Tag Archives: Thelonious Monk

For Drum Master Ben Riley’s 84th Birthday, a WKCR Interview/Musician’s Show From 1994

Master drummer Ben Riley, wh0se credits include the Johnny Griffin-Lockjaw Davis Quintet, Sonny Rollins, Thelonious Monk and Sphere, turns 84 today. For the occasion, here’s a transcript of a lively Musician’s Show that we did on WKCR on April 13, 1994.

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Ben Riley Musician Show, WKCR (4-13-94):

TP: Let’s talk about your beginnings in the music.  You’re originally from Savannah, Georgia, and your family came up to New York when?

BR: I was four when they came.  I had already had an interest in music, but I think my desire when I got older, around the teenage area, I wanted to become an athlete — I was a real basketball fanatic.

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

BR: I went to Benjamin Franklin High School, and I finally made the Junior Varsity one year, but I didn’t stay in school long enough to complete it.  I played, like, the P.A.L. and the C.Y.O. and the Y…

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

BR: A guard.  In those days you played both positions, because we weren’t that tall.  I think Ray Felix… When they came around, that’s when the height started shooting up.  Because 6’6″, 6’7″ were really gigantic guys when I was younger.

TP: Now we’re talking about the latter part of the 1940’s?

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

TP: But drums became serious for you around this time, then?

BR: Well, I think it was acually in junior high school.  I had an uncle who played saxophone, who was studying with Cecil Scott, and he lived right across the street from the high school I went to.  So I would go over there in the afternoons, and sit in with the rehearsal band — and he also would teach me.  So I had a chance to go down to the Savoy and sit in with his band on a Sunday afternoon.  The love was there, but after seeing so many bad things happening in the business with the guys, I didn’t think I wanted to be a part of it at that time.  I thought the athletic part of my life was going to be the strongest.

TP: Healthier!

BR: Yes.  But when I went into the Service I injured my back parachuting…

TP: You were a paratrooper?

BR: I was a paratrooper, yeah.  I was in the last of the Black battalions.

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

TP: Was that a situation where you were able to play music?

BR: Actually what happened there, we were bivouacked into the field area.  We weren’t on the main post with the buildings.  We were over into the Second World War barracks.  Now, we had to march every weekend up to the main area for the parade for General showing off his troops.  So I suggested to the Captain that we should have a drum-and-bugle corps, so either we’d be trucked or march up there calling cadence.  He said that was a very good idea.  We went and canvassed the area, and found guys who played horns and drums, and we formed our own little drum and bugle corps, and so we would march up to the main course for our parade.  When the Army became integrated, they reached down and said, “Okay, you had training in school and whatnot, so we’re putting you in the band.”  So I became a member of the band, which lasted less than six months, because then they shipped me off to Japan to go to Korea!

TP: Were you able to function as a musician at all?

BR: Yeah, when I got to Japan.  That’s where I met a lot of musicians from different parts of Tokyo and whatnot.  We used to jam.  And everywhere I was stationed, I’d finally find some guys who were playing.  This worked out to be pretty good for me, because after I got injured I couldn’t run and jump like I could any more, so I had to do something.  The music was there all along for me, so I really became deeply involved in that.

TP: But you understood what the music was supposed to sound like from a very early age.

BR: Well, yes, because I was very fortunate to grow up uptown, on so-called Sugar Hill, and you had Sonny Rollins, Art Taylor, Jackie McLean — everybody was uptown. So I had a chance to sit and listen, and then sit in with them, so I had a real good knowledge of what was going on with the music.

TP: What was the first time you got to sit in on a major-league type of situation?

BR: We used to have a little bar on 148th Street and Broadway called the L-Bar.  On Sunday afternoons, a drummer named Doc Cosey used to run these jam sessions.  So you’d never know who was going to come in.  Any given Sunday afternoon, well, Roy Haynes might come over, because he lived at 149th Street for a short period of time — so he may come over and play.  Tina Brooks used to be a regular there all the time, and he and I played a great deal together on those Sunday afternoons.

TP: So you come out of the Army, and music becomes your…

BR: Not right away.  When I came out of the Army, I went to work because I got married, and I was expecting a child.  So I got a job.  I was working for WPIX, and I was learning film editing.  It was really boring, but it was a job, and I had a child on the way, and we were paying the rent.  So my wife said to me, “you know, you should really give yourself at least two years at music, and then if you don’t make it, then you know you’ve given it a good shot.”  So she really kind of helped me step off.  I probably would have stepped off anyway, but she kind of put the nice pushing on it for me.

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

TP: …like Art Blakey or Kenny Clarke or Philly Joe Jones?

BR: Yes.  We had a fellow named Phil Wright.  He was a drummer, and also a teacher.  That’s when I met Jimmy Cobb, Khalil Madi(?) and Art Taylor.  We all used to go to his house, and we’d have the music there, and we’d all get on drum-pads and play together.  Any band that any one of these guys was getting ready to join, he’d break down what was happening in the bands for us, so that when we did go to hear these other different groups we had an understanding of what was going on before we got there.

TP: But in terms of the great style masters of the drums, there was a situation where everybody was playing in clubs and you could go see them, talk to them and so forth.

BR: Right. In those days everybody was an individual, or looking to be an individual.  So when I came up, there was already an Art Blakey playing his style, there was already a Max Roach playing his way, Kenny Clarke, Roy and Shadow — they all had definite directions that they were in.  So everywhere you went, even if it was five clubs in one block, you’d never hear the same music when you walked into these different clubs, because everybody had their different  direction that they wanted to go into.  For me it was great, because now I could hear all of these different great drummers, and I could take a piece from each.  I didn’t have to say, “This is…”  Well, I did start out playing like Max when I first started playing; I was a little more Max Roach orientated.  But after I started really getting into it, I said, “I can’t do this.  This is a little bit too difficult.  I have to break it down in the best way I can do it.”  It really happened to me, I think, the first time I heard Kenny Clarke.   “Uh-oh,” I said, “I think that’s it.”  I love the way he accompanied, and I loved the subtleties that he brought to the table.  Between he playing these subtle things and dropping these little things, and Shadow with his tremendous time and his tremendous beat, I tried to absorb both of them.

TP: Let’s hear one of the hundreds of recordings that Kenny Clarke made in the 1950’s, and almost every one of those dates is swinging like…

BR: Nobody’s business!

TP: You said you went off to work on this date, “Walkin'” by Miles Davis for Prestige in 1954.

BR: Right.  This is the record I played every evening on that way out to work to give me that feeling when I went to work every night.  Usually that was going down to Minton’s!

[MUSIC:  Miles Davis, “Walkin'” (1954); Monk/Coltrane/S. Wilson, “Trinkle-Tinkle” (1957); Max/Clifford/Sonny, “Kiss and Run” (1956)]

TP: Ben Riley and I were discussing a lot of things during that set, and one of the last things he said to me was that each of those drummers, Max Roach, Shadow Wilson, Kenny Clarke, expressed their individuality through their cymbal beat.

BR: That’s right.  It’s so important that one gets a cymbal sound, a good sound that can be used to uplift the soloists.  You have three different styles here.  You have Klook, who played softer and tighter than the other two.  He played his things, and he’d play maybe four 8-bar phrases, and he’d change one cymbal beat.  So the cymbal beat never became boring to anyone listening to anyone he was playing behind.

TP: But it’s very subtle.

BR: But it’s subtle, very subtle, and it changes just like it was a subtle goose.  That’s putting it crudely, but that’s what it would be.  It just pumped you up. Now, Shadow had a big beat, a wider beat.  What amazed me about Shadow was, see, this man hardly played too much with the left hand, but I never missed it.  The time was always so full that you very rarely even missed that he wasn’t playing a lot with his left hand.  This always fascinated me, and I think between the two of them I tried to incorporate those things.  I still haven’t been able to get to playing less with the left hand, but I have been able to try to find a way to be tight when I want to be tight and wider when I want to be wider with my cymbal beat. With Max, technically, he has everything set up for certain things that he wanted to do.  So his beat was really very technically efficient.  He just drove very forcefully, because I think he played much harder than the other two.

TP: All these drummers are also involved in creating an ensemble sound.

BR: A sound.  That’s so important.  I think that’s what I enjoyed most of all with Thelonious, and then when we got Sphere together, is that we had an ensemble sound.  An ensemble sound takes care of mostly all the rest of… It makes gravy for the soloists,  Because when you have an ensemble sound, the soloist is just riding on top of the cake, because everything else is easy for him.

TP: You said that you actually enjoy accompanying more than soloing.

BR: Yeah.  When I first started playing, I guess like everyone else, I tried to play all the things that I’d heard all the great artists do and all the great drummers do.  But I found myself saying, “I can’t do all these things, and I’m not going to put that kind of time in to do all these kinds of things to solo.  Now I want to try to see what I can do to set up things.”  And I find now, I can play very interesting solos, because now I’m musically more evolved and ensemble-wise more evolved, so when I’m thinking of playing something, then I’m thinking of a song that we’re playing at this particular time.  So when I do play a solo, I come right in on whatever I’m playing, with what the music makes me want to go, where it takes me. But I find now that I’ve developed a sound such that I can usually play on almost any cymbal and get my sound.  Because now I know what I want to hear.  It’s a matter of me trying to reach it now, because I have the sound in my head.

TP: You were saying that forty years ago you’d hear Kenny Clarke or whoever, who had the sound so focused that…

BR: Yeah.  Because any set that they sat on, you could be standing outside, and you’d go, “Oh, Klook is playing,” and you’d go inside — because he had his sound.  Or Shadow, Max, or Art — they all had their sound.  So if you walked down 52nd Street or anywhere else there was five-six joints, every one of those drummers, you could tell before going inside who they were, because they each had their own sound.

TP: Well, you’re talking about walking around a certain area, and there are four or five or six places where everybody’s playing.  Of course, that’s a whole different climate than what you have now.

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

TP: Of course, you’d be checking out each one of them.

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

BR: Well, in those days you had a chance to really understand what the music was developing into.  Because each group had a definite idea of what they had to do and how they wanted to express what they were doing.  So when you got to listen to all of these… Then you were working from 9 to 4, and then the after-hour joints from four-until.  So what happens is, you have a chance to go make maybe two or three, maybe four clubs — four sets you may catch.  Then you go to the after-hour club, and now all these things in your mind are still fresh, so you’d go in and you’d try to work them out sitting in with whoever you were working or playing with there.

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

BR: Right.  So now what you’re doing is going to classes and then going back and practicing from what you listened to from the class.

TP: Speaking of workshopping and finding solutions, we were listening to “Trinkle-Tinkle” with John Coltrane, and you said that Coltrane told you that performing with Monk just opened him up, because…

BR: Opened him up.  The expression that he used is, “it was like opening the door, stepping into the room, and there was no floor.”  [LAUGHS] He left all of this for you to fill up.  He framed the door for you.  When you open it now, you’re there; do what you’re supposed to do.  You find the things that you want to fit into this room.

TP: You were also talking about Shadow Wilson’s contribution on this date and how difficult it is to play so simply.

BR: Well, the way Shadow thought, because he played a lot of big bands and played a lot of shows… In those days, when I first started playing, when you worked in a club you played for a shake dancer, a singer, maybe tap dancing, then you played a couple of tunes for dancing, and then maybe a couple of tunes for just listeners.  So you had the full scope.  You had to do like a vaudeville show plus.  I played Latin music with Latin groups, because Willie Bobo and I used to hang out…

TP: Talk about those experiences.

BR: Well, Bobo at the time was a young man from the Bronx, and he liked to play the regular drums, and I was interested in timbales, so we kind of showed each other different little things, and then we’d hang out together and go listen to different people.  This was all educational.  Like Sonny Rollins said to me one day, “When you’re humming walking down the street, you’re practicing.”  So you never really stop practicing if you’re still thinking music all the time, so that means you’re always practicing.

TP: You were also talking about the value of playing quietly, and yet swinging with intensity.

BR: In those days, the best jobs that were consistent were supper clubs, so you’d be in there five weeks or six weeks.  In order to get those jobs, you had to develop a touch, or they wouldn’t let you in the room because of the diners there.  Today you can play in different rooms with diners, and they will get annoyed, but it wouldn’t be the same situation.  When I came around, you couldn’t work in the room if you were loud.  They wouldn’t even allow you to work in the room.  So I had to develop a touch with… Actually, I started with Mary Lou Williams playing brushes and sock cymbal.  That’s all she would let me bring to the gig.  So I had to develop what I could out of those brushes and that sock cymbal.  Then eventually she let me bring the drums in, so now it was determined that I was going to play with sticks.  There were only two drummers that were allowed to play with sticks in that room, and Ed Thigpen was one and Ed Shaughnessy…not Ed Shaughnessy… Oh, boy, I’m looking at his face and I can’t call his name.  He played with Woody Herman, too.  Well, it will come back to me.

TP: Which room was this?

BR: This was a room called the Composer.  And you had to really get a touch to play with sticks in this room.  I was determined that I had to play with sticks, so that’s why I developed the technique I did with cymbals; because I was determined that I was going to play with sticks in that room.

TP: You mentioned, Ben Riley, that 1956 was the year you started working professionally.

BR: Yes, more or less.  Because I took jobs, where I took people’s places.  Guys would call me, or say, “could you work an hour for me on one set?” or do this, and I’d do that.  But professionally I started in ’56.  The job was at the Composer with Randy Weston.  And then I worked at Cy Coleman’s club down the street.  So I was making that circuit…

TP: So you were working the supper club circuit first.

BR: The supper club thing, yeah.  And the Hotel Astor had a lounge where I worked with a trio, and we’d play all the Broadway show music.  That’s where I got the knowledge of a lot of different songs, because we had to play them for all these matinees.

TP: And all the time you’re playing on the weekends in a Latin band, and after-hours the hard swing, doing the whole thing.

BR: Yeah.  Just hanging and learning and going to different places, watching different people — just learning.

TP: The next set begins with Art Blakey, and I know you have a few things to say about Buhaina.

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

TP: Well, I know you can’t repeat most of them, but we can figure out something to say.

BR: [LAUGHS]  Oh, yes.  Well, Bu was marvelous.  He was always encouraging.  He was the type guy that he would always come around, and you would know whether you were on it or not because he would say something to let you know.  Papa Jo Jones was the same way.  Papa Jo Jones would never say nothin’ when you came off the bandstand.  He’d just stand there, and you’d stand there and thank him for coming.  He’d say, “Oh, okay, I have to run now,” and he’d put a  dime next to you and run out.”  That means, “Call me.”  [LAUGHS] Yeah, and then I’ll tell you what I have to tell you on the phone.

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

[MUSIC: Jazz Messengers, “Witch Doctor” (1960); Philly Joe, “Stablemates” (1959)]

TP: What are you going to say about Philly Joe Jones, Ben Riley?

BR: Well, what I used to say is Kenny Clarke with more technique.

TP: Explain.

BR: He lived with Kenny for a long time, so some of his earlier things, if you listen to them, are set up like Klook, and then he just extended.  Like, he took his Wilcoxsen book, and with his great knack for doing… I guess over time he took some stuff from Buddy Rich, too, that he incorporated.  Because Philly just was a multi-talented person.  He understood so many different things and so many different styles of life, and it all comes out in his playing.  What I really loved about him were the surprises.  Just when you thought you had him pinned down, another surprise.  Like Art.  Art was… Boy, I don’t know how to describe Art.  Whatever music that you brought to him, it sounded like he helped you write it.

TP: People say he had the type of memory where he’d hear something once through…

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

BR: Interpret it, right.  Then he’d make it bigger than maybe what the writer thought about doing with it.

TP: Well, a lot of tunes certainly sound different when done with the Messengers than…

BR: In other bands, right.  Because of his character and what he felt about what was going on.  Art just had the knack of really knowing where to be at the right time.

TP: It seems to me that another thing about Art Blakey is that he would always play something different behind every soloist, and it would always be appropriate.

BR: That’s right.

TP: You were mentioning this in terms of Kenny Clarke as well.BR: Well, if you really listen to most of the…all of the great drummers, each of the soloists coming up, there’s always a change.  It’s subtle, and if you’re not really listening, you don’t hear it.  But all of the great drummers did that.  And all of the great bands had that kind of situation.  As I was saying when Art was playing, he could have been the greatest Rock drummer in the world if that’s what he wanted to be.  Because that’s the type of person he was.  Whatever he jumped on, it was going to be great, and you knew it was going to be great.  But his band, or all of those bands, the ensemble was so important!  They made sure that those things worked.  Never mind the individualism.  They made sure that the band sounded good.  That’s why these records today sound like they were recorded this week.

TP: You mentioned big bands, but we’ve been playing all small groups.

BR: Small groups.

TP: That’s primarily the material we’ll be playing.  Were you influenced by big band drums?  Were you interested in that?

BR: Oh, yes.  Well, the first guy was Sonny Greer.  I was really impressed with him because I had never seen anybody with chimes and tympanies and white tuxedo, down at the theater… That just knocked me out, because my mind couldn’t even grasp all of this.  I started listening to Duke, and what he was doing, and then to Basie’s band because of Papa Jo…

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

BR: Then Shadow, right.  Well, Shadow between Basie and Woody’s band.  I played with Woody’s band for a short span of time, and Woody said to me that one of the best drummers that ever played with his band was Shadow.  But Shadow, Osie Johnson, all of those guys understood the nuances of accompanying.  And until you really understand that, I don’t think you step off as fast as you want to, because there’s something missing.  Because you have to learn how to help before you can go out and do it all on your own, you know.  I think a couple of bands today are beginning to get that sound.   As I think we discussed this before, all those bands we’ve listened to made people want to dance, whereas today not many bands make you want to get up and dance.  That’s what’s missing in our so-called Jazz music.  They don’t make you want to dance, whereas Disco and Rock music have people dancing.  That’s what we were doing when I started up, man.  People would get up and actually dance.  So we’re kind of missing that a little bit, making the people want to dance.

TP: Well, when you were playing with Thelonious Monk I’m sure you saw him do a dance or two…

BR: Yeah, everybody wanted to dance!  I’ve seen people get up and dance.  Because we struck some grooves some nights that I wanted to get up and dance!

TP: In the next set we’ll hear the beginning of Ben Riley’s recorded career, and your rather long association with one of the great tenor pairings ever, Lockjaw Davis and Johnny Griffin.  How did that come about for you?

BR: I met Griff at Newport. I was playing with Kenny Burrell, Major Holley and Ray Bryant.  John was doing a solo, and they said, “Look, you guys play with Griffin on this next set.”  So we all frowned because we didn’t want to play “Cherokee,” nobody wanted to play “Cherokee,” and it was like 99 in the shade out there in Newport.  Griffin said, “Oh, no, we’re not going to play anything fast; we’re just going in to play…”  He started off very well, we played three songs, and it was beautiful — and then we got it!  “Cherokee” for the fourth and final song. So all of this led up to he and I talking.  And I never knew that he really was listening to me that closely, so I just assumed that we’d see each other somewhere along down the way.  When Lockaw and Griff formed this band, they had Victor Sproles, Norman Simmons and a young drummer from Boston, Clifford Jarvis, a beautiful drummer.  Whatever happened, I don’t know, I can’t remember offhand, but Griffin called me and said, “Look, we have a band.  Come on down.  We’re rehearsing down at Riverside Rehearsal Halls.”  So I said, “Okay.”   So I came down, and it was very strange, because Lockjaw and I didn’t hit it off at first at all.  We didn’t hit it off at all.  For some reason he was just cold.  I said, “Damn, I don’t know if I’m going to make this band.”  Griff was enthusiastic, but Lockjaw wasn’t.  So we made the rehearsal, and then we went into Birdland.  It was strange, because the first night we played… Maybe I might have been a little timid; I’m sure I must have been, because it was new for me.  And I had just left Nina Simone, so I was working with a singer.  So Griffin put this Art Blakey record on.  At 5 o’clock in the morning he calls up and said, “This is how it goes.”  He put the phone to this record, and it’s Art playing CHUNG-CHUNG-CHUNG, and the hi-hat is CHUNKA-CHUNKA-CHUNKA.  I said, “You want CHUNG, huh?”,  and so I hung up on him, and the next night I came in — boy, I was blistering.  So boy, we played “Funky Fluke,” and I was CHUNG-CHUNKA-CHUNG-CHUNKA.  So he said, “Okay, okay, all right.”  I said, “I’ll give you CHUNG if you want CHUNG.”  So that’s when I really started…

TP: You got the mood.

BR: I got the mood, right.  Then after that, the next thing I know, Lock acted like he was my father, like he’s discovering me.  And we had a beautiful relationship, he and I and Griffin.  It was a great band.  I really enjoyed that band.

TP: A few words about Eddie Lockjaw Davis.  He seems to be one of the most misunderstood musicians…

BR: Yeah, because he played differently.  As most guys used to say, he played backwards.

TP: What do they mean by that?

BR: Well, you would phrase it one way, he would just do it the opposite.  And he had that Ben Webster sound.  Well, he and Ben were great friends anyway, so I think Ben was one of his influences.  He just had a different way of expressing himself on the bandstand and off the bandstand.  If you didn’t know him, he would give you this rough exterior.  He was really a nice guy underneath, but he gave you this rough exterior all the time.  When I got to know him, I understood exactly where he was coming from.  You know, I found that with a lot of the older musicians that I got in close contact with were very shy people.  I never understood it, because for all this force and beauty they put out on the bandstand, when they came off, they just withdrew — or some of them.  It was strange to see these two different characters, you know.

TP: It was an interesting band in terms of the material as well.

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

TP: So you played a lot of Monk tunes.  He and Junior Mance were from Chicago, so there were a lot of shuffles and blues in the band…

BR: Well, Lock liked that, too, because he had the organ trio, and they played a lot of those things, too, with Shirley Scott and the drummer Arthur Edgehill.  It was a helluva trio that he had.  We played a lot of Lockjaw “Cookbook” things that were set up for the organ trio.  So we just switched it around and did it with the quintet.  Well, there was so much material to work with, that kept the band even more interesting.

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

TP: And there were four LPs released from Minton’s.  Which brings up another point in the development of the music.  In the Fifties and Sixties, when you’d bring your band into Harlem, Detroit or Chicago, the audience would be…

BR: Chase you out!

TP: I’m sure that never happened with Lockjaw and Griffin.

BR: No.  We became real favorites at Minton’s.  I remember that big snowstorm in ’64 or something like that, my wife said, “No sense going to work tonight, because there’s this big blizzard.”  I said, “Look, I’m going to take the subway there and just stick my head in the door; if nothing’s happening, I can always come back on the subway.”  So I rode down on the subway, and I walked over, and when I opened the door I couldn’t see!  The place was filled.  So I had to call my wife up.  I said, “Don’t look for me back.  I can’t hardly get in the club!”  It was loaded.  We just had fun with the audience, the audience had fun — it was a fun band.  And the music we played, you wanted to dance.  We had some intricate things, but mostly it made you want to get up and dance.  And that happy feeling is what really made those bands of that day.  Horace had those kind of things that made you want to get up and dance.  The Messengers, dance music.  It was still slick, but it was dancing slick.

TP: The first track by Lockjaw and Griffin is from the Minton’s series, The Midnight Show.  How late did you go?  Four or five sets?

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

BR: Yeah.  Teddy Hill used to say, “Start on time and end on time, and whatever you do in the middle is your business.” [LAUGHS]

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

TP: Were there still after-hour sessions at that point?

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

BR: Well, one was right downstairs.  Then there was another down a couple of blocks.  So there was always somewhere to play.  Uptown they had turned one floor of a parking garage into an after-hours spot.  So you had somewhere to go all the time.

[MUSIC: Griff-Lockjaw, “In Walked Bud” (1961), “Funky Fluke” (1961); Griff, “The Last Of The Fat Pants” (1961); Sonny Rollins, “John S” (1962)]

TP: Ben Riley tells us that the group saw “John S” in the studio on the day of the session, and ran it down.  And that was a complicated piece!  You said it drove people crazy trying to count it.

BR: Yeah, because of the odd measures in the end.  It kind of threw everybody, as well as it threw us off for a moment — but it worked.

TP: It certainly sounded comfortable for you, but I’m sure you made it sound that way.

BR: Well, you know, what happens is, when you’re working with guys that are really up on what they’re doing, your job becomes a little easier, because now you only have to worry about yourself, and not worry about anyone else.

TP: “John S” was from The Bridge.  Preceding that we heard a Johnny Griffin composition “Last of The Fat Pants” from a 1961 Riverside date with Bill Lee and Larry Gales on basses, and Ben Riley on drums.  You were featured on the mallets, a particular pattern.  What do you remember about that record?  I know you hadn’t heard it for a while.

BR: Nothing. [LAUGHS] Well, John and Lock did some different things.  I didn’t bring that other album…

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

BR: Yeah, The Kerry Dancers, and then Lockjaw did Afro-Jaws, and we did one other thing.  So it was like another band within the band.  Griff wanted to try these other little things, so this was the result of some of the things that we did with him.  I forget where he got the idea to use the two basses, but it was a very interesting date.

TP: A very prolific period for Griffin, who did about eight records for Riverside, plus all the two-tenor sessions.

BR: That’s right.

TP: Speaking of the two-tenor duo, we heard “Funky Fluke,” a Benny Green composition that was just roaring!

BR: Roaring!

TP: You said that was slower than what you played in the club, but that’s hard to believe.

BR: I don’t remember playing faster with anyone else than this band.  This band played so fast sometimes it was unbelievable.

TP: How do you swing at a tempo like that?  That’s hard to do.

BR: What I did, I never watched my hands.  I always tried to keep in touch with the guys playing.  I would never look at what I was doing, because it was just, to me, insane trying to play this fast.  But it worked.

TP: I guess having a very percussive pianist like Junior Mance…

BR: Made it easier, yeah.  There again we get to the same thing.  When you’re matched up with peers that are your peers and better, it’s much easier on you, because now you have to take care of yourself, and everyone else is taking care of themself plus adding to what each other is doing.  I think that’s one of the beauties of music for me, is to be able to help enhance someone else’s idea and someone else’s creativity.

TP: Well, no one does that better than Ben Riley.  The bassist in that group is someone you associated with for years.

BR: For years.

TP: Because he was with Thelonious Monk, was he not, at the time when you joined the band.

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

TP: Well, let’s be chronological.  You went from the Lockjaw-Griffin band to Sonny Rollins.

BR: Yes.  I had known Sonny, not socially, but we knew each other from being in the neighborhood.  But he never associated me with playing, because he had never heard me or never seen me play.  All he remembered was me playing basketball or seeing me out on the street.  Jim Hall and he were working down at a club in Brooklyn, the Baby Grand, and I was in the theater with, strangely enough, Aretha Franklin and Cleanhead Vinson.  Miles was on that gig, but I was working with Aretha and Cleanhead.  Jim came down to the theater to catch one of the shows, and he said, “Look, I’m working down the street.  When you get off, come down and sit in with us.”  So I said, “Okay, I’ll be down.  I don’t know about sitting in, but I’ll be down.”  I came down, and Jim said, “Sonny, this is Ben Riley.”  Sonny looked at me and said, “I know who he is, but I never associated you as being Ben Riley the drummer.”  So he said, “Come over and play.”  I said, “Okay.”  So we went up and we played.  So he says, “I’m doing a recording, and I’d like you to come and finish the date with me tomorrow.”  He said, “Do you think Lock would mind?”  I said, “I really don’t know.”  He said, “Well, I’ll call him.”  So he called Lock and told him that we were doing this session. So I got down to RCA, and we started running over some of the music and recording.  When we halfway finished, he said, “Look, I’m going to California, and I would like for you to go.”  I said, “Well, we’re due in Washington or Baltimore to do a show.”  He said, “Well, do you think Lock would let you go after you finish the gig in Philly?” — or wherever it was.  I said, “I don’t know.  I’ll ask him.”  He said, “Let me call.”  So he called, and Lock said, “Okay,” and Griffin loved it, he said it was wonderful.  But Lock didn’t like that too well!  But I still made the gig, and I worked almost a year with Sonny.

TP: What was it like being on the road with Sonny Rollins back there.  It was shortly after he had come back from his hiatus.

BR: Right.  And we were doing The Bridge; the title song became “The Bridge.”  Actually, what it turned out was like a fanfare into a solo, and it was working so well that he kept it in, and it became the bridge.  What was interesting, we went to California by train.  It was the first time they had the sleeping quarters.  So we rehearsed going out to California in one of the sleeping quarters every day.  That kept it from being boring, plus it got the band much tighter together.  By the time we got to California, we really had a good idea of what we wanted to do.

TP: It must have been a great reception for the band, with Sonny Rollins emerging from retirement.

BR: Oh yeah, it was wonderful.  It was really great, because we had three sets and we had three changes.  So we had a suit, sports outfit and tuxedos.  We’d open in tuxedos, and by the end of the night we’d have a sports ensemble on.  So every night we had three changes.

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

BR: I guess it made the music wonderful, too, because every time you came in, even if we played the same song, we looked different!

TP: Well, Sonny Rollins was exploring all sorts of musical ideas and configurations at that time…

BR: Yes, he was.  Because at the time we got to San Francisco, Don Cherry had joined us toward the end of the engagement, and he didn’t come directly back east with us, but he had played with us out there.  I think this is when Sonny was getting ready to touch that part of the music.  I left when we got back, which was almost a year, and then Billy Higgins and Don Cherry joined the band after that.

TP: That became the band where Sonny really stretched the form to its limits, just about.

BR: That’s right, yeah.

TP: What happens then between you leaving Sonny Rollins in early 1963 maybe, and then joining Thelonious Monk?

BR: Well, what happened is, I went to California with somebody like Paul Winter.  I met Cannonball in San Francisco.  He said, “What are you doing here?”  I said, “I’m playing with…” whoever it was at the time.  He said, “Miles has been trying to locate you; he wanted you in the band.”  I said, “No kidding!”  So I called my wife, and she said, “Some guy with a scruffy voice called here, and I was getting ready to tell him where you were, and he hung up on me.”  So I imagine that had to be Miles.  I wasn’t home at the time when he called, so he hung up.   I got back to New York, and I went to work with Bobby Timmons, Junior Mance and Walter Bishop, Junior at the Five Spot, opposite Thelonious.  So I was in there like six weeks opposite Monk.  Every night Monk would come in, and he’d look, and he’d see me, and he’d keep walking.  So the sixth week, when I was in there with the third group, he came by that night and looked up and said, “Who are you, the house drummer?” — and kept going.  That was the first two words he had spoken to me through the whole engagement. We closed on a Sunday, and Monday morning the phone rings, and it’s Bobby Colomby…not Bobby, but Jules…not Jules…Harry Colomby.  He says, “I’m representing Thelonious, and we’re at Columbia doing a record date; we’re going to finish the date, and I’d like for you to come in.” I hung up, because I thought it was somebody with a joke.  So they called back and said, “No, this is serious; we’re here waiting.”  So I got in a cab and went down.  He still didn’t speak to me.  So I set up the drums, and as soon as he did that, he just started playing.  So when the date was over, I’m packing up, he says, “Do you need any money?”  I said, “No, I can wait for the check.”  He said, “I don’t want anybody in my band being broke.”  He says, “Do you have your passport?”  I said, “No.”  He said, “Well, we’re leaving Friday; I suggest you go get it.:

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

TP: Those were your first words with him, or did you know him before?

BR: Well, I never spoke to him before.  We nodded, because I was in all these places that he was working, but we never spoke.

TP: Do you remember when you first heard Monk play?

BR: A record.  I had “Carolina Moon” with Max Roach.  It fascinated me so much, I used to play it all the time.  And it was the first record that my mother came in and said, “Now, I like that.”

TP: Did you hear Monk in person?  Did you go to the Five-Spot?

BR: Yeah, I went to the Five-Spot.

TP: So you dug the music and…

BR: Oh yeah.  When I first heard “Carolina Moon”… Actually, when I was working opposite him, it just dawned on me, I said, “This is my next band.”  I just felt that that was going to be it for me.  Then when Frankie left, I was there.

TP: I guess throughout the 1960’s you were in the bands of two of the great New York born imitators, Sonny Rollins and Monk!

BR: Well, Monk was from North Carolina, now.

TP: Okay.  And you’re from Savannah, but all right, thank you.  We’ll talk more about Thelonious Monk with Ben Riley after we play a set of music carefully hand-picked by Ben Riley.  We’ll begin with “Shuffle Boil” from It’s Monk’s Time on Columbia.  You said this is a piece that drives bass players crazy, because it’s such a strange line that he has to play.

