Tag Archives: Wilbur Ware

For The 91st Birth Anniversary of Von Freeman, a 1987 Musician Show on WKCR

For the 91st birth anniversary of the master tenor saxophonist Von Freeman, one of the most singular individual stylists ever to play his instrument, here’s the proceedings of a Musician’s show that he did with me on WKCR in 1987. It was the first of what I believe were 4, maybe 5 encounters that I was fortunate to be able to put together with the maestro during my years at the station. Three years ago, when his NEA Jazz Mastership was announced, I posted this 1994 interview. A transcript of a 1991 encounter with Mr. Freeman and John Young has been posted on the Jazz Journalist Association website for more than a decade; maybe next year, I’ll post it here.

How did you get into music?

Well, actually I began very, very early by taking my father’s Victrola . . . See, that’s a little bit before your time. A Victrola had an arm shaped like a saxophone that the needle was in that played the record. And I had been banging on the piano. They had bought me a piano when I was about one year old, and I’d been banging on that thing all my life. So finally, I took up the saxophone at about five, primarily through my dad’s Victrola. I actually took it off, man, and carved holes in it and made a mouthpiece. He thought I was crazy, of course, because that’s what he played his sounds — his Wallers and his Rudy Vallees and his Louis Armstrongs (those were three of his favorites), his Earl Hines and things — on. He said, “Boy, you’re not serious, are you?” Of course, I was running around; I was making noise with this thing. So he bought me a C-melody saxophone, and I’ll never forget it.

How old were you?

Oh, I was about 7 at that time. The guy sold it to us for a tenor. Well, it is a tenor, but it’s a C-tenor, a tenor in C. And of course, I was running around playing that thing. Gradually I grew and I grew and I grew and I grew. Finally I ended up in DuSable High School, where I was tutored by Captain Walter Dyett, like so many Chicagoans were.

Were you in the first class of DuSable High School?

Well, see, DuSable actually began in Wendell Phillips. That was another high school in Chicago, and Captain Walter Dyett was teaching there, where he taught such guys as Nat “King” Cole and that line, who were a little bit older than I was.

Ray Nance, Milt Hinton, a whole line of people.

Oh, there’s quite a few.

The band program at Wendell Phillips was initially established by Major Clark Smith.VF:Right.Q:By the way, did you ever come in contact with him?

No, I never did, but I heard a lot of things about him! I heard Captain Walter Dyett mention Major Smith, but I was so young at the time. And I was so taken up with him, because he was such a great, great disciplinarian, as I would call him — besides being a great teacher and whatnot. He put that discipline in you from the time you walked into his class. And it has been with me the rest of my life, actually.

You were in high school with a lot of people who eventually became eminent musicians. Let’s mention a few of them.

Well, of course, everyone knows about the late and great Gene Ammons, and of course Bennie Green was there, Johnny Griffin . . .

Griff was after you, though.

Well, I’m just naming them, because there were so many of them . . .

But in your class were Dorothy Donegan . . .

Dorothy Donegan, right.

 . . John Young, Bennie Green and people like that.

Augustus Chapell, who was a great trombonist. Listen, there’s so many guys that we could spend the program just naming them.

Tell me about how Captain Dyett organized the music situation at DuSable. He had several different types of bands for different functions, did he not?

Yes, he did. Well, it was standard during that era, actually. He had a concert band, he had a swing band, and he had a marching band, and then he had a choral band. Like, you played all types of music there, and he made you play every one of them well. No scamming. And he had his ruler, he had his baton, and he didn’t mind bopping you. See, that was his thing to get you interested. Like, you could fool around until you came to the music class, which usually would be where you would fool around — but not with him.

Then they had a chorus teacher there who taught voice, and her name was Mrs. Mildred Bryant-Jones. She was very important. I haven’t heard her name mentioned too much, but I studied with her also. She taught harmony and vocalizing.

Actually, I never saw Captain Walter Dyett play an instrument, but I heard he was a very good violinist and pianist. I never saw him play saxophone or trumpet or anything, but he knew the fingering to everything, and he saw that you played it correctly — which of course I thought was very, very great. And he stood for no tomfoolery.

He provided a situation that was sort of a bridge from school into the professional world, didn’t he?

Well, that was later on. In fact, that was just about when I was about to graduate in ’41. He formed what he called the DuSableites. It was a jazz band. Originally Gene Ammons and quite a few of us were in that band. He had a great trumpet player who was living at that time named Jesse Miller, and he was one of the leading trumpet players in Chicago at that time. But Dorothy Donegan was in that band, playing the piano. A very good band. And we would play little jobs. He made us all join the union . . . That band lasted until ’46. I had come out of the service. I was in that band when it folded, actually, and that’s when I began playing professionally in, shall we say, sextets and quintets and things like that.

What kind of repertoire would those bands have?

Oh, it was standard. It was waltzes and jazz. He would buy the charts from the big bands, all the standard big band charts.

Were you playing for dancers?

Dancers and celebrations and bar mitzvahs, the standard thing.

While you were in high school did you go out to hear music? Did you hear Earl Hines?

Yes. Well, you see, Earl Hines, I’m privileged to say, was a personal friend of my dad’s. There’s three I remember that came by the house, Earl Hines, Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

Was your dad a musician?

No, but he loved musicians. My father was a policeman. But he loved music and he loved musicians. And he would always have on the radio playing, and he played the whole gamut. That’s another thing that helped me. He liked waltzes. He liked Guy Lombardo’s orchestra. And he always had the jazz orchestras on. At that time, of course, the jazz orchestras did a whole lot of remotes, you know, from different clubs. Like, Earl Hines was coming from the Grand Terrace, and Earl was coming on sometimes nightly. Of course, he had a great band. And Earl would come by the house maybe once a year or so, and I’d see him talking with my dad, and I formed a friendship with him. Great man. And Fats Waller even played my piano!

Amazing you even touched it.

Oh, yes, he was a beautiful man. And of course, Louis Armstrong was . . . I don’t know, he was just like you’ve always seen him — he was Pops. Those three men I just fell in love with.

He was Pops off the stage, huh?

Well, he was Pops on and off. Everybody was Pops. He called me Pops. I think I was about five or six years old. “Hi, Pops!”

Who were some of the other bands around Chicago that you heard? Or some of the other players, for that matter?

Well, listen, there were so many great bands. In fact, when Earl Hines left the Grand Terrace, King Kolax replaced that band. And let me tell you something I think is interesting. When I was in the last year, I think I was in the senior year at DuSable, he approached both Gene Ammons and I, and tried to get us to go on the road with him. Jug went, and of course Jug never looked back. I stayed in school. But Jug went with that band until it folded, and then he joined Billy Eckstine — and of course, the rest is history with Jug. He cut “Red Top” in 1947, and he never looked back.Q:I’ve heard mention from you of a tenor player named Johnny Thompson who you said would have been one of the best had he lived.VF:Oh, listen, man, he was a beautiful cat, and he played almost identically to Prez without copying Prez. He held his horn like Prez, his head like Prez, and very soft-spoken, and then he was tall like Prez. Johnny came to an unseemly end, unfortunately.

Well, Prez had that effect on a lot of people, I would imagine. You, too, I think.

Oh, I was running around there trying to play everything that Prez played. See, Prez was like this. Everybody loved Coleman Hawkins, but he was so advanced harmonically you could hardly sing anything he played. But Prez had that thing where we could sing all of his solos. We’d go to the Regal Theatre and stand out front and (now I know) heckle Prez. Because he’d come out and play, we’d be singing his solos — and Prez never played the same solo, you know! He’d look at us as if to say “I wish those dummies would hush.” We’d be down in the front row, “Hold that horn up there, Prez! Do it, baby!” So all those little nuts were running around trying to hold those tenors at that 45-degree thing like him. Needless to say, Prez must have had the strongest wrists in the world, because today I can’t hold a tenor up in the air, not longer than for four or five seconds. And he had that horn, boy, up in the air, and could execute with it like that. Simply amazing.

Prez with the Basie band, huh?

Oh, yes.

Where did they play in Chicago?

Well, the Regal Theatre mostly. Most of the big bands played the Regal. Then they had another place called the White City out at South 63rd Street, and a lot of bands played there, too.

Let’s review the geography of the South Side venues, so we can establish where people were playing, and in what types of situations.

Well, the Regal Theatre was, of course, at 47th and South Parkway, which is now King Drive. Now, the Grand Terrace was down at 39th Street, and Club DeLisa was over at 55th Street. But the center where all the big bands really came was at the Regal Theatre. See, Earl Hines was at the old Grand Terrace, and Red Saunders, who had a great local band, was at the Club De Lisa.

They had the Monday morning jam session there, too.

Oh yes. It was famous throughout the world.

The famous show band there . . .

Yeah, Red Saunders. He was known as the World’s Greatest Show Drummer. That’s the way that they billed him.

How did you first come into contact with Coleman Hawkins?

Well, Coleman Hawkins used to play at a club called the Golden Lily, right down at 55th Street, next door to the El. Of course, we would go down there until the police ran us away from in front of the place, and listen to Hawk blowing. You could hear that big, beautiful sound; you could hear him for half-a-block. And he played at another club called the Rhumboogie quite frequently. I got to talk with him a few times, and he was always . . . He was just like Prez. He was gracious and beautiful.

Well, you’ve been quoted as saying that your style is really a composite of Hawk and Prez, with your own embouchure.

Yes. Well, at that time I didn’t really understand, but they used two entirely different embouchures — for people who are into embouchures, you know. I was fooling around trying to play like both of them, and I was using the same embouchure. Hawk had more of a classical embouchure, and Prez had more of what I would call a jazz embouchure, an embouchure that enabled him to get his feeling out the way he wanted it. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other; it’s just that they both had two different embouchures. Of course, when I came along, I didn’t really know what I was doing; I was just trying to sound like both of them at the same time.

But of course, I liked all of the saxophone players. I had a few local saxophone players I was crazy about. There was a fellow named Roy Grant, one named Dave Young, another named James Scales.

James Scales played with Sun Ra at one point.

Yes. Yes, he did! Very good. And he’s still around. He’s a very good saxophonist. He never left Chicago. None of those three did.

[Music: Charlie Parker, “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Anthropology,” “These Foolish Things,” “Moose The Mooche,” “Confirmation”]

When did you first hear Charlie Parker in the flesh, Von?

Well, actually, it was at different clubs around Chicago. The Beehive was one, and he worked numerous little clubs.Q:Do you remember the first time?VF:Well, at the Pershing. That was back in the ’40s.

What were the circumstances? You were in the house band.

Yes. Now, a lot of people don’t know whether it was Claude McLin on “These Foolish Things” or myself. There were several tenor players that were on these different jobs, and they were mostly using my rhythm section. And I really can’t tell whether it’s myself either, because almost all of us were trying to play like Lester Young at the time, because that was the thing to do if you were able at all. You were either playing like Coleman Hawkins or Lester Young, so you took your pick. And I was trying to play like a combination, of course, of both of them. That made me a sound a little bit different. But we were all in either a Hawk bag or a Prez bag, or between the two somewhere. Of course, I admired both of them equally. And along with Don Byas and Ben Webster . . . Well, you name all the great saxophone players, I loved them all.

Well, obviously, you had listened to a lot of records, and had heard everybody.

Oh, yes. I still do.

You and your two brothers were the house band at the Pershing for several years. How did that happen?

