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For Von Freeman’s 97th Birth Anniversary, a 1991 WKCR Interview with Von and pianist John

Von Freeman and John Young
November 20, 1991, WKCR

copyright © 1991, 1999, Ted Panken

Q: Von Freeman and John Young were both born in 1922, and both went to DuSable High School. When did the two of you first meet?

VF: Well, I remember John from a long time ago. Let’s just put it that way. For a long time.

Q: Was it in school?

VF: Oh, I don’t know. I . . .

Q: Was it in a musical situation?

VF: Well, I knew about him long before I really knew him. I always admired his playing, way-way-way back.

JY: I remember, Von, when we first played together, when was it, 1971, at . . . What was the name of that place?

VF: The New Apartment Lounge?

JY: At the New Apartment Lounge, yes. The other piano player, Jodie Christian, couldn’t make it. So Von called me to work with him, and we’ve been working with each other on and off ever since that time.

Q: But you had known each other back in high school undoubtedly.

JY: Well, I knew him, but our paths didn’t cross. He had his family band, his brother on drums and another brother playing guitar, and he played tenor saxophone, and I think he had Chris [Anderson?] . . . Anyway, he was using other piano players at the time. I was working with a dude named Dick Davis.

Q: So this was in the 1940’s, after the War.

VF: After the War, uh-huh.

JY: Or the 1950’s, I think it was.

Q: Both of you studied under Walter Dyett, and I believe John Young was in one of the first classes at DuSable High School as well. Didn’t it open around that year?

JY: Well, I was in the second year. What happened was, in ’34 they attempted to extend the old Wendell Phillips High School. It was called the new Wendell Phillips High School. But then they decided not to tear down old Wendell Phillips; they decided to keep it, and changed the name to DuSable. So it started off in 1934 as the new Wendell Phillips High School. They had to go into that stone and change the name to DuSable.

Q: There were a number of very talented young piano players in your class at that time.

JY: Well, I was in there with Dorothy Donegan and a fellow named Dempsey Travis, who wrote that book (he was playing the piano then, at that time), and Marbetha Davis. Nat Cole had just graduated not too long before that. Nat Cole and somebody else, I can’t think of him. Those were the piano players. We used to do what they called the Hi-Jinx at DuSable High School.

Q: The Hi-Jinx was a show band type . . .

JY: Yeah, it was a show to raise money. It was a fundraiser. And I was in the Hi-Jinx with these dudes, as a matter of fact, Redd Foxx was in one of those Hi-Jinx, a tramp band. But that was one of our fundraisers.

Q: So there was really tremendous musical talent all concentrated in this one high school, and there continued to be for many, many years.

JY: That’s right. Captain Dyett was at the root of it all. He’d cuss us out and make us do better than we did the previous time. He’d throw us out of the band, and if we came back the next day and didn’t make that same mistake, he’d pretend like he didn’t notice that we came back. He’d let us stay. [Von laughs]

Q: John Young, how long had you been playing piano at the time you entered high school? Had you already developed your musicality?

JY: Yes. I had my first lesson when I was about eight, I think it was. I had a private teacher for about ten years. Two, because I had one lady for five and then a gentleman for the other five. The lady didn’t want me to play jazz; she said, “That old devil jazz.” She wanted me to be a classical artiste. But I’d been listening to Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and Basie, and I said, “Well, that’s me.”

Q: You could be an artiste of another sort. But this was all music that was really part of the Chicago scene when you were a youngster coming up.

JY: Yes, that’s right.

Q: I don’t know how much first-hand exposure you were able to get as a teen and pre-teen. But give us a little flavor of what things were like in Chicago when your consciousness about music was starting to emerge.

JY: Well, if you want to know what things were like in Chicago, I’d better let Von . . .

Q: Von Freeman, I’ve been neglecting you.

VF: No, it’s fine. John is doing fine. [John laughs] But I really don’t remember.

Q: You don’t remember?

VF: No, man. Listen . . .

JY: It’s just like “Stardust,” huh?

VF: Yeah, listen.

JY: “Oh, but that was long ago . . . “

VF: See, because things were so groovy then that you had a tendency not to even realize how good it was. For instance, John was talking about Art Tatum before; of course, anybody with any musical sense at all loved that man’s piano playing. And I was lucky to have the fellow who first told me about him playing in a group of mine. His name was Prentice McCarey. Prentice was just like John. He loved him. He was a great piano player himself. Every time Coleman Hawkins would come through town . . . And this was way back, before I went to the War, so it was in the ’30s. See, I lived over Prentice McCarey. I used to listen to him practice on the piano. He was playing a place called the Golden Lily on 55th Street with one of my idols, which of course was Coleman Hawkins. And later on, I happened to have acquired a job at this same club on 55th Street on the south side of Chicago, upstairs. And it was funny . . . We were playing there, and Prentice said to me, “Man, guess who I’m gonna bring by your club tonight?” Well, I couldn’t guess. I thought he meant Prez, because he knew I loved Lester — Lester Young. But it was Art Tatum.

I’ll never forget that night, because when we got through playing, he went somewhere and picked up Art, and brought Art back. Let’s see, we got off at about one; it must have been about 2 o’clock in the morning. And Art played for about four or five hours just on the piano. And the piano wasn’t that great; a couple of keys were broken. He just missed them all night long. And that’s one of the high evenings of my lifetime. I had just gotten married, I think I was 23 years old or something like that. I didn’t realize how great that was.

The reason why I brought that up is that’s the way Chicago was. It was so good and there were so many big people in town . . . Like 63rd Street was full of musicians, full of clubs. 64th Street, the great Pershing Lounge up there. They would bring everybody in . . .

Q: But in the ’30s, when you were a teenager . . .

VF: Oh, that’s when it started. That’s when all that got started, and it really lasted until just about to the end of the ’40s . It started really dying out around 1950.

Q: For instance, as teenagers, were you able to go, say, to the Grand Terrace and hear Earl Hines, or was that off-limits to you?

VF: No, I never went. I was too young for that.

JY: Well, they broadcast from there, so we . . .

VF: But we heard that, though.

JY: We heard it on the radio.

Q: And was this what you were trying to come in under? Was Earl Hines the band that you admired? Von, when you were a young saxophonist, who were some of your models?

VF: Well, one of the persons is still living. What’s his name, John? He plays at Andy’s a lot now. On Mondays. He plays clarinet and tenor . . . Sort of a red looking fellow. He was on there with Budd Johnson. Oh, his name is Franz Jackson.

But see, during that era, Earl was just one of the many bands. Like, Count Basie was out here and all those big bands. Because that was the big band era. And of course, Earl had one of the better bands, and it just happened that he was based in Chicago. But then when Earl left, King Kolax brought a band in (do you remember that, John?) for a while.

JY: Yeah.

VF: He was a great trumpet player around town. And of course, he had Bennie Green with him, Gene Ammons . . . In fact, Billy Eckstine took some guys out of his band. Gene Ammons was in the Kolax band.

It was so good, and there were so many different personalities coming in from around the country. Now when you look back, when there’s nobody coming in on the south side, hardly, you think about how good it really was. That’s the reason why it’s hard to remember, because you should have been writing down all that stuff, really, but you didn’t. You had a tendency to think to think it was going to last forever, and of course it didn’t.

[MUSIC: Von and Chico Freeman, “Mercy, Mercy Me”; Gene Ammons, “My Way”]

Q: John Young joined Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy as a pianist in the early 1940’s.

JY: That’s right.

Q: What was your progression from high school to the point where Andy Kirk was calling you to join his band?

JY: Andy Kirk was on the road and needed a piano player, so he called the Harry Gray, the President of the Musicians Union, to send him a piano player, and he recommended me for the gig. Harry Gray was the type of fellow that has a big voice and talks loud; he was one of those kind of guys that believes in talking loud on the phone to get his point over. He calls me up on the telephone, and he says: “Mister Young!” He scared me half to death because I was young; I was only 19 or 20 years old. “Young! We have a job for you. It’s with Andy Kirk. Can you make it?” Hey-hey! I didn’t know what to say, you know what I mean. I said, “Uh-unh-uh-unh . . . ” He said, “Well, I’ll call you back.” So he called me back . . . I had to talk about it with my mother because I wasn’t 21 years old yet, see. So I had to tell my mother about it, and beg her to let me go. So anyway, he called me back, and I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. Gray. I’ll make it.” So he said, “Yes, well, okay then, I’ll call Andy.” So that’s how I got with Andy Kirk.

Q: Were you familiar with the band from records before that?

JY: No. All this was completely new. Mary Lou Williams had left the band, and the piano player who replaced her had just recorded “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail.” “The Boogie-Woogie Cocktail” was getting over. So I had to take the record home and learn it off the record. [sings theme] So I took it home and laid my ear on it, and got back and played it as close as I could to the way the record sounded.

Q: Were you working in Chicago after high school?

JY: Yes!

Q: What were you doing in the interim? Tell us a little about your activities, John Young.

JY: Well, after I left high school, a fellow called me up and he took me to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I worked with him. I forget his name. But my earliest recollection of working in Chicago was some striptease joints. So I enjoyed that.

VF: [laughs] Look out, John!

Q: Was it solo piano?

JY: No-no . . .

Q: Did they have a little band?

JY: No, no, they had a group. It was a striptease joint downtown on . . . I think it’s called Clark Street — at a striptease joint down there. And then I worked in a place called Calumet City. What they would do . . .

Q: The notorious Calumet City. [Von: loud laugh]

JY: They would hang some drapes, some see-through drapes in front of the band, because they didn’t want the customers to think that the musicians were too familiar with the striptease artists, you know what I mean? So we played . . . Some of these striptease artists had some very difficult music while they was out there taking clothes off. And you’d be mad, because they got you there, and you’re back there sweating, and all they’re doing is just walking, traipsing around and taking a piece off here and there. And you’re back there sweating, trying to play the “Rhapsody In Blue” while they’d be walking around. But that’s what they liked. That’s what the striptease person wanted. And they’d want you to play that music. So I did . . . [sings ‘Rhapsody In Blue’] . . . and they’d just walk around, taking a little piece off here and there.

So that was my first gig before I really made a living. You know, you always make gigs here and there. But the first gigs that I remember where I really made a living was them striptease joints.

Q: Were you playing a lot of blues then, too?

JY: Oh, yeah. Well, you had to play that.

Q: Just talk about the piano styles in Chicago that you’d have to be going through.

JY: Yeah, yeah, that’s right. You had to play a little boogie here and there, and a little . . . Anyway, you had to know a little bit about most styles. Play a little of what they called stride, and you had to play a little boogie, and you had to play a little oom-pah, oom-chunk, oom-chunk-chunk — “boom-chink,” you would call it. You had to do a little bit of everything in order to try to make a living at it — which is the same thing I’m doing now. In order to make a living, you’ve got know a little bit about all of this.

Q: Well, subsequently (and we’ll talk about this later), you played with quite a few singers.

JY: Yes.

Q: Von, what were your earliest gigs after high school? Or were you also working during high school, outside?

VF: Well, you know, it was just about the same.

Q: You worked in the same strip joints.

VF: Oh, yes! [John laughs] And in fact, one of the first groups that I worked with, I can’t quite remember this man’s name now, but he was the drummer. The only thing I can really remember about him was he sat so low. He sat like in a regular chair, and it made him look real low down on the drums. I said, “I wonder why this guy sits so low.” You could hardly see him behind his cymbals. And we were playing a taxi dance. Now, you’re probably too young to know what those were.

Q: Well, I’m certainly too young to have experienced them first-hand.

VF: Oh! Well, see, what you did was, you played two choruses of a song, and it was ten cents a dance. And I mean, two choruses of the melody.

Q: No more, no less!

VF: And the melody. And man, when I look back, I used to think that was a drag, but that helped me immensely. Because you had to learn these songs, and nobody wanted nothing but the melody. I don’t care how fast or how slow this tune was. You played the melody, two choruses, and of course that was the end of that particular dance. Now, that should really come back, because that would train a whole lot of musicians how to play the melody. And I was very young then, man. I was about 12 years old.

Q: Were you playing tenor then?

VF: Oh, C-melody.

Q: C-melody was your first instrument.

VF: Yeah, my first one. And that really went somewhere else, see, because that’s in the same key as the piano. But it was essential. And of course, I worked Calumet City for years, and I learned a lot out there! Like John said, you played a lot of hard music, and you essentially played the melody out there. You had to learn the melody to tunes.

And so right today, I try never to forget the melody. Because I’ve found out that the people don’t forget the melody. So no matter how carried away I get, I try to remember the melody. All this stuff that you learned early in your career, you come to find out most of the things . . . Like, I wasn’t that crazy about Walter Dyett’s teaching. He was . . .

Q: Too authoritarian?

VF: . . . a disciplinarian and whatnot. But see, as you go along, and especially when you start getting in those 60s and closer to 70, see, you learn . . . One lesson is that most of the people who patted you on the back all the time and said, “Blow!” didn’t really mean it. The folks that you really think about are the ones that said, “Hey, man, that doesn’t sound good” or “Hey, that’s wrong.” They don’t really mean that it’s wrong. It’s incorrect; let’s put it that way. But you learn and you look back, you say, “Hey, they were trying to help me.”

Q: Von, let me get back to your career. When did you graduate from C-melody to the tenor?

VF: Well, I was playing dances. See, there was a famous lady named Sadie Bruce, and she gave me my first job. I must have been about . . . My first local job on the south side of Chicago was in her dance room. Because see, I used to tap dance.

JY: Yeah?

VF: Yes. So she asked me one day, “Somebody told me that you play an instrument.” I said, “Well, yes, Mrs. Bruce, I do.” She said, “Well, have you got a little old band? Because I’m planning to start some socials in my basement.” I said, “Well, I don’t know whether we’re good enough to play for that.” She said, “Well, I heard you on one of these back porches; you sound pretty good to me.” We used to do a lot of back porch clowning and playing.

But the interesting thing about that was that I had James Craig with me. Now, you may have never heard of James Craig, but he’s the piano player on Gene Ammons’ “Red Top” that did that little thing that’s kind of got . . . When you play “Red Top,” you have to play that little thing that he put in that song. He was a very good pianist. I had a vibe player named Norris from out of DuSable, and then I had Marvin Cates on drums. And that was my little group. I guess I was about 15. And it was the first job I played on the south side of Chicago, although I had been working in Gary and working downtown in the strip places.

So you know, my history is similar to John’s and almost everybody around Chicago. Because most of the jobbing was done in strip places in Calumet City and Hammond . . .

Q: Did those gigs get set up through the union?

VF: No-no-no. In fact, the union didn’t know anything about it.

Q: So those were things to avoid . . .

VF: Well, you worked eight hours for ten dollars. The union would have had a fit.

JY: Yeah, they were strict about that.

VF: It was like . . . the mines, we used to call them. But you could earn a living.

JY: That’s right.

Q: And learn a lot of music.

VF: Oh, listen! Now, when I look back, what you learned was invaluable. Because you learned discipline. You’d sit there playing the melody of the songs all night long . . .

Q: And I guess ten dollars went a long way in 1937.

VF: Oh, man, you dig? And it helped my lung power a whole lot, too.

Q: Smoke-filled rooms and all.

VF: Listen, you learned how to put that air in that horn there. Piano players learned how to really get a touch.

Q: I know that later Captain Dyett would form bands of his students and join them in the union, and they’d play gigs around that town? Was he doing that when you were there?

VF: Well, that was the one band that he called . . . See, we were all out of school, our high school called DuSable, and he called his band the DuSableites. He kept it for a while. He started it about two years before I went into the service, and then I came out of the service, then went back into it and stayed until about ’46 — about two more years. So he had that group from about 1941 until maybe ’47 or ’48.

Q: The years after World War II, from 1945 and ’46, were thriving years musically in Chicago. Von Freeman, you and your brothers — George, the great guitar player, and Eldridge “Bruz” Freeman, a drummer — had the house band at one of the most prestigious rooms in Chicago, the Pershing Ballroom. What were the circumstances behind that? And talk a bit about the geography of the Jazz scene in Chicago in that particular time and around that area.

VF: Oh, man, that’s when it was buzzing. From 31st Street all the way on up to let’s say 64th Street — well, 66th — Chicago was the place to be. John Young was at the Q Lounge, Dick Davis — everybody was in town and had a gig. It was right after the War, and the town was booming . . . They had a great promoter around town named McKie Fitzhugh. This guy came out of DuSable, and he was promoting. And he called me one day and he said, “Would you be interested in maybe getting your two brothers . . . ” See, because my brother George was very popular around that time.

Q: Had he been in Chicago during the war?

VF: Yes. You see, he didn’t go to the war; he was too young. He stayed around Chicago, man, and his name was buzzing. So he said, “Hey, why don’t you get together with your two brothers and get a piano player and a bass player? I’ve got an idea; I want to book a lot of names into the Pershing.”

Q: He likes to pick with a silver dollar, your brother.

VF: Right. That’s what he does now, yeah. So I said, “Okay, that will be fine.” So there was a fellow named Chris Anderson, a little blind pianist, and I had Leroy Jackson on bass (Leroy has since passed), and Alfred . . . What was Alfred’s last name, John? Do you remember Alfred?

JY: White.

VF: Alfred White. I was using two bassists at the time, concurrently, you know. So we went in, man, and that’s where I met Diz and Bird, Billie Holiday — everybody came down there.

Q: What sort of room was that? That was part of a complex of clubs . . .

VF: Oh, that was the ballroom itself. See, but the Pershing Lounge was beautiful, too. I played that later on. But at that time I was playing the ballroom.

Q: How was it set up? The national musicians would come in, and there would be dances?

VF: Yeah, dances. Dances Fridays and Saturdays.

Q: So people would be dancing to Bird, dancing to Diz . . .

VF: That’s right.

Q: Dancing to the people who would come in with you.

VF: Well, around that time things had changed a lot. They would stand around the bandstand, and there wasn’t that much dancing going on any more. And we used to play, man. I used to have a ball just playing with the stars, listening to them or whatever. I’m very lucky to have gotten chosen for that particular job.

Q: So who came through? We’re talking about the major stars in music at that time?

VF: Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge — you name them. He brought everybody to Chicago, man. And he was paying so nice for those times. What he’d do is, he’d bring them in, and they would come in with no music, no nothing, and you were expected to know the tunes. And I had this little genius at the piano who knew everybody’s tunes. So we were very fortunate. We were able to play behind them.

Q: You’re referring to Chris Anderson.

VF: Yes.

Q: Von said that you, John Young, were working at the Q Lounge during this time.

JY: The Quality Lounge.

Q: The Quality Lounge. A high-quality joint, was it?

JY: Ah-ha-ha . . .

Q: I see.

JY: I was only in two shootings.

VF: At least! [laughs]

Q: Where was it? Which street was it on?

JY: The Quality Lounge was on 43rd Street. So if you know anything about 43rd Street, you know it wasn’t on the uppity-uppity-uppity-up. The Quality Lounge, I was in there with a fellow named Dick Davis who played tenor saxophone. I was the piano player, the drummer’s name was Buddy Smith, Eddie Calhoun was on bass. And I was singing . . .

Q: Singing, too.