BR: Oh, it drove us crazy.  This is my first recording with him also.

TP: This is the one that he called you to?

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

BR: Butch Warren, right, and Monk and Charlie.  See, I knew Charles when he had Julius Watkins had a band.  I knew Charles from uptown, Charles knew who I was, you know.  We had been friends for a while. After this particular job, we went to Europe.  There was like 4500 people in this little theater we worked in, and the first tune he played was “Don’t Blame Me,” unaccompanied by himself, and then he got up from the piano and said “Drum solo.”  So I’m trapped here.  I have to play a drum solo.  But I had been playing in the supper clubs with brushes for all those years.  So when he said, “Drum solo,” I just immediately played the song with the brushes.  So as we were going to the dressing room, he walked alongside of me and said, “How many people do you know who would have been able to do that?”  That was the first test that I had to go through.  I didn’t know I was going through all these tests, and that was my first.  I passed that one by being able to play “Don’t Blame Me” with brushes.

TP: Playing quietly in the sup per clubs paid off.

BR: Yeah, I started out in supper clubs doing that, so it was much easier than I thought it would have been.  It took the edge off for me, because now I was more comfortable and more relaxed when that happened.

TP: Would Monk spring new tunes on you or would he give you a chance to rehearse?

BR: That was the beauty of it.  He would only play what he thought you could handle.  Then once he was assured that you could handle that, he would move on.  But he never would try to embarrass you.

[MUSIC: Monk, “Shuffle Boil” (1964), “Oska T” (1963), “We See” (1967)]

TP: You can hear Ben was much more relaxed with Monk in 1967, playing more fills and so forth.

BR: Well, what happens is that you get used to the time.  He deals greatly with time, so you have to learn spacing and where to put things.  I always wanted to make things move as smoothly as possible, so I would be sparing until I felt I could interject something that wouldn’t disrupt what was happening.

TP: Had you been checking out Frankie Dunlop with Monk in the years previous?

BR: Well, if you’ll notice, the first record I kind of played a little like Frankie, because I wasn’t really sure of what to do, so I kind of tried to use Frankie as a framework for what I was doing.  Then after that I moved away from Frankie’s style of playing.

TP: What you mentioned on “Oska T” was that Frankie Dunlop was out-Monking Monk.

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

BR: Frankie got so inside Thelonious that he could anticipate what Thelonious was going to play before Thelonious played it.  So he would play it first sometimes.  It was really something to see the both of them in action.  It was a great thrill for me all the time to watch and listen to them.

TP: What was distinct about Monk as a pianist you had to accompany on drums?

BR: He left things out that normally people would play.  He wouldn’t play them, and he’d leave it there for you to deal with.  Either you use the space or you put something in there.  I developed like a little sense of humor playing the time.  I tried to do little cute things to make up for maybe three beats that I wouldn’t acknowledge in certain instances.  Learning from him how to incorporate those things has made it so that I think I have some sense of humor in my playing now.

TP: Monk was building really on the basics of African-American music, a lot of shuffles…

BR: Shuffles, right.

TP: …and church type of things.  Talk a bit about his sources.

BR: Well, you know, he used to play for an evangelist, so he played the tents and all those kind of things.  He played the houses that they gave the rent parties in.  He played all those things.  So he had great knowledge of how to be a soloist, and then he incorporated all that in with the other three people.  So this is what you get from him.  You get a whole history of different things.  He would never say “Stride,” but it even sounded like Stride piano in some instances.

TP: I take it he would not play it the same way two nights in a row ever.

BR: Not the same tempo.  That’s what made his music so interesting all the time.  Because every time you’d think you had it, he would change the tempo, so now you had to figure out another way to do the thing that you did the night before, because that won’t fit tonight — not at that tempo.  He was a great one for playing in between meters.  He once said to me, “Most people can only play three tempos, slow, fast, medium and fast.”  He played in between all of those!

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

BR: I want to apologize, because I had all of these drummers that I wanted to… Roy, Elvin, Billy Higgins, all these people that have come through some of the things that I came through who I wanted to present today.  When I come back, I’ll start from that, so we can get all these fine people in.

TP: Next is a Freddie Redd recording for Uptown called Lonely City, featuring the late Clifford Jordan and C. Sharp.

BR: That’s one of the reasons why I brought that, because I hadn’t had a chance to really listen to it, but it was such a wonderful day to be with those two gentlemen, and I felt that I should play that.  And George Duvivier, one of my most favorite bass players.  This is tricky music.

[MUSIC: Freddie Redd, “After The Show” (1985); Red Garland, Strike Up The Band “Receipt, Please” (1979)]

TP: Say a few words about recent activities.  You and Kenny Barron have had an ongoing association since the formation of Sphere, and last night you did a recording session with Roberta Flack.

BR: With Roberta Flack last night, yes.  We did three tunes on her album yet to be named or finished.  Also we’re doing a series of concerts.  We’re doing one Sunday with Ravi Coltrane, and then next week we go to Buffalo for three days, and then we go to Europe for ten days.

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]
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For Danilo Pérez’s 50th Birthday, an Uncut Blindfold Test From 2001 and a WKCR Interview from 1993

Best of birthdays to Danilo Pérez, pianist-composer-educator-humanitarian, who turns 50 today. I’ve posted the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in 2001, and the transcript of a WKCR Musicians Show that Danilo did with me in 1993, around the release of his eponymous debut album. I’ve also linked to DownBeat features I’ve written about Danilo that were published, respectively, in 2010 and 2014.

 

Danilo Perez (Blindfold Test – Raw Copy) – (3-29-01):

1. John Lewis, “One! Of Parker’s Moods,” EVOLUTION II (Atlantic, 2000). (George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) – (5 stars)

Man, it’s like the blues told by somebody who really was there. Ain’t nobody… He’s got a classical sound, too, but it’s jazz. I only know one guy who can play like that, with quoting some Bird things — John Lewis. Man, that’s BAD! Is that John? What record is that? [The latest.] Oh my goodness, you would have got me. But the sound is a vocal sound, man, in his playing, and minimalistic to the end, with so much clarity. I wish I could one day play half that good man. Check that out. He’s just so clear. The sound. [And you know the tune.] This is Bird, “Parker’s Mood.” 5 stars definitely. This is just so clear. I hit it! That was a great example of clarity and right to the point. The phrases are all…it was all clear. The phrasing, man. It was the piano being played, but I could hear the humming, the vocal quality to the music.

2. Michel Camilo, “Night In Tunisia,” THRU MY EYES (Tropijazz, 1997) (Patitucci, bass; Horacio Hernandez, drums) – (3-1/2 stars)

[AFTER IT’S OVER] Wow, that’s definitely “Night In Tunisia.” There’s a lot of energy on it. Sometimes it didn’t flow as good for me. It reminded me in parts of somebody who I met in Panama many years ago; just a couple of parts, not everything, but he had a couple of things that remind me of one of my heroes, but he wasn’t as flowing as I was used to hearing him playing — Jorge Dalto. It definitely wasn’t Emiliano. There were some parts where I couldn’t tell really who it was. It was a nice version of “Night In Tunisia.” It was a nice combination of lines with… It was a great attempt to say certain things, but it didn’t… 3-1/2 stars. [AFTER] It didn’t flow as well for me. He was actually trying for something different in this. I couldn’t recognize Michel. He was trying some different stuff, and that’s probably the most positive thing about it that he was trying some different stuff. He wasn’t doing the octave runs and all the things that are Michel’s trademark. He was doing something totally different, which I feel is the true essence of jazz.

3. Jorge Dalto, “Avenida Buenos Aires,” LATIN JAZZ: LIVE FROM SOUNDSCAPE (DIW, 1981/1997) – (4 stars)

That sounds like Jorge. It’s one of those rare occasions where he was caught up in a very open sound, very improvised. He’s got traces of a lot of history there. I really enjoy it. I have to give it 4 for the tuning of the piano! But wow, it’s so beautiful. You can hear the whole Pan-American approach to the piano. He brought a lot of dimension to this. When I was listening to this, I could hear New York and I could hear also Los Andes. He managed to play in a way that gives you an organic ride from New York City, with that element of energy in his playing, and kills, too, all the way to the Indians and playing the little flute sonata, which was a part that he did. Right here you’re stopped in the traffic from the airport to Manhattan! He was storyteller, man. Wow, amazing.

4. Joe Zawinul, “Two Lines,” WORLD TOUR (Zebra, 1998) – (4 stars)

This has definitely been influenced by Weather Report. There’s no doubt about it. Let me keep listening. I can hear that whole Joe Zawinul-Wayne Shorter school, definitely. [AFTER] Definitely. That’s one of the newest groups. To me that’s the essence of being a creative force, to be able to stamp. You can hear the stamp right there. We were just so spoiled to the Weather Report thing, but he’s trying definitely for new things on this one. You can’t help but to think on the great group that he had with Wayne Shorter and Jaco and the group that they put together. Just because that has been such an inspiration on how to make a sound; really, the sound he gets from the keyboards is masterful. It’s different than he used to, but still you can hear that voice in there. I would definitely give 4 stars to the Master Zawinul.

5. David Kikoski, “Water,” ALMOST TWILIGHT (Criss Cross, 1999) – (John Patitucci, bass; Jeff Watts, drums) – (4 stars)

This reminds me of Joey Calderazzo a bit. But it’s got some rhythm things, really interesting stuff. I can recognize the drums — Tain definitely. And Patitucci? The piano reminds me of Joey a little bit. Oh, do you know who that could be? That could be my brother, Kikoski. That’s it. That’s what it is. I know Dave a long time, and he’s a truly underrated musician. We’ve come a long way together. Yeah, that’s the sound I was hearing. It’s got that McCoy thing, that Herbie thing, but it’s definitely Dave; I can definitely hear that rhythmically. I haven’t listened to him as much as I used to. He changed, too, a lot. There’s some nice stuff he’s mixed between Herbie, floating the line with the pentatonic stuff, and he’s making some real interesting rhythmic stuff, mixing up the Latin thing and different rhythms — really open playing. Four stars. Oh my goodness. I said, “I KNOW that sound.”

6. Barry Harris, “I’ll Keep Loving You,” I’M OLD FASHIONED (Alfa, 1998) (George Mraz, bass; Leroy Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s somebody who knows about Bud! It’s not Bud, but somebody who knows about that shit. Nice recording. In the progressions, a lot of the runs he plays… This sounds like an original to me, but with the standard vibe. It’s really well-done. How he got to that minor-VII flat-V reminded me a lot of the way Barry Harris would do it. You almost got me because it’s a recent recording. The piano sounds so good! I’ll definitely give 5 stars to this. I know this tune. Is it Dizzy’s? [AFTER] Oh, that’s very nice. Yeah, he put something else on that one. It’s the way he got to that chord and the mastery of the idiom. He’s playing it from the heart. That’s HIM. The sound of the instrument is a very fresh, new recording. Is that relatively new? It sounds so beautiful.

7. Kenny Kirkland, “Chance,” KENNY KIRKLAND (GRP, 1991) – (5 stars)

That’s an incredible coincidence! [In the first second you said…] That’s Kenny. That’s what I was listening to when I woke up, this tune. This is amazing, man. I haven’t listened to that record since it came out. And this morning I just took it out, and as I was listening, I was crying. There was something spiritual about it. The whole tune, the whole record… What he’s doing with the harmonies, they are very unpredictable. They’re coming out of that school, that Herbie-Wayne type of writing. Not writing tunes, but compositions really. A great influence to me in the way he played the piano. He had no barriers or borders. He encompasses the whole history. I remember so many amazing moments when I started hearing him live, with his energy and rhythmic ideas and the interaction between them in the band with Branford. He’ll be remembered forever. And it’s an incredible spiritual awakening that this morning I got up thinking about him, and you played that, and that’s what I was playing. That’s deep. I miss him. I really do. I miss his power. 5 stars. The only recording he left as a leader, but it encompasses a lot. A lot of ground. A great inspiration for us.

8. McCoy Tyner (solo), “Sweet and Lovely,” JAZZ ROOTS (Telarc, 2000) – (5 stars)

McCoy Tyner. There’s only one guy who can play like that. I’m trying to think of the tune. [SINGS MELODY] Where do I know this tune from? Jon Hendricks taught me a lot of these tunes; we used to play it with the repertory. Because I didn’t know any of this very well. Ah, it’s “Sweet and Lovely.” Art Tatum did a version of this. It’s great to hear McCoy play solo. [McCOY MAKES A RUN] Oh my goodness. I don’t know how to say anything that hasn’t been said. When I hear that, I can hear the true essence of African drums and the true essence of Afro-American piano being played. It’s like coming out of that school, like Monk, for example, that even if they play a scale or a device used by classical musicians, like Debussy, whole-tone or whatever, it doesn’t sound Classical. There is an African-American sound. His own unparalleled sense of time. He’s in really top form here. McCoy is one of the guys who makes you struggle trying to figure out what he’s doing. His thing is like you can’t really figure it out. He’s a force, a powerful force when he plays piano. That’s why I say you feel on this piano a bursting of energy coming out. Definitely 5 stars. It’s so great hearing McCoy play solo.

9. Emiliano Salvador, “Preludio Y Vision & Nueva Vision,” NUEVA VISION (Qbadisc, 1978/1995).

Another out of tune piano. [AFTER HORNS ENTER] Emiliano Salvador. This is a classic. This is the band with Arturo and Paquito. This is one of the big influences. I did a record called “The Journey” and I dedicated one tune to him. Man, it’s so great, the way you had McCoy, and you can hear the influence of McCoy in his playing. I don’t know how he got it, man. He was from Puerto Padre. But truly understanding of the essence of jazz. You can hear it in his music. He’s one of my favorites as far as coming from Latin America and mixing up all this… That’s Bobby Carcasses singing. This is a classic record. It’s a model for everybody, called “Nueva Vision.” [AFTER] Paquito told me many stories about him, about how he was able to play swing on drums and really understanding jazz element. He was able to cross over from Latin to Jazz in an incredibly organic way. For me he has been a big influence, and for me, this is a record that should be on your shelf. Another thing I was going to say is that he really understood the essence of how to mix worlds in a very organic way. I can hear a Woody Shaw influence in there, and McCoy definitely, and Paquito said even Roy Haynes on his drumming. And nobody understands how he got all of that. It’s unfortunate how he never got to play or never got known among the American artists. He was ahead of his time, playing different meters, too. He was into that. A big-big influence.

10. Edward Simon, “Colega,” EDWARD SIMON (Kokopelli, 1995) (Simon, piano; Mark Turner, tenor sax; Larry Grenadier, bass; Adam Cruz, drums) – (5 stars)

That’s Mark Turner. The way it started at first, I thought it was the whole school that we developed with David, the whole way of playing the bass against the rhythms and all the harmony. There’s just one more cat that I think it would be… Oh ,that’s my brother, Ed Simon. He dedicated this tune to me. It’s called “Colega.” There’s a whole school of playing the bass and the clave and all of that. Really, I’m so honored that he did that for me. I think I heard this once or twice a long time ago when it came out. [Do you know who the bass and drummer are?] [LISTENS FOR LAST 3 MINUTES] No. Oh, Larry! That’s my people, man! Sorry. Totally killing! It’s been a force in the whole crossover thing with being able to break and bridge all these stereotypes about Latinos playing straight-ahead, and I’m proud of Ed for being so honest about what he does and being all about the music. A true inspiration. We came out together and I love him dearly for all he does. I don’t listen to him as much as I used to, just because he’s such a strong force in his music that I want to keep focusing on what I am doing. But I am aware. And as soon as he started playing, I knew it was him. Ed Simon is part of the whole force of Latinos breaking and reaching up to play straight-ahead. He’s just so in-tune with the music. There’s a lot of honesty in his playing. I’m biased because I’m a good friend, but I really admire him. He happens to be a great source of inspiration. For Ed, and especially for that tune, 5 stars! I have to write something for him, too.

11. Uri Caine, “Stain,” BLUE WAIL (Winter&Winter, 1997) (James Genus, bass; Ralph Peterson, drums) – (4-1/2 stars)

This is an interesting mixture of new and old there. An interesting mixture of what is reminiscent and moving forward that is interesting to me. I recognize a blues essence, a blues sound, and I am trying to figure out… [LAUGHS] It’s great to see that… See, that’s like playing with the sound of the blues… There’s a rhythmic language that reminds me… There’s one guy who can do that, who has that language — Marcus Roberts maybe. No? Another guy is maybe Joey Calderazzo. [AFTER] Oh my goodness, I didn’t get it. The drummer sounded a little like Tain sometimes. Somebody in that vein? Somebody I know very well probably. I wasn’t paying attention to him. I was just blown away by the piano. One thing I appreciate about this is that there was a mixture of reminiscent and moving forward. Very interesting. I was really stimulated by the traveling. Definitely 4-1/2. There was a Kenny Kirkland influence there, of course, in the beginning actually

12. Papo Lucca/Sonora Poncena, “Cappucino”  ON THE RIGHT TRACK (Inca, 1988) (Chick Corea, composer) – (5 stars)

You’re trying to trick me, but you ain’t gonna trick me with this, because that’s my hero. Let me make sure before I say it. Oh, huge time! If it’s not Papo ,I don’t know who it is. That’s a very unusual recording, and I don’t know it. But that’s one of my mentors. He was a big influence in the beginning. He’s the guy who introduced me to all the new tumbaos and montunos he was doing, but also mixing it up with… You can hear he’s taking from jazz here and there, listening to Oscar Peterson. I don’t know the tune. It’s interesting. It’s great. I recognize the sound and the voicings with the horns. He’s got a very peculiar way of harmonizing. I owe him a lot. The way he plays the time, it’s a very huge… It’s deep. He sounds in control all the time, too. Very mature playing. I think he’s truly an underrated musician. I’ve got to give Papo 5 stars. That’s my man. It’s a tricky one, because it’s got that Papo sound, but also because of Chick’s tune there is this contemporary environment for him that you usually don’t hear Papo play in normally. That’s where you’re trying to trick me!

13. Eliane Elias/Herbie Hancock, “The Way You Look Tonight,” [Eliane Elias, SOLOS AND DUETS (Blue Note, 1994)] – (5 stars)

I hear Herbie Hancock. They’re going for a journey, man. They’re going for a ride. I don’t know who the second pianist is yet. I heard at Birdland the other day someone I haven’t listened to for so long, and this reminds me of that — Eliane Elias. [You did it!] Yeah? Just to feel that sound and the personality coming through. I’m blown away. This is beautiful. They took a journey, they took a ride together. When you hear music like this, what can you say? They’re just taking you for a ride. Wow! This is a great lesson in duo piano. I’m really proud of her. And obviously, as you know, Herbie has been an influence on all of us. I didn’t get that there were two different persons at the beginning; it sounded so integral. That’s the beauty about music, when it’s connected. It could become a one (?) dimension. They discovered a lot of places in that. I don’t know this recording. Wow, it’s beautiful. I definitely want to get it. But I heard her at Birdland one night recently, and she was totally in control. Such a beautiful player. Beautiful music. The technique with the essence of music becomes one. You’re not aware of how much she can play. It’s just music. And Herbie, what can you say about him? Herbie is like a river, an endless amount of ideas and creativity.. And when you think you know what he’s going to do, he’ll trick you, he’ll turn it around. I admire him a lot. He’s definitely an incredible inspiration. I feel strange giving a rating to this stuff. This wouldn’t even belong in 5 stars; it goes beyond that! I This is some really beautiful playing. Amazing.

A lot of the tunes… On radio in Panama, they didn’t announce the tunes. I didn’t learn English until I came here, so a lot of the tunes I know by the sound or by the melody, or I know it in Spanish. I’ve learned a lot of lyrics hanging out with Roy Haynes. He knows a lot of tunes. Sometimes, when I’ve played certain melodies, he’ll say “that doesn’t go like that; the lyrics go like this.” It’s been an incredible experience. Being around Jon Hendricks, too. They taught me a lot.

14. Marcus Roberts, “Groove Until You Move”, IN HONOR OF DUKE (Columbia, 1999) (w/Antonio Sanchez, drums; Jason Marsalis, perc.) – (5 stars)

Two years ago I had an incredible experience in Seattle, playing at the Jazz Alley opposite Marcus. That was a great week for me as sharing. A lot of these guys are very serious and loving with the music, and sharing… That’s definitely the sound. I remember that sound. I don’t what recording it is, but there’s a blues quality to it, there’s a Latin tinge to this, a connection to the sound that has that same feeling as the other piece you played me — the past and the future. [Who is the drummer?] That’s coming from our school, the way we plays time, so that’s got to be Antonio. It’s the way we deal with the rhythms. Oh, that’s the record he did with him. It’s definitely killing. Marcus’ association with Antonio came from that week. It was an incredible week. That was the first time I used Essiet, and Marcus would be there listening every set. He’d never heard me before. He was very giving; he just cracked me up. I learned so much in that week. He’s calling me mid-day, “What you doing?” “I’m practicing!” He was very competitive that whole week in a very healthy way, in a way that was about love. I remember him at the end of the week saying “We brought a lot of gumbo for you guys, but you guys brought 200 pounds of rice-and beans.” He was so funny. That’s totally killing. I can her the sound of the blues with the Latin… The whole history. That connection with the Latin tinge. That’s one thing that should be clear by now, that Latin Jazz shouldn’t be Latin Jazz like just another thing, that there is also Latin Jazz. When Jazz is called “Jazz,” it already implies having the Latin tinge. 5 stars.

15. Eddie Palmieri, “Dona Tere”, VORTEX (RMM, 1996) – (5 stars)

I’m hearing Eddie; it has Eddie’s energy on it. That humor in his playing, too. If it’s not Eddie, I don’t know who it is. Is that Conrad Herwig playing trombone? And Donald and maybe Brian Lynch. Killing! It’s a very unusual Eddie, though. I’m so used to hearing him live with the electric, and it’s great to hear him play acoustic. And there’s a laid-back feeling, too, very relaxed. also, he’s playing more harmony than normal, and he’s doing so many different things, where he’s keeping one hand going and the left hand going… Wow! It’s great to see that he can change. He’s been doing something different, definitely. There is a subtle quality to Eddie’s playing here that I don’t usually appreciate when you hear him on the electric piano. Really beautiful. The way he created a sound between Monk and his McCoy kind of voices made it definitely a recognizable sound. The way he orchestrated horns, too. The way he plays also traditional things — six, then all of a sudden a four-four thing, then back to traditional tumbao. I think the star rating for Eddie doesn’t really belong; he’s a star by himself…! You can’t give Eddie… Especially the fact that he’s trying to do something new, that he’s going for something different. But since we have to…5 stars.

 

————

Danilo Perez,WKCR Musician Show (6-9-93):

Q: You’re playing at Bradley’s this week with a quartet that has two different configurations, two different saxophonists.

DP: Yeah, we started on Monday with David Sanchez on tenor, and then Larry Grenadier on bass and Dan Rieser on drums. And today through Saturday, Mr. George Garzone on tenor.

Q: Now, he’s an associate of yours from Boston for a long time.

DP: Right.

Q: And a lot of your career in the United States has been located… It’s been sort of a center of operations for you.

DP: In Boston, yeah. Just because I moved there… That was one of my first places I moved to. But actually, I’ve moved so much that New York also has been… I’ve been around here a lot.

Q: I’d like to talk a little bit about your record [Danilo Perez [RCA]) before we get into the Musician Show aspect of playing music that’s influenced you and giving a window on you as a musician. There’s a wide range of material that goes from your origins in Panama to the work in Jazz that you do today. Tell us a little bit about how you came to the selections on the record.

DP: Actually, the record represents my influences that I’ve had from since I was a child, from my father singing, playing me boleros and Latin music, to Dizzy Gillespie, you know, and to Paquito, to Tom Harrell… I chose the tunes to represent every part of America, like South America, then you’ve got Argentina, you’ve got Brazil, you’ve got Panama, then you’ve got Cuba, and then you’ve got North America which his a… If there is a name for the record, it would probably be “This Is My America” or “Interior Caribe,” which is a way to look in at Caribbean things, but knowing that in the… You can see it. You have to really listen to and hear that it’s being influenced by Caribbean. You know what I’m saying? I mean, it’s not so obvious.

Q: When you were coming up as a young musician, were you exposed to a broad range of Caribbean music, or specific styles in Panama?

DP: Oh yeah. The first thing I learned was the clave, the percussion. My father gave me the bongos when I was two years old; at three I was already playing bongos. And I started playing Classical music when I was eight years old. But my training with my father was mostly old Cuban records, Sonora Matancera, Papo Lucca, Peruchin, until I was like 16-17. But at the same time, there was a neighbor of mine in my neighborhood, who used to play records by Freddie and Stanley Turrentine. And I didn’t know who they were; I was just enjoying it every time he played it. So I didn’t know what was that. But since I was like 7 or 8, I’ve been listening in a way, very partial, but also a little bit of that…

Q: Is your father a musician?

DP: My father is a singer, yeah. And he used to sing around. Actually, I got him out of being retired to go back and sing so I could play with him!

Q: What kind of bands was he…? Was he fronting bands as a singer?

DP: Yeah. Latin, Boleros, Salsa. My father is what is called, like, a sonero, which is sort of like an improviser, because he improvised mostly words and melodies on his part. So it’s a little bit jazzy, the concept. It’s like a Benny More type of thing, sonero, you know.

[ETC.]

Q: …we’ll hear “Alfonsina Y El Mar.” Forgive my pronunciation.

DP: No, that was great. This is a tune written by a woman that…you know, it’s sort of like a love story. She killed herself walking through the sea. She was a great writer, Alfonsina. And it’s a very famous and very historical tune in Argentina. So I thought it would make a great representation of what South America is.

[MUSIC]

That was “Alfonsina Y El Mar,” from Argentina. It’s a composition by Ariel Ramirez and Félix Luna. You could hear that we… That’s the mood of the record, you know, which was a really low-key, really relaxed and meditation type record…

Q: A smoldering mood on your record.

DP: That’s right.

Q: We’re speaking with Danilo Pérez on the Musician Show. Again, Danilo is at Bradley’s this week, and I guess beginning tonight it’s the quartet that features George Garzone on saxophone, Larry Grenadier on bass, and Dan Rieser.

DP: This is a quartet that’s been working now. We’ve been working together for two months now, so we’re trying to get that group type of vibe.

Q: Is it the same sort of variety of material that’s on this record?

DP: Definitely. And we do also a lot of, like, standards but arranged in a different way. Last night James Williams was there, and he was happy. He’s a great cat. He was, like, “I’m leaving after this tune because I’ve got to go home” — and he stayed all night, man. So that was a real compliment.

Q: Is he someone that you ran into in Boston?

DP: Well, James and I…you know, one day when… Donald Brown was my teacher at Berklee, and a couple of times James gave me a lesson when he subbed for Donald. And there has always been like a really great vibe from that; you know, you have a little school going on there, which is great — Mulgrew and Donald Brown… I learned a lot about the music just seeing him play, and then getting to talk with him and asking him questions and stuff like that.

Q: We’ll next get into a set of Latin piano, and I take it this is the music that you really cut your teeth on…

DP: That’s the music that influenced me since I was probably four years old until I was 14, 15 years old.

Q: You were playing Classical piano. Were you also playing gigs where you did things besides Classical?

DP: Yeah, I started playing a lot… You know, it’s a funny story, because I used to play bongos with my father, and one time the piano player, who used to make the arrangements and was a great friend of my father, he’d get up and ask me to come and play so he could hear the band. And then I sat in and played, and I was really working… That was kind of new, those tumbaos that he was playing. And everybody in the band was like, “Yeah, stay there!” From then on I started playing piano, yeah.

Q: Would you say the piano and the drum is related in any way?

DP: Oh yeah. Well, see, because I started playing percussion, I relate to the piano. In Latin music, the piano is a very percussive instrument, and you have to play like a conga, like the timbales, like the bongos — you’ve got to know all of that to really… The piano actually is like a guajiro(?); it’s doing the work of the tres. And you’ve got to try to imitate the string sound [CON-KI-CON, CO-CO-CON-KI-KI-CON…]. You don’t play so much, you know, looking for chords to play. You’ve got to make a groove going on and just, like, you know, kill it. It’s like Funk, you know; it’s like playing…

Q: The whole rhythm section is really that way, because the bass in Latin music is very drum-like.

DP: Yeah. Everybody has to have this feeling for… You’ve got to know what the timbales does, what the conga does, what everybody does, how to phrase, and then how to really play your tumbao, your guajiros, you know.

Q: And the rhythms of each genre are very specific rhythms.

DP: Right. The bass is doing… The basic thing that it comes from is from the son montuno. That’s the base of everything. And the bass used to… In the old times the bass used to go like PUM-PI-PUM, BE-BE, PUM-PI-PUM, BE-BE-PUM-PI-PUM, and the piano was GUM-TI-GUM, DUM, GUM-TILI-KON-KON, GUM-TI-KON-KON-KON… [CLAPS AND SINGS RHYTHM] Then by the time the pieces started to get more contemporary, and they said, “Don’t play so much,” they’d say [SINGS RHYTHM, LEAVES OUT BEATS], and then more and more it was starting to get more mixed… We’re going to get there with how do you mix all of that son montuno with different…with guarachas…how it’s starting to take it from all different sequences for different rhythms, and to get to the point now which is actually playing 6/8, which is the African thing on 4/4, what they call songo(?) now.

Q: Is this very easy to apply to your playing in a jazz situation?

DP: Well, at first it was difficult, because the way we phrase is the way we talk. The Latin musicians, the Latin… We speak very, like, “oh-yeah-man…” [RAPID FIRE] — that’s the way kind of we phrase. We phrase like POP-PA-PA-PA-PA-PA, PA-PA-PA, PA-PA-PA-DE-DE-DE-DUP-PA-PA. And the Jazz music is a language…the brothers don’t speak like that. They talk, “Hey, man, what’s happening, man, you know, hey, cool.” And that’s the way they play. They slink through the things, like VROOM, DU-DE-DE-LADLE, DU-DU-BUDDLIE-DU-LADLE… They slink, while we go PA-PA-PA…

Q: More behind the beat.

DP: Right. And it’s not perfect. That’s what makes it so beautiful. It’s the way they talk. So that still takes me a while to get used to when I’m playing. I learned a lot with Dizzy, and with Jon Hendricks. He started to teach me a lot about how think as a singer, and then trying to phrase that way, so I don’t sound like I was always on top of the beat.

Q: We’ll talk more about Dizzy Gillespie and your experiences with him later. But let’s talk about each of the pianists who we’re about to hear on this set.

DP: All right, we’re going to start with Papo Lucca. Before Papo, I was checking out Lino Frías, who was the pianist for the Sonora Matancera, and Eddie Palmieri when he got that famous thing, “Puerto Rico,” then Peruchin, “Bilongo”.

We’re going to start with Papo, because Papo for me made the transition from Latin piano to kind of like… That’s when I wanted to learn his solo. Because he sort of took Bud Powell, a little bit of Bud Powell, a little Bebop lines, and put it into Latin rhythms. Until that time I never heard anybody doing that, really, playing lines on… So after I heard Papo, that’s when I started to think, “Where did he get that from?” Then people were telling me, “Yeah, you’ve got to check out Bud Powell,” and that’s how I made the transition.
Now you’re going to hear a famous solo Papo Lucca did, “Sin Tu Carino,” with Ruben Blades, one of Ruben’s beautiful hits.

[MUSIC: Papo Lucca/Ruben Blades: “Sin Tu Carino”; Eddie Palmieri, “Puerto Rico”; Peruchin, “Bilongo”

“Bilongo” was with Peruchin on the piano and Richard Egües on the flute. That usually has a vocalist, but they did an instrumental there. If you notice the similarities between Latin pianists, they’re all playing percussion — that’s real important. The other thing is that you hear the octave is very predominant. I’m not so sure why. But one thing is to try to imitate the tres, because the tres is tuned in an octave, how you get that octave sound. The other reason was at that time also there was no electric pianos, so it sort of built up from the same concept that McCoy had to play like fourths so he could get a big sound, that could be heard. So Latin pianists developed that way of playing so they could themselves, that they could be able to hear… And that developed the octave playing.
You hear a lot of, like, rhythms going on, like KA-KA-KA-KA-KA, K0-KI, KO-KI, KO-KI…[SINGS BASIC RHYTHM]. You hear that in the three of them. You hear Papo, where he put a little bit of blues on it; he was running, like, some blues chords on it. Eddie’s left hand is very different from everybody else, because he’s doing like IN-CHIN,IN-CHIN, CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN, in the (?) beat, and the bass going TUM-DE-DE, DE-DUM, DUM-DUM-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN-CHIN… — all beat. And then the right hand is going [REPEATS FIRST RHYTHM] That’s really hard to do and to make it feel right. So that was Eddie’s trademark.

