound like Coleman Hawkins.  But I would do that.  And as I got older and more mature, I realized what this man was really doing in that song.  And I never played it.  I recorded that song last week with Branford Marsalis; we shared it together.  I looked back and wondered to myself why I had never recorded it.  I don’t think I ever played it.  Rarely did I play it.  I think it’s because Coleman Hawkins did so much with it.  It’s so beautiful, what else could I add to it?  It was just that way.  It was such a classic thing he did.  What else could I add to it?

[MUSIC: Hawk, "Body and Soul"]

TP:    Could you comment on the contrasting styles by the two founders of the main branches of the tenor tree, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins.

GOLSON:  If you noticed, when Coleman Hawkins was playing, he was playing like many of the other tenor saxophones during the day, and that was using vibrato.  During that time they used a wide vibrato.  That was acceptable, because that’s what was happening.  Prez came on the scene, and he used no vibrato.  And they said, “What is this guy doing?  He’s not using any vibrato.”  But he set a new approach to the sound of the saxophone.  Nobody uses the wide vibrato any more.  Many of us play with no vibrato — or, when we choose to use it.  But the wide vibrato is gone.

TP:    Why?

GOLSON:  Well, it fell out of style.  It was out of date.  Style moved on to something else.  We’re not wearing spats any more.  Things progress and go forward.  Well, call it forward or backward.  But it changed.  Everything changes.  Nothing stays the same.  We didn’t look like this twenty years ago.  Did we? [LAUGHS] Yeah, time is corrosive.  Time moves on.  But I think it was for the better.  The wide vibrato was all right then.  I like it better without the vibrato.  However, I like this version of “Body and Soul.”  I am transported back in time, so in my own mind I guess I accept the vibrato because of the way he played, the feeling, the creativity that he evinced in this version of “Body and Soul.”

Prez was a minimalist.  A lot of people thought that Prez couldn’t double up and play double-time on the fast things, or he could just groove.  I was talking to someone about this the other night.  I said, “You know, Prez could double up and run all over the horn.  I heard him do it!”  But he chose to take this approach.  He liked to lay back in that groove and find a pocket.  And it worked.  He was a minimalist.  He made his notes count.  What was it Sweets said about some saxophone player who played a lot of notes? [LAUGHS] Oh, he said, referring to this person… I don’t remember who he was, but he’d play all up and down the horn constantly.  He said, “If he got paid by the note, he could retire early.”  Sweets is a minimalist.  They choose the notes well, and they make them work, and they play the notes with feeling.  When you play a lot of notes, you don’t get a chance to linger on each note and get a full feeling from each note.  It’s only when you slow down on the ballad and you slow down for an appreciable amount of time that you get a chance to emote.  You know what I’m saying?  When you start moving fast, that’s gone.

TP:    Describing phrasing a note that way makes me think of Ben Webster, who we’ll hear on a track from his younger days before he became famous for ballads done in that manner.  Hearing Ben Webster performing “Raincheck,” from 1941, brings us to another aspect of Benny Golson’s work which we haven’t yet addressed, which is the seed of writing and your career as a composer.  The impact of Ben Webster and the Ellington Orchestra.

GOLSON:  Well, writing didn’t take me over yet.  I didn’t have enough knowledge to realize what writing was about at that time.  But I remember when my mother brought the saxophone home to me.  As bad as I wanted the saxophone, when I opened it, I felt terrible, because I didn’t even know how to put it together.  So she packed the saxophone up and we both went around to the neighborhood we used to live in, about three or four blocks away, to a the house of a fellow named Tony Mitchell.  Now, he played the saxophone.  So we went in, and I wanted to know, “Well, how do I put this together?”  He took it out and showed me how to put the neck on the top of the horn, and how to put the mouthpiece off, and how to put the ligature off and put the reed on and put the ligature back on and tighten it, and put the strap around my neck.  “Oh, I didn’t know it had a strap.”  “Yeah, it hangs on the strap.”  And I put it no the strap, and he said, “Okay, now you put it in your mouth and play something.”  Well, I’m like a mule being led to slaughter.  I couldn’t play anything.  I was discouraged again.  I didn’t know what the learning process would be like.  He said, “Wait, let me show you.”  So he put his saxophone together, and he put on this next record that you’re about to play, and he played with it, the way I used to play with  “D.B. Blues” and some of the other things.  It was Ben Webster.  The tune was “Raincheck.”  This is when I first started to become of aware of where I had to go and what I had to do — not being aware of how long it was going to take either!

[MUSIC: Duke-Ben, "Raincheck," "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'"]

TP:    Ellington and Tadd Dameron seem to be the two primary inspirations of your formative years as a composer.

GOLSON:  Duke Ellington first, yeah.  Because this song you just played, I was just delighted with the way Ben Webster played.  But then I noticed the periphery that was going on around him, and that helped to even highlight him more.  Then I started listening to the chords and the clarinet… I’d only heard Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman, then I heard how this clarinet, how he worked it in.  I’ll tell you, I haven’t heard this in a long time, but to me it’s like Dom Perignon wine.  It gets better with age.  It sounds better and better.  And music can sound like that sometimes.  Which means that you develop a deeper appreciation for it as time goes on, because there are other things that come into your life that helps to highlight the value of music like this.  It’s like on outdoor elevator.  The higher you go, the more you see.  And going higher is like developing a keen appreciation, more knowledge.  That’s what I liken it to.

TP:    One question before we move to the music of Tadd Dameron.  Ellington’s music was performed for dancers and in concerts and really beautifully produced revues…and for dances.  You, of course, played for many dances in your various journeys.  Talk about the impact of an audience on what you’re doing, and a dancing audience that’s in a particular tempo or a particular groove.