JY: But at that time I had laryngitis. When (?) asked me to sing, I suddenly developed a case of laryngitis. All three of them called it “lyingitis” — because it was a gitis that never left. But the Q was cool . . . Like I say, it was a relaxed joint. You could come in there with tennis shoes on if you wanted to. It wasn’t nothin’ uppity, you know. And it was on 43rd Street. We had a good time in there for a number of years, the Quality Lounge on 43rd Street. I lost my point . . .

Q: Oh, I was talking to you about working in Chicago in the late 1940’s and late ’50s. When did you start working with a lot of singers?

JY: Well, a piano player always has a hundred singers around, you know.

Q: But you later became an accompanist for some major singers.

JY: Well, I was with Nancy Wilson for a hot minute in the ’60s. See, John Levy, the booking agent, he was a bass player around Chicago, so he just about knew everybody that he thought would fit with this or that person. So he thought that I would be a perfect fit for Nancy Wilson. He didn’t know that I was really into jazz, and that I wanted to be a jazz piano player. I wanted to be out front. You know what I mean? I won’t say out front, but I wanted to receive some of the same recognition that soloists receive rather than accompanists. But anyway, he hooked me up with Nancy Wilson, and I stayed with Nancy for a short spell.

And I had to write him a letter to explain to him why I didn’t stay. He thought that I should have stayed with her, because he gone to the trouble of booking me with Nancy Wilson, he felt that we were a perfect match, some kind of match anyway — and Nancy had struggled with me to try to get me to play here things like she liked them. So he thought I was going to be with Nancy Wilson for life. And I explained to him that, no, that ain’t what I had in mind.

When the piano player is a singer’s right arm, as they say, there are certain limitations to what he can do and what he . . . I’ve seen piano players be accompanists for life with certain singers or performers, and they stay in a rut for a long time. There’s only so much you can do as an accompanist. When you get thrown out there where you have to play the melody or have to carry the load, you’re lost.

Q: Well, we can get back to that in a minute. But I’d like to return to someone Von was talking about: Chris Anderson, who had a great impact really on the piano players in Chicago.

VF: Oh, man, he’s unsung. When I first met him, I met him in a big arena that we used to play on the south side, on 63rd Street and King Drive. I forget who I had on piano this time, but whoever he was, wasn’t making it. Chris happened to be sitting there, and he walked up and whispered in my ear, “I think I could play that.” I kind of looked at him, because I’d had people at different times to do that, say things like “Hey, man, I think I can do it a little better than what so-and-so is doing; I think I’ll feed you a little more” and blah-blah-blah. I generally don’t even listen. But for some reason or another, I said, “Oh, really?” Because this cat didn’t know the tune. I had asked him if he knew it, and he said, “Yeah,” and then when I got to playing the tune, he didn’t really know the tune.

So meanwhile, I guess the piano player heard Chris, and he said, “Hey, man, if you can play it, play it.” So he played it. And I said, “Hey, man, what’s your name?” And I noticed he was a little short fellow, you know . . . I said, “Hey, man, you stay there. I’ll pay both of you.” I told the other guy, “I’ll pay you, man, not to play.” So that’s how we began.

Chris heard a lot of things, just naturally, that I was trying to hear. And he was a very nice person about his knowledge. So I’d ask him, “Chris, where did you go there?” And he’d say so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so. So I learned a lot from him. At the time, I had been using Ahmad Jamal. And then Ahmad . . . He had a guitar player, I forget where this fellow was from, I think from Pittsburgh, where Ahmad was from. [Ray Crawford] So Ahmad had told me that he was giving me a two-week notice, that he was going to form his own trio. He’d stayed with me, I think, about two years, and then he formed his own trio. And then he started hanging with Chris, too. And I really noticed a big difference in his playing after he had been around Chris. Almost anybody who had been around him, it kind of opened them up a little bit — because he was very advanced for those times. In fact, I still think he is.

Q: So do a lot of other musicians around New York.

VF: Mmm-hmm.

Q: But his influence seems to go through a couple of generations in Chicago.

VF: Yeah, well, I think . . .

Q: Was Andrew Hill checking out Chris? Herbie Hancock?

VF: Well, Andrew worked with me a long time, too, you know. But Andrew was more or less into bebop at that time. But Chris to me wasn’t a bebop player, he wasn’t a swing player, he didn’t play like Art Tatum. To me, he was . . .

JY: He had his own thing.

VF: Yeah, he had his own thing. He was a conglomeration of all of that. And he didn’t flaunt his knowledge or anything. Maybe being blind helped him a lot, I don’t know. But he could hear a lot of things that I had always heard, and that I think everybody eventually wanted to hear. He was advanced for that time. See, now I’m speaking about 40 years ago.

Q: I’d like to ask you about a couple of the other great musicians who were working around Chicago a lot at that time? I’d like to ask you both about Ike Day, and if you both came into contact with him, played with him?

VF: Well, we used to go around playing tenor and drum ensembles together. He was a great drummer. And he was one of the first guys I had heard with all that polyrhythm type of playing; you know, sock cymbal doing one thing, bass drum another, snare drum another. He was very even-handed. Like the things Elvin does a lot of? Well, Ike did those way back in the ’40s and the late ’30s.

Q: Did you know Ike well enough for him to tell you about the drummers he was paying attention to as a young drummer?

VF: I know he liked Chick Webb. He never really mentioned anyone to me other than Chick Webb. And he liked Bird’s drummer . . . .

Q: Oh, Max Roach.

VF: Yeah.

Q: And I know Max Roach liked Ike Day, because he’s said so publicly on a number of occasions.

VF: Right.

Q: He was also a very versatile drummer, is what I gather. He would play big- band, piano trio combos. He was a totally versatile drummer, with great ears, a great listening drummer and so forth. Does that jibe with your recollection?

VF: I never heard him play with a big band. But I know he played in the combos. He was with Jug a long time. There was another tenor player around Chicago named Tom Archia, and they were in a club for a long time — and he was the drummer.

Ike to me was well-rounded. He swung. And the triplets you hear people playing, that’s really part of Ike Day’s style. He did it all the time.

Q: It’s very valuable to know this, because there is only one recording of Ike Day I think that exists at all, and the drums are almost buried . . .

VF: Oh, with Gene Ammons?

Q: With Gene Ammons, a Chess date.

VF: Oh yeah, that’s the same band.

Q: John Young, what are your memories of Ike Day? Did you play with Ike Day? Did you work with him?

JY: I might have played one or two tunes with Ike, but I don’t remember playing very much with Ike. I liked his work.

Q: Who were the drummers you mostly used on your gigs in Chicago at that time?

JY: Well, a fellow named Phil Thomas. I used him more than I did anybody else. And I started off with a drummer named Larry Jackson. Larry Jackson, Phil Thomas, Vernell Fournier. Phil is the one I used most. Strong drummer. Oh, I’m sorry! I’m about to forget the one that I’m using now, and that’s George Hughes. George has worked around New York and a number of places with Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy Gillespie uses him. George Hughes is his name. He’s the last drummer that I’ve used to any extent, more than once. Some drummers you use on certain gigs, just for that one time — there’s a number of those. But the ones that I’ve used over a period of time have to be George Hughes, Phil Thomas, and somebody else and somebody else . . .

Q: Von, I’d like to ask you about Gene Ammons, who I know you were friends with. He came several years after you at DuSable High School.

VF: Oh, well, Jug, man . . . Of course, I called him Ams. But it’s really interesting. His mother taught me my first chorus. He had a beautiful mother. And she was like a classical pianist. There’s very few people who know that. And I used to go to Jug’s house, and we’d practice together, and things like that. He was always one of my favorites. In fact, my brother was in the band that . . . See, George played with Jug. Probably the last nine years of his life Jug formed a group, and George was in the group. One of Jug’s last hits was called “The Black Cat,” which my brother George wrote.

So Jug and I had . . . We were very close. During my formative years, when I came out of the service, Jug used to hire me in his place, because he was getting so popular. So when he’d work a club, and he’d have to go out of town, he’d always get me to take his place. And a lot of people say I play like Jug. Which I wish I did! But I don’t know, he’s just one of my favorites.

[MUSIC: “Lost In A Fog” and “No. 7”; John Young departs]

Q: On the last segment, Von, I was asking you about some of the great figures who were active in Chicago in the post-World War II era. I know you used to work with Sun Ra’s rehearsal bands and had some contact with Sun Ra in the late 1940s and 1950s.

VF: Oh yes!

Q: What was he into at that point? What was his music sounding like and what was he doing around Chicago at that time?

VF: Oh, his music was sounding beautiful. But you know, one of the things that’s really different about him, he had two different concepts altogether. See, he was playing all this new-sounding music and different-sounding music with his own group — and of course I was a part of that. And then, he was over at a famous club on the south side of Chicago, the Club De Lisa, and he was writing show music for that band, which was Red Saunders’ band.

Q: Tell us a little about that band, too. It was a major band at a major venue.

VF: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s the band that Sonny Cohn came out of. And of course, for those who don’t know Sonny Cohn, he was with Count Basie for years and years and years. A trumpeter, a great young trumpeter. And of course, Red Saunders was a premier drummer around Chicago for show bands, all . . .

Q: And he had that band for about 17-18 years.

VF: Well, actually I think it was about 27. And he was right there at the Club DeLisa. And all the younger drummers used to go around to see Red to learn how to play shows. Because that’s another art of drumming. You know, show drumming: how to catch the performers and catch the singers. Every time they move, the drummer does something. And he did it so tastefully.

Q: Of course, there’s a tradition of that in Chicago that really goes back to the silent movie days in the 1920s.

VF: It certainly does.

Q: The great black orchestras that performed at the different big movie theatres.

VF: That’s right.

Q: There was Erskine Tate and Doc Cooke and a couple of others.

VF: That’s right.

Q: A lot of great musicians got their real polish in those show bands.

VF: That’s very, very true.

Q: Do you remember hearing those bands as a little boy?

VF: Oh, surely. And then I ended up playing at the Regal Theatre in the pit for different things.

Q: Oh, when was that?

VF: Oh, that was way back. I was in high school.

Q: The Regal was perhaps the equivalent in Chicago to the Apollo in some ways. Is that accurate?

VF: Yes, it was. Of course, no place would be like the Apollo, naturally. But the Regal was Chicago’s Apollo, let’s put it that way.

Q: We’re juggling a number of different things at once. So let’s get back to what Sun Ra was doing.

VF: Well, Sun Ra . . .

Q: He was writing show music for Red Saunders at the Club De Lisa.

VF: And I found it very interesting that he could write this show music, which was essentially this do, du, do-du, do-du-do, and then his thing, where he had all these different voices going and his music was very complicated at the time. But it swung — in Sun Ra’s unique way. Because he had two great saxophone players with him. He had, of course, Pat Patrick, who is sort of ill these days around Chicago. And of course, he had John Gilmore. He kept great players in his group. And of course, I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot by being in his band.

Q: Now, when exactly were you in his band?

VF: I was in his band during let’s say ’48, ’49 . . .

Q: Was that a working band or a rehearsal band?

VF: Oh, yeah. He played.

Q: What type of gigs would he do?

VF: He played dances. He really did, yeah. And he had like his own ballroom. I can’t think of the name of the ballroom. It was on the east side of 63rd Street, and we played at this ballroom. And Sun Ra was never into whether there was anybody in the ballroom or not. He simply tried to play what he felt.

Q: Would that music be recognizable to people who know Sun Ra today? Did it . . . ?

VF: Yeah, I think so. I think so. Now, he went back in recent years, and was playing some of Fletcher Henderson’s type of music and whatnot. But he’s still playing with that unique Sun Ra thing.

Q: Well, he covers the whole spectrum, really.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: He plays different things for different occasions.

VF: Yes, he does.

Q: Didn’t Red Holloway also work briefly with Sun Ra? Is that true or not?

VF: I know that Red took a band into the Club De Lisa for six months when Red Saunders took off. Because I was in that band, playing alto, and I know that Sun Ra was writing the show music at the time. But whether or not he ever played in one of Sun Ra’s original bands, I do not know. You’d have to ask Red.

Q: Who were some of the other people in that Sun Ra band from the late 1940’s?

VF: Well, Julian Priester for one.

Q: That early, in the late 1940’s?

VF: No, Julian came along later. But in the ’40s . . . I’m trying to think. Oh, man . . . See, he had different people, and I really can’t remember who was in those bands..

Q: Tell us a little bit about the Club De Lisa. They were famous for their breakfast dances . . .

VF: Yes.

Q: We played a selection before by your son dedicated to Andrew Hill, who was 15 years old when he made his first record with you.

VF: Oh, yes, Andrew is a beautiful pianist. Of course, his style has evolved. At that time he was more or less playing bebop, and as he got younger he went on into free-form and whatnot. But he did it honestly. He feels it. And I like what he’s doing.

Q: Von, we’re going to hear now something from a Groove Holmes’ 1967-’68 record The Groover, featuring your brother George on his composition, “The Walrus,” some variations on “Sweet Georgia Brown” . . .

VF: Well, I think that’s what that is. I’ll have to hear it. But that sounds right to me.

Q: We’ll make no commitments.

VF: Well, back during that era we all used to take standard tunes and then write little originals and whatnot.

[MUSIC: “The Walrus,” “How Deep Is The Ocean” (Von solo)]

Q: Von, you had said to me that “How Deep Is The Ocean” is one you particularly wanted to have presented on this show, that you were very proud of it.

VF: Oh, man, to me that’s one of my greatest moments. In fact, that is the greatest moment I have enjoyed recording. It just happened. The lady who has the label said, “Hey, why don’t you play something slow?” I said, “Oh, I don’t feel like.” But she’s so beautiful, she asked again, and she said, “Well, please play something.” So how can you refuse a lady? So just off the top of my head, she said, “We’re rolling,” and I didn’t even have any idea what I wanted to play — I just went into that tune. And that’s the way it happened. And to me it’s the greatest thing I have ever done on record. I really felt that I did the tune justice; you know, for the way I was feeling. As a rule, I don’t care much for my recordings.

Q: Do you do that during your performances, Von? Are you going to be doing any a cappella this week at Condon’s?

VF: Oh, you know, last night I played several tunes. Of course, I didn’t do it like I did on the album, but I have a tendency . . .

Q: You always do long cadenzas . . .

VF: Yeah. And I have a tendency sometimes just to cut the band and play for a chorus or two. I’ve always done that, though.

Q: Von, you’ve stated in print that Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were really your two primary influences in terms of how to approach the saxophone, and you see your style as a melding of the two.

VF: That’s true.

Q: You mentioned hearing Coleman Hawkins in the 1930’s in Chicago. Did you study his records in the 1930’s? Did you study Prez’s records?

VF: Well, actually, yes. See, Hawk was a good friend of my father’s.

Q: How was that? Your father was a musician?

VF: No, not really. Actually he was a Chicago policeman. But he loved music, and he loved to hang around the guys, you know. So my Dad, he always kept a record collection from as far back as I can remember. So naturally, I had an affinity for music from right him, actually.

But Lester Young, see, used to come to the Regal Theatre all the time with Count Basie’s band, and all us little guys loved Lester, and we used to go and sit down in the front, you know, and try to play his solos. I had some of his earliest records, like “Every Tub” and all those, and I used to practice those. In fact, I got so I could play those note for note. And I could play Hawk’s “Body and Soul” note for note. So those two . . . Well, just like probably all the rest of the Chicago saxophone players. We were a conglomeration of Hawk and Prez.

Q: Gene Ammons, certainly.

VF: Oh yeah. Well, of course. And Dex and me — almost all of them.

Q: What was your first reaction to Charlie Parker when you heard his music the first time?

VF: Now, that takes me back. Because my Dad gave me the first music I ever heard of Charlie Parker. He gave me “The Hootie Blues.” He brought it, and he said, “Hi, hot-shot, you think you’re so hot because you got Lester Young down.” He says, “Try out this guy.” I said, “Oh, what’s this, Pop. Who did you bring . . . ?” Man, he put that thing on, and it knocked me out. Because see, to me Bird was playing Prez on alto — to me. And it was just more advanced. It’s like when I first heard Trane; I heard Prez and Bird. And I guess whoever follows, whoever the next saxophone player will be, it will be, you know, Prez and Bird and Trane and Getz and Zoot. All the good saxophone players have a tendency to be on the same line. Like just some of them followed; they play more Hawkins than Prez. But I hear lately most people are getting the two together. Because that makes what you’d almost call the perfect saxophone player. Because Hawk had so many things . . . He had all that power and drive, and Prez could float and just sail along. I would say Hawk just played straight up and down, and Prez played sideways. So if you get them, you’ve got the whole thing together.

And I think it didn’t take saxophone players too long to learn this, especially tenor saxophone players. I think I was with you on the program a few years back, and I was telling you about that tenor. That tenor presents a different type of problem for the simple reason that the ladies like the sound of the saxophone. And ladies are very dominant in your crowd. So you’ve got to learn how to play sweet, and for the men you got to learn how to holler — you can’t just sit up and play ballads all night. So there’s so much to get together on that tenor. And I like to always think of a trombone . . .

Q: In your playing?

VF: Yeah, man. Because a trombone sounds . . . Like, I call great trombone players like tenor saxophone players. You’ve got two of them here. Curtis Fuller, who did all those records with the Jazz Messengers, he just sounded like one of the real good tenor players. And the other cat who’s the Indian, what’s his name, who plays shells . . . ?

Q: You’re talking about Steve Turre.

VF: Yeah, Turre! Man, to me, man, those two cats when I hear them, I say, “Oh, man, if I could get a sound like that!” Because see, the tenor and the trombone, with Dickie Wells, remember him . . . ? All these cats had that haunting quality that saxophone players get. And as strange as it may sound, to me Miles sounds something like a tenor player. Although I always think that the trumpet is the dominant instrument, because who can do it better than a great trumpet player? Because you’ve got everything coming right out of the bell of that horn. When I hear Wynton play I think of a saxophone player. Now, that’s coming at it from a saxophone player’s view, of course.

[MUSIC: Coleman Hawkins: “The Man I Love,” “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams”; Lester Young, “These Foolish Things,” “I Got Rhythm”]

Q: “I Got Rhythm” is one of the basic bedrock tunes in all of Jazz.

VF: Man, listen. I can play a job playing “I Got Rhythm”! I’m telling you. Give me a few blues tunes and “I Got Rhythm” and I can make the gig. I’m telling you. Beautiful, man.

Q: “These Foolish Things” I can remember from my time living in Chicago as the most popular ballad in that town.

VF: Right.

Q: That may or may not be true . . .

VF: It still is!

Q: People in Chicago have long memories about the music.

VF: Well, see, just about all the tenor players made their name around there. You know, whether they were from Chicago or not, during the late ’30s and the ’40s and the early ’50s, all the great saxophonists were around Chicago playing. So you’d sort of feel like they’re from Chicago, although of course they’re not.

I talk on shows, dropping names here, dropping names there, but I’d just like to go on the record saying how much I’ve gotten from some of the current cats, cats who are still living. Like Benny Golson, man. Benny Golson wouldn’t even remember me. I was working at the Pershing Ballroom, or actually I’d moved up to the lounge, and Benny came by and jammed with me all morning, all morning at the Pershing Lounge — and I just fell in love with Benny Golson. Now, this is back in ’53 or ’54.

