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Chucho Valdés Is 71 Today: A 2004 Downbeat Feature

For the 71st birthday of the magisterial Cuban Jesus “Chucho” Valdés — and the 93rd for his father, Bebo Valdés — here’s an feature piece I wrote about him for DownBeat in 2004.

The end of the piece is inaccurate — as it turned out, Valdés did not miss his U.S. gigs because of a hernia condition, but because of certain business and personal conflicts which I won’t elaborate upon.

* * *

Thirty years ago, Jesus “Chucho” Valdés relates, his biggest dream was to see Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner perform. Now, on the final Monday of 2003, Valdés was about to embark on a week when and he and the piano giants would simultaneously play major club engagements in New York City.

Over the past few years, the enigmatic Cuban pianist had barely played a note in New York. Booked to play the Village Vanguard in 2002 and early 2003, visa-processing delays by the Homeland Security Administration forced him to miss these dates, as well as other gigs in the States. Cuba is on a list of countries considered a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the United States—to receive a visa, its citizens need to get a special security clearance from the State Department—so stories like Valdes’ are more the rule than the exception.

This time, art prevailed, and Valdés, with his visa secured and upgraded, arrived in New York from Havana for a week at the Vanguard without bureaucratic holdup. His long absence in and of itself imparted extra significance to this residence. But to raise expectations even higher, he was scheduled to perform with a completely new band.

When Valdés descended into the Vanguard to meet his New York band for the week to come, awaiting him downstairs were Puerto Rican-raised bassist John Benitez, Cuban-raised drummer Dafnis Prieto and veteran Nuyorican conguero Ray Mantilla. After warm greetings and salutations, the musicians—never in a room together until that moment—took the bandstand and launched into “Besame Mucho” as a flowing son, locking in from the first measures with the intuition of old friends conversing over a post-dinner apertif. In that mode, they rehearsed until nightfall.

“Generally, Cuban groups like Irakere are very formed,” Valdés said over lunch at the Manhattan restaurant Patria prior to his first rehearsal with the new group. “You can do complicated things, and you have all the time in the world to rehearse. Things take time when they’re hard. This is another story, because it’s imagination, adventure. The other is an adventure, too, but planned. Everything depends on how we connect, musically and in the idea. I have done other things; now is the moment to do this. This for me is something new, and I like it.”

Valdés agreed to take on this project at the suggestion of his close friend Lorraine Gordon, the Vanguard’s proprietor. He first played the venerable basement in September 1996 as a member of Roy Hargrove’s Big Band, and subsequently in 1997 with Hargrove’s Crisol, the New York–Cuba ensemble in which Valdés showcased his jazz skills to an American audience that knew him only as the keyboardist and musical director of Irakere. In 1999, he recorded a live album on the premises for Blue Note with his quartet of Cuban musicians, Live At The Village Vanguard.

At 62, Valdés is a national icon in Cuba. As the creative force behind Irakere, he spent the ’70s and ’80s finding ways to place jazz harmonies over the songo beat, a rhythm of his own invention that blends Cuban street beats—rumba, guaguanco and yumba—with American funk.

Since the mid ’90s he’s used his international prestige to draw world-class artists to the Havana Jazz Festival. But Valdés had never done anything quite like this week at the Vanguard, where he allowed himself to complete a circle, to connect wholeheartedly with his earliest musical aspirations in a way that he has been unwilling or unable to do for many years.

“Mistakenly, some people thought jazz was imperialist music,” Valdés says, describing the ideological attitude of Cuba’s cultural commissars in the early ’60s. “A great error. I have struggled all my life. But I maintained my connections in the difficult period, and today I have the best jazz festival in all of the Southern Americas. Easier said than done, but we did it.”

BREAK

Before sold-out crowds at the Vanguard each night, Valdés allowed himself to eschew the firm control with which he customarily directs the musicians in his ensembles. He opted for improvisation, interaction, and open exchange of ideas with his world-class partners, subordinating pyrotechnics and virtuosic flourishes to collective ends. In short, Valdés displayed a fully bilingual tonal personality—not a pianist who layers jazz elements onto a Cuban sensibility, but a Cuban musician fully at home with the idiomatic particulars of jazz vocabulary.

He revealed a staggering breadth of reference. He might begin a set with a chromatic workout on the luscious atonal melody of “Son Parabea,” composed that very week, and then follow it with a quote-filled tour through “Besamé Mucho” (the final night saw stops at “Work Song,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Nature Boy,” “Love Me Or Leave Me” and “Bolivia”), addressed as a soulful bolero-blues. He transformed Miles Davis’ “Solar” into a Cubop tour de force, juxtaposing different metric signatures with each hand and articulating the dynamics and velocities with total control. He played the balladic danzons “La Comparsa” or “Tres Palabras,” or perhaps his own classic, “Claudia,” deploying the harmonic language of Ravel and Debussy and Villa-Lobos in his statements. He paid homage to Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debby”) and Duke Ellington (“In A Sentimental Mood”).

Valdés is a long-standing devotee of Gershwin, with interpretations of “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” on his extraordinary string of albums for Blue Note since 1998. At the Vanguard he played “Liza”—traveling the timeline from idiomatic Fats Waller stride to baroque Art Tatum romanticism to intense Bud Powell bebop—and a catchy “I Got Rhythm” variant, songo-style, on which each night he found new ways to interpolate snippets from “Birks Works,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Manteca,” “Dizzy Atmosphere” and other refrains from Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Cheek To Cheek” and “Blue Rondo A La Turk.”

“We were exploring for the whole week,” Prieto said. “We didn’t know what was going to happen, and it stayed fresh. I was impressed by the way he conducts. He would raise his hand, and you wouldn’t have to pay attention twice to see what he meant. It made things very tight, and he made decisions at the right time and with the right conception. He’s very clear. He surprised me in the way he directed the band, in his piano playing, and in his interaction. After that week, I think differently about him.”

BREAK

At our luncheon at Patria, Valdés squeezed his six-and-a-half foot frame and not inconsiderable bulk into a booth with his wife of four years, Ileana, and translator Ned Sublette, the proprietor of the Cuba-centric Qbadisc label and author of a forthcoming history of Cuban music. Valdés ate ceviche and a chicken cutlet sandwich, drank wine, and held forth on a variety of subjects, constantly referencing the culture in which he developed his core aesthetic values.

“There was everything in Havana,” Valdés said of his formative years, which coincided with the regime of strongman Fulgencio Batista and the height of American Mafia influence in the Cuban tourist trade. “Most of the big hotels had cabarets with shows, and they brought in big names. Johnny Mathis, for example. I remember when Sarah Vaughan was in the Sans Souci at the same time Nat King Cole was at the Tropicana, and when the two shows finished, everybody went to the Sans Souci to have a jam session with Sarah. There were a lot of jam sessions after the cabarets closed, and there were always North American musicians appearing. Zoot Sims. Mundell Lowe. Jimmy Knepper.
“Stan Getz showed up, borrowed a tenor, and sight-read the hotel show like he’d been playing the book for a hundred years,” he continued. “Nobody knew that they were in Cuba. The movie theaters would have a show after the movie; I saw Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball once, and artists from Spain and France. During the ‘50s, Josephine Baker was at the Tropicana. I was the pianist on the last record she made, in 1966, in Havana.”

Valdés attended conservatory for classical music and was home-schooled in jazz and the many varieties of Cuban music by his father, pianist Bebo Valdés, himself a virtuoso jazz stylist who in 1952 transplanted the bata drum from the rituals of Santeria into mainstream Cuban dance. He first played professionally at a lounge in the Tropicana around 1957–’58. “It was a bebop trio, and I played pure American style,” he recalls. “I was trying to reproduce all the things I listened to. Wynton Kelly, Horace Silver, Red Garland—the Miles Davis pianists. Bud Powell. Many things of Oscar Peterson. I followed the line of my father, because of his experience. I admire him a lot. He’s one of the greatest pianists I’ve listened to in Cuba. He told me, ‘Study pure Classical, and you’ve got to study jazz by periods.’ We started with Jelly Roll Morton, and I learned ragtime, boogie, swing, bebop, and modal by epoch. Learn each thing correctly in its specialty, and don’t jump around from era to era, so you know what you’re doing and why things happened. He taught me to be an individual musician.

“On my solos, within my limitations, I played a little like Art Tatum at the beginning. Then I started to follow my own fantasy, looking for something that would identify me. How can I put in a bata drum? How can I change the bass around to make it more Latin? How can I use more jazz harmony, because it’s richer? And how can I put Yoruba cantos over the jazz harmony? Little by little, I searched for those answers. I was much criticized for this by Cuban musicians, because they said this isn’t pure. But within my conception, I put it together. I understood already that this was fusion. My father had his fusion, but I was looking for my own. When I made my first record, they wanted to call me Bebo Valdés Jr. I said, ‘My name is Chucho.’ They said, ‘No, it will sell better.’ I said, ‘I don’t want to record, then.’ I was proud of my father’s name, but I wanted to be myself.”

“In the beginning, Chucho played exactly like Oscar Peterson,” says Paquito D’Rivera, confirming Valdés’ self-description. D’Rivera writes vividly about these years in his autobiography, Mi Vida Saxual [My Saxual Life]. He recalls having first heard Valdés play in 1961 at a club called Havana 1900, and made his recording debut in Cuba on a pair of early-’60s LPs called Jesus Valdés Y Sus Combo that contained “primarily boleros and descargas.” In 1964–’65, Valdés and D’Rivera would play jazz with Irakere predecessors El Teatro Musical del Havana and the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna.

“As the ’60s went on, he got more into Bill Evans, and Keith Jarrett had a big impact on him,” D’Rivera continues. “But at first he sounded like a continuation of his father’s work. Nobody called him Chucho. They said, ‘This is Bebo’s son.’ Mainly because of Bebo, he was very well respected by the Cuban musicians. Nobody criticized him. Everybody admired him as a musician.”

Bebo Valdés opposed Castro, and left Cuba in 1963 for a new life in Europe. His son remained on the island to pursue his musical studies and raise his own family, unable to communicate with his father and facing severe pressure to renounce his jazz roots.

“Terror can work miracles,” D’Rivera says. “For 17 years, Chucho did not return Bebo’s letters. Bebo told me that he did not blame Chucho. His words were, ‘Chucho was so scared that I understand why he did this.’ But I am glad that now Chucho says he feels like a jazz person, because he was denying this for many years. In the ‘70s, jazz was a four-letter word, and Chucho didn’t want to participate in the Havana Festival. He didn’t say, ‘No, I am not going to participate,’ but he never participated.”

Now a pillar of Cuba’s cultural establishment, Valdés visits his father’s house in Sweden, speaks with him once a week and receives Bebo’s youngest son—his stepbrother—on a regular basis at his house in Cuba. He’s so entrenched in the system that he signed a public letter last April defending Fidel Castro’s imposition of 20-year prison terms on such dissident figures as the poet-writer-journalist Raul Rivera and economists Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. He would appear to hold the position of Cuba’s musical chairman of the board. While other groups have been sanctioned for performing in venues that the government considers off-limits or for conveying proscribed lyrics or genres, Irakere has operated in a relatively uncircumscribed manner. Valdés knows the boundaries, and doesn’t cross them.