GOLSON:  Well, jazz today doesn’t lend itself to dancing per se.  It can make you pat your foot and do things like that, but it’s not as danceable, I think, as the music we heard by Duke Ellington.  Yet these things are classic things.  His music can be compared with Stravinsky or Beethoven or anybody else.  His music had a lot to say.  There’s a lot going on there compositionally.  His music is not something that you can get too easy as a writer.  He had a certain way of doing things — using the baritone saxophone, for example — that is not easy always to comprehend.  When you heard this music, you always knew it was Duke Ellington.  There was no question about it.  You didn’t confuse him with Jimmie Lunceford or Larry Clinton or anybody.  You always knew it was Duke Ellington.  So he had a certain way of writing that identified him.  It served two purposes — for people to dance by and for people to sit down and enjoy.  In a cerebral way, if you wanted to.  It was that deep.  He accomplished a lot with his music.  It was melodic, it was rhythmic, it was memorable, it was cerebral.  All of these things at the same time.

TP:    An aspect of that pertains to the dynamics of improvising, which is that Ellington comprised that sound out of the sound of the instrumentalists that he brought into his band.  I’d still like you to address the question of how playing for a dancing audience impacted you as a performer, but also bringing the individual personality into one’s own compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I don’t play for dancing audiences, but when I did, it was a different situation, so you approached it in a different way.  People were there to be entertained, and then you did what you did.  I guess a little bit of the entertainment thing came into your playing because you wanted the people to enjoy what you did, so you had to be in whatever spirit the music was in.  Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense.  If you were playing a Mississippi kind of blues, to try to play bebop on it wouldn’t work.  You know what I mean?  The people wouldn’t appreciate it.  So you had to get into the spirit of what was going on.  And once you let yourself do that, even though you were playing music that might ordinarily be an anomaly or an aberration to what you normally did, you could enjoy it, because you threw yourself into the spirit of the moment.  Oh, we used to play these things with the guitars and everything, and believe me, when I got into it so much, when we would go down South (there was no bebop on the jukeboxes), I found myself plunking nickels on “Miss Cornshucks” and B.B. King and you name it, and I was enjoying it.  Although I didn’t want to play it.  It wasn’t my kind of music.  It sort of took me over.  You can get into the music so much.

TP:    Let’s move to today, and the question of weaving the improvisational personalities of your musicians into your compositional conception.

GOLSON:  I can’t tell you how valuable that is.  That’s a luxury that isn’t always afforded us, though.  Duke did it because he had the orchestra.  When he wrote, he knew that Paul Gonsalves or Ben Webster or Ray Nance or Lawrence Brown or whoever it was…he knew they were there.  It was sort of like the couture tailors, when it’s made for the person.  That’s the way his music was.  It accommodated not necessarily the instrument (which it did), but the personality behind the instrument.  Certain people did certain things.  He used that to his advantage, and it made the music really vital.  Now, I do that when I can.  But since I don’t have a big band traveling around and musicians at my fingertips, not even a quartet at my fingertips (it changes so much), I try to do things so it makes sense for whatever setting I’m in and whatever group of musicians I happen to be using.  If I had a group with certain men in it all the time, then… Oh, I’m sorry.

There was one situation, the Jazztet, where we did have certain men.  We had a pianist, Mickey Tucker, who was so well-equipped… I mean, he ad-libbed, he played classical piano, he was a composer himself, he could read anything that I wrote — and I took advantage of that.  I wrote things for him and incorporated it into the group that I would never have written for anybody else.  I remember one night we had to get a sub.  We had a sub for Art when he had to have an operation.  We had a sub a few times for Curtis.  Clifford Jordan and subbed for me.  We had a sub on the drums, the bass.  It worked out okay.  But we got the sub for the piano, it was a catastrophe.  That music was so hard.  And the piano player took it home!  But when he came back, it wasn’t like Mickey.  You know, I would bring things in, and when I was writing I would look at it and say, “My goodness, I’m glad I don’t play piano.”  We’d go to the rehearsal, and the music would be sitting there on the piano, and we’d get ready to start, and he’d say, “Just a minute,” and he would sort of look at it, like looking at the headlines, then he’d sit back and say, “Okay.”  And that was that.  It was incredible.

Now, if you’ve got musicians like that, and we did… The musicians in the Jazztet were like that, and I was able to write things with them in mind.  Toward the end of the Jazztet, I was writing things for the bass, beginning with the bass, rather than having them at the end with some solo — start out with the bass.  And some of these things were difficult.  They were challenges, really; things we never recorded.  We broke up before we did that.  We might go back and record them one day…maybe.  I wrote one thing and took it in.  It had no form, no form at all, except when you got to the solos, when it had to have some sort of form.  When we first played that thing, I remember Mickey Tucker said to me after we started rehearsing it, “What were you smoking when you wrote this?”  It was so different.  But I’m of the mind: Why must everything always be the same?  Why must everything sound the same?  If a person is truly creative, it shouldn’t.  We don’t drive around in 1929 Fords any more.  We don’t wear spats.  Time moves on.  Music is no different.  It has to move on, too.  That’s part of the adventure, too — doing things different.  Some people might not like them, but that’s the way it is.  Those of us who choose to do it, have to do it.  I’ll put that word in quotes — “have to.”  We have no choice.  We have to do that, lest we become counterfeit to ourselves.

TP:    Some reminiscing about Tadd Dameron.  Last time you noted that he was a master of maximizing resources, of making a small band sound huge.

GOLSON:  Yes.  He was a dearth writer, dearth meaning dealing with a small number of instruments.  He was a master of it.  You have to listen to it.  He had a certain way of writing that made it sound bigger and more important than it really was.  That’s what amazed me about him.  But he used everything.  He maximized everything.  He knew what to do with the piano.  He knew how to use the bass and the drums and the two horns.  He knew what harmonies to use, and the rhythms and things like that.  You can hear it in “Our Delight,” which is one of the first things that caught my attention.