Q: He would have been on the road with one of the rhythm-and-nlues bands.

VF: I forget when he came to town, but it was just shortly before. . . Bird passed in ’55. It was about ’53 or ’54 or something like that.

Well, Benny Golson, and I remember the first time I heard Wayne Shorter. And then [John] Stubblefield used to be around Chicago; he used to come around to me a lot. And of course, Joe Lovano, I’ve been listening to him lately. Of course, Junior Cook wouldn’t remember the first time I played with him, down in Miami. I was traveling with the Al Smith Band, and ran into Junior Cook down in Miami, and he knocked me out. And of course Jimmy Heath I’ve always loved. Because Jimmy, man . . . Who plays more horn than Jimmy Heath? He’s beautiful. And Clifford Jordan has been around with me at different times. In fact, I came up here once and worked a gig with Clifford Jordan . . .

Q: That was at the Irving Plaza on 15th Street, with Chris Anderson and Victor Sproles on that date.

VF: Right! Surely! Yeah! And then of course, Sonny Rollins. I’ve always loved Sonny. And I ran into him once, I had a group I think in Holland or something, and he was on the concert, and they gave him a birthday party — and we hung out and talked for hours. Of course, Dewey Redman. I’ve always loved Dewey Redman, because he’s a beautiful cat. And young Branford Marsalis. I remember when we first cut this concept album, he was beautiful. And of course, Mike Brecker. I ran into him once at the Montreux Festival over in Europe, in Switzerland. And of course, Illinois Jacquet, I saw him recently at I think it was . . . Well, he had this big band at this thing in Holland.

So man, it’s . . . Of course, when you name names you always leave out some names. But these are some of the cats I’ve always probably copied a lot of things that they’ve done. And I’m glad to see that all these cats are still living.

Q: Von, one thing that has always impressed me and many people who have heard you is your proclivity for going inside and outside, but always remaining within the framework of the piece — the freedom of your playing in some ways.

VF: Well, it comes from my hobby, I guess. See, my hobby is music, and of course, I sit up all day and all night long sometimes, studying progressions. It’s just something that I like to do. I’m not trying to prove anything by it. I don’t even know whether it helps my playing or hurts it. But it gives me an outlet to experiment with things that I like, that I’m hearing inside. And I practice so much, even today I practice a couple of hours, three to four hours a day . . . In fact, I run my Mom, who I fortunately still have with me, I run her nuts sometimes. She says, “Man, put that horn down.” And I’m just trying to hear things. It’s just an inside thing, which I’m trying to hear things that please me.

And of course sometimes I do get carried away. I admit that. Sometimes I say, “Hey, come back!” Because I’m running sometimes progressions that I’ve been practicing and hearing, and sometimes I lose track of where the melody is and everything because I’m so extended out there. So it works both ways. And sometimes I’m rather pleased with what I do. But as a rule, I say, “Ah, let me discard that.”

So it’s just something to keep me interested in what I’m doing. And it’s more or less a personal thing.

[MUSIC: Von Freeman-Sam Jones, “Sweet and Lovely,” Von, “I Remember You.”]

Q: I know Sonny Stitt is someone you were close to and had tremendous respect for, along with Gene Ammons.

VF: Oh, I loved him, yeah. We played a lot together.

Q: One of the amazing saxophonists, maybe a little under-appreciated in New York more so than in the Midwest and the South.

VF: Well, I’ll tell you what had to happen with Sonny Stitt, man. You had to get on the bandstand and play with him to really appreciate him. See, Sonny Stitt was mean, man. Sonny Stitt could play so many different things. And he was just as mean on tenor as he was on alto. In fact, he had another style altogether on tenor. And he played baritone! He played it proficiently. The man was a great saxophone player.

Q: And a much more creative player than I think people commonly gave him credit for.

VF: Oh, man. The man could just play anything he wanted to play. Sonny to me was amazing. I loved him. And we used to play a lot around in Gary and Evanston and things like that when he’d come in town. Because he loved to battle, you know, and he loved to get you up on that stage and wear you out. And if you wasn’t together, brother, he would wear you out! But he was a beautiful cat.

Q: Well, Chicago is famous for the tenor battles . . .

VF: Oh, man! You got to have plenty of wind back in those days, I’m telling you.

Q: Your son started out as a trumpet player.

VF: Yes. Well, see, I played trumpet for about 25 years.

Q: You played it on gigs, too?

VF: Yeah. But I had retired the trumpet, and Chico went down to the basement and found it when he was very young. And I thought he was going to be a trumpet player. Well, I had an alto that I had retired down in the basement, too. See, in the era I came up, you played everything you could get your hands on, whether it was the harmonica, I don’t care what it was — you tried to play it. And I had a number of these strange instruments down in the basement. And they went down there and found them. Chico was about 10 and my other son, Markm about 9. And one day I heard all this noise coming out of the basement, and I said, “What is that?” And they were down there playing. Out of the two, I really felt Mark would be the one who could play. But Chico has got one thing that is very important. He has durability! — and stick-to- itiveness. So he stuck with it.

But he actually began playing trumpet, and went to school playing trumpet. In fact, he went to Northwestern playing trumpet. But he ended up on saxophone. And every time I hear him, he’s trying to grow.

Q: We’ll hear “Lord Riff and Me.”

VF: Well, that’s the moniker I was given back in high school . . .

Q: By Captain Dyett.

VF: Yes.

Q: It sounds like a compliment.

VF: Well, actually, see, the way my career began, I used to riff all the time. [sings a riff] I could play any riff you ever heard on a horn. I was good at riffing, see. I didn’t know too much about progressions or harmonics, but I could riff. And that’s where that came from.

You know, Chico did some real strange . . . Like, I’ve always played at the piano. And at the end of one of those albums he has me playing the piano.

Q: Would you like us to end with that?

VF: Yes. Because a lot of people don’t know that actually I play the piano. I like to say play at the piano.

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Pete “LaRoca” Sims (1938-2012): A WKCR Musician Show from 1993 and a WKCR Out To Lunch Encounter From 1998

As part of my ongoing pandemic project to digitize and transcribe as many of my previously un-transcribed WKCR shows as possible during my tenure there from 1985 through 2008, here are the transcripts of two encounters with the great drummer Pete “LaRoca” Sims, who between 1957 and 1967, appeared on some of the most consequential recordings of the time, before a long hiatus — he earned a law degree and became a practicing lawyer — that ended during the early 1990s.


Pete LaRoca Sims (Musician Show, Nov. 2, 1993) (Side 1 &2); OTL (June 11, 1998):

[MUSIC: Sonny Rollins-Wilbur Ware-Pete LaRoca, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”-Live At The Village Vanguard-1957]

TP: Pete LaRoca Sims has been playing every Sunday night at Yardbird Suite with various musicians comprising a sextet. Most of the best-known selections from that date, with the exception of “Night in Tunisia” from the original album, featured Wilbur Ware and Elvin Jones. Did Sonny spontaneously set up the other configuration?

PLR: I was called in, and did my part, and Elvin was there. It seemed to be that it had been preconceived. I didn’t get the impression that it was impromptu, but it may well have been.

TP: You said that this was your first gig out of the neighborhood.

PLR: That’s true. The first major jazz artist who I’d gotten a chance to work with. Previously, I had worked with my contemporaries. We had a dance band that did a good bit of work in and around the city, Harlem, the Bronx, etc. By something of a fluke, having sat in at a place in Brooklyn called Turbo Village, where Max Roach was working during the week… I sat in on a Monday night and I broke quite a few of his drumheads, and I called him up to apologize and offered to pay. He said, “That’s ok. Don’t worry about it. You might be interested to know that Sonny Rollins is looking for a drummer.” So needless to say, I called Sonny Rollins and was fortunate enough to get that job from which that record resulted.

TP: That led to a several-year relationship, on and off, with Sonny. You toured with him in Europe in 1959, which has been documented on a bootleg on the Dragon label.

PLR: There were just a few concerts actually. I don’t think there was another week’s work or anything of that sort anywhere, except that we did go to Europe for three weeks. All of it was quite enjoyable. There could have been more, for my money.

TP: On the Musician Show we create a virtual biography of the musician through the music they’ve listened to and the people they’ve played with. Since that was your first major gig, let’s talk about the events that led you to being on the bandstand – your history as a drummer and some of the experiences you had. How did drums enter your life? Banging on pots and pans as a kid?

PLR: Not quite pots and pans. But various parts of pieces of furniture around the house and things of that sort. I came from a very musical household, with a stepfather who played trumpet and an uncle who was something of an investor in jazz at the time and had a fine record collection that I pretty well exhausted, I think.

My first actual playing was in the New York school system, beginning in junior high school. It was a primarily symphonic orchestra that actually toured a little bit and went to I guess a couple of other junior high schools to play concerts. That continued through Music and Art here in New York, and City College, where I was in the orchestra, and a brief period at Manhattan School of Music, though I didn’t complete that.

TP: Any particular teachers you’d mention helping you a great deal, or was it from watching drummers on gigs?

PLR: Well, it was mainly from being around the music just about all the time, at least with regard to jazz. But since you mentioned teachers, there was one gentleman, David Greitzer, who was instrumental just in the way he spread his great joy in music and his love for the music in such a way as to enthuse the entire orchestra that he was teaching at junior high school. We all got kind of fired up. He had previously taught at Music & Art, as a matter of fact, and prepped us for the entrance exam there, and I think at least half our junior high school orchestra then went on to Music & Art, as a body just about.

Not too many other teachers. There was a Fred Albright who I was assigned briefly at Manhattan – a grand old man of drums he was when I came to him. Just working with him for a semester, doing exercises and things like that, was indeed quite memorable. But that’s the only part of formal training that I think leads to anything like the jazz work that I’ve been doing since.

TP: I take it you start working professionally, or least for money on local gigs, as a teenager? Or when did that start, and what was that like, and who were some of the people that you played with? And where?

PLR: We worked primarily dances, Friday and Saturday nights. One guy who might be known from that band…there are a couple… George Braith, who is a saxophonist, was in that band at one time…

TP: He plays together and he also plays that welded-together…

PLR: He designed his own horn. Braithophone I think he calls it. Barry Rogers, who became very well known as a trombonist in the Latin bands, was also in that band. Some other guys who I know still work in music, like Arthur Jenkins, a pianist; John Mayer, a pianist who I saw last week when he came into Sweet Basil. I don’t know remember all the guys. Phil Newsome… If you’re into Latin music and you were around during that period, you’d probably remember that period, you’d probably remember him. We all called him Cowbell Phil because he did that so well.

We were about 15-16-17 was about the time that… I guess it went on through the time that I went to Sonny. If that was 1957, then I was about 19 at that time. So I guess it continued until then. It was sort of broken up into two pieces. Hugo Dickens actually originated or established the band, and I came along and emphasized the Latin side, and we had a sort of dual situation going on where he was responsible for the swing side and I was responsible for the Latin. This was a time when I was primarily a timbale player. I didn’t play a set of drums at all. It was primarily standards. We did transcriptions from records, and got sheet music on for the Latin music, etc. We got a lot of work. It was a good band.

TP: You were also hanging out, I’d think, and checking out various drummers of the upper echelon…?

PLR: I think it was mostly records at that time. First off, I was playing a lot, so I wasn’t going around to listen a lot. Those were school years, and homework and things took over much of the rest of the time. I didn’t get really that close to traps until I think I was 17, and there was a band that was going to work in the Catskills to do a show. I said, “That’s great, but I don’t happen to have a set of traps.” They said, “We’ll get some for you.” I think the virtue that they found in me was that I could read music, and therefore I could probably cut the show – and indeed, that’s what actually happened. It was from that time I got familiar with a set of traps and then got some other work playing jazz type music, etc. But there really wasn’t a lot of it. I’m sure I played for 6 or 7 years before I ever seriously sat down to play a set of traps.

TP: The first track you’ve selected is an amazing solo album by Baby Dodds on Folkways. I take it you’d heard him through your stepfather’s collection…

PLR: my uncle’s collection, yes. At that time, it was a 10″ 78 that was just drums on both sides. In my experience, that was quite an anomaly. I haven’t come across that before or since. And I loved it. I loved his whole collection, but that was one thing that really struck me in particular. That was before I even played drums at all. That was before even junior high school.

TP: I believe you said that it sounded like a tap dancer.

PLR: I brought a tape of Baby Dodds playing a version of “Tea For Two,” with just him and a piano player who I can’t identify, unfortunately. But in that, it’s mainly drum solo, and what he plays in there is…you can hear – it sounds like a tap dancer dancing.

TP: Also, you’ve mentioned Tito Puente as your main influence on timbales. Were you going out to dances and hearing Tito Puente and so forth…

PLR: Yes, and Tito Rodriguez at that time was around and had a great band. I was mainly interested in timbales at the time, and that’s what I was doing. Puente was a great influence primarily in the way that he strung ideas together. The next idea that he would play would be built upon the last idea that he had played, and he constantly strung it out that way. Which was something that didn’t happen a lot in drums. Drums being a non-pitched instrument, we do different things. There are many familiar rhythms that are in the vernacular, both the Latin vernacular and the jazz vernacular. But that particular way of stringing ideas together was really unique with Puente, and I glommed onto it and have been using it ever since, without a doubt.

[MUSIC: Baby Dodds, “Spooky Drums”; Baby Dodds-Bechet, “Save It Pretty Mama”; Dodds-pianist, “Tea For Two”; Tito Puente, “El Rey Del Timbal”]

TP: Within the course of 15 minutes, we’ve outlined some of the sources of Pete La Roca Sims’ aesthetic on drums and timbales. You mentioned that Baby Dodds eschewed the sock cymbal, didn’t use it on these recordings. On timbales, that would also be the case. In both cases, we have drummers creating a broad dynamic range within a limited palette, so to speak.

PLR: Somewhat. Although I think the color…the metallic sound of the timbales actually adds color, so that you’ve got that to play with even though you don’t have something like the sock cymbal. And, as I was mentioning to you when we were off the air, Baby Dodds uses the press roll as a sort of…I don’t know whether he intended it as a substitute for the sock cymbal, but it does pretty much the same job of emphasizing the second and fourth beats, etc. – which I think is interesting.

TP: How much of an adjustment was it for you to operate on the trap drums? Did you pick it up quickly? Was it complicated?

PLR: As I said, the first thing I got a chance to do was a job in the Catskills, and it was an entire summer cutting a show. That will get you in shape. You’re playing for dancing and then you’re playing for dancers, including strippers, and you’re doing rim-shots and ka-boom-chas, as they said today, for comedians, etc. It’s a bit of everything, and quite a bit of experience.

TP: How long did you that?

PLR: Just the summer. It was the better part of 3 months.

TP: Pete Sims is leading a group Sunday nights at Yardbird Suite on Cooper Square. Also, in the last few years, we’ve had a chance to hear you with Mal Waldron’s group. It’s been exciting to see you developing a stronger presence on the jazz scene.

The first source you mentioned as far as jazz drums was Kenny Clarke.

PLR: It’s the question of time and how time is kept, etc. Kenny also I think de-emphasized the sock cymbal to some extent and instead put the emphasis on the ride cymbal. I think he was one of the first to truly do that. If you listen to Baby Dodds, the beat-by-beat emphasis is in the bass drum. Then, of course, there’s the press roll on the snare drum, emphasizing the off-beats. Klook, by putting it in the ride hand on the ride cymbal, I think sort of smoothed it out. Prior to that time, drummers and rhythm sections were playing pretty much like the Basie rhythm section wit the rhythm guitar and CHUNK-CHUNK, CHUNK-CHUNK, beat-by-beat. By putting it in the cymbal it just got smoother because of the bit of continuity of sound that a cymbal gives you. I loved it and adopted that immediately, and never did anything else.

TP: Did you ever see him in person?

PLR: I only saw him in person, as a matter of fact, the job with Sonny Rollins in Europe.

TP: There’s another bootleg recording from that period in which Kenny Clarke plays with Sonny, in a cathedral in Aix.

PLR: I haven’t heard it but I’d love to.

TP: We’ll hear a set of recordings featuring Kenny Clarke in the early 1950s. This one is from Kenny Clarke’s 2nd MJQ date from April 1952…

[MUSIC: MJQ, “True Blues”; Miles-Bags-Monk, “The Man I Love”-Take 2, 1954]

TP: I think that was my first Miles Davis album, and you mentioned it’s one that you listened to many times.

PLR: That and Miles Ahead were the two first Miles Davis albums that I had.

TP: You mentioned off-mike that your stepfather had played in bands with Monk before bebop, perhaps in the late 1930s, or around there.

PLR: Somewhere around there. I was mentioning that he was a difficult person to keep employed, because he wasn’t yet Thelonious Monk, bebop hadn’t yet quite happened, and the kind of shenanigans that he was into at the time were not appreciated by leaders of the dance bands that they were working in. The reason why you mentioned that particular take as having a little bit of hilarity to it is because of the lapse, the dropout in Monk’s solo, where Miles plays him a fanfare to get him going again.

TP: He plays “You’ve Got To Wake Up In The Morning.”

PLR: Right! [LAUGHS] There were a number of scenes like that, as I understand it, just from having listened to my stepfather talk about it

TP: You had a chance to play with many of the greats of the period, but you never had a chance to play with Monk.

PLR: Never had Monk and never Miles. I missed the opportunities. I had a lot of opportunities, so I can’t complain, but I sure would have liked to have had those guys, too.

TP: Among the trumpeters you’ve been using at Yardbird Suite are Jimmy Owens and Claudio Roditi; you’ve had Dave Liebman and David Sanchez; George Cables and Joanne Brackeen; other people as well…

PLR: Other people of like caliber.

TP: Next in the chronology will be Max Roach. You mentioned that the thing that most impressed you about Max apart from your overall appreciation was his working outside of 4/4 time, particularly the material in 3/4 that he explored in 1956. He did a recording for EmArcy that was all in that time signature.

PLR: Right. Plus, the main thing for me with Max is that he established so much of the bebop drum vernacular. He made it quite a bit looser, taking it away from just the timekeeping function that drums had pretty much before that, and dropping – as were called – “bombs,” which really has to do with punctuating what else is happening in the band, etc. And the way that it was done… First off, the front line, people like Bird and Diz and Miles, were playing new ideas that called for I think something new from the rhythm section, and Max was very much up to the job and did things that I think every drummer has borrowed a big portion of, if you play jazz.

TP: Were you able to check him out, observe him in the flesh early on? How important is it to see musicians in the flesh?

PLR: It makes a difference. I got to get good jobs working opposite some of these guys early on, so that I wasn’t so much going out and hanging out in the clubs just for the purpose of hanging out. If I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to work opposite them, I’m sure I would have been hanging out in the clubs. But as it happened, I was there. Yes, it’s important to see them in the sense that especially if you know the musician and there’s something that you really do want to borrow, a device you think you can use… Sometimes you have to see how it’s done; you can’t really tell it all by just listening. But I think the bulk of it was really from records. Jazz music was at that time the popular music… The dance music of that time was derived from jazz. The swing era was still going on. There were still big dance bands going around. So major stations here in New York, like certainly WNEW and I think maybe WOR, were having jazz just about 24 hours a day. There was a show on Sunday afternoon that had Frank Sinatra, for instance, for 4 to 6 hours or something like that. So to get to hear the music at that time was very easy. Today you have to seek it out a little bit and guys don’t play as often as you might like, so you have to get them when they’re there. But then it was really all over the place.