“I had a lot of friends within the culture—and the state,” he laughs. “That helps. It’s not as bad as is said. It’s important to break the psychological barriers that impede the interchange, without saying names of what it’s about. When Dizzy got together with the Cubans, something different happened. Cuba and the United States have a musical root with a point of departure in Africa. New Orleans was once in Spanish territory, and the connection between the habanera and ragtime is very interesting. They are almost the same thing. The famous ‘Spanish Tinge’ that Jelly Roll Morton said he felt in ragtime wasn’t Latin. It’s the ‘African Tinge,’ the same thing that’s in the habanera.

“The same Africans came to New Orleans and to Cuba. For that reason, it’s very important that the relation between the cultures is not broken. If there is a political problem, it’s a mistake, because it’s holding back development. And at the end, it’s not the product of a country, it’s a universal product. I base what I do in that idea. I hope nothing impedes the communication between North American and Cuban musicians. This is above politics. It’s more interesting than politics.”

“Being apolitical is already a political position,” D’Rivera responds. “I think Chucho doesn’t agree with the Cuban government. But he’s a representative of the Cuban government, even if he’s doing it against his will. He wants to do his music and he doesn’t want to leave, and he has to follow the rules. That’s why I left. I didn’t want to follow those rules.”

“Chucho’s major source of inspiration is in Cuba—the daily life, the smells, the atmosphere,” says Ileana Valdés. “He could never leave that place.”

That being said, Valdés seemed thrilled to have an opportunity to soak up the New York state of mind in an unmediated fashion.

“Last night, I received a lesson listening to Cedar Walton,” he said. “It was fantastic. Jazz is a language. It’s a form of expression. And it’s an idiom at the same time. Cedar did it pure at the maximum level. I also heard that with Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones. Listening, you learn. One has a seal, a way of identifying oneself that one does not lose. But also, I see change. I’ve got a lot to learn here yet.

“When I play, I’m thinking about rhythm and movement. I can also be very introspective. I admire Bill Evans. But I do something else. I never wanted to be a cabaret pianist. The harmony is the road; you can’t choose another path. It governs improvisation. You can move the harmony around, but the harmony always guides you. You can improvise freely over it, but you can’t forget it. I live studying this. And buying books and music. That’s my life. Nothing else interests me.”

BREAK

In February, Valdés had just completed an engagement at the Blue Note in Milan with his Cuban quartet and was scheduled to fly into New York to rehearse for a Bronx concert with the Chico O’Farrill Orchestra that would include several duets with the singer Graciela, the sister of Mario Bauza. Plans were afoot to keep the New York Quartet busy during the spring and summer.

However, none of these events transpired. Lifting a suitcase while in tour in Italy, Valdés aggravated a long-standing hernia condition. He returned to Cuba and, advised not to travel for four months, postponed all off-island engagements until the summer, including the Bronx event (D’Rivera filled in) and a series of concerts in Spain with his father.

Valdés didn’t sit still. Within the first month of his recuperation, he recorded an album for the Cuban market with Los Muñequitos de Matanzas, performed with nuevo flamenco singer El Cigalla, and played the opening week of a new club in Havana’s Jazz Plaza  at which the Cuban government plans to present performances.

But it’s hard to say when he’ll return to the United States. And as of this writing, no one is sure when—or if—the New York Quartet will work again.

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Chris Potter at the Village Vanguard This Week

On any given evening in New York City, jazzfolk possessing sufficient determination, logistical savoir faire, and funds can select from an embarrassment of riches. Last night, for example, I might have gone to the Jazz Standard to hear James Farm, the new collective “all star” group with Joshua Redman, Aaron Parks, Matt Penman, and Eric Harland. Could’ve gone to Birdland for Bill Charlap’s inimitable trio, or to Smoke, where the great tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander was swinging with piano maestro Harold Mabern.

Instead, I stayed in downtown Manhattan. Started off at the acoustically superb theater at the Rubin Museum, sited on the premises of the old Barney’s on 17th and 7th, to hear a solo concert by pianist Craig Taborn in celebration  of his new ECM release Avenging Angel, a recital constructed by Manfred Eicher from two days of in-studio improvisations. In person, Taborn compressed, presenting 8 or 9 tabula rasa improvs that showcased both his enviable interdependence,  rhythmic precision, and an array of attacks and pedaling techniques that exploited — and reveled in the harmonics of –  the full dynamic range of the Yamaha piano. It was a good reminder that Taborn — whose public profile  has become distorted by the amount of time he’s spent over the last decade playing keyboards in bands led by Tim Berne and, more visibly, Chris Potter — is anyone’s equal on the acoustic 88s.

Later, I walked down 7th Avenue to the Village Vanguard to hear the final half-hour of the first set by Chris Potter,  with whom, for the last 8 years, Taborn has played keyboards in the “Underground Quartet.” Earlier this year, Potter presented a thrilling new band with Cuban pianist David Virelles, bassist Larry Grenadier, and Harland, performing original music inspired by a reading of The Odyssey. This week — the gig runs through tomorrow — Potter is working with a stringcentric quintet that features the protean guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith from the Underground group, acoustic bassist Scott Colley from his acoustic quartet of the late  ’90s and early ’00s, and electric bassist Fima Ephron, a master of texture and pulse. The music was technically challenging, but also episodic, melodic, and collectively oriented. It took me on a journey.

My last stop was the Jazz Gallery, where trumpeter Ralph Alessi led as individualistic a quartet as you could think of — Jason Moran on piano, Drew Gress on bass, Nasheet Waits on drums, which performs on the 2010 release (though it was recorded in 20040, Cognitive Dissonance [CAM Jazz]. I was tired, and had to leave after three tunes (looks like I missed Ravi Coltrane sitting in; he was coming up the stairs with his saxophone). Wish I could have hung in there, though, as Alessi’s music is brilliant — highbrow, witty, rhythmically intoxicating — and the cats played it with such conversational sangfroid…

On the way home, though, Potter’s set stayed in my mind. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a bit over the years, both through conducting a number of public interviews on WKCR, but also in the course of writing several pieces — a blindfold test 10-11 years ago, a 2006 feature article for Jazziz, a 2008 (I think it was) cover story for DownBeat. In the 2006 piece, Potter talked about themes that seem quite pertinent to the next step that he seems to be taking.

* * * * * *

On consecutive Fridays last June, saxophonist Chris Potter booked himself at 55 Bar in Greenwich Village. For week number-two, he convened guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith, both touring partners from February through May with Underground, Potter’s current band, and bassist Joe Martin.  Toward midnight, as a long line of fans filed into the low-ceilinged ex-speakeasy for the second set, Potter unwound, sipping a beer as he chatted with drummer Billy Hart. When the leader descended to the basement to prepare, Hart moved to the bar, and, with little prompting, recalled his first Potter sighting.

The occasion was a straightahead August 1995 recording session for bassist Ray Drummond’s Vignettes, on which Potter played tenor saxophone alongside altoist Gary Bartz.  “When I heard the CD, I noticed that Potter played so much better than everyone else,” Hart said with a smile. “I told Ray, ‘It was nice that you gave him extra time to rehearse,’ but Ray answered that Chris had the same three hours as everyone else. Then Chris called me for a date [Moving In (Concord-1996)] with Brad Mehldau and Larry Grenadier], and sent me a tape with the music. At the session, I asked Chris why he wasn’t using the drummer who played on the tape, who was terrific. Chris looked at me like I was nuts. Later, Larry Grenadier told me that Chris had played the drum, piano and bass parts. I was shocked. A few months later, he brought a tune called ‘Tosh’ for my record, Oceans of Time, and I asked him to rework a section. He came in the next day with a completely rewritten chart, on which the violin and guitar shared the melody with two saxophones playing a counter-melody underneath it. He did that after working late the previous evening with the Mingus Orchestra. I said, ‘How did you do this? Didn’t you sleep?’ He said, ‘It’s no problem; I’m only 26 years old.’”

A week after this conversation, Jimmy Heath, a tough critic, related meeting Potter at 15, in a Heath-conducted high school all star band. “Chris asked, ‘Mr. Heath, do you know the chords to ‘Yesterdays’?’,” Heath said. “I wrote them out, and he went on stage and killed it. We were playing in a yard as tourists walked by. Each time he soloed, everybody stopped. When the rest of us soloed, they kept walking. I said, ‘Boy, you’re E.F. Hutton; when you play, everybody listens.’”

Heath has never heard a name he couldn’t pun on, but he jested not: From 1989, when Potter arrived in New York on a Zoot Sims Scholarship to the New School, and joined former Charlie Parker sideman, trumpeter Red Rodney (who occasionally featured his saxophone wunderkind as a trio pianist during sets), until the present, everybody—elders and peers, beboppers and postmodernists, traditionalists and visionaries—pays attention  when Potter plays. Now 35, he’s led a dozen albums; sidemanned consequentially with Dave Holland, Dave Douglas, Paul Motian, Jim Hall, Renee Rosnes, Steve Swallow, and Rodney; and sustained close, enduring associations with such same-generation cutting-edgers as Rogers, Colley, Dave Binney, Alex Sipiagin, and Brian Blade, all 55 Bar regulars.

There are good reasons why Potter has earned such respect, among them his blend of technical derring-do, emotional projection, creative spirit and work ethic. “Chris is at the forefront of pushing the saxophone to the next level,” Binney says. “But he wants to keep stretching, even though he came up in this sort of young star thing and could easily have gotten stuck.” Rogers refers to Potter’s “endless wellspring of ideas,” while Colley mentions his “directness, his ability to focus that allows him to get incredibly deep into a tune, exploring different sounds, different textures, timbrally changing up, using the extreme range of his instrument.”

Also factoring into Potter’s transgenerational appeal is the deep-rooted jazz bedrock upon which he builds his investigations. In the liner notes to Moving In, he stated his desire to find new ways to address “the possibilities that lie in the relationship of harmony to rhythm, the way Charlie Parker put together a language that depended on landing on certain notes on certain parts of the beat.”

A few hours before his first 55 Bar appearance, he elaborated on his aesthetic: “I spent the ages 11 to 17 completely devoting myself to learning how Charlie Parker made his sounds, and I always feel I’m coming from the jazz language. But at the same time, I was listening to my parents’ records of  the Beatles and Stevie Wonder, records of Chicago blues, Balinese music, Stravinsky and Bach.”

During those formative years, Potter lived—and gigged frequently—in Columbia, South Carolina, no jazz mecca, where his parents, both educators, relocated with him from Chicago in 1975. “I had certain advantages growing up there that I wouldn’t have had, say, if I’d grown up in New York,” Potter says. “There weren’t too many jazz gigs, but I was doing a fair amount of them by high school.” These included bebop jobs with trumpeter Johnny Helms, formerly with Woody Herman and Clark Terry, and guitarist Terry Rosen, a Harry James alumnus who had previously toured with various Rat Pack era entertainers.  He also played with a more contemporary band whose repertoire ranged from standards to Rock to free jazz.

“I got both sides early on,” Potter said. “I also did a lot of weddings. I rented a tuxedo, sang ‘Yesterday,’ and shlepped around a DX-7, which I played. I had great experiences playing gospel gigs in black churches, where I’d be the one white kid. It was a low pressure environment, and I grew up with the idea of being a working musician. I definitely think of myself as an artist. I’m trying to create something meaningful to me and hopefully to other people. But my view is also that at the end of the day, hey, it’s a gig! People should be enjoying themselves. Because I started so young, I caught the tail end of some stuff that I don’t see much any more.”