Just a blessing. Just a blessing. There was a great producer around town, or promoter you could call him, named McKie Fitzhugh, and he took a liking to us. He thought we had a nice sound and were capable of playing with these men. We had the great Chris Anderson at the piano, who could play anything, anywhere, and my brother Bruz was an up-and-coming new drummer with plenty of fire, and either Leroy Jackson or another fellow named Alfred White on bass. We were using several men then who were top local men around Chicago, and they were all young and able to play. Bird played very fast, and boy, you had to have men that were capable of keeping up with him. See, he would play these records at one tempo, but when he played in person, oh, you know, Bird could articulate those tunes. Diz and Fat Girl [Fats Navarro] and Howard McGhee and all the cats, they played very, very fast, and you had to keep up with them, see.

So it was more a blessing than anything else. There were many musicians around Chicago that could have done the same thing, but we were called. And we answered the call.

You were in a Navy band for four years before that, stationed in Hawaii.

Oh, yes.

Let’s talk about those very important years.

Oh, that was a blessing. That’s where I got my first real training. See, I was with the Horace Henderson band just for a while. Of course, when I went in that band, I thought I was a hot shot, you know.

That was your first professional job?

Yes. And when I went in that big band, boy, I found out just how much I didn’t know. And he had all of the star cats in the band, and of course . . .

Who was in the band?

Well, Johnny Boyd was seated right next to me, and a fellow named Lipman(?) was playing trumpet, Gail Brockman was in that band . . . Listen, some of the guys I can’t name now, because this was back in ’39, and I was like about 16 or something. So I was the new hot-shot in town in this big band. I could read. That’s about it! And they took me in hand . . . Because I was very humble. See, during that era, the young guys looked up to the older guys, and well that they should have. A lot of the older guys would pass a lot of their information and knowledge down to you if you were humble. And of course, I was. Still try to be.

Were you playing exclusively tenor sax?

Well, during school we all played a zillion instruments, probably most of them badly. But I was playing trumpet and trombone, drums, bass. If there was anything that you could get your hands on, Walter Dyett wanted you to learn it. But I ended up mostly playing tenor.

After working with Horace Henderson, you enlisted in the Navy and joined the band.

Oh, that’s where I really learned, boy. That’s where I ran into all the great musicians from around the world. Willie Smith and Clark Terry . . .

You were in a band with them?

Oh, no-no. See, Great Lakes had three bands, an A band, a B band, and a C band. I was in the C band. But all the big stars were mostly in the A band, and then the lesser players were in the C band.

Great Lakes is a Naval base north of Chicago near Lake Michigan, right?

Yes. So Clark Terry and I used to jam, and that cat, man, he could blow the horn to death, even back at that time, and this is like 1941 or ’42. Then of course, the bands were all split up, and I was shipped overseas. Now, a lot of people say that I have an original sound, but that’s not true at all. Where I got that sound and that conception of playing was from a saxophone player named Dave Young.

From Chicago.

Yes. Dave Young used to play with Roy Eldridge and quite a few other guys. To me he was one of the greatest saxophone players I’d ever heard, bar none. He took me under his wing when I was in the Navy, when we were stationed in Hawaii. I said, “Man, how are you getting that tone you get? You have so much projection.” And I started using his mouthpiece and his reeds, and he corrected my embouchure a lot. In fact, I would say that most of my formative training on a saxophone was from Dave Young. I had been trying my best to play like Prez and Hawk and whatnot, and his style was what I’d say I was looking for between those two great saxophone players, Prez and Hawk, but it was his own thing and his own way of executing it, and I tried to copy it. I don’t think Dave Young plays any more. I think he’s still around Chicago, but I don’t think he plays any more. He was a few years older than I am. So the sound that I am getting I think is primarily the sound that he was getting. Maybe I’ve refined it a little bit more in all these years I’ve been doing it. But the idea for getting that sound came from Dave Young. Great saxophone player.

And he was with the band you were in when you were stationed in Hawaii called the Navy Hellcats?

Right.

You were in the Navy until 1946?

Yes, from ’42 until ’46.

What type of engagements did you play in the Navy? For the enlisted men, social functions and so forth?

Yes, and the officers. And we traveled all over the island. I was about the only one who had never been in a big band, other than Horace Henderson. All these men came out of Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway’s band, Count Basie’s band and what have you. That’s where I learned how to arrange; they taught me a lot about arranging. Because I used to take my little arrangements in, and everybody said, “Man, you got to get hip, baby. You got to tighten up some.” And they would show me different things.

The next music we’ll hear is by Gene Ammons, who was pretty much the main man in Chicago during this time.

Oh, Gene was echelons above the rest of us. He had already established himself, he had cut hit records, and of course, the rest of us were more or less using him as a guide post. At the time, Gene was working a lot with Tom Archia. Tom was like a vagabond type of musician; he was in and out of everything. He was a great player. And Gene mostly played with his bands.

What we’re going to hear now is Jug with drummer Ike Day. What did he sound like, as best as you can describe it?

Well, he had a very smooth sound; he was very, very smooth. He was ambidextrous, so he could do like four rhythms at once, and make it fit jazz — and a great soloist. But he was also a great listener. Like, he and I used to go out and jam, drums and saxophone, you know, and you didn’t miss anything. His time was very, very even, but he could do anything he wanted to do. Truly, I think, one of the few geniuses I’ve really heard.

Who were his influences? We were mentioning Baby Dodds before . . .

Oh, I would imagine those type. Sid Catlett and those type of fellows.

Was he originally from the Chicago area? Is that where he was raised?

You know, when I first saw him, he was around Chicago. I really never asked him where he was from. I know he loved the great Max Roach, he loved Klook [Kenny Clarke] — he loved all the fellows from New York, of course. And I would like to think that they dug his playing.

We’ll hear a Gene Ammons date with Christine Chapman on piano, Leo Blevins on guitar, Lowell Pointer on bass, and Ike Day on drums.

[Music: Gene Ammons, “Stuffy,” “Close Your Eyes” (1960)”; Ammons and Sonny Stitt, “Red Sails In The Sunset” (1961),” Stitt, “Cherokee” (1950)]

I’d like to go a little more into what the musical life in Chicago was like in the late ’40s and early ’50s. There was so much happening.

Man, it was one of the greatest eras of my life. You could go from one club to another, and you could catch Dexter in one club, you could catch the great Sonny Rollins in another club, you could catch Coltrane down the street, you could catch the great Johnny Griffin down the street, you could catch [Eddie] Lockjaw [Davis] when he’d come in town — all these cats were some of the greatest saxophone players ever heard of. Lucky Thompson, Don Byas.

Ben Webster, man, I used to hang out with! It was beautiful. I used to ask him, I said, “Mister Ben, how do you get that great sound, baby? Tell me, please!” He said, “Listen. Just blow with a stiff reed.” So I was running around buying fives, man! I wasn’t getting anything but air, you know, but it was cool, because Ben said, “Blow a five,” you know.

But all of the great saxophone players . . . Wardell Gray would come to the Beehive. If you name a great saxophone player or a trumpeter or pianist (well, a great musician), they were around 63rd Street during the late ’40s and early ’50s. And you could go from the Cotton Club, which was a great club there, the Crown Propeller, Harry’s — there were so many clubs there.

And all the clubs would be full. The community was into it.

Oh, listen! And people were patting their feet and their booties were shaking and clapping hands. When you walk into a club and see that, man, you know people are into that thing, see, because they can’t be still. You had drummers at that time, man, like Blakey and the cats would come in town; these cats were rhythm masters. When they played a solo on the drums even, you could keep time with it. Max would come in there and you could hear the song; you know, when Roach would play, you could still hear the song.

So it was just a singing, swinging era. And of course, I was running around there trying to get all of it I could get, get it together and try to piece it together. The cats who actually lived in Chicago didn’t have too much of a name at the time, but we were mixing with all of the stars from around the world. And it helped us. See, it helped us greatly. At that time you could do a lot of jamming, unlike today. Of course, it just helped you to get up and rub shoulders. You could talk with the cats. It was beautiful.

Were you able to make a living playing just jazz, or did you also deal with blues and other types of music?

Well, see, at that time, in my opinion, it was almost all the same. Like, they had this rhythm-and-blues, but it was very similar to Jazz. Now, you had the down-and-out blues cats, you know, who were playing just strictly three changes. But you had a bunch of the rhythm-and-blues cats who were actually playing jazz. And it swung. Maybe it was a shuffle beat, but you’ve got to remember, some of Duke’s greatest tunes, if you listen, the drummer is playing the backbeat or the shuffle, or stop time, or something — and that’s in some of his greatest tunes. Like, if you hear Buhaina play a shuffle or something, man, it swings, because he’s hip and he knows how to do it so it’s still jazz. It’s just a matter of having that taste and knowing where to put those beats. See? Because jazz musicians are always very hip, always very hip dudes, because they spend their life learning these things and practicing these things, see. And a lot of the jazz cats are in it to further the music. Of course, they want money, they need money like everybody else. But their primary thing is to further this music — I like to think.

Von Freeman is certainly one who has contributed to the cause.

Oh, well, don’t look at it like that, Ted! No, it’s just that if I’m not famous and make a lot of money, I can blame nobody but Von Freeman. Because I stayed right there in Chicago, see. And no one is going to stay in Chicago or anywhere else, unless it’s New York, and get a big name, because there are not recording outlets. Well, I know all of this. And I’m not sacrificing anything! Hey, I’m happy where I am. It’s just happenstance I’m in Chicago.

Well, I wasn’t thinking of it like that; I was thinking of it in terms of your advancing the cause. But you’re painting a picture of Chicago that was veritable beehive of musical activity.

Oh, it was. Everybody was coming there. And the whole town was swinging. Like I said, you could go from club to club and find a star — and he might not even be working; he just might be in there jamming. You know, that type of thing. Because the music had such a beautiful aura to it at that time. I like to think that it’s coming right back to that now. I can see it happening again.

In Chicago now.

Oh, yes, Chicago is really opening up.

It was pretty dry in Chicago for a while.

Oh, for a while we went through a dry spell that was mean. At one time I was on 75th Street, and I was the only guy playing Jazz on 75th Street, as famous as that street is! And I was jamming mostly, and all the cats would come by and help me by jamming. Like my brother George, with Gene Ammons, and Gene Ammons would come by when they were here — “Jug is down the street, man, with Vonski!” They’d all run down there, you know, and my brother George would bring Jug along with him. And of course, Jug had this big name and this big, beautiful sound, and he would take out his horn . . . In fact, he would blow my horn, and just knock everybody out. I loved Jug.

[Music: Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling” (1956)” Wardell Gray, “Easy Living” & “South Side” (1949), Dexter Gordon, “Strollin'” (1974)]

During the break we had a call from somebody who noted that we had been playing Sonny Stitt before, and noted Sonny Stitt’s propensity to try to take over jam sessions, cutting contests, so to speak, which certainly is popularly identified with Chicago tenor playing. He wondered if you had anything to say about that renowned institution in Chicago life, the cutting contest.

Well, now, Sonny Stitt was one of my running partners, boy. But nobody, nobody fooled with Sonny Stitt when it came to jamming. Sonny was extra mean. Because Sonny could play so fast, see. And Sonny would bring both his horns. See, we would all be jamming, and of course, Sonny would tell his story on, say, alto. It’s very hard to even follow that. And then after everyone had got through struggling behind Sonny, then Sonny would pick up the tenor. So the best thing to do with Sonny Stitt was make friends with him. [Laughs] That was the best thing. Because I loved him.

See, I have a lot of Sonny Stitt in my style. I used to kid him all the time. I used to tell him that he was one of the world’s greatest saxophone players. He’d say, “Aw, shucks, do you really mean it?” But I really meant it. Sonny used to come to Chicago . . .