Q: A few words about Peruchin and his meaning in the piano continuum.

DP: Well, Peruchin was like the virtuoso of Latin… He brought the piano to another level, because he played the piano so well. He was a trained conservatory virtuoso, you know — and he plays the piano. So people would be dancing and stuff like that, and when the piano solo came, people would stop dancing and come to listen to him because he was so amazing. He wasn’t the… Usually on the piano solo, things get… people get talking. He was a show-stopper every time he took a piano solo. I remember my father told me, like, people would just go to listen to him, just to hear his piano solo, because he… I mean, he had like… He was one of the first ones who started doing embellishment, like playing over the tempo and then going [SINGS BLAZING PIANO RUN] — that kind of stuff over the piano. I mean, he had such a technique, that it was so easy… So people would be dancing, and when Peruchin came and played a solo, people stopped and would go around the piano and hear what he was doing. He was like the favorite… My father said that every time he was playing, he would go to see him just to see his solo, be with him playing his solo.

Q: Did Peruchin stay in Cuba after 1960?

DP: He was in Cuba for a long time, then he moved to Panama. He was in Panama also… I don’t know where else he was. I mean, he did like a little tour. But I know he was in Panama for a while, because he developed a little school in Panama of people playing like him. In those times in Panama, there was a lot of Cubans… Benny More used to come a lot, Perez Prado used to come a lot to Panama. So there’s a guy in Panama who plays just like him, like Peruchin, you know; he got everything from him.

Q: Who were your teachers as far as piano goes?

DP: In Panama? My teacher was a woman from Chile by the name of Cecilia Nunez. And then the records.

Q: But you learned the rudiments and the technique of piano, and then learned the vernacular music, so to speak, by yourself.

DP: Yeah. There was nobody really teaching me anything, you know, like how to do things. You just bought the records and listened to them.

Q: And you had a good critic in your father.

DP: Oh yeah! My father actually made me transcribe the piano solos, you know, like Papo, Peruchin… Peruchin was too hard for me to transcribe, because those octave things were so difficult…

Q: What was your father’s training? How did he get started in music? And what’s his name, by the way?

DP: My father is Danilo Pérez. He never really had a training, like a conservatory or anything. But he grew up in a family where they all…like, they were singers and trumpet players. So my father grew up and played with the best bands in Panama, like played with Armando(?) Bossa, which was one of the best bands around Central America, Latin America. He played with them, he played with many, many bands. Actually, he was a self-taught musician. And he just has a… This kind of music for him is, like…

Q: Natural.

DP: Natural. That’s it. The clave and the sonero and improvisation… Just the jumping around and, you know, improvising, that’s second nature to him.

Q: And he’s still playing and you’re now working with him.

DP: Yeah. Well, sometimes we get together and play.

Q: You’ve got to bring him up to the States.

DP: Yeah, we will. We will. I’m planning to do a record, actually, because I want him to do… We want to do some stuff together.

Q: [ETC.] The next set will start with something by Peruchin from a recording called The Incendiary Piano of Peruchin, with the great Cuban drummer Guillermo Barreto, who died a couple of years ago, Cachaito on bass, and also a percussion section. Tell us about what we’re going to hear.

DP: Cachaito is another guy who also changed the bass. He is Cachao’s nephew or his son, I don’t know. Cachaito is related, I know that. Tata Güines is probably one of the innovators of the congas. You see people like Giovanni Hidalgo coming out of the Tata Güines school, you know. Guillermo Barretto also is one of the pioneers of playing the drums, and you know, bringing the percussion into the group. So what you’re going to hear is a set-up for many of the things that are happening right now in the Latin thing, and I am happy that they are putting it out on the records right now, because people can see that there is a tradition to this, and it’s not like they just got together… There’s a whole tradition to it.

See, Peruchin was an innovator, too, and also an innovator was Perez Prado. Perez Prado to me was to Latin music what Thelonious Monk was to Jazz; kind of like really crazy and had a concept, and went for it.

Q: I’ve been listening to Benny More’s recordings with his band in the late 1940’s. You hear bits that sound like the vocabulary of Ellington or the Dizzy Gillespie band, and then it goes into a whole different place.

DP: Yeah. Well, that’s the street vocabulary type of thing. Because he used to sell fruits on the street, and then in order to sell the fruit he had to say “Mango with papaya with…”, and make it go together… How do you say it when they go together, like the rhythm… I don’t know. You say “Papaya porque atawaga(?)” or something like that, things that go together with the ending. He used to do that. All the fruits. Mango, papaya and all the things he had, and improvise on all of them, you know. And that’s how he got his sonero. And there is a guy right now doing that, Gilberto Santa Rosa, who took a lot of stuff off him.

But Benny More… And the music at that time, because of the political situation in Cuba, he was very, very much together. If you hear some old recordings, you’ll hear, like, for example, Fernando Alvarez singing with a string group, and it sounds like the same kind of strings that were accompanying Charlie Parker and Strings. You hear a lot of similarities, even in the kind of tunes, the boleros… They have some harmonic movement that also the Jazz tunes, the standards had at that time. Havana, Cuba, was a really open island, so you had musicians back and forth…

Q: Everybody was coming in, so there was a lot of interchange.

DP: Oh yeah.

[MUSIC: Peruchin: “La Mulata Rumbera”; Sonora Matancera: “Besito de Loco”; Peruchin: “All the Things You Are”; Sonora Poncena: “Nica’s Dream Mambo”]

Q: That was quite a set you programmed.

DP: Uh-huh! You liked that, eh?

Q: Papo Lucca.

DP: Yeah, that’s one of the giants. They’re all giants in their own… You see how they take one thing and make it their own thing. You see Papo playing changes. There’s definitely some influence there, the way he voiced the chords also. He took that, you could tell he took that from the Jazz idiom in the way he played the changes on “Nica’s Dream” with Sonora Poncena.

Q: Each has their own way of playing tumbao.

DP: Yes, definitely. Each one of them… You have to do a lot with the accent, where they accent the…where they hear the upbeats, and where you hear the off-beat, too, and the way they play the left hand. Usually people here in America don’t pay attention to the left hand. They do basically the same thing with the left hand and the right hand. And there is more to that than just… You’ve got to kind of hear the different percussion and the different…the conga, the clave, to make the left hand be playing kind of like something else, but implying other…you know, implying the whole rhythm section.

Q: So in a sense, the tumbao implies giving the instrument the quality of the drum.

DP: Exactly. I mean, the drums, not really. The percussion. The bongos, the campana, the sensero(?), the timbales, trying to hear all of that. If you leave Papo alone or Eddie alone with that, they’ll groove you to death! Because they’re playing so much little things. Not like KON-KI-KON-KON-KOO…it’s not just that any more. It’s like [SINGS COMPLEX  RHYTHM] You’re hearing all of that.

Q: And it’s all on the piano.

DP: It’s all on the piano. It’s all on the piano, man, by itself. And every time it’s different. People think it’s always the same. No, every time it changes. [MIXES TWO RHYTHMS THAT HE SANG] You know, it changes. But you have to really know and pay attention to really hear this. So what I would like to play, you know, is how the three of them that you just played influenced me into getting my own…

[ETC.]

“Besito de Loco” by Sonora Poncena featured Lino Freires(?) on piano. He did not have a solo, but you could hear the tres. I mean, he was a very, very swinging piano player.

Another pianist we’re missing, I know the people that are listening are going to be… There’s a bunch of them that we’re missing. But these are the ones that influenced me the most. Rubén González, which I couldn’t find any tape or anything; it’s hard to find. But he was the pianist for the Aragon Orchestra for a long time. He actually influenced Papo Lucca very much. He’s actually probably Papo’s big influence.

Q: Now we’ll hear a selection on which you perform, again on which the audience can hear how you’ve been influenced and created your own way….

DP: Yeah. I took all the things from Papo, little things from Eddie, and mixed it up with the Jazz thing, with the changes thing. And how I started playing tumbaos, in this sort of like KON-KI-KON-KI-LE-KONKA, I say KOM-PI-LE-KOM-PI, KON-KI-LE-KON-KI… It’s like more off-beat. Once you hear it two or three times, you know after the fourth time who is playing the tumbao. Because tumbaos are very personal if you really work on it and try to get your own tumbao. So this is a record with Charlie Sepulveda, his first recording, “Tid-Bits.”

[MUSIC]

Q: …David Sanchez, tenor saxophone; Arturo Perez and Danilo Perez trading off on electric and acoustic piano.

DP: Arturo was playing electric and I was playing acoustic piano. But you could hear the… Like, the original way of playing tumbao like that was… [SINGS RHYTHM], and I say [SINGS MODULATED RHYTHM], with the 6/8 also in-between and the off-beat. Instead of going KIN-KU-KO-KIN-KI, I say KIN-KU-KO-KIN-KI, KU-DU-KO, KI-KI-KI, and you actually get like one beat, a little bit more. It sounds like I am off, you know!

Q: [ETC.] We’ll now move into the music of Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie, and show some ways how Latin rhythms were integrated into the jazz idiom. Danilo had some first-hand experience, of course, having played with Dizzy for about two years…

DP: Three years.

Q: …and having studied Bud Powell’s music. When were you first exposed to Bud Powell?

DP: When I was 18 years old. I think it was 1986. That was the first time that I heard Bud Powell. It was with that record, Live At Massey Hall, with Dizzy and Charlie and Max Roach and Charles Mingus. It was incredible, man. I mean, when the piano solo came, I couldn’t believe somebody could even just go… I mean, he just killed it. I mean, after Dizzy and Charlie played, it had to be somebody like Bud. He just killed it. I mean, he was playing phrasings like Charlie was playing, [SINGS LINE]… It was incredible. And that was the first time. Then I started getting, you know, most of his records. I’ve been trying to find the original… You know, the things you’ve got there, I’d like to have the original LP’s…

[END OF CASSETTE SIDE]

Q: …a classically trained pianist and a competition winner and so forth. Have you been able to go back to some of his sources and some of the earlier Jazz piano styles at this point?

DP: From Bud, you mean, or from somebody else?

Q: Well, before Bud, the people he was listening to.

DP: Well, there’s a lot, like Dizzy told me… Basically, a lot of the training he got, actually… I mean, the way he practiced, Dizzy told me, he used to play… He liked Bach a lot. He was a Bach maniac. He practiced a lot of that to get that fluidity. Actually, when you hear him playing the lines also, you can hear… I mean, I can hear The Well-Tempered Clavier, you know, the way he played. I could hear Monk, too. He definitely was influenced by Monk. I mean, to me. I don’t know if I’m maybe wrong…

Q: I think that’s true.

DP: There is this thing… I think he was very influenced also by…. I don’t know who he was influenced by, I’m not so sure, but Charlie Parker, definitely… The way he phrased in the piano was very new to the way everybody was phrasing. He was really phrasing like a horn player, actually.

Q: On this set, we’ll hear Bud Powell and Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. For you, coming out of a Latin experience, does it fit very naturally into that concept of playing?

DP: Well, if you think about it, they have the same principle, which is rhythm. The rhythm is quite different, in a way, but they’re rhythmical. They say, DU-BA-DU-DU-DOOM, DU-DIDDLE-DIDDLE, DU-BE-DAY-DA-DEEDLE. And in our Latin, we were all based actually in rhythms. That’s what is so appealing right away, the way they play the rhythms. It’s really interesting how they phrase.
What I said to you… What is hard for us is to really learn how to lay back. We have a hard time with that. I mean, I find myself having a hard time, because the way that our music is, it’s so on top that we have a hard time to lay back. So that’s the first thing we’ve got to learn. But as far as the concept, playing rhythms, it’s pretty… It’s not the same playing the Latin and also playing that, but the principle of playing the rhythm and make it swing and making grooves like you just heard Pappo do, and Eddie and those guys is the same principle, which is very African, where the rhythm is really important.

Q: Let’s hear one of the most famous performances in the history of Jazz, Bud Powell’s “Un Poco Loco”…

DP: Oh my God!

[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Un Poco Loco,” 1953 (Blue Note); Monk, “Evidence,” (Griffin-Malik-Haynes, 1958.]

There are many reasons why these records should be played and should be a part of your library, definitely. But one of the things… Like, first of all, you hear… Like, the thing that attracted me the most to Bud was, of course, his concept of playing, but the lines, the way he wades into the chords like a horn player, and the phrasing, that was really appealing to me the first time I heard it. I said, “Man, that sounds like a horn playing on the piano.”

And then when I heard Monk, I mean, the way he played was completely contrast. He played like a composer, you know, and he’d build up a tune. The thing that was so appealing to me there was that when I tried to sit down and copy Monk, it would not sound right! Because I had to sit down and transcribe not just the melody and the rhythms, but the harmony, the way he voiced the chords, you know. Because he may call it E-flat, Major 7th, but that’s a… I mean, there’s thousands of ways to play E-flat Major 7th — and Monk got his own way to play that chord. And I was so inspired to see that…I mean, he… There has been arguments for many years about, you know, his technique and, you know… But I think Monk’s technique is killing. Because the way to play like him, you have to learn how he gets that sound out of the piano, and really sit down and work on it, while if you want to play like somebody else, usually it’s more or less the same type of way, usually the touch and… People like Bill and many great pianists had a great touch, but they always related to the Western tradition. But with Monk, he just brought… It was like a Varese-ian type of thing. He just brought the usual sound, man… And really, if you want… I mean, for me, if I want to try… You know, I’ve been checking out Monk more and more now, just because he don’t play… I mean, you take his melody part, [SINGS “EVIDENCE”: BONK-BEH-BERRRWW!!], and then he’s playing like shapes and colors and, you know, like he’s playing… I mean, he’s playing so advanced that you could see and hear on the records… When the sax player finished, they were going, “Yeah!!” and when he finished playing, they were going, “Ahem, ahem.” I mean, they had no idea what was happening!

I mean, he was so just so advanced. The way he played over the tune, he was playing his composition. He didn’t really blow over the tune. He’d make another tune out of his tune and put in like a B section and a C section and an interlude, and you could hear…kind of like an orchestrator, you know. Which I think he got… To me he got kind of that from Duke, I mean, definitely that kind of concept, like playing chords and then playing, like, a suddenly abrupt line — VRROOM, and then RING-RING-RING. Like playing colors, you know.

He’s amazing. And I could that influence in many people. Like McCoy. You can hear definitely McCoy influenced by Monk on Live At Newport, where he plays a blues there, and you could hear he’s definitely… And then Chick and then Herbie… Man, everybody’s been influenced by Monk, just the way he plays — it’s amazing.

Q: His musical world is so complete unto itself.

DP: It’s complete. I mean, you have to learn the melodies because… Actually, the thing also about Monk is the rhythm in the melodies. If you check out Rumba Para Monk, that Jerry Gonzalez did, you can hear that… I mean, those rhythms really work well with the clave. For some reason, he got like the clave. I mean, it was always there, in all…mostly all his tunes. And you could definitely put Latin rhythms to it. So that’s another attraction to me in Monk, his concept of displacing the rhythm. Instead of going, like, POP-PE, he goes POP-PE-E-A-PO-PE… You think that’s the downbeat. That’s not the downbeat sometimes. That’s your beat. He’s another bar ahead, or… Even in “Blue Monk” you can hear it. That tune, when I heard it first, I said, “Something’s wrong with that.” Or even “Jackie-Ing.” You hear that… [SINGS REFRAIN OF ‘JACKIE-ING’] He knew… I mean, I don’t know…

Well, you said it while we’ve been talking about it. His work was complete, very complete. It’s not just like harmonies and then E-flat Major 7th and then a melody, and then you play Monk all your life. No, you got to sit down and work, check how he voices. He’s really something else.

Q: What did Dizzy Gillespie say to you about Monk that you can remember during your time with him?

DP: Well, Dizzy told me one thing… Because I asked him about Bud and Monk and all those guys. He said that the first time that Monk would play around, they were all like kind of, you know, “This guy’s crazy, man.” I mean, actually that was his device. And then the more they got to hear him… Actually, he taught Dizzy a lot. I mean, actually the Minor 7th Flat 5 chord was taught to Dizzy by Monk. That’s why he used it everywhere, after he practiced with it… You can hear it in the intro of “Round Midnight” at the coda, you can hear it on the end of “Con Alma,” you can hear it in “Woody’n’ You” — you could hear that Minor 7th, Flat 5 chord all over. Because that was what Monk taught him.

But he said… I mean, the way he played was like a little kid, you know; it was like a humorous thing. And I said, “Well, you got that, too.” And he said, “Well, I guess we all got it then!” But you see, there is a humor and there is, like, a happy feeling…

Q: With Monk it always seems like he’s discovering something every time he plays.

DP: Discovering, right! He always comes up with something you never expected. And the way he’d get to the stuff, you’d say “How the hell did he get there?”

Q: Danilo Perez worked for several years with Dizzy Gillespie.. [ETC.] Dizzy Gillespie system of music was also complete unto itself, and I think this was made very clear to people who maybe didn’t realize it, during that week at the Village Vanguard, when Slide Hampton brought the band in and did the arrangements. Because the arrangements were so idiomatic and so true to the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie, that they really brought out that flavor in a lot of ways.

DP: Yes. Well, that’s a really great band, man. It’s fantastic. I wish sometimes, you know, when I heard… The experience I got sometimes is that people sometimes, you know, don’t relate…you know, the media, the audience in a certain way… Because was always, like, a funny and human and very humorous…and sometimes they… I mean, Dizzy, every time that I remember when he put his trumpet in his mouth, he just played music, man. I mean, he may be laughing and dancing and stuff, but I mean, don’t confuse that… When he put the trumpet up, he always played; he got deep into the music and played great, man. And sometimes they… You know, there’s a certain thing about looking at Dizzy like a humorous… You know what I mean? But, no! He was dead serious.

The thing about Dizzy was not just the musical thing, which is a gift, and I think he’s definitely one of the geniuses of this century, but his humanity. The whole time I was with him, I never saw him… A couple of times I saw him mad, but I never saw.. Dizzy was a great human being. I mean, really uplifting all the time.

Q: Well, one thing about Dizzy Gillespie, among his many musical qualities, was that he really was the first American musician to codify Latin rhythms into a Jazz structure, and brought Chano Pozo over from Cuba. He always had an affinity for the Latin sound and Latin rhythms, and taught it to many American musicians.

DP: Right. Do you know who got him into that, the first…?

Q: Mario Bauza.

DP: Yeah, who got him the gig. So Mario is actually probably the guilty one for that Carnegie Hall concert… Mario also got him his first gig with Cab Calloway, playing with Cab Calloway’s band.

Q: But he had his way of assimilating it and bringing it into…

DP: Because if you hear him playing Jazz, his rhythm is very interesting. So he was really drawn into the rhythm aspect right away once he heard Latin music. I think Chano, of course, brought a lot of the traditional thing then.

Q: Well, let’s hear a location recording from the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1948, the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band in full flower. This features a lengthy duo between Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo on “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” by George Russell.

[ETC., MUSIC (Oscar Peterson/Dizzy Duo, “Con Alma)]

As Danilo mentioned a little while ago, we could spend a couple of days with Dizzy. Indeed, WKCR has done so several times in the last few years. But the music we’re playing during this show, the music that’s influenced Danilo and so many other musicians, is so vast and the scope of these musicians I don’t think is always appreciated by contemporaries…

DP: Right.

Q: It takes a long time. They think, “Well, he’s great,” but I think it’s sometimes hard to realize how complete and how deep the scope was of what certain musicians were doing while they were doing it.

DP: Right. Like, Dizzy, he got that rhythm…the rhythmic aspect with the melody, and the harmonic also… He found the weirdest notes to put in a chord and make it work. That’s a concept. I mean, he was a conceptualist. It’s not about notes or anything. He was playing a… I mean, the way he would shape his solos was just amazing. So free, at the same time so strong. He had all the ingredients for anybody from any kind of culture to just go and fall in love with that. Because he knew how to play… [SINGS DIZZY LINE]…you know… He’s got that freedom to… like, waving like a snake. That’s what I thought of when I first heard him. It sounds like a bunch of snakes, you know, rolling through the chords.

It’s funny, because sometimes when I… The first lesson I remember I got from Dizzy was, like, “Don’t play so many notes in the chord.” And I’d say, “Wow.” And he’d say, “You know why?” I’d say, “Why?” He’d say, “Because then I weave my thing into it.” You know, it was so obvious. That’s when he mentioned to me to approach the piano in a way like Monk does, or… But he kind of taught me that with the piano you can fall into the mistake of playing too many notes in the chord, and instead of playing two, play one… And then when you open up, it really makes a balance. You know, just balancing out, like an orchestrator.

Q: Well, that’s the quality you mentioned in Monk also, of playing a complete composition within the improvisation and always discovering something.

DP: Mmm-hmm.

Q: Dizzy played long, bravura, complex passages, but they always had a function…had an end. Everything was done for a reason.

DP: Right. And even if it wasn’t related to the chord in that moment, for example, it was related to the idea that he played before or the one that he was going to play. You know what I’m saying? I mean, he was always aware of what he’d play and where it was going, and the shape of the stuff that he was…

Q: Well, I think in retrospect, that may be one thing that Miles Davis learned from Dizzy Gillespie, was how to find the right note and how to play with the incredible economy that he was so famous for, as well as the rhythmic thrust. And we’re about to hear one of Miles’ thousands of performances that we could hear to elaborate on that point. You wanted “All Of You” from the 1964 Philharmonic Hall concert.

DP: Oh, this record… I wore this record down. Well, this record, when I heard it… The pleasure of being a musician that can create and make people get into your boat and just disappear for a while… I mean, those guys really went in a boat. This was actually the first time I heard Herbie Hancock play, and he had all the ingredients that I really like from all the things that we just heard, from the Latin rhythm aspect, the Swing, the complex ideas, the feel of the chord, you know, the Classical approach… He is one of my major influences, definitely. [ETC.]

[MUSIC]

DP: They breathe together, man. They’re all playing, and nobody’s getting in the way — I mean, to me. And it’s just exciting to me to see how they all became a one mind type of thing, you know. And Herbie’s things here… Like, the comping is so beautiful, and the way he voiced the chords, and the space, and the rhythm that he got with Tony — I mean, he’s just amazing, man.

Q: When did you first hear these recordings?

DP: To tell you the truth, the first time I heard this was… The first time I really got into… Which I am really behind on material, but I’m doing my best! But it was 1986. 1986 was the first time that I really got to it. Before that was all the other things we have been talking about. And the (?) had a couple of things from other people, but never…

Q: Is that when you came to the States?

DP: Yes.

Q: Let’s do quickly your biography, say, from leaving Panama to now.

DP: Okay, a quick biography. I started with my father playing percussion, but music wasn’t my life. It was electronics. I was studying electronics until I was 18. By that time I did a lot of things in the music world in Panama, but it was never…nothing really… It was not going to be a career or nothing. I never had a dream to play with Dizzy or be doing what I’m doing.

When I got here, I got a scholarship to go to Indiana and play Classical Music. Then I heard Chick Corea playing Jazz and then playing a Mozart concerto, and I really liked the Jazz part — and I really didn’t know what he did. So that was actually the first thing. Then I got actually my first recording. And I had already heard Papo Lucca playing before, which I was really into what he was doing. Then I made a transition, man. I said, “That’s what I want to play. I want to play Jazz.”

Then actually, my first year I was at Berklee, I met Donald Brown, which was definitely a big influence on me, and Herb Pomeroy, and also a little bit of James Williams who I got to meet. Then came the gig with Jon Hendricks, who was like my teacher. He’d say, “No, no, no. This is about Swing, about Thelonious Monk, about Bud Powell, about Horace Silver” — and he just changed my whole thing around.

Q: So you’ve had very good teachers and people to train you.

DP: Oh, yes.

Q: And you’ve been very fortunate, or fortune as the result of ability, in terms of people you’ve come in contact with who have shown you how to focus…

DP: Oh yes. Donald Brown recommended me to Jon Hendricks, and I worked with Jon Hendricks for two years. And that was my school to learn the basics of what the music really meant. And he was there with them, so he knew exactly what was happening, and he knows exactly…

I heard Herbie on My Funny Valentine in 1986. That’s like seven years ago now.

Q: Well, I know that if you studied with Donald Brown and James Williams, you would have been listening to Phineas Newborn!

DP: Oh, yes. Definitely. They’re coming from definitely that school. But listen, I haven’t really got into now… But I’m just getting into in the last couple of years more and more music of this. I listen to it a lot and I sit down, and I think that it’s just great. I mean, it’s a problem in this period that it just… It’s never a problem to get related to it right away. Definitely, Donald Brown and James, you know, Phineas Newborn! I’m just getting into Phineas, into Erroll Garner now. I want to really study those traditional things so I can apply that with my background in Latin rhythms and bring up some fresh ideas. But I don’t believe in just going from what I know right now. I have to go back. Erroll Garner is another favorite of mine, and also Phineas Newborn — the double-hand thing that he does.

And also the Classical aspect, bringing Classical music into Jazz. The thing you’re going to hear is “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn. The intro he does in that is the “Sonatine in F-Sharp Major” by Ravel. Which shows you that there was no limit to what the music really was…I mean, it is. There’s just two kinds of music, good and bad. And he does the intro of Ravel, and then goes into “Lush Life,” and you don’t even know that he did that. I mean, fantastic.

[MUSIC: P. Newborn, “Lush Life,” A World Of Piano, 1961; K. Jarrett “All the Things You Are,” (Intro)

DP: That intro — oh my God! You could hear a whole bunch of stuff at once, man. I can hear also that he’s improvising; you could hear it natural… And that’s really hard to do, to get to that creative point. The way he plays, I mean, I could hear danzones. Actually, in a way there’s a Latin influence, you know, in the way he’s playing subdivisions… It’s really hard to get, you know. And the way he was playing rhythms and playing the theme. Because you hear the theme almost the whole time, but you’re hearing it turned around all the time. Wow.

Q: So both those pieces really showed very creative ways of incorporating a Western Classical background in Jazz…

DP: Exactly.

Q: …and doing it in an idiomatic manner.

DP: Exactly. I mean, you hear Phineas using Ravel, and it’s just so beautiful the way he slipped through that and just getting to the theme of “Lush Life.” You couldn’t even tell; he’s just so beautiful.

Q: Well, I think if there’s one thing our program has demonstrated, Danilo, it’s that Jazz has so much more scope than is immediately apparent to people, and keeps revealing new depths, new layers. And we’re seeing with you a pianist Classically trained and dealing with the tradition of Latin piano without even much exposure to Jazz until the age of 19 who is able to perform with Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Harrell, Ray Drummond and many other artists, and perform idiomatically, and deal with the music. And the music that you’ve selected really shows the broad range of sources that goes into creating Jazz music.

DP: You know, there is two things. For me, it is very important, that assimilation of music… And to see somebody like Dizzy, who was one of the founders of this…you know, importance to the fact that there is just two kinds of music. He never really pulled any type of things that… Actually, the things that he even didn’t like, he always told me, “You can learn from that, too. Even if you don’t like it, you can learn from it. Because there’s always something to learn from.” And I always try to keep that in my mind, and I always will. You know, just Phineas and all those guys, that’s something nobody’s got to force you to do. Since I heard that, I just say, “Wow, I love this. This is amazing. I mean, this is great. It’s coming from another planet.” I don’t know from where, but definitely coming from another planet, it’s so beautiful, and this music… It’s as great as hearing Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin, or hearing Mauricio Pollini playing, or Vladimir Horowitz playing Scriabin. It has the same depth. And that’s what I’m looking for, is how deep…how good and how… — the vibrations, you know.

There is always something to learn from everything. Definitely, nowadays, I think there are a lot of Jazz musicians that recognize that. Especially Dizzy started recognizing that before. A lot of them recognize the fact that, you know, if you bring out different elements from another culture, it will enhance what you’ve got. Because that’s what Jazz really has been, has been changing.

And the beautiful thing about all the things we are listening to is that they all have their personality. You know, Bud had his own, Monk had his own personality, and when we listen to Dizzy he’s got his own personality, and even the early works, like… We have a lot that we didn’t play that are favorites of mine. Chick developed his personality, McCoy developed a personality, Bill Evans developed his personality. They all developed by studying really hard, and disciplining themselves to what came before. And I think Latin music, like Papo Lucca and Eddie Palmieri, they all have the personality. That’s why to me they are really important, all of them.

[MUSIC: Danilo Perez, “Serenata”]

This is a composition of Carlos Franzetti. It’s a mixture of danzon, and in between you can hear a little bit of Ravel, and also a little bit of Monk in between, just a really tiny bit, but you can hear it definitely in the back — and the Western influence with the Latin rhythm.

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For Lou Donaldson’s 86th Birthday, the Complete Transcript of A June 2012 Conversation For the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project

To mark Lou Donaldson’s 88th birthday, I’m posting the complete proceedings of a two-day interview that I conducted with him for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on June 20 & 21, 2012, shortly after he was designated an NEA Jazz Master. If I may say so, it’s a fairly comprehensive conversation. Many thanks to Ken Kimery for giving me the assignment. I’m also linking to a 2011 post of the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that Lou did with me in 2006.

 

 

Lou Donaldson Oral History for Smithsonian (June 20-21, 2012):

LOU DONALDSON
NEA Jazz Master (2012)

Interviewee:        Louis Andrew “Lou” Donaldson (November 1, 1926-)
Interviewer:        Ted Panken
Dates:            June 20 and 21, 2012
Depository:        Archives Center, National Music of American History,
Smithsonian Institution.
Description:        Transcript. 81 pp.

[June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken. It’s June 20, 2012, and it’s day one of an interview with Lou Donaldson for the Smithsonian Institution Oral History Jazz Project. I’d like to start by putting on the record, Mr. Donaldson, your full name and your parents’ names, your mother and father.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Louis Andrew Donaldson, Jr. My father, Louis Andrew Donaldson, Sr. My mother was Lucy Wallace Donaldson.

Panken:   You grew up in Badin, North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Badin. That’s right. Badin, North Carolina.

Panken:   What kind of town is it?

Donaldson:   It’s a town where they had nothing but the Alcoa Aluminum plant. Everybody in that town, unless they were doctors or lawyers or teachers or something, worked in the plant.

Panken:   So it was a company town.

Donaldson:   Company town.

Panken:   Were you parents from there, or had they migrated there?

Donaldson:   No-no. They migrated.

Panken:   Where were they from?

Donaldson: My mother was from Virginia. My father was   from Tennessee. But he came to North Carolina to go to college.

Panken:   Which college did he go to?

Donaldson:   The college he went to was the oldest black college… I’m trying to think of it now. But Olds-heimers has got me. Not Alzheimers. Oldsheimer’s. It was in Salisbury, North Carolina. What was that college… Can’t think of it.

Panken:   We can look it up.

Donaldson:   You don’t have to look it up. I’ve got all that information in a book.

Panken:   Maybe we can get at it tomorrow. But in any event, how old were your parents? When were they born?

Donaldson:   They were old. What can I tell you?

Panken:   You don’t know the birthdates?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know the birthdates. I’ve got all of that. If you need that. But they moved to Badin… My mother was a teacher. She went to Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, and she came back to this town and was a first grade teacher and music teacher, and choral director, band director, everything with music. My father was an AME Zion Methodist preacher and an insurance salesman. So we had a pretty stable family.

Panken:   You had two siblings, I think?

Donaldson:   Me?

Panken:   Yes. Did you have brothers and sisters?

Donaldson:   Yes, I have two sisters and one brother.

Panken:   Would you mind stating their names?

Donaldson:   Yes. My brother’s named William—William Donaldson. My older sister is Elouise Donaldson. My younger sister was Pauline.

Panken:   Did they all play music?

Donaldson:   Yup. All played music. All went into education. All are now retired and rich.

Panken:   Was your mother the main teacher?

Donaldson:   Not really. I mean, she started them out, but they originally went to college…all of them went to college.

Panken:   Now, socially, what was Badin, North Carolina like in the 1930s when you were growing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t too much…

Panken:   Was it segregated? Well, it was the South.

Donaldson:   You KNOW it was segregated.