TP: The selection we’ll play to represent Max Roach is “Valse Hot,” from March 1956.

[MUSIC: Rollins-Brown-Roach, “Valse Hot”-1956]

TP: On the next session we’ll hear some sessions that Pete Sims played on as “Au Privave.”

[MUSIC: George Russell, “Au Privave”; Pete LaRoca, “Lazy Afternoon”-Basra; Sonny Trio-Grimes-LaRoca, “I’ve Told Every Little Star”-1959]

TP: I’d think the surname quandary of “LaRoca” and “Sims” is a constant source of confusion.

PLR: I’m afraid so. But I answer to both. It just doesn’t matter.

TP: In these next couple of sets, we’ll hear two drummers who meant a great deal to you when you started to be a professional jazz drummer, Philly Joe Jones and Arthur Taylor. A few words about what Philly Joe Jones meant to you, and his special niche on the drums.

PLR: Swing. Summed up quite neatly, it’s just plain swing. For my taste, no one ever swung like that before or since. It’s full-bodied, it’s full-out. No messin’ around. All of his cuts are crisp, and he knew quite a few of them. He obviously did some big band drumming, and he brings that over to Miles’ band, especially on “Two Bass Hit,” where along with Red Garland, who was also a big band piano player, it just makes for a dynamite rhythm section. I think that every drummer around was very much impressed by Philly when things were being made.

TP: Did you get to know Philly, watch him check him out in person?

PLR: Some. We were friends. Drummers never work in the same band, and I was working a lot. I didn’t work opposite Philly that I can remember. He was one guy that I had to go hang out in clubs in order to get to hear him. Of course, since I was working, that wasn’t a big deal because you sort of had entree to most of the clubs. But I had to go catch him. They were working at places like Café Bohemia, Birdland, etc. It was mainly just the propulsion, the non-stop, strong as it could possibly be form of swing that apparently Miles at the time was just lapping up, because song after song after song called for it, and the rhythm section that he had at the time – which of course included Paul Chambers – was giving it to him.

[MUSIC: Miles-Philly Joe, “Two Bass Hit,” – [END OF SIDE 2]“Gone, Gone, Gone”]Pete Sims, Out To Lunch, June 11, 1998:

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca Sims, “Amanda’s Song”]

TP: That was Chick Corea’s “Amanda’s Song,” from Swing Time, featuring Dave Liebman and Lance Bryant on soprano saxophones, Ricky Ford on tenor sax, Jimmy Owens, trumpet, George cables, piano, Santi DeBriano, bass.

Many of you know Pete LaRoca Sims from his middle name – he appeared on many recordings of the late 1950s and into the 1960s as Pete LaRoca. His two leader CDs from then are both in print – Basra on Blue Note and Turkish Woman At the Bath, for Douglas, reissued by 32Jazz. There’s a 30-year hiatus between recordings, and Swing Time comes next. The band is part of a rotating group of top-shelf New York musicians who’ve been recording with Pete since 1993, and the current version is appearing this week at Sweet Basil – Joe Ford on soprano sax, Don Braden on tenor; Jimmy Owens on trumpet; Steve Kuhn on piano; Santi DiBriano, bass. There’s a variety of arrangements, all sparked by Pete’s unique and original and unpredictable drumming.

Let’s talk about the origin of this group. You were one of the most active and respected drummers in jazz. The business became a bit too much for you to deal with in some ways. You became a lawyer. And you began playing actively again – although I gather you never stopped – in the early 90s with this band.

PLR: I got a few too many strong requests to do Fusion, which I was not interested in doing, and it was happening that many of the main jazz stars were going that way. It seemed to be the trend at the time. At the same time I was trying to get work for the band that did Basra, and without very much success. The missing link that people usually overlook when they tell that story is that between the time when I was getting a lot of work as a jazz sideman and the time I went back to school, I drove a cab for five years. It was after five years of cab driving that I figured out, “Hey, something has got to change here,” and then went back to academics. Then in 1993, as you say, I got the good fortune to collect a bunch of guys, all great players, mainly resident in New York or just across the river in New Jersey. We did months of Sunday nights and Monday nights at various clubs, and sort of teased the book into good shape. Working one night a week you can’t keep a steady group, so that’s where the rotating roster of musicians came in. Fortunately for me, a lot of great musicians around New York know my book. So usually, if I’ve got to get a band together, it turns out to be a pretty good one, like now.

TP: Let’s talk about this band, and a few words about each of the players. Maybe the overriding theme can be what it take to play in a band led by Pete Sims?

PLR: I’ve been told by the guys that the book is difficult. That’s number one. There have been occasions when guys have come aboard and stumbled there at having to read. If you’re not familiar with the book, you’re going to have to read, and that has been a stumbling block for a few fellas. So the main thing is that they wish to and can play freely when we finally get to solos, and they can content with the monster book, is what it’s called.

With regard to these guys: Jimmy Owens and I are actually both Music & Art, though not at the same time, and he has a lot of orchestral experience, which is what you do at places like Music & Art. He brings a lot of lore. He didn’t have the 30 years off, so he’s been in a lot of great bands and he brings a lot of lore and experience with him, and it’s a pleasure to have him.

Santi DiBriano has been in the group off and on since 1993. He comes from a Latin background. Along the way, before I ever played drums, I was a timbale player. So there’s a certain relationship there with regard to things that happen in time.

Steve Kuhn is playing piano this time around. He and I go back. We were together in the first Coltrane group. We subsequently worked together with Art Farmer and Stan Getz. So we have a history. He also has symphonic training, orchestral training, and he brings that lore.

Joe Ford is the guy you get when you’ve absolutely got to swing. There’s got to be one guy who you know you’ll give it to him and he’s going to swing with it. Don Braden is a new fellow; this is his first time in the group. He’s doing famously, brings a different color, a different style, so to speak, as most good jazz players do, and fills it out for us. A great ensemble sound he brings also.

TP: The record has three originals by you, Dave Liebman has one, there’s the Chick Corea tune and some standards. Who arranged the “Four In One” that you played last night?

PLR: That’s Hall Overton’s, from the big band album with Monk. It’s a wild thing to do, with that 2-chorus ensemble of Monk’s piano solo orchestrated out. That’s why guys say it’s a hard book!

TP: You have a sheaf of Chick Corea compositions, which I know are manna for drummers.

PLR: They are – Chick himself being a drummer. And he was good enough, at a time that we were talking about material to arrange, he said, “I’ll send you some stuff,” and about a week later I got a 2″ thick package of tunes he hadn’t recorded, snippets he hadn’t finished working on… It’s just a gold mine, and the first thing that’s come out of it is “Amanda Song,” which is for a singer.

TP: You’re writing. On “Basra,” from 1965, there are three of your pieces. The next track we’ll play is an updated version of a song that appears on Basra. How far back does writing and band-leading go for you?

PLR: Well, in my mid-teens there was a fellow up in Harlem named Hugo Dickinson, who had a group. I was then at Music & Art, and I had heard about him. Somebody said he was looking for a drummer. He and I met, and it developed into a situation where we had a sort of dual leadership. Latin music, the Mambo and Cha-Cha-Cha were quite popular then, and sort of at the beginning of their popularity – this is that far back. So he was doing the jazz side, and I, then, being a timbale player, was doing the Latin side. That’s when I started bringing in arrangements for the band. Some were simply sheet music that you could buy in places like the Music Exchange. Others were transcriptions. We heard a nice arrangement and we liked it, so I’d take it off the record. And some were original compositions that I wrote for the band. It was a big band, a 13-piece band or something.

We got a lot of dance work. It was really a dance band. We got a lot of work, mainly in Harlem, but some places in the Bronx or Brooklyn – wherever the gig was. Hugo was quite good at getting jobs. It was enough to keep the band together. A lot of great musicians came out of that band. Barry Rogers, for instance, who went over to the Latin world later, started out… That was one of his first big hits. George Braith. John Mayer, who is now on the West Coast, a piano player. A lot of guys came out of that band.

TP: Talk about the transition from timbales to trap drums.

PLR: Actually I started as a kettle drummer at Music & Art, and actually earlier at Stitt Junior High School. The transition from that to timbales was not that great, in the sense that the technique is the same. They both use what drummers call matched-grip, meaning that each hand holds the stick in the same way, as opposed to military style where you have that rotating motion in the left hand. So that wasn’t a big hump at all.

But then I sort of shied away from playing jazz. Jazz ran through my house all my childhood. My Uncle, Kenneth Bright, was involved in Circle Records, which originally recorded the Jelly Roll Morton… They were six 12″-78 albums where he is a raconteur and tells stories and plays bits to exemplify what he’s talking about. That was first released by Circle, which is the company my uncle was involved in. He was enough involved in the jazz scene that he would throw a party, and Fats Waller would come by the house and play piano. I’m sure that Fats would go anywhere and play piano, but our house was one of the places that he went.

I loved it so much, and it looked quite complicated and quite different from matched grip, playing kettle drums and timbales, that I shied away from it for a very long. Finally… I remember it was my 17th summer, because I couldn’t drink legally, and some guys I didn’t know, but who knew my name and knew I could read, had a summer-long job in the Catskills – a show band. They wanted me to play the drums. I said, “Hey, I’d love to do it, but I don’t even happen to have drums. I play timbales.” They said, “We’ll get you some drums,” which they did. I had something like 10 weeks at a place called the Kentucky Club up in the Catskills, cutting shows and playing for dancers, etc. That was my first real experience playing traps. It wasn’t even really a jazz band.

TP: Sounds like a trial and error thing for you?

PLR: I knew about it.

TP: What were the biggest demands about going from clave to swing?

PLR: The first big problem is coordination. Because you’ve got all 4 limbs going. You’ll see a lot of young drummers sort of staring into the middle distance as they try to figure out, “Now, which comes next?” Ultimately, when you really start playing, when you know you’re playing reasonably well, is when that stuff becomes second nature and you stop thinking about it.

TP: Was there a drum sound in your mind’s ear when you start playing jazz on trapset? Were there drummers you’d absorbed and wanted to sound like in some way or other?

PLR: Plenty of drummers. Not a drum sound as such. But plenty of drummers. Baby Dodds was a first major influence. In my uncle’s huge jazz record collection, there was a 78 (and again, this is back there) of Baby Dodds, just Baby Dodds, playing solo drums on both sides.

TP: Incredible record.

PLR: Absolutely incredible! One of those that I wore out. A major influence. I find that he’s an influence still, having listened to that. It’s not straight bebop. Certainly it predates bebop. It was a guy really playing impressionistically in a very early style on a set of drums – a BIG set of drums with temple blocks and all kinds of things like that.

Other major influences? Max was a major influence, and what he did at the inception of bebop with Bird and Dizzy – that’s fundamental jazz vernacular for drums.

TP: You were up on all of this?

PLR: I had heard it all. My stepfather was a trumpeter, and he played jazz. Jazz was always going on in the house. And it was a time at which jazz was extremely popular. It was the foundation for the swing bands, the dance bands. That hadn’t quite died yet, although I think it really did take a turn to a different direction with Bird, because he with his wonderful contribution sort of turned the music into ear candy, ear music, and not so much dancing music. That’s when we started having not dance halls, but cabarets, nightclubs without even a dance floor, where people just came and listened to the music. Once again, when the people stopped dancing to jazz, we lost a lot of public. Because really and truly, people want to be the show. They don’t want to go and sit and watch somebody else – be a spectator. But nevertheless, with regard to the music, loving jazz as much as I do, I’m glad Bird did what he did!

Kenny Clarke was a major influence because of the way that he smoothed out, to my perception, the beat. Guys were putting a lot of emphasis in their hands on the second and fourth beat, along with the sock cymbal playing on the second and fourth beat. He kind of had the sock cymbal going but smoothed out that right hand. To me, that was a revelation, and I play like that today.

Philly Joe Jones for the musicality. He played bebop and he played it hard, but he always played something appropriate for what was happening in the band.

These are the guys. You learn from them. You learn things to do. I still find quite a bit of Philly in my own playing, because some of the things he did are just the best way and the easiest way to get from one place to another.

TP: Were you a kid who went out to hear these drummers? Were you listening on records?

PLR: Pretty much. It really started with my going out to hear Latin bands. As I was sort of coming of age and allowed to go out at night by myself, that’s the stage at which I was playing timbales. But when it switched over, actually I was playing quite a bit. So once I started playing jazz, which was the job at the Village Vanguard with Sonny Rollins when I was 19…once that happened, I was in clubs where there were usually two bands then. So I would be in one band I’d really hear these guys in the other band, which in many ways is the best way to hear them – it was really intense.

TP: So at the time of Night at the Village Vanguard you hadn’t had that much listening to jazz experience?

PLR: I hadn’t had that much playing jazz experience. I’d only played with my contemporaries in the neighborhood, the guys in Hugo’s band, when we were… After the summer in the Catskills. That gives me about two years of playing traps.

TP: Who were some of the hand drummers or Latin drummers you found particularly stimulating, who might enter the way you sound today?

PLR: Tito Puente as a great timbale player, and from whom I stole a concept that I still use today. I haven’t found a better one. The drums not having the advantage of harmony and melody, one way to sort of make your solo playing coherent is to take the last part of one musical idea, one rhythmic idea, and make it the first part of the next rhythmic idea. That comes from Tito Puente. And it works.

TP: Worked then. Works now. Anyone else?

PLR: Direct lifts? Not so much.

TP: I don’t mean direct lifts, but just general influences.

PLR: Everybody is an influence. Sure. You listen to everybody. In the rare case you listen to some guys for what not to do. But everybody is an influence. You let it all filter through.

TP: But when we cite the people you’ve played with, it’s a roster of pivotal figures in the development of jazz – Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, on and on. Let’s hear some music and talk about some of those people when we get back.

“Candu” was first recorded on Basra, Pete’s 1965 Blue Note recording. This version is on Swingtime…

[MUSIC: Pete LaRoca, “Candu”; Sonny Rollins-Pete, “Oleo”-Stockholm-1959]

TP: Let me read a list of some of the highlights of your c.v. between 1957 and 1964-65. Sonny Rollins. Tony Scott. The Slide Hampton Octet and I imagine other configurations – a significant band not so well known these days. John Coltrane’s first attempt to organize a quartet, which he eventually settled on later with results we know. Art Farmer. You played with Joe Henderson in your own band and other situations. Chick Corea became part of your working band for a while. An incredible roster, on the cutting edge of the time.

You referred to “missing link” in regard to someone before. Some people think of you as a kind of missing link because of your absence over 3 decades in the development of modern jazz drumming. A number of drummers have said this to me.

In any event, let’s talk about your experience with Sonny Rollins, who’s been known to be tough on drummers, though maybe not on you.

PLR: I didn’t find him to be tough on drummers and such. At the time, it seemed to me that he was not so much band-oriented. I’m coming out of symphonic background, and my first real work playing traps was in a show band, where you’re really expected to do certain things. Sonny really wanted to, at that time, follow his own nose, meaning he might change key in mid tune, he might change a tune in mid-tune. He would change the tempo in mid-tune. And he really just expected whoever was in the band to follow him, wherever he happened to go. If that’s what you mean… I didn’t think of it as being rough on drummers. He’s a very strong player, and when he set out to go from one place to another, it was kind of obvious what he was doing and not that difficult to follow along.

TP: Did this 1959 engagement end your association? He entered his hiatus following that.

PLR: There was really only the Vanguard, which was a one-week job, and I think the tour with him in Europe that included the Stockholm recording was 10 days-2 weeks, something like that. Other than that, there were really just a few concerts here and there. I think I might have had a half-dozen other nights playing with him at most over that whole two-year period.

TP: I’m sure the Vanguard gig opened eyes around New York. Did it open up work opportunities playing jazz for you?

PLR: I’m certain that it did. I think the next good job I got was for a longer period of time, with Tony Scott, who had a quartet at the time, a very nice quartet for a good period of that time, with Bill Evans and Jimmy Garrison. We worked for about 2 months solid at a place called the Showplace in Greenwich Village, which is no longer there. He had other people as well. It wasn’t all that.. It was just that two months with those two particular musicians. But it included a concert with Langston Hughes at Carnegie Hall for instance.

There was work. I was getting lots of work. Given the Sonny Rollins recording, which was Blue note, and the Jackie McLean recording…

TP: New Soil.

PLR: Yes, which was also Blue Note. I kind of fell into favor, as it were, with Alfred Lion of Blue Note, and he would often recommend me for records and the musicians would accept me. The same was true with Max Gordon at the Village Vanguard. He’d very often bring just a horn player to town and pick up a local rhythm section… Well, a local rhythm section in New York City, you’re not doing too bad. Max would often recommend me for some of those jobs. So I got to work a lot, and I think that’s how I got to play with so many fine musicians.

TP: Your experience playing with John Coltrane in 1959 and 1960.

PLR: Obviously a great experience. It was a great job in the sense that it started with 10 weeks on the same bandstand at the Jazz Gallery. Now, that’s unheard of today, but that’s… If you want to start a band, that’s a great way to go at it. We did 10 weeks, two weeks each opposite Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton, Count Basie (the big band…it was really a great job) and Max Roach also. It was kind of fierce.

I think what had happened is that he had always intended, I think, to have the band that he ultimately ended up with. But all the guys he wanted weren’t available at the time that he got his opportunity to start. So I just had really the good fortune to get those first…it was probably 4 or 5 months, because we did those 10 weeks and then a tour around the Eastern Seaboard.

TP: What were the dynamics, the special demands of playing with John Coltrane.

PLR: A lot of energy. [LAUGHS] It’s kind of contrary, in a way, to my sort of natural bent. I’m not exactly a soft drummer. But I do like…or what I’ve developed into liking over time is to have my peaks of energy and then to come back down. Hopefully that allows a horn player to get his breath and think about it again; you don’t keep him at the top of his lungs constantly. But with John, that’s the way John played. He was always not so much necessarily at the top of his lungs, but certainly at the top of his energy. He never let that part come down. So it really was not natural, in a way, for me – but it sure was fun to do.


TP: …the material he recorded for Atlantic around that time, or was he looking for other things?

PLR: It started with the material from Atlantic, “Giant Steps,” etc. I think there might have been some earlier recordings for another label. “Equinox” I think preceded some of that music, the Atlantic period. “Mr. Syms,” I think, which people thought was me, but actually it was a barber of his in Philadelphia. During the period that I was there, he branched out into “My Favorite Things,” “Chasin’ The Trane”…

TP: He was playing “Chasin’ The Trane” in 1960, then.

PLR: He was playing the tune, yeah. And “Impressions,” that he did the long extended solo on. And “Inchworm.”

TP: So he was playing extended solos when you were playing with him.