In fact, you know, when you think about Chicago (this is my opinion, of course), and you think of the saxophone players . . . Man, I don’t know. But I can run down a list and the styles . . . Now, for instance, you had that style of Willis Jackson, Arnett Cobb, Illinois Jacquet, and you had Fathead Newman, and of course, Ike Quebec (everybody called him Q), and Joe Thomas, Dick Wilson, and of course, the cat who is still the man, Stanley Turrentine. Now, that’s just one style of tenor that’s hard to master, because all these cats played hard, man, and they hit a lot of high notes, and they played a very exciting instrument.

Then, on the other hand, you had cats around Chicago like Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Allen Eager would come through. Now they were playing . . .

That serious Prez bag.

Yeah, that serious Prez bag, which is that softer thing. Then you had cats like Don Byas, Lucky Thompson, and Johnny Griffin, Gene Ammons bootin’ — that other type of tenor. And of course, don’t leave out Jaws, and the fellow that you just played used to hang around Chicago and wiped everybody out, Dexter Gordon, Long-Long Tall — he and Wardell.

Now, there’s three definite different schools of tenor, and when you pick up a tenor, unlike most instruments, you’ve got to master all three of those styles. And I can tell when a cat has missed one of them. I don’t care which one of these styles it is. I can tell when I listen to him a set which one of these styles he missed.

I think that’s what made Coltrane so great, was Coltrane was a composition of all these styles. Because see, when Trane first came to town, man, he was playing alto with Earl Bostic, and Earl Bostic, we considered not rock-and- roll, but rhythm-and-blues. Of course, Earl started on high-F and went beyond; that was his style; and then he growled on the tenor. And Trane was there with him. So Trane was getting all this stuff together.

And of course, nowadays . . . That’s one reason why I admire Chico Freeman so much. Because he has, and he’s trying to get Sonny Rollins and Trane, and then all the cats I named into his bag. Which is what you’ve got to do today. See, you can’t just have one style and say, “Hey, I’m going with that.” Like all these cats started with Trane in his later years, which is a beautiful thing, but they don’t know what Trane came through. And of course, it’s hard for them to get that feeling, because he had the whole thing. And nowadays, you have to try to get all that there, because all of these saxophone players are great saxophone players. Some of them are still living, see.

So to me, that’s what makes the tenor the mystery instrument. And I remember, like, in the ’50s, we were all trying to get Gene Ammons, because he was cutting all the hit records and he had this big beautiful sound. Then Johnny Griffin came along with all that speed; he’s another genius. So then everybody shifted over to his bag. Sonny Rollins used to come to town, into the DJ Lounge, and of course, Sonny had it all, everybody was trying to get between Johnny Griffin and Sonny Rollins — everybody was trying to get that thing together. Then before they could get that thing together, here comes Trane. And of course, Trane just kind of drowned everybody, because he had all of that stuff together, and he left a lot of wounded soldiers along the way. See, cats are still trying to recover from that Trane explosion. And of course, they shouldn’t look at it that way. I think they should look at it that Trane assimilated everything; they’ve got to assimilate everything up to Trane and then move on.

Of course, that’s hard. You see, it’s pretty easy, maybe much easier to take one of those styles and then go for it. But the tenor is such that when you play now, you’ve got to be exciting, you’ve got to be melodic, you’ve got to be soulful, cheerful, you know, and all these other adjectives. So the tenor, when they see you with a tenor in your hand, you’ve got all these styles. Like Willis Jackson again. Man, I went on a trip with that cat. Man, if you are not together, he’ll blow you off that bandstand, because he’s got such a big, robust style, and he can play forty different ways. And he’s just one of the cats.

So you have to try to get your discography together, and you have to listen. And of course, a lot of these fellows are gone, but their records are still here. So I challenge every saxophone player that . . . And I’m just speaking now of tenor players. Now, don’t let me get into the alto players.

Oh, you could get into a couple of altos.

Well, I really don’t like to get into them, because you know, Bird and Johnny Hodges and all those cats, man . . . There’s a bunch of them. If you get into them, a saxophone player says, “Aw shucks, I’ll play the piano, ha- ha, or the trumpet.”

Well, then you’ve got to deal with some other people if you do that.

Yes. See, there’s so many ways to deal with things. But I think everybody is so blessed nowadays that they have the records here, and they can listen and listen, and try to get these different styles into their head. And of course, they don’t have to worry about sounding like anybody else, because once you get all that stuff together, you’re going to sound like yourself — unless you just go and play somebody else just note for note and try to get their tone. And I don’t see much sense in that! I think eventually you’re going to find your own thing. I think that’s what it’s all about.

We’ll start the next set with a piece by bassist Wilbur Ware, a bassist who has to be classed in a niche by himself. And Von knew Wilbur Ware quite well.

Oh, he used to work with me. Well, Wilbur Ware, when I first met him, he was a street-corner musician. Man, he was playing a tub with a 2-by-4 and a string on it when I first heard him. I said, “Man, do you have a real bass?” He said, “Well . . . ” I said, “Do you play acoustic bass?” He said, “I’ve got a baby bass.” I didn’t know what he meant, but he had a bass that was about a quarter-size bass. It was a real bass, but it was very small. I said, “Well, man, come and work with me.” He said, “Well, where?” I said, “Well, I’m playing a duo on the weekends. I’ve got two gigs, man.” I felt great to have these two gigs. And we were playing in a place up on the second floor in the Elks Hall. He said, “With two pieces?” I said, “Yeah, man, that’s all the man can afford to hire.”

So this cat made this gig with me, man, and honest to goodness, just bass and tenor. And this cat was playing . . . See, Wilbur’s conception was that he played the bass like maybe he’s playing two basses, like he’s walking and he’s playing another line. That’s just his natural style! And the cat at the time didn’t read, he didn’t know F from G, he didn’t know nothin’. But he had this great ear. You know, formally! But he was great, man.

So he said, “Well, listen, man, how many more gigs you got?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a few more little old gigs” — because then if you had ten gigs a year, you were lucky. So I was telling him, “Man, I got a couple of other little gigs, but you’ve got to read some arrangements.” He said, “Do you think I could learn to read?” I said, “Sure, man!” So he started coming by my house, and I started showing him a few things about counting. And the cat picked it up so quickly! He was just a natural genius on bass. And he always played down in the bass fiddle. And I used to try to get him to smile, and I’d say, “Wilbur, smile some, baby. Come on, get with me!” Because I was I was doing the five-step and everything else, trying to feed this family and all. So he got to the point where he could just read anything you put in front of him. And I said, “Man, how in the world can you learn to read that quickly?” He said, “You know, I feel like I always could read.” But that’s when I found out that some people don’t really need to read, man. It’s great if you can. But that man could hear anything you . . . He was a natural musician.

As he proved with Monk when he went out with him.

Yeah, really. And a great cat. And he used to be so cool and so suave, until one night I heard him play the drums. He got on a cat’s drums, and he goes crazy. So I found out, now, that’s where his personality was. Because he kept great time on the drums. But he went nuts. He would start giggling and laughing! I said, “Man, get up off those drums and get back on the bass” — and he was very cool again! Wilbur Ware, man, he’s a great cat.

Do you think different instruments have different personalities?

Oh yeah. Because I’m pretty cool playing the tenor, but man, get me on a piano and I start jumping up and down. I think that’s where my natural personality is! I play something like . . . I’ll tell you who my style is like. It’s something like a mixture between Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor. Really, just naturally.

[Music: Wilbur Ware, “Mama, Daddy” (1957), Cliff Jordan, “Quasimodo” (1978), F. Strozier, C. Anderson, “The Man Who Got Away” (1960)]

Von, you and Chris Anderson were associates for quite some time.

Oh, man, he was with me a long time. He was the cat who hipped me to harmony, man. I thought I knew a little something about harmony, boy, but when I went around to Chris Anderson, that little genius was in this . . . Now, you’ve got to understand, this was back in the ’40s. Man, that cat could play some things; he and Bill Lee, a bass player that’s around. Man, those cats had such an advanced knowledge of harmony! Chris used to take me aside, and I’d sit there and listen to him just play, and the different variations that he could and would play, man — I’m still astounded. And I heard that record; he’s still doing it.

In the segment we’ll hear the “avants,” as Von said, another generation of musicians who were taking the music in a different direction. And one of the key figures in that is Sun Ra.

Oh, man, yeah!

Tell us about your experiences with Sun Ra.

See, Sun Ra and I were more than just musicians. We were like friends. I have a few stories I could tell about Sun Ra, but really not on air at this time. But Sun Ra was and is an amazing man.

But before I get into Sun Ra, I would like to mention Frank Strozier. I met Frank when he first came to town with Harold Mabern and George Coleman, and of course, these cats are three of the greatest ever. You know, I didn’t mention alto players, but Frank Strozier and cats like McPherson, and Lou Donaldson (who is appearing at the Apartment in Chicago this weekend while I’m playing here — because you know, I love Lou), and of course, the great Phil Woods, and Jackie McLean! See, when you get into the alto players, then man, we could talk all day long about them, too — because that’s another bag.

See, I have often said that there are alto players, and there are tenor players, and there are a few baritone players — and a few soprano players. I think that Sonny Stitt was a rarity, he and Ira Sullivan, that they doubled. But I think more saxophone players either hear B-flat or E-flat, or hear that high horn, which is soprano, or hear that low horn, which is baritone. Of course, we could get into the baritone players, too! We could be here until tomorrow!

But I love all of them, because I know the problems that face a saxophone player.

But speaking about Sun Ra, Sun Ra was a man who I think had envisioned a lot of things that are happening today, with the synthesizers and whatnot. Sun Ra was really actually doing that back in the ’40s. And he was living a dual life, man!

How so?

Well, this cat was writing a straight show at a big club called the Club De Lisa; I mean, dah-da-duh-da-da-data–boom. And then he was writing all these other things for his band. His music encompassed so many different varieties of things, until I think Sun Ra is finally getting his due. Whether you like him or whether you don’t like him, you have to understand that the man was a seer of the future. Because people are doing now what Sun Ra did 40 years ago. And John Gilmore was playing outside way back then. I mean, what they call outside now. John was playing like that then, he and Pat Patrick both.

John Gilmore has said he met Sun Ra in 1953; I know you were working with people even before that. Was he working at all?

Well, he was doing his thing . . .

Apart from the De Lisa gig?

Yeah. And he was playing then . . . He was so strong . . . He’d play a dance. If three people came, he’d thank them and keep right on writing and keep right on playing. The man is a strong man, physically and mentally and spiritually and psychologically. That’s why he was able to last. Because people used to say, “Aw, he’s spacey, he’s out there” — but now everybody’s doing it.

What did you think of the out-there music then?

Oh, I dug it. I love it. I love it right today. Listen, let’s get out! Let’s get out there!

But a lot of the cats you were coming up with playing bebop didn’t really share that feeling about it.

Well, I think what a lot of the people thought, and the musicians, because I talked with a lot of them, I came up with them . . . Well, nobody wants to hear anybody go out if he hasn’t learned in. You see, if you haven’t learned your basics and you didn’t come up through all these saxophone players and trumpet players and piano players and drummers, the people who were fundamental in creating this music, if you didn’t pay your dues in that, well, nobody wants to hear you play outside, because you don’t know in.

And I have often said that you should learn in. Not that you have to learn in, because some people are just geniuses. But I would say the majority of us have to learn in. Now, if a person comes along who is playing what he should play and he’s outside, well, I would just say he’s a genius — because a lot of people thought Bird was out. But Bird wasn’t really out. He was just advanced. But he wasn’t out.