Panken:   But was it a bad town, were there ways…

Donaldson:   No, it was segregated. It wasn’t a bad town because all of them worked together. Blacks and whites worked together in the aluminum plant. 220 degrees Fahrenheit. They used to wear these suits like space suits, and sometimes that ore would pop out and get on that suit, go right through the suit and right to their arms. It was a tough job. What they did, they separated the bauxite from… They got the bauxite from South Africa, and they’d process it and get the aluminum out of there, and it would flow out into some vats. It was a tough job.

Panken:   What was your entry into music? I think I’ve read that you started out playing clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I started playing clarinet. I didn’t want to play piano, because when she’d give lessons she had a switch, and when you’d miss a note she’d hit you across the fingers. So I said, “No-no, not me.” I was a baseball player. So that’s all I did, play baseball. But I used to go around the house humming, like the Bach Etudes and Haydn and all that, because I heard it when they played it on the piano. She got me one day and said, “Louis, you’ve got more music talent than anybody in this family; you can remember tunes and everything.” She said, “You need to start playing piano.” I said, “Not me.” She said, “All right, all right.” So she went across town and got a clarinet from the Alcoa Aluminum bandmaster. They had a band, all-white, of course. He gave her a clarinet. I mean, he sold her a clarinet. She brought it back. She didn’t know anything about a clarinet. But he had a book, and we studied the book, and I just learned how to play it.

Panken:   You studied yourself out of the book?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had a quick learning curve.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Obviously, you were meant to play music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, evidently.

Panken:   As a kid… You said you graduated high school when you were 15 and were the school valedictorian.

Donaldson: Yeah, right.

Panken:   So you must have had other interests besides music and sports. Or, if you weren’t that interested in school, it must have come fairly easily.

Donaldson:   Well, I was…what you call it…a precocious guy. I checked everything out. I could tell you right now New York Yankees in 1936.

Panken:   You mean the lineup?

Donaldson:   The whole lineup. I was a paper boy, and I used to deliver papers in the morning. I’d get up about 6 o’clock and deliver my papers, and about 7:30 I’d be finished with my papers, so I’d just sit on the front porch and read the sports. Way back.

Panken:   I know myself, box scores were a nice window into arithmetic and mathematics.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   But what were some of your other academic interests.

Donaldson:   Nothing really. I just…

Panken:   You just did well.

Donaldson:   I did well with anything, you know.

Panken:   So you graduated at 15. That’s 1941-42…

Donaldson:   ‘42.

Panken:   You were playing baseball, and you went directly to college?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Where did you go…

Donaldson: North Carolina A&T [North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University]. Greensboro, North Carolina.

Panken:   How far away is Greensboro from Badin?

Donaldson:   From my home town, 64 miles north.

Panken:   What was that school like?

Donaldson:   Well, it was an agricultural and technical school. They didn’t have a music department. I mean, they had a music department, but they didn’t have a music degree. But I got into the band, and got to play in it, so I was all right.

Panken:   What sorts of things did you play in that band, and what sorts of things were you used to playing…

Donaldson:   Marching bands and little semi-classical tunes.

Panken:   Where I’m going with this is, were you performing at all as a kid in Badin?

Donaldson:   No, no-no, no-no. Nothing in Badin. Nobody performed there but Country-and-Western. Roy Acuff. Hank Williams. People like that. They didn’t have no jazz.

Panken:   No black bands were coming through.

Donaldson:   No, no-no. We had a big station, WBT, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they had one guy there named Grady Cole. Grady Cole had one record by Louis Armstrong, “Bye, Bye Blackbird” on one side, “St. James Infirmary” on the other side, and he played it every… He loved it. I got to hear Louis singing and stuff. So that created my interest in jazz.

Panken:   Hearing Louis Armstrong on that record.

Donaldson:   That’s right. On that record.

Panken:   When you got to Greensboro, did jazz start to enter the picture more?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Because see, back then you couldn’t play jazz in college. If they caught you practicing jazz in the practice room, you couldn’t practice any more. They didn’t like jazz. They didn’t like nothing but classical and band music—the teachers. But what happened to me, a guy came from Seattle, Washington, named Billy Tolles, and he had been around all the musicians, and he had his saxophone. He could play. Excellent player. He knew Coleman Hawkins’ “Body and Soul” and he knew Lester Young’s “Just You, Just Me,” and used to play those things. He was way ahead of all of us country boys. We didn’t know anything like that. So we kind of idolized him and started to learn him. Whenever he went back for a break, we’d give him $2 or $3 to bring us back some jazz records, and he would do it.

Panken:   So you got into jazz, it sounds like, by memorizing solos…

Donaldson:   Well, not exactly memorizing. I sent for the music.  I got Benny Goodman’s records, “Let’s Dance,” and Artie Shaw’s record, “Summit Ridge Drive.” I got the music. He’d bring the music back, and I’d practice…I’d learn them.

Panken:   You learned the solos off the transcriptions.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   When did you start to transition from clarinet to alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s a funny story. In 1945 I was drafted into the U.S. Navy. I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. And I went to Great Lakes. When you go to Great Lakes, you have a pool, say, of about 200 musicians. Anybody who says they’re a musician, they put them in the pool. A lot of them wasn’t that good. But I went in that pool, and I never went down to take an audition, because a lot of guys were there and they had this hair with the stuff in it…

Panken:   Pomade.

Donaldson:   They had the slick hair, and they’d walk with a hump in their back, and they brought their horn, their instrument. I didn’t take an instrument. I’d be talking to them and they said, “Yeah, I worked with Count Basie…” So I was there with my friend, Carl Foster. We came from A&T. I said, “Carl, no need for us to try out. We can’t compete with these guys. This guy has been with Lionel Hampton’s band.” They were lying, of course, heh-heh-heh. So we didn’t even take the test.

One day I went by the band room, and I heard a clarinet squeaking in there, SQUEAK-SQUEAK-SQUEAK. So I just stuck my head in the door, like in the Navy, you know, “Who the fuck is making all that noise in there with that clarinet?” The bandmaster was in there giving somebody a lesson. He said, “Oh, you think you can do better?” I said, “Yeah, give me that thing.” So he gave me the clarinet, and I ran it up. So he put up some music and I played it. I knew it anyway. Then he put up some hard music. I played that, too. He said, “You’re the best clarinet player around here. Do you play saxophone, too?” I said, “Yeah.” [LAUGHS] I hadn’t touched the saxophone! But what he did, he gave me a clarinet, which then was like an Army issue. Everything was metal. The clarinet was metal and the saxophone was metal. He gave me and said, “Take that back to the barracks, and come back two weeks later.” So I took it back to the barracks and I started practicing. By the end of the two weeks, I could play the saxophone, enough to read the music.

I woke up one morning, they had a sign up there that said, “Donaldson, report to the band.” Man, these other cats were looking sad! So as I was making my bags I’d walk by where they were, and I’d say, “You jive…” Neither one of them got in the band. Neither one of them. I told my friend, Foster, and he went down there and auditioned and he got in right away, because he could play trumpet and piano—he was an excellent musician. That’s how is started paying saxophone?

Panken:   Were you drafted in 1944 or 1945?

Donaldson:   1945.

Panken:   Ok. I’d read 1944 somewhere. There were a lot of musicians who were legitimate musicians at Great Lakes.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Some of the names I have are Willie Smith, great alto player.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Clark Terry.

Donaldson:   Yeah, right.

Panken:   Ernie Wilkins.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Major Holley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Jimmy Nottingham.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Wendell Culley.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Luther Henderson.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   Talk a bit about how the band were set up, the types of things they played, the functions they played.

Donaldson:   What they did, after they broke down the bands, they had about ten bands. Now, these guys you’re talking about were a little older than me. They played in a band they called the A-band.  Then they had another band. The guys were a little older. The B band. I was in the C band, because I was 18, and most of the guys in the band where I was were 18 years old. We were young people. But at the end of all the rehearsals and everything during the day, they’d have jam sessions, so we’d go and sneak on in, and play with the big boys…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

Donaldson:   It was great. A great set-up.

Panken:   What sorts of things were they playing then?

Donaldson:   Whatever was happening during that day. “Take The A Train,” “Satin Doll,” stuff like that. “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” A lot of stuff.

Panken:   I also read that you had some leaves in Chicago, and you saw Charlie Parker for the first time in Chicago with Billy Eckstine.

Donaldson:   Yes, with Billy  Eckstine.

Panken:   Did you spend much time in Chicago, or did you go in every…

Donaldson:   I went in there every… Well, Chicago is not but 40 miles from Waukegan.

Panken:   So talk a bit about that scene, and the places you went.

Donaldson:   Well, I went in Chicago every weekend. I’d go down to the Crown Propellor and see Pete Brown. Pete Brown was down there. I’d go to another place to see a Dixieland band. I can’t remember the band right now, the names of them… Then I’d go down to the DeLisa Club. There was a guy named Red Saunders.

Panken:   He had the big band there. A drummer.

Donaldson:   That’s right. It was at 55th Street and State. Black people couldn’t go past there. You go past there… They’d shoot a black cat if he went past there. That was the end of the line. But they had a great show and a great band. Chicago was great.

But I went down there because the guys in the Navy had been telling me about Charlie Parker. I had never heard him, and I went down to see him in Billy Eckstine’s Band. When I saw him, it was very depressing, because he looked like he hadn’t had a bath in years, and his suit was hanging. I said, “Is that him?” But once he started playing, it was a different situation. I never heard anything like that. I said, “Man, what the hell is he doing?” Boy, he was PLAYING some saxophone.

Panken:   I’ve also heard that he was an extraordinary lead alto player? That he made the section phrase like him…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Do you have any recollection of that?

Donaldson:   No, I don’t have any recollection of that. Because the night I went down there, he was so high, he couldn’t play the lead. Budd Johnson had switched from tenor to alto, and he was playing the head in the band the night I saw him.

Panken:   Was Gene Ammons in Eckstine’s band then?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Gene Ammons and Dexter Gordon. A lot of people were in there.

Panken:   By this time, were you listening more regularly to records…

Donaldson:   Well, they didn’t have many records. They had but one or two records, “Jumpin’ The Blues” by Jay McShann…

Panken:   But in general, not just…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’d listen to anything that I figured was jazz. But I wasn’t a record addict, because I didn’t really want to hear anything but what he was playing, and once I heard him…

Panken:   So based on “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Charlie Parker with McShann, it changed your…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that changed everything. Not me. Everybody.

Panken:   Talk about how it changed you. What did it do?

Donaldson:   Well, it made me want to pursue music as a profession. Because actually, when I went to college, as I told you, I was an honor roll—I was planning to go on to probably pre law school or something. My parents wanted me to do something else. Because I was asthmatic, and they figured that playing a horn is the latest thing they’d want you to do. But they were wrong, because playing the horn actually made me survive. The diaphragm, breathing, and stuff like that; it made my lungs much stronger than weaker. That’s what it made for me.

Panken:   Listening to you now, it’s obvious how influential Charlie Parker was, but you’ve also talked about listening to a lot of alto saxophonists who were active then…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I heard them.

Panken:   Eddie Vinson.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Tab Smith.

Donaldson:   Right. Louis Jordan.

Panken:   Earl Bostic.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Earl Bostic.

Panken:   Talk about those people, and how you assimilated…

Donaldson:   Well, those people were so great. Every one of those people had a different style. See, not like it is today when everybody plays the same way. But back then, they had a different style. Earl Bostic was the greatest technician I’ve ever heard on a saxophone. He could play three octaves. I eventually got to talk to him, and he told me what mouthpiece I should use, and reed, and I’ve been using them ever 1957.

Panken:   What kind of those?

Donaldson:   Meyer #6 mouthpiece, #2½ reed. Now I’m down to 1½ because old age has caught up with me, so…

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 2]

[BEGINNING OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 3]

Panken:   We just took a short break, and Lou found a sheet of paper with information that perhaps can supplement some of the things we’ve spoken about. What have you got?

Donaldson:   Not what you want. This is not it

Panken:   Well, you know what we can do? Perhaps we can find it and go over that material tomorrow, and interpolate that later.

Donaldson:   yes, this is another thing here. It’s a family reunion schedule of all my people. But anyway, it was Livingstone College. That’s the name of the college that my father went to.

Panken:   We were just discussing alto saxophonists. You mentioned Earl Bostic. But could you talk a bit about each of the people I mentioned, and how they affected you? Let’s say, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

Donaldson:   Well, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson affected me because he was a good blues player. That’s the way I play, you know. I used to see him all the time in Cootie Williams’ band. He was great in Cootie Williams’ band. Then he started doing solo, and I got to see him. He sang a little bit, too, which I’m doing now.

Panken:   You’ve been doing that for 20 years or so.

Donaldson:   Yes. Eddie was a good songwriter, too. He wrote a couple of songs that Miles stole and put his name on.

Panken:   “Four” was one of them, right?

Donaldson:   “Four.” Ha-ha. You know about it, yeah.

Panken:   “Tune-Up” maybe?

Donaldson:   “Tune-Up,” yup. Yeah, you know about it. That’s what was happening back then. It’s a different world.

Panken:   So you did see Cootie Williams coming through…

Donaldson:   Greensboro.

Panken:   This was once you got back from the Army.

Donaldson:   Yeah. From the Navy.

Panken:   But when you were there, were you checking Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter

Donaldson:   Right. I used to play all of Johnny Hodges’ solos. Benny Carter came through and wrote an arrangement for our college band. We played that. There were some nice cats. Tab Smith came through. At that time, Tab was playing with Count Basie’s band. But he was from Wilson, North Carolina, so he was a North Carolinian.

Panken:   When were you discharged from the Navy?

Donaldson:   I don’t know…it was the summer of ‘45.

Panken:   So you were only in for a few months.

Donaldson:   11 months, yes.

Panken:   So you went back to Greensboro after that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I went back to A&T. A&T College.

Panken:   At this point, were you starting to be a professional musician?

Donaldson:   No, not at that point. When I went back, it was the middle of the semester, and I didn’t stay on the campus. I had to get me a room out in the town. I was still making up some courses that I had lost during those 11 months.  After I got the courses made up, I started actually to play a little commercial music in a club called the Mombassa Club. The guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, he had the band. Nipsey Russell was the comedian. First job Nipsey ever played. Nipsey was a Lieutenant in the Army, and he was a very smart guy, as you know, if you watch him on TV. He came to Greensboro, and settled, and started working as an emcee in this club.

Panken:   The spelling?

Donaldson:   M-o-m-b-a-s-s-a.

Panken:   Did I read somewhere that Ellington came through?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Ellington came down there. He came down to the club, and brought all the musicians. We met them, talked to them. Russell Procope…

Panken:   The band played an engagement there?

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played a dance.

Panken:   What was it like hearing the Ellington band?

Donaldson:   Oh, it was great. It was much different than the other bands. Ellington actually had a different type of band. But I had heard about all the guys and read about them, so I just wanted to see them—like Taft Jordan and Cootie Williams, then he brought Jimmy Hamilton in… He had a great band. Russell Procope. It was a great band.

Panken:   What other bands came through Greensboro?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, all of them came through there. Jay McShann. Andy Kirk. Erskine Hawkins. Lionel Hampton, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Illinois Jacquet, of course. Louis Jordan. Several other bands—I can’t think of all of them.

Panken:   So this was all during that year or two after you were discharged from the Navy.

Donaldson:   Right. From the Navy. Right.

Panken:   They were all coming through Greensboro on their southern tours.

Donaldson:   Yeah. They had 60 one-nighters from New York to Florida.

Panken:   Who did? Each of the different bands…

Donaldson:   No, it was a tour down there they called the Weinberg Tour. A guy named Weinberg used to book them. He bought all the dance halls from New York to Florida, and he’d send the bands down there, and they played. Dizzy’s band came through there.

Panken:   What did the Mombassa Club look like? How was it set up?

Donaldson:   Ah, just a club. Kind of dark in there. It was an exotic looking club. Heh-heh. For the South.

Panken:   Did you get something different from all these bands? Did you like all of them? Did you have favorites?

Donaldson:   I liked all of them. I used to go to see all the bands. Because, see, we were in college, and we could go down and get in the dance hall before the customers got in there. They let us in there because they knew us, and we’d meet the musicians and talk to them. A funny story I had, I went down there, and… Luis Russell came through there. I went down there, and I saw this young kid back there setting up the drums. I said, “Oh, that must be Luis Russell’s son.” He set up the drums and everything, and started playing a little bit on them. I said, “Oh yeah, he can play a little drums, too.” Then eventually, all the band members came. And he went and put on a coat, just like the band members. I said, “Oh, he got a coat, too.” I never knew who he was. So finally, Luis Russell came in, and the kid was playing. I said, “Why is he playing? The drummer didn’t come?” The guy said, “He is the drummer.” I said, “What is his name?” “Roy Haynes.” Roy Haynes. Roy told me he was about 17 years old then. Every time I see him, he cracks up.

Panken:   Any other good anecdotes about the bands? Memorable experiences seeing them…

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. When I came back from the Navy, they had an Army base in Greensboro, the O.R.D., Overseas Replacement Depot. I was back at the cottage, and the guys from the Army band used to come over and play with the other band. They hadn’t seen me. Then I came back, and I’m playing bebop. I’m not playing like the guys around Greensboro. The guy said, “Who is this guy? Is this guy from New York?” They said, “No, he’s from here.” They said, “Oh, no, he can’t be from here playing like that.” But see, I had been in the Navy.  When I found out who was there—James Moody, Dave Burns, a saxophone player named Joe Gale, Linton Garner (Errroll’s brother), Walter Fuller (Dizzy’s arranger), all of them were right in that band. It was a great band, and then I started going, playing with them. I got to meet them, play with them. It was nice.

Panken:   Talk about how for you the Ellington band was different.

Donaldson:   Well, they had Harry Carney.  Anybody with Harry Carney, the saxophone section is going to sound different, because he was a great, GREAT baritone player. Big sound and everything. And Johnny Hodges, the way he played. It was a special band. You couldn’t… Duke had picked them just right. He wrote his arrangements very compatible with the guys who were playing them. Ray Nance run out with his trumpet… It was a different kind of band. It wasn’t just a jazz band. See, critics got carried away hollering about a jazz band, but they played a whole lot more stuff than jazz.

Panken:   You’ve been talking each of the alto saxophone players you liked—and I suppose on tenor and baritone, too—all having an individual sound, a stamp…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they played different.

Panken:   An “I.D.,” you’ve called it before.

Donaldson:   All of them played their I.D. Right. They had their I.D.

Panken:   How did that start to develop for you? Was it something you were consciously striving for?

Donaldson:   No, not really.

Panken:   Was it something that happened as a result…

Donaldson:   Not really. I wanted to play nothing but bebop. That’s all I wanted to play. But after I got married and had two daughters going to college, and I’m trying to pay our house mortgage, I had to play some other type of gigs. So I had to kind of temper my music to the people I was playing for. A lot of people said, “Oh, you’re not playing jazz no more.” But I was playing exactly what I had to play to keep those jobs.

Panken:   I want to talk about that. But what I’m trying to focus on now are these developmental years, before you get married, before you move to New York, when you’re still in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I didn’t…

Panken:   Were you think about that sort of individuality at the time?

Donaldson:   No, nothing but bebop back then. I wasn’t thinking about nothing individual.

Panken:   Was learning bebop a matter of getting all the Charlie Parker records and learning the solos…

Donaldson:   That’s right. Learning the solos and learning the standards that they came from. Most of those tunes came from standards. They just put another figure on the chords, and that’s how they played them. In fact, I wrote a thesis down there at North Carolina A&T, for my graduation thesis, and they took it and book-binded it and made it a book, and now all the students who go through the college have to study my book.

Panken:   What’s the name of the thesis?

Donaldson:   The Transition From Swing To Bebop.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Is it a musicological analysis?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. I got illustrations and chords, broke down the chords and everything. 1947.

Panken:   So you were extremely analytical.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. And critical. Analytical and critical.  So I was in good shape.

Panken:   I gather that you made your first visit to New York in 1948?

Donaldson:   1947. ‘47…or ‘48.

Panken:   Whatever the case, let’s talk about that experience.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, our band came to play halftime at the New York Giants’ game.

Panken:   Ah, the North Carolina A&T…

Donaldson:   The North Carolina A&T band, One of our players, a guy named Stonewall Jackson [Robert ‘Stonewall’ Jackson] , was signed by the Giants, and we came up and played the halftime ceremonies.

Panken:   So he would have been one of the first African-American NFL players.

Donaldson:   That’s right. I got to meet all the guys. Frank Gifford. Emlen Tunnell was there. He was (?—13:17). But it was great. Then I went down to 52nd Street, of course, because I had been reading about it. We had a shortwave radio. We could pick up music from New York once in a while. It faded out, but you could pick it up. Bands from New York. Like, when they had the Benny Goodman Hour, the Chesterfield, and Harry James… We could pick up those bands, and we could hear that on shortwave down in North Carolina. And when we were there, I went over down to 52nd Street, and went to see Dizzy and… It was supposed to be Charlie Parker, Sid Catlett and them, but Charlie Parker wasn’t there as usual, you know, and they had this little short guy playing saxophone. Ray Brown was in the band. So I asked Ray, “Ray, who is that guy? He sounds almost as good as Charlie Parker.” Ray said, “He sounds better than Charlie Parker.” I said, “Oh, yeah? What’s his name?” He said, “Don Byas.” And sure enough, I went back the next night to hear the band, and the band sounded much better with Don Byas than it did with Charlie Parker. Because Charlie was all messed-up and couldn’t half-play, but Don Byas was great. He was great.

Panken:   Had you known about him before? Had you heard the records he did with Dizzy?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him.

Panken:   I think “Anthropology” was one of them…

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew about him. And he made this record with Slam Stewart, Slam Stewart and Don Byas, just two instruments. He was great. He was a great player.

Panken:   What else did you do that first visit to New York?

Donaldson:   I went by the Onyx Club, too, to see my favorites. And very depressing. Heh-heh. The Onyx Club. That was on 52nd Street, too. They had J.J. and Sonny Stitt, Bud Powell, Miles, and every one of them was all messed up. It was terrible. Very depressing.

Panken:   Were they playing well?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, they played good, but I said, “Man, I can’t… I don’t think I can handle this.”

Panken:   So this discouraged any ideas you might have had about coming up to New York right away…

Donaldson:   I mean, and playing with them.  It didn’t discourage me about coming to New York. But playing in that scene, I couldn’t do that, because it was too hazardous.

Panken:   Did you check out the scene in Harlem the first time you went to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I came to Harlem, I went through Harlem. I saw the scenes. I saw the scenes in Harlem.

Panken:   Was it overwhelming to be in New York?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. It was overwhelming to be in New York. You got to see all the musicians. It was great. I went to the Baby Grand. By that time, Nipsey had moved to New York, and he brought me around to the Baby Grand. I got to meet all the musicians. It was great.

Panken:   Who’d you meet?

Donaldson:   Well, I met everybody who was playing in there. A guy named…I can’t think of his name…a bass player… It was a long time. But then I went on down the street, and I met other people, like Percy France, and I met another guy down there… Lockjaw was in Minton’s. Big Nick was over at the Paradise, and Willis Jackson was in Smalls. So I got to see all of those guys.

Panken:   That was a heady visit. A great preparation.

Donaldson:   A great visit. I couldn’t keep myself away from New York then.

Panken:   Well, it must have let you know that you belonged here, or that you’d be able to deal with the scene when you got here. It must have been a very good gauge for your own progress.

Donaldson:   Yeah, because the bands used to come through North Carolina, and I used to sit in with the bands. Like Dizzy and Illinois Jacquet, all of them used to say, “Man, what you doing down here? You should be in New York.” I said, “Well, I don’t know about that.” They’d say, “You need to be in New York, man. You’re wasting time down here.” So finally I just decided to come on to New York. So I came over to New York.

Panken:   Before we bring you here permanently, you played semipro baseball for a couple of years.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played down there. Played baseball.

Panken:   You were a third baseman?

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What sort of player were you?

Donaldson:   I was the best. Nobody better.

Panken:   Nobody better at third base, or nobody better…

Donaldson:   Nobody better. Nobody better. If black people had been able to get into the majors then, I’d have been somewhere. Or maybe in the minors. I don’t know if I could have made the majors.

Panken:   So you were the best in North Carolina…

Donaldson:   Well, I was one of the best. We had some good players, but I was one of the best. I could have easily made it. I was a player sort of like Eddie Stanky. That kind of player.

Panken:   Scrappy player.

Donaldson:   Scrappy. I could bunt.

Panken:   Contact hitters. All the fundamentals. Intelligent.

Donaldson:   I could bunt. You couldn’t strike me out.  They called me “Deadeye,” because they couldn’t strike me out. In fact, I’d be in school, and somebody would be pitching a no-hitter out on the ball-field, and they’d come and get me out of the room, to go out and break it up. I was tough! And I had a glove, man. I could wipe up a ball.

Panken:   You had good hands.

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I could wipe up a ball. I used to be the mascot for the senior team when I was a little kid, and after they did it, I’d take infield practice with them, and then they’d bet dollars that the guys couldn’t hit a ball past me. They’d try to hit a ball past me. They couldn’t get it past me. Anything I could reach, I got.

Panken:   Eddie Stanky was a winning ballplayer, that’s for sure. His teams won.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. He was a nuisance.

Panken:   Is that how you would describe yourself?

Donaldson:   Yeah, sort of like that. Sort of like that.

Panken:   So the fall of 1945, you come back to Greensboro from the Navy, and you get your degree from North Carolina AT&T. You’re playing semi-pro baseball. I think I read that you broke a pinky, and that ended your career…

Donaldson:   Well, it didn’t end my career. I just stopped playing, because I couldn’t play my clarinet once it puffed up.

Panken:   You’re continuing to develop your facility and artistry on your instrument, and you’re getting validation from people like Dizzy Gillespie and the cats in his band…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   …and people like Illinois Jacquet…

Donaldson:   Jacquet, right.

Panken:   …and they’re telling you to come to New York—and you spend some time in New York. So finally, in 1950,  was it…

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   You make the move. Talk about the circumstances. I gather that you followed your future wife, who moved here.

Donaldson:   Yes, I followed my future wife. Because she came up as like a work-in maid or whatever it was. You know, they used to get girls from the South, bring them to New York, and they’d work. She came up here, then I said, “Well, I got to go,” and I came on up. I had a good set-up, because I didn’t have to do any work, because I was a G.I. So I went to the Darrow Institute of Music.

Panken:   On the G.I. Bill?

Donaldson:   Yeah, on the G.I. Bill.

Panken:   Where was Darrow Institute of Music?

Donaldson:   58th-59th and Broadway.

Panken:   What sort of school was it?

Donaldson:   You know, a music school. A lot of musicians. Right next to it was the Hartnett Studio, and they had big bands all day, so I could go over and sit in the section and practice.

Panken:   At this point, you’re playing primarily alto saxophone?

Donaldson:   Alto saxophone.

Panken:   Clarinet is a doubling instrument by now.

Donaldson:   Yeah, doubling. I was about to throw that away.

Panken:   So you’re a full-fledged alto saxophonist.

Donaldson:   Yes, alto saxophone.

Panken:    By the way, what your late wife’s name?

Donaldson:   Maker. Maker Donaldson.

Panken:   Talk a bit about getting settled in New York, and acclimated to New York. Where did you live when you came here?

Donaldson:   I lived with my brother-in-law, ex-brother-in-law. He had an apartment up on St. Nicholas Avenue and 155th Street. So I didn’t have to pay any rent.

Panken:   Near the Polo Grounds.

Donaldson:   Right across from the Polo Grounds. I used to go out and stand on the bridge out there with binoculars and see the whole game. I couldn’t see the catcher and the batter, but I could see the pitcher and everything. When they hit a ball, you could tell where it was going by where the outfielders went. Eventually, I got enough money to start going to the Polo Grounds. $1.75 for the bleachers. One day I was sitting out there, and I see this big fat cat come up, weighed about 400 pounds. He sat by me and said, “Yeah, Lou, what you doing out here?” It’s Bob Weinstock. I said, “Man! What you doing out here in the bleachers?” He said, “I can see the game better from here.” He was right, because we were sitting out there in 1951 when Bobby Thompson hit that home run. In the Polo Grounds, seat 7… The game started about 1 p.m., so it was about 4:30, and there always was a haze over the stadium. He hit the ball, and we couldn’t see where it went, but we saw all the people jump up in that Section 21, and once we saw the people jump up in Section 21, Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese turned their heads down and started walking back towards the outfield, because that’s where we were, sitting right out there…

Panken:   The dressing rooms were in center field, by the bleachers.

Donaldson:   Right by the bleachers. They started walking back. So we knew the game was over. Eddie Stanky runs down and jumps up in Leo Durocher’s arms. Leo was coaching third base that day. So I got to see all of that.

Panken:   By then, you’d been in New York about a year and a half.

Donaldson:   Two or three years.

Panken:   Well, if you got there in 1950, and his was 1951…

Donaldson:   Seemed like I’d been there longer.

Panken:   So you’re going to music school, and I assume that you start to make the rounds and establish contacts.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Right.

Panken:   Let’s go into some detail about that. Who some of the first people were that you played with, and…

Donaldson:   Well, the funniest thing about it, when I got there and I got to playing, and the guys said, “Yeah, man, you play good, but you’d better get a tenor, because alto players can’t work in New York.” I said, “Oh, no?” So one night I took my alto, I went around to every club on ‘25th Street and down on ‘16th Street, and I sat in with all the bands, and I came back the next day and I was laughing. They said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “I don’t know whether it’s alto or tenor, but any job there I can get, because the guys there can’t play anything.”

Panken:   Why did you say that?

Donaldson:   Well, that’s just the way they talked. “You’ve got to play tenor.” Because then, see, everybody was walking the bar, playing “Flying Home” and stuff like that. But I got to working with a club where they had singers.

Panken:   Which club was that?

Donaldson:   The Top Club, and some gigs at the Baby Grand, and some gigs at Smalls Paradise. They used to have entertainers. I got to playing in these clubs, and eventually I got to working with Dud Bascomb’s band, the trumpet player with Erskine Hawkins. He got a band, and we started working out in New Jersey, not too far from the prison out there, at a place called the Chicken Shack.

Panken:   In Jersey.

Donaldson:   In Jersey. That was my regular gig, I could play that, but I could take off any time I wanted to if I got another gig. I was set up pretty good.

Panken:   So you were interested in bebop, but on these gigs you weren’t playing bebop.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I played bebop when I took a solo. I played the music, but I played bebop when I took a solo.

Panken:   Who were some of the singers you played behind in those clubs?

Donaldson:   Oh, man, I played with great singers. A woman named Lady Hallocue [PHONETIC] [spelling?—26:46] She could sing. She had some weird songs. You really had to be up on your p’s and q’s. I played with a female impersonator, a guy named Phil Black. Best-looking man I ever saw in my life! He put on his dresses… He had the best clothes. I’ve never seen a woman with clothes that good! Every night, somebody was hugging and kissing him, and trying to take him home with them! That was good. It was good down there.

But it was good. I played behind Johnny Hartman. And Arthur Prysock. There were a lot of good singers around.

Panken:   So these clubs all had shows still at the time.

Donaldson:   They had shows.

Panken:   They had, like, a little chorus line maybe?

Donaldson:   Well, not a chorus line. They’d have one woman who was supposed to be an interpretive dancer, but she was…

Panken:   Shake dancer?

Donaldson:   …nothing but a strip. She wasn’t nothin’ but a striptease dancer.

Panken:   Exotic dancer, as they might say.

Donaldson:   That’s right. But she wasn’t no interpretive… Didn’t interpret nothin’ but stripping off them clothes. But that was good. See, the only thing about that, you didn’t get to play but one song. You’d bring on the show with the one song, and from then on you’re playing background.

Panken:   So there’d be a dancer, there’d be a singer, there’d be a comedian…

Donaldson:   A comedian, right.

Panken:   One instrumental act?

Donaldson:   Or one instrumental tune. The rest of them would be backup until you played the closing song.

Panken:   How big was the band?

Donaldson:   Usually three or four pieces.

Panken:   So who were you playing with? Were you the leader by this time?

Donaldson:   Oh, no, I wasn’t the leader of a lot of the bands. I played with a lot of bands. A lot of bands. I played with a guy named Charlie Singleton. He made a lot of background records for singers, and I got that, too. That was a little extra money. It was great.

Panken:   So no wonder you were learning all the tunes, had so many tunes in your bag.

Donaldson:   I knew all the tunes. Knew all the music, all the tunes, and I was just assimilating them and cataloguing them.