[MUSIC: Tadd Dameron, "Our Delight," "Focus"; Diz, "Night In Tunisia" (1946)]

TP:    You had a few comments about J.C. Heard’s drumming.  He played a different pattern behind each soloist on “Night In Tunisia,” and you noted how that affected the total sound of the band.

GOLSON:  I thought it was a different rhythm section, because it sounded different.  He was up on the ride cymbal.  I said, “See?  Now the rhythm section has come along; they’ve evolved.”  And you mentioned it’s the same rhythm section as “52nd Street Theme.”  I said, “That’s odd.” Then the next chorus he’s back on the hi-hat cymbal, which they did a lot then — closed.  Next chorus was the hi-hat slightly opened.  You mentioned that maybe Diz told him to play on the ride cymbal.  I thought, “Diz told the rhythm section a lot of things.”  I said, “You are probably right.”  Then I just reflected years before, it was always the hi-hat cymbal [SINGS TIME ON RIDE]; they only used the ride cymbal to crash!  And when Kenny Clarke left the hi-hat cymbal and went up on the ride cymbal to play tempos, it bugged them to death!  They thought he had lost his mind.  Just like when Prez refused to use the wide vibrato, and things began to happen.  Now, the ride cymbal is what you use when you really want to swing, not the hi-hat.  I mean, the hi-hat hasn’t lost its function.  It still has its place, and it’s great.  But when you really want to swing, you have to get on that ride cymbal.

TP:    How much do you pay attention to what the drums and bass are doing in the composition, particularly in the improvisational sections?

GOLSON:  A lot.  I have to feel comfortable.  If I am going to play, I have to feel comfortable.  And when I listen to other people, of course, they do what they want to do.  But basically, I’ll want to swing.  That’s what it’s all about.  It’s not just notes.  Notes must have spirit, lest they become merely notes, documentations of pitch — and we want to go way beyond that.  We want the music to have some feeling.  We want it to swing when it’s supposed to swing.  We want it to do other things when it’s supposed to do other things.  On a ballad when you go to the brushes, then that has a certain feeling.  If it’s got a little raunch to it, then you might play a shuffle.  Art Blakey was one of the few drummers who could make the shuffle swing.  Incredible!

TP:    The next set will focus on musicians who relate to the music we’re discussing, John Coltrane and Hank Mobley, who preceded Benny in the Jazz Messengers.

GOLSON:  John had an insatiable thirst for moving ahead.  Even as young teenagers, he was always two steps ahead of the rest of us.  I remember when he started talking about augmented chords, and we said, “What?”  Then when we came to comprehend what augmented chords were about, he was somewhere else.  It turned out that wherever we wanted to go, he had been there before we were there, and gone somewhere else.  He used to employ Spartan-like practice; especially as he got better, he practiced more, believe it or not.  As some of the rest of us got better, we practiced less.  But he practiced… We used to live two blocks apart in New York.  When you went to his house, if his wife wasn’t home, you couldn’t get in, because he wouldn’t stop playing.  He would play all day, and when he went to the gig at night, he would get on stage and play.  And during intermission, he would practice the whole intermission in the men’s room, and then come back.  McCoy said he practiced like a person who had no talent.  But we know he had so much talent.  And with that kind of practice and being as exceedingly talented as he was, we could see why he was able to soar above the circle of the earth in unoccupied air space.  And that’s where he was.

He went through phases, just like Picasso did.  The pointillism, the Cubism, the Blue period and so forth.  He went through periods on his saxophone.  I remember them.  When he first picked up the tenor, he sounded somewhat like Dexter, as I mentioned.  But then he went to a style, when we were playing together with Johnny Hodges, around ’54… I don’t know how to describe it.  Sort of a hopping-skipping style.  I don’t think he recorded when he was playing that way.  Then we weren’t so close as we were, because we went our separate ways, and I didn’t see him quite as often.  But I would hear him from time to time.  I remember he came by my apartment once in New York, and I hadn’t heard him in a long time.  I had heard one or two things Ornette Coleman was doing, and I said to him, “It sounds like maybe you’re doing some of the same things Ornette is doing.”  And he quickly said, “Oh, no.”  He didn’t want to be linked there.  And as it turned out, he wasn’t.  He was doing  something completely different.  Each time I’d hear him, he was doing something different.  And all of it was exciting.  He had an extremely large whatever, a voluminous bag that he could reach into and pull out all sorts of things.  It was bottomless.  Because until the time he died, he was always bringing new things into his life via the horn.  Not all of us can say we can do that.  We might change a little here and there.  But I’ve heard him make major changes, change directions.  And most of it was exciting.  Some of it I didn’t understand.  But not all of us understand everything that goes on.

I remember when he started to change, some of the things he was doing were raw.  When he was with Miles, I remember I went to see him once at the Blue Note in Philadelphia.  He had been talking to a trumpet player called Calvin Folks, and Calvin was trying to explain something to him.  In this guy’s mind… He was so open to everything, he wanted to absorb everything and distil it, use what he could and whatnot.  So he was playing with Miles, and right in the middle of a solo… Oh, I have to say this.  The trumpet player was sitting right at the bar, and the bandstand was in the middle of the bar.  So he was looking right down at the trumpet player.  He took his horn out while the band was swinging, and he said to him, “Do you mean like that?” [LAUGHS] I guess he nodded his head or whatever, and then he continued on playing.  But he was always learning.  And he listened constantly.  He didn’t just listen to himself.

TP:    Sounds like he made every performance situation as much a laboratory…

GOLSON:  That’s a good analogy.  You’re absolutely right.  On this, just notice.  This is not one of those complicated tunes.  Things don’t always have to be complicated to be meaningful.  Notice what he does with just a simple structured tune.