So I think that a lot of people have to catch up with different artists. But I think as a rule, the average person should learn in, then go out. And if he goes out with taste, he’s not going to stay out there too long. What’s he’s doing that people can relate to, and he’s still using his dynamics correctly . . . And when you go outside and it’s still done with taste, you still have patterns, you have different things that you’re doing that people can relate to. That’s my opinion.

In this next set we’ll also hear something by John Gilmore with Andrew Hill, who came up in Chicago as a child virtuoso in the 1940’s, and made his recorded debut with Von in 1952, I think, with Pat Patrick and a very young Malachi Favors. And I wonder if you might say something about your relationship with Andrew Hill and Malachi Favors.

Well, when I first heard Andrew, Andrew was playing in a Bud Powell vein. This was after Chris and I had parted, and Andrew more or less took his place. He was a great player, but he was playing straight-ahead. Anyway, he eventually went on, and he crossed over into playing his own thing, which some people call avant-garde. I just say he just moved on.

Of course, Malachi Favors then was playing straight-ahead bass, which was great, and he was a good player and had a good tone, and then he went with the Art Ensemble and started his own thing — or their things.

But 1952, of course, was well before that. Does that record exist? Is there a copy of it?

[Laughs] It’s on a label called Ping, and the person who put this out passed, and so I imagine the record . . . well, I know the record is out of print.

But listen, you know one thing? Andrew was playing organ on that record. And no one back in Chicago at that time knew how to record organ. So if you’re listening to the record, you can hardly hear him. But he was an excellent organ player. And on that recording, that’s what he’s playing.

[Music: Sun Ra/Gilmore, “State Street,” “Sometimes I’m Happy”; A. Hill/Gilmore, “Duplicity”]

Now we’ll get into a short set on Muhal Richard Abrams, one of the guiding lights of the music in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s, and someone Von has known for a long time. Let’s talk about Muhal. And you have other things to say, too, I know.

Oh, listen, you just about said it all. The man is a great orchestrator and a great father to a whole lot of the cats, and he taught them all very, very well. Listen. I guess a man that was less than he would have sapped himself, because he’s really given of himself, and he’s helped the music so much. He’s something like Walter Dyett. He taught a lot of these guys discipline through just watching him. And Richard is a very dedicated man. And hey, man, what can I say about him? He’s a great musician, and I love him — plus, he taught my son. I got to love him! Taught him well, too.

You know, speaking of Muhal, another man here who has done so much for the young cats (and I know this personally) is the great Sam Rivers. You know, with his loft sessions he helped many a man pay his rent. And he’s another disciplinarian, you know. Sam doesn’t take any stuff. And of course, his great lady, that lady Bea, she’s a great patron of the arts. I couldn’t say too much about Sam and Bea Rivers.

You were talking before about how Sam Rivers had really developed a style of his own, and that’s something you appreciate.

That’s right, he has a style of his own. And I know how difficult it is in this music to arrive at that.

You were also talking about the difficulties of doubling, and Sam Rivers has developed a personal style on tenor, soprano, flute — and piano for that matter.

That’s the truth. He’s a master musician.

[Music: Muhal-Favors, “W.W.”]

Von, did you have any relationship with the AACM in the 1960’s?

Well, see, what happened, when they first formed, Muhal had come to me and wanted me to be one of the charter members. But I’m more or less a loner, and he understands that. I have my way with the fellows that come around me. I’m more of a guy that teaches by example, I guess, if I’m teaching at all. Osmosis, let’s just put it that way. Muhal was into the fact that he was tired of the jukeboxes dominating the scene. And this is what was really going on. If you had a job and you didn’t really play what was on the jukebox, or something similar to it, the proprietors did not hire you. So he went to a club, which was Transitions East, with a fellow who is gone now named Luba Rashik, who used to help him manage, and they were able to play just what they wanted to play, and they had a built-in crowd. So that’s where it began.

They also played at the Abraham Lincoln Center.

At the Lincoln Center. He did the same thing. And they were able to play their own music. And they had a crowd for it, a built-in audience for it. And of course, when he came to New York, he continued the same thing. And he’s done that all over the world. A very brave, strong, fearless man.

I never did mention that there were some more cats that influenced me heavily, man, like Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and Pharaoh, David Murray and the World Sax Quartet, all of those dudes are some of the baddest cats in the world. And Sam Rivers, of course. You know, I had asked earlier if you’d ever heard of Marion Brown, because Marion Brown is a beautiful player, man. And he plays avant-garde to a certain extent. But these are just some of the cats, man, that . . . Of course, when you do something like this, you should say “and a whole lot of others.” Because you really can’t name everybody. But these are some of the persons that come to mind by the way that some folks call avant-garde or whatever they want to call them. I just call them excellent players.

And playing the music of the times.

Really. I would include Chico Freeman in there. He tries to move on.

[Music: Von Freeman: “Catnap,” “I Can’t Get Started,” “Tribute To Our Fathers”]

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For The 86th Birthday Anniversary Of Johnny Griffin, a 1990 Interview on WKCR

Today’s the 86th birthday anniversary of Johnny Griffin (1928-2008), the magnificent tenor saxophonist from Chicago known as “the Little Giant” for projecting behemoth sound and lightning velocity from his jockey-like frame. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard in 1990, and I’m appending the complete transcript, which initially appeared on the web on www.jazz.com shortly after Griffin passed away.

* * *

In conversation with johnny griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn’t been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn’t let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin’ with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn’t let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don’t believe I’m in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he’s with the band.”

Was this just after you’d joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.

Right.

There’s a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you’re playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton’s Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or… I really don’t know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in ’44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington’s band and Count Basie’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don’t think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn’t aware that they were… I don’t think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn’t know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody ‘n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn’t have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin’ the Rock.”]

Let’s jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton’s band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from ’47 to ’48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I’ve got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from ’48 to ’50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That’s exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn’t understand what was happening, I wouldn’t be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it’s so long ago, I can’t remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn’t hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you’d go to different homes—they didn’t seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn’t play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody’s house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk’s compositions at that time, and Bud Powell’s compositions?

Bud Powell’s, but not Thelonious’. I didn’t start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.”  So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk’s music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk’s music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn’t a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That’s the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we’d go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey’s pad, or Thelonious’… Well, not so much at Thelonious’, because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it’s funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo’s house, and Bud’s mother called up Elmo’s mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil’s advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo’s house, screaming, “Elmo, it’s Bud! Let me in. It’s Bud. I’m back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge”; Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young, “D.B. Blues”; Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That’s what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he’s playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty…” deleted expletive. . . . I can’t say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I’d be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, which played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You’d look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet… No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that’s gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don’t know; it was probably Ravel’s “Bolero” or something—that’s why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez’s solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke’s band and Jimmie Lunceford’s band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin’s band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O’Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that’s as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez’s music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie’s band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie’s band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world’s greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I’m interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn’t figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn’t phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950’s.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don’t mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he’d come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn. He’d say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It’s enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what’s the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950’s.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn’t believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn’t even want black people. That’s how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or ’48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton’s and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that’s not completely true, because there’s a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly’s playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early ’47, in between the two times I played with Hamp’s band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they’d get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn’t he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950’s. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker’s brother’s big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn’t have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn’t doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris’ brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones’ house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don’t worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We’ve got to get somebody else.”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy’s big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn’t practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you’re riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he’s really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there’s a drummer. I don’t know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I’d look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he’d find something else to do. I’d see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don’t know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I’d walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he’d stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

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Filed under Chicago, Johnny Griffin, Tenor Saxophone, WKCR

An Unedited Blindfold Test with Ray “Bulldog” Drummond On His 67th Birthday

Today is the 67th birthday of bassist Ray Drummond, whose huge sound, harmonic acumen and unfailing time feel have made him one of the major practitioners of his instrument since the end of the ’70s. To mark the occasion, I’ve posted the unedited proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test  that he did with me either in late 2000 or early 2001.

Ray Drummond Blindfold Test:

1.    Oscar Pettiford, “Tricotism” (Bass, Bethlehem, 1955/2000) (5 stars)

It’s obvious that it’s “Tricotism” in one of its versions.  O.P.  Oscar Pettiford.  I already know it’s 5000 stars.  O.P. is in the school, the great tradition of Jimmy Blanton; Oscar Pettiford, Paul Chambers and people since then who have adhered to this  tradition.  The melodic articulation.  He’s trying to play like a horn.  He’s expressing himself, telling a story, and it’s a very articulate story.  He seems himself as a melody player in the same way that a saxophone or trumpet player would.  Plus he’s got great time, his walking is strong.  Ray Brown comes from this same approach to the instrument.  Serious bass playing.  To me this is the main stem, the trunk of the bass tree.  All the branches come from this tradition, and every bass player has inherited this.  Blanton and O.P. and Ray Brown are three of my particular heros that I learned a lot from just listening as I was coming up, as a musician as well as a bass player.  That articulation!  Just a wonderful player.  It’s O.P.!  God is in the house.  I hadn’t heard that version.

2.    Marcus Miller (all instruments), “Tracy” (Who Loves You?: A Tribute To Jaco Pastorius, Concord, 2000) (5 stars)

This is Jaco Pastorius.  It’s not?  But it’s his tune.  He used to play this; I don’t remember the name.  The only person I can think of who gets into textures like this who’s an electric player is Marcus Miller.  That’s the first guy that comes to my mind.  He’s the only guy who has that kind of talent.  It’s just good music!  He’s playing all the instruments?  That’s even better.  He gets five stars anyway, in my book, because he’s such a musical talent.  He’s a great bass player, but he’s also a great musician.  Once again, going back to O.P., who was a great musician, not just a bassist.  Marcus has that sound.  It’s a little harder to catch, given the sound of the bass guitar.  I wouldn’t think I’d pick up on him, because I haven’t been listening to a lot of Marcus’s own projects.  Last time I saw him he was producing a David Sanborn record.  I haven’t seen him play in years.

3.    Rodney Whitaker, “Whims of Chambers” (Ballads & Blues, Criss-Cross, 1998) (Paul Chambers, composer; Whitaker, bass; Stefon Harris, vibes; Eric Reed, piano; Ron Blake, tenor sax) (3 stars)

At first I thought it was an older recording, but now as I listen to it I realize it’s a bunch of younger guys.  I have to figure out who they are.  It’s a P.C. tune.  But it’s definitely not P.C.  What the whole band is doing sounds a bit superfluous; as a producer I’d have to tighten it up a little by snipping out some of what I would consider self-indulgence.  The point is to tell your story, and there’s no reason to have extraneous stuff in your recording.  I think part of the problem is that the compact disk has allowed everybody to become a lot more self-indulgent.  They’re good players.  Younger players. [TP: How can you tell they’re younger players?] I can tell they’re younger because the tonal universe is broader than you would normally hear from the mainstream players of the ‘50s and ‘60s. I don’t know which young bass player this is.  I know it’s not Christian McBride.  It could be one of half-a-dozen guys.  The problem I have is to try to hear guys’ different sounds.  Like I say on my web-site, getting your own sound and projecting your own voice is not one of the paramount values that a lot of younger jazz musicians today are going for. When I came up, I was kind of the last of the generations of musicians who had been counseled, “No matter what you do through your musical life, if you really want to play, acquire a voice.”  You have a voice.  Understand it.  Play through that voice and project that, and understand that that’s you.  Even if your articulation never gets to be too hot, or your choice of tunes or your knowledge or whatever, if you never pursue a career… I can tell you  about many musicians all over the world, the guy might be a doctor or a scientist, and yet he has this gorgeous tone.  Can’t play hardly anything, he can’t improvise, he can barely play a section, but the guy gets up and plays one note — and you say OH!!!  Because he’s got this sound.  In music schools especially, I guess, nobody is teaching people to acquire their own voice as the basic value, as something even more important than getting all over your instrument.  to me that’s much more important than being able to run up and down the bass or the saxophone or drums or whatever.  Having that sound.  Some people play a couple of notes and you say, “Ah, that’s such-and-such” and “that’s such-and-such.” [TP: There isn’t one of these musicians you could say that about.”} Well, I’m listening, and I think I know…I  probably know every one of these guys.  I probably have even worked with  some of them.  But somehow I can’t get that sense.  I’ll give it 2-1/2 stars.  The musicianship is excellent.  For me, a little self-indulgent, which brings the star level down.  But in my opinion, I just don’t think that there is much personality as these players actually have.  So the producer didn’t quite get what I think is necessary to show off the musicians.  It was on the generic side.