Panken:   So this is what you’re doing in 1950 and 1951… How long did you go to Darrow Institute?

Donaldson:   I went there until I guess about ‘52.

Panken:   ‘52 happens to be the year that you start your long relationship with Blue Note Records and make your first sessions with Blue Note? But before we get there, I have just a couple of other questions. Did you ever play in any territory bands?

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   Was Dud Bascomb’s  band a big band?

Donaldson:   Oh, we went out. We played…

Panken:   So you did play in some big bands?

Donaldson:   Yes, right.

Panken:   Was that a good experience, playing in big bands?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Good bands.

Panken:   Talk about why.

Donaldson:   Well, because you got to travel. You got to go to towns. You got to see people.

Panken:   And they got to see you, I guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah. And you got to know the grinds of music. Because there was a certain grind you have to really go through before you get indoctrinated into the music business. Because, see, the bandleaders are always… I worked with Lionel Hampton for a while. The bandleaders always drive off to the Hilton Hotel, and stop the bus. Then you had to get out, and we had to walk down the street and find a Y, because they wasn’t payin’ no money, so we had to get the YMCA, $2 or $3 a night room. We didn’t make any money.

Panken:   Were there boarding houses, too? Did you stay in people’s private houses?

Donaldson:   Yeah, boarding houses.

Panken:   How did that work? Did they differ in quality, where some were nice, some weren’t nice?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Some were nice and some weren’t nice.

Panken:   They’d feed you breakfast?

Donaldson:   Yeah, most of them would feed you breakfast.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking just a few other things about Harlem, circa 1950-51? Were there restaurants where musicians liked to eat after the gig?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   What were some of those restaurants.

Donaldson:   Well, the only place I ate was the Sheffield Café. That was on 126th and 8th Avenue. But most of the musicians used to go up to Wells, and have chicken-and-waffles. Wells Café. That was a famous restaurant.

Panken:   What sort of food did they have at the Sheffield Café?

Donaldson:   Well, they had breakfast food. Bacon, eggs, grits, biscuits.

Panken:   So breakfast after the gig.

Donaldson:   Yeah. $1.25. That’s all you had to pay.

Panken:   What was the schedule like at the clubs? 10 to 5?

Donaldson:   10 to 4 a.m. in New York and about 10 to 5 in Brooklyn.

Panken:   How many sets would that be?

Donaldson:   Well, what would happen was this. We’d hit at 10. We’d play 2 or 3 sets, and then we’d try to stretch it. But eventually, what would happen, about 3 or 4 o’clock, the pimps would come in with their women. They’d got the money. They’d come in and set up the bar, and the man said, “Well, they set up the bar; you’ve got to play a little extra.” So we ended up playing til 5 o’clock.

Panken:   Would they tip?

Donaldson: Joe Louis would come in there, and then everybody’d see him and then run to Joe, and Joe, you know how he was: “Give everybody a drink!” So the man said, “You’ve got to play a little set for Joe.”

Panken:   So you were playing for a full spectrum of society.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   Who would be there earlier in the night, and how would it…

Donaldson:   Oh, they had all kind of people coming in there. It’s hard to say now. I knew all of them. Adam Clayton Powell…

Panken:   This is Smalls you’re talking about?

Donaldson:   No, this is Minton’s. Malcolm X used to stick his head in the door, but he didn’t come in there. The big gangsters, Bumpy Johnson, all those people, they used to come in. Another guy named Red Dillon. He was… Phew! Dangerous man. But he used to come in there. See, they had a cook in there named Adele, and everybody loved her cooking.

Panken:   This was at Minton’s.

Donaldson:   At Minton’s. So they’d come in and eat.

Panken:   What were her specialties?

Donaldson:   Fish and chicken. She could cook. She was a good cook.

Panken:   Were meals on the house, or did you have to pay for them?

Donaldson:   No, we had to pay for them! Wasn’t no meals on the house.

Panken:   I’m actually surprised. Don’t know why, but…

Donaldson:   No meals on the house then.

Panken:   Another question. As a musician, you had to be sharp. You had to dress well. Were there particular tailors that the musicians went to, that you went to?

Donaldson:   No. I’d be working at Minton’s, and the boosters would come by.

Panken:   Oh, I see. Off the rack from the…

Donaldson:   They’d come by and look at you. “42-short.” Every time, I’d know what they’re going to say. He’d pull out a nice one. I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I like that.” He said, “Yeah? Well, $100.” They always do that. But I say, “All right. I’ll talk to you later.” But I’d wait until the end of the night, and when I see him on the corner he’s still got that suit. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, here’s $25—give me that suit!] [LOUD LAUGH] And he gave me the suit. I saw a guy… One night, a guy had a brand-new cello. I don’t know where he stole it. He must have gone down to the Philharmonic or somewhere. He was outside the door. When I came out, he said, “Hey, Lou, here’s a cello.” I looked at it and I said, “Man, where did you get that cello from?” He said, “Man, don’t worry about that. $700.” I said, “Man, here. I got $75. Give me that cello. Because the police are going to come down here and ask you to play it, and you’re…” [DISSOLVES WITH LAUGHTER] If I’m taking it, they won’t say nothing to me, because they know I’m a musician, but you walking around the street with that cello…” I took it and gave it to my daughter. My daughter played cello.

Panken:   But this is probably a little later in the ‘50s. Earlier in the ‘50s, who was your contact person to bring you into Blue Note?

Donaldson:   Oh, nobody. They came up… Alfred Lion came up to Minton’s. He might have had Ike Quebec with him.

Panken:   I thought Ike Quebec was his talent scout.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that was later on. But then, I don’t really know whether Ike was with him or not. But he came up to me and said, “Oh, do you want to record for Blue Note?” Well, you know I’m going to tell him “yeah.” He said, “But you’ve got to play like Charlie Parker. Can you play like Charlie Parker?” I thought, “No, I can’t play like Charlie Parker, but I won’t tell him.” I said, “Yeah, I can play like Charlie Parker.” Heh-heh. And I got the date.

Panken:   But before you did that date, you made a sideman date with Milt Jackson and a very interesting date with Thelonious Monk, with three horns.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Do you have pretty thorough memories of those dates?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

[END OF June 20th, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGIN, June 20th, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Back from a quick break. We were just getting to Lou’s Blue Note recording with Milt Jackson on April 7, 1952. This was shortly after Alfred Lion approached you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Yeah, shortly…

Panken:   Who was your band at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   I don’t know who I had then. I’m sorry. I can’t remember the musicians. But what happened, I knew this fighter, Art Woods…

Panken:   Oh, he used to work at Dayton’s Records on 12th and Broadway.

Donaldson:   Yeah, he worked in a record shop. We used to train all the time. He’d come to me… There was a place called Newman’s Studio down there on 116th Street. After I’d practice… I’d give the guy 50 cents to practice, and I’d practice about an hour, then he’d bring his gloves and we’d work out.

Panken:   So you boxed, too.

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I would box.

Panken:   What was your weight?

Donaldson:   Featherweight. I was a good boxer. What I wanted to do, in case somebody bothered me, I’d knock them out. But I didn’t have nothing to worry about, because all those guys were junkies. You know what I mean? They couldn’t fight.

He told me, “Lou, let me tell you something. You go around here, you show up to the gigs on time, and you wear your black suit with your black tie, and you don’t drink no liquor, you don’t have no tab—you ain’t gonna make it in this business.” I said, “What you talkin’ about?” He said, “Man, you got to go around and act like you’re high, and buy up some liquor. Even though you don’t drink it yourself, give it to somebody else.” Man, I took his solution, and I haven’t been out of a gig since!

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   I’m telling you! I meet people every day who tell me, “Lou, you sure look good since you straightened up.” I say, “Straightened up from what? I don’t even drink a small Miller beer.” [LAUGHS] “No, man, I know I used to see you down there with Bird; you’all was gettin’ high!” I said, “No, you didn’t see me down there with Bird.”  I used to hang around with him, but I wasn’t doing what they were doing.

Panken:   Did you hang out with Charlie Parker at all? Did you get to know him?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I finally got to know him when I came to New York and stayed for a while, and I got to see him a lot.

Panken:   After 1950.

Donaldson:   Yeah, after 1950.

Panken:   Did you talk to him? Did you spend time with him?

Donaldson:   Yes, a lot of time spent…

Panken:   Can you describe the relationship?

Donaldson:   Well, he was a brilliant guy. We talked about politics…and a lot of things. He was a smart guy. But he had that bad habit.

Panken:   Did he show that habit around you, or did he keep it from you?

Donaldson:   No, he didn’t show it too much around me.

Panken:   I gather that certain people he might not show it to at all. They might not even know that he got high, unless they’d know what to look for.

Donaldson:   Well, he knew I knew he got high, but he didn’t really exaggerate it around me.

Panken:   Do you recall the particulars of any of your conversations? Any one or two encounters that stand out?

Donaldson:   Not really. Because he was like the rest of the people who were drug addicts. They worked 24 hours a day to get money for the next hit. That was their daily procedure.  A lot of times when I’d see him, I’d go to the other side of the street because…

Panken:   So you wouldn’t give him money.

Donaldson:   I didn’t have anything to give him.

Panken:   So part of your interaction was he would want to get a little money.

Donaldson:   Of course. Money was always… But he talked to me. We talked.

Panken:   Did you ever sit in with him?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. What happened, one night in the Paradise I was there, and he came in, and I was sitting in with Big Nick Nicholas, and when Charlie Parker came in, there were about ten saxophone players on the stand, and all of them ran, you know, like a rattlesnake was coming in there. I was getting ready to get off the stand, too, and he said, “No, you play with me.” I said, “Man, I’m not playing with you.” He said, “Yeah. If you don’t play, I’m not going to play.” So the manager comes by and says, “Man, you’ve got to play now, because Bird says he’s not going to play if you don’t play.” I said, “Ok.” So we played a couple of tunes, “I Got Rhythm” or something. I played, and he leaned over to me and said, “Man, what was that you played on that thing? That was some nice stuff” It was stuff I had copied off one of his records. So I said to myself, “Is he pulling my leg, or is he really sincere?” That’s when I realized the guy was a genius. He didn’t really remember.

Panken:   You mean, he’d invented it, but he hadn’t memorized it.

Donaldson:   He couldn’t remember it.

Panken:   But you were analytical. You’d written a thesis about the musicological transition from swing to bebop.

Donaldson:   Right. The change to bebop. The change to the alternate chords.

Panken:   How did that work when you were improvised? Did you have set solos, were you…

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t have no set solos, but I had set chord changes. I’d change up the chords a little. Not really a set solo.

Panken:   Again, before Blue Note, did you ever… I think I read on a liner note for one of your recordings that you were in a session or two with Bud Powell.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm. Yeah.

Panken:   What was that like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. With Bud, you know… When I came to New York, Bud was going nuts, going bananas. He was hard to deal with.

Panken:   Were you on an actual gig with him?

Donaldson:   I played some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   His band?

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Where?

Donaldson:    Oh, all around town. A place called Bowman’s up on 155th and St. Nicholas Place, and another club up in there…I can’t think of it… But I played a few gigs with him.

Panken:   So you played his music.

Donaldson:   Some of it.

Panken:   What did you think of his tunes?

Donaldson:   I was crazy about them. Crazy about them. But he was bad with the money. Because he’d get the money, and by the time you got ready to get your pay, he’s gone.

Panken:   Let’s move to these early Blue Note sessions. So Alfred Lion approaches you at Minton’s, or maybe Ike Quebec, we’re not quite clear… But one way or the other, you go in the studio for the first time, at least as recorded in the discographies, on April 7, 1952, with Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Kenny Clarke, and…

Donaldson:   Percy Heath.

Panken:   Percy Heath on bass.  What was that date like?

Donaldson:   It was nice. I didn’t particularly like John Lewis. But it was nice.

Panken:   Were you nervous to be in the studio?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So by this time, you belong. You’re part of the thing.

Donaldson:   Right. I didn’t feel nervous at all.

Panken:   Any specific memories of the date?

Donaldson:   Not really. All I know is I liked Milt. Milt was a good friend of mine.

Panken:   The date with Monk, then. I’ve read a quote from you that you hadn’t worked with Monk before that; that you had to go in and basically read the music down…

Donaldson:   Yeah, try to.

Panken:   Maybe there was a rehearsal before.

Donaldson:   Try to read it. He didn’t write it out like he wanted it played. You had to rehearse it a couple of times. But it ended up fine.

Panken:   There were a couple of tricky tunes on that session.

Donaldson:   Yes, sir.

Panken:    “Skippy” for one.

Donaldson:   “Skippy” is tough. “Carolina Moon” is tough. Tough tune.

Panken:   How did the session go? He’d present the tune, you’d run through it a few times, and then…

Donaldson:   And then we recorded it.

Panken:   How did he express his intentions? Would he be singing it to you?

Donaldson:   He played it on the piano, you know…

Panken:   Had you known Monk before that?

Donaldson:   Yes, I knew him.

Panken:   Because he spent a lot of time at Minton’s, I would think, among other places…

Donaldson:   Not at Minton’s. He was at Blue Note. Every time I went down there, Monk and his wife would be down there, at the company, down there in back of Bloomingdale’s. They’d be down there all the time.

Panken:   What was the office like?

Donaldson:   Wasn’t nothing but just a little place. Wasn’t really an office.

Panken:   Were you a fan of Monk’s compositions, of his music, his musicianship?

Donaldson:   Not really.  I couldn’t use them on my job, because if I played them, I’d be fired. See, back then people hadn’t…they wasn’t compatible with Monk. It took a long time before they got compatible with Monk.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, they wouldn’t buy his records.

Panken:   Oh, you mean before people got used to his music and the sound of it.

Donaldson:   Yes. And the big companies wouldn’t record him. Like Capitol, Columbia, even Savoy—they wouldn’t record him.

Panken:   No, he was on Blue Note, then he went to Prestige…

Donaldson:   Prestige, right.

Panken:   …and then the Riverside things brought his name out… I guess this would be pushing to the future a bit. I read in one interview that you later on worked with Monk in a club with Kenny Dorham, Oscar Pettiford maybe…

Donaldson:   No, Oscar Pettiford was supposed to be there, but they brought Mingus in there.  Max Roach on drums.

Panken:   Where was that?

Donaldson:   The Open Door. No, the Famous Door.

Panken:   I think it would be the Open Door. The Famous Door was long closed…

Donaldson:   Bob Reisner.

Panken:   Yeah, that’s the Open Door. Was it a different experience working with him for a week or two?

Donaldson: Oh yeah, much different.

Panken:   Any memories of that?

Donaldson:   [LAUGHS] Only bad memories.

Panken:   Any bandstand memories? Anything positive you can say about the music…

Donaldson:   Well, what happened the first night, see, he was expecting Oscar Pettiford, and they brought Mingus in there, and he didn’t like Mingus, and he played ensembles, but he never took a solo. And about the second set, I was asking Kenny Dorham, I said, “when is he going to play?” He said, “He’s not. He don’t like Mingus.” I was a low guy on the totem pole. I didn’t have much to say either. So finally, Wilbur Ware staggers in there, and Bob Reisner takes him around the corner and gives him some vitamins…and he comes back. He don’t say nothin’; he just goes up and takes the bass from Mingus and started playing. Monk started to play.

Panken:   Well, he loved Wilbur Ware, yeah.

Donaldson:   Loved Wilbur Ware.

Panken:   I guess you did three 10-inch recordings…or two—one in 1952, one in 1954. The first one is with Horace Silver and Art Blakey and Blue Mitchell, and Gene Ramey.

Donaldson:   It wasn’t Art Blakey. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Were these guys you were working with?

Donaldson:   Yeah, basically.

Panken:   How did the session get set up?

Donaldson:   I set it up myself. We just went down and played them.

Panken:   These are things you’d been playing?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no great stretch to play them.

Panken:   Do you remember…were you working that week?

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Tell me about Blue Mitchell. That was one of his very first recordings.

Donaldson:   Great trumpet player.

Panken:   How did you meet him?

Donaldson:   I met him…he was working with Lloyd Price’s band, and I heard him, and he sounded so beautiful. I said, “Man, I got to get you a date.” So he came on over to the Blue Note. See, a lot of people don’t know, I brought Horace over there, too.

Panken:   I was about to ask you.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I brought Horace. Horace was working…was practicing down at the studio where we used to go and train for boxing, Newman’s Studio down on ‘16th Street. I used to hear him playing piano. So one day I knocked on the door. I said, “Are you a piano player?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “You want some gigs? Can you play a blues?” He said, “Yeah.” So I took him on a couple of gigs. He couldn’t play no blues. I said, “Man, you’re going to have to start playing blues.” Then I used to call him the “old Portuguese piano player.” I said, “Man, you got to go to Harlem and eat you some chitlin’s, some black-eyed peas and rice, and get some feeling.” [LAUGHS] So finally, he started playing kind of bluesy. And you know the rest. He made 15 hit records.

Panken:   So you met him in New York.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   So you had Horace Silver and Blue Mitchell on the date. Had you been working with Arthur Taylor?

Donaldson:   Yes. Art Taylor. Gene Ramey.

Panken:   Well, that’s a helluva band to be working with. Were they with you at Minton’s?

Donaldson:   Actually, we had a band with Kenny Dorham, but Kenny got busted or something. He couldn’t make the date. We had a band with Kenny Dorham and Art Taylor and Gene Ramey.

Panken:   You were pretty close to Kenny Dorham.

Donaldson:   Yeah. We had a band together.

Panken:   I guess you recorded a sextet thing in 1954. How did the relationship start?

Donaldson:   Well, it was just a matter that I had to do a record date, and I needed some musicians I thought could make it.

Panken:   Had you been playing with him before that?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’d been playing with him a little.

Panken:   What kind of guy was he?

Donaldson:   Nice guy. Very nice guy. Very intelligent. But he had a lip problem, you know. Chops problem. But all of them did, Miles and all of them. Chops problem. I don’t know what it was. Probably they didn’t learn how to play correct. The best trumpet player around New York during those times was a guy named Idrees Sulieman. He could play better than any of those guys. But he knew he wasn’t going to get no gigs because all the promoters and all the club owners were Jewish, so he just packed up and went overseas.

Panken:   They didn’t want a guy with a Muslim name, an Islamic name.

Donaldson:   No. Muslim was out. Back then, the Muslims was out.

Panken:   I guess Sahib Shihab had that problem, too.

Donaldson:   Sahib Shihab, right.

Panken:   During the first part of the ‘50s, when you played New York, were you mostly playing in Harlem, or were you playing downtown?

Donaldson:   I was playing in Harlem.

Panken:   Was there a circuit in Harlem? Describe it a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, Harlem was a place where you had to play for the people 100% if you wanted a return engagement. You had to kind of do a little swing. So I got a chance to play at all these clubs. There was a woman around there named Hilda, and she worked… I guess she worked for the Mob—I guess. But she had the inside on all the clubs. So any time I wanted a job, I just called her. I got it right away.

Panken:   How many different clubs were you…

Donaldson:   About ten different clubs.

Panken:   So Smalls, Minton’s…

Donaldson:   Small places, too.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, what would you make for a week in one of these clubs at the time?

Donaldson:   Oh, I don’t know. Not much. Maybe 125 bucks, something like that.

Panken:   That you’d clear, and then you’d pay the guys in your band what, $75 or something…

Donaldson:   Whatever they’d make. $50. Some of them didn’t make any money at all.

Panken:   You also did a very famous session for Blue Note with Elmo Hope and Clifford Brown in 1953.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In the past, you’ve stated, as everyone has, the most laudatory things about Clifford Brown. Had you known him before that session?

Donaldson:   No, not really. I was working with Elmo. Elmo worked in Dud Bascomb’s band, and I saw him every night—you know, when he showed up. I had heard about Clifford Brown. In fact, all the musicians knew about him. But, like, you know, Max and Art, they wasn’t going to bring him to New York, because they’re looking out for theirself, which is I guess…it’s what you do when you’re a junkie. You live from day to day, trying to cop. So it’s a disastrous situation, but that’s the way it is. I knew he was working with Chris Powell, Chris Powell and the Blue Flames, which was a funk group. So I saw he was working in the park down in Harlem, so I went down there to see him, and he wasn’t working, because he was playing piano—because he’d broken his shoulder or something. He was accident-prone. Every time I saw him, he’d had some kind of accident. I told him I wanted him to make this date with me because I’d heard he was a great trumpet player. So he took the trumpet and laid up on the fence, and held it. That’s the only way he could play it. We played, you know, “Confirmation,” two or three tunes. I said, “that’s all right; that’s good.” I said, “Now, as soon as your shoulder gets better, call me.” And when his shoulder got better, he called me. He made the date.

Panken:   Then the following year, the Live at Birdland date with Art Blakey. Had you been playing with Art Blakey for a while?

Donaldson:   No-no, no-no. I wouldn’t trust Art Blakey around the corner.

Panken:   How did… Sorry to ask so many details about so many gigs, but…

Donaldson:   What happened, the company wanted to do a date. Originally, there was Kenny Dorham, Gene Ramey, Art Taylor, Horace Silver, Lou Donaldson. You can tell by the material, Horace and I got all that material together. Art was in California. He’d got busted out there. He couldn’t even get back to New York. But what he did, he saw a bass player out there and told this bass player that if he drove him back to New York in his car, he was going to be his bass player. So I see him one day, and he stops on the street, and he says, “Yeah, Lou, I want you to meet my bass player.” I had to hide my head to keep from laughing. I said, “What the hell are you doing with a bass player with all these bass players in New York who aren’t working?”

So finally, Alfred Lion evidently… Evidently, Alfred Lion was giving him money to get him back to New York, and I go down there and Alfred said, “Well, Art is going to be on the date, and Curley Russell,” which was all right with me, because they could play. The second night after we hit, after Clifford Brown was such a sensation, people were going crazy. Art gets up on the microphone, “Yeah, I want to get these guys together, these young guys…” Me and Horace was looking at each other, saying, “What the hell was he talking about?” The company date was gone. Art Blakey had taken over the date. Alfred Lion was afraid of him, or else he owed Alfred so much money, he made him the leader where he’d get his money back. A lot of people think that was… And then he talked about the Messengers. That wasn’t no Messengers. Art Blakey had a band called the Messengers year before…

Panken:   That was a big band.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Out in Brooklyn. Actually, Ray Copeland was working in that band. There was Art… Idrees Sulieman played trumpet in that band. Colbert Hopkins(?—23:26), Ray Abrams played saxophone… Sahib Shihab played baritone in that band, because Cecil Payne was the baritone player but he left and went on the road with Illinois Jacquet. And this guy, Howard Johnson, who played with Dizzy, played the lead, and the other boy, Ernie Henry, played the third alto. I saw the band. That was the Messengers. But the critics, see, they didn’t know. They said, “Oh, Art got the Messengers.” That was no Messengers band. Art was a con man.

Panken:   Great drummer, though.

Donaldson:   He was a great drummer—when he wanted to be. People ask me that all the time. I say, “Yeah, Art was great when he wanted to be.”

Panken:   What do you mean by that?

Donaldson:   Well, sometimes, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, Art played so good you wanted to go back there and kiss him. But on the weekend, a lot of people came, especially if a woman comes up there and crosses her legs and pulls the dress up over her knees, the arrangement changed, everything changed…heh-heh. You got to know who the bandleader is, and you know ….(?—24:48)…. were drums. You’re supposed to play two choruses. You play one chorus, and you’d hear Art back there, “I got it, I got it, I got it.” [LAUGHS] He’d take over the… You had to let him have it, because he’d drop the tsunami on you back there! An earthquake. A volcanic eruption! I told him one night, “Art, man, you’re the greatest drummer in the world—sometimes.” And he just laughed. [LAUGHED] Any time a good-looking woman comes up there, she definitely has got to know who the bandleader is. She don’t have to ask no questions of nobody. She can tell right away who the leader is. Heh-heh…

Panken:   So that date was a week at Birdland.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   It wasn’t a one-night thing.

Donaldson:   It was a week, a whole week.

Panken:   Was that the only time for that particular band, or did you do further engagements?

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s the only time.

Panken:   I read an interview in which you talked about the difference between bebop and hardbop, and presented that recording as a paradigm-setter for what hardbop was. There was a specific sense of the difference. Can you describe that?

Donaldson:   Well, that was hard bop. It was hard swinging. See, when you accelerate the energy and the sound, you’re playing hard bop. It’s hard to do that. And the way I play, if he upped the sound, you had to up your playing, and that made you press a little more, so you’re playing like hard bop.

Panken:   Was it  a matter of volume or a matter of where the beat was being placed?

Donaldson:    Well, it’s the volume and the beat. Volume and the beat.

Panken:   What about the beat was different between bebop and hardbop?

Donaldson:   Well, it was louder. Art probably was high. He got too high, and in his ears he couldn’t hear how loud he was playing. Evidently. I don’t know. What can I tell you.

Panken:   Did you gig with Max Roach much?

Donaldson:   I did some gigs with him, yeah.

Panken:   Was he playing hard bop or bebop?

Donaldson:   He was playing more like bebop.

Panken:   Again, was that a matter of volume? He wasn’t playing as loud…

Donaldson:   And pressing. Press down. When you bear down, it’s a little different than when you just play. You can play, but then you bear down…when you bear down…

Panken:   Then, between swing and bebop, is it a rhythmic difference, a harmonic difference…

Donaldson:   It’s a harmonic difference between that, and swing is steadier, a steadier rhythm, like the Count Basie mode.

Panken:   Like, say, the way Papa Jo Jones played vis-a-vis the way Max Roach played with displacements and so on.

Donaldson:   Yes, of course.

Panken:   So by 1954, when you’re making these dates, you’ve been primarily a leader for a couple of years, but you’re doing some sessions with other people. And you took a couple of years hiatus from recording, say from mid-1954 until early 1957, when you do the first in a long series of recordings for Blue Note, plus things with Jimmy Smith.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you describe what you were doing during those years?

Donaldson:   I really shouldn’t tell you this, because I’m going to put it in my book. I got mad at Blue Note Records. Angry. Because I went out to do a session one time at Rudy’s house, and we played a couple of tunes, and then some guy came by with some vitamins, and all of them went in the bathroom—Rudy, too. I’m not saying he was doing nothing, but… But he went in there with them, and when they came out, you’re talking about some bad stumblin’ and fumblin’. So I went to Alfred. I said, “Look, Alfred, that’s it. I’m not going to record another record with a junkie. Forget it.” So for two years I didn’t do a record.

So he finally called me back, “You’ve got to do a date.” I said, “I’ll do it, but you’re not going to pick none of the musicians. I’m going to pick them.” And you can see the date, Blues Walk. I had Herman Foster, who was a religious singer, him and his wife—they sang religious music. But I had been going up to Connie’s, a place where they’d jam, and I had been playing with him, and he sounded so good, and we were compatible with our playing.

I went and got Dave Bailey, drummer. Now, Dave was a liquor salesman up on Boston Road. But I used to work at a place called the Apollo Bar up on Boston Road, and he used to come by and sit in—and he played good. I said, “Yeah, this guy is good.” Ok, so I got Herman Foster; I got Dave Bailey.

And then, I got Peck Morrison, bass player, who lived with me in the project. We were in the project. I got him on the date. Then I got Ray Barretto to steady down the rhythm…

Panken:   To play congas.

Donaldson:   Yes. I was working at Showman’s. I was the first band to work at Showman’s.

Panken:   Showman’s Lounge.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Showman’s was right down next to the Apollo Theater then, about 1956 or 1957. I’m working in there, and Ray used to come by and play. I said, “now, look, I don’t want no Puerto Rican drums. I want swing.” He said, “that’s what I’m trying to do; I’m trying to learn how to swing.” And he had his friend with him, a little alto player who had a hump in his back, a guy named Chuck Eubanks. They used to come by all the time. I used to let him sit in.

Panken:   Chuck Eubanks.

Donaldson:   Chuck Eubanks and Ray. So when I finally got ready to make the date, that’s who I had. Herman Foster, Peck Morrison, all these guys. Alfred Lion didn’t know any of them. So he comes there. “I don’t know these guys.” I said, “Alfred, I told you; I’m not going to record with no more junkies.” Because Alfred by then… Now, Alfred was nice at first. But by then, Alfred had a belief … [PAUSE AT 33:09 AS VOICEMAIL PLAYS IN THE BACKGROUND]

Anyway, Alfred Lion’s jaws puffed way out. “I don’t know…” See, at that time, Alfred Lion just didn’t believe that nobody couldn’t play unless they was high. He just got… Like the rest of the record companies. They want to see a guy nod, they go, “Oh, he’s great.” So he finally said, “All right, I’m going to take a chance on this; I know I’m going to lose money.” Man, we made that Blues Walk—let me tell you something. Symphony Sid started to playing it. Spider Burke started to playing it in St. Louis. Daddy-O Dailey started to playing it in Chicago. And this guy in Detroit started… That record was a hit. The first record… They don’t tell you that. The first record that Blue Note ever put out that all the distributors took it, from New York to California, and put it on the jukebox.

Panken:   So the date for Blues Walk that I have is July 28, 1958.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   But you had made three records before that, and Herman Foster was on two of those. The first one in the discography is Wailing With Lou, from January 1957. I’ve got Swingin’ Soul, which is from June 1957. Both are with those groups—Donald Byrd played with on Wailing With Lou. Then there’s a date that a lot of people like, called Lou Takes Off, which is a sextet with Curtis Fuller, Donald Byrd and Sonny Clark…

Donaldson:   And Jamil Nasser.

Panken:   Jamil Nasser and Arthur Taylor as well. Did you and Alfred Lion then reach an understanding?

Donaldson:   There was no understanding. He knew that he didn’t know what was on and I did. When the records started selling. And “The Masquerade Is Over” on the other side.

Panken:   Because you were traveling so much, you must have had a very good feel for what the public wanted to hear.

Donaldson:   That’s the key. I tell that at all my seminars. Every seminar, when I’m talking to young musicians, I say, “Feel out the audience. You try this kind of tune, that kind of tune, the other kind of tune—whatever you like, that’s where you lay.” You lay there with your setup.

Panken:   Now, in ‘55 and ‘56, even though you weren’t recording, you were working.

Donaldson:    Yeah, I worked.

Panken:   Were you starting to tour the country, go outside New York by that time?

Donaldson:   Right. I had my own tour.

Panken:   When did that start happening?

Donaldson:   I don’t know exactly the date, but I got my own tour from New York to California.

Panken:   Who was booking you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, I was booking a lot of the gigs, but another guy named Warren Stevens, who used to work for Ruth Bowen Booking Agency… He’s a guitar player himself. He was a good friend of mine from Columbus, Ohio. He starts booking it.

Panken:   Describe the circuit a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, it was the greatest circuit in the world. I’m the only one that did it—first. Then McDuff and Groove Holmes and Jimmy McGriff and all of them came in later. We started in Rochester at a place called the Pythodd. Jon Hendricks’ brother owned it—Stewart Hendricks. Then we’d go from there to Buffalo, to the Pine Grill. Or another place up there was the Bon Ton. We had about four clubs we could work. Then we’d go to Pittsburgh, play Crawford’s Grill. Then we’d segue into Cleveland. Now, all these places were short jumps. So we didn’t have no transportation problems or nothin’. We’d go to Cleveland. We’d play Leo’s Casino.

Panken:   You’d be a week in each town?

Donaldson:   A week in each town. Sometimes two weeks. Leo’s Casino. Leo’s was on 55th and Central at that time, but he died, and his son took it over and put it on Euclid Avenue. His son is named Leo, too, but this was the original Leo.

Then we’d leave Cleveland, and we’d go to Columbus, Ohio. Now, Warren had a club there himself, right down in town, and he had an unsegregated club, way back then.

Panken:   Were they called black-and-tan then?

Donaldson:   No, this club was called the Sacred Mushroom. But it was integrated. Because somebody threw a bomb in there one night, a stink bomb.

Panken:   This was in Columbus.

Donaldson:   Columbus, Ohio. Then I go down to Dayton, Ohio, a place called the Lavender Lounge. I remember it like it was yesterday. We’d play down there, then we’d go to Louisville, Kentucky, and play a place called the Idle Hour. Some rich guy down there had some money, and he let us play the club. We’d go down there and play, free food and everything. We were on a budget. Then what we’d do…

Did I say Cincinnati? We played Cincinnati, too. We played Cincinnati. Babe Baker’s in Cincinnati. He was like the guy at Minton’s. He wanted nothing but a jazz club. In fact, one day, a disk jockey came in and put some James Brown records or something on the jukebox. He threw them out the window. He said, “don’t bring nothing in here but jazz.”