PLR: Yes. Not so much a whole 20 minutes worth necessarily. But they were getting there. They were on their way to that. And he was getting to modal, as opposed to “Giant Steps.” In fact, we had a conversation about that. I really didn’t like the “Giant Steps” type stuff very much at all. Certainly for me, and I think for most drummers, our main device is harmonic rhythm. Meaning we go for the places where there are harmonic changes, where the chords sit down. In something like “Giant Steps,” the chords are just about note-for-note. So almost every drummer is going to play that the same way. BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TIT-TI-BOOM TI-BASH, BANG BANG. It’s going to happen every time.

TP: If they can.

PLR: Right. Well, ok, but it’s just a natural. And I’m not too partial to things where I sound like any other drummer! I just don’t like to do things that way. So the things where the harmonic rhythm was more disparate, more interesting, were the things that I preferred. I loved “Equinox.” I loved “Body and Soul,” his great arrangement of “Body and Soul” that I have since orchestrated to put into my own group, etc.

TP: Perfect segue. That arrangement of “Body and Soul” appears on Swingtime, and let’s get to it.

[MUSIC: Pete, “Body and Soul”; w/Chick-Gilmore-Booker, “Bliss”]

TP: I’m one of many people who initially thought it was either Chick Corea’s or John Gilmore’s recording, as I’ve seen both incarnations.

PLR: Interesting.

TP: Actually your entire output as a leader is currently in print – Basra for Blue Note, Turkish Women At The Baths, and most recently, Swingtime, which is the name of his current ensemble, which is performing this week at Sweet Basil.

When we were speaking before that set of music, Pete, you made a comment that you don’t like to do things the way other people do – it’s not your policy. Has that been an ongoing character trait – the principle of individualism.

PLR: I don’t know that it was a guiding light, but it turned out to be the turn that I took on a number of different occasions. I was asked recently by an interviewer, “What was the first influence that caused you to go out, outside?” I said, “Nobody ever asked me that before,” and it took me a few minutes to think. The one person who I came up with was Moondog, who is called a street drummer. He’s a very unusual character who I used to see around on the street both in Midtown and in Harlem. He’d be standing on the street wearing Army blankets, sandals, and carrying a long staff. And he happened to be a drummer, and wrote music – and I think he played the flute also.

TP: He has a record out recently.

PLR: It’s a reissue. He also did a concert at the YMHA that I went to, and he had a beautiful triangular drum, about 6 feet long, sat on the floor, and he straddled it. There was a head on one end and the other end open, and he played on the head with a maraca and on the wooden side with a clave – and played the most marvelous things. I think that kind of led my ear to know that things can be done differently and still be quite musical. Drums being what they are, a very repetitive instrument. We hold the beat down. We end up with the backbeat, which I’ve avoided like the plague because it’s just so repetitive and boring – though people love it. People are comfortable with it. It’s obvious. You can feel it. But I just tended toward those things that were more like Moondog, and you know, the great drummers who played things that were interesting, that you’d never heard before, and that made it exciting.

TP: I guess stretching out over 10 weeks with John Coltrane would have given you food for thought.

PLR: It really developed into following the lead from whoever was up front. That started with Sonny, though of course it was pertinent to Coltrane as well. I still do that. It’s not so much that I have a pattern in mind. That goes back to the issue of having to maintain coordination. If you’re really working at it, then there are certain things, licks that you would play that you’re going to be comfortable with and you know how to do. My approach I hope is different in the sense that I prefer to listen to what the soloist mainly is doing and do something that complements whatever it is that he’s into. How should I play the time behind a soloist who is playing that particular kind of phrase up front. That leads you. Because they’re always playing something different, so that leaves me to always be playing something different, and I always liked that combination.

TP: You also became involved in studying Indian music during the 60s, according to the liner notes.

PLR: Yes. Though it was more a general period of Eastern studies. I was also investigating yoga and Zen, etc., as many people were at the time – and Indian music, which was a big part of it.

TP: Did the rhythmic structures of Indian music have an effect on your concept of drumming?

PLR: Not very much. It came across as intensely beautiful but also intensely complex, and I couldn’t find a way to carry it along. Actually I’ve had a similar experience recently with Native American music. Many of the tunes that I’ve written are drawn from other folk musics, not necessarily jazz. I was looking for something that would be from the Native American vernacular. Once again, I love what I hear, but I haven’t found anything that I can take to make it swing. It’s been done. Jim Pepper did “Witchi-tai-to,” which was great. So I know there’s probably something out there, but I haven’t found it yet. It’s very difficult. They don’t use time in so regular a fashion. Some of the time, meter signs – if there were one – seem to be irregular. They’re not circular like a 3/4 or 4/4 even or 5/4. They seem to change, to my ear, in large part, based upon their language. In other words, they’re singing a phrase, and whatever music or rhythm they’re going to do takes the shape of that phrase, as if it were spoken. That’s the rhythm of the music. It doesn’t have to be circular. Nobody is going to improvise. It doesn’t need to be a recognizable pattern. I’ve found that in many folk musics. I may be mistaken, but I think in Greek folk music I’ve also heard that, where they use wild meter signs. But it seems to follow the spoken phrase, not necessarily conducive to something that you want to swing.

TP: You started off in Latin music, and much of the roots therein are Yoruba-Cuban music. Have you continued exploring those feels and does it inflect the way you play?

PLR: Not much directly. I would go a little further back than Yoruba-Cuban to just plain African. When I was a kid, I lived in Harlem, and I was going to Music & Art, which was then at 135th Street, and the Schomburg Collection of the New York Public Library was at 136th and Lenox Avenue. So these things were close by, and I spent a lot of time at the Schomburg Collection, listening to their records. That’s where I picked up the African elements of my playing. Then I got a chance to use them, of course, was I was playing timbales.

TP: When we break down Pete LaRoca’s influences, it sounds very complex, which it is, but there’s nothing daunting when you hear Pete LaRoca play. It’s endless swing, as the band’s apropos title, Swingtime, would indicate.

PLR: I wrote this for my daughter when she was 4 or 5, which is 25 or more years ago.

[MUSIC: Pete Sims, “Susan’s Waltz”]
[MUSIC: Miles, “Two Bass Hit”; Miles, “Gone”; Miles-PC-PJJ, “Billy Boy”]

TP: Next we’ll focus on Arthur Taylor, who you saw quite frequently during the late 50s.

PLR: Yes, late 50s-early 60s, and picked up a tip from him, actually, regarding the sock cymbal, which previously I had only seen played in only a rock-the-foot-heel-to-toe-and-back fashion. A.T. did it with just his toe, which bounced up and down, so to speak, on beat, and the heel never touched the pedal. That for me was a true find. It allowed a lot of flexibility as to how to use the sock cymbal. Or, perhaps what I should say is, it avoided the sort of locked-in motion of heel-to-toe, which is one of those things you can see drummers concentrating on getting it coordinated, and as long as you’re concentrating on getting it coordinated you’re not going to play anything that’s very loose. So it was a freeing-up device to learn from A.T. that, they, you can do it with just the toe, and there are then different things that involve balance and you get loose – for which I am forever grateful to A.T. It would be a pleasure to hear him play something.

[MUSIC: A.T.’s Delight, “Syeeda’s Song Flute”-1960]

TP: On the next segment we’ll hear a number of tracks from dates on which Pete LaRoca appeared. Alfred Lion called you fairly frequently. You played on several Joe Henderson records, including Page One, which debuted “Blue Bossa.” There are several Jackie McLean sides, Walter Davis, Jr., Sonny Clark…

PLR: Kenny Dorham.

TP: How did the relationship with Blue Note begin?

PLR: It was the Sonny Rollins date, which of course was the first thing I did. The next thing was Jackie’s New Soil, with “Minor Apprehension.” I guess Alfred was happy with the results, and I got into quite a few dates, including my date Basra.

[MUSIC: Art Farmer-PLR, “Tears”–Sing Me Softly Of the Blues; Jackie McLean, “Minor Apprehension”-1959; Joe Henderson-Andrew Hill, “Our Thing”-1963]

PLR: …when I was asked my name, and I said, “Peter,” I’d get a lot of “Ha,” etc., and I finally started making what I thought was a clever connection at the time – Peter meaning “rock” and LaRoca meaning “rock.” I sort of allowed myself to get stuck with it, and that’s how that name came about.

TP: It’s a catchy, recognizable name. You say “Pete LaRoca,” and it sticks in your mind.

PLR: The name has done its work well. People do not forget the name! If I had to choose, I did well with that one. Sims is my given name, and I’m just trying to be known as who I am without the 13-year-old cleverness…

TP: Sometimes the best inspirations…

PLR: Are when you’re 13 years old?

TP: This gentleman’s second question was: Where has he been since Night of the Cookers?

PLR: Right here, dealing with the vagaries of the jazz music business and the impossibility of getting the opportunity to work and be heard by people like your interested caller. I drove a cab for a while in order to survive. I’ve become a lawyer in order both to survive and to keep myself interested in life, etc. And now, at this particular juncture, I have this marvelous opportunity to have a band working and to indulge in music in a number of different ways again.

TP: Now we’ll get back to some other drummers, both from recordings with Thelonious. Roy Haynes is one of the masters in the pantheon; and also Frankie Dunlop.

PLR: Again, drummers don’t get to play with each other, so it’s only as a listener. With regard to Roy Haynes, I’ve always been fascinated by most particularly his left-hand technique, the very intricate and sometimes delicate things that he does on snare drum with his left hand, that I think are among the drumming marvels in jazz. The devices that he uses have a sort of military sound, which I think may be how he got his nickname “Sarge.”

Frankie Dunlap is a drummer I only heard in one context, and that was with Monk. I heard a number of other drummers with Monk, but there was something about Frankie Dunlap that has caused me to always think that he was just the ideal drummer for Monk. Monk was a little angular in his compositions and in his playing, and Frankie was a little angular in his drumming, and they seemed to go together quite well.

TP: It seems to me that your sense of the essential of being a drummer are boiled down into one word, which begins with an “s” and ends with a “g” – swing.

PLR: Yes.

TP: Talk about what comprises swing with a drummer. There are so many ways to do it. What’s that fine line? Is it something definable?

PLR: I personally would go back to Baby Dodds. I call it today CHANK-A-DANG. He wouldn’t have done that, I don’t think. But if you listen to his playing, that sense of TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A-TAK-A is there. CHANK-A-DANG is the same thing on a cymbal that has an extended sound, so it’s smoothed out a bit, as I’ve been talking about smoothing things out. To me, that’s the essence. I think that’s what Duke Ellington was talking about when he said “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” We didn’t have all the other versions and varieties and extensions of swing when he said that. So to me, CHANK-A-DANG is the heart of it. And there are then many questions as to on what part of the drums it’s actually done; one’s touch in doing it. The drums being such a forceful instrument, discretion in playing drums is always significant, and being able to play, for instance, soft and still keep the drive going. All of these things are the things that really, to me, comprise swing, and that’s what swing is about.

People have done other things, and other things are interesting. They are logically sound, or they may be commercially viable, or whatever the case may be. But they are not necessarily swing. A person can say that the absence of something is a form of that thing. That may be a nice, logical argument, like “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” But it doesn’t come down to making that other thing, or that non-thing the thing itself, in my estimation, at least not when we’re talking about swing. There’s one thing. It’s CHANK-A-DANG. It goes right up the middle, and all the trimmings that you can add to it are great. But it never changes its own identity.

TP: During your younger days you played a lot for dancers on those Latin gigs, and I’m sure that imparted a whole sense of what sort of feeling to have on the drums, though that was on timbales at the time.

PLR: Yes. And I think everything I’ve done since that time has been in an effort to stay away from music for dancers because, though it may swing…

TP: It sounds a little contradictory, on the face of it, to say that.

PLR: It may. But a drummer has a function. In addition to the aesthetics of it, and the music of it, and the expression, a drummer has the function of setting down the time. And the closer you get to dancers, the more firmly you are locked into that function and the less you do anything else, to today where most of today’s popular dance music also derived from jazz is based on the hand-clap, or, as a drummer would call it, the backbeat. Well, you don’t need a drummer to clap hands. There’s a contradiction in terms there. Basically, that’s what it comes down to. It’s swing, and I don’t think there’s that much doubt about it, though people raise many questions as to what it is.

[MUSIC: Monk-Roy Haynes-Griffin, “In Walked Bud”-1958; Monk-Rouse-Dunlap, “Rhythm-A-Ning”]

TP: [re “Bliss”]

PLR: That album began with a cover. I was given the painting, Turkish Women At the Bath, by Ingres, and asked to write some music for it. I thought it was a little outrageous, but one doesn’t say no when somebody offers you a record date. So I did, and this set of songs resulted, and “Bliss” is one of those.

[Pete LaRoca,” “Bliss” and “Basra”]

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Filed under Drummer, Pete LaRoca, WKCR

Hamiet Bluiett (1940-2018): Two WKCR Interviews — Out to Lunch in 1993; a Musician Show in 1994

Here are the transcripts of a pair of WKCR interviews that it was my honor to conduct with the master baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett in 1993 and 1994 — the 1994 encounter was a Musician Show, where Bluiett played and talked about the music that influenced him. The July 21, 1993 show was intended to publicize a club appearance by the World Saxophone Quartet, which was about to welcome James Spaulding into the mix. Bluiett was with me from noon to 1:30; Spaulding came up for the second half, the transcript of which appears in a recent post.


Hamiet Bluiett, Out To Lunch, WKCR, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: WSQ, “Masai Warriors Dance” (by Bluiett), Metamorphosis, 1993]

TP: I’m pleased to welcome to WKCR the great baritone saxophonist, Hamiet Bluiett, who also plays various clarinets and other woodwinds, who is appearing with the World Saxophone Quartet and African Drums this week at Sweet Basil. Welcome.

HB: Ok, thank you.

TP: Three members of the World Saxophone Quartet have been working together now for 17 years. After Julius Hemphill left, Arthur Blythe held that chair for a few years; it’s now held by James Spaulding, who will join us later on. How does the presence of a new member affect what the band does, and the approach. How do you work someone in? And how was he chosen?

HB: So far, the band has been very fortunate in that…by having Julius… Then, when it was time for Julius to leave, we were able to get Arthur. Then Spaulding. Each one was a person that we had in mind for doing the particular chair. Because Arthur brought in a needed ingredient that was needed at the time, and James brings in another needed ingredient that’s needed at this time. The basis and the nucleus of it, we have it. So we’ve used quite a few people, and we have some more people in mind who we’re going to get to. In terms of the group now, Sam Rivers, Branford marsalis, John Stubblefield, John Purcell, Kidd Jordan, and I’m missing somebody… Julius, Spaulding, Arthur, and there’s two other saxophone players that I’m missing who have been… Henry Threadgill and Sam Rivers. These are people who at one time or another within our 17 year existence — besides myself, David Murray, and Oliver Lake — have appeared with the group in one kind of way or other. John Purcell is the only one who has covered everyone’s chair, including mine. He’s played all of the parts.

It’s a lot of people. But we have… Spaulding, because of the homespun blues and the other sort of ingredients, and the effervescence, brought another kind of thing, which is good.

TP: He also has a broad range on the flute, which I think fits in very well with African percussion and African melodies.

HB: It’s all of that. Everything. The whole bean. We don’t try to replace a person. We learned that from Duke. The music has to fit around whoever it is that you’re dealing with. So we’re constantly doing new things. At the club now, instead of having Mor Thiam and Mar Gue, with Chief Bey, we have Chief Bey, Okeryema Asante from Ghana, and Kahil el-Zabar from Chicago. So the configuration with the African drums now is something totally different from what it was before, but like I said, we don’t try to get another Mor Thiam because that won’t happen no way. It’s that singular.

TP: You’ve been associated with Okeryema Asante in a number of situations over the years, particularly on your most recent release on Tutu Records, If You Have To Ask – and isn’t he on your old Chiaroscuro recording?

HB: No, he’s not on that. Chief Bey has been with me all the time. He’s on Nali Kola with me. But on the Chiaroscuro, it’s Chief Bey, Ladji Kamara and Michael Carvin. That’s a little bit different setup.

TP: What was the impetus for World Saxophone Quartet to start bringing drums and the African drum ensemble into its orbit? You were solely a saxophone quartet for many years.

HB: Well, after Julius, who was basically a composer, then it was time for us to do something else. I had really grown tired of just a saxophone quartet configuration. Because… You can just reinvent some kind of way. For me, after so many years, it was time to do something else, and African drum was a good way to still bring out the saxophones, and in my mind, moving ahead to the next level of rhythm section, if you want to call it that. So we decided to go forward or go backwards, both at the same time.

TP: And the group does do both at the same time. There are numbers on which the four saxophones play together in ensemble or different solos, and pieces on which the rhythm comes in. Everyone in the WSQ has their own thriving solo career, and everyone is internationally known as a leader. How often does the group work in a given year?

HB: Well, it constantly changes every year. So far this year, we’ve gone on a European tour that last 28 days. We played in Atlanta, Georgia, with the drums. We’ve hit in Boston. We’re on our way to do a record date in Milano at the first of September with Spaulding. I can’t think of everything. It’s not a whole lot, but it does wind up being enough. After being together for so many years, being creative, you have to do a lot of other things just to come up with some different ideas. We have an LP in the can coming out now that will feature Fontella Bass and some totally different kind of stuff.

So the group is growing in other ways. The quartet is not just a quartet. The quartet is a whole…how can I put it…lifestyle, identity, base, umbrella. You understand? We’re planning to get to some things where we use piano, maybe piano…not necessarily piano choirs, but different configurations to go along with us to show the saxophone in a sort of different light as the nucleus of music, as opposed to being somebody else as the base.

TP: The members of the WSQ are all based in the New York area, but everybody is originally from the Midwest or the West Coast. Is there any way in which where you’re from affects the type of music that you play or the musical approach you’re talking about?

HB: Of course. Let me put it one kind of way. You’ve got the Mississippi River joining up with the Missouri River, and everybody that’s in the path of the river is going through that kind of trouble. People that live in Colorado are not bothered with that, or if you live in upstate New York. So the land that you’re in has a lot to do… For instance, me, I have a certain sort of accent when I talk that is Midwestern as opposed to Southern. So there’s a regional dialect that goes along with what you do. In the Midwest, the music a lot wilder, but not necessarily free, because there’s a lot of wide-open spaces. Whereas here, in New York, in the city, things are much more… Like, you’ve got [(?)208th Street(?)]. [(?)208th Street(?)] for me is a cornfield. If you take the same distance and go somewhere from my house, you… I’m in the middle of wide-open spaces. So the way of looking at a lot of things because of that… I’m trying to take everything to be verbal, and experience…

David Murray is from California. People are a lot cooler, a lot more laid-back. There’s a whole lot of other stuff. Now they’re going through some other kind of things, but… And plus, from Texas. Oliver is from St. Louis, from Mississippi. Stuff like that.

I know for me, I’m heavily blues-based. Spaulding is from Indianapolis, Naptown, heavy blues-based — so it’s a different kind of thing. As opposed to being East Coast. But then again, you’re all in one piece of land, so it’s all similar, too.

TP: Did you come up playing a lot of those type of blues gigs as a young musician?