[MUSIC: Coltrane, "Good Bait"]

GOLSON:  You heard what he did with that simple tune.  He made it his own.  I mean, he had his signature all over it.  But now, one doesn’t have to play an abundance of notes for it to be meaningful.  I’ve said that about Sweets and some other people, and I think about another saxophone player.  This fellow was probably one of the most melodic saxophone players on the jazz scene.  He wasn’t known for running all over his horn, though he could.  I’m speaking about Hank Mobley.  I remember, I took some music to a recording session.  This guy was such a natural and had such a great ear.  He could read changes and things like that.  I took this tune (I don’t remember what it was) to Rudy Van Gelder’s, and they were reading the melody down, because they were unfamiliar with it.  When it came time for a solo, I said, “I guess he’s really going to scrutinize the chart now.”  He closed his eyes and reared back.  He never looked at the music.  He just heard what was going on, and played his feelings.  He was playing from the heart.  What more can you ask for?

TP:    He was also a prolific composer.  Maybe they were ditties, but they were all distinctive melodies and structures.

GOLSON:  Yes.  I don’t usually like ditties.  But Monk was a profound writer of ditties, and so was Hank.  He had a tune, “This I Dig Of You,”  Listen to what he does on it.  He doesn’t run all over the horn.  You don’t have to.  Some of the profoundest things that are said, are said with fewer notes — or fewer words, if you will.

[MUSIC: Hank Mobley, "This I Dig Of You"; Benny Golson, "Turning Point"]

TP:    In the liner notes it says you met Jimmy Cobb when you were at Howard in 1948.

GOLSON:  Yes, we played a gig with a guitar player who was later to become the guitar player with the Clovers — “One Mint Julep.”  That’s where we met, at this gig at a nightclub called the Liberty, in northwest D.C.

TP:    We’ll hear Joe Henderson, from the next generation back of Benny, who was already an accomplished professional with vast experience by the time he arrived in New York at 25 years old in 1962.

GOLSON:  You’d better believe it.  He was sounding good to me the first time I heard him.  Kenny Dorham told me about him.  He’s from Lima, Ohio.  I tease him about that, because it smells like sulfur there all the time.  But the first time I heard him, he sounded great!  He had it together.  That was a long time ago.

TP:    He and Wayne Shorter are the two saxophonists after John Coltrane who had a huge impact on subsequent generations.  Would you talk about the dynamics of his style?

GOLSON:  Like some other saxophone players, Joe is not afraid to take chances.  And he has enough facility to carry out the things that enter his mind.  He’ll be going in one direction, and all of a sudden he’ll dart and do something.  It might sound crazy, but it fits into the scheme of things, the overall tapestry of what he’s doing, and composing.  To a large extent, that’s what people who are playing solos do.  They are composing; composers of a sort.  Extemporaneously.  They don’t get a chance to go back and hone it like someone who is writing a song.  And sometimes that’s even more difficult, to come up with a concept, an overall concept of something that you’re doing that makes sense, and you don’t have time to edit it.  So sometimes things go by that have little mistakes in them, but you don’t look at the mistakes.  You stand back and look at the whole tapestry.  And Joe, it seems to me, has always been able to paint a picture, a picture that made sense from beginning to the end.  And it seemed like he always was going somewhere.  It wasn’t just a solo.  It always had direction.  It was going somewhere and building.

[MUSIC: Joe Henderson, "Invitation" (1968)]

TP:    An example of transcendent technique that never obscures the necessities of the moment, and the poetic drive of his solos.

GOLSON:  Aren’t you profound!  That’s great.

TP:    We’ll hear music by Branford Marsalis and Dan Faulk.

GOLSON:  You’ll notice the tenor players we’ve played today, as soon as you hear them, you know who they are.  They have distinctive personality.  You know the sound of their horns.  Unfortunately, today, many tenor saxophone players get caught up in one style, and it’s hard to tell  many of them when you hear them play.  They can play the heck out of the horns, but the styles aren’t as distinctive today as they were in times gone by.  That’s not a derogatory statement, because they can play the keys off the horn.  But the ones I’ve selected today really have their own personalities, as does Branford Marsalis — who is extremely broad, you know.  He can play bebop, he can play Rock-and-Roll, he can play the New Orleans thing, when he was with Sting he was doing something else.  It takes a lot of ability to do that.  And Dan, who is ascendant; he’s still coming, he has his own style, he’s consequential, he has something to say.

[MUSIC: Branford, "Just One Of Those Things"; Dan Faulk, "Barry's Tune"]

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Filed under Benny Golson, DownBeat, Interview, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

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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Filed under Article, DownBeat, Interview, Sonny Rollins, Tenor Saxophone

NEA Jazz Masters 2012: Von Freeman

For the thirtieth and perhaps final installment of the National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters Awards, the NEA selected  a quartet of  hardcore individualists, who have steadfastly followed their own path through the decades: Drummer Jack DeJohnette, tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, bassist Charlie Haden, and singer Sheila Jordan. Stalwart trumpeter-educator  Jimmy Owens received the 2012 A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy.  Heartiest congratulations to all.

Von Freeman’s designation is particularly gratifying to this this observer. Active on the Chicago scene since the end of the ’30s, when, after graduating from DuSable High School, he got his first lessons in harmony from the mother of his DuSable classmate Gene Ammons. Before enlisting in the Navy, he briefly played in a big band led by Horace Henderson (Fletcher’s brother), he marinated slowly towards his mature conception. As perhaps his most famous acolyte—and close friend—Steve Coleman put it recently: “Von looks inward a lot. He’s not a person who buys a lot of books or any of this kind of stuff. He just meditates from the inside. So it took him a lot longer to develop this thing. He told me himself that he didn’t feel like he understood harmony until he was like 50 years old, which is kind of late.”