Then we’d go…from Louisville, we’d go on Highway 50, go into St. Louis. Played the Gaslight Square, sort of like the Village—a lot of clubs down there. A lot of people hang out. Then we’d play over in East St. Louis, which is just 7 miles across the river, right by the Dome, right past the Dome. And we’d go from there to Kansas City, which ain’t but 240 miles. From Kansas City, then we’d go to Wichita, Kansas. I had this all set up. We’d go to Dallas, Texas. We’d go to Houston, Texas. Sometimes, if we could work it out, we’d play one-nighters in small towns, like Port Arthur and Belmont, Corpus Christi—we’d play one-nighters. Then we’d get set and head for California. Get Route 66, we’re gone, all the way to Los Angeles. Played the It Club.

I knew all these guys. All these guys were hustlers, so I knew them. If I didn’t know them, I’d call them two or three weeks in advance and set it up. I was a lucky guy back then. Didn’t make a whole lot of money, but we worked all the time.

Then I’d work San Francisco, and Oakland, a place called M Major’s.  He’s dead now. But we worked in those clubs. Then we’d come on back. We’d bypass Utah, because we knew what was there, and we’d come on into Denver. Then we’d come on back into Omaha. We had a schedule. 500 more miles, we’re in Chicago. Joe Segal—he had two or three clubs. Then we’d leave there, we’d go to Detroit. Sure enough, before we got back, they wanted us so bad, we’d go right on back into Cleveland and Pittsburgh, and then come home.

Panken:   We’re not talking about ‘55 and ‘56, now. We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Donaldson:   We’re talking about the ‘60s.

Panken:   But in ‘55 and ‘56, you were starting to go out of town?

Donaldson:   Yes, I was starting to go out of town.

Panken:   Who were you taking with you? Was Herman Foster with you yet?

Donaldson:   Yeah, Herman was with me.

Panken:   So by the time you’d made those first records, you’d been working with him for a year or more.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Herman Foster, Peck. Morrison, and Jimmy Wormworth was the drummer. We went up to Buffalo, and hit some of the same clubs. But we had it set up…

Panken:   That’s when you started establishing that circuit and those relationships.

Donaldson:   Yes. Well, the reason I used an organ was because a lot of times we’d go into a place, and they didn’t have a piano—and renting a piano, that’s out of the question. People want a thousand dollars to rent a piano. Shit, a thousand dollars, we weren’t even making that much for the gig. So we decided we’d buy an organ, and we’ll get a bass player and a piano player at the same time. All we need is a U-Haul truck and a hitch. So I put a hitch on the back of my station wagon, and we’d pull it. We’d save money and made money.

Panken:   But if I’m not mistaken, you didn’t start touring with an organ until about 1960 or so?

Donaldson:   It was in the ‘60s somewhere.

Panken:   I’d like to stay in the ‘50s for now, if we can. What did you do when the piano was crap or a club didn’t have a piano?

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play the gig!

Panken:   So you wouldn’t play a gig without a piano.

Donaldson:   We couldn’t play it, no. So what happened then… You see, the funk groups were coming out, and the funk groups had these synthesizers and electric bass. We didn’t have that.

Panken:   You did so many gigs with Jimmy Smith in 1957 and 1958. People still treasure those recordings and play them, they’re a firm part of the history. When did you start establishing a performing relationship with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   ‘57, ‘58, somewhere in there…

Panken:   Where I’m going is, was it set up by the record company? Was it your initiative?

Donaldson:   No. Babs Gonzalez set that up. He brought Jimmy to New York and told Alfred he should record him. So Babs was in the middle of that.

Panken:   So Jimmy Smith got the date, and then you got the call to do the record?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Were those satisfying engagements?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. No doubt about it. The Sermon is one of the greatest records ever made. It’s a great record.

Panken:   What do you think was the key to your simpatico with Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   We were compatible. He liked me. The organ sound and the alto sound is beautiful. Yeah, he liked me, because I played the blues, and that’s what he played.

Panken:   Can you describe personally what he was like during those sessions?

Donaldson:   Jimmy? Jimmy was carefree. Nice guy. In his latter years they said he was something else, but I didn’t know him then. I hadn’t seen him in a while.  But back then, he was just a carefree guy.

Panken:   Had you heard before he played organ, when he was a piano player?

Donaldson:   No, I hadn’t heard him when he was piano player. The first I heard him was a record he made down in Wilmington. That’s where I heard that record, and it was so dynamic. With Thornell Schwartz. That was a great record.

Panken:   Had you been playing with organ players before that?

Donaldson:   Not too many. I played with John Patton.

Panken:   Before Jimmy Smith?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I played with John Patton, Baby Face Willette, a couple of guys.

Panken:   The records with John Patton are around 1960, with Baby Face Willette around 1961. I wanted you to tell us about the Jimmy Smith recordings just because the records are so great…

Donaldson:   Yeah, they’re great.

Panken:   So whatever insight you can give us into how they were set up, or how…

Donaldson:   Jimmy was a musical genius. He can play. He was just like Art Tatum at the piano. It’s hard to play anything that he hasn’t played.

Panken:   Did that give you a feeling of freedom, that you could…

Donaldson:   Uh…yeah, freedom. Inspiration. Because he had good basslines. He could kick it.

Panken:   I’d like to ask about some of the alto saxophonists who were roughly your contemporaries who came into prominence in the ‘50s. Sonny Stitt is someone you’ve often been compared to stylistically.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Cannonball Adderley hit the scene in 1955. I’m sure you were aware of him quite quickly. Jackie McLean was a local hero in New York, and a protégé of Charlie Parker. Phil Woods was coming into his own during those years. Were those all people you were touching base with in one way or another?

Donaldson:   Yeah, in one way or another.

Panken:   Can we say a few things about each of them? Sonny Stitt, for instance.

Donaldson:   Well, Sonny Stitt for me was the number-two man behind Charlie Parker. I always thought that. Sonny Stitt. But Sonny Stitt was a guy who knew the saxophone so well, he could get anything out of it. But…like, Charlie Parker was the only one I know that play that way and still play the blues in all of his playing. Sonny Stitt was more technical, but he was great. Great guy.

Panken:   How about Cannonball Adderley? Did you become aware…

Donaldson:   Cannonball didn’t even come to New York until after Charlie Parker was dead. So he was a big thing. But he’d have come while Charlie Parker was alive, he wouldn’t have been anything like that. But he could play. He was nice. He was a nice guy as far as I know. He played a little Country-and-Western. Sometimes he sounded like a hillbilly, but…

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   I mean, he played corny. You know what “corny” is, don’t you?

Panken:   I do.

Donaldson:   All right. He played corny. But he knew the saxophone. He knew it. In fact, Miles asked me to play with him two or three times when he had Coltrane there, but I wouldn’t play with Miles, because Miles wasn’t reliable with money, and I couldn’t afford to play a week without bringing in some kind of income.

Panken:   Were you tempted?

Donaldson:   No. No way. Because I didn’t want to do what you have to do to people like that. Because he was an icon, people liked him, and I wouldn’t want nobody to see me hit him upside the head with a baseball bat or something.

Panken:   Were you a fan of his music?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I was a fan of his musicians. Red Garland I loved. Paul Chambers. And Philly.

Panken:   Did you get to know Coltrane?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I knew him. Coltrane’s from North Carolina.

Panken:   I was going to ask you about that. Monk as well had roots in North Carolina.

Donaldson:   Yes, Monk’s from Wilson, North Carolina. I knew Coltrane real well. He was a hard-working guy. But most of his stuff was drug-related.

Panken:   What do you mean?

Donaldson:   He’d get high, go in a room and play eight hours, you know, without coming out. Drugs. They don’t tell people that when they’re talking about him.

Panken:   What was your practice routine like?

Donaldson:   Oh, practice…

Panken:   I’m talking about then, the ‘40s, the ‘50s…

Donaldson:   I was working a lot then. I didn’t have no practice routine. When I started playing a lot, I never practiced, because I’d just go to work. If I got tired of playing a song, I just played it another key or something like that. Keep myself fresh. It made me think about what I’m doing.

Panken:   Back to alto players, did you get to know Jackie McLean well?

Donaldson:   I knew Jackie McLean well. He was like a brother.

Panken:   When did you meet him? When you got to New York?

Donaldson:   Yeah. I lived up there. I lived on 155th. He lived on 158th. Sonny Rollins lived around the corner. Edgecombe Avenue. I’d see all of them. But these guys were junkies. They were junkies. Sorry to say, but I had no use for no junkies. Because I thought it would just be my luck to be talking to one of them and the police run up and get us—get everybody.

Panken:   You thought you’d be caught in the same net, you mean?

Donaldson:   You got it. Because all they did was hustle every day to try to get money, to get high. They had some musical talent. But they’re characters that I wouldn’t recommend.

Panken:   Now, people did change and get over their habits.

Donaldson:   I don’t know. I doubt it.

Panken:   When did you first meet someone who was strung out on drugs?

Donaldson:   When did I first MEET someone?

Panken:   Yeah. In North Carolina?

Donaldson:   Oh, no. No drugs in North Carolina. They’d give you thirty years for smoking weed down there. They didn’t have no junkies in North Carolina, not when I was there. When I got to New York, I saw plenty of junkies.

Panken:   So your attitude towards people who were abusing drugs was more based on self-preservation, it sounds like, than anything else…

Donaldson:   Well, actually, none of them played as well as they thought they was playing when they was high. I could have got somebody sober to play better. Because everybody was following Trane. But Trane jumped the track, and they jumped it right behind him. Now all of them are unemployed. I call that “unemployment music.” And they still play it. Disk jockeys and record companies are so stupid.  They don’t even acknowledge it because they’re stupid.

Panken:   Elaborate.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s a style of music that you can’t play in Atlanta.  Charlotte, North Carolina.  Birmingham. Big cities. St. Louis. You can’t play a steady gig there playing that.  Kansas City. All the big cities. You can play it in New York, maybe one joint in Chicago—although Joe Segal has now started mixing up his entertainment. Nowhere in California can you play it, not on a steady gig. And that’s very counter-productive.

Panken:   Back to alto players. Phil Woods was the fourth name I wrote down here. Were you and he friends in the ‘50s?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I like Phil. I like Phil very well, because Phil was one of the few white guys that, when he got famous, he didn’t forget the black guys. A lot of the white guys, once they got famous, made a couple of records and ran all off with the white bands. But Phil always kept some brothers around. Well, I guess he wanted the feeling in his band.

Panken:   Another alto player I can think of in the ‘50s who had his own sound was Lee Konitz. I recall when we did the DownBeat Blindfold Test, I gave you a track by him, and you had some interesting things to say.

Donaldson:   Yeah, I know Lee Konitz. Lee Konitz is a sax-o-phon-ist. I wouldn’t call him exactly a great jazz player, but he’s a good saxophone player. Him and Paul Desmond, too. They sound like they’re playing clarinets. They don’t even have the sound.

Panken:   So for you, it’s very important to have…

Donaldson:   I mean, a SOUND. A bluesy sound. They don’t have it. They can’t play the blues, unfortunately. They play what they’re playing. But the blues, a different thing. And if you can’t play blues, you can’t play jazz, period. Now, if you can play it and don’t play it, you’re still not playing jazz—period. I listen to all the stuff Coltrane’s playing. No blues. In fact, I did a survey… I didn’t do a survey. Mark Elf, guitar player. I had him to monitor the public commercial radio stations. He got the best tune that was hot, something by 50 Cents or somebody, and he monitored that tune for a week. You know how much airplay they got?

Panken:   How much?

Donaldson:   715 times. And I had to monitor Coltrane and see how much airplay he got on a commercial station. You know how many he got?

Panken:   How many?

Donaldson:   [RAISES HAND WITH INDEX FINGER AND THUMB IN A CIRCLE, AND THREE FINGERS OUTSTRETCHED]

Panken:   That’s three. Oh, it’s zero.

Donaldson:   That’s zero! Not one. Now, that’s no good. You can’t even stay in business like that. Because you know, and anybody else knows, that years and years and years, we got a lot of play on commercial stations with Duke Ellington’s tunes and Count Basie, “April in Paris” and all that kind of stuff. We got play on commercial stations. But now jazz…kiss it goodbye. TV? I haven’t seen a jazz show since Tony Bennett was on there years ago, and brought Count Basie on there.

Panken:   I’m going to move into another area. You were one of the first jazz group leaders to use a conga player, as you were describing with Ray Barretto on those Blue Note dates from 1957. I think you used the phrase just now, “straighten out the rhythm.” What exactly did you mean by that, and what…

Donaldson:   Actually, I meant control. Now you can see today you’ve got these guys like Poncho Sanchez and a couple of more Latino musicians making a lot of money, because they put that beat with jazz. Because there’s no such thing as Latin Jazz. You can kiss that goodbye. That’s a misnomer. It’s jazz with Latin rhythm. That’s all it is. And when they keep that rhythm, which is the heart of the thinking in their music, they can sell the records. We could have done it ourselves if we’d kept our rhythm, with Kenny Clarke and Max… Those guys were shooting a little cocaine…shooting a little heroin and snorting a little cocaine—they didn’t want to swing any more. They wanted to take a solo. Most of the time, when somebody else is soloing. That’s what the problem is. That’s how they’re losing out.

Panken:   But what was the value for you of having the conga player?

Donaldson:   To steady down the rhythm. That’s all.

Panken:   You had done a date in 1955 with Gene Ammons. It’s the one sideman recording with you that I know of from that period. I know that he also liked to use the congas.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He used it a lot. Were you friendly with him?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   There’s something about your records in the ‘50s and his records…a very similar vibration.

Donaldson:   Well, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Well, it’s a groove. A groove record. It’s a swing record. Groove records. It’s hard to say, but that’s what jazz is all about. If jazz was played the way they’re playing now, there would have never been any jazz. In fact, people have played like Coltrane and… Well, I don’t want to, you know, beat on a dead horse, but it sounds like he’s playing a concerto! He states a theme, and then he [SINGS WILD SCALE]. That’s not jazz. A lot of times, when you play the theme, you’re playing the jazz. You take a guy like Louis Armstrong. He played the same way until he died. He never changed one thing. And when he was an old man, he started making hit records. “Hello, Dolly” and this other one…” [SINGS REFRAIN OF “MACK THE KNIFE”] Now, the way he’s playing it, he’s playing jazz in the melody. That’s what makes it. Like George Shearing. You hear him play “I Got Rhythm.” George played [SINGS IMPRESSION OF SHEARING PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”]. Louis Armstrong doesn’t play it like that. He said, [SINGS IMPRESSION OF LOUIS ARMSTRONG PLAYING “MACK THE KNIFE”] Man, he’s playing jazz in the melody.

A lot of people forgot that, and they go to these high-priced schools, they learn how to play music. They’re great musician. I mean, a lot of young saxophone players, they can really get over a saxophone. But they couldn’t play “Tea For Two.” I say, “Do you know ‘Tea For Two’?” “Oh, no, how does that go?” So I say, “How in the world can you play ‘Giant Steps’ and you can’t play the melody for ‘Tea For Two’?” there’s something wrong somewhere. That doesn’t make any sense.

Panken:   I think now we should stop for today, and we’ll get together tomorrow and bring this to the present.

Donaldson:   I hope so. Because we’re getting into some deep things about music now. I’m going to tell you why they should set Monk up in a different category. I’ll tell you exactly why he should be in a different category.

[END OF June 20, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

Panken:   I’m Ted Panken at Lou Donaldson’s house for day two of the Smithsonian Oral History Project interview. It’s June 21, 2012. Nice to see you again, Lou.

Donaldson:   Nice to see you.

Panken:   I’d like to return to what we started off with yesterday, and speak a bit more about your family. You had some information you were going to think of. For one thing, I’m not sure whether we got on tape what college your father went to.

Donaldson:   Livingstone College.

Panken:   He was a minister. Was that a theological college? A seminary?

Donaldson:   No… I don’t know. It might have been. But he was one of the first black students there. It was the oldest black college. I don’t know exactly what they taught there.

Panken:   You said your whole family were educators.

Donaldson:   Yup.

Panken:   Except you.

Donaldson:   Me, too. I’m the most educated. No, what I was saying was most of them had doctorates. I got a Bachelors, but they got…

Panken:   I said educators, not educated.

Donaldson:   Oh, educators. Oh, yeah. All of them were educators, right. All of them went into education. Schoolteachers and people like that.

Panken:   Can you talk about what kind of person your father was? Was he very strict.

Donaldson:   Ah, he was… It’s hard for me to say. He was just a father.  He wasn’t that strict because I never did anything to make him angry. He was a preacher and an insurance salesman, and every Sunday I had my duties and the regular stuff I had to do. But other than that, he was ok. Heh-heh.

Panken:   And your mother? You stated that she was a music teacher, and you didn’t want to take piano because of the threat of the strap, but…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   But what else can you tell us about your mother?

Donaldson:   Well, my mother had to be the greatest woman that ever lived. She was like, uh, the black mayor of Badin. Anything you had to do know once you crossed the tracks, they came to her to get the information. She was a powerful woman. Actually, she was a first grade teacher, so she knew all of the people in the town, because she taught them. She was a music teacher and she was choir director, and the church organist. So she did everything. She did everything in the town.  All the social activities. She just about (?—3:27) them. She sent all of us to college. We were the first kids from the town to really go to college. First black kids really to go to college. There were four of us.

Panken:   And they all played music, too?

Donaldson:   Yes, they played music.

Panken:   What did they play?

Donaldson:   They played piano.

Panken:   So European classical music?

Donaldson:   Not really. Just piano. Except my brother, he was a bandmaster. He played classics. He ended up in Louisville, Kentucky, where he was the director of the bands for years.

Panken:   High school?

Donaldson:   He was a high school teacher.

Panken:   That’s what I meant. He was director of high school bands.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah, high school bands. Right.

Panken:   I can’t remember if I asked you this yesterday. Coming up as a kid in Badin, did you have any instructors other than your mother? You taught yourself, I guess you said.

Donaldson:   Oh, to play the clarinet?

Panken:   Yes, to play the clarinet.

Donaldson:   Yes, I taught myself. And my mother…

Panken:   Your mother could help you a little bit.

Donaldson:   With the music and the notes. Keys. Signatures on the music and all that.  She didn’t know much about the clarinet, but I just read the book and found out about that.

Panken:   And you figured out the embouchure and all the details…

Donaldson:   Oh, yes. I figured all that out.

Panken:   Did you perform at all before you went to Greensboro?

Donaldson:   No!

Panken:   Did you play at home…

Donaldson:   Oh yeah, I’d play at home, and I’d play down… I’d go down in the middle of town and play like marches and things that I’d learned. All the kids would come around, because I was the only one playing music in the town. They’d come out, and they would listen to me. I used to tell them, “One day you’re going to have to pay to see me play.” And now, every time one of them comes to see me play, I act like I don’t know ‘em. [LAUGHS]

Panken: You don’t really do that.

Donaldson:   Yes, I do.

Panken:   Do you?

Donaldson:   Yes, I do. I was at the Club Barron one night, and this guy, Arthur Merriweather… I played with him at North Carolina A&T, in the band. He was a great trumpet player. We had a jazz orchestra and everything. What happened, they caught me playing in the band room some Benny Goodman solos, and they took away my privileges. So I didn’t have anywhere to practice. So in the middle of the day, when everybody else was at class, I’d go into the shower room and practice. He used to come by and say, “Oh, you’re the shithouse clarinet player.” I used to tell him, “All right, one of these days you’re going to have…”

When I was at the Club Barron, the guy said, “A guy is at the door from A&T that knows you who says he wants to get in.” So I went out and I saw him. I said, “I don’t know him.” Ha-ha. “Don’t let him in; I don’t know him.” After I finished playing a couple of tunes, I saw him sitting in there. He’d gone out to the car and got a picture of the band from A&T, and brought it back to the door and showed the guy. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   That was very enterprising.

Donaldson:   I was sitting right by him in the band. [LAUGHS] I cracked up.

Panken:   Did you acknowledge his existence at that point?

Donaldson:   Oh yeah. Of course. Of course. He was a great guy.

Panken:   So playing on a bandstand for people started when you were in college.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   First couple of years.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   The implication I got from the story you told about Great Lakes, where you peeked in and the bandmaster discovered you could play clarinet well… I’m interested in how you went from being a student to the idea that you were going to be a professional musician, how that crystallized in you.

Donaldson:   Well, once I heard the band at Great Lakes, I wanted to be a professional musician. Up until then, I hadn’t really thought about it.

Panken:   So that made you think “this is what I want to do.”

Donaldson:   Yes, that’s exactly what I want to do. After I heard Charlie Parker, that really solidified.

Panken:   But before that, you were talking about practicing the Benny Goodman solos.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Did you practice to a lot of clarinet players when you were 14-15-16?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no, no-no. It was just me. I’d send to New York and get his music…

Panken:   The transcribed solos.

Donaldson:   Transcribed. And Artie Shaw. People like that.

Panken:   But had you listened to Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw by that time?

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I listened to them. I listened to them on radio. I told you we had a short-wave radio. We could pick it up late at night down in the South. We’d pick them up. When they got to 12 o’clock, we couldn’t…

Panken:   I wasn’t sure of the timeline, whether that was before the war or after the war that you were able to do that.

Donaldson:   that was during the war.

Panken:   Of course. You were 15 when the war started. But what I meant to say was, before you were drafted.

Donaldson: No, that wasn’t before then.

Panken:   Are you more like one of your parents than the other?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I’m more like my mother.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, because she was a very passionate person, and she helped a lot of people. I tried to pattern myself after her. Actually, she just about controlled the black neighborhood in our town. Because many times, people would get into trouble, and she’d go over and talk to the sheriff—he’d let them go.

Panken:   So she knew how to approach the powers that be.

Donaldson:   She knew everything. Because she worked as a schoolteacher from September to June, and then she worked in the country club in the white section of town, which was a lot of big officials from the Alcoa Aluminum plant who lived in the country club. She was almost like an assistant to the woman that owned the club. She used to make me real angry. Because I told you she was just a passionate, nice person. Because somebody wouldn’t make up a room, like, she’d go in there and make it up herself. “Now, you’re not supposed to be doing that!” [LAUGHS] But she would, and had no thoughts about it. And you couldn’t say anything about race at the table, or else she’d pull out that switch.

Panken:   You mean say anything about race as far as saying anything about white people?

Donaldson:   As far as about white people. You couldn’t say nothing about white people. She loved white people. [LAUGHS] She loved the white people. Because we used to be mumbling stuff under the table, you know… Sometimes the sheriff would come over and, you know, shoot somebody or something. You know how it is down…

Panken:   The South, yeah.

Donaldson:   You couldn’t say anything about it. She wouldn’t let you do it. I never heard her say a bad word about anybody. Now, of course, that’s different from me. That’s one characteristic I didn’t pick up. Heh-heh…

Panken:   Was she a very religious woman?

Donaldson:   Of course. Religious. Very religious. She went to church four times every Sunday.

Panken:   Did you have to go to church?

Donaldson:   Yeah, I had to go to church. And once I got away from there, I haven’t been to another one.

Panken:   Is that right?

Donaldson:   That’s right. I told my father, once I get away from here, that’s it.

Panken:   How much music was there in the church apart from your father’s playing organ?

Donaldson:   All kind of music. My mother knew more music than anybody I ever met in my life. When I was a little kid, I was singing a lot of stuff that people started singing later on.

[BRIEF PAUSE AT 13:05 FOR PHONE]

Panken:   We were talking about church. Let’s start from the top. She was an organist, you went to church with her, and she knew all kinds of music.

Donaldson:   Yes. All kinds of music. When I was a little kid, I was singing songs like “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and I knew James Weldon Johnson—I knew about him. FMI(?—13:37), and all that stuff. “Precious Lord” and all those songs that the black composers wrote. I knew all about it. I knew all about Sojourner Truth and Highland Rebels, and all of them…black people after reconstruction. She taught us all of that.

Panken:   So you learned about black history.

Donaldson: She told us all about black history before I was 5 or 6 years old. We knew all about it.

Panken:   So her attitude about what you could talk about and couldn’t talk about at the table didn’t correspond to not giving you information about heritage.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I got the information. She gave me information about everything.

Panken:   Do you feel that those experiences… This is kind of an obvious question; I’m sure I know the answer. But do you feel that your musical experiences in church as a boy and a teenager have an impact on who you are now as a musician?

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Talk about that.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, we used to have these things down there they called sanctified meetings, where all the people would go to the church, and they’d start a beat [CLAPS THE BEAT], and they wouldn’t stop that beat for two or three hours. They’d be singing the spirituals. And after about two or three hours, the most dramatic stuff you ever saw in your life. People that had canes and had walkers and had wheelchairs would be up in the floor shouting. It was amazing. [LAUGHS] They used to have the sanctified meetings. It was amazing.

Panken:   And your father was leading the sermon?

Donaldson:   Well, not in that. That was something separate. He would preach on Sunday. But that was like in a special service in the middle of the week or something. And there would be a lot of preachers there.  A lot of preachers would come in from everywhere for that meeting, and everybody would have to testify and do all that kind of stuff.

Panken:   What was your father’s style of preaching?

Donaldson:   My father was a kind of in-between.

Panken:   In between what?

Donaldson:   In between intellect and… He would moderate his preaching to where the people could understand what he was talking about. But he was a real educated man. And back then, they didn’t like educated preachers. They liked preachers that used to yell and scream and… A lot of those preachers couldn’t even read the Bible. They’d have like a kid, a young kid reading the script, and they’d quote it after… It’s amazing. It’s a lot of stuff.

Panken:   So all those things factor into the voice you have on your instrument.

Donaldson:   Of course. The time, the tempo, the rhythm, the building up of like a solo—all of that goes into it.  And such wonderful singers. You never heard such wonderful singers in all of your life.

Panken:   Do you try to emulate that singing quality when you play the saxophone in any way?

Donaldson:   Actually, I was trying to emulate Johnny Hodges and those kind of people. I wasn’t really trying to emulate the church. Because I knew all of the… Like, Pete Brown, and another saxophone player I was very…I’d go to see him all the time…a cat who worked with Red Allen named Don Stovall. He had a beautiful sound. And he played like a ROUGH saxophone, and I tried to play stuff like him sometimes.

Panken:   Just stepping back again, was there any blues in town as a kid?

Donaldson:   In my town? Yeah, people would sing blues.

Panken:   Were you checking that out as a kid, or were you sheltered from it?

Donaldson:   Not really. Not really, because they’d be drunk when they started doing it, and I’d get away from there quick, because I’d know eventually what was going to happen. There would be some fracases. So I’d get away. Because they lived a tough life. They was working in this Alcoa Aluminum factory at 222 degrees Fahrenheit, and on the weekend everybody was drunk. And now that I’m old and I look back, I can see exactly why. That was tough work. Tough work. Because you worked ten years breathing those fumes and things, you had to be well messed up.

Panken:   You described the extraction process yesterday.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   And there was no EPA at that time.

Donaldson:   No-no.

Panken:   Just a little bit more about when you made the transition from clarinet to alto saxophone. Johnny Hodges was the prime first influence, and then Bird came into the picture? Is that kind of…

Donaldson:   Well, not really. All of them came into the picture about the same time. I heard Johnny Hodges with Duke Ellington. In fact, he was the first saxophone player I got to see. Somebody had a video… We went to a town, I think it was Winston-Salem, North Carolina, which was a much larger town than mine, and I put a nickel… I saw Duke Ellington, so I put a nickel in the nickelodeon, because that’s all it cost to play a record, and they had a video of the band that came up while they were playing, and I got to see Johnny Hodges and Harry Carney, all of those type guys.

Panken:   So he made a quick impression.

Donaldson:   A big impression. I wanted to play like that.

Panken:   I’ve asked a few people from your generation how they felt and what the experience was like when they listened to Charlie Parker for the first time. You’ve told me that you heard “The Jumpin’ Blues” by Jay McShann…

Donaldson:   Yeah, “Jumpin’ the Blues.”

Panken:   …and you saw Bird in Chicago…it had to be 1944, because that’s when he was with Eckstine. Can you describe for me the impact he had on you at the time?

Donaldson:   Well, he was different. He was just different. The sound was different. The way he played was different, the way he would drive when he played, the power behind his phrases. Just different. And everything was swinging. Just different from anybody else. You actually would have to live back during that era to understand it. Nobody else was playing that way, but him.

Panken:   So it made you want to find out what he was doing…

Donaldson:   Find out what he was doing and play the same way. Play it the same way, if possible.

Panken:   How did you measure yourself in that regard? Did you just listen to the records over and over and over, and wear them out until you…

Donaldson:   That’s what I did. Listened to the record. I’d wind the record down to the aluminum base. They had an aluminum base. I’d cut it down. And when I couldn’t get the phrases, I’d put it down to 33-1/3 speed. It would be in another key, but you could still get the phrases. If you cut it down, he sounded like Lester Young—if you cut down the speed.

Panken:   How did you get the records?

Donaldson:   I got them from the guys in Chicago. See, some guys in my band came from Chicago, and they brought the records out to the base, and they’d be playing them?

Panken: Which records at the time? The Guild records with Dizzy Gillespie and Sid Catlett?

Donaldson:   Oh, no-no.

Panken:   “Red Cross”? Or before that.

Donaldson:   No. Way before that. Wasn’t nothing like that out.

Panken:   Well, he made those dates in 1945, but I don’t know if they were out at the time.

Donaldson:   No, I didn’t hear that until later.

Panken:   But apart from “Jumpin’ Blues,” what other Charlie Parker solos did you learn…

Donaldson:   “Jumpin’ the Blues” and “Sepian Bounce” with McShann. A couple of more tunes. But all of them were with McShann.

Panken:   Everything with McShann. So your experience with Charlie Parker…

Donaldson:   Was with McShann.

Panken: After you got out of the Army, did you stay up on all of Charlie Parker’s records, the Dials and the Savoys?

Donaldson:   Of course. Stayed on everything.

Panken:   Did you do the same thing with those?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Copied everything. Played everything. Played the solos.

Panken:   How did you learn what to do with that information as a performer?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, the tunes that he did then were just variations of other tunes. So I’d learn the original tune, and compare that with what he was playing, and that gave you something to work on. It was nice.

Panken:   So you could use your imagination and creativity that way, by finding out the connections.

Donaldson:   Of course. Once I learned to resolve chords, go from one chord to another, I’d just buy the sheet music and I could see where the chords went.

Panken:   Now, I’m unclear from our conversation yesterday whether this was a solitary activity or whether you had people in Greensboro who were similarly interested in bebop and the new music.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. Everybody in Greensboro was interested in it. My good friend, Carl Foster. This other guy I told you about, Billy Tolles, who was a great saxophonist.

Panken:   Billy Tolles was from Seattle, right?

Donaldson:   Seattle, Washington.  He was a great saxophone player. He could play all that kind of stuff when he came down to North Carolina.

Panken:   Now, the people you played with in Greensboro… Were you moonlighting outside of school? Did you ever do three-four days out on the road with a blues singer, or go to a dance…

Donaldson:   No, we played in clubs. And we played bebop. We played a regular show, then we’d play bebop. You had to play a regular show first. Then we’d play some bebop tunes.

Panken:   You mean at the end of the show.

Donaldson:   At the end of the show.

Panken:   Now, you said that’s been your m.o. ever since.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:    You play during the regular show things that will communicate to the average man and woman, and then you…

Donaldson:   Once you get them in your corner, then you play whatever you want to play. One of the most amazing things that ever happened to me (I don’t know whether I told you this before) is that when I came back from the Service, I didn’t have a saxophone…

Panken:   You didn’t tell me that.

Donaldson:   I had to go to the music shop to buy a saxophone. I didn’t tell you that?

Panken:   No.

Donaldson:   I was in there, so I started to play the… [SINGS REFRAIN OF “GROOVIN’ HIGH”] All of a sudden, I hear this guitar player over there playing the same thing I was playing. I looked around the corner at him, and it’s a white boy. He had all this paint over his clothes and paint on his face. He looked like a painted Indian. He was a sign painter. And I said, “Man, how you know that?” He said, “Well, I’m trying to learn all the bebop I can learn.” I said, “I’m glad I saw you. So there’s one person in this town…” He said, “Can I come down to the Cottage?” I said, “yeah, you can come down every time.” So he started coming down there every weekend, and we’d play. And you’d never guess who it was.