HB: No.

TP: What were you doing as a young musician?

HB: Trying to learn how to play music.

TP: What instrument did you start on, and about how old were you?

HB: I started on piano when I was about 4, and learned how to basically read music and what I was looking at. I’m still being basic now. When the hands started going two different ways, I said, “No, this is not the instrument for me.” I tried to do trumpet. That didn’t happen. Then finally I wound up on clarinet in maybe about the fourth grade or something like that. I’ve been playing it ever since. But I wanted a saxophone. But the saxophone I wanted, that I saw, that made me excited, was a baritone saxophone.

TP: Why was that?

HB: I don’t know. I just looked at it and liked it.

TP: Were you big enough to play it?

HB: No. It was about my size at the time. But it was just that kind of excitement. Now, why? I don’t even care why, because I wound up with it. You understand? So that was just the instrument for me, regardless of what anybody say. So I saw it at that age. I don’t even remember the age now. I didn’t necessarily like the way the guys who played it, played it, because I thought the horn was too big to have such a small sound. I always thought the sound should be…it’s a bigger horn… I’m from marching band country, and I’m used to hearing sousaphone players hit as hard as any trumpet player on the planet, with enormous, fat…you know, fat-man sound, not no little sound — and big. And trombone players. The horns with the sounds getting bigger, according to the size of the instrument. With saxophones, the thing kind of went the other way. So I said, “There’s a problem here.” So that’s been one of the problems of trying to deal with it. Until I ran into Harry Carney. Then I said, “Oh! Ok. I was right.” But I said, “Oh, I got a lot of work.”

TP: Did you run into Harry Carney on a record or did you hear the Ellington band…

HB: I’m talking about in person.

TP: Where did you hear him? Do you remember when?

HB: 20-something. 25, maybe something like that. It was outside of Boston. I was in the Navy at the time, stationed in Boston at South Annex. So we’re talking about maybe 1965, 1964. I had heard the band before that. But what I mean by heard the band… I have a way of talking where words mean whatever I want them to mean. But what I meant, I HEARD the band, meaning it really got to me, I was in a club, and I was about as far from him as I am from here to you. For those who don’t know, we’re talking about 5 or 6 feet. But then the band was angled in another way, but I was right up on top of him. I was the first person that you got to. The band hit. And I sat there, petrified. It was a music thing, though, because I loved it, but I said “Whoa!” because it put so much distance in between what was going on and what wasn’t going on, that I said, “Whoa!” I said, “Damn, Duke’s got two bands; he’s got a big band and Harry Carney.” That’s what it sounded like. It sounded like his band and Harry Carney, who sounded like a whole band by himself. Everybody in the band had these tremendous sounds, but he was like…

Then I said, “Whoa, it’s the horn.” I mean, it’s him, but… So I started really thinking about the instrument. Instead of wondering, then I knew. So I said, “Ok, let me get to work on coming from another perspective. It’s a completely different instrument. Most people play it like it’s a tenor. They’re still running over it. And it can run, but it also goes through stuff. So it’s an altogether different instrument.

TP: When you got out Navy, is that when you started on music as your profession, your avocation?

HB: Chronologically, it was like ’66, January. I was supposed to come out four years earlier, but I got extended for the Vietnam draft. So instead of me coming out in September, everybody after a certain date had to… Which was cool, because I bought a car and the same instrument I’ve got now. Things were real cheap. I was a musician in Service. Actually, that’s why I went. Because I got tired of not playing.

TP: A fair number of musicians did that.

HB: Yeah, some of them. You had to volunteer to be in the Navy anyway, and I didn’t want to get drafted. Because that was coming at the time. It was one of those times when to keep from going into the draft, you could go your own way – but you still had to do some kind of service. And I was not in school or anything. So I said, well, rather than be in the foxhole… So I took an audition, and they said I was good enough to be in the band. As long as you get through basic service, then you’re a musician. So I was already set up to go that way, so I made it on through. Which worked out real good, since I had to do some kind of service at the time.

TP: What other music were you listening to at the time you were entering the service and coming out of it that was pleasing to your ear and that you wanted to be getting with?

HB: Well, I always was listening to what you call jazz. So if we’re talking about that time in the 60s, I was listening to John Coltrane and a lot of other people — at that particular time. I remember listening to a lot of those things when he was heavily criticized, and Miles was criticized for having him, and a lot of people that jump up and down now, praising his name, talked about him like a dog. I always heard something in his playing that satisfied me. Not necessarily technically, because I’m not into that sort of mindset. Something has to satisfy me inside of my body some kind of way. I heard Miles say that. It’s really kind of true.

TP: You’re both from the same part of the country.

HB: Yeah, we’re from the same part of the world. So we’ve got another kind of way of feeling it. My way of looking at music is sort of like spiritual decadence. It’s spiritual, but I can’t get away from whatever is going on. So they both seem to coexist without me being in control, since I don’t run the world, no way.

TP: But maybe you do run the baritone saxophone. Let’s hear a few examples from recent recordings by Hamiet Bluiett, and then we’ll be back for further conversation.

HB: This is called “Children At Play.” I wrote it for Mama Geri at a child development center at City College. My grand-daughter was going to this child development center, which you would call like a daycare…what they call them. But the concept was Afrocentric, and it was children from everywhere, but the sort of freedom that they had in being able to do what they did always inspired me. Because I watched the way they would play, and they don’t play military, like everybody got to step. They go! It all works out! Everybody is GO! But they weren’t destructive. They just took off and did what they had to do. So I looked at it a lot, and I said, “let me write a tune,” and I wrote a little tune for it.

TP: This features Fred Hopkins on bass and Michael Carvin on drums, with percussionist Okeryema Asante, who is appearing with WSQ this week. The CD is You Don’t Need To Know If You Have To Ask, and it’s on Tutu.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Children at Play”; “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat”-You don’t Need To Know…]

TP: I think when the general public first became aware of Hamiet Bluiett was via stints with Charles Mingus during the early 1970s. Where did Mingus hear you? What circumstances led you to Mingus?

HB: It was between Paul Jeffreys and Roy Brooks. Because Mingus’ love of Ellington… He had a big band at the time, and he needed a baritone saxophonist. He was having a problem finding anybody with a sound, and he was starting to even write some tunes. So fortunately, I had been playing with Sam Rivers, Olatunji and some other people… I got here in 1969. I hooked up with Mingus I think in 1972. By then, most of the musicians knew me and I knew most of them.

So I started in with the big band. Jon Faddis was in it; he was real young. A lot of guys. Real good band. Then later on, I came back and played with him… I might have been in the big band in 1971, but I came and started really working with him in 1972. That’s what it was. Yeah, something like that.

Mingus was like, for me… At the time I came in with Mingus, he was always being talked about real bad, being crazy and all that other stuff. So I had to go through all that, which was a problem, because it’s hard to work with somebody when everybody else has a paranoia or fear about him. Even though you may not feel that way, after you get through fighting it for a while, then it succumbs to you. I’ve seen people walk to him and do some horrible things, like put their finger in his mouth. Just a whole bunch of crazy, stupid type stuff. He would tell musicians things that he wanted to do, and they wouldn’t understand what he was saying. I think because they didn’t want to hear it. To me, he was ahead of where the cats were talking about. But whatever kind of problems he had with them before I got there, I can’t even speak about. You know what I mean?

And I had been sort of weaned on Mingus’ music, because my cousin turned me on to him years ago, and I went to “Better Get It In Your Soul” and a whole lot of stuff. I listened to his tone poems. I was one of them kind of musicians, coming up as a kid, that went to the music store and would browse and get all the stuff they was about to throw away and give away and whatever, and take them home and play it — and I found a lot of interesting music that way. Mingus’ music, as far as I’m concerned…or his direction of music… More guys are writing off of it now by opening things up, and things of that nature, the way he dealt with the paper and all that kind of stuff, than probably any musician. Which is why, after he’s dead, he’s getting all these accolades. Because that’s really true. A lot of cats are off of Miles, and everybody has their regimen. But Mingus has a whole lot, especially in the avant-garde type feeling things of this nature, and people who do a multi-media and all those kinds of things. Mingus’ music is extremely powerful as a progenitor, and one of the people who set up that whole idiom.

Now, therefore, saying all that, that means you’re working with somebody who got a lot of problems because they’re trying to do things that people don’t know what you’re trying to tell them and they can’t hear it no way. And you kind of hear, though, what they’re talking about, where he would take 2 or 3 melodies and play it at the same time. He would take two tunes and play them at the same time. So now, when we decide to run one line against another line, it makes much more sense because he’s already done that. A lot of people have. But it’s just the timing of it.

So it was like a blessing, in a way, and a curse. Because I needed someone to helpme get out and be known other than someone playing… See, with the baritone sax it’s an enormous problem, because all people want you to do is be in a supporting role – like the grandfather. “Go get your old Chevrolet and I’ll have a sports car.” Stuff like that. Or “Oh, Daddy, go back home; you don’t need to be out now.” So the baritone saxophone sort of is relegated to that role. It’s not a Billy Dee Williams, if you want to put a type of instrument… The women are looking for something different. Everybody’s listening for something different. So I beg to differ with all that. I know better. So the horn needed to be put out, and I wanted it put out in another way, and I didn’t see any sense in trying to go over the past music. It’s already been done.

The thing that I learned about… I’ve put all the musicians together at one time that I felt greatly, which was a lot of them! And one thing I’ve come out with is that they all did what they want to do and they all were original. So I said, “I need to do what I want to do, and be original.” So I want to emulate them, instead of imitating their notes and trying to steal their styles. I took it in that direction.

TP: a lot of musicians with that type of mindset were coming to New York in the mid 1970s, and you hooked up with three of them, and it became the World Saxophone Quartet. Can you tell me a bit about…

HB: How that got started?

TP: How that got started, and your early encounters with Oliver Lake, David Murray…

HB: Well, see, I knew Oliver Lake from St. Louis. I also knew Julius Hemphill. Because we started a group called the Black Artists Group. At the time period when I came out of the Service, everybody was playing piano, basses and drums and organs and all this. Being a baritone, again, I wanted to play every day. So we got hooked up in St. Louis, and this is going into… After I came out of the Service in 1966. So from 1966 into 1969, I’m talking about two-and-a-half years. I said, “I want to play.” So we got hooked up with this organization, and we started playing every day, regardless to who showed up. So that means you might not have nobody but one saxophone, two saxophones, three people, four people, and most of them were like instruments and drums. Bobo was part of it and all that. We did that a lot. Then if the drummer didn’t show up, we started playing by ourself.

This brought about another kind of music. I didn’t have a bass to adhere to, nor did I have a piano. Mingus and the cats…Gerry Mulligan and all them, had already broke the group down (Max and everybody) to drums and bass. We stripped away the bass, and just had drums alone. People would do this… Max had done his solos with Clifford Brown. But it’s not for an album. It’s just for part of a texture. We’re talking about this is the whole unit. So now we’ve got a different kind of configuration. We started doing that, and I found out that for the way I was hearing, I heard more. Because something of the old fashion of playing with a piano…I had never been… I can do it but it’s not my expertise. I don’t call it that way. That’s not where I really thrive. Then, if the drummer didn’t show up, we would play anyway. So we worked up… It’s a different kind of thing. Some people try to act like it isn’t. But it is. It’s totally different. Every situation has a different…it opens up to different mysteries and different beauties.

Then, later, when I came to New York… I was the first one out of the bunch to come. I came in 1969. The Art Ensemble went to France earlier, and I said “later – let me go to New York.” I said, “If I go to Europe, I’ve got to come back anyway. If I go to Chicago, I’ve got to go to New York.” So I kept looking at the equation. I still had to come back Dexter came back. Everybody comes back. I said, “Let me just go to New York.” So that’s what I did. I talked to Oliver Nelson. I asked him. He said, “What do you want to do?” He said, “Wait a minute. Before you answer. If you want to make money, get all your doubles and triples, bassoon, oboe, all the saxophones, all the flutes, all the clarinets, get all your horns together and go to California.” I said, “I want to play.” He said, “Ok, go to New York.” That was basically it. I went here.

TP: You knew Oliver Nelson also from St. Louis?

HB: Yes, he was from St. Louis also. So I asked him for some advice on what to do, to give me some sort of perspective. He gave me a perspective of what was happening on the two coasts. New York is about playing. I said, “Ok, good.” It’s more like a creative mecca. It really is.

TP: What was your impression of the scene when you got here?

HB: It was horrible, I felt. It had highs and lows. Uptown, the Club Barron was still here, going down bad. Count Basie’s, going down. Minton’s, going down. They were still in existence, but just a shadow of their grandeur, you understand, if you take it back to the players. I had come to New York to visit in the 60s, and just a shadow of THAT. Yeah, it was kind of bad, man.

Downtown, the only thing…. The Five Spot was going down. The Vanguard made it on through everything. Boomer’s was up and down. The scene was bad. Dexter and all the cats were going to Europe, Johnny Griffin, everybody. So I came in on a downward arc…

TP: But during this time, new musicians were coming, revitalizing the scene, finding new places to play.

HB: They were coming all along. But the thing about it, we started to come in and do some music in a different kind of way at the same time. Because there was this big split here between the so-called “straight-ahead” and the so-called “avant-garde.” It was real out at the time I got here. Which actually made it better, because it was wide-open spaces. I told you — 203rd Street for me is a cornfield. It was wide-open, so it made it much better for us.

After I played with Mingus and got out of the band, I sat around for a year and didn’t do nothin’. Then I said, “No, I want to start playing every day again.” Some of the cats were coming around, like Bobo and all of them; I think the Art Ensemble had come back from Europe. So we’re getting to about 1975 now. They worked at the Five Spot, which had revived itself and was on the Lower East Side. I said, “Ok, it’s time to go back.” That blended in to David Murray coming to town. Then the so-called “Loft scene,” which they gave a name to, hit. Because we were playing in lofts a lot, and that built a whole nother venue.

Now, the beauty, to me, of that music was it was a… I used to call it like trench warfare or front-line. Sometimes we would have rehearsals and concerts on the same day. Henry Threadgill, a lot of cats would do some massive and sometimes very intricate stuff right on the spot, and have to do it one time and one time only. That to me was very thrilling and very exciting. So people started coming from out of nowhere and everywhere to see this creativity happening in front of their face, because it’s very exciting. It’s very exciting when you see music go down like that. You’re watching it and it’s going down as you’re watching. You know it’s only for you, and that’s your flower. You can take it with you forever, because it won’t happen no more.

So this was going on a lot. Rashied Ali had his place, which I think now is what, Greene Street?

TP: 77 Greene Street.

HB: There was a lot of activity. Sam Rivers opened up a place, Joe Lee Wilson, the Tin Palace. So the whole scene was being revived…

TP: And it was all within 6-10 blocks of each other.

HB: George Coleman was coming out, finally getting a chance to get some work and get his recognition. So things were happening from a lot of different directions at one time. Eddie Jefferson was around a lot. There was a lot of stuff. Of course, Art Blakey and people like that never quit. They kept coming right on through.

TP: So within this ferment of activity, how does this lead to the saxophone quartet idea.

HB: Ok. During that time when these loft things were jumping off, Julius was here, I was here, Oliver was here, and David Murray. Ed Kidd Jordan came up from New Orleans on a sabbatical because he wanted to hit! He came in the middle of it, the summer of 1976, and it was the bicentennial summer. We were hittin’! We were going all the way through the summer, all the way through August. August had been a down month with nothing happening in the music. So now, quite naturally… You have all these festivals now; that’s totally changed.


…which the Dirty Dozen came out of. After they heard us, they formed their group. They wanted to do something different in the music. So they wanted for him to either come and get Sun Ra or Ornette. Luckiiy for us, neither one of them was formulated. So after coming and playing with us, he said, “Why don’t the four of you guys come down to New Orleans and hit with me?” So we went down, and we started this group that we called the New York Saxophone Quartet and played with a rhythm section. The place was packed, including Wynton and Branford, Donald Harrison, all these guys was like little kids. All of them were there, and old people up to 80 years. Mainly a 90% black audience, but with a lot of children, babies, old people all at one time. We started playing, and the kids started running through the audience like a wagon train. You know how they circle? So they had an aisle on both sides, and in the front and in the back, and the kids just started running. It was the coolest thing ever, because none of the parents acted like a fool and told them to stop. And none of the kids got hurt. And they ran and ran, and the people just sat there and dug the concert, liked what was happening, let us know that it was really going on, and the kids were energized, which is the way that they do — music makes them run.

So I said, “Whoa, look at this.” I went away and I said, “Look, we got something like this; we ought to keep this together.” I really can’t take credit for putting it together. But it was born that way.

TP: You have to grab the idea when it comes to you.

HB: Well, it worked so well, and we had been doing it anyway. So then we went and played in a club called Lu and Charlie’s on the same weekend, still in New Orleans. The first concert we did was with a bass and a drum — London Branch on bass and Alvin Fielder on drums. Then we went and played in a club. Then we got to New York, and someone approached us about playing in the Tin Palace, and so we did that. We called ourselves by this time the Real New York Saxophone Quartet, because we heard about a group… We didn’t even know there was a New York Saxophone Quartet, to be truthful. So we changed it to… Wait, the letter for that came later, after the writeup when we played at the Tin Palace. But the reaction to that was still real good. So we’re seeing how these people are frozen in their seat, and watching and looking and liking what we do. We never tried to get a job; all the jobs kept coming to us.

Then we were at Oliver Lake’s house one day, doing something. We were rehearsing, getting ready to go to the Tin Palace, and they called from Moers, Germany. Some group decided not to show up, and they needed a group. We were in the house rehearsing. They say, “Yo, what about the World Saxophone Quartet?” They say, “Ok, good, we’ll take them.” So we worked for them and we did a slight tour. It just kept growing and growing and growing. The four of us got together. It’s almost as if the spirits are saying “Stay together.” So it kind of worked like that.

TP: We’ll hear some of Bluiett’s music from another very recent release, recorded last October on Soul Note, titled Sankofa, Rear Guard, which I’ll bet refers to your remarks about the position of the baritone player in the band.

HB: Yes, it’s got something to do with it. It’s got to do with a lot of things, really. The avant-garde is the one that’s supposed to be in front, and my position is like to be actually behind, so as to push everything. Also sankofa is a way of looking back. So I am constantly going ahead, but I am also now collecting from what I’ve done. So I want to enjoy some of the things I’ve done as opposed to run away and not keep them. That means melodies in music, harmonies, time… There’s a lot of things I’m talking about anything.

TP: Ted Dunbar is on guitar, Clint Houston on bass, and Ben Riley on drums. Why this particular group; how did it hook up?

HB: I wanted to play with a guitar for a while, and I wanted a guitar player that was very knowledgeable and steeped in the blues — and Ted’s from Texas, so that’s no problem. Whenever you just quit thinking, he’s already into the blues. Clint Houston is a virtuoso on bass. So he and Ted can chase each other with these chord changes and things. Ben Riley because Ben never ceases to swing. That’s the thing, and the music should do that. Right? So it was time for me to get a rhythm section that when I say “let’s go,” they go. So it was that kind of idea. Then that’s the kind of support that I thought the instrument needed, because all these guys are such great musicians that they would be able to do whatever needs to be done. You get a lot when you get people of that caliber.

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Nuttin’ Special”;
[MUSIC: WSQ, “The Holy Men” by Bluiett, from Metamorphosis; James Spaulding, “Song of Courage”]


Hamiet Bluiett, Musician Show, WKCR, Feb. 9, 1994:

[WSQ: “Nuttin’ Special”-1992, Sankofa: Rear Guard]

TP: What were your thoughts in organizing the music we’ll hear this evening.

HB: Let’s go back to the beginning. You talked to me some months ago about doing this show, and I think I spoke about, “What about baritone saxophone?” Then in the last couple of weeks,we’ve narrowed it down to about 100…

TP: We have about a 48-hour show. We can hole up with potato chips and coffee.

HB: [LAUGHS[ Yes, we have a 48-hour show. Hopefully tonight, what will happen is, you’ll get a chance to see the baritone saxophone from my perspective, with Harry Carney being the boss of the horn for me – chronologically as well as everything. But not everything. Then these other people, some that are main influences. During the time, when I was coming up trying to listen to the baritone sax, there was not much available. So I had to hunt. You could find a lot of tenor, trumpet, things of that nature.

TP: What sort of things were you listening to then anyway?

HB: Anything I could get my hands hold of. There was a lot of stuff with Gerry Mulligan during that time period for me, because of Columbia records, and I was living in the Midwest, in a small town outside of St. Louis, Missouri. So I’d have to go look for Gene Ammons or other… I mean, they could be found; I’m not saying that. But not as readily as I could do the Columbia Record Club or whatever.

TP: How about the jukeboxes?

HB: The jukeboxes were nice. They had things… “Tempus Fugit” was on the jukebox. Miles on that Cannonball recording, Something Else — that whole thing was on the jukebox. A lot of things with Gene Ammons, with Nat Adderley and people like that. Eddie Harris had a hit…

TP: “Exodus”?

HB: Right. Or something like that… “Exodus,” right, he had a hit with that – you’re right. Art Blakey’s “Moanin’” and Bobby Timmons’ songs. A lot of those things were jukebox hits. So I had a chance to hear a lot of music, now that I’m thinking about it.

TP: There were a lot of instrumentals in Rhythm-and-Blues at the time a specific saxophone sound.

HB: That’s true. There’s always been specific sounds to certain eras; whatever is most prominent, everybody jumps on it, shows them where they’ve got to go.

TP: When you started playing, what sort of gigs were you doing? Who were some of the first people you aligned yourself with, or the type of music you started playing?

HB: When I first tried to play in terms of being on a bandstand or whatever, I was playing what you would call rhythm-and-blues, and doing a horrible job at it on the clarinet, and was glad that the people didn’t shoot me within the 9 months or so when I was working on this instrument. So I started out playing rhythm and blues on clarinet, believe it or not, and playing with what we called hillbilly bands at the time, or different, when I went to the baritone… So it was on one end of the block, which was about a half-a-mile block – that was just a rhythm-and-blues band. On the other end was this hillbilly band. I played with both of them, with the baritone sax, which I wanted to play since I was 10 years old.

TP: What made you want to play it?

HB: I just looked at the horn and liked it. It was as simple as that.

TP: Because of the heft of it?

HB: Everything. I just looked at one and that was it. No other horn affected me like that. I left the trumpet and all that stuff, and got kind of excited. But when I saw a baritone, I almost went, you know, OUT. I said, “Whoa!” It put an indelible impression. I never forgot the instrument. It was years later before I saw another or become close to it, other than seeing one from a distance, in the movies or something.

TP: When did you seriously begin to start playing jazz, improvising? In your teens, a local situation, or after you’d moved on to other things?

HB: Well, it’s kind of what you call, what you call… I’ve been trying to do improvising all along. But I guess maybe by the time I was 18, 17 – sort of late on the track, if you look at it in terms of how things can be done now. But it was hard for me to get any of that kind of knowledge, or even be steered in that direction. So it took me a while trying to do things the so-called correct way, but fighting these internal feelings while doing it.

TP: How so? What were you fighting?

HB: I could play things, but emotionally I would be off. Something’s supposed to be cool, and here I am getting ready to jump and run. So emotionally, I’m in the wrong spot. I’ll give you an example. I took an exam to get…it’s like an audition to get a scholarship on clarinet. I played some classical composition, I don’t remember right now. Anyway, when I played it, I got all carried away and I felt real good, and I was just, you know what I mean, BURNING, I thought. When I got through the guy said, “That was sort of rambunctious of you.” So I had gone the wrong direction in terms of the whole temperament of the music. I said, “Wait a minute – but I felt it; so therefore, if I felt it, I’m not going to let it be wrong.” But I was wrong. So I said: “Wait a minute; that’s the end of that.”

So it taught me a lesson in terms of… I had the wrong temperament. So I waited all those years to try… Even trying to play jazz, it’s the same sort of problem – for me – to be put in the same sort of structure. The horn doesn’t let me do that. It doesn’t let me flow the same as a violin or a piano. I’ve got more sonic blast and going through stuff… It’s a different picture, you understand, in my head or how I see the instrument or feel it coming through my body. So… For a long time. Let’s put it that way.

TP: You stated that Harry Carney is the king of the baritone sax for you, and it begins really, in a lot of ways, with Harry Carney. When did you discover him, and when did you first hear him (a) on record and (b) in the flesh?

HB: Well, I’d been hearing him all my life. My mother was a Duke Ellington fan, a big fan, and my father was a Count Basie big fan. So all my life I’ve been hearing all this music. It’s not a thing… I don’t even remember. I can sort of remember a first time for Charlie Parker and Ornette Coleman and some other people, but for him I really don’t. Because chronologically the age…like Louis Armstrong, I don’t remember not…

TP: Not hearing him. Part 2: You’ve mentioned there’s a big difference between listening to recorded music and hearing music in person. You said it was so striking, you even stopped listening to records for a long time.

HB: Well, music has a thing where it does something to the wavelengths of even what’s in the air, the room you’re in. So a lot of stuff is changed up. So it’s another kind of feeling. It can be eerie, you can like it, not like it – but it puts a whole nother thing on you. I found that to be missing. Also what I found to be missing… Maybe that’s it. The feeling of the person to really be missing in what I was listening for at the time. I found that the volumes would be… Some guys will have a large tone; the record made them seem smaller. Etcetera. Or singers or whoever.

TP: I believe you also mentioned hearing the Ellington band in the flesh and the impression that it made on you.

HB: Oh yeah. When I heard it in the flesh, then that was a different matter. I’d heard it before, but it was from a distance. This time I was in a small club outside of…in the Cape area, outside of Boston. I was sitting as far from Harry Carney like from me to you, so we’re talking 4-5 feet, 6 at the moment, but on the side of the band. Duke was on the other side of the band. So it was Duke on one side, Harry on the other, and everybody else was in the middle. The band sounded like two bands – it was a big band and Harry Carney. His sound was equal to the sound of the whole band, including the drums, Duke and everybody else. That froze me in place. In one way it was terrifying, but not as a musician. I don’t mean the term like the icepick murder is coming after you. I mean, it’s like WHOA – overwhelming. Maybe that was the word. Everybody had been soloing all night. Paul Gonsalves and the rest of the people. The band was superlative. I mean, it was BAD. So I’m sitting there, and the guys are playing their instruments, and this guy came out toward the end of the night, took a solo, played ONE NOTE – the whole place stopped. Nobody moved. The waiter. Everybody. BRRMMM… He went down, hit that bottom note, pop, and held that, and that was the end of it. Everybody started back to doing what they were doing. That was very impressive to me. Not only was it the note, it was just that it froze everybody.

I had that same experience happen, and they were all with Duke Ellington people. The next time it happened was with Jimmy Hamilton… No, the third time. The next time was Cat Anderson. Cat Anderson playing with Mingus. We did a tour in Europe. It was Mingus with Joe Gardner playing trumpet, I was on baritone, Roy Brooks on drums, and John Foster on piano. Cat Anderson. He did it. He played a note that was so soft and you could still hear it. It froze the place.

Jimmy Hamilton. We were in the Northsea, on a rooftop, playing with the Clarinet Summit and John Carter, and I was taking David Murray’s place on bass clarinet. He took a solo and did the same thing. Now, here’s people doing three different things, but both of them where everybody stopped at one time. Nobody moved. No waiters or nothing. And when they stopped playing and ended the solo, we were back to reality.

TP: One quality about Harry Carney that I think is applicable to your work is his role in the Ellington saxophone section in terms of defining the sound of the section. You’ve of course been the anchor of the World Saxophone Quartet since its inception almost 20 years ago. The first selection showcases the Ellington sax section. It comes from a 1946 recording on Musicraft. The saxophone-woodwinds section is Jimmy Hamilton, Russell Procope. Johnny Hodges, Al Sears and Harry Carney. This one is “Jam-a-Ditty”.

[MUSIC: Ellington-“Jam-A-Ditty”-1946; Ellington, “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Ellington, “Work Song”-1944, Carnegie Hall]

TP: Harry Carney was featured towards the beginning of “Work Song,” but that really was a showcase for the trombone of Joe Nanton.

HB: I know, but it still shows an important function of how the instrument was used, and I wanted that to be highlighted as well. Harry Carney did more section work than he did soloing. That’s the other thing about up to when it came in to see how well the horn was incorporated in the harmonies. Because a lot of times, to me, it seems as if it was more melody than harmony in terms of the placement of the parts.

TP: He also played a fair amount of bass clarinet and also clarinet in the Ellington band.

HB: But the reason I’m focusing on baritone is because he seemed… I think maybe he started playing in 1919, so he’s one of the first people to even play it consistently. So that automatically gave him first place, for doing it longer than anybody. It kind of set the definitive tone of that particular idiom of dealing with the instrument – because they’re all idioms of their own.

TP: In the middle was one of probably thousands of versions of “Sophisticated Lady” featuring Harry Carney, one night in Carrolltown, PA., in June 1957. He showcased his circular breathing technique in particular.

The next baritone player in the pantheon is Basie’s baritonist of the 30s, Jack Washington.

HB: I didn’t learn about Jack until later, at least I was grown – 20-something. Then when I started going back and doing a lot of investigation and having to get my hands… Maybe I wasn’t quite that old. But it was somewhere in there, when I was in school or something. I got a chance to start investigating older Basie things that I’d heard but I didn’t realize who was on them. I’d heard a lot of Basie from a child, but didn’t know who was doing what at the time.

TP: What qualities make Jack Washington a special player for you?

HB: Sound. Execution. Another sort of pre-bop, if you want to call it, in terms of the years, sort of… Another way of getting around the instrument. He was just an excellent musician. It’s kind of hard for me to do the labeling, even though I did it a little bit.

TP: He recorded very few solos on Basie’s commercial recordings, but a number of airchecks feature his very strong soloing, and we’ll hear two such from 1938 — “Yeah, Man” from the Fletcher Henderson book, from Oct. 1938, with first solo by JackWashington, followed by Buck Clayton and Lester Young; then “Indiana” from September 1938, with solo order of Buck Clayton, Jack Washington, Dickie Wells, Basie, and Lester Young plays a clarinet solo.

[MUSIC: Basie, “Yeah, Man”-Oct. 1938; “Indiana”-Sept. 1938]

TP: We’ll now hear music by Gerry Mulligan.

HB: Like I told you, I heard a lot of Mulligan. It was easier for me to get. I heard Harry Carney, Charlie Fowlkes, and now we’ll get to Mulligan. Then Pepper Adams, who was on a lot of things by Gene Ammons and a lot of things that were available to me.


HB: …I liked it. I had a very strong attraction. I didn’t start playing it until I was about 19. And I never heard anyone play it that I liked until I got to Harry Carney. It was something about the sound that never satisfied me. Because I come from drum-and-bugle corps country, where trumpets had big sounds, trombones had bigger sounds, and sousaphones had bigger sounds than that. So it didn’t make sense to me why this biggest saxophone had a smaller sound than the smaller ones. I couldn’t understand it. It was kind of weird. And everybody I heard until Harry Carney sort of was like that. If it wasn’t real small, they were playing it like a tenor, so the sound was trimmed down to be more sleek. That’s just the particular instrument that I heard doing everything that I needed to hear it do. I hear more than just saxophone in terms of playing. I also think graphically and a lot of other stuff. Like the kind of sounds you get in electronics and whale noises and all that. I hear all those kind of things, and I see those possibilities in the instrument.

I’ve taken a little bit from everybody. The thing I noticed about Mulligan is that he plays the baritone saxophone very akin to the way Lester Young played tenor. It’s in that sort of vein. That’s still playing the baritone like a tenor.

TP: How is that so? As opposed to playing it with emphasis on the properties of the baritone?

HB: Well, who are you imitating? If you’re imitating Lester Young, who played tenor, then you’re playing the horn like a tenor, whether you’re playing trumpet or whatever it is. Because he got another thing out of the instrument. It’s sort of that approach, but it’s a different instrument. It’s like once-removed from there. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, because that within itself is great. You’ve got to be a genius to be able to do that. I don’t hear it that way. So that always kind of disturbed me. It took me up until maybe a few years ago to realize what it was that I personally didn’t care for, to be able to put a name to it and say this is basically what it is. And the way that the instrument is treated most of the time being a support. Maybe the closest thing we can get to would be a Clydesdale.

TP: Although these days, I have to say, there are some people that size who can move.

HB: I’m talking about even a way of movement. See, that’s what I mean. You have to move like a big person as opposed to try to be a big person moving like a small one. There is a difference. You can just see people. One comes along who is 6’5″ or whatever and big, as opposed to somebody walking down the street who’s 5’0″. They move totally different. They don’t move the same way. That just doesn’t work. So I’ll see the instruments that way, too. I don’t try to move like a tenor. That’s very rapid.

TP: How about when you play clarinet? How do you try to move then?

HB: That’s why I don’t play clarinet no more! I had to quit playing clarinet unless I play the low instruments. I found out… It took me a long time to find out that what was happening with me was my concept of pitch was lowering. So I really hear bass clef. I’m talking about personal notes that are inside of me, come from the bass clef and go up. But they have to be there. So when I was playing instruments that didn’t give me that, I had problems with it.

TP: The Gerry Mulligan session comes from a pianoless session from 1957, with Mulligan and Paul Desmond on the front line, with bassist Joe Benjamin and drummer Dave Bailey.

[MUSIC: Mulligan-Desmond, “Line For Lyons”-1957; Mulligan-Bob Brookmeyer, “That Old Feeling”-1956 (Crow-Bailey)]

[MUSIC: Bluiett, “Diane” – Sankofa-Rear Guard]

TP: A few words about your experiences with Mingus.

HB: I first joined the big band in 1972. He’d always been looking for a baritone player with a sound, so I was able to fill that void for him. It was an incredible experience, because there was no other vehicle for me to be like that anyway. No one else was using the horn. If they were using it, they were using it only in big ensembles. So I started out with the big band, then worked down to the sextet, then wound up with a quintet. I was in and out a couple of times.

TP: How did he find out about you?

HB: I’m not sure if it was Paul Jeffrey or Roy Brooks. At the time I was playing with Roy Brooks’ Artistic Truth as well as dealing with Paul Jeffrey, and both of them were with Mingus. I’m not sure which one. Plus I was playing with Sam Rivers’ Big Band, so along with me came Bob Stewart, Joe Gardner…that I can remember. And some more people. We’ve all… There wasn’t that much to do doing that time period, basically. There was a lot happening, but not many things; just a lot going on among a few.

TP: Did Mingus express strong preferences in how he wanted his solos shaped?

HB: no, the only thing he ever said to anybody was “The solo belongs to you, but the melody and all that stuff belongs to me.” So he wanted you to play whatever you had on the paper, exactly like he said he wanted it, and do whatever it had to be, then when it came time to solo that was your problem. The only thing he expressed maybe in the time we were together was try to get used to the New York long solos.

TP: What do you mean by “New York long solos”?

HB: Well, the horn players in New York, by the time they get to New York, by the time they get to New York, they’re not playing… They want to PLAY, really play. So guys take what I call long solos. They’re long for me. I don’t say necessarily for them. But maybe that’s the nature of the instrument I’m playing. Which makes me like beg away and do something else, and cool it for a second or something. But that’s why I just said New York long solos. You hear more of that here than any other place. It’s not bad. I’m not saying that. Except for me. It makes me put out more effort.

TP: The next baritone player is Leo Parker, who you greatly appreciate.

HB: Yeah, because Leo did some other things on the instrument. I thought he made the horn romp and really jump. He had an effervescent quality in his playing. He swung real hard, so that endeared him to me. But I didn’t really get to him until later, actually. I’d already been with Mulligan, Pepper Adams and maybe a lot of other people, whoever they are, in different bands, or Stan Kenton or Maynard Ferguson, Basie, whoever was around at the time. But it took me a while. And I was shocked when I saw this material and how good he was. But it did a lot in terms of saying, “Yeah, ok, I need all of it” – that this was part of it, too.

TP: This piece is Leo Parker in a sextet situation circa 1961 called Let me Tell You About It. Bill Swindell on tenor saxophone, John Burks, trumpet, Yusef Salim, piano, Stan Conover, bass and Purnell Rice on drums along with Leo Parker on baritone sax.

[MUSIC: Leo Parker, “Blue Leo”; “Goin’ To Minton’s”-Leo Parker-Fats Navarro, Jan. 1947]

TP: That leaping solo by Leo Parker really illustrated your remark about his making the horn jump and dance.

HB: Yeah, make it dance, that’s right. That was Pepper. We’re trying to run through this thing now. I’m basically trying to go through the people who were most influential in those formative years of listening to and being…

TP: one of the strongest and most respected baritone players from the beginning of his recorded career in the mid-1950s was Pepper Adams, who I know had a big effect on you.

HB: Oh yeah, I used to listen to Pepper over and over and over and OVER, on whatever recording I could, and I heard things that Gene Ammons had done that he was on also. So you know, he was rough company and taking care of business, so I had a lot of respect for his prowess on the instrument. Hard core.

TP: This one comes from a 1969 release on Prestige called Encounter, where Pepper Adams and Zoot Sims share the front line on baritone and tenor, with a Detroit-based rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones, playing Thad Jones’ “Elusive.”

[MUSIC: Pepper Adams, “Elusive”; “I’ve Just Seen Her”-Encounter-1969]

TP: the next baritone player to step up will be Serge Chaloff.

HB: I don’t remember when I heard these, but I guess I was in my teenage years…maybe. I only got a chance to hear one record; maybe later on I heard another one. I was very impressed when I heard it. To me, he had sort of taken the so-called bop style; he played it more like an alto as opposed to a baritone, the way I heard it, because of his fleetness and the way that he ran over the instrument. Plus with a great sound from what I can remember. That was very impressive to me also at the time. I was thirsty for hearing anything. It was hard. I was going on this baritone sax search, I guess you would call it, without even calling it that at the time. By the time I heard it, he’d already passed.

[MUSIC: Serge Chaloff, “I’ve got The World On A String”-March 1956, Sonny Clark, Leroy Vinnegar and Philly Joe Jones; Basie-Charlie Fowlkes, “Counterblock”-1959]

TP: You mentioned that you listened a lot to Basie recordings with Charlie Fowlkes…

HB: I also got a chance to hear the band in person to hear how crackerjack he was on precision on playing parts, and had the sort of sound to do what it did to the ensemble. This was a great lesson for me, too, because that’s the definitive big band I guess you would call it kind of playing… That’s the definitive way of doing it. That’s the reason for bringing it in, because I didn’t want to omit the people who have played this instrument so many years, whether they’ve been featured as soloists or not. Because some of them have taken support role type jobs, and this is a master of that particular discipline.

TP: It’s hard to find a solo by Charlie Fowlkes in the Basie discography. Folks who know the discography better than I do call us at the station for Charlie Fowlkes solo flights.

We’ll take you to the hour with a track featuring baritone saxophonist Charles Davis, who is also well known for his tenor playing and alto playing, out of Chicago, who played with Sun Ra and did some two-baritone features with Pat Patrick on some of mid-50s recordings. Bluiett’s choice is from a Kenny Dorham recording for Time from 1960 with Steve Kuhn, Jimmy Garrison and Buddy Enlow.

HB: Charles I know personally. I met him after I moved to New York, and had only heard a few things up until that time. But when I talked to him, he spoke highly and most favorably of Leo Parker. That seemed to be his biggest influence, I guess, from being around New York and seeing him play a lot. I didn’t get that opportunity. But listening to Leo Parker, I can hear the extension of the influence that is in his playing. But he seemed to have given up baritone and moved on to tenor. But I think his lines and things seem to be better suited for that particular instrument anyway, the particular voice that he comes up with. But I like some of the things that I’ve heard in the past, and this is the record I used to listen to quite a bit because of the tenderness and character, which is something special, to me, to listen to.

[K.D.-Charles Davis, “Monk’s Mood”]

TP: Up to 1958-1959, Charles Davis had played extensively with Sun Ra in Chicago, and was paired off not infrequently with Pat Patrick. Were you aware of those two-baritone Sun Ra recordings when they were happening, or did you discover them later?

HB: I think I discovered them later. Because Sun Ra’s stuff is so extensive, I just heard what I heard. By the time I met Charles, I think he was in New York. This was what era?

TP: 1956. A lot of the Saturn LPs didn’t include personnel, but now the Evidence label has released 15 CDs thus far in an ongoing reissue project of the Saturn with complete discographies. The piece we’ll hear is “Reflections in Blue” from Sun Ra Visits Planet Earth.

[Sun Ra, “Reflections in Blue”-1956, Art Hoyle-Charles Davis-Pat Patrick, John Gilmore; “Pleasure”-Pat Patrick]

HB: Let’s make a comment on the telephone call we got. Tell them what it was.

TP: One caller, who said he’s a pianist who had played and jammed with Gerry Mulligan and Serge Chaloff suggested I convey to Hamiet his suggestion that he listen to Ernie Caceres, whom he favored for his dark, woody tone on the baritone because he has a unique sound.

HB: I’m glad his name is mentioned, because his name was overlooked, as will be many other people in a 3-hour segment. We have enough material to do a whole spotlight, like the 40-some hour showcase…

TP: Apart from that, the purpose of this show is for the musician to present a personal statement about things they’ve heard and been influenced by. We’ll hear now the baritone sound of another extraordinary multi-reed player, Nick Brignola, who on the release we’ll hear I think plays 10 different instrument — soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, clarinet, alto clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, alto flute and piccolo. This is from Time, a drummerless date with Kenny Barron on piano and Dave Holland on bass.

HB: I think everything you said was true, so let’s just go and listen t o it.

[MUSIC: Nick Brignola-Barron-Holland, “Speak Low”; Cecil Payne, “Slide Hampton”-1972; Sahib Shihab, “”-Jazz Sahib-1957]

HB: I left quite a few people out, but ones I like: Danny Bank for the hundreds of records I listened to him on in different configurations, like a lot of things with Oliver Nelson. Tony Scott, who is known more for clarinet, but I heard him…he used to play baritone for a while – it was real wild. That affected me, too. I was trying to get to “Cuber Libre,” which I couldn’t, and stuff I heard do Jay Cameron do with Slide Hampton when Slide had his octet.

TP: “Cuber Libre” is a Ronnie Cuber release from the mid 70s.

HB: Yes. Howard Johnson. Gary Smulyan is one of the newer, younger… John Surman. So there’s quite a few other people. The horn seems to have taken on another kind of significance that it didn’t have in the past. There’s more people soloing on it now maybe than was in the past, and not just playing support roles.

TP: I think Hamiet Bluiett is one person who’s raised a lot of people’s consciousness about the baritone sax with his own recordings over the last 20 years and with the WSQ.

Coming up, something by Charles Tyler, who played baritone and alto with great proficiency.

HB: He was a formidable baritone saxophonist. I thought he was more original on that instrument than he was on alto. Original in his style and the way he approached the horn, and the things that he did. Immense sound. Sound for days. That’s the thing I remember, and the amount of power, and what he brought to the instrument. I was sad to hear of his passing and stuff of that nature. But I’m glad that these few things are left.

TP: You recorded a solo baritone album around the time this one was done for India Navigation. This recital by Charles Tyler was recorded at WBAI, and issued by the Adelphi Jazz Line.

[MUSIC: Charles Tyler, “From St. Louis To Kansas City By Way of Chicago”-60 Minute Man]

TP: We’ll conclude a track featuring the musicians Bluiett will be performing with at the Village Vanguard next week, who are Ted Dunbar, guitar; Clint Houston, bass; and Ben Riley on drums. They play on a 1992 Soul Note recording, titled Sankofa: Rear Guard.

When we were discussing the show, you said it wasn’t just baritone players who influenced you. You mentioned Gene Ammons, Eddie Lockjaw Davis and John Coltrane as great influences on the way you play and why you play the way the way you play. A few words about those non-baritone players in your conception of the horn.

HB: I was influenced by a lot of different people. Count Basie for the way he drove the band. Duke Ellington for the kind of colors that he used. Some vocalists. I listen more to the musicians than anything else. Lockjaw because of the uncanny way in which he played saxophone. No one outplayed him, I thought. No one. He had a band with Johnny Griffin, and it was just awesome. He just kept raising the ante, every tune. And Griffin… It was just awesome. It was unbelievable.

John Coltrane for the sort of spirituality in the way he played. I could dig into the music and stay into it like an hour or so at a time. It really would be focused all that length. It was overwhelming to see to see the band take the whole audience and everybody with them at the same time. And his harmonic sensibility. Just everything about him. It was amazing.

I’ve always liked people with big sounds, big wind and big-throated. Not that I didn’t like the others, but I just favored those in comparison.

Gene Ammons for the kind of knockout punch that he had. His first note, that was it. After that, everything was gravy, but the first note would always just kill. Everybody else that even existed before he got there for his first note, that was like ho-hum.

I was always amazed at the abilities of these people to just command — demand and command so much with an instrument.

Like I said, for Carney, Harry Carney… I heard a lot of these people at different times. I’m going back more to listening to them in person. Because the records provided one thing, but the in-person feeling of what I heard was more important to me. The Basie band – the whole band. And hear the band with Ella and hear her sing, it would be just as powerful or more powerful than a whole big band, when they would do the things where she was scatting and the band would come in with the riffs. It’s just unbelievable. A lot of gospel music, listening to that kind of thing. The blues. Quite a bit. The more I think about it, the more I start digging up.

This first piece is called “John.” It’s dedicated to John Coltrane. It has a simple melody. And it was going through the era of Coltrane…it’s sort of a modal period. It conjures him up in my brain.

[MUSIC: Hamiet Bluiett 4, “John”]

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Filed under Baritone Saxophone, Hamiet Bluiett, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Bobby Hutcherson from 1999

Here’s another of my newly-digitized interviews from my WKCR years — with vibraphone immortal Bobby Hutcherson (January 27, 1941 – August 15, 2016), who was playing at Iridium that week with an all-star band of thirty-somethings. It’s a remarkably candid interview — no filter.


Bobby Hutcherson, Out To Lunch, WKCR, Feb. 25, 1999:

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Pomponio”]

TP: “Pomponio” is from Skyline, Bobby Hutcherson’s new release on Verve. It features Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Christian McBride and Al Foster, a band that six months ago or so did a week at Birdland in preparation for this date. This week Bobby is in residence at Iridium through Sunday with a quintet. He’s playing this music with Kenny Garrett, Renee Rosnes, Peter Washington and Billy Drummond.

Skyline is your first release on Verve, though you’ve done some guest appearance on Verve albums in recent years. There are strong liner notes by Stanley Crouch that position you firmly in the vibraphone pantheon and explain why you hold the status that you do. But probably because of space considerations, he didn’t go into some of your biographical particulars. So if you don’t mind…

BH: Sure.

TP: One point he makes is that the vibraphone is an instrument whose vocabulary was very much invented in jazz, and in the jazz lineage. It wasn’t that common when you were coming up. Why was it the vibraphone for you? What circumstances led you to it, and what qualities attracted you?

BH: As I was growing up, first… My mom was bedridden for the first four years of my life, so I was always… As a toddler, instead of going out and playing, I was always inside the house, listening to a lot of stuff. I had an older brother who passed away, but he was a schoolmate with Dexter Gordon. They went to Jefferson High School.

TP: They had the famous bandmaster, Samuel Browne?

BH: Yes. Dexter was in the marching band and my brother was a cheerleader at the school. After school they’d come over to the house and they would play records. I’m a young toddler… I have an older sister, and my sister started singing, and she used to sing… This is before I even started playing. She was singing in her trio, and in her trio was Sonny Clark. One time she gave a concert, I remember, in Pasadena, where I grew up, at John Muir High School, and playing bass was Oscar Pettiford. I remember Oscar Pettiford walking up to me before I was playing and saying, “don’t you want my autograph?” — and I said, “Yes, I do.” I didn’t even know who it was! I was still young. Then later on, my sister started dating Eric Dolphy, and Eric Dolphy was a good friend of the family’s — again, before I started playing. Then later, she started going out with Billy Mitchell, who was playing tenor saxophone in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

TP: Jazz is a family experience for you.

BH: It was a family experience. There was always a piano in the house, and I used to sit around and play piano for my own enjoyment. Then one day when I guess I was 13 years old, I was walking down the street in Pasadena. It was summertime. I walked past a record store. This is when they used to play the music, so that when you walked by outside, on the speakers you could hear what record was being played. It was the Giants of Jazz with Miles and Milt and Monk, Kenny Clarke and Percy Heath — and “Bemsha Swing” was on. I just turned right around, and walked right in, got the record, and went home and wore it out. I said, “this is how I’m walking; this DAY.” I said, “This is what I want to do.”

Well, I had grown up with Herbie Lewis. We were in the same grade, going to Washington Junior High School. All the schools that Jackie Robinson went to. As kids, you either tried to be in sports and do what Jackie Robinson was doing, because when you walked in the gym, here was all his records; or you tried to get into music. Herbie said, “If you get some vibes, you can play in my trio, and we can play school dances.” I said, “Oh, great.”

I worked for my dad, who was a bricklayer, and saved my money that summer, and I bought a set of vibes. At the end of the summer, I got the set of vibes. I went and showed Herbie, “Hey, I got a set of vibes.” Herbie says, “Great – because we’ve got a concert in two weeks.” I said, “Wait a minute. I don’t know anything about the keyboard.” He said, “don’t worry; we’ll play around three songs.” I said, “Three songs? How can I do this?” We’re playing a concert. Bobby Troup was the emcee.

We took a black felt pencil. He said, “Here’s what we’ll do. Since you don’t know what the bars are, we’ll take a number for the next bar that you hit.” Well, if we’re doing three songs, it got like 318, 319, starting from #1, and it had all these numbers all over the vibes. But we practiced so much, I got pretty good, looking for which note to hit next, looking for the number on the bars. Well, came the night of this concert, the first time I’m going to play, and the stage manager and he says to us, “Ok, kids, it’s time for you to go on. Oh, by the way, Bobby, I saw some marks all over your bars, so I took a nice wet towel and I wiped everything off — I know you’re glad I did that.” He says, “Now, you kids go out there and have a great time.” I said, “Oh, no. You didn’t.” He said, “Yes, I did.”

So we went out, and all my family, my mom and dad, they’re sitting out there, ready to be all proud for me, and the kids going to school… I hit about the first three notes, and then after that they started throwing rotten fruit at me. At that point, I realized, “You’re going to have to study; you’re going to have to know what you’re doing.”

TP: It’s not paint by the numbers.

BH: no, you can’t play the numbers. But I still keep the numbers… No. [LAUGHS] But that’s how it all started.

TP: Well, you obviously weren’t discouraged.

BH: No. We used to have these jam sessions at my house as I was growing up, with Herbie, myself… And there was a young man named Terry Trotter who used to come over all the time. Terry became Margaret Whiting’s pianist. Charles Lloyd used to come over all the time. H.B. Barnum, who did all the arranging for Aretha Franklin, he used to come over and he would play tenor saxophone, alto, trumpet, he would play a little vibes, he would play some drums. Everybody in Pasadena would come and park their cars in front of the garage, and we’d open up the doors and we’d play all afternoon. It became like a school. After school, go over to Bobby’s house and listen to the music. There would be all these musicians… Walter Benton used to come over. An awful lot of musicians would come over and play. That happened until…oh gosh, until someone set my garage on fire, and all the instruments burned up.

TP: That happened during high school?

BH: Yeah. I think somebody really didn’t like…

TP: Resorted to drastic measures.

BH: Somebody burnt my garage down. You know what was the thing? All the instruments were in there, the vibes, the bass, drums and piano. I remember… I looked out the door the evening when the fire started, and I remember seeing the fire and trying to call the Fire Department, and the telephone line is burning down. I remember running out to the garage and thinking, “Maybe I can pull my vibraphone out.” And the door was too small! I got the small end out, and I got the big end into the door and I’m trying to get it out the door, and this big wall of flames just came and said, “Get out the way; you can’t do it.” The vibes, the drums, Herbie’s bass, the piano – everything burned up in the fire.

TP: Then what happened?

BH: Whoo, how about me telling my father that the garage burned down? He was at a party that night. He came back, he and my mom, and I said, “Dad, the garage has burned down.” He says, “don’t worry. Did you lose everything?” I said, “Yeah.” He just held me. I thought he was going to be really upset and be mad, but he just held me. He says, “That’s ok. I have insurance. So we’ll go through the things in the fire and find every nut and bolt that’s in there, and we’ll claim it. We’ll get you another set of vibes, we’ll get Herbie another bass…”

TP: Several things are coming out here. One is that you were in an incredibly supportive environment, both in the community (except for the people who burned down the garage) with your parents and fellow musicians, and that music was in the air, almost as though you couldn’t help but absorb the essence.

BH: Yes. I think that fire instigated us to play all the more. As I think back… I haven’t talked about that fire too much. Sometimes I push that back in my mind, because it was real traumatic. Some of the kids were really… I always felt it was some of the kids at school who had done it. I felt that because of what we were doing… Everybody was coming over and listening to the music, and it was like…

TP: It was a positive thing, some people felt excluded…

BH: Yeah.

TP: It seems that Los Angeles… Should I play some more music, and then we resume a little later.

BH: Sure.

TP: We’ll hear “Tres Palabras” from Skyline, on which you play marimba.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Tres Palabras”; Bobby-Abbey Lincoln-Marc Cary, “Another World”]

TP: We were speaking about your early years. One quality about Bobby Hutcherson’s improvising that grabs me every time is the total honesty, spontaneity and transparency. People often hold back on the radio, but Bobby was discussing a very traumatic event of his youth – the fire that burned down his garage and destroyed his instrument. We’ll put the fire behind us…

BH: Put the fire behind us.

TP: Let’s talk about your path towards becoming a professional musician, getting on the road, and coming to New York City, where you participated in so much history on numerous dates for Blue Note.

BH: What happened was, going back to my sister going out with Billy Mitchell… Billy Mitchell and Al Gray had just left the Count Basie Orchestra and formed their own sextet. After I’d started playing, Billy asked could I join the group, and play 4 mallets, and comp and solo, and take the place of Gene Keys, and go up to San Francisco and work opposite Charlie Mingus. I had never played 4 mallets before, but I said, “Of course I can – yes.” In the group was Doug Watkins, and Doug took me under his wing and showed me things to do. He was wonderful. I really loved Doug Watkins.

Anyway, we played two weeks at the Jazz Workshop, and then came back to Los Angeles. Billy came back here to New York, and Al and Doug stayed in Los Angeles. A couple of days later I got a call from Billy Mitchell, and Billy said, “How would you like to come to New York and open at Birdland? We will play opposite Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.” I was also in college at the time. I asked my mom. She said, “I want you to graduate from college; it’s very important.” I said, “Mom, I’ve got a chance to go to New York and play at Birdland.” She said, “Oh! Well, forget college. Go on to New York.” She said, “I have this dream that you’re going to go to New York – go ahead.”

So we drove here in Doug Watkins’ car, the car he was killed in when he went back out to California – in his black Peugeot. We drove here. We started out with a steak dinner, and by the time we got to the Lincoln Tunnel we didn’t have enough money to pay to get through. We were eating potato chips when we came through…

TP: Sounds like the old days of travel…

BH: I remember in part of the trip, Doug’s windshield wipers stopped working, and we were in a snowstorm in New Mexico. He had to reach around, put his arm around and work the windshield wipers to keep the snow off as he was driving. It was bitter cold! Oh, gosh…

TP: The vibraphone, the bass, everything is in the car.

BH: Yeah. We come to New York, and we open at Birdland. First thing is, that afternoon I’m setting up, and Pee Wee Marquette was… I’d heard him on records, but I didn’t know he was a midget. Pee Wee Marquette saw me setting up, I was just by myself. So he walks up to me and blows a big puff of smoke in my face, and he says, “Who are you?” I said, “I’m Bobby Hutcherson.” “What are you doing here?” “I’m going to play vibes with Al Gray and Billy Mitchell.” He says, “We don’t need you. Pack up your vibes and go.” I said, “Oh, Lord, is this what I heard about what New York is?” He said, “You heard me. Go.” I just waited for him to walk back out the door, and I kept setting up.

That night… In those days you heard that Pee Wee could make or break you. So it went like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet, blah-blah, and with Bubba Hutchkins on vibes.” I said, “Oh, no!” Every night he would do this. But we had two weeks there. So on pay night, everybody would go over to the Alvin Hotel, which was across the street (it’s a parking lot now, I think). I’m in Al Gray’s room, and there’s a knock on the door, and I open the door, and a big puff of cigar smoke arrives. There’s Pee Wee. He says, “Say, Papa, you got something for me?” I said, “I don’t have anything for you, the way you’ve been announcing my name all week.” Al Gray says, “give him five dollars.” I said, “I’m not giving him a thing.” Al goes, “Give him five dollars.” So I gave him five dollars.

So the next week goes like this. “Ladies and gentlemen, from the Jazz Corner of the World, Birdland, 52nd and Broadway, the Al Gray-Billy Mitchell