4.    John Lindberg, “Hydrofoil (For Fred Hopkins)” (The Catbird Sings, Black Saint, 2000) (Lindberg, bass; Andrew Cyrille, drums) (four stars)

It’s definitely post-Ornette style avant-garde playing, but I have a feeling it was recorded in the ‘80s or ‘90s as opposed to the late ‘60s or ‘70s.  To tell you the truth, I really haven’t listened to a whole lot of these guys.  I’m not familiar with people like William Parker.  I’m not saying that’s who this, but I’m saying I haven’t been paying attention to guys like that, because I’ve been out of that loop for a long time.  when I was coming up as a musician in California in the early ‘70s, there were a fair number of opportunities to heat that kind of music, and I did some gigs like that as well.  So I’m not from that school that tries to debunk anything or thinks this is not as creative or as important or as difficult to play as any other kind of music.  I like this music.  I wouldn’t want to play it myself as a steady diet, but certainly for contrast.  I won’t take any guesses. I like the drummer.  Barry Altschul comes to mind, for whatever reason, just from the sound of the recording; the cymbals sounded like ECM.  That’s I said Barry Altschul, because I know they recorded him like that.  But they recorded that kind of music in the ‘70s and they haven’t been recording that kind of music in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and this is recent.  I’d give it 3-1/2 to 4 stars for the energy and execution. [AFTER] I  haven’t heard John Lindberg in a long time.  He was a good player with the String Trio, but it was much more “inside” than what I heard here.

5.    Christian McBride, “Move” (Gary Burton, for Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, Concord, 2001) (McBride, bass; Burton, vibes; Russell Malone, guitar) (4-1/2 stars)

The first thing that comes to my mind is… It feels like Ray Brown, but I don’t know if it is.  Yeah, it’s Ray Brown.  It’s got that feeling.  He’s the only one that pushes it like that. They played this Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool.  “Move.”  But let me listen more, because there are a couple of guys who might… I’m going to make a decision when I hear the solo.  It’s got to be Christian McBride, because that’s the only other person… We heard all the Ray stuff in the beginning there.  But this is Christian McBride.  I have to say that straight-out.  I speak about inheriting the mainstream tradition, Jimmy Blanton and how Jimmy Blanton affected O.P. and Ray Brown and the younger guys like Paul Chambers, and he obviously affected Ron Carter, then post Ron Carter you get players like me, Rufus, George Mraz, a whole raft.  And this young guy here, Christian McBride, really likes what Ray does.  That’s Russell Malone there.  I don’t know who the vibraphonist is.  The configuration reminds me of Tal Farlow, Mingus and Red Norvo.  Is this a tribute to that?  But they didn’t play like this.  They had another thing happening.  Probably Stefon Harris.  But if not, I don’t know who it is..  For the musicianship… It swings.  I can’t give it 5, but definitely 4-1/2.  It’s not at the same level as the O.P. [AFTER] Gary Burton?  I’m very impressed, because I did not know that Gary Burton had inherited so much Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo.

6.    Dave Holland, “Jugglers’ Parade” (Prime Directive, ECM, 1999) (Holland, bass; Chris Potter, saxophone; Steve Nelson, marimba; Robin Eubanks, trombone; Billy Kilson, drums) (5 stars)

It’s Dave Holland with Robin Eubanks, Chris Potter, Steve Nelson, Billy Kilson.  It has the different rhythms and they’re right on it.  I caught them last summer live.  We ran into each other at the Northsea, but nobody could listen to anybody, and then we saw them in Munich — we came in a day early and they were working downstairs.  Dave and I are the same age, and I’ve been listening to him since the late ‘60s.  The first I met him was a the Both/And in San Francisco in 1970, when he was playing in Chick Corea’s Trio; ECM had just been formed and they were selling “A/R/C.”  I had bought my copies of Chick’s solo improvised records and “A/R/C” from Chick there in the club, and that’s when I first met Dave.   I really enjoyed what he was doing.  That’s the first time I met him.  But the first time I heard him was in Miles’ band, at a concert they did at Stanford University in 1969.  And I was familiar with him from “Bitches Brew,” which is the first time I heard his name.  He’s got his own sound.  Again, he’s from that era where older guys would say, “Get your own sound, boy!”  Because that’s as important as anything else you’re going to do as part of your musicianship.  When I heard this band last summer, it was just a delight to listen to.  Dave’s got a whole concept.  It’s him!  He’s been playing this way all his musical life.  All the projects he’s been on, from Miles to now, it’s a concept that’s been Dave.  His voice and the message, the story that he tells, and that story has just gotten deeper and deeper and deeper.  I can’t say that about every musician that’s out there.  It’s the kind of thing that gives me a great deal of inspiration, that there’s a fellow bassist who is also a contemporary age-wise… I would never want to play like that, but I love to hear that.  It gives me a lot of ideas as a composer.  It’s just very inspirational.  5 stars.  It’s definitely on the same level as that O.P. piece.  Yay for Dave!

7.    Red Mitchell-Hank Jones, “What Am I Here For?” (Duo, Timeless, 1987) (5 stars) (Mitchell, bass; Jones, piano)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Hank Jones.  From the first notes.  Even though that’s a Rudy Van Gelder recording, that’s Hank Jones’ piano with Hank Jones playing it.  Hank and Red Mitchell.  Red Mitchell.  Talk about someone with a concept, someone with a voice and someone with a great deal of… If you want to just someone by the content of their character, boy, you’ll never go wrong with Red Mitchell!  That was one serious musician.  We miss him a lot.  He had a way of playing… Of course, he strings his bass totally different than the “traditional” way that basses are strung, giving him another kind of approach as part of the concept.  Because he used to play bass the same way everybody else plays it, and then he changed his tuning in the mid-‘60s for whatever reason.  There are a lot of reasons advanced.  Two consummate masters.  Five stars.  You could listen to this all night and sip a few cognacs and pretend we’re back at Bradley’s again, back in the day.  They used to play together several times a year at Bradley’s, and it was always a treat to hear them.  Oh, would we could do such a thing today!  It would be wonderful to have that inspiration again.  One thing about Red Mitchell is that he could play with anybody, and I think a hallmark of a great musician, not just adaptability, but the ability to project that personality in such a way that you do interact with other musical personalities.  And the strongest ones, in my opinion, are the ones who are able to interact with one another using their own personal voices and their visions, and they wind up weaving a story together.  That’s what they did here.

8.    Barre Phillips-Joe Maneri, “Elma My Dear” (Rohnlief, ECM, 1999) (Phillips, bass; Joe Maneri, tenor sax) – (3 stars)

I have no idea who the musicians are.  Again, for me it’s like post-Ornette.  Well, that’s not fair, because Ornette is not the one who unleashed this.  I don’t get the sense of composition.  I get the sense of interaction  of two musicians, as if they just went in and did whatever they did.  This is part of a larger piece or concept?  That’s the feeling I get.  But it didn’t to me as if it was anything other than the two guys interacting with one another, that there wasn’t any kind of motif, or maybe there was a color that was trying to be established.  I’m relatively open-minded about the process, but in terms of the execution of this one I’d have to say 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  The musicianship definitely is good.  The guys know something about their instruments in the colors they’re trying to create and that sort of thing.  But I feel a bit lost because I’m not sure about the context in which they’re trying to place it.  That’s the only reason that I can’t give… I’d give a qualified 2-1/2 or 3 stars.  But I feel a little lost as a listener. [AFTER] I’ve never met Barre Phillips, but I’ve heard his name for a number of years.  And he’s definitely somebody who’s a trouper from the ‘70s and ‘80s.  Obviously, there’s no question about musicianship and that sort of thing.  But as a listener I felt lost.  You told me about Joe Maneri and his microtonal concept, so obviously there’s a context for what this was about.  I think you need to be more informed to be able to understand what’s going on  here.

9.    Michael Moore-Ken Peplowski, “Body and Soul” (The History of Jazz, Vol. 1, Arbors, 2000) (Moore, bass; Peplowski, clarinet) (4-1/2 stars)

Obviously, it’s “Body and Soul” in a clarinet-bass duo.  As far as the performers, that’s a tough one.  The clarinet player is a serious clarinet player, like Eddie Daniels or… It’s not Paquito.  But Eddie is the guy who comes to my mind because of the sound.  Ken Peplowski also has a sound like that, but I’m going to say Eddie, even though I’m probably way off the mark.  It’s somebody that really is deep into the clarinet.  The bass player is really lyrical, and the only guy I can think of…. I don’t know how these guys have played together… I’m sure they  have, but I’m surprised to see them on a record.   Michael Moore is the bass player.  Michael is the only one that…he’s got that… It’s Michael!  It’s hard to explain.  It’s his sound and his concept.  He’s a player like Red Mitchell because he’s very lyrical in his approach, the way he plays the melody.  I’ve never heard him play with the bow like that.  I’ve always loved Michael.  Again, to go back to Bradley’s, Michael played there often.  4-1/2 stars [AFTER] I’ve had the opportunity to play a couple of times with Ken, but I really didn’t get into his clarinet playing until just this past summer when we were all in Japan and I got to hear him play clarinet every night.  I said, “Oh my goodness!”  Ken is a serious clarinet player as well as a marvelous saxophonist.  The beginning was lovely, the way they wove a duet out of tempo together stating the melody and creating the improvisation around the melody and that sort of thing right in the beginning for one full chorus.