Indeed, Freeman was 50 when he made his first leader recording, Have No Fear, produced for Atlantic by Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who hired Sam Jones and Jimmy Cobb to swing the proceedings along with Chicago pianist “Young” John Young.  Although he never left Chicago,  his discography—and international reputation—has multiplied, and he has remained at the top of his game.

I’d heard Von a number of times during my ’70s residence in Chicago, and was able to continue doing so once he began gigging in New York at  the cusp of the ’80s, after recording four two-tenor sides with his son, Chico Freeman on side 2 of a fine Columbia recording called Fathers and Sons (the rhythm section was Kenny Barron, Cecil McBee, and Jack DeJohnette; Side 1 featured Ellis, Branford, and Wynton Marsalis). The audiences were usually on the small side. I can recall a winter engagement at the Public Theater maybe in 1982 when about 15 people heard Von play non-stop for two hours with Albert Dailey on piano and Dannie Richmond on drums; twenty years later, after he’d turned 80, I saw him do the same thing at Smoke before a much more crowded house on an extraordinarily kinetic set during which he kept prodding pianist Mulgrew Miller with the exhortation, “Be creative!”

I  had the honor of hosting Freeman on at least three—maybe four—occasions on WKCR after 1987. I’ve posted below the proceedings of a conversation conducted on January 19, 1994,  a bitterly cold week when Von, for the first time, was headlining a quartet  at the Village Vanguard (wish I could remember  who the band was). The weather dampened the turnout, but not the heat of invention. [Note: I've interpolated a few of Von's remarks from an earlier, 1991 WKCR appearance.]

* * *

I was at the Vanguard for the first set last night, and I gather you’d had maybe a 45-minute rehearsal.

VF:    [LAUGHS]

But the group sounded like you’d been on the road for a month or so.

VF:    Well, those guys are great, man.  And they listen.  To me, that’s one of the biggest parts of it all, listening to one another and appreciating what… I know it sounds old-fashioned, but it still works — for me.

It seems to me that that’s something you encourage in your bands.  Having seen you with a number of groups and a number of young musicians, you will set up impromptu situations in the middle of a piece, like a dialogue with the drummer or dialogue with the bass player, to keep everybody on their toes.

VF:    Oh, yes.  But that’s old-fashioned, actually.  All the older cats did that.

Do you mean old-fashioned or do you mean something that’s happening as part of the natural course of improvising?

VF:    No.  What I mean is, I never really try to leave my era.  I might mess around with it a little bit, but I’m from that other thing.

When you say “that era,” what do you mean by that?

VF:    Well, I mean I’m from that Jazz thing, from Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, all the great big bands of that era.  I used to go to a lot of rehearsals, actually, and I used to notice the way that things were done.

Who were some people whose rehearsals struck you?

VF:    Oh, like Horace Henderson.

Well, you played a little bit with Horace Henderson before you went in the Navy.

VF:    That’s right.  And Horace Henderson, man, knew how to  rehearse a band!  And I was amazed.  Like, I didn’t know nothin’ about nothin’ when I was in his band.  He would take me aside and say, “Now, listen.  All you got to do, young man, is listen.”  He said, “And don’t play too loud!” — because I was full of hire and full of wind.  17, you know.  I was ready to blow, baby!  He said, “Just cool, and play like you’re playing in your living room.”

And man, let me tell you something.  I was once in the one of the warm-up bands in Atlantic City, and the great Count Basie Band was playing.  Man, I was sitting in the front seat talking, and a lady was talking to me, and the band was shouting.  But it wasn’t loud.  It was weird!  It was eerie.  These cats were swingin’, and Count did not have a mike on the piano.  And you could hear every note he played.  Well, from my previous instructions I could tell what they were doing.  They were just playing like they were in their living room.  And it came out as one big, beautiful, soft, quiet-with-fire sound.

So I try to inject that.  Because I hate to hear little bands sound like big bands.  Ooh, that disturbs me.  I see four or five cats making enough noise to sound like a concert band, ooh, it gets on my nerves.

Also in that period were you able to talk to older saxophone players?

VF:    Oh, sure.

Were people willing to pass down information to you?

VF:    Oh yeah.  They were beautiful.

Who were some of the people in Chicago who served that role for you?  Because you’ve certainly served it for a couple of generations of young Chicago musicians.

VF:    Oh, yes, I’ve been lucky that way.  Well, like I told you last time, we talked about Dave Young, who just passed last year.  And…oh, listen, Tony Fambro, Goon Gardner…

Who played with Earl Hines for a few years.

VF:    Yes.  Oh, listen, just so many guys.  I couldn’t begin to name them all.  Because at that time, the information was freely given.  Everybody was trying to encourage the younger guy, because they realized that was the future.  Nobody was hiding anything, no information was classified.  Because at the end of the thing, if you don’t have the feeling, nothing’s going to happen anyway.  You can show a guy everything you know, but if he has no heart, he might as well deal shoes or something.

As you’ve discussed in probably three thousand interviews, you were a student of Walter Dyett, the famous bandmaster at DuSable High School…

VF:    Oh, yes.

…along with maybe a couple of dozen other famous tenor players.

VF:    Oh, yes, that’s the land of tenor players.  Everybody plays tenor.

But you never repeat yourself!  So what’s today’s version of your impressions of Walter Dyett?  And also, the musical talent at DuSable High School when you attended in the 1930′s?

VF:    Well, during that time, Walter Dyett was the man on the South Side of Chicago.  We’d all tell lies to go to DuSable.  Because they had these school districts.  And everybody wanted to be in his class, and get some of that baton across the head, and get cussed out by him — because he was free with the baton!