Perhaps those experiences—not to mention several years of steady work in the Mingus Orchestra next to old-school outcats like John Stubblefield and Frank Lacy—account for the go-for-broke quality that infuses Potter’s playing at brisk tempos, whether swinging as a sideman on a straight-ahead date, flowing lyrically over Motian’s ametric sound-painting, or molding his phrasing to synchronize with Dave Holland’s interlocking time signatures, or Nate Smith’s unleashed inventions with Underground. Indeed, at 55 Bar, he played structural ideas with a spontaneous elan that reminded me of an earlier Potter remark that, Sonny Rollins’ reputation as a thematic improviser notwithstanding, he considered Rollins “one of the most instinctual improvisers that there ever was; it’s like an unbroken line, like he’s not planning his next move at all, and that’s how he’s able to keep your interest.”

I asked Potter if he considered that comment to be a self-description. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses,” he responded. “It depends how you end up using them. Things didn’t come easy to Coltrane as a kid, but he achieved an incredible amount because he worked so diligently, and he knew his weaknesses. From everything I can tell, Sonny was a real natural and automatically got things. I think I’m a little closer to the natural thing. But that can be a trap—if you do a lot instinctually, you may have less reason to dig deeper. I’ve found that I need to put in the work, that it makes a difference to the energy you get from the end product. Even if you don’t know the particular harmonic idea I’m working with or what I’m trying to get under my fingers, you hear the dedication to achieving this level.”

[BREAK]

“My generation grew up listening a lot to jazz and spent a lot of time working on the jazz language,” says Potter, referring not only to the 55 Bar clique, but also such old friends as Mehldau, Grenadier, Kevin Hays, Bill Stewart, and Kurt Rosenwinkel. “Some of us have been able to work with the greats. But I don’t think any of us feels bound to try to recreate the past. After Wynton came on the scene, there was a resurgence in people playing straight ahead and realizing how much depth it takes to do that. A few years later, the idea was, ‘Okay, we’ve gotten back to at least this; now where can we take THAT?’”

Addressing that question, Potter, like many among his cohort, landed on the challenge of making odd meters flow as organically as four-four swing.

“In the generation after Charlie Parker, everyone suddenly understood something about the bebop language, whereas a few years before hardly anyone could execute anything like that,” he says. “Now a jazz musician is expected to be able to improvise in 13 or in 11, know something about how Indian and African and Cuban music are put together and be familiar with the sound. I wouldn’t pretend expertise in any of those fields, but I feel those influences come out—in a layman’s kind of way—when I play. I don’t have a big theoretical underpinning, though I wish I could come up with one. My approach to music has always been to learn as much as possible by ear and to experiment—and have fun. It’s more about what feels right, what feels like a way to unify all the things that turn me on, all the different music I enjoy listening to.”

Potter displayed his swing fluency on the first tune during his first Friday at 55 Bar,  launching an extemporaneous, explosive theme-and-variation improvisation on “How Deep Is The Ocean” with Colley on bass and Jeff Ballard on drums. Deploying  his play-anything-he-hears technique, he executed intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions with vigorous authority  reminiscent of Sonny Rollins circa 1965.  Like Rollins, Potter put his virtuosity at the service of a story, deploying tension-and-release strategies to construct a dramatic arc that got under the skin of his listeners.

But in conceptualizing original music, Potter these days is inclined to sublimate his swing roots. In Underground, Potter develops ideas that he began to state systematically on Traveling Mercies, his second studio date with Hays, Colley and Stewart, his working quartet from 1999 to 2003. He eschews the bass, instead utilizing keyboardist Craig Taborn to sound-paint textures and kinetic grooves over a beat palette drawn from funk, hip-hop and world sources.  These propel lean-meat structures in which vamps, written forms and free sections serve as improvisational launch pads.

“It’s very difficult for me right now to make swing feel completely personal,” he says. “This is going to sound wrong, but it’s related to the cultural relevance of swinging as a rhythmic form. With Underground I think about music that sounds relevant to how I and everyone I know are actually living, the sounds you have in your head just from walking down the street in New York City. That’s not to say that swing can’t express that. But it almost feels like there’s too little space between beats. Though it doesn’t really make sense that a rhythm should have relevance or non-relevance. It’s just a pattern of sound.

“In 13, you can’t play the same safe stuff you know. To paint inside the lines, you have to place different rhythmic patterns, use different numbers of notes in the phrase. That’s one way I practice—to set up some kind of obstacle so I can’t just do what I already know. It’s like, okay, I’m only going to use triplets, or work with just groups of 5 or 7, or only play within a fifth range of the horn. I use whatever idea I can come up with that limits me, so that I have to find something that works.”

Emulating ex-employer Douglas’ proclivity for mixing and matching various musical styles, Potter will soon release an album of original music for a 10-piece strings-and-woodwinds ensemble that debuted at the Jazz Standard in May 2005. “I listen to a lot of classical music, and this gave me a chance to explore those influences and spell out my ideas completely,” he says. “In almost all the contexts that I work in, I don’t want to write too much, though. I want the band to find something.”

Which is what both of Potter’s bands did at 55 Bar, and what Underground has done during throughout its two-year history. According to Potter, there’s more to come. “Underground works for me because these guys are so wide-open,” he said. “Actually, the aesthetic isn’t so different than playing with any other group. The building blocks are different, but it’s still about improvisation and creativity and seeing what you can find every night. I’m really grooving on it.”

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Modern Jazz in Greenwich Village

Yesterday morning,  I received an invitation to join a Facebook group comprised of people who grew up in Greenwich Village, many of them from my elementary school alma mater, P.S. 41, on 11th Street and 6th Avenue, and my junior high school, I.S. 70., on 17th Street between 8th and 9th Aves. In going through the many threads, it’s fascinating to take in the testimony of such a diverse group of people who share the experience of having grown up and come of age during the 1960s and early ’70s in this singular, culturally influential community.

As a jazz guy, I couldn’t help but notice that, on a thread asking people to talk about the music that shook their world, not one respondent — except me, of course, ever the oddball –made a single mention of jazz. The  one exception is a woman who heard Miles at the Fillmore and also the Gaslight circa 1969 or 1970, when she would have been 15 or 16. Which is natural, since so many of the musicians who shaped the course of rock and pop were living and performing in the Village (one thread related that  Hendrix, then residing on W. 12th St., would practice with his amp by an open window; another gentleman posted a photograph of himself and his brother, barely 10, playing banjo on the grass in Washington Square Park next to a smiling, embarrassed Bob Dylan).

Six years ago, on the occasion of the Village Vanguard’s 70th anniversary, I wrote a feature piece for DownBeat on the halcyon years of jazz in the Village, which  waned—though the scene was by no means dormant—as the ’60s progressed. Unfortunately, for space reasons, DB had to excise much  of the third section. I’m running my own final cut below.

* * *

On a frigid afternoon in January, a few weeks before the seventieth anniversary festivities of the Village Vanguard, Lorraine Gordon, the proprietor, sat in the triangular basement for a chat. The heating unit was off, and she was fighting a cold. Wearing a sweater and down jacket, she stayed close to a lukewarm radiator near the coat-check room, sipping water and nibbling on takeout fried rice.

Gordon looked across to the bar, and recalled a moment more than 60 years ago, when she sat there with friends from the Newark Hot Jazz Club as Leadbelly sing the blues from the Vanguard stage. “Everything was as you see it now,” she said. “We had a couple of beers and passed them between us. I saw a little man by the cash register. I thought I heard him say, ‘Get rid of those kids.’ Whoa! I vowed revenge.”

The “little man” was Max Gordon, the owner. Some years later, Lorraine married him. When he died in 1989, she took over the business.

As she spoke, the ice machine spewed out a load of cubes.

“The ice revue!” she laughed. “We need a big facelift, but I don’t want to do it. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. That’s Max Gordon’s school, which I carry on to the best of my ability.”

Lorraine Gordon wasn’t joking. The Vanguard, which under her guidance  follows a booking policy as progressive as any New York venue, operates on principles opposite to modern notions of hospitality management. They don’t take credit cards and don’t serve food. The tables are tiny. The red banquettes are less than plush. Hot water in the restrooms is a recent innovation. [note: The Vanguard began to take credit cards last year.]

Gordon evoked another incident, perhaps in 1949 or 1950. “I brought Thelonious Monk here before he had any public at all,” she said. “Only some musicians knew him. Monk gets up, walks around and says, ‘And now, human beings, I’m going to play.’  He laid a big egg. Max was furious with me. ‘What kind of announcement is that?’ he said. ‘You’re ruining my business. What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Mr. Gordon, please. Be quiet. This man is a genius.’ Some years later, when Max brought him back, he told  people, ‘Hey, I want you to hear this genius.’”

“I was playing a gig with a singer for Max when Lorraine brought Monk in,”  pianist Billy Taylor corroborates. “Lorraine was pretty, and anything she told him, he was buying. At that particular time, it was the most unlikely thing he would have done.”

During the Vanguard’s first two decades, Max Gordon regarded jazz as a minor option on his entertainment menu. But as the ‘50s progressed, Gordon, sensing that television would soon outbid him for his artists, decided to make a move.

“In 1955 Max told me he was thinking of switching to a jazz policy,” says veteran producer Orrin Keepnews. “‘Stick with what you’ve got,’ I said, ‘and don’t give yourself a lot of trouble.’ Subsequently we talked about how fortunate it was that he paid me no attention.”

Fortunate indeed. Gordon signed on for the jazz wars at the precise moment when Greenwich Village was replacing 52nd Street and Harlem as the turf on which such efflorescent modernists as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Lennie Tristano, Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans established the vocabulary that continues to bedrock today’s sound. He shared the territory with clubs like the Café Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Jazz Showplace, and the Half Note, environments that now exist only in the memories of witnesses and through iconic location recordings. Those venues withered. The Vanguard flourished. Now, it’s the last survivor of the era.

* * * *
From today’s perspective, it seems odd that in 1955 the Village Vanguard and such venerable Greenwich Village establishments as Nick’s Tavern and Eddie Condon’s were inhospitable to modern developments in jazz. Yet, forward-thinking young musicians and a new generation of artists, writers, poets and theater people were settling in the Village, augmented by a flood of G.I. Bill sponsored students at New York University and numerous middle-class professionals moving into old brownstones and new highrises. All were looking for something different, and their soundtrack was modern jazz. But they could only hear it at informal sessions in lofts, storefront back rooms,  local restaurants, strip clubs (Phil Woods held court for several years at the Nut Club, a Sheridan Square boite in a space now occupied by The Garage), and saloons, like a raunchy East Fourth Street bar called the Open Door, where Robert Reisner booked jazz on Sunday afternoons.

In late 1954, Ted Joans, the black surrealist poet, moved from a MacDougal Street tenement into a barely heated Barrow Street flat, a five-minute walk from the Vanguard. Often boarding with him was Charlie Parker, his marriage shattered and health failing. Bird began to gravitate to the Bohemia, a former strip joint across the street at 15 Barrow—a decade before, the premises, known as the Pied Piper, boasted a house band with Wilbur DeParis and James P. Johnson—to drink and jam. James Garofalo, the manager, decided to reinstate the music policy, and hired Bird to kick things off.

Parker died on March 12, 1955, and never made the gig. Garofalo hired bassist Oscar Pettiford, who composed the anthemic “Bohemia After Dark” and attracted the best and brightest of Parker’s acolytes and contemporaries to hear him. Cannonball Adderley famously debuted there in June, sitting in on a Pettiford gig with Kenny Clarke. George Wallington recorded at the Bohemia that September for Progressive with Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. In October, Blue Note recorded the Art Blakey-Horace Silver edition of the Jazz Messengers, and in December Charles Mingus and Max Roach did the same for Debut. Among the intermission pianists were Herbie Nichols, Randy Weston, and Bobby Scott.