Panken:   I think I might know. Let me try one guess.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Tal Farlow?

Donaldson:   Yeah. Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow. He was from Greensboro. He’d come right down, and we played. We was integrating everything. Nobody said a word. They loved it. That was great.

Panken:   I got so involved in talking about your musical path, but I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you were mentioning just before we sat down and the tape went on about your extended family. I think you mentioned your grandfather, or was it an uncle, who was a stone-mason and built…

Donaldson:   Oh, my great-grandfather. He built St. Paul University. He built the buildings. He was a mason and a carpenter.

Panken:   Was that during Reconstruction times?

Donaldson:   It had to be in the 1920s.

Panken:   Your great-grandfather?

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   He would have been elderly at the time…

Donaldson:   Well, maybe my grandfather. My mother’s father. That’s who it was. My grandfather. A lot of my mother’s sisters taught in the college.

Panken:   If you don’t mind my asking, and tell me if you do, how far back can you trace your lineage?

Donaldson:   Way back.

Panken:   Talk about that a bit.

Donaldson:   Well, I had the paper to show you, but my sister-in-law absconded with it, so… I didn’t know these people myself.  My mother told me all this. I never saw these people. I saw her sisters. See, my grandfather had three wives, three sets of children, and she was in the first set.  There were some younger ones.

Panken:   At the same time, or serially?

Donaldson:   Yeah, at the same time. He was… I guess he was a playboy, whatever he was. Bigamist. Whatever he was. He had three sets of children.

Panken:   Hard-working man. Where was he from?

Donaldson:   I guess he’s from Virginia. St. Paul, Virginia. I guess.

Panken:   Perhaps if you do find that sheet of paper, the Smithsonian can get a copy, and it can be entered into the record of the transcript later.

Donaldson:   Yes. Maybe I can find it.

Panken:   Let’s jump, then. Our conversation yesterday took us to about 1960, give or take, around the time when you make the transition from carrying a pianist in your band to starting to carry organ players, and when, apart from Jimmy Smith, you record with Big John Patton, you record with Baby Face Willette, projects like this. But first, I’d like to talk a bit more about the bands you recorded with in the late ‘50s. Some had Bill Hardman on the front line with you; some didn’t. Herman Foster or Horace Parlan were the pianists…

Donaldson:   George Tucker and Al Harewood.

Panken:   Also Peck Morrison and Dave Bailey.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   In general, what qualities did those musicians have in common?

Donaldson:   Well, for me, they weren’t junkies. That’s why I used them. Because like I told you, I told Alfred Lion junkies had to go.

Panken:   But how about as far as what they did musically?

Donaldson:   Well, we played around New York together. I’d see them all the time. We had two or three places we played, and then we had one place we’d play every night called Connie’s. That was at 134th and 7th Avenue. We played in Connie’s… After the rest of the clubs was closed, we’d go up there and play from about 5 til about 10 in the morning.

Panken:   You mean the breakfast session.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   Was that all week, or just Monday?

Donaldson:   Every night. Right across the street was Roy Campanella’s liquor store. Any time some famous ballplayer would come over there, they’d run across the street and tell us, and we’d go over there and meet them. Don Newcombe, Hank Thompson… In fact, Leo Durocher was over there one time. We got to meet all the ballplayers.

Panken:   I guess the New York Giants were Harlem’s team.

Donaldson:   Of course. The New York Giants. And the Brooklyn Dodgers. They loved the Dodgers, too. I was there the night Campanella got hurt. [January 27, 1958] What happened… This is an amazing story. I was in Small’s Paradise. Wilt Chamberlain owned it at that time. I was over there talking to Wilt, and Campanella came in there because once… He closed up about 1 o’clock, and Wilt stayed open til about 4. There was a girl, a barmaid that Roy liked, so he came over, but it was snowing a little bit, not much… He sat there until about 4 o’clock. By that time, the snow was getting deep, real deep, and I started talking to him.  I said, “Roy, I know you’re not trying to go home in this snow.” He said, “No, I think I’m going to go down the street to the motel and stay there the rest of the night,” because there were some bad curves getting back to Brooklyn. I said, “Ok.” I never will forget it, because when I got in my car, I came up Bruckner Boulevard, which was a two-lane street then but they were making it a four-lane, and they had dug these trenches, and if you slid in one of those trenches you never could get your car out. So I drove my car in low gear from Harlem all the way right to this house in the Bronx. When I got in, I was so late… My wife said, “What in the world are you doing coming in so late?” I told her I couldn’t drive fast, because if the car got stuck I had no way to get it out. I drove right in the middle of the road because there was no other traffic out there.”

I got into bed, and she came in at about 12 o’clock and said, “Roy Campanella had an accident.” I said, “What you mean, accident?” He told me was going to the hotel. He wasn’t even going to try to go home.” She said, “Well, he did, and when he went around some curve, he got injured, and he’s paralyzed.” I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. When I finally saw him 3 or 4 months later, he told me, “I didn’t listen to what you told me. You told me not to do that.” I said, “Because it was too dangerous.” I went up Bruckner because that’s a straight line. Wasn’t no hills or nothin’ up there, just straight up the street. If I had to go down some curves, I wouldn’t have any gone anywhere either. That’s amazing. Amazing story.

Panken:   So you were really around and in direct contact with the elite of a lot of different worlds.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. Everybody.

Panken:   In the black community mostly, but some in the white community, too.

Donaldson:   Yeah, of course. I could be called an historian. I met everybody, and I was out every night.

Panken:   Working.

Donaldson:   Working or looking. When I wasn’t working, I was looking. I met everybody. Everybody you probably can name, I met them.

Panken:   Wilt Chamberlain bought his interest in Smalls when? 1961? 1962?

Donaldson:   Something like that. I don’t know exactly. He had a lot of money.

Panken:   So you were working for him.

Donaldson:   Sometimes. Not all the time.

Panken:   You worked at Smalls. You worked the breakfast thing at Connie’s. Where else did you work in Harlem?

Donaldson:   I worked at the Club Barron. I worked at Count Basie’s.  He had a club. I worked down at the Baby Grand sometimes. Another place called the Top Club.

Panken:   About how many days a week would you say you were working from 1955 to the late ‘60s? 300 days a year?

Donaldson:   No, not that much. I wouldn’t work that much. There was three or four clubs out in Long Island I worked, too. Bop City and two more clubs out there I used to work.

Panken:   Brooklyn, too, I would think.

Donaldson:   Yeah, Brooklyn… I used to work the Baby Grand over there, and I used to work Scotty’s Club over there, and that other club on Fulton and Nostrand.

Panken:   Oh, not the Blue Coronet…

Donaldson:   The Blue Coronet. That was a tough club.

Panken:   Tough in terms of the clientele?

Donaldson:   That’s right. You had a few fights now and then.

Panken:   Again, talking about the band, do the Blue Note recordings from 1957-1958-1959, like Blues Walk or Sunny Side Up reflect what your band was playing in those clubs?

Donaldson:   No. Because I used all that on those things… I wasn’t even playing organ in those clubs.

Panken:   On Sunny Side Up you used piano. Horace Parlan.

Donaldson:   Oh, ok. Maybe I did. I went on the road with that group, Horace Parlan, George Tucker and Al Harewood, and I had Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   So the records were not a direct reflection of what you would do in the club.

Donaldson:   Unh-uh.

Panken:   How would it be different?

Donaldson:   Well, when they wanted a date, I’d just figure out something to do to make it. I’d change the personnel according to what I was playing at that time. What I used to do, I used to play… If I was going to make a date, two weeks before I made it, I’d play the tunes in the club to see what kind of response I got, and the ones I didn’t get a response to, I didn’t record, and I was home free. Because everything I made during that time, sold.

Panken:   Probably a lot of ‘78s also at that time.

Donaldson:   Many ‘78s.

Panken:   For the jukebox trade.

Donaldson:   Yeah, many ‘78s.

Panken:   When you started carrying an organ, it’s about 1960…

Donaldson:   Yeah, something like that.

Panken:   The first organist you traveled with extensively was John Patton, although you’d been doing some gigs with Jimmy Smith before that.

Donaldson:   Yeah, John Patton was the first one I took on the road.

Panken:   How did you meet?

Donaldson:   I don’t know how I met John. It was in New York. I met John Patton, Ben Dixon and Grant Green. We had a nice group. Nice group. I met Grant in East St. Louis, Illinois. In fact, I’m the one who brought him to New York.

Panken:   What was he like?

Donaldson:   He was a junkie.

Panken:   Can you separate your assessment of his personality from that, or does that define it for you?

Donaldson:   Yeah, he had no personality. A junkie got no personality. Junkie works 24 hours a day trying to get money to get a fix. That’s that personality.

Panken:   But you must have really liked his playing…

Donaldson:   I loved his playing.

Panken:   You had a group with him for several years.

Donaldson:   But I didn’t take him on the road.

Panken:   Oh, you didn’t.

Donaldson:   Oh, no. I never took him once on the road. Because they got the ten-year Mann Act. You cross the line with some drugs, goodbye—you’re gone. I never took him with him me. I didn’t take that chance.

Panken:   Who did you take on guitar with you at that time?

Donaldson:   I didn’t have a guitar. I took Bill Hardman on trumpet. Then I took Tommy Turrentine on trumpet.

Panken:   How did you meet Bill Hardman?

Donaldson:   I met him in Cleveland.

Panken:   Where he was from, where he grew up.

Donaldson:   That’s where he was from, yeah. He came by to sit in, and I liked him, so I hired him.

Panken:   I’d like to ask you a general question about balancing your creative impulses with the function of doing the gig, and how you satisfy your creativity within the dictates of making a living?

Donaldson:   What we did, we had one set we would play in a new place where we worked, called a “feel ‘em out set.” We played blues, then we’d play a little fast one, then we’d do some swing, then we’d play some other stuff, and whichever way the people went, that’s where we stayed. Stayed. That’s the secret. Most musicians who have work, they know it. They know how to do that. That’s still… Like I told you, we’d play exactly what they wanted to hear for the first set. Second set, they’re getting drunk. Third set, they’re real drunk. So we would play “Cherokee” or anything then. They didn’t know what it was. Because they’re drunk!

Panken:   One thing I’ve noticed seeing you in person however many times it’s been, is that you play everything as though you were playing it the first time, which is what Illinois Jacquet and what I’m sure most of the saxophonists who were your role models did. How do you do that? Do you play tricks with yourself? Is it a natural thing…

Donaldson:   Yeah, that’s what it is. You try to make yourself play different. It’s hard to do, but you try to do that while you’re playing the same songs all the time. Hard to do it, but you have to do it.

Panken:   What tricks do you play on yourself? If you’re not giving away trade secrets…

Donaldson:   No, ain’t no trade secrets. No tricks. We just play different phrases, different things on the same changes. We play on what we call chords and resolutions. Now, sometimes when I used to play on the road, we’d play the song so much because the people were requesting it, so I’d just start playing it in another key. It made me think about what I was playing. Because I played them in one key so long, I didn’t even think about it. I just went up there and played it. But if I had to play it in another key, I’d have to think. So that kept my mind sharp.

Panken:   For instance, every time I hear you go into whatever blues you’re presenting at that time, singing it, or other things you play that I can’t think of right now, there’s a certain conviction to it, a freshness. It’s the way James Moody would do his signature tune, or Jacquet would play “Flying Home.”

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   That’s difficult to do?

Donaldson:    No, not really. You build up to it. You play a variety of tunes, and when you get to that one, you’re ready. You’re ready to play it.

Panken:   You moved into the house we’re conducting this interview in, in 1963, was it?

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   In 1964, you start a couple of years recording for the Cadet label. What precipitated that, and what was it like functioning on Cadet?

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, Esmond Edwards, who was the A&R man at Prestige, went over to Argo, and he went over there and they gave him a lot of money, so he paid us 3 or 4 times what we were making at Blue Note. So I went over and made a couple of tunes. That’s the only reason.

Panken:   It sounds like you were functioning mostly as your own producer for Blue Note after you came back in 1957. Was that the case at Cadet, or were those more produced?

Donaldson:   I produced them. Just about everything you see on a record is produced by me.

Panken:   One of the records on Cadet, if I’m remembering correctly, is the first one I can think of where you’re working in a larger ensemble, like maybe 8 pieces, with arrangements behind you… Did you approach the Cadet dates any differently than Blue Note?

Donaldson:   No, not really. Same thing.

Panken:   The date I mentioned is Roughhouse Blues. Oliver Nelson did the arrangements.

Donaldson:   Oliver Nelson, yeah.

Panken:   That’s the first one I can think of (I may be wrong) where you functioned with an arranger. Everything before that was a combo date.

Donaldson:   Yeah.

Panken:   Why didn’t you do more larger dates before? Why was everything a combo?

Donaldson:   Because the other stuff was selling. We didn’t want to rock the boat. Next thing I did was the one with Duke Pearson, Lush Life.

Panken:   That was in 1967. Which I have to say, personally, is one or my 2 or 3 favorites of yours.

Donaldson:   That’s a beautiful record. A couple of records I made myself, and then George Butler added two or three pieces on it, but it wasn’t really me.

Panken:   Would those be the early ‘70s things on Blue Note…

Donaldson:   Yeah. They overdubbed them. Messed them up actually. But it doesn’t matter.

Panken:   I want to ask about the way you developed your group sound in the ‘60s. Alligator Boogaloo or Midnight Creeper are a very different sound and approach than, well, Lush Life, but also the records with Big John Patton four-five years before.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   Can you speak about evolving towards that way of thinking about making records and your sound, and how it reflected the audiences you were playing for and what was going on around in the music, which was changing in the ‘60s…

Donaldson:   I met Earl Bostic in ‘57, and he told me… I was playing a Brilhart mouthpiece, and he told me, “Get rid of that and get a Meyer.” He said a Meyer is better for the Selmer saxophone. He was right, and I got a different sound. Much clearer. I got the new sound, so I started playing slightly different. Not much. Slightly different.

Panken:   How so?

Donaldson:   Well, I started making a lot of groove records. The groove records depend on the groove. You don’t have to worry about anything else really but the groove. Because if you’ve got the right tempo, and everything is hitting where it’s supposed to hit, you’re in business. You can play variations on it, do anything on it, but if the groove is there, you’re in business.

Panken:   Are you saying you started to do that in ‘57-‘58, after you got…

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   Those earlier records seem to be a mixture of those sorts of tunes, and bebop tunes and popular tunes and blueses…

Donaldson:   Yeah. It was a mixture of bebop and swing.  That was the formula we used. And all those records were selling, too.

Panken:   But in the ‘60s, after you’d been touring with an organ for a while, and you pick up Lonnie Smith and George Benson and Leo Morris, also known as Idris Muhammad…the sound of those records is very different than the sound of the records by the previous bands.

Donaldson:   Yeah, but that’s Rudy. Rudy got some new equipment, some new Telefunken equipment. Plus, that’s a great band you’re talking about.

Panken:   I’d like to know how the band came together.

Donaldson:   Well, what happened, John Hammond fired George.

Panken:   In 1966.

Donaldson:   George was with Columbia. John Hammond fired him, and George… I knew it. I used to see George all the time. So I said, “Well, you ought to come and make a record with me if he fired you.” And he did. Lonnie was in his band so I got both of them at the same time.

Panken:   Anything else you’d care to say about how you addressed things with this band?

Donaldson:   Well, no. See, he had a great band. He had Ronnie Cuber… He had a great band himself. That told me right there that John Hammond didn’t know the first thing about talent. Because he wouldn’t know it, and the people listening to this or reading this are going to be surprised, because John Hammond fired George Benson (I mean, not fired him—let him go), Aretha Franklin, and Eddie Harris, and the next record each one of them made, you know what happened? A hit record. The next record they made, a hit record. Eddie Harris made Exodus. Aretha Franklin, I don’t know what she made, but you know what happened with her—everything she made was a hit. And George, the next record he made with me, which was a hit, and then he went on to CTI, started singing, and that was a hit. John Hammond missed all three of those people. They were right on the label.

Panken:   You were touring with them in ‘67, ‘68, ‘69…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What was band like live? Were you following the same format or stretching out more?

Donaldson:   We stretched out a little more on the “Impressions”(?—53:36) stuff.

Panken:   Now, your relationship with Lonnie Smith has been ongoing ever since…

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   …and it’s one of the great partnerships in this music. Can you talk about your interplay?

Donaldson:   We were so compatible, we just made records for years—15-20 years.

Panken:   Thirty.

Donaldson:   All of them were selling. That’s another thing. A lot of people say, “Well, you made all those records.” I say, “Yeah, but you got to understand; if you make a record for a company and it doesn’t sell, that’s your last record.” What we did, we’re going to sell some records, even if it’s not a hit. It’s going to sell some records, enough to keep us on the label. It worked that way.

Panken:   Working with Idris Muhammad put a completely different framework on what you were doing.

Donaldson:   He’s a great drummer. Great drummer.

Panken:   Did he come as kind of a package deal with George Benson and Lonnie Smith?

Donaldson:   No-no. I saw him down in New Orleans, and I got him from there. He was down there. I got him from down there. He’s a great drummer. Great beat.

Panken:   it was a somewhat different beat than you’d been working with.

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Can you talk about that a bit?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to talk about. It was just a different beat. He used to, like, ruffle on the drums, RRRPPP, DUH-DUHT-DUH-DUHT, RRRPPP. He had a different thing, that he was sliding on the drums. Other drummers hadn’t picked that up, and that was a big hit.

Panken:   Those beats in still in common parlance. They’re being sampled…

Donaldson:   Yeah, but they don’t sound like him. Unfortunately.

Panken:   I’m asking about these sides because they’re still resonating with deejays, samples, in popular music… As you were describing earlier, though perhaps not this piece, Madonna had sampled a beat from one your sides, and you got a big check; Mary J. Blige has used these beats; and so on… Which is why I’m interested in what you were thinking about then in modifying your group sound in the latter part of the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   It wasn’t no special effect. It was just that we were playing, and everybody played well together. That’s what made it sound like that.

Panken:   So it had to do with everyone expressing their personalities on their instruments…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   How would you say the audiences changed in the late ‘60s, or did the circuit change…

Donaldson:   Maybe a little, but not much. Maybe a little, but not much. See, at that time you had a lot of organ groups going around. Groove Holmes. McDuff. Don Patterson. Jimmy McGriff. A lot of organ players going around. We had a little circuit that we played, which I told you about, and we just went around it. We kept going around and around.

Panken:   So the slump that of jazz musicians encountered at this time didn’t really affect you…

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   …because you were able to stay on your circuit.

Donaldson:   That’s right.

Panken:   How long did that last? Did things ever slow down, or did it stick…

Donaldson:   It didn’t really slow down. I just stopped making it when I got to making a little bit of money. A lot of places we played couldn’t pay. Because we played some of those places at a bare minimum. But it didn’t matter because we played consecutively. Sometimes I’d be at a club, and I knew I was going to be there for two weeks. So I’d just call around to the next down, and make a deal with somebody there, and we’d go over there and play. I was booking myself.

Panken:   You were traveling so much… I’d like to move onto a completely different tack. You were married for 56 years.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   And you were traveling half the time.

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   It sounds like a very strong marriage.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. My wife was from close to my hometown. I knew her many years before we got married. She saved every penny, heh-heh…

Panken:   So you sent it home.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I sent money orders. Every week I’d send money orders. She raised the kids and put both of them through college. Both of them went on to get doctorates.

Panken:   What are your kids’ names?

Donaldson:   One of them, this one up here [POINTS TO PHOTOGRAPH BEHIND HIM] died. Lydia.

Panken:   With the violin?

Donaldson:   No, that’s Tracy. That’s my granddaughter. See, they moved…they changed the house around, so I don’t even know what’s up there any more.

Panken:   How many kids did you have?

Donaldson:   I had two.

Panken:   Lydia was one.

Donaldson:   And Carol.

Panken:   They both got doctorates.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:  In what, if I may ask?

Donaldson:   Carol’s is in psychology, and Lydia’s was in education. Some kind of… I don’t remember exactly what it was. In other words, she was a procurer for teachers down in Broward County.

Panken:   Oh, in Florida.

Donaldson:   Yes. She traveled all over the United States to the Black colleges, and tests the students and see if they were qualified to come back down there and teach.

Panken:   Was your wife working during those years?

Donaldson:   No.

Panken:   So you were able to support a family of four and send them to college as a constantly working musician, playing live, recordings… Did you ever do other sorts of sessions? New York had a huge studio scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s…

Donaldson:   All I did was background. I did background sometimes with Charlie Singleton’s band. Background for singers. We did backgrounds. But they always stole the material, so it didn’t matter.

Panken:   With your skill sets, reading and technique, it sounds like you would have done very well in the studios. For example, Phil Woods nailed a lot of those kind of gigs. I don’t know how much racial politics entered the equation… But was it ever a temptation for you to try to do the studio thing?

Donaldson:   Too confining. Too confining, and I wanted to be, not free, but have flexibility.

[END OF June 21, 2012, PART 1, TRACK 1]

[BEGINNING OF June 21, 2012, PART 2, TRACK 1]

Panken:   Before we paused, I was asking about the New York studio scene in the late ‘50s-early ‘60s, and whether that had tempted you at all. You stated it was too confining. Where I want to go from that is, when did you know you wanted to be the leader of a group? You haven’t done a whole of sideman things for 55 years or so.

Donaldson:   I knew I wanted to be a leader when I started working for guys that were junkies. Because they wouldn’t pay you. Rather than to beat them up, guys that I liked, I just said, “Well, I’ll get my own stuff.” Because I was tempted many times to go to work, heh-heh…

Panken:   Take matters into your own hands, so to speak?

Donaldson:   Go to work. One time Buhaina didn’t pay me. I said, “Buhaina, you’re a big rough guy, but you’re a junkie and I’m sober. All I got to do is wait for you to start nodding, and I’ll pull out my baseball bat…,” heh-heh-heh…

Panken:   To which he responded?

Donaldson:   “I bet you would do that.” I said, “Yeah, I would. I’m not gonna fight you fair!” [LAUGHS] But actually, it was so sad… But I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. And most people who are interested in jazz…

One time I played down in Washington, in the park, sort of like a Jazzmobile. It was on a Saturday. It was from 5 to 8. So I’m playing, and at the end, it was still light and everything, and I said, “Man, let’s drive back through Baltimore and catch Miles,” because Miles was at a place called the Wagon Wheel, down on Pennsylvania Avenue. So we drove, we went from about 30 miles from Washington to Baltimore, and when we get to the club, Philly Joe, Red, and Paul are sitting out on the curb, the drums out there and the bass out there. I said, “What you all doing out here?” They said, “the guy wouldn’t give us any money.” I said, “What you mean he wouldn’t give you your money? You’re working, aren’t you?” They said, “Yeah, but Miles drew out the money last night. He said he was going to New York and he was coming back—and he didn’t come back.” Heh-heh-heh… The guy was angry. It was a wonder the guy hadn’t beat ‘em up.

I said, “Well, I can’t take you to New York.” But I had my station wagon and I had my organ back in the U-Haul, and I didn’t really have any luggage or anything in the station wagon because I hadn’t intended to stay over at night. So all of them crammed back in there, put the bass and everything back in my wagon, and I drove over to Philadelphia, which wasn’t but about 50 miles. When I get to the outskirts of town, I pull into the gas station. They thought I was going to get some gas. But I said, “This is it.” They said, “What do you mean, man? We’re not in Philly yet. We can’t…” I said, “You don’t think I’m going to drive into Philadelphia with you guys, and all you guys are junkies.” Because they had a guy over there named Rizzo.

Panken:   Yes. Frank Rizzo.

Donaldson:   Frank Rizzo. I knew you’ve heard of him! Every time somebody would come over there, he’d pick, them up, especially Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan. That was his favorite duo. I said, “No way. I’m not driving into town.” So they had to call, they had to call and call. So they finally got somebody to come out there and get them. I said, “Ok, I’ll see you.”

So I came home to New York. When I was here for a week, Red called me. He said, “Man, we quit Miles, we quit Miles. Miles would never come up with…” I said, “Red, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.” I said, “You guys are the greatest; you’ve the greatest rhythm section in the world.” I said, “I’m going to rent the Audubon Ballroom,” the place up there where Malcolm X got shot. So I went up and rented it for a month, and I played it every Sunday from 5 to 9, Lou Donaldson and the Red Garland Trio. Now, every week, Miles came up—about three times. So they’re hugging, and I know where they’re going to get some vitamins once they got that money…

The business got so good, we hired Betty Carter as a vocalist. I was raking in money! Philly Joe didn’t like Betty Carter, because Betty Carter was young then, and beautiful, singing straight-ahead, you know. She wasn’t doing her crazy stuff.  Every time she’d sing “Perdido,” she’d put her hips up in the air, and the people would go crazy. So he’d drop a bomb or do something. She came to me and said, “Hey, Lou, you got to stop that. Every time I start doing my song, Philly Joe messes it up.” So I went and I said, “Joe, listen. You can’t do that. The girl is trying to get over. Give her a break.” “All right, all right, all right.” But then, when the crowd started really screaming again, he said, “YAAAHHH.” He couldn’t stand it. Put another bomb in there. Finally, Jack Whittemore came up there and had a couple of gigs for Miles, and Miles guaranteed he was going to pay them, so they went back with Miles. But see, a lot of people don’t know that. [LAUGHS] I said to myself, “Man, I might as well get me a group and go out on the road,” and that’s what I did. I got me a group and went out on the road. And it worked out fine. Wonderful.

Panken:   You were able to be friendly with people whose personal behavior you disapproved or you felt would damage you.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah.

Panken:   You could separate your feelings in that regard.

Donaldson:   Oh, yeah. I’m an amazing guy, because I’m the only guy… Say, like, a guy like Miles… Miles did some bad things to people. He never did it to me. Any time I talked to him, he’d come up and we’d talk.

Monk. Monk would hardly talk to people. People asked Monk, said, “How you doing, Monk?” He’d just look at them. He wouldn’t say a word. Every time I saw him, we’d talk. We’d talk a long time. We were very friendly. In fact, I used to really feel sorry for Monk, because back then, his music wasn’t compatible. I started to say I’d take Monk on a couple of gigs, but I knew I’d get fired, not because of the way he played, but the way he acted. Because he’d sit up there and smoke a cigarette, wouldn’t say anything to anybody. You can’t do that in a ghetto club. You’ve got to be friendly with the people, or somebody will start bothering you.

I used to work with Elmo Hope. He used to work in the band with me with Dud Bascomb. We worked over in Jersey. I used to pick him up every night. What happened, the reason I stopped picking him up is that Ron Jefferson, the drummer, went down to a Cadillac place down there on 10th Street and bought him a Cadillac, and he was coming back home, and just before he got to Central Park, he picked up Freddie Redd, and they started home. People were standing out there waiting for him to come with the car. They had a party going on in there… Shit, he never even got through the park. The police got him. And Freddie Redd had some drugs. They took the car, put him in jail, and he never even reached home with his car. I said, “My God!”  So I told Elmo, “Look, Elmo, what I want you to do is to go down to the Holland Tunnel…there’s a subway stop right there, just before you go in the tunnel.” I said, “I’ll pick you up there every night.” So I’d pick him up right there, go through the tunnel, we’d work in Jersey, and come back, and I’d put him out right back there. I said, “I’m not driving through town with you in my car.”

Because junkies are hazardous people. Real hazardous. I remember one night I was coming up to 110th Street, Central Park, and I stopped at a light. They said, “Wait a minute. I got to get out, I got to get out.” So I thought he was going out there to take a leak or something. So he comes back and opens the back door, and I hear this noise back there, CLING-A-LING-A-LING-A-LING. So I took back there. Four hubcaps. [LAUGHS] I said, “Man, are you crazy?! Not only… You weren’t out there but a few seconds. Where did you get four hubcaps?” You know what he had? He had a can opener.

Panken:   That was a resourceful way to do that.

Donaldson:   I said, “Man, you ought to be… You could get away from the FBI.” [LAUGHS] They were some crazy people. Crazy people.

See, I got away from all of that by getting me a band with no junkies. Didn’t make much money, but we had a nice time.

Panken:   You mentioned yesterday that you hired Cecil Taylor to do some gigs. That must have been the middle ‘50s.

Donaldson:   I didn’t actually hire him. I had Freddie Redd. And when I came to work, Cecil was sitting…you know, bifocals. I said, “Who is that?” Didn’t nobody really know his name. So I started to playing, and he started playing. And he club-owner… Now, this guy…

Panken:   Which club was this, by the way?

Donaldson:   Showman’s Bar. Right next to the Apollo Theater. That’s where it was located then. This guy was a Jewish guy named Willie. Willie knew everything about music, at least he thought he did, but he didn’t know anything about it… But what happened, he came by there and he said, “Lou, who is this guy?” I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, if you want this job, he better not play any more. See, if he plays any more, that’s the end of it.” I said, “What?” So I went over there and I told Cecil. I said, “Cecil, you’ll have to stroll a little bit,” you know, lay out this chorus. He said, “How many choruses?” I said, “For the rest of the night.” [LAUGHS] For the rest of the night! And he did it. He did it, too.

Panken:   Let me ask you this. As objectively as you can, talk to me about how you were responding to some of the ideas that percolating in 1959 and 1960, when Coltrane was moving towards what he went to, and Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot. Without invective… Because when we did the Blindfold Test a few years ago, you said some very interesting things about Ornette Coleman. I’m interested in how you processed that when it was coming out.

Donaldson:   Well, I’m telling you. The first time I heard Ornette Coleman, we were… I was working in the Five Spot before he came there. Before Monk came there, too. It was groups like mine that kept the place open, because we didn’t make any money—$15-$20. First time I heard him, I said, “Man, they say this guy is a genius…” I said, “I didn’t know I was a genius; that’s the way I sounded the first day I got my horn before I learned where the notes were. That’s the way I played. So if he’s a genius, I’m a genius and I don’t know it.”

And Coltrane… See, Coltrane used to come down and play with Monk, and he’d run down in the basement after every set, rehearsing his songs and things that he had to play with Monk. Then he’d come back up and play them. It was strange music. Real strange music. It’s like overplaying music. Because you can give a person so much, but then you got to stop. Because if you overplay the music, that’s it. It’s all over.

Panken:   Did you listen to Coltrane’s records later in the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   I listen to everything. I keep up with all music.

Panken:   Talk about that some.

Donaldson:   Well, he started to get worse and worse, when he started making his stuff like “Ascension” and all that kind of stuff. It’s really some out music.

Panken:   Did you like records like “Ballads” or the record he did with Duke Ellington or things like that?

Donaldson:   No. I like nothing he did. To me he’s an amateur saxophone player. He plays the tenor like an alto. He never gets the pure tone out of a tenor, like a tenor saxophone player. In fact, they played a record by him the other day. I was listening to Sirius. And right behind that they played a record by Ike Quebec. Such a difference. Such a difference, I’m telling you. For me, I don’t understand why the critics don’t see that, but they don’t.

Panken:   That brings me to a whole other question, which is the way you’re received by writers, critics, the broad discourse about the music? Do you feel you’re properly understand? Insufficiently understood? Misinterpreted? Overlooked?

Donaldson:   Well, I don’t know. I’m a different kind of… See, I’m a guy that tries to play the traditional stuff, and I’ll stretch out a little—sometimes, but not much. They wanted to say I wasn’t playing jazz when I went to play on these funk records. But actually they’re not funk records. They’re swing records. The records are swinging more than… Because I changed the beat of the drums. See, my records, you don’t hear the same drum-beat. Like Eddie Harris. You don’t hear the same beat. Different kind of records, and they sell like mad. That’s why I did it, because I knew they would sell. See, because Coltrane with Elvin in there, he was never going in there.

Panken:   Well, he did sell a lot of records. You don’t agree?

Donaldson:   Ah…I don’t know about a lot of records. I mean, you hear them on the jazz station. He didn’t sell no records.

Panken:   We don’t have enough time to debate it, but A Love Supreme sold a lot of records.

Donaldson:   I don’t think so.

Panken:   Oh, you think that’s exaggerated?

Donaldson:   Yeah. That’s just a lot of BS. Herb Alpert had ten straight one-million-dollar record-sellers. Did he do that?

Panken:   Now, is that the criteria?

Donaldson:   If you’re talking about selling records. Selling records is selling records.