A democratic disciplinarian.

VF:    That’s right!  But he taught by osmosis more than anything.  He would encourage you to be a free spirit — with discipline.  And even today I can see how important that is, to be as free as you can, but have discipline — in all things.

You’d been playing music since you were little.

VF:    Oh yeah.  I’ve had a saxophone stuck in my mouth since I was about three.

And music was in your family.

VF:    Well, actually, my father fooled around with trombone.  Of course, my mother is still in church and almost 97; she’s always been a choir singer and tambourine player, and she’s sanctified, so that beat, baby.

So you’ve really been listening to a whole range of music since you were out of the womb.

VF:    Yes.  Because my father actually dug concert music, see.  The only thing I didn’t hear much of was Blues — Blues per se.  I heard Louis, Fats Waller and people like that play the Blues, and he had some records by Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, the classic blues singers.  So I guess I ran the gamut of musical expression.

When did you start going to concerts and different events on the South Side?  There was so much music in Chicago in the Twenties and Thirties, and I imagine you grew up right in the middle of a lot of it, and you were probably playing a fair amount of it from a pretty early age.

VF:    Oh yes, I played in some things.  But you must understand, though, that during that era there was a lot on the radio.  Like B.G., Benny Goodman was on the radio, Count Basie was on the radio, Earl Hines was broadcasting right from the Grand Terrace in Chicago, Fats Waller was on the radio, Jimmie Lunceford, Erskine Hawkins (who just passed), a lot of the big bands were played on the radio.  And they were doing remotes from different parts of the country.  So that was a thing that, of course, a lot of the young guys can’t hear because you don’t have that any more.  Duke was always on the radio.  You might even go to a movie and see a Jazz band in the movie, which you hardly ever see now.

A lot of the bands would stay over in Chicago, too. Say, the Ellington band might be someplace on the South Side for two weeks, and they’d be in the community.

VF:    That’s right.  Well, we had, of course, the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, and all the big bands came through there, and that was right on 47th Street, right in the heart of the South Side.  I’m very lucky to have been a part of that scene and play with a lot of the guys in the bands.  When I say play with them, I had a little band, they might have sat in with me or something.  And it was beautiful just to stand beside them or stand there and watch them in person.  Because there’s so much to learn from just watching the way a person performs.

Who were the people who impressed you when you were 14, 15, up to going into the Navy, let’s say, around 1942?

VF:    Actually, they were mostly trumpet players.  See, I played trumpet for about twenty-five years.  And Hot Lips Page, man.  You don’t hear much about that cat, but that cat was a beautiful cat, man, and knew how to lead and rehearse a band.  And the way he played, I guess it was out of Louis, you would say.  And Roy Eldridge; I was with him for five minutes.

He lived in Chicago for some time in the 1930′s, too.

VF:    Yes.  So those two trumpet players impressed me with their power and with their know-how about how to treat the public and how to treat a band.  All that is very important if you call yourself a bandleader.  See, there’s a whole lot of people standing in front of bands that are not really bandleaders.  I would call them front men.  But being able to have the men, not demand any… It’s a terrible thing to have to demand things out of your sidemen.  It shouldn’t be a command.  It should be a thing where they respect you so much that they want to do things to take care of business.

Well, on the tenor you’ve credited your style as being an amalgam of listening to Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, who both were around Chicago a lot.

VF:    Of course.

When did you first hear Hawk and when did you first hear Prez?

VF:    Well, see, Coleman Hawkins was a personal friend of my Dad’s.  But now, Prez….

How did they know each other?

VF:    You know, I never knew.  My father loved the cats, and he’d hang around them.  You know, he was a hanger.  He’d hang out with them.  He was a policeman, but he was a different type of policeman; he never arrested anybody or gave out tickets or anything!  So he was hanging with the cats all the time.  And I’m certain that’s how he met Hawk.

Prez I met personally because I would hang out at the Regal.  Whenever Count Basie came to town, man, I was sitting down front, me and my little cats that would hang out with me.  We all knew Prez’s solos note for note.  We’d stand there, and Prez would run out.  Of course, Prez would look at us, because we were right down front making all this noise, and we… Like, they’d play “Jumping At The Woodside,” and we’d wait for Prez to come out.  Well, Prez used to say…[SINGS REFRAIN], but he’d play all kinds of ways.  We were singing his solos, hands up in the air like he’d hold his horn, and he looked at us like he wanted to kill us!

But Prez was beautiful, man.  I was crazy about him personally.  Hawk, too.  And Ben Webster was one of my favorites.  See, I would say that my style, if I have a style, is just a potpourri of all the saxophone players.  Because I have so many favorites.

One thing that’s very distinctive and makes your sound almost instantly recognizable is that you change the dynamics of a song constantly, almost like you were singing it like a Blues singer.  From one phrase to the next you’re in a different area, and you always have control.  How do you do that?  Is it a lip thing?  Do you do it with the fingering?

VF:    Well, a person last night pulled me aside and said, “Man, you’re really fooling around with that horn.”  But I just think that’s a Chicago thing.  Because I think all the cats from around Chicago play like that.  To me, we all sound something alike.  I don’t even realize what I’m doing, because what I try to do is very, very hard, and especially as I get younger.  Because I would like to be able to do like I used to see Bird do and Roy do.  Man, they’d come on a gig and didn’t say nothin’, and start playing.  Sometimes Bird wouldn’t even tell you what he was playing.  But he was so hip, he’d play some little part of it, and you’d know what the song was.  And it would sound like an arrangement.  I’d say, “How did he do that?”  Because most people have to have music written out, and rehearse people to death.  And Bird would play with us, and he’d elevate us to another level.  I’d play, man, and I wouldn’t even realize it was me playing.  I’d say, “What’s going on here?”  But it’s just that man was so powerful.  Roy Eldridge was so powerful.  Hot Lips Page, I played with him, man, and he just said, “Hey, son, come here.”  Boom, he’d start playing, and he would just take you in.  And I think that’s all it is, that you rehearse and practice, rehearse and practice, practice and rehearse, and get out there and say, “Hey, I’m going to do it.”