10.    Ray Brown Trio, “Starbucks Blues” (Live At Starbucks,  Telarc, 2001) (Brown, bass; Geoff Keezer, piano; Kareem Riggins, drums) (5 stars)

Look out, Brown!  Signatures.  Well, we talked about Ray Brown earlier.  But there’s no mistaking him.  The fact is that Ray  Brown has his voice, he has his stories, and he’s been playing like this for almost 50 years at this point.  The first time I ever heard Mr. Brown live was as an undergraduate in college in the mid-‘60s with the great Oscar Peterson Trio with Thigpen.  They came down to Shelley’s Manne Hole, and I’d be down there two or three nights a week if they had a two-week engagement, just to listen to this trio and this wonderful bass player, this incredible master.  Oh, my goodness, that’s almost 40 years ago.  And Ray hasn’t lost anything.  He’s gotten even more… Not just the maturity, but your voice deepens as you age, especially if you allow it to be.  He’s just such a consummate player, such a grandmaster.  Every time you hear him, it’s such an inspiration.  Five stars.  You’re talking about somebody who’s been the central part of mainstream bass playing for a very long time, and still waving that flag and carrying it for all intents and purposes… I hope as many people as possible will see him while he’s still here with us.  Because we’ve lost so many people and it’s so great to have one of the grandmasters still able to do that thing that only they can do.  God bless Ray Brown. [LAUGHS]

11.    Fred Hopkins, “Mbizo” (David Murray Quartet, Deep Rivers, DIW, 1988) (Hopkins, bass; Murray, bass cl.; Dave Burrell, piano; Ralph Peterson, drums)

I don’t know who this is.  It’s funny, because I get this picture of Cecil McBee in my head, but it’s not Cecil; it’s just somebody who would like to play like Cecil, but hasn’t figured out, in my opinion, how to sound like that.  It’s not Cecil.  Right?  Whew, good.  But as a bass player, this player is chasing another kind of a value.  There’s a lyricism  I think the bass player is trying to get to that he hasn’t figured out yet.  Part of it has to do with his articulation and his intonation.  But that’s part of what he’s trying to do.  Oh, wait a minute!  That’s David!  Damn.  That’s David.  Is this Fred on here?  Fred.  That’s who it is.   It is Fred.  It’s David and Fred and…it could be Andrew.  I’ll take a stab and say Andrew.  The piano player might be Dave Burrell.  I probably missed the drummer.  I’ll stick with Andrew, though I’m probably wrong.  Oh, it’s Ralph.  Yeah, he’s trying to play like Andrew.  He plays more like Andrew than he plays like Blackwell.  Four stars.  The thing is, I loved Fred.  I really did.  But the thing is, there was a kind of lyricism he  as trying to get to that I never thought he quite got to.  But what a talent.  And what an unrealized talent!  There were certain kinds of things that I know Fred wanted to do musically that he was not given the opportunity to do.  I think that he was not only underappreciated while he was alive, but I think a lot of people are still asleep as to what he was up to as a musician.  He was amazing.

12.    Wilbur Ware, “Woody ‘N You” (Johnny Griffin Sextet.  Riverside, 1958) – (5 stars) – (Ware, bass; Johnny Griffin, ts; Kenny Drew, p; Philly Joe Jones, d.)

There’s only one Wilbur Ware, just like there’s only one Ray Brown.  It’s marvelous.  I’ve not heard this with Griffin, so this is probably something from the Riverside days.  There are several versions of this tune is on Sonny Rollins’ “Live At the Village Vanguard,” from probably around the same time, and Wilbur takes some solos on that, too, with that sound and that concept.  Again, he’s got his own way of telling a story, and it’s very effective.  He was a good player.  Kenny Drew?  Sounds like him.  Sounds like Kenny Drew playing.  Art Blakey, Wilbur Ware and Johnny Griffin.  Marvelous date.  Five stars.  I have got to give it up!  [AFTER] I was going to say it could be Philly Joe playing his Art Blakey shit, but you know… It had that Art Blakey thing in the beginning.  But now it’s definitely Philly Joe.  Kenny Washington will probably kill me for mistaking Philly Joe Jones for Art Blakey.

13.    Peter Kowald, “Isotopes” (Deals, Ideas & Ideals,   Hopscotch, 2000) – (Kowald, bass; Assif Tsahar, bass cl.; Rashied Ali, drums) – (3 stars)

Again, we have an example of textures.  Obviously notes, too.  But we’re talking about textures and moods.  Colors.  At this point we’re into ostinatos.  Again, this is a hard one to rate.  All the example of “freer” music, if you want to call it that… But he’s using a great deal of the resources available for color… But it’s funny, because we always think of this kind of playing as so different than mainstream playing.  And yet I would submit… This is where a lot of bass players are asleep on Mingus.  Of course, this is not Mingus, so I’m not going there with this.  On “Money Jungle,” Mingus used those kinds of techniques, a lot of colors, where traditionally bass players play something else, something a little more “traditionally”-based.  This person has a lot of ability to play in this context.  It would be interesting to hear whether this person is into notes as well.  I’m not sure this person is.  But again, there’s a different approach to lyricism here, because it’s more about colors and impressions and mood creation and that sort of thing.  Ah, it’s a trio, with bass clarinet and drums.  Whoever this bass clarinet player is, this person loves Eric Dolphy!  We heard David playing earlier, and there’s some Eric in him.  I mean, he can’t help but be affected by Eric when he plays bass clarinet.  But this person in particular seems to have a real affinity for Eric.  It’s the same kind of rhythmic phrasing.  That’s definitely where David and Eric part, in the rhythmic phrasing.  Some of the concepts that David uses are similar in terms of how they approach the bass clarinet.  But Eric could have done something like this, too.  As for the bass player, I’ll say it’s Alan Silva.  But I have a feeling that this is later, probably recently, so I’ll have to back off it.  I’ll give it 3 stars.  For my taste, it gets a little self-indulgent.  Okay, you started a story.  Now, what happened?  Where’s the story?  The story has a beginning, a middle and an ending.  And we did.  On the one with David, with Fred, obviously there were some stories being told.  You may not exactly understand how everybody’s getting around it, but there was something being said there.  Here I thought they were saying something, but then it drifted off.

14.    Charles Mingus, “Mood Indigo” (Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Mingus, Impulse, 1963/1995) – (5 stars) (Mingus, bass; Jaki Byard, piano; Walter Perkins, drums; Eddie Preston, Richard Williams, trumpets; Britt Woodman, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Eric Dolphy, Dick Hafer, Booker Ervin, Jerome Richardson, reeds & woodwinds)

That’s the sound of Duke.  The pianist even sounded convincingly like it could have been Duke.  That was my first impression.  Of course, this is Charles Mingus with “Mood Indigo.”  There’s only one guy who played like Mingus.  Of course, we know him.  Listen to the lyricism and technical ability.  And he had a different way of… He just did what he did.  And a lot of bass players will not give it up to Mingus as a bass player.  If you ask them what is the contribution that Charles Mingus made in the music, the first thing most bass players say is his composing, and they think of him as a composer and they don’t think of him as a bassist.  I can’t tell you how many guys actually respond that way.  It really used to surprise me once, but now I’m not.  I think it’s because  Mingus is so individual.  Charles Mingus was so strong and had his own… He just would play anything at any moment.  And I think for some bass players, it kind of disturbs them if you’re not playing a traditional part… [LAUGHS] Mingus had such a fertile imagination musically, so he could do anything.  Five stars.  Jaki Byard.  Boy, that’s another soul we miss that we’ve lost.  One of the grandmasters.

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Filed under Bass, Blindfold Test, Dave Holland, DownBeat, Ray Drummond

A 1992 WKCR Interview with Ira Sullivan, Who Turned 82 Yesterday

Just noticed that yesterday was the 82nd birthday of Ira Sullivan, the magnificent multi-instrumentalist who has inspired several generations of South Florida musicians since moving there from Chicago more than 40 years ago. I had an opportunity to interview the maestro on WKCR in June 1992 while he was in residence at the Village Vanguard with a quartet, and am presenting the transcript below.

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Q:    It’s my pleasure to introduce a musician who is really beyond category, a virtuosic instrumentalist on trumpet, fluegelhorn, soprano saxophone, alto saxophone, tenor saxophone, flute…and what am I missing?

IS:    Oh, I don’t know.  I play some drums if I have to.

Q:    Did you ever do a record as the whole band?

IS:    I’ve been asked…

Q:    You once did a record where you played all of the instruments.

IS:    Yeah, I have never heard that.  I have heard about it.  But I have been asked to do that, but I haven’t planned anything yet.  The only time I think I did any overdubbing was on that Bernie Brightman Stash record with Hank Jones and Duffy Jackson.  We went in, and we had seven hours; we did seven tunes in seven hours.  I went back another couple of hours.  I left the holes open, you know, so I could go in the next day and overdub the fluegelhorn parts.

Q:    And there are some sections where you do exchanges with yourself as well.

IS:    Right, right.  That was interesting.

Q:    Anyway, we haven’t even introduced you.  The person I am talking about, as many of you may already know, is Ira Sullivan, and he is appearing at the Village Vanguard at the helm of a quartet this week, featuring pianist Reuben Brown, bassist David Williams, and drummer Steve Bagby.  When was the last time you led a group in New York playing your music with this type of a band?

IS:    Well, I always feel I’m the leader, because I only have myself to contend with, you know.  I have never believed that man needed a leader.  I have always thought that to be starting so young, the leader was Christ.  Jesus is the leader to me, and everything else is just superfluous.  I mean, we just do…we bring all our talents to what we do, and do it.  I never think of pecking order, you know.
I play with different people so much.  See, growing up in Chicago, when I’d get a job for a quartet, I’d get calls from 12 or 18 musicians saying, “Hey, I hear you got a job this Friday night.  I’m available.”  Well, you can only hire three other guys.  So I always had this wonderful wellspring of great musicians to choose from, that’s what I’ve done all my life.  I’ve never really kept a band together for a long time.

Q:    When did you start performing professionally in Chicago?  How old were you and…

IS:    I was 16 when I started playing at the jam sessions.

Q:    Was that about 1948?

IS:    No.  I was still in high school then.  I think 1948 is when I got out of high school.

Q:    What was the situation that led up to you performing?  You’ve been playing since you were three or four years old.

IS:    I started when I was 3-1/2, yes.

Q:    On a record you did for Horizon, there’s a picture that shows you playing the trumpet, and the trumpet literally is almost as big as you are.  Was that your first instrument?

IS:    Actually, as you notice, I’m almost resting it against my knee there.  The trumpet was my first instrument, yeah.  I never picked up anything else until I was in high school and I had to for the school band.  I became a trouble-shooter.  You know, when somebody was absent, I got the call.  My father had a record by Clyde McCoy called “Sugar Blues” that I wanted to play.  I wanted to work the wah-wah mute, the little Harmon mute on the end that makes it sound like a baby’s cry.  So he got me one of the little short German cornets, a little fat cornet that you’ve probably seen some guys in the early bands play.  I think Joe Thomas used to play one in Basie’s sextet.  And so I could work that wah-wah mute.  But the trumpet you saw was a long, full-sized trumpet, and that was my first instrument and it remained my first instrument until high school.

Q:    You grew up in what part of Chicago?

IS:    The North Side of Chicago, and then later the South Side.

Q:    And your father I gather was an avid listener to music and collector of instruments.

IS:    My father was from a family of fourteen children, and they all played instruments.  One uncle was with Souza’s band, and another was in what I guess they called Ragtime at that time — you know, free Dixieland.  He was an improviser.  He was the first one who taught me about playing Free, actually, way before Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and all those fellows.  He taught me about playing impressionistic music when I was ten years old.

Q:    What was his name?

IS:    Tom Sullivan.  Thomas Sullivan.

Q:    Did he play professionally?

IS:    Yes.  He was in the Jazz band I talked about.  I had never heard him, but he was an improviser.  My Dad played.  He had beautiful chops and a very good tone, and he just played for relaxation when he came home from his business.  He was like a Charlie Spivak, Harry James, very clean, you know, straight melody — he didn’t improvise.  In fact, when I was five and six and we used to play together he always would turn to me and ask me, “Ira, where are you getting all of those extra notes?”   See, because I’d be putting little obbligatos in and stuff.

Q:    And was that coming from your imagination at that time?

IS:    Yes.

Q:    So there was always music around you, from the very earliest part of your life.

IS:    Always.  Always.  Our family reunions were meals, the women cooked all day and then we had dinner about 4:30, and then we played the rest of the night.  All the neighbors would come in.  Every one of my aunts played.  One played violin.  One just played a snare drum.  She had a snare drum with brushes, and she would come in and keep time.  And the gentlemen all played, and another aunt played piano.  So we had quite nice family sessions then.

Q:    Were there records in the house also?