Panken:   In your opinion, why do you think Coltrane struck such a chord with a lot of people in the jazz public, younger people particularly, during the ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Well, he’s a junkie. Any time you see a junkie, and people like that. They like that. He used to play one chorus for an hour. That’s not no… And he played a lot of harmonics and technical things. Got nothing to do with jazz. Jazz, you can play one or two notes on a tune. You don’t think so, you listen to Gene Ammons. I used to see Gene and Sonny. Sonny used to eat Gene up playing stuff. Sonny was a technician. Gene played two or three notes. People didn’t even want to hear Sonny any more.

Panken:   You did both, kind of.

Donaldson:   Mmm-hmm.

Panken:   You’re kind of a cross between Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt.

Donaldson:   Well, that’s what I said. I’m one of the in-between musicians. I try both sides. See, Trane… I listened to Trane… I took one of the old saxophone players, Wild Bill Moore. Now, he used to rock-and-roll, walking the bar, all that kind of saxophone playing. I let him hear “Ascension.” So he listened to it. I said, “What you think?” He said, “He sounds like a wounded rhinoceros that somebody shot and left out in the woods and died.”

Panken:   How did you feel about Sonny Rollins’ playing in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

Donaldson:   Not much. ‘50s good. ‘60s not-good. Sonny Rollins was a great saxophone player in the ‘50s. But once he went onto that bridge… It was reported that a cross-tie fell on his head while he was on…

Panken:   That’s not nice…

Donaldson:   That’s what they tell me. A cross-tie fell on his head. Just to see him now, it’s sad. Very sad. He looks like Santa Claus.

Panken:   Do you feel that you’ve been somewhat overlooked by people who write about the music? Not the public.

Donaldson:   Not really… Oh yeah. By the people who write. Yeah, of course. Of course. Of course. I told you I just went to Europe, and every place was sold out.

Panken:   Now, when did you start going to Europe regularly?

Donaldson:   The ‘70s and ‘80s.

Panken:   Is it different playing for a European audience than let’s say an inner city…

Donaldson:   Of course.

Panken:   Do you do the same thing, or do you take a different presentation?

Donaldson:   I play the same thing. Same thing. Same thing. This guy Wim Wigt started booking me.

Panken:   Hence, you started recording for Timeless and other…

Donaldson:   Timeless, yeah. He even made an album called The Forgotten Man. He said, “People forgot about you.” I said, “they didn’t really forget about me, because I started working, and I wasn’t in town.” I was working like on the road. And the jazz critics, people, they don’t get around that much.

Cut that off for a minute.

[PAUSE AT 22:42]

Panken:   [22:49] We were talking about critics, the press you received, and being perhaps misunderstood or improperly evaluated.

Donaldson:   Well, what it is, evidently, there are some people that are not too knowledgeable about what jazz really is, and when they see somebody trying to play straight-ahead, they probably say they’re not keeping up with the trends, you know. Because you take people like Jackie McLean and Tina Brooks, or this other guy who used to work with Bill Doggett… All these young saxophone players around New York…

Panken:   In the ‘50s and ‘60s.

Donaldson:   …when they would get stuck, they’d come to me and learn the changes to the songs. I read a book about hardbop in the ‘60s, and the guy didn’t say a thing about me. I was talking about Percy France, was another one.

Panken:   You have that book in your bookshelf. [Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965, by David Rosenthal]

Donaldson:   Yeah.  Percy France. Percy France and all of these people. I read it. I said, “I don’t know how he could have figured that out.” Hard for me to say. At one time, I used to work down at the place down there on…not the 5-Spot, what’s the other place down there…

Panken:   Sweet Basil?

Donaldson:   Sweet Basil. I was the house band there. I played all the time. The place was full of people every night. Never got a writeup.

Panken:   When was that? In the ‘80s?

Donaldson:   The ‘80s.

Panken:   Mostly with Herman Foster.

Donaldson:   Herman Foster most of the time.

Panken:   You linked up with him again for a long time in the ‘80s before you went back to the organ format.

Donaldson: They never said a thing about Herman, and Herman was a genius. Herman was a guy… Sometimes we’d play a year and never have a rehearsal. He knew everything. He was a genius. We played a concert once in Belgium. The guy had Dave Brubeck on there. I went and told the promoter, “You’d better let us play last, because if we play before Dave Brubeck, people are going to leave.” He said, “No-no-no, this is Dave Brubeck.” So Herman got to doing his stuff. Shee… Dave Brubeck came on, and everybody was outside trying to get Herman’s autograph.

Panken:   Now, in the ‘80s, it seems like the climate changed somewhat because of the infusion of young musicians who were interested in playing the music…who paid attention to the hardcore jazz tradition. It got more acoustic in some ways. Wynton Marsalis had something to do with it, but also Art Blakey brought all these guys into the Jazz Messengers. And you’ve kept track of the young alto players who emerged during that time, like Donald Harrison, Kenny Garrett, Vincent Herring…

Donaldson:   Right.

Panken:   What’s your impression of that… Well, they’re not young any more; they’re middle-aged, in their forties and fifties. But your impression of that particular period and how things played out with that group of alto players. Your sense of the state of the alto saxophone these days.

Donaldson:   Well, back in those days, see, Art Blakey had those Messengers… That was like a scam band. He did that so he could keep his habit going. He wasn’t interested in promoting no musicians. He talked it all the time, but he wasn’t. Because the reason all of them quit was as soon as one of them would ask him about the money, he’d get another one. [LAUGHS] See, I know that, but the critics don’t know that.

Panken:   Nonetheless, it did wind up being probably beneficial in the long run for these guys to have the chance to do that.

Donaldson:   For some of those musicians. Yeah, Wynton got famous with that. Wynton got famous with that, and he’s still famous.

Panken:   But apart from that band, just your sense of this group of musicians who started to emerge then? Was it a healthy thing for the music? Did it change the climate?

Donaldson:   Well, it’s always healthy when somebody new comes in. Because it’s like new blood. It’s always healthy. But what happens is that you get so many people… Lee Morgan was one of them, too. You get so many people until you can’t…you got a whole lot of chiefs and no Indians.  Because when they leave Art, they want to get a band. So what you got is a lot of bands, but no musicians, and no real definite sound. Now, you notice that nobody, even now, is dominant. What’s the alto saxophone player that’s dominant? I mean, other than Kenny G. David Sanborn. No jazz alto saxophone player is dominant.

Panken:   What do you make of that? Too many chiefs, no Indians, or…

Donaldson:   Well, not necessarily that. It’s because all of them come through the same thing, and they’re not playing anything, because all of them are playing the same.

Panken:   Is that because of the way jazz education is now? Coming up in conservatories and not bands?

Donaldson:   Well, partly. Partly. Partly. But anybody who comes through school and learns all the basics, they got to know that everybody is not supposed to sound the same. If you go through the school and learn the basics, you know that.

Panken:   Well, they have to sound a little different. When we did the Blindfold Test, you told them all apart. You could pinpoint who Donald Harrison was, and who Kenny Garrett was, and who Vincent Herring was…

Donaldson:   Yeah. Well, still you got to… Right now, I don’t know. Nobody is dominant. We did a survey, which the critics don’t know about. A cat bet me $100 that… I bet him $100 to $500 that I could stand down at the Apollo Theater and pool the people when they came by, and it would be ten times more people that knew Kenny G than knew Sonny Rollins. You know how it came up? We didn’t even have to stay there but about a half-hour. Everybody he asked about Sonny Rollins said, “Oh, yeah, I know him; he plays with the Boston Celtics. He’s with the Giants.” Not a living ass knew who Sonny Rollins was. Then he started asking people about Kenny G. Everybody he asked knew Kenny G. In fact, a lot of the people who came by there knew me. “Hey, Lou, what you doing out here?” But I told him, “I’m famous in Harlem; I used to live right on 127th and 8th Avenue. I know all about Harlem.”

But that’s just the way it is. It’s a sad situation. Sad situation.

Panken:   I’m going to ask one final question. I asked you about feeling…whether you’ve been overlooked, underrated somewhat. And you’re now in receipt of an NEA Jazz Masters Award. It hasn’t been announced yet, but it will be by the time this comes out. Does that mean something to you? How are you reacting to it?

Donaldson:   It’s a prestigious award. It doesn’t mean anything to me. I’m 86 years old…85 years old. It doesn’t mean a thing to me. Because I figure I should have had an award 25-30 years ago.

Panken:   I wouldn’t disagree.

Donaldson:   In fact, I could have had it if I’d wanted to. They invited me to the first or second or third time they gave out the award, but I was on the road and I couldn’t get back to New York to go to the meeting. I’m pretty sure I would have got it then. But it doesn’t bother me, because I’m very fortunate. I’m one of the horses who got out the stall. A lot of these guys get blocked in, and they’re down for years. Not me. I was lucky.

Panken:   Well, you know what Branch Rickey said.

Donaldson:   Yes.

Panken:   “Luck is the residue of design.”

Donaldson:   Yup. Yup. But, see, music… Let me tell you something about music before you cut this off. You talk about Wynton. Now, Wynton did something that is very hard to do. He brought this music back and got back the dignity, the stuff that people used to have in the music before the junkie era. Because I remember when I was a kid, musicians used to come through Greensboro and get stranded, and people would let them come to their house and stay, and they’d feed them and everything, until they got another job. But not during the junkie era. But he brought this back, and he does a wonderful job. Wonderful job. I wish all the best for him. He’s a nice guy.

Not my favorite trumpet player, you know… Because you can see that I worked with Clifford Brown, Blue Mitchell, Kenny Dorham… I worked with guys who really knew how to play a trumpet. Idrees Sulieman, a great trumpet player. Great trumpet player. Donald Byrd. I worked with these guys. Tommy Turrentine. But he did what he did, what he had to do, and he did it. More power to him. Only thing now…that he does now, he just tries for more of his type of artist than other artists, which is… Maybe he’s just doing it because he’s got a chance to do it. But you’ve got to spread it around.

Panken:   It’s complicated, because he’s trying to function as a composer also…

Donaldson:    Yes, and a musician.

Panken:   So he brings in people who play his sound, what he hears.

Donaldson:   And a musician. I just heard a record the night. It shook me up. I was listening to Sirius, and they played his concert, and he played “Blues Walk,” featuring Sherman.

Panken:   Sherman Irby.

Donaldson: Yeah, he’s a good saxophone player. I didn’t know that. So I called him and left a message. He didn’t call me back. I told him thanks. But he did a good job. And his father before him. I used to travel down through the South, way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and his father had a progressive group then, down in New Orleans, which is almost unheard-of. Because you got too much competition here—all that Dixieland. Al Hirt, Pete Fountain, all those guys, they had everything sewed up. But Ellis also had his band.

Panken:   I think Ellis was working with Al Hirt for a while, too.

Donaldson:   Yes. He worked hard. He worked hard. He kept it going.

Panken:   Any final comments, wrap-up comments?

Donaldson:   I don’t know what to say. The NEA is doing a good job. A good job. It’s very rewarding to receive this reward. And… What can I tell you? I started to send it back, but then I thought about it. I said, “I’ll take it.”

Panken:   You mean because it had been so long coming, and it should have been before.

Donaldson:   So long coming. Plus, I don’t need the money. I’m not rich, but I’m comfortable. So just one of my… I’m a Scorpio, so sometimes I think first… But now, since I got to be old, I think before I act. [LAUGHS] But I’m not…

It doesn’t bother me that I was not recognized. You know, they haven’t had my name in the alto poll for over twenty years.  My name has not even been listed. And I was working over in Europe every day, and they have people in the poll that don’t even work any more, or couldn’t work. That bugged me for a while, because Eddie Harris used to come in… It bugged him, too. Because he had… Well, Eddie had a lot of hit records, so Eddie made a lot of money. He said, “Why we can’t get in the poll?” But we figured it out. We figured it out. And you’d be surprised what we figured out. If you don’t play with Miles, you don’t get in there.

Panken:   Critically…

Donaldson:   If you don’t play with Miles. Look at all these people that are in there. They played with Miles. Except Norman Granz’s people, but that’s years ago. Because you know, with Norman Granz, he had Jazz at the Philharmonic, all his people always won the polls. Oscar Paterson. Ray Brown. Jo Jones. Roy Eldridge. Dizzy. Charlie Parker. Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips. Who was the trombone player with Woody Herman?

Panken:   Bill Harris.

Donaldson:   Bill Harris. J.J. I saw that for years. Because I’m up on it. I watch it.

Panken:   So you haven’t stopped working since you were 20 years old.

Donaldson:   No, not really. But I was lucky, because I got a circuit to work. It was a tough one, because most of the guys that owned the clubs, the ghetto clubs, were like hustlers.

Panken:   Tough guys. Hustlers.

Donaldson:   Number writers, dope sellers, and whatever else they did. I didn’t never get really tight with any of them because I couldn’t afford to go to jail—you know, my family and stuff. But I even worked a club for Don King.

Panken:   Cleveland, must have been.

Donaldson:   Yeah. Corner Tavern. He had a club called the Corner Tavern. He won’t admit it, but I worked there. [LAUGHS]

Panken:   Mr. Donaldson, thank you very, very much for this very candid two days of interviewing.

Donaldson:   All right. I hope you got a little material to interest the people.

Panken:   Can’t imagine how they wouldn’t be interested.

Donaldson:   I can’t tell you my ending, because it’s X-rated, so I wouldn’t put it on there.

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Filed under Interview, Lou Donaldson

For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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For Barry Harris’ 82nd Birthday, a Downbeat Article From 2000

For the 82nd birthday of the great pianist-teacher Barry Harris, I’m posting a feature article that DownBeat gave me the opportunity to write in 2000. I’m appending an early draft — the print copy is a thousand words shorter, much of them from long quotes. Going for info here over style.

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The pianist Barry Harris will be 71 this year, and when he talks, musicians listen.  “You know what happens with me?” he asks rhetorically.  “I can tell you, ‘Oh, if you’re doing that, you should do this, too; if you don’t do that, you ought to do this.’  I’ve been doing that for years.  I’m not the catalyst.  People are the catalyst, and I’m the agent.  I can come up with things that we need to learn.  Don’t ask me where it comes from.  It comes through me, whatever it is.”

Harris developed his sagacious, homegrown philosophy and spot-on hip persona in the take-care-of-business atmosphere of post-Depression Detroit, where his peer group included hothouse flowers who developed into some of the most notable improvisers of the ’50s and ’60s — pianists Tommy Flanagan, Terry Pollard and Roland Hanna; trumpeters Thad Jones and Donald Byrd; saxophonists Billy Mitchell, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Red and Pepper Adams; the guitarist Kenny Burrell; the harpist Dorothy Ashby; bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers; and drummers Elvin Jones and Frank Gant.

“Most of us grew up playing in church, where my mother started me,” Harris reminisces.  “I studied classical with a preacher named Neptune Holloway, who quite a few of us took lessons from, and also Mrs. Lipscomb, which was in a private home.  Tommy Flanagan and I took lessons from Gladys Dillard; we were on a recital together one time.  My mother was a very gentle and beautiful person, and one day she asked me whether I wanted to play church music or jazz.  I said, ‘I’ll play jazz,’  and she was cool with that.

“We didn’t have any schools to go to like people do now. We started out taking things off records, and there were people around us who could play.  Recently I’ve become reacquainted with Berry Gordy; at Northeastern High School, the two boogie-woogie piano players were Berry Gordy and Barry Harris.  We might have got messed up when Theodore Shieldy [Sheeley] came to town from Georgia and went to the school; he not only played better boogie-woogie, but he could improvise.  So could a cat named Will Davis.  Now, I could chord when I was a teenager, maybe 13-14-15, but I didn’t solo too well.  I lived on the East Side of Detroit, and I started going over to the West Side where the cats maybe couldn’t chord as well as me, but they could solo.  When I was 17 a blind girl named Bess Bonnier who’s a very good piano player loaned me a record player that had a device that allowed you to play the record in any key you wanted all the way through.  The first thing I learned how to play was ‘Webb City’ with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Sonny Stitt!”

Struck by the bebop bug, Harris and his cohorts absorbed and painstakingly examined records by Bud Powell and Charlie Parker as they came out.  “We were beboppers,” he declares.  “That’s all.  Bebop was a real revelation for us, a musical revelation.  It was like a renaissance.  I was born in 1929, and I became a teenager in the ’40s.  So while someone like Jaki Byard, who became a teenager in the ’30s, learned more about the Stride, Art Tatum and Earl Hines, we heard Al Haig, Bud Powell and George Shearing, who were different than the stride piano players.  So we aren’t the best of stride piano players; there’s no kind of way!”

According to Flanagan, “Barry always had a nice dynamic attack and approach to the piano.  He was quick to get hip to Bud Powell, devoted more time to that style than anyone else on the scene then.  He took it another step.  He had a lot of confidence, too.  He was one of the few guys who would just wait for Charlie Parker to come to town and go up and sit in with him.  That’s more confidence than I had.  I just didn’t have the nerve.”

“I sat in with Bird at least three or four times,” Harris reveals.  “His band was late one time for a dance one time at the Graystone Ballroom, so we played just one song with him during the first set — a blues in C.  He was beautiful to us.  The best experience that I always tell people is a time he was playing a dance with strings at a roller rink called the Forest Club.  We stood in front, and the strings started, and when he started playing chills started at your toes, and went on through your body — orgasms, everything imaginable.  It’s really a spoiler.  I don’t like to go listen to people because I’m expecting somebody to make me feel like that.  Bud Powell is important to me; I’m more a Charlie Parker disciple, even more so now.” (Later, Harris performed with a virtual Bird on “April in Paris” and “Laura” in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.”)

Before attaining his majority, Harris worked high school dances and various other functions at Detroit’s numerous dance halls — the Graystone, the Mirror, the Grand.  “We played for our contemporaries.  We played for shake dancers, we played shuffle rhythm, we played rhythm-and-blues.  All of it was part of the deal.  I would go to the dance, stand in back of the piano player and steal a couple of chords, then go home and learn how to play them.  I remember Donald Byrd one day saying, ‘I don’t want to play in a bar, I don’t want to play in the dance hall; I want to play on the concert stage.’  Well, separating the music from dancing might have been the biggest drag that ever happened to us.  We knew how to dance.”

Harris worked various venues around the Motor City, including a 1953-54 run as house pianist at a corner bar adjoining an auto repair shop and a supermarket with a good soul food kitchen and a major-league music policy in the heart of Detroit’s West Side called the Bluebird Lounge. Flanagan—who vacated the post when he entered the Army—recalls the scene:  “There were a lot of musicians on the West Side, and even the laymen were very hip; when the Bluebird started having music it attracted a lot of the people who wanted to be on the scene.  People like the pianist Philip Hill, Thad Jones, Billy Mitchell, and Frank Foster had bands in there, and they started bringing in guest saxophonists like Wardell Gray or Sonny Stitt.  Fine musicians always worked in the club, including the best Detroit musicians, and people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis.”

Among the highlights of Harris’ Bluebird tenure were a brief 1953 stint with Davis, who was living in Detroit (“I might have been the first to play ‘Solar’,” he notes offhandedly), and an extended engagement with Yusef Lateef and Elvin Jones.  “The Bluebird was a very special place, man,” he stresses.  “You know how Marvin Gaye sang ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’?  I think there was truth to it.  The Bluebird closed as 2 o’clock.  At 1:30 Sarah Vaughan or Bird would come in, and do you know what?  You didn’t see people running to the phones, but within ten minutes that joint would be packed with people.  There were a couple of bars like that.  I played in another called the Bowlodrome, which was a bowling alley that had a bar, with Frank Rosolino — that might have been one of the first steady gigs I had.”

With the exception of a few months on the road with Max Roach after Clifford Brown died in 1956 (sideman recordings that year  with Thad Jones on Blue Note and Hank Mobley on Prestige), Harris spent the remainder of the 1950s in Detroit, working week-long gigs at area showcases like the River Lounge and Baker’s Keyboard Lounge with solo acts like Lester Young, Flip Phillips and Nancy Wilson, and building an almost mythical reputation as a piano guru that spread outside home turf.

“I might have known a little bit more than the rest,” he remarks.  “I don’t know if I was more schooled.  As far as playing Classical, I think Tommy Flanagan was more schooled than me; he and Kenny Burrell were the hippest bebop players around.  I was very quiet and kind of the shy cat.  Wasn’t no sports.  I was a piano player!  ‘Down Beat’ in 1958 had a yearbook with a picture of Paul Chambers on half a page; they’re talking about the Midwest, and they say, ‘Mostly all the musicians who come from Detroit come from Barry Harris.’  My mother had a flat where she let us play all day, and my house was like a mecca.  When piano players came to town, they’d look for me because they’d heard about me.  I don’t know what you would call me.  I’m not the catalyst.  I’m the thing that gets set off by the catalyst.”

Frequenting the Harris salon were young, information-hungry musicians like Joe Henderson, Louis Hayes, Roy Brooks, Paul Chambers, Lonnie Hillyer and Charles McPherson.  “I lived right around the corner from Barry, and I met him when I was about 15.” McPherson recollects, “Barry had heard me sitting in at the Bluebird, where the owner would let us sit in if we brought our parents over, and he told me, ‘You need to learn your scales.’  I started coming over to his house after school.  Barry’s house was a hub of activity.  He practiced and played music all day long, when anybody might come by, then at night he’d go to work.  Traveling musicians always knew to go to Barry’s house.  One time Coltrane came over when he was in town with Miles and Cannonball.

“I owe so much to him for helping me establish a firm musical  foundation, and technically in terms of harmony and theory and chord changes and scales.  But also, he instilled in me a certain kind of musical intelligence in terms of taste and musical discretion — to try always to be musically honest, to use the emotions along with analysis, that technique is wonderful but it’s just a means to facilitate your musical conception, and not the end-all and be-all.  One day he saw my report card, and noticed that it was quite average.  He said, ‘All your heroes, like Charlie Parker, are everything but average.  Charlie Parker might be kind of a bad boy in society, he’s doing a lot of things that’s not cool, but on the intellectual level the guy is brilliant.  All those cats are brilliant, man.  You can’t be an average or stupid guy playing this kind of music.’  I had never thought of it like that.  From that point on, I actually turned my life around school-wise.  I became like an honors student overnight.  I started reading books.  So Barry really instilled in me the notion of intellectual curiosity, that the hipper your intellectual thing is, the more there is to play — because you’re playing your life, your experiences.”

Harris left Detroit in 1960 to join Cannonball Adderley, who recruited him for Riverside records and brought him to New York — where, as he puts it, “a lot of cats knew about me before I knew about them” — for good.  He settled in an unheated cold-water loft on Broad Street in the Financial District, and after a shaky sort — a bout with pneumonia — hit the ground running, finding places to practice, working occasional gigs with people like Yusef Lateef, Lee Morgan, later with Wes Montgomery and Charles McPherson at the Five Spot, Minton’s and Boomer’s.  He found various duo sinecures at joints like Junior’s Bar on 52nd Street, down the block from Birdland, where big band and studio musicians would hang out to drink.

During the ’60s Harris, mentor to so many, found two of his own, forming friendships with Thelonious Monk and Coleman Hawkins, to whom he remained close until the end of their lives.  Curiously, Harris reveals, “I didn’t pay that much attention to Monk when I was getting started; Monk might have sounded very hard.  But you heard the most beautiful melodies; his songs you wanted to know, like the first recording of ‘Round Midnight’ when Bud was with Cootie Williams.  Monk showed me ‘Round Midnight’ one time, which is why I get mad when people play it — they play the changes so wrong.  Cats try to take it all out and everything, but he did it real simple — three notes sometimes.  You gradually grew into Monk if you dealt with Bud Powell; you could tell Monk had influenced him, and you would be influenced by Monk.  Monk was odder than all the rest.  He did unorthodox things, not the regular, run-of-the-mill stuff.”

The Baroness Pannonica de Konigswater, who Harris met soon after arriving in New York, was a long-standing friend to Monk and Hawkins, and helped facilitate his relationships with the avatars.  “I can remember playing at the Five Spot, and Monk coming in and walking back and forth through the joint all night with his hat and coat on,” Harris says.  “That might have been when I first met him.  Later I’d go with the Baroness by his house, and we’d pick him up and all three go someplace.  Monk was an odd fellow.  He didn’t waste any conversation.  Monk never wasted words — or notes.  That was like his music.  And that’s really true, too.  A lot of people assume that Monk didn’t have technique.  I can tell them that they’re lying on that issue, because he really did.  I saw him play a run, and I tried to play it and I couldn’t. Monk danced a lot.  He would sit behind the piano, and suddenly throw his hand out way at the top of the piano to hit a note.  That note was hit.  The way he would play a whole tone scale coming down, I don’t know if anybody ever played like that before!

“Monk was hipper than most of the jazz musicians today.  Monk didn’t practice practicing.  Monk practiced playing — sitting at the piano, play in tempo one tune by himself for 90 minutes.  I lived with Monk for ten years, and one day he said, ‘Come on, let’s play the piano.’  Monk started playing ‘My Ideal.’  I guess we played about 100 choruses apiece, where he’d play one, then he’d make me play one.  I wish it had been recorded.  He was a very special kind of cat.”

Monk probably learned “My Ideal” during his mid-’40s tenure with Coleman Hawkins on 52nd Street; Harris played with Hawkins extensively from 1965 until Hawkins died in 1969.  “I put him in the hospital when he died,” Harris recalls.  “He didn’t want to go, but I had to put him in.  I had gone to live with him on 97th Street, and he had gotten too heavy for me to move him around.  He was a recoverer.  He might overdo things a bit, and then he’d cool out and he’d recover and he’d be all right.  It just happened this time he didn’t recover.

“I can remember the first time I sat in with Coleman Hawkins;  he was playing at the Five Spot.  He called some tune that I knew the melody to, and I figured I could figure out the chords.  So we played it, and all he said was, ‘Doggone it, another goddamn Detroit piano player!’ [LAUGHS] I felt lucky to have worked with him, because he gave me a different outlook on things.  One time he called out ‘All The Things You Are,’ and after he played I just said, ‘Oh my goodness.’  He would play a phrase, laugh his butt off because he knew I was trying to get the phrase.  I wasn’t chording.  I was trying to steal his phrases!  It sort of let me know that there’s a lot more to be played than what we’ve heard.  We can’t think of anybody really as the end.  We were the bebop boys.  That was our music.  But playing with Coleman Hawkins sort of showed one that there was a lot more to play than Bebop, than what Bird and them played.  So one had to work at trying to reach this other level.

“He had a special philosophy.  For one thing he would always say he never played chords; he played movements.  I’m a firm believer that the key thing is how you go from one place to another.  One should know how to go to the relative minor, how to come back from the IV to the I, all these different little things that young cats don’t really know nowadays.  A lot of horn players, unfortunately, sit at the piano, hit one chord and then another, think it’s  hip, and decide to write a melody on it.  They’re missing the boat, because what they’ve done is learn to melodize harmonies as opposed to harmonize melodies, and most people don’t remember a thing you played.  Music is more than that.  Music is movement.  You have to play a chord that moves.  Once you know more about movement, then you can venture away from it.”

Harris still lives in De Konigswater’s home, facing the west bank of the Hudson River with a spectacular Manhattan skyline view, and he speaks of her with reverent reticence.  “She was beautiful towards musicians,” he says.  “All the musicians knew it, too.  She probably helped us all in some kind of way.  One of the greatest ways she helped us, I think, people would walk by a jazz club and see her Bentley or Rolls-Royce parked out in front, and they’d come into the club to see who was in there with this Rolls-Royce or Bentley.  Up in Harlem, they protected that car.  She could park any place up there, in front of Wells, in front of Smalls Paradise, in front of Minton’s.  She never locked the trunk or the glove compartment, and nobody ever touched it.  She was a jazz lover.  That’s no stuff.  She was one of our assets.”

Harris recorded four strong sessions for Riverside, including “Live At the Jazz Workshop,” which is a bible of trio playing for a number of younger pianists.  When the label folded in 1964, Harris began to do business on a handshake basis with A&R man Don Schlitten, for whom he recorded steadily, both as leader of a series of increasingly personal, poetic recitals and as the penultimate sideman, prodding the likes of Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Heath, Sonny Stitt, Al Cohn, Illinois Jacquet, Sonny Criss, Red Rodney and McPherson to superb performances on dates for Prestige, MPS, Muse and Xanadu until the early ’80s.

“He knew all the tunes,” Schlitten comments.  “Everybody knows all the changes, but he also knew the melodies.  He had a certain way of comping and playing the changes that was inspiring to the cats who were playing this music, and he brought a certain kind of enthusiasm and joy which, as far as I’m concerned, is what makes jazz what it is, and turned the other cats on.  Therefore, he became a very integral part of whatever it is that I was trying to present in terms of preserving this particular form of music.  It seemed to work all the way down the line.”

Harris began teaching formally during the mid-’70s with Jazz Interactions, an non-profit organization run by the trumpeter Joe Newman and his wife Rigmor; his classes became so popular that Harris eventually started his own school, the Jazz Cultural Theater, on 28th Street and 8th Avenue.  Picking up where he’d left off on his Detroit home sessions, JCT became Harris’ New York platform for articulating his palpably unorthodox theories.  “I believe in scales,” he says.  “I don’t mean a whole lot of scales, like most people.  I wanted to pay attention to the pentatonic scales and so forth, but my thoughts have changed since I started.  I believe in the dominant 7th scale.  The question becomes to figure out how to apply it to everything that one runs into — and one can.  I am more of the opinion now that if you give students a little basic harmony, to go from one place to the other, and then combine that basic harmony with the scales, one will be on the right track to teach.

“I don’t know if there are too many teachers on the right track.  They have our young now learning these funny songs that don’t have movement, so young people all over the world aren’t even getting a chance to learn to play.  Everybody is writing their original stuff mostly nowadays.  The reason they’re doing that, of course, is because that’s one way for us to make some money.  Record companies aren’t the most trustworthy things in the world, so the only way for you to really make something is to have your original music.  But because people are playing their original music, we can’t have the jam session thing too much.  I could go up and play when Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins were playing, because they’re going to play something I know.  There’s a bunch of standards that everybody in the world should know, like ‘How High The Moon’ or ‘Just You, Just Me.’  Young people nowadays don’t even have a chance to go to a jam session.  That’s why when I had my place, I tried to keep a jam session going every Wednesday night, even though it never was anything.

“With a lot of the young people, I can’t understand their logic when it comes to jazz, or their understanding of jazz, their disrespect for older musicians, and why they play like they play.  Monk didn’t play that way, Art Tatum didn’t play that way, Bud Powell didn’t play that way, Al Haig didn’t play that way, Bill Evans didn’t play that way.  The pianists can’t play two-handed chords; they think that the right hand is just for single notes — and that’s bull.  Whoever taught them that and whoever came up with it is full of stuff.  This music is two-handed music.  All you got to do is listen.  And yet, these people will say that they’re listening to Monk and different people, and I know they’re full of stuff.  They aren’t listening to them.  It’s impossible to listen to them and play the way they play.”

Harris’ pessimistic prognostications belie his actions, which are those of a profoundly optimistic man.  “I’m older now, and I don’t know how much longer I have,” he says.  “Any knowledge that I have, I’m not supposed to die with it; I’m supposed to pass it on, I’m sure.  So I try to pass on my knowledge of this thing.  Hopefully, some of it will win out in the end.  See, I know some of the stuff I pass on is right.  I’ve got piano players playing stuff that no other pianist has ever played in life, because we’re thinking totally different about the piano.  We think about scales.   We have a scale for chording.  Most piano players don’t know anything about that.  99% of the chords we play come from a scale of chords.  And if you don’t know the scale, that means that you’re missing out on 7 or 8 different chords that somebody never told us were chords.  They tell us about augmented ninths, but they don’t know that augmented ninths comes from a scale.  You should be able to take that augmented ninth chord up a scale and find out what the second chord is, the third, the fourth, the fifth, and then you’ll start hearing sounds that you never heard before in your life.

“The more you find out about music, the more you believe in God, too.  This isn’t haphazardly put together.  This stuff is exact.  It’s a science, and part of the music is science.  But we think there’s something above the science part; there’s something above the logic.  There’s a freedom at both ends of the barrel, man.  There’s a freedom in anarchy, but there’s another freedom that comes from knowledge, then there’s another freedom that comes that really is the freedom we seek.  That’s what all of us want, is this freedom.  I think by knowing that the music is not chordal, but scalar, changes the whole thing.

“You learn from teaching.  I have my students trying to catch up to me, and I insist that they don’t.  It really keeps me on my toes, because I ain’t gonna let ’em catch up to me.”

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