Well, I think at the time when you were encountering Charlie Parker, you were part of the family house band at the Pershing Ballroom and different venues in Chicago.

VF:    Oh, yes.

So you’d be up on the stage with Bird or whoever else would be coming through Chicago.  That lasted about four or five years, didn’t it?

VF:    Yes, it did.

Was it 52 weeks a year?

VF:    Well, yes, because that was the only little gig I had, really, at the time.  I was glad to have it, I’m telling you!  And it was so beautiful, because I met all of the great cats… Every one of them was just great, treated us great, and tried to help us — because we all needed plenty of help.  They’d tell us chord changes, say, “Hey, baby, that’s not really where it is; play C-9th here.”  So it was beautiful.

And I really didn’t realize how great it was until I looked around, and all the cats were like gone.  You know, man, it just breaks your heart, because some of them left so early, you know.

One thing I really remember, man, I was at the Pershing Ballroom upstairs this time (actually, this was called the Pershing Lounge), and Ben Webster used to come by, man, and he’d sit around… You know, I always loved him, and I could never get him to bring his horn, could never get him to play.  And he would say “Oh, baby, everybody’s forgotten Daddy Ben.”  I said, “Man, ain’t nobody gonna never forget you.”  And I played some of his tunes, you know, that he made famous.  And my biggest thing was I’d buy him those half-pints!  But hey, man, things like that, when you turn around and you think back, and all the cats are like gone.  And I just wish I’d have asked him a million questions.  But I never really asked him anything, except how did he get that beautiful tone, and of course, he laughed and told me, “Oh, just buy a number-five reed” — something like that, you know.  So I find myself giving cats the same thing.

Did you?

VF:    Yeah.  You know, you go get a 5-reed, and you couldn’t even get a sound out of it!  But so many things that… The great Art Blakey said something that stuck with me.  He said, “Hey, man, you have to earn it.”  It’s best to let people find it.  If they don’t find it, well, hey.

[OF THE SELECTION TO FOLLOW] You’re backed here by a top Chicago rhythm section, Jodie Christian on piano, Eddie DeHaas on bass, and Wilbur Campbell on drums, with whom you go pretty far back.

VF:    Oh, listen baby, we go back to DuSable, actually.  Well, I’m older than he is.  But it’s generally the same era.  And Jodie, well, I’ve known him since he was very young.  So it was a thing where we had… But I always like to include this, that it was just luck.  Because I didn’t take any music in there or anything.  And they said, “Hey, man, what are you going to play?”  I said, “Hey, how do I know?”  So that’s the way that was.

[MUSIC: "It Could Happen To You" (Never Let Me Go [Steeplechase], “Mercy, Mercy Me” (You’ll Know When You Get There (Black Saint]]

I’ll tell you, man, I was sitting there listening to “Mercy, Mercy Me” — I think I was in another kind of mood!  But it’s all a part of saxology.  Yeah, that tenor saxophone, man, it’s just… That instrument is just so open.

People call it an extension of the human voice, and you’re certainly a tenor player whose voice, right from the first note you know it’s Von Freeman.

Well, thank you.  But actually, what I just try to do is fitting in, try to get something… I wouldn’t even say that I have a style, really.  I just go with the flow.  That’s what I try to do.  I’ve played in so many different types of groups and bands.  See, because when you have children and you’re trying to raise them, man, you have to do a lot of things, whether you want to do them or not, to  earn a living.  So I’ve played in all types of bands, polkas, played Jewish weddings — just all kinds of things.

I’m sure each one of them was the hippest polka band, or the hippest…

VF:    Well, you know, sometimes cats would look at me and say, “What is this nut doing?”  But I always tried to find a little something where I could lean into it.  So I’m open to all types of music, all types of feeling, and try to play up to my potential, which I think is one of the secrets, is trying to express yourself.  Because that’s the only way that I play, is to try to express myself and still please people.  Not all of them, but let’s say at least 50 percent of them.

Well, I’d say you’ve probably had experience at dealing with 99.9 percent of the possible audiences that a musician can encounter.

VF:    Yes, I certainly have.  And I’ve found out as long as you’re being true to your own spirit and your own feeling, someone will dig it.  So that’s the premise that I go on right today, is just get up and try to really express myself.  And if I express myself honestly and truthfully, I find that I move somebody.

One of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

I’ve seen them in the movies, but I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

See, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody. When I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody.  I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old. I was playing C-melody then. That was my first instrument. That really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there!

That version of “Mercy, Mercy Me” put me kind of in the mood of some of Gene Ammons’ recordings, particularly “My Way,” where it just spiraled up..

VF:    Oh yes.

He was a couple of years younger than you, and you were probably in the same class at DuSable for a few years.

VF:    Oh, yes.  Oh, man, the Jug!  Jug’s one of my heroes of all time.  See, the Jug came from a musical family.  His father, of course, was the great Albert Ammons.  And his mother was a beautiful woman who played Classical music on piano.  I used to go by Jug’s house… She asked me one day, she said, “Son, you’re playing by ear, aren’t you” — because she had been on her son about that years earlier.  She said, “The ear is beautiful, but you should learn more about chords.”  I said, “Really?”  And she said, “Hey, come over here,” and she sat down at the piano and started playing chords.  That actually was my first knowledge (I was about 14) about chords.  Because I always played by ear.  They used to call me Lord Riff, because I could riff on anything.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I was riffing by ear, you know.  And she started me out.  And his brother, Edsel, was a pianist that played Classical music.