IS:    Oh, sure.  I was firmly steeped in the music of Harry James before he was a popular bandleader.  He was quite a Jazz player, you know.  I had that record of him with Albert Ammons and Pete Johnson, you know, playing Boogie-Woogie, and I was fascinated, because I had only heard Harry with the big bands.  I listened to Basie, and really just to every kind of music.  I discovered Classical on my own, because we had it around the house.  But nobody forced me, and said, “Oh, listen to this, listen to this — this is what you should listen to.”  I was given complete freedom.

Q:    Did your parents take you to hear music, the big bands at the theatres or anything like that in the 1930’s and 1940’s?

IS:    Yeah, after I asked them.  Yeah, later on, I’m sure… Well, see, that was a beautiful thing about Chicago.  When you went to see a movie in Downtown Chicago, you got a live band performing.  It could be just Glenn Gray and his Casa Loma Orchestra, or even just a dance band.  But I was always thrilled, you know, when the curtains opened.  And one day I remember, I was 14, I saw Woody Herman’s band, with that theme song, you know, they’d come out with.  That was really a very exciting time in my life.  It was common then.  Now it’s hard to find big bands, you know.

Q:    And in these years (we’re talking about, I imagine the years before high school and the early years of high school), which instrumentalists really impressed you?  You mentioned Harry James.  Who apart from he?

IS:    Well, remember I was only a five-year-old child!  Well, I grew on Harry James.  There was Clyde McCoy and Henry Busey, and Muggsy… I heard Dixieland players; I didn’t know what they called it.  I didn’t ever hear the word Jazz until I was 16 and in high school.  To me it was music.  I didn’t call it Swing or Funk or whatever labels they put on.  Then when I got in high school, a senior in high school introduced me to some records I had never heard before, such as Coleman Hawkins on Commodore with young Dizzy Gillespie playing trumpet [sic], then we moved from that into Dexter Gordon and Allen Eager, Charlie Parker — which all gave me another musical direction.  I was definitely intrigued.

Q:    So that turned your head.

IS:    It certainly did, yeah.  And as I say, it set me off in a new direction.  I wanted to learn that language, that Bebop language.

Q:    What sort of musical education was available to you in high school in Chicago?  I know you were already a proficient musician.  But I think it was much more prominent in the schools then than it is today.

IS:    Oh yes.  Yes, that’s the bane of my existence, to go around and talk to these poor musical directors in the schools the people who are trying to promote music, and realize they have trouble actually getting a little band together, whether it’s a stage band to play modern arrangements or just a concert band.  When I was in sixth grade, I had a 90-piece orchestra, 90 to 135 pieces, depending on how many children were graduating and moved out of the school.  So it’s quite thrilling to play with an orchestra when you’re that young, you know, and hear violins and clarinets and everything.  And they weren’t that badly  out of tune.  We had a very good director, as I remember.

And then when I went to high school, I moved right into the concert band in my freshman year, and had certainly enough music… I had two periods of band every day, and I was playing trumpet, and two days of the week I went upstairs to the orchestra room, and got to play with the orchestra.  So it was quite nice.  And of course, I also had a double period of Art.

And it breaks your heart.  Because when I see schools in Florida that can’t even get a music program started, and I realize how kids respond… We did clinics at this Pennsylvania festival.  We start Friday night, and then Saturday morning we do clinics with the high school kids around there.  And we had a young boy who was about 10 years old, Jonathan, and he’s in sixth grade — and you should have heard him play alto.  He went out and played with the high school band.  He’s very precocious now.  When you see children like that, it’s great if they have an outlet in school.  I mean, imagine little children who grow up and they already love, say, poetry or creative art and music. And then the teachers find them falling behind in their other subjects.  Education has lost the idea that if you give a child something that his little heart desires, his spirit is bursting to produce, it might straighten out the rest of his or her’s mental outlook towards the process of education.

Because God, I think, He imbues us each with a unique spirit.  We don’t all love the same things, the same foods.  And what we want to do with our life I think a lot of us know very young.  As I say, I went from crib to the trumpet.  I never asked for anything else in my life to do.  I was quite happy, as long as I could play music.

Q:    [ETC.] We’ll create a set of you performing on trumpet.  We’ll hear “That’s Earl, Brother,” which I imagine you heard at the time you were first introduced to Bebop.

IS:    Actually the first time I heard it, it was by Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt with a rhythm section, and then later I heard it with Dizzy’s big band.

[MUSIC:  “That’s Earl, Brother (1977),” “Angel Eyes (1968),” “Everything Happens To Me,” “Our Delight”]

“Angel Eyes” comes from Horizons, which was issued in the Eighties on Discovery, featuring I guess the band you worked with in Miami at the time, shortly after you moved there from Chicago in the 1960’s.

IS:    Yes, it was.  1968 that recording was originally done.

Q:    Tell me about your early experiences with Bebop.  Did you hear it on records, or hearing musicians that came through Chicago?

IS:    Well, I started hearing musicians coming through Chicago, as you say.  You were asking earlier about concerts.  I remember when I was 16, my Dad did take me to see… We went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert, one of those early ones at the Chicago Opera House.  That was quite exciting.  Then, of course, I heard Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band.  Then when I was about 18, I went to my high school prom, and Gene Krupa was playing in town, and that’s when I met Red Rodney, who was the featured trumpet soloist.  Charlie Ventura was still in that band.

Then, as I say, in high school, I met this gentleman who turned me…had some Dexter Gordon records.  He was a Jazz collector; he had Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with “Salt Peanuts.”  It threw me for a loop, because I had always been able to, as they do in college now, transcribe solos.  Now the fellows sit around and transcribe the solos off the record, write them down, and then play them.  But I didn’t use this process.  I just memorized the solos, and would try to recreate the phrasing and the breathing that I heard from Roy Eldridge or Buck Clayton or any of the Jazz trumpet players.  Again, reminding you I didn’t know they called it Jazz.  It was just music.  So I just tried to reproduce what I heard.

But then when I heard the Bebop idiom, I could not get near to that at all.  The rhythmic concept, the syncopation, the fast triplets…

[END OF SIDE A]

…or the writers that this will never last, a bunch of silly symphonies, and it’s not going to be around long, and then 20 years later it was so assimilated into the culture, I heard Bebop licks coming out of Lawrence Welk’s horn section, because these young arrangers had grown up and were slyly sneaking some of it in — you know, it was wonderful to see it become part of our culture.

Q:    Of course, you were one of many young musicians in Chicago who were assimilating and developing very individual artistic statements out of the Bebop idiom.  When did you begin to interact with that broader Chicago community of musicians?

IS:    In the jam sessions.  By the time I was 18, I had met a lot of the… Lou Levy, who we used to know as Count Levy in those days, who played with Stan Getz and Peggy Lee, and he’s one of the finest young… I still call him a young player.  He still is, because he was 19 when I met him.  I was out playing with these fellows, and then I finally sort of built a little reputation.  But I noticed they always called me for the jam sessions and not enough for the gigs, see.  So then I had to change that a little bit.

Q:    Now, when did you start incorporating the saxophones into your repertoire?  Were you doing that at this time as well?

IS:    Through being a trouble-shooter with the band.  Well, I didn’t mention my mother also played piano and alto saxophone.  So I always had a saxophone around the house, but I never was really interested in them.  Then in the high school band, as I say, we had 19 trumpets.  So we lost our baritone horn player; he graduated.  So I said, “Well, let me try the baritone horn.”  I started playing on that, and then I took it out to a couple of sessions.  A month or so later, we had a Father’s Night concert, as they called it, in the auditorium.  We had 35 clarinet players and only two tenor saxophone players, and one of them got a cold and was absent.  The band director said, “I don’t what we’re going to do; we need a replacement.”  I said, “I think if you let me take that tenor home, I can handle the part.”  Because tenor saxophones in a concert band, they have nothing to do but long tones, you know.  I took that tenor home, and I sat down, put my Lester Young record on, you know, sat down and just played one… You know how Lester would just get one note, DI-DA-DU-DAH-DOOT… I said, “Gee, I think I can do that.”  So I sat there with my one note all day long, phrasing, getting the rhythm phrasing.

Then I fell in love with the tenor.  I said, “This is quite a horn.”  I started fooling around with it.  It was just nice to be holding a tenor, because now I’d been listening to… I knew they called it Jazz now, and I had been listening to Allen Eager and Dexter Gordon and, of course, Lester Young and fellows around.  So the tenor became fascinating.

And then, when I was about 18 or 19 and started working in Chicago, I couldn’t get a job with a trumpet with a quartet.  You’ve got to remember, now, Chicago is a tenor town.  They had Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Dexter Gordon was around, Sonny Rollins spent some time there, Sonny Stitt, and you had Tom Archia, Melvin Scott — great tenor players all over the place.  Don Lanphere was there.  He was one of my early heroes.  I mean, he could play faster on a tenor sax than anybody I’ve ever known.  Kenny Mann was around there.  So it was a tenor town.

So I took that tenor, that borrowed tenor from school, and I started getting in the shed, as they say, and practicing on it — and I learned three tunes.  I learned the Blues, and I learned “I Got Rhythm,” and my fast tune was “Fine and Dandy.”  That way I got a gig.  Once I got a gig…

Q:    “I Got Rhythm” will get you through a lot of jam sessions.

IS:    Get you through a lot of jam sessions.  And the Blues will, too; I mean, you learn them in two or three different keys.  And then I went out, and like I say, we got a job with a quartet.  But then, when I pulled my trumpet out, the club-owner was quite impressed.  He’d say, “Hey, I’ve got a triple-threat man.”  But I could not get hired with a trumpet and a rhythm section.

Q:    Well, how about your history on the alto saxophone?

IS:    Well, as I say, my mother had an alto saxophone at home, so then I started… Well, once I fell in love with Bird’s sound, that naturally would make you curious about the alto.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird?

IS:    I think the first recording would be… I remember the intro: [SINGS REFRAIN]

Q:    “Now’s The Time.”

IS:    “Now Is The Time,” right.  And the other side was “Billie’s Bounce” probably.

Q:    When did you first hear Bird live?

IS:    That would have been at the Jazz At The Philharmonic concert.

Q:    Now, Bird was frequently in Chicago.  Did you get to know him at all, or play alongside him?

IS:    I got to know him after we played together at the Beehive in ’55, actually, which was the year of his demise.

Q:    That was only a couple of weeks before he passed away, I think.

IS:    About a month.  Because he had asked me to come to New York.  He wanted to send for me and bring me to New York.  So I was considering the possibilities of that.  But at the time I could see he was also quite ill.  Not so you’d know it, but I mean, when you’d hang out and talk to him, there were things happening in his life.  His daughter had passed away a year before, and I think that still was taking its toll.

Q:    So you met him at a low ebb.  But musically, what was the experience like?

IS:    Oh, musically it was great.  He had found a doctor who was taking care of him a little bit, and getting him to feel a little better, and giving him the proper medication.  I think they got him full of Vitamin B-12, and sort of… I remember he came in the second night, and he had his usual libation, and he looked at me bright-eyed after the second set, he says, “Strange, I can’t get drunk.”  But he was feeling good, you know, and he was playing good — and we had a really nice time there.

Q:    Who was that band?

IS:    I was just going to say.  I think Norman Simmons was on piano, Victor Sproles on bass, and Bruz Freeman on the drums — Von Freeman’s brother.

Q:    Another tenor player who was prominent in Chicago.

IS:    Oh, Von was another one that I got to play with in the early days.  So it was like growing up with Bird.  It’s like they say, you reveal from one spirit that God had, and when you’re in Jazz, you find that the spirits are one.  We all have individual statements, we’re all trying to get our own voice on our instruments, but the common bond…. For instance, I was just reading some of these liner notes on my albums which I’ve never seen, and I talk about going over in Europe, meeting people over there, they don’t speak the language, but once you sit together in a session, you just mention a tune and you’re off and running.  So that’s one universal language we know that never fails us.