In October 1955, Miles Davis, just signed to Columbia, entered the Bohemia with a new quintet comprised of John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones.

“The Bohemia’s audience reminded me of cafes in Europe, where people were serious and intense, and paid attention,” states George Avakian, who signed Miles to the label and coordinated the publicity campaign that transformed his image. “They regarded the music as an art form, and even acted, oh, a little superior about the fact that they were there and listening to Miles.”

“It was a hip place,” adds Billy Taylor, “more like a club in Harlem than anything on 52nd Street.  People who lived or worked in or frequented the Village considered themselves a lot hipper than other people in town. In many cases, they were!”

“The Village was a section of acceptance for anything—any form of art, any form of people,” says Sheila Jordan, who sang during these years Monday nights at the Page Three, a gay bar on Seventh Avenue and Tenth Street where Herbie Nichols played piano for a motley array of performers, including Tiny Tim. “Live your life. Play what you play. Paint what you paint. Dance what you dance. They accepted it.”

“Because of the mixed audience, people came from all over and did different things,” remarks Randy Weston, who performed in 1943 with guitarist Huey Long at Arthur’s Tavern on Grove Street. “In Harlem and Brooklyn the black audiences were very critical. You better feel the blues and swing or else! It was more flexible in the Village.”

The music at the Bohemia satisfied on both levels. “It was a rectangular room, with the bar and bandstand the long way,” says Roswell Rudd. “The music was right in your face. It was great to be 10 feet from Coltrane, and hear how he’d put himself into the most unbelievable corners and punch his way out. Saxophone players sat at the bar with their jaws down. They couldn’t believe anybody would challenge himself that way.”

Villager Bob Brookmeyer worked opposite Miles in 1956 on a Bohemia job with Gerry Mulligan, and again in 1958 as a member of the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall. “We had 8 weeks,” he recalls, “including two opposite Wynton Kelly’s Trio, another two opposite the Wilbur Ware Quartet, and Miles and Coltrane the last two weeks. I thought we’d get killed, that the Birdland crowd would come down, talk through us and listen to Miles. But the opposite happened. Miles asked me why. I said, ‘We play quiet, so they have to listen.’”

“A tough little Italian-American cat,” in Weston’s words, Garofalo would not tolerate inattentive patrons. “Garofalo was an old-school Village bartender-proprietor and a real jazz fan,” says David Amram, who beelined to the Bohemia directly after arriving in New York in September 1955. A few weeks later, Mingus hired him to play french horn on a Bohemia gig “If a customer had a bad attitude, he might jump over the bar and attack them.”

At the beginning of 1957, Amram took an 11-week engagement across town at the Five Spot, a Skid Row saloon at Fourth Street and the Bowery with sawdust on the floor. Artists were starting to gravitate there from the already touristy Cedar Tavern on University Place.

“In the summer of ‘56, I scored a documentary film about the Third Avenue Elevated line, which had been torn down the year before, and persuaded Cecil Taylor to play on the soundtrack,” Amram relates. “I was around the Bowery every day. Joan Mitchell, a painter I knew, told me I had to come to this bar called the Five Spot, where she, Mitchell, Larry Rivers, Franz Kline and Willem de Kooning were bringing their friends. Don Shoemaker, who was a merchant seaman, played this wretched, beat-up old piano, and Dale Wales, who was a bass trumpet player and a chef, were playing there for kicks. All the painters knew me, and I sat in. Then I told Cecil to come down. He sat in, played his stuff, and broke about five keys. The proprietor, Joe Termini, said, ‘Get him out of here; he’s ruining my piano!’ But the painters said, ‘This guy is a genius. If you don’t bring him back, we’re not coming any more.’ So Joe hired Cecil for five weeks, with Steve Lacy, Buell Neidlinger and Dennis Charles. Then I went in. All these different poets came to read with me, and so did Jack Kerouac. It was like a Renaissance.”

“The first time I met Steve Lacy, we did jazz and poetry at the Five Spot, with Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg,” pianist Mal Waldron told me in 2001. “All these people ganged together because we were on the outer edges of the status quo. We were the outlaws!”

“There were painters, sculptors, derelicts staggering in completely drunk,” says Randy Weston, who followed Amram that spring with a trio. In June, he ceded the bandstand to Thelonious Monk’s newly-formed quartet, featuring John Coltrane, whom Miles Davis had recently fired, bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummer Shadow Wilson. In honor of the event, which quickly entered the annals of jazz legend, the Terminis replaced the upright piano with a mini grand.

“The place was packed every night, and it was utter joy,” says Weston. Joyful, perhaps, but not hygienic. “The place was not clean at all,” he continues. “Sometimes when the toilet door opened, you would smell pee, and this guy made funky hamburgers in a little bitty kitchen.”

“We’d be back there eating them,” says Roy Haynes, who worked for most of the summer of 1958 at the Five Spot with Monk and Johnny Griffin, and “sat in once or twice” with the Monk and Coltrane the previous year. Naima Coltrane taped one session, which Blue Note issued a few years ago. “I didn’t care about the dirt. A lot of places were dirty. Playing with Monk at the Five Spot, there was no money made at all. But I loved to go to work. That’s when the word beatnik became popular and the look of the audiences started changing. We wore suits and ties when I worked the Five Spot with Monk. Sooner or later, that stopped. I couldn’t wait to take off a tie and play drums!”

“The place was small and dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness—sort of,” says Jim Hall. Hall notes that the personality of the proprietors set the tone. “When I was a kid, all the club owners were guys with the broken nose and cigars,” he notes. “But the Termini Brothers seemed like they’d be good neighbors or could run a grocery store.”

“The place had a certain warmth,” Weston acknowledges. “You can feel the bonhomie on Weston’s live Five Spot recording with Coleman Hawkins and Kenny Dorham from October 26, 1959. The other band was the Ornette Coleman Quartet, with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, in week three of Coleman’s explosive New York debut engagement.

“Hearing Ornette was a new experience in music,” says Weston. “I had the same impression when I heard Dizzy and Bird. What are these guys playing?! I didn’t know it was great. I just knew it was different.”

“Ornette immediately antiquated three-quarters of the musicians in New York,” says Bley, for whom Coleman had sidemanned in Los Angeles. “A lot of them proceeded to ask me what was going on, and I tried to help. I talked about microtonality—every kind of explanation, all at the same time. Ornette threatened almost everybody, including all the famous players.”

“I’d heard about Ornette through Neshui Ertegun, who had recorded him in California, and Neshui asked me to join him on opening night,” Avakian recalls. “It was electric. Word had gotten out, and the place was jammed. Ornette played the first set for about two hours, only three compositions, and virtually no solos. It was an ensemble feel from start to finish. Later it became more orthodox with individual solos. But that was the first impact, and it was very powerful.”

During the final month of Coleman’s initial Five Spot run, Bill Evans was firming up a new trio at the Jazz Showplace, on Third Street, near the current Blue Note. The bassist was a recent arrival from the West Coast named Scott LaFaro and the drummer was Paul Motian, an established young veteran on the New York scene. “Bill started with Jimmy Garrison and Kenny Dennis at Basin Street East in November, and they quit on him,” says Motian. “I was working a rock-and-roll gig in New Jersey when he called me. Then Scott sat in with us, and that was it.” Evans brought the trio into the Showplace on Tuesday, December 1st, and left on Sunday, December 27th. That night they went the studio to record the iconic trio album Portrait In Jazz.

Prior to joining Bill Evans, Motian worked most of August 1959 with Lennie Tristano at the Showplace. But his home away from home for much of the preceding year was the Half Note, two blocks north of the Holland Tunnel at Hudson and Spring, across from the loft building that houses today’s Jazz Gallery. Run by the Cantarino family, it was an old-style Village Italian restaurant, with red-and-white tablecloths, that inaugurated a jazz policy in September 1957, with an appearance by Randy Weston.

According to Motian’s detailed gig books, he played the Half Note in June 1958 with Lee Konitz, and spent August through October on a 13-week run with Lennie Tristano. After three weeks in January 1959 with the bibulous tenor tandem of Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, and four with Tristano, Konitz and Warne Marsh (the front line, with Evans in the piano chair, is in fine form on LIVE AT THE HALF-NOTE [Verve]), he joined Cohn and Sims again for April, and spent three weeks in June with pianist-vibraphonist Eddie Costa.

The area now has an active nightlife, but in 1960, Brookmeyer notes, “the only other thing there was a rough gay bar two blocks over on the river. You had to really want to go. But people came, because the food and atmosphere and music were so good. They had a regular music clientele, and we built up our own audiences. For example, Clark Terry and I were there four times a year, and John Coltrane played there often.”

“You couldn’t stumble out and go into another club, like on 52nd Street,” states Jimmy Heath, who worked there in the mid ’60s with Art Farmer, a frequent Half Note artist. Nor was it a good idea to stumble on the bandstand, a raised platform within the oval bar, facing diners in the front. “Zoot and Al learned to catch shots that the bartender would throw up to them in shot glasses,” says Mark Murphy. “They’d down them, and throw back the glasses.”

One attraction was Al the Waiter, a.k.a. “The Torch,” who wore a tuxedo and never allowed a cigarette to go unlit. “Wherever you were,” says Steve Swallow, “he would streak across the room, grabbing at his belt where he kept a pack of matches affixed, and in one smooth motion, like a gunslinger, he’d reach down, grab a cardboard match, strike it, and have it at the point of your cigarette in less than a second.”

“Once I walked in when Coltrane and Elvin were late in the set, doing a tenor and drums duo,” relates Bley of a moment when sparks of a different connotation flew. “When I opened the door there were purple lights flashing all over the club—and I wasn’t smoking. There was such a frenzy that it changed not only the atmosphere, but one’s vision.”

* * * * *
In his recent memoir, Chronicles, Volume 1, Bob Dylan recalls singing “The Water Is Wide” at “a creepy but convenient little coffeehouse on Bleecker Street near Thompson” in early 1961. Playing piano was Cecil Taylor. “I also played with Don Cherry and Billy Higgins there,” Dylan adds.

Dylan paints a vivid portrait of the louche, carnival atmosphere that prevailed in the coffeehouses, Italian restaurants, and saloons that lined Bleecker, MacDougal, Thompson and West Third Streets in this period. They serviced a mix of college students, bridge-and-tunnel slummers, art-oriented Villagers, Italian-American tough guys, Washington Square Park strollers, and the alcoholics, drug addicts and other lost souls who populated the Mills Hotel, an imposing 1400-unit flophouse that occupied an entire Bleecker Street block.

“I didn’t book Dylan,” says Art D’Lugoff, who ran the Village Gate, a three-tiered space below the Mills. “He was too much like Woody Guthrie. I knew a lot about Woody Guthrie, because I was a folkie before I got involved with other things.”

In 1955, D’Lugoff, an NYU alumnus, promoted concerts by Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand and Earl Robinson at the Circle In The Square Theater, opposite the Mills. He opened the Gate—the premises had housed a commercial laundry—in 1958. Initially, he booked folk and blues acts, and even musical theater, moving into jazz in a big way in 1960, and remaining staunchly in the game until 1996, when he lost his lease.

“We were the first to bring minor or major entertainment to Bleecker Street,” D’Lugoff states in a staccato Brooklyn accent. “At first, the coffeehouses were primarily places to hang out, pick up, meet people, and so on. The coffee was the attraction. Traffic began to develop along MacDougal, and then people made the curve to Bleecker. Then things began to open up.”

As Amram relates, all streams converged at the circular fountain in the center of Washington Square Park. “Gigantic crowds would gather in the summer,” he says. “Every 4 feet, somebody was playing a boom-box, somebody else a radio, someone would be screaming about overthrowing the government, and then a banjo player from the south was singing songs about whiskey and tobacco, then some old blues player, then somebody wailing some post-Charlie Parker free style all by themselves for an hour—a different genre of music, all of it at the same time. Somehow, it all fit into this wonderful kind of great Greenwich Village-New York-American sound.”

Although the coffee houses presented primarily folk music, enterprising jazz experimentalists were able to slip through the cracks. Consider the Phase Two, a coffee house at Bleecker and Seventh Avenue, best known as the spot where, in 1963, poet Paul Haines recorded a recital of Monk compositions by Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd.

“It was totally open.” says Rudd, noting that the group first performed publicly in the basement of an Armenian restaurant called Harut’s on Waverly Place, and subsequently played “at least half-a-dozen rooms along MacDougal and Bleecker.” “There were no lawyers, no money, no agencies, no management. If you had the energy, or the need to get exposure, you would find a way to do it through one of these places, and pass the hat.”

In early 1960, bassist Steve Swallow, 20 and fresh from Yale, began to play with Bley and trumpeter Don Ellis Saturday afternoons at the Phase Two. After Ellis left, Bley and Swallow remained there for many months as a piano-bass duo. “It paid $5 and a lot of coffee,” says Swallow, who notes that he paid 15 cents for a subway ride and $45 rent on his spacious Flower District loft. “It was a sitting-in situation. Al Foster lugged his drums over now and then. Albert Ayler a couple of times. Bill Dixon. The usual cast of characters. I even remember Lamonte Young coming by to play.”

“A pianist and bassist won’t upset anybody, so we didn’t make an impression,” says Bley. “The performers were the wallpaper. But at coffeehouses you had a license to do whatever you wanted.”

In early 1961 Bley brought Swallow into the Jimmy Giuffre Three, which made two pathbreaking recordings for Verve that spring. The following winter, they accepted an engagement at the Take Three, located above the Bitter End about a half-mile east down Bleecker Street. For second sets, Swallow played bass-vocal duos with Sheila Jordan; Ornette Coleman came out to hear them.

“We played several weeks for the door,” Swallow says. “On one particular night we’d made less than a dollar each—and Wilbur Ware had stopped by, so I didn’t even have that. After the gig we went to a late night eatery called the Hip Bagel, which named bagels after Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, and decided we’d better bag it, that it wasn’t working. The music was glorious, but it seemed futile to continue.”

Foreshadowing the British Invasion, the South Village milieu shifted from Beat to Pop in a flash.

“One singular event perfectly encapsulates the very swift change that blew through Bleecker Street,” says Swallow, referring to a jazz-and-poetry gig at the Bitter End with a straight-looking poet named Hugh Romney, who subsequently changed his name to Wavy Gravy and became the symbol of ‘60s commune culture with the Hog Farm. “One night management told us that there was another act, two guys with a guitar and a girl. After we finished our set, we encountered them in the kitchen before they were about to go on, and the two guys were arguing about the third of the four chords in the piece they were about to play, and they had a repertoire of five or six tunes. We were utterly contemptuous. A little concerned, too. Something did seem to be in the air. Within a couple of weeks, we were gone, and they were carrying on. They were Peter, Paul and Mary.”

* * * * *
“Everything wasn’t just peachy-dandy here,” says Lorraine Gordon. “Plenty of slow times. Who knew if Max was going to hang on? But he did. Don’t ask me how. He was a very tenacious man.”

Thousands of musical explosions have transpired on the Vanguard bandstand since 1957, when Gordon started to “use a provocative mixture of the greatest in modern jazz, from Chico Hamilton and Stan Getz to J.J. Johnson interspersed with verbal entertainment by performers who…were hip enough or sufficiently jazz-associated to please the audiences who had come primarily to inspect the music.” The words are Leonard Feather’s, from the liner notes to Live At The Village Vanguard, a Sonny Rollins classic from that year. It’s the first in a succession of legend-building location recordings by—the list merely scratches the surface—Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Earl Hines, Albert Ayler, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, Keith Jarrett, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Paul Motian, Josh Redman, Joe Lovano, Brad Mehldau, and Jim Hall.

“For some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard,” says Hall, who was married during a Vanguard engagement in 1965. “The sinkhole! I mean that in a good way. You go down there, and you’re in an environment. I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there with Slam Stewart. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over. I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May, and also in a duet opposite Miles’ group with Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers and Hank Mobley. Professor Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, too. Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.”

But when asked to recall the years when modern jazz stamped the Vanguard’s identity, most musicians don’t speak about the music. Instead, they talk about Max Gordon.

Ironic and philosophical, Gordon never mired himself in the status quo, and sustained equanimity whether the house was full or empty. “Max had a great sense of humor and resilience,” says Nat Hentoff. “He often had to deal with fractious personalities, but he always stayed calm, and he was a decent guy. You could trust him.”

In point of fact, as Keepnews states, “A tremendous variety of people, some of whom can’t stand each other, have very fond recollections of Max. If you were to take a poll—though you can’t because most of the people are dead by now—this is easily the best-liked club owner there ever was.”

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Roy Hargrove At The Village Vanguard

This evening, trumpeter Roy Hargrove brings his working quintet (Justin Robinson-alto sax; Sullivan Fortner-piano; Ameen Saleem-bass; Montez Coleman-drums) into the Village Vanguard to launch a two-week run. He’s morphed gracefully from young lion to esteemed veteran, is one of most singular trumpet stylists out there, and has incubated no small number of next generation movers and shakers in his bands over the last 15 years, and yet gets less dap from the jazz media than his abilities, conceptual daring, and body of work would merit.

I’ve been following Roy since he hit NYC twenty-plus years ago, and finally  had an opportunity to do a piece on him in 2009, when I was doing a lot of work for the jazz.com website. This Q&A was conducted on August 11th of that year, in the offices of the Jazz Gallery.

* * * *

By his own account, Roy Hargrove spends about two-thirds of his time on the road, as was the case over a seven-week summer 2009 sojourn during which he toured all three of his bands—his quintet and big band, both devoted to hardcore jazz, and his crossover unit, the R.H. Factor. Back home in New York for a week, Hargrove was decompressing, relaxing in the daytime and spending his nights jamming at various New York venues—Small’s, Fat Cat, and the Zinc Bar in Manhattan; Frank’s Place in Brooklyn. Still, on this hot Tuesday afternoon, the 39-year-old trumpeter, resplendent in a pink-check jacket, shorts, and a narrow brim, strolled into the Jazz Gallery exactly on time for a discussion framed around his new recording, Emergence [EmArcy], his first with the big band, following strong quintet releases from 2008 and 2006 entitled Ear Food [EmArcy] and Nothing Serious [Verve], respectively, and Distractions [Verve], also from 2006, and his third recording of R.H. Factor.

In point of fact, Hargrove may be singular among mainstem-oriented hardcore jazzfolk of his age group in his projection of an old-school attitude regarding road warriorship, song interpretation, blues feeling, and swing, while simultaneously tuning in to the popular music of his time on its own terms. Which of Hargrove’s peers of comparable visibility would embrace the requirements of playing third trumpet in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band with as much enthusiasm as Hargrove devotes to the various ensembles that he leads? Which other highly-trained post-Boomer would deliver a lyric like “September In The Rain,” a staple of Hargrove’s sets for at least a decade, with as much brio as Hargrove projects when uncorking cogent, thrilling solos on structures ranging from bebop to post-Woody Shaw harmonic structures? Indeed, in his ability to blend the high arts of improvisation and entertainment with equal conviction, Hargrove is a true descendent of such iconic elders as Louis Armstrong, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy Gillespie, all musical highbrows who wore their learning lightly.

How does the big band sound now vis-a-vis when you did the record, after playing quite a number of gigs over the last year?

It’s really tight. I’m trying to get them to the point where they have the music memorized, and don’t have to use the written music any more—being able to play by ear is so important. When I played with Slide Hampton and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, I tried to memorize the parts so that I could pay attention to everything that’s going on with the conducting, with the dynamics, and try to make it very musical. It’s getting close.

How big is the book? There are 11 tunes on the recording.

There’s probably 30 songs or so.

In the program notes, you stated. “I always wanted to work in a big band format. The sound is so full and rich, and it provides opportunity for congregation, which is much needed among today’s younger musicians, most of whom have come of age in small group settings.” I’m also thankful for the opportunity to exercise my compositional and arranging skills. Music is such a vast world, and I intend to explore every avenue possible. The cast of players on this project are all guys I met in school and on various gigs and jam sessions over the last twenty-odd years. I think we all share a strong passion for music that comes from the heart.”

Two themes arise which are a common thread in your career. One is this notion of congregation, communication through music, speaking across generations and styles. Then also curiosity, hunger for information. I can recall watching you as a young guy getting your butt kicked by the elders at Bradley’s, and not being daunted or fazed, but taking it in a constructive way and coming back for more.

True.

Now, in the liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that the first day he met you, you told him that to have a big band was an aspiration. You were always interested in that notion?

Yes. I always watched Dizzy’s big band on video, and it was very inspirational to me. When I started to embrace playing jazz as a teenager, the big band format was my training ground, in learning how to read, and learning how to play in a section in a group. For me, it’s kind of going backward. Earlier, there were big bands and then they went to the small groups; now it’s small groups, and I’m trying to bring back the big band thing.

I believe it’s really important that we all have to know each other when we play together. Most big bands, if it’s a great ensemble, the soloists are ok—they have one or two. But this group is a band full of soloists, so it’s challenging for me to try to bring them all together and have them play where the entire ensemble is thinking in the same direction, with tight cutoffs and everybody breathing at the same time—the things that normal big bands do. A few guys work in the Broadway shows, so they have a lot of experience…everything’s by the numbers. So there’s a balance between discipline and at the same time keeping it very loose and spontaneous.

You just mentioned that watching videos of Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was an early influence.

Yes. The way Dizzy conducted the band, and the way he seemed to have so much fun—and they were having fun. This was inspirational to me, and I wanted to have a group like that.

Playing with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band over the last number of years has probably been a great training ground in putting together your own group.

Oh, it’s been great. Especially playing in the trumpet section there, playing the third trumpet part on Slide’s arrangements. The third trumpet part is a kind of focal point within the band, because you get to hear all the different ensemble parts written around the voicings. A lot of times, the third trumpet part, or even the third trombone part, has special notes that make the chord grow. I’m a sponge, listening to everything and taking it all in. It just gives me more information to transfer along to the group.

The program of Emergence contains many flavors—Latin, straight ballads, you sing a bit, exploratory pieces arranged by Gerald Clayton and Frank Lacy. But somehow, the template seems rooted in the mid-‘50s Dizzy Gillespie Big Band; the Ernie Wilkins-Quincy Jones synthesis of Dizzy and the Basie New Testament band, seems to be a jumping off point for the feeling you have in mind.

Exactly.

It’s a nice blend of art and entertainment.

I think that musicians should always have fun when they play. Sometimes it gets too serious. That’s just my opinion. When we play, it has to be tight, but at the same time I like to have the freedom to go outside of the box a little bit.

Talk about the process of recruiting this band.

Now, that’s difficult. With a big band, there’s hardly ever any money to pay guys, so it’s hard to get cats to be available.

It started off as a sort of Monday workshop thing, as often happens around New York…

Actually, the first hit was about 15 years ago, in Washington Square Park, where I was able to pull together a kind of all-star thing, with Jesse Davis and Frank Lacy, and even Jerry Gonzalez in the band—Jerry was playing fourth trumpet and percussion! I was able to do that first hit because the Panasonic Jazz Festival, which was running the event, paid us enough that I could give each one of those guys a grand or something. They were excited. “Ok! You got some more gigs?” But at the same time, throughout the process, the music grabbed them, too, and here it is, fifteen years later, we’ve brought it back, and everybody seemed to want to be part of it.

The other thing is that there aren’t really any gigs out there, and there’s a lot of musicians. People want to play. So it wasn’t that difficult to find musicians to be in the group. But it’s always a different gauge to try to find people who are available. For example, we did a few things here at the Jazz Gallery, and I was trying to find trumpet players. We shifted around a few different people, but we finally got what seemed to be a lineup of ringers—Tania Darby, Frank Green, Greg Gisbert are all very good lead players, too, and Darren Barrett, who I went to Berklee with, is a great soloist—Clifford Brown-Donald Byrd stuff. I guess finding the trumpet section was the hardest part; for a while, we had some mishaps. But we managed to pull it together.

I’m always at jam sessions, like I was last night, so I’m always running into musicians. I just go into my mental rolodex and pull out the people I know.

It takes time to accumulate a book. How did you accumulate repertoire?

I arranged a few of my songs for it, just to begin, then I told the cats, “If you want to write something, bring it in.” For this album, I asked Saul Rubin to write the arrangement on “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” and I had written “Tchipiso” and asked Gerald Clayton to do the arrangement. Then, of course, there’s our theme song, “Requiem,” by Frank Lacy, which we’ve been playing. That’s the chop-buster for the whole band; they like to play it, but it’s kind of difficult. It’s very powerfully arranged.

I try to include the music that I learned when I came to New York, from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Larry Willis… Right now, a friend of mine is working on an arrangement for Hicks’ “After the Morning,” which we used to play at Bradley’s all the time. My premise is to try to pass down the information I picked up from cats like John Hicks, Walter Booker, Clifford Jordan and Idris Muhammad when I started cutting my teeth in jazz.

Apart from the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Big Band, what other big bands have you been part of after high school?

I think that’s the only group I’ve actually played in. I’ve sat in with a few, played with some large ensembles here and there, but not anything that happened more than once.

Playing in big bands was a rite of passage for many of the older musicians who were your heroes, who came up before 1955-1960.

That’s why I think the music needs this. It creates some kind of humility. It’s very needed. Excuse me, but a lot of times, especially now, when I got to the jam sessions, people are so ego! I’ll give you an example. We’ll play an F-blues, and everybody with an instrument will get up and play, and it goes on for three hours. Each musician will play 100 choruses. There’s no humility there. Big bands, large ensembles create an environment where you don’t have to play for two hours and stretch out. Everybody can’t be John Coltrane! Sometimes you can just play half a chorus. Charlie Parker will play a half chorus and blow your mind! There’s something to be said about being able to trim it down—say less but have it have more meaning.

Is that something you learned early on, playing in your high school big band?

No, I didn’t learn that early on. I’m still trying to learn that!

It’s a quality that you aspire to.

Yes, I aspire to it. Sometimes, you have to make the amount of music that is just enough. You don’t have to over-crowd it.

How do you see this band vis-a-vis other contemporary big bands? It isn’t as though the scene is totally devoid of big bands, though there aren’t so many that work steadily.

Yes, there aren’t that many.

Maria Schneider, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, the Vanguard Orchestra, the Mingus Orchestra, Carla Bley…

My group is not quite that streamlined. I’m still trying to get it to that point. My group is filled with hooligans.

No hooligans in those other bands?

No hooligans over there. There’s plenty in my group, though. My vision of that just seems like there’s those groups, and they’re all very clean-cut and organized, and then there’s my group, which is complete chaos. A lot of characters. It’s never a dull moment around those guys. When we’re hanging or traveling on the train, all I have to do is go around them, and it’s entertainment all day.

Does the composition of the band somehow reflect your personality?

Maybe so. I’ve never really thought about it like that, but yeah, probably.

So you’re talking about camaraderie and the jazz culture. This band evolved through this location, the Jazz Gallery, which has served over its decade-plus…

As a breeding ground.

…as a breeding ground and also a kind of communal space for a lot of young musicians from many different communities.

That’s right.

Talk a bit about the interface between the Jazz Gallery and the evolution of this project. Your quintet identity was already long-developed, but the big band identity not so much.

I have to give it up to Dale Fitzgerald, because it was his idea to bring this back into the picture. The first gig we did here at Jazz Gallery, people got really excited. That got the ball rolling. Then I got excited about it. I figured, well, it’s been over ten years; we might as well record the thing now, try to take it out on the road. I guess that’s an uphill battle, considering the economy and everything else going on right now. But still, I think it’s very needed. The kind of conversation you’ll get with it is worth more than money. To me. Because it would help if we can feed jazz with something fresh. It’s difficult right now. People don’t want to swing any more. That dance element is getting buried, more and more and more. It’s got this esoteric sound. People want to be so hip. They want to create the new thing. But the new thing, to me, is the dance. They’ve buried that. I like hearing drummers when they play the ride cymbal. You can’t get drummers to play the ride cymbal any more. They’re always playing like a drum solo throughout the whole song. The ride cymbal, that is your beat. That’s your identity. The way the bass and the drums sound together is a big deal. People just forget about that. Everybody’s on their own program. That’s why I’m doing this whole big band thing. That’s why I’m doing all three bands. Instead of music just being in the background, music should be like therapy for people. When you go to hear music, you should feel better when you leave. Like you’ve been to the doctor and he heals you.

Another flavor of this band which also hearkens to Dizzy Gillespie is your embrace of Afro-Cuban rhythms on several pieces. Two things come to mind. One is that the Jazz Gallery has been an incubator for some of the most creative Cuban jazz musicians of this period…including some of the more esoteric ones.

Excuse me!

But then also, it’s the place where Chucho Valdes entered the New York picture during the ‘90s, and the venue where you first touched base with him and gestated Crisol. Let’s talk about Afro-Cuban rhythms and how they fit into your notions about swing.

It goes back to the dance thing. When I went to Cuba the first time in ‘96, they was partying in there! Here’s people who don’t have anything, they can’t even go to the store and buy orange juice. You’ve got to go to somebody’s house to buy beer, or something to drink. They don’t even have their own bathrooms. It’s crazy. But when they party, when the music starts, it’s like a festival. They REALLY know how to get down. This inspired me…the possibilities exploded in my head. I owe so much to Chucho for turning me on to that world. Before that, I had no idea. Not really. Not like that, before I went down there and saw it for myself. The level of virtuosity with the musicians in Cuba is out of this world! One guy would have five different facets in his realm. For instance, you might have a trumpet player who plays congas and is also a visual artist who can dance.

When I hung out with Anga and Changuito, playing with these guys, even though they didn’t speak English, I was still able to communicate with them through the music, and they showed me so many things. They showed me how to play the different rhythms based on the clave, things that inspired me… But I didn’t really get to dive into it on this album the way I wanted to. We had one percussionist. I wanted to do a bunch of overdubs, but we didn’t have time to get into it the way I really wanted on the big band thing. There’s still some music floating around from the Crisol era that hasn’t been released.

Did the Cuban experience have an impact on your improvising style, on the way you phrase? Is it something you can dip into, go out of? How does it play out for you?

Just being around those guys, I soaked in some of that. I’ve always been into rhythm and movement. When I play, I’m trying to be a part of the dance. I want the music to go into your body, the way you feel where you have to tap your foot and snap your finger, or move your head, or something. Hanging out with those guys strengthened that feeling, made it more prevalent. When I play, I’m thinking about the drums the whole time, and trying to sit in to the rhythm of whatever the drummer is doing. I pay attention to the drummer always. If the drummer isn’t really happening, then I can’t really play. Sometimes I can, but most of the time it’s a struggle if at least the time is not steady.

So it isn’t so much the style or whether they’re playing swing or straight eighth that’s important, but the quality of the beats. Or is that not the case?

It’s a combination of things. It’s the steadiness of the beat and also the way it feels, like if it has an oomph behind it as opposed to it being very quiet, subdued. I prefer to play with a lot of energy. That’s why I liked having all those drums when we were doing the Latin project, because it inspires me to play with energy and force. Drums and brass just go together.

Let’s segue to the R.H. Factor project, which is a much more explicit manifestation of your dance orientation.

In the beginning, I started off trying to do a tribute… My father was a record collector. He had foresight. People used to come to our house to see what we had, so they could go and buy it. They wanted to know what the new thing was going to be, because my father would have it.

So whatever Roy Allen Hargrove was getting, that’s what…

Yeah, they used to come to our house to see what he had in his collection. Every weekend, my dad would buy two or three records, and come back home, and then two weeks later it would be a hit. He just bought what he liked, but apparently that would be what everybody else liked, too—but later. I lost him in ‘95. So I wanted to do a tribute to him in a way that… He always said to me, “I like the jazz, but when are you going to do something a little bit more contemporary, something funky?” I’d say, “I’m getting to it.” He got out of here before I could do it. So I began to collect all of these recordings from my memory, out of what I knew he had. I would go out and get Herbie Hancock with Headhunters, and Earth, Wind & Fire, and George Clinton—just reeducating myself. I’d always been doing little home recordings of my own original music, and I decided to take a few of them out of the archives and transfer it into a live setting, which was the beginning of R.H. Factor. We went into Electric Lady Studio for two weeks. Once the word got out that I was doing something different, all the musicians in New York started coming through!

A lot of musicians.

A lot!  I’m saying every day it was somebody new. It’s funny how the world is small. When the word gets out, it gets out. You know how that is, here in New York. We were at Electric Lady, and the first day I couldn’t find anybody. Nobody was around. I didn’t have a bass player, no drummer, no nothing. It was just me and Marc Cary, trying to get it started. We had Jason Olaine calling around, trying to find us a bass player. Finally, Meshell Ndegeocello popped up and brought her drummer, Gene Lake, and that’s how we got started—and the whirlwind of creativity began at that point. For two weeks, cats were just coming… Even Steve Coleman came by one day. There were some people who I actually called to come through, more mainstream entertainers like Q-Tip and D’Angelo and Common, Erykah Badu. These are my friends. It was a little bit difficult to get them, but they still came through. The only problem was that the budget spiraled out of control, because there were so many musicians, and they had to pay all of them. But that first one, once it got off the ground, was a lot of fun to do. I had Bernard Wright there, and my homeboys from Texas —Keith Anderson, Bobby Sparks, and Jason Thomas. That’s the nucleus of what was going on.

Just let me interrupt momentarily. Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, D’Angelo, Common, were all people you’d come to know during the ‘90s. Now, you’re best known as the leader of a hardcore jazz quintet playing swing, in a milieu where the jazz police are serious.

Mmm-hmm. But I never paid attention to that.

Well, you mentioned your father’s question, “when are you going to play something more contemporary?” That made me wonder whether there was a tipping point where you decided…

No-no. I never was satisfied with just staying in one place with music. I get bored. I always try to keep it rounded. When I was in school at Berklee, people thought I was strange because I would hang out with the jazz guys and the R&B cats, and then just sit there and listen to the gospel choir, saying, “they don’t understand.” Because there especially I met people who got into their locked-in things. You’ve got the guys that just play like Bird, then ones that just play like Coltrane. You got the guys who are strictly R&B, and they think the jazz guys are stuck up. You got the jazz guys who think the R&B guys are ignorant and can’t play changes. I never really sank my teeth into being in one of those groups. When I started recording professionally, I chose to do straight-ahead jazz, because that’s where my development was at the time, and I was trying to learn how to do it. I thought there was enough people trying to rap and do all that other stuff. There was enough of that at the time! I’m fascinated by Clifford, Fats Navarro, and these guys who were like institutions.

It was high art.

Yeah. I’m fascinated by that. Once I got locked on to that, I couldn’t stop. For me, it’s a blessing to be able to record jazz in THIS day and age. So I just went with that. But then, when it came time… Actually, it was really difficult for me to try to branch out and do something that wasn’t jazz. When I make a jazz recording, no one says anything. They’re just like, “Ok, take 3. Thank you.” Or “maybe we need another one, just for safety.” But then, when I started branching out into something else, everybody had an opinion. Everybody wanted to try to tell me how to write the songs, how to arrange the songs, do this, do that, “you’ve gotta get this singer, you’ve gotta get that one.” Everybody became an authority. People in the jazz world, they all think, “He’s a bebopper, he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he can’t play that.” But I’m from the generation that hip-hop came from, so it’s going to come out of me, too. I mean, my favorite group was Run-DMC when I was like 13 and 14. I actually bought Kurtis Blow’s first album.

Did your father like hip-hop?

He had one song he liked, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. “Don’t push me, ‘cause I’m close…”

In his very warm liner notes, Dale Fitzgerald writes that you started playing in an elementary school jazz ensemble in Dallas. Then people started hearing about you when you were 14-15, when you attended Booker T. Washington High School, which had a distinguished lineage stretching back to the ‘40s and ‘50s. During that time, were you working outside school? Blues bands, R&B bands, church situations?

Yeah. Once I got hit by the music bug, I couldn’t stop. I wanted to do it all the time. They had to pull me out of the band room. I was the first one there, and always the last to leave. I’d stay there until 5 or 6 o’clock in the evening, because I loved it so much. It was also a kind of deterrent from being in the streets. People talk about South Central L.A., but South Dallas is no joke! Erykah is from South Dallas. We went to high school together. Yeah, people don’t talk about South Dallas. If you picture the ghetto in South Central L.A., or Compton, which they glamorize on TV and have the gangs… Just imagine ten times that. It’s so bad, they can’t even show it on TV. You go to Texas, and the ghetto is crazy. People are just crazy for no reason! I grew up around that in the 1980s, the late ‘80s, when a lot of gangs were beginning, and there was a lot of crack. One time my father told me I couldn’t go outside after 6 o’clock. So being around all that…having music really helped. Having something to do to keep me out of the streets. Otherwise, it might have been trouble. I’m thankful for that.

Did the idea of having a distinguishing voice on the trumpet come to you pretty early? Were you modeling yourself after the cats you were listening to? Did it just naturally come forth somehow?

Being in Texas, you hear blues all the time. Blues all the time. People love to listen to the blues. Every Sunday, my father and his friends would get together and play dominos, and put on Z.Z. Hill and B.B. King and Bobby Blue Bland, and listen to the blues. My grandmother and my aunts and all of them had 8-track tapes of Tyrone Davis. A lot of blues. So the blues gets in there. So when I first started learning how to improvise and took my first solo, it was based on playing the blues. My band director showed me a couple of licks… I guess coming up in church, you learn how to project yourself emotionally through your instrument, if you play an instrument, or if you sing—whatever you do. Texas is the Bible Belt. People know what that is when you go to church, and somebody sings a solo. That becomes a part of you. My grandmother put that in me when I was little. My spirituality has always been what keeps me going. That’s what is coming through.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started to hear people like Clifford Brown and Freddie Hubbard. Now, hearing Freddie Hubbard pretty much turned my whole life around. Clifford Brown at first, because I had never really heard jazz trumpet like THAT. Clifford’s technique was so good that it sounded like he wasn’t even playing trumpet any more. It went into like a woodwind sound almost, as though he had practiced so much and got so good that his sound went past being just a trumpet—it was just music. But then, Freddie Hubbard really got me,  because he had a contemporary thing in his sound—it reached back to cats like Clifford and Fats Navarro and Dizzy, but it also had a thing from my father’s generation, from the ‘70s. I could definitely latch onto that, especially the way he played ballads. I always liked his ballad playing. Just ballads in general. I like to play the slow songs.

So I started from blues, and then I started learning bebop when I came to New York.

That was right after high school?

Well, I was in Boston for a couple of years.

Didn’t you come to New York before you went to Boston…

Well, yes, I actually did, once. But it was for a competition. I was still in high school. I didn’t really leave the hotel.

But before you came to Boston and New York, there were a couple of national figures who entered the picture for you a little bit, right?

Yes. Clark Terry and Wynton. When I sat in with Wynton that first time, I was really nervous. But I thought, “Ok, you’ve got to step up to the plate now; you’ve got to deliver.” I wasn’t afraid, but at the same time I was really nervous.

Is stepping up to the plate something innate in you?

I’ve always enjoyed when people enjoy. When I’m playing and someone is feeling good from that, I’ve liked it, ever since I was little, when I first started. When I play a few notes and somebody goes, “Yeah!” I’m like, “ok, yeah, I want to do that every time.” so yeah, step up to the plate, make it happen.

Back to R.H. Factor and the first record that came out with Common, Q-Tip, and artists like this, what was their sense of you as an instrumentalist? Were they thinking of you as a jazz player? As a common spirit? Apart from the friendship and the collegiality, what was the artistic relationship like?

Like Herbie always says, “I’m a human being first, and a musician second.” I guess there’s something to be said for a doctor with a bedside manner. You have to know how to deal with people. So when I go to the more mainstream artists, I switch the way I work with them as opposed to when I work with the jazz players. In some cases, they’re used to special treatment, and you can’t be so technical.

Give me a concrete example.

For instance, with Q-Tip, I put him in the booth and let him write to the track, and just have the first 8 bars, or something like that, keep looping over and over, For about an hour I left him in there by himself. He wrote to the track, then we went back in and cut it, and he did it first take. But there’s no formula. It’s different with each person. It depends on their personality. With Common it was a little different. He and Erykah were dating at the time, so I had to pull him out of the studio. Finally, I got him out of there at 5 a.m. or something, and he came down. He didn’t even write anything. He just improvised his thing, which was one take. I couldn’t believe he did it in one, so I was like, “Can you do that again?”—and he did it again! It was great. But then I went through all of this crap with his manager, because he didn’t like the improvised thing. He wanted him to write something. I’m like, “You don’t understand what’s going on. I wanted it to be improvised.”

Does this emphasis on bedside manner represent your attitude as a bandleader in all the different situations?

Definitely. It takes patience and forward thinking. You always have to be thinking for the other guy, thinking what he’s going to do. Is he going to miss that note? Ok, is he going to come in? I’ve got to count him in. It’s like a juggling act sometimes, trying to… Well, not really like a juggling act—I’ll take that back. What I mean is, you have to think forward, think ahead. With the big band especially—conducting and bringing in all the different sections and whatnot—you have to always be at least 2 bars ahead.

I guess you have to be like when you’re leading the small band, too, keeping the crowd in mind, what to play at what time—gauging all those dynamics.

I mean, it’s not that much different from the small group to the big groups. I think that, in a way, the approach should be kind of the same. With the small group, sometimes we play the big band arrangements, pared down, which is exciting for them.

A different flavor. Changes things up.

Changes things up, yes.

So you hit New York in 1990 after two years at Berklee. Was being there helpful to you?

Yeah, definitely. Billy Pierce was there. I did my first couple of gigs with James Williams while I was there. Greg Hopkins, too. At Berklee, I was in the Dizzy Gillespie Ensemble, which is how I learned a lot of that book. Greg had some of the same arrangements, so when I got in the band with Slide, I had played a lot of the arrangements before. That helped me professionally. I already had some training, and I got a lot there, too, though I wasn’t there very long. Not just from being in the school, but from being on the streets. Going to Wally’s every night. I heard a lot of great music there, and I got to know some great musicians as well, like Antonio Hart, Mark Gross, Delfeayo Marsalis… Being away from Texas was a culture shock for me, but also very enriching as far as my education in jazz.

Then you get to New York…

Then it got really deep! While I was at Berklee, I was starting to learn a little bit of some bebop, but I was really just trying to learn how to read chord changes. I’ve always played by ear, from when I first started. The first trumpet player got mad at me, because I would play his part, but I’d be down at the third trumpet! I think the ear training is such a big deal, though, especially now. We’re in the information age, and you can get everything at the push of a button. So musicians have to be very complete. You have to be not only good readers and be up on the technical side of playing music, but also be able to play what you hear. That’s sometimes lacking. I know a lot of musicians who can read flyshit, but if you whistle something to them, they can’t play it. Ear training is a big deal.

Anyway, it got deep when I got to New York. I started sitting in with people like John Hicks. I followed John Hicks around New York for a while.

Let’s paint a picture. You were around 19-20, and spending a lot of time at Bradley’s, both playing bookings and sitting in. You were playing with Hicks, and you were playing with Larry Willis, and the musicians who play on the record, Family… I personally remember an occasion when you were sitting in with George Coleman and Walter Davis, Jr. on the second set, they kicked your ass, and then you came back on the last set and hung right in there. I saw similar situations transpire several times. It’s kind of an old-school way of learning, but I think it says something fundamental about you.

I’m very thankful, because people like George Coleman and Walter Davis taught us how to be men on the bandstand—how to be grownups. I never will forget that same night you mention, when I was playing with George and we went through the keys on “Cherokee,” which was like a lesson on harmony and then another lesson on rhythm. Then we played “Body and Soul,” and he started changing up the meters—he played in 3 and then in 5, and then BLAM, really fast. [LAUGHS] Then he turns around to me and goes, “You got it.” I go, “ok. What am I going to do after all of that?” But I stuck to my guns and tried to ride it out. Man, they were so helpful to me. That’s why I think we just need something now. Musicians need role models, something so that they can see how it’s done. I’d glad I got a chance to see it in person. Bradley’s was an institution, to me. It was like going to school. It was like your Masters. You go in there, and you’re playing, and then there’s Freddie Hubbard at the bar! What do you do? This is very humbling. Everything I’m playing right now I owe to that whole scene.

Before I interrupted, you mentioned following John Hicks around the city, and you remarked earlier you’ve commissioned an arrangement of his piece “After the Morning” for the big band. Hicks was a musician who is underappreciated in the broader scheme of things in jazz…

Yeah, but he was a true musicians’ musician. My manager, Larry Clothier, told me about John in the beginning. He said, “You’ve got to hear him; he elevates off the piano. Really. He starts levitating.” When I saw him the first time, it happened! I was like, “whoa!” So I latched on to John, and he was like my uncle. He was like family to me. His music was an influence. I was influenced by a lot of pianists as far as how I write and my approach to harmony. there’s John Hicks, then also Larry Willis, then also Ronnie Matthews, Kenny Barron, too—and James Williams, of course. My writing was influenced mostly by James Williams and John Hicks, the use of the major VII-sharp XI chord. That was my favorite chord when I was in college, and I used to use it on a lot of songs. They showed me how to use that chord, and make it very melodic. Sometimes the guys in my band would get tired, because I would write them like inj parallel… “Man, you got some more major VII-sharp XI chords?” A lot of my tunes had inflections from John or James or even Larry Willis, and they still do today.

One thing that I think shone through at Bradley’s was your ability to play a ballad. At 19 you could have been called an “old soul,” but we can’t really say that now, since you’re turning 40 this year.

I think that’s just my upbringing. I’ve always gravitated towards the slower songs. Ballads have an emotional quality to me. You slow it down, and you hear everything, all the nuances… Maybe I’m a romantic as well. I guess I believe in love! I like the slow songs. I like when it’s broken down. Sometimes that’s where the beauty is, when you bring it in the slow tempo. And I always listened to singers. Nat King Cole and Shirley Horn. Sarah Vaughan is my favorite. Of course, I owe a lot to Carmen McRae. I got to hear her live a lot, and she used to let me sit in with her all the time. Her delivery… I heard Freddy Cole at Bradley’s as well.

There’s a vocal element in my music. I try to play like a singer. I try to sing through my instrument like a vocalist would sing. I’m always thinking about the lyrics. I was told by Clifford Jordan that you have to know the words of the song, because then you really understand what it’s about, and when you play the melody you really understand the mood you’re projecting. Also, it helps your phrasing.

It sounds like there was never any generation gap for you.

Man, I have extreme respect for my elders. I believe in that. Somebody who’s been on this planet longer than me, I have to respect them. Even if they’re dead wrong, I’ve still got to respect them! There’s something to be said about the fact that they’ve been here longer than me, and they’ve survived. When it comes to musicians, it even gets deeper.

Another thing that’s interesting about how Bradley’s played out for you is that, because your business arrangements turned you into a leader quite quickly, it became the primary venue for your apprenticeship. You never did the sideman thing too much, if I recall correctly.

No, you’re wrong about that. I did a lot of sideman things, but it wasn’t anything steady. I started off playing with Frank Morgan and the Ronnie Matthews Trio, and  it went from there to Clifford Jordan, Barry Harris, and Vernell Fournier, and then Charles McPherson.

Were these one-offs or were you touring with them?

I was touring with them. I would do a week here, two weeks there with different groups. Most of them were veterans, with me, the young kid, as the special guest. They were so encouraging. Whenever I showed up on the scene with my trumpet, the older guys, like Clifford Jordan, would be like, “Man, come on and play.” Nowadays, people get very protective over the bandstand. You want to go sit in with them, it’s like 2 o’clock in the morning, and they say, “We’re going to play a few songs, and then we’ll invite you up.” You can’t do that at 2 o’clock in the morning, man! It’s too late for all of that. Let’s have some fun! But people get very protective. I think the reason is because there’s no gigs. That creates a thing where when somebody gets a gig, even if it’s 2 o’clock in the morning, they want to play all their original shit and they want to speak their piece.

But the older cats were very welcoming, even though I couldn’t really even play changes that well. “Hey, come on and play.” Sometimes, when I didn’t want to play, they’d be like, “Get on up here.” Like, Kenny Washington one night, we were at Bradley’s, and he was playing some fast, crazy tempo. Kenny was known for playing 220! I went to go sit down, and he was like, “Unh-uh, come back up here.” [LAUGHS] He wouldn’t let me go. “Yeah, you’re getting some of this, too.”

But even if my premise is wrong that you didn’t do so much sidemanning, pretty much you were leading groups from…

I didn’t have my own quintet until ‘93-‘94, with Greg Hutchinson, Marc Cary, Rodney Whitaker, and Antonio Hart. I tried to create a couple of bands before that, but nothing really stuck. I had different projects. I had one group with Walter Blanding, Chris McBride and Eric McPherson early on.

I’d like to talk about your development as a trumpet player over the years. What your weaknesses were, how you worked on them.

Trumpet is a beast! When I was in high school, Wynton referred me to a guy named Kerry Kent Hughes, who was a trumpet professor at Texas Christian University. He was my very first private instructor on that level. I’d been studying at school, and pretty much teaching myself, for the most part. This was the first time I actually had someone who would come to my house and work with me. Man, I learned so much. I couldn’t pay him. We were poor. But he did this out of his heart. He was a classical player, but he also did musicals and shows and so on, and he was very versatile. Actually, he came to the Vanguard the last time we played there, and it blew my mind, because I hadn’t seen him in so long. But Kerry Hughes would come to my house every week or so, and show me little things to help me with endurance. We worked on Cichowicz flow studies and stuff like that, and also the Arban method. This really instilled in me the importance of an everyday routine on the trumpet, certain rudimental things that you do just to keep your chops up. With a hectic schedule and touring when you have to go to the airport and so on, you don’t get a lot of opportunities to practice, so you have to develop a daily routine to keep your chops up. I learned a lot from him in that respect.

I’ve picked up things as I go. A few years ago, I learned something called the Whisper Tone that really opened me up, helped my range a lot, helped me to be able to play more around the horn. I’m still developing, trying to learn as much as I can about the trumpet. It’s a beast. Dizzy says, “It lays there in luxury, waiting for someone to pick it up, so it can mess up your head.” [LAUGHS]

Dizzy Gillespie sure messed up the heads of a lot of people. You don’t hear too many who can emulate him.

I was just listening to something last night, “Birks Works” with Milt Jackson.

At what point do you feel you got past influences?

I’m still not. I’m still there.

Were you transcribing trumpeters? Were you doing it more by feel?

When I was at Berklee, I had to transcribe some Fats Navarro. Jeff Stout was my teacher, and he had me transcribe a couple of Fats Navarro solos. But I never got into transcription as far as writing it down. I don’t think that you get much from that. It’s better if you transcribe by ear and learn it, because some things you can’t really write down all the way—certain inflections and the feel that comes from someone’s conception. But I transcribe a lot by ear, not even really trying to. If I hear something more than three times, I’ve pretty much got it memorized.

That’s a gift, to be able to do that.

Yes, I think so. Thank God for that. But it’s also training. Because if you listen to music all the time, which I do, then it becomes part of you. It becomes part of your breathing. It’s just like drinking water or eating. I listen to music all the time. Even when I’m not listening, it’s still in my head.

So the quintet is your longest continuous entity.

Yeah, I like the quintet format. It has everything there. I have tried some other formats, though. That’s why I like coming to the Jazz Gallery to play, because I get to do other things—like the organ trio is fun.

You’ve also paired off with other trumpeters on various gigs here. Back to the notion of camaraderie and collegiality, it seems that you like to have another voice to play off of.

Yes, I like it.

It doesn’t seem that quartet would be your favorite format.

Well, it depends. With quartet, I would probably play more ballads. But it’s hard to play ballads now, because the young guys don’t know the American Songbook. They don’t KNOW the songs. It’s difficult. I go to jam sessions a lot, and when I start calling tunes, nobody knows anything. You either get “Beatrice” or “Inner Urge.” That’s it!

Gerald Clayton, who was your pianist for several years, has command of that…

He does. He knows the language of it. If he doesn’t know the tune, he can figure it out. For his generation, he’s one of the better ones. But then, his father is John Clayton, so he’s getting it honest. But I could stump him, too. He didn’t know “After the Morning.”

But in any event, you’re always bringing new young musicians into the band. Is there a disconnect for you with that generation?

I miss being able to hear some music that I just can’t get enough of! I’ll give you an example. Just two nights ago, I went into Smalls, and we were hanging out, jam session, everything’s pretty straight line, and then my friend Duane Clemons gets up and plays—and I was so happy! It was like touchdown! Know what I’m saying? It was like throwing a pork chop into the middle of a hunger-starved place. I felt so good just for that little bit. Man, if I could just have a LITTLE bit of that all the time. I was telling Duane that, “Man, you should really play more, because that’s FOOD.” He was playing the real language. He was playing bebop. He was playing the real New York stuff. The real fabric of the language of the music. When you hear it, you know what it is.

You do some workshops and clinics, too. You’re in touch with younger musicians.

Sometimes. I did a thing with Roy Haynes at Harvard not too long ago. It was real cool.

What do you think is alienating musicians from that way of playing? Is it lack of information, or…

Lack of information.

…is it attitude?

It’s both, One feeds the other. First of all, I think people sometimes come into the arts for the wrong reason now—because they want to be famous and rich and have a nice life, instead of trying to reach people’s consciousness and make a difference. Doing something for someone else besides yourself. People come into this, and, “Yeah, I want to be rich, I want to have a car, I want to have people waiting on me,” and so on. It gets weird when that’s your main focus. So you get the jazz musician who learned how to play in school who already thinks he’s learned it all. I like to meet musicians like that, because then I like to challenge them. That’s why I started this big band. I wanted to challenge the peacocks, musicians who think, “Oh yeah, I already know everything.” But you don’t!

They don’t get it. But if you love this music, you’ll go out and find what you need. That’s one thing I like about Jonathan Batiste, the new piano player who’s been playing with me. He seeks out cats like Kenny Barron and Hank Jones. That’s different than the guys in his generation, who are more into McCoy and Herbie—Jonathan checks out the REAL thing. I have to say, he did a great job on this last tour. I was really excited, because he came out and took care of business. This cat played in all three groups.

Jonathan Batiste is out of New Orleans.

New Orleans. What are they feeding them down there?! I don’t understand. Them New Orleans piano players. I had two of them in the past months, Sullivan Fortner and then Jonathan, and these guys are so complete. There was nothing I couldn’t throw at them. I’ve been working towards having the type of group where if I wanted to show them a new song, I could sit down at the piano and play it, and then they’d hear it—I don’t have to write it out or anything. Now is the first time I’ve ever had a group like that; with Jonathan, I could sit down and play it once, and he’d pick it up. Something about New Orleans.

So the present group is either Sullivan Fortner or Jonathan Batiste on piano…

Yes. Amin Salim is playing bass. Montez Coleman is on drums. Justin Robinson on alto saxophone.

Is the quintet a more open-ended format for you than the big band or R.H.  Factor?

“Open-ended.” What do you mean?

In your current bio sheet, you remark about the big band, “There’s not much left to chance.”

Yes. With the quintet, it’s always up in the air. The book is so vast with the quintet right now (excluding the new members, like Amin Saleem, who doesn’t know the whole book yet—but he’s learning it) that we can go in any direction you want. I can actually do the Big Band and R.H. Factor set with them, too. This version of the quintet is probably one of the more versatile units I’ve had. When we play the Latin thing, it’s real Latin. When we play some funk, it’s real funky. When we play straight-ahead, it’s tippin’. We can go anywhere. That’s basically my whole premise. I believe in variety, and also I believe in spontaneity. There’s no rule book. As soon as it starts to get to be in a rut, then I change it right away. With the quintet, we never play the same thing. Each night I try to change up the repertoire a bit so that everyone stays focused. We never get bored.

Being a bandleader is very interesting and challenging in that way. You have to keep everybody focused, and also motivated. Even outside of the music, trying to keep morale up is a balancing act as well. When you’re on the road and nobody’s slept for a few days, people get tired of looking at each other and it gets real dark. So I try to keep a very positive energy around everyone, so we keep it going.

You yourself must get tired, too.

Yes. I get tired. But I’m ok. My spirituality is what keeps me going, for sure.

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