Oh, Jug was miles ahead of all us little guys, because he had this musical history out of his family.  Plus, the Jug was a great dude.  He used to take me aside, give me gigs.  It was funny, man.  He used to hire me to play in his place, and I’d go out and they’d say, “Where’s the Jug?”  I’d say, “Well, the Jug, he…”  “Not you again!”  But I survived it, see.  But I give the Jug a whole lot of credit, because he just sort of opened up the saxophone around Chicago.  But again, he’s one of those cats that was playing in between Hawk and Prez, just like the rest of us.

Someone who went to DuSable also who was a little younger than you was Johnny Griffin, whose career started very young.

VF:    Oh, that’s another one of my heroes.  Well, Johnny picked up a horn one day and got famous.  He’d been playing two hours!  That’s the kind of genius he is.  Well, Johnny Griffin is… In fact, I credit Johnny for the upsurge in my career, when he invited me to play along with him at the Lincoln Center.  I had never really been critiqued by the New York critics.  A few mentions about whatever playing I was doing.  But when I played the Lincoln Center with Johnny, he had his great little group, and they put me along with two of the greats from New York, and I brought along John Young, and we played — and the critics really praised John and myself.  That really boosted my career.  Of course, Johnny had nothing to gain by putting me on the program with him, because when you have two tenors, they’re going to start comparing folks.  But I just love him for that, for having had the guts to even do that.

That’s sort of a stylized outgrowth of something that happened very naturally in Chicago, with a lot of musicians getting up on the bandstand and doing what’s called cutting contests…

VF:    Yes.

That, of course, is something that people might think of when they think about Jazz and Chicago.

VF:    Oh, surely.  Surely.  So when Johnny did that, he had nothing at all to gain by putting me on there.  But it was just beautiful.  The last time I saw him, I kissed him and I said, “Thanks, baby.”

Sonny Stitt is another one of my heroes.  He taught me so much about saxophone.  See, I toured with Sonny.  A lot of cats weren’t that hip to Sonny, because Sonny had kind of a cold attitude.  He loved perfection, and he didn’t stand for anything less.  But to me, man, he was one of the all-time greats on the saxophone.

Well, on your 1972 release for Atlantic, which has been out of print for a while, called Doin’ It Right Now, Ahmad Jamal wrote a little note about you which I’ll read.  It says: “Great musical ability is found in the Freeman family.  My introduction to this fact dates back to my first years in Chicago, beginning in 1948.  During the Forties and Fifties were the golden years for the saxophonist in Chitown, and Von Freeman was in the thick of things.  I had the pleasure of working with Von, George and Bruz, and certainly considered this family an integral part of the music history.”  What’s your memory of Ahmad Jamal coming to Chicago?

Well, you know, he was around Chicago and not really doing that much.  I happened to have a little gig at a place called the Club De Lisa, which used to be one of the main spots, but it had been burned out a couple of times and it had really gotten down to nothing.  And that’s where I first met him.  And I said, “Man, you play beautifully.  What’s your name?”  He told me.  And I said, “I’ve got a few little old gigs.  Will you make them with me?”  He said, “Yeah, man, but I’ll tell you.  I’m not much of a band player.  I’m a trio player.”  I said, “Man, the way you play, you’ll fit in with anybody.”  He was playing sort of like Erroll Garner then.  And man, he came with me, and he stayed about two years or so.  And I just thought he was just great.  Of course, I was proven out, because he went on to make history on the piano.  Beautiful little cat.

Another pianist from Chicago who influenced a whole generation of Chicago pianists was Chris Anderson, who was in your Pershing band in the Forties.

VF:    Oh, man, the same difference.  The same difference.  I was playing this great big old skating rink at 63rd and King Drive, and here was a little cat standing over there.  The piano player didn’t show up.  I said, “George, we ain’t got no piano player, man.”  He said, “Well, you play the piano.”  And I was getting ready to play the piano, because I jive around a little bit on piano.  And I heard a voice saying, “I’ll play the piano.”  I said, “Who is this?”  And it was this little cat.  I said, “Come on over here, man.”  Shoot, that little cat, man, he taught me things I never knew existed.  See, he’s a harmonic genius.  And he was crippled and blind, but he had all this strength and this heart, you know.  I said, “Man, what…?  So he stayed with me a long time, until he went to New York.  A great, great player.  Never got his due.  But boy, he was doing things harmonically speaking that people are just now playing.

In the last few years he’s done trios with Ray Drummond and Billy Higgins, and really elaborated his sound.

VF:    Yes.  And speaking of Ahmad, now, he hung around Chris for a long time, see, before he went to New York.  Before that thing he made at the Pershing that made him famous, “But Not For Me” and all that, he had been hanging with Chris.  So Chris was one of the cats.

One of the great drummers in Chicago, who only did one incredibly badly recorded record, was Ike Day, who Max Roach used to speak about with great enthusiasm. I know you worked on the bandstand with him a lot.

He and I used to hang out; we’d go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. Hhe was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

I know he liked Chick Webb, and he  liked  Max Roach. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer. He was very well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time. He had that quiet fire thing, which I notice all great drummers have.  They can play dramatically but still not be blaring.  It’s sort of like playing the trumpet.  Playing the trumpet so it’s pleasing is hard thing to do — and still have drive and fire.  So I think of the drums the same way.  See, a lot of cats make a whole lot of noise.  They’re not trying to make noise, but they’re geared to this high sound thing.  Then other cats can play the same thing on the drums, but it’s much quieter.  And of course, it moves the ladies, because you know, the ladies love that quiet, sweet thing with a lot of force, with a lot of fire.  And of course, my darlings… I always try to please my darlings, baby!

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