Q:    Well, Chicago in the 1950’s is almost universally described by musicians as one big workshop, where everybody could get their creative self together, so to speak.

IS:    Exactly.

Q:    Just describe the scene a little bit.  There was music on almost every major crosswalk on the South Side, I know.

IS:    Well, yes, and on the North Side, too, as I said before.  We spoke about those big bands.  I mean, you’d go down and see a movie, and you got an hour-and-a-half movie, but you also got a stage show with a great band, and maybe singers, jugglers, dancers, comedians, whatever — but my focal point was always the bands and the musicians.  And there were a lot of clubs to jam in, different clubs where trios were playing.

You had a lot of clubs in downtown Chicago, little bars where there would be a single piano player or a duo or a trio or a quartet.  Downtown, I remember there was a place called the Brass Rail upstairs and the Downbeat Room downstairs.  Henry “Red” Allen had a band there with J.C. Higgenbotham.  Red Saunders was the drummer.  The trumpet player Sonny Cohn was there.  It was really interesting.

As a youngster, I would go downtown, at 16, 17… I remember I’d wear my Jazz coat, and one night I painted a false moustache on with my mother’s eyebrow pencil, you know, so I’d look older.  Naturally, I couldn’t get in; they spotted me right away.  But I went downstairs.  There was a fellow that had worked at my father’s restaurant, and he was now working at the Downbeat room.  So he opened the fire door, and through the fire door, in the mirror there, I could see Henry “Red” Allen and Higgenbotham up there, and I could just catch the two of them.  He let me stand up there, but he said, “Now, if anybody comes by, close that door and get out of here!’  So there I was with my phony moustache and my tweed coat down there, soaking up the Jazz.

Q:    I’d like to ask you about a couple of the musicians in Chicago who have somewhat passed into the realm of legend because they were insufficiently recorded.  Did you ever have a chance to play with the drummer Ike Day behind you?

IS:    Oh, yes.

Q:    Can you describe his style a little bit?

IS:    You’d have to hear Guy Vivaros, who is a gentleman who is quite alive, travels with me a lot, does concerts with me.  Guy was Ike’s second nature.  I mean, that’s all Guy did.  Guy and I have known each other since we were about 17.  Guy got together with Ike Day, and Ike loved Guy, and Guy loved Ike, and Guy had given all his time, just like many teachers do now with young students, and they hung out together, and they just were inseparable.  And he gave Guy as much as he could of his stuff, this phenomenal and quite unusual method of drumming.  I mean, drummers certainly can appreciate it.  You say it to the average person, they wouldn’t tell one drummer from another.  But Ike had something that nobody else had, and Guy is the closest living representative I know who plays something like Ike.  But nobody can duplicate what it is.

Q:    Do you have words to describe what was special about Ike Day’s style?

IS:    Well, see, I played some funny sessions… You were asking me about the scene around Chicago.  I mean, a lot of us, we’d go jamming the blues clubs if there were no Jazz clubs open that night.  We just wanted to play.  So once in a while there would be a session after the Blues band had finished playing, and the Jazz fellows would go in, and we’d set up.  And Ike, one time I saw him play, he had literally a pie pan for a cymbal, and another gold cymbal that had a big chunk broken out of it, and no sock cymbal, and a hat box for a snare drum that he’d play with the brush, and then a regular tom-tom, and then a big bass drum with a Hawaiian scene painted on it, a waterfall scene from Hawaii painted on it.  And he played that set, and at no time did you know that there wasn’t anything… It could have been a brand-new set of Slingerland drums behind you.  So that was some of his magic.

Q:    I’ve heard that from a couple of drummers who had heard him, that he could play magically musically in tune with the band with almost anything, or a minimum of equipment.

IS:    Yes.

Q:    Others say that Buddy Rich actually used him briefly as a second drummer.

IS:    Yeah.  He also used Philly Joe Jones as a second drummer.  You’d have to hear Ike to know.  They say, “You’ve seen one drummer, you’ve seen them all,” but when you heard that inside magic that Ike had…
Ike used to play without his shoe, take his shoe off so he could get the feel of the wheel a little better.  One night he was playing at a long… In those days at the sessions there may be ten or twelve horn players on the stand, tenor players, maybe there would be one or two trumpet players, a couple alto players, all waiting in line to play — and the tunes would go on interminably.  I’ve actually seen a bass player where there was a phone the bar, pick up the phone and dial another cat, stop playing under a chorus, and say, “Hey, you want to come down here and get some of this?”  He’d been playing thirty-five minutes on the same tune, probably “I Got Rhythm,” and call another guy that was in the neighborhood to come over and relieve him.    Well, Ike took his sock off one night and played a tom-tom solo with his toes.  I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.  He just put his foot up on the tom-tom, and you could hear his…

Q:    Well, that’s really some independent coordination.

IS:    That’s some coordination I don’t think many drummers have tried yet.  But I wish Ike had been recorded just a little bit.  I think he is on a record, Tom Archia…

Q:    He is on a record, Tom Archia and Gene Ammons…

IS:    But not well…

Q:    It’s submerged to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable.

IS:    Right.

Q:    Would you say a few words about Wilbur Ware?

IS:    Oh, he was another one.  You know, the symphony players from the Chicago Symphony used to come to hear Wilbur when we played out at the Beehive, which was the going Jazz club then, where a lot of us worked in and out of.  I was always sort of brought in as the extra added attraction.  They’d have a quartet with Wardell Gray, and I got to play with the late Wardell Gray there, or Roy Eldridge and Art Farmer and Sonny Stitt, and so they’d bring me in as a trumpet player.

And one of the outstanding musical experiences of my life was playing with Wilbur Ware.  Wilbur Ware had… He told that his father had made his first bass out of an orange crate and thick inner tubes cut to different sizes of the strings and they played on the street and stuff like that.  But he had a touch unlike any other I’ve heard.  Very light.  He didn’t play heavy… Of course, the bass players of today sound heavy because they now have amplifiers.  Wilbur just played a wooden acoustic bass.  But he had this gorgeous, beautiful tone, just like with a feather touching the bass, and the sound that came out was wonderful.  I think a good example is that Sonny Rollins, Live At The Village Vanguard, where there is no piano, and you can really hear Wilbur outstanding.

And I used to watch these symphony players come down and be fascinated and watch him, because he had this almost legitimate technique — but he was definitely a self-taught musician.

Q:    Also, he often was not on what you’d call even close to a first-rate instrument…

IS:    Oh, no.

Q:    …and was yet able to elicit a tone.

IS:    Right.  He’d get up in the morning… We’d be rooming on the road, and he’d get up in the morning, at maybe 11 o’clock after the gig, and pick up his bass, before he’d even taken his pajamas off or brushed his teeth or had a cup of coffee; he’d pick up his bass and start playing “Cherokee” at a breakneck speed, you know, and just play… And he wouldn’t disturb anybody in the hotel.  You couldn’t hear him beyond the room.  Just… [SINGS RAPID WILBUR WARE LINE SOFTLY]  He’d just be working off the little patterns and everything.  It was wonderful, the love that he had for the instrument.

Q:    What were the circumstances that led to Art Blakey calling you and Wilbur Ware to join the Messengers in 1956?

IS:    Well, I guess because, as I say, I was always around jamming with everybody in Chicago, and when he’d come in, if I had a chance I’d get up with Art.  We had met, and everybody met, and so he’d call me, “Come on up and sit in, Ira.”  Then one day he just called me, and asked me if I’d want to go with the band, and brought Wilbur and I up at the same time.  Kenny Drew, Senior, was the piano player then.  I have to say Senior, because his son is around and performing.  He’s been up in Sarasota, Florida, for quite a while.  So Kenny Drew was in the band, Donald Byrd was the trumpet player — so I originally went in to play trumpet and tenor.  That’s when that terrible tragedy happened with Clifford, and Donald Byrd was given the call from Max to come in and replace Clifford Brown in the Max Roach-Sonny Rollins Quintet — the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet actually they called it.  So then the next young trumpet to come in the band, after we went through Philadelphia, was Lee Morgan, who was 17 years old at the time — and I was playing tenor then.  Then a gentleman who was in last night to see me at the Vanguard, Danny Moore, was on trumpet for a while with that group when we left, because Lee was, I think, still in school, hadn’t quite graduated yet.  So we left Philadelphia and we got Danny Moore…

Q:    Lee Morgan joined Dizzy Gillespie at the end of that year, I think.

IS:    Yes.  As soon as he was out of high school.  Then Idrees Sulieman came in the band, which was quite interesting to most people, because as we got announced, it was very hard for them to tell the difference between the names — Ira Sullivan on tenor, Idrees Sulieman on trumpet.

Q:    Did you play exclusively tenor with the Messengers, or would you get into trumpet battles?

IS:    Well, I played some trumpet, but I always had to be careful with sensitive souls who… And I’d feel a little sensitive, too, because I felt like I had an act together or something.  You know, when I’m on my own and I can make my own choices, and pick up a trumpet or a flute or a saxophone when I want to, it’s something else.  But it’s not quite fair to a trumpet player, no matter how they good they are, to come in the band, and here I am playing tenor and trumpet.  Well, now, immediately you’re going to garner some attention.  So I sort of opted to just play tenor in the band, and Art Blakey and I talked about it, so…

Q:    Will you be playing a lot of trumpet and fluegelhorn this week?

IS:    As much as I can handle, yes.  It all depends on what my face can do on that particular night.  I have to always consult my face first.

[MUSIC: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “Stella By Starlight,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most,” “Sprint.”]

IS:    A lot has changed around us.  We used to read about pioneers, but in a way we’re pioneers, too, because our mores, our society is changing, even as we speak around us, you know.  So you always have to figure it’s an exciting time that you live in, mainly because you’re breathing in and out.

Q:    Well, you certainly seem to be a musician or personality or spirit that creates excitement around you wherever you bring your instruments.

IS:    I don’t know whether I create it or just sort of nudge.  Somebody says, “You’re a wonderful inspiration.”  I say, “No, I’m sort of a nudge.”  I just open up and let these young people play, and let their natural talent come out.  I think a lot if it is, even as in school, when we teach, overcoming that temerity, to realize, “Hey, man, you can do it; just get out there and do it.”  Most of them have the talent and they’re ready.  You just have to give them a little nudge.

Q:    Which of your instruments do you have this week?

IS:    Well, the tenor, trumpet and flugelhorn, which I always carry, and alto flute and soprano sax, which is enough to keep me busy.  People ask why I play long sets, and I say, man, it takes me at least three hours to get each horn in a proper playing shape, and as I say, get my face to play them all.

Q:    It seems unimaginable to many musicians that you can actually pull off a set because of the different embouchures and musculatures involved.  What do you do?

IS:    Well, you just do.  You have at it.  You keep going for it.  You have problems every night.  Every musician who plays just one horn knows it’s not the same every night.  You always have the physical problems to overcome where your musculature is and your mouth that day, or your face.  As I say, it’s not easy.  But the more I do it… It’s easier when I play six nights a week, constantly, as I was doing in Florida.  Several clubs I played in, I’d stay there two or three or four, five years.  And that six nights a week, that regularity makes it a lot easier.  Now I play festivals on the weekend, then I may not play for three or four days, and then I get in a setting like this where I’m playing six days, and it takes a little time to do it.  But I keep doing it until I get it right.  And sometimes it comes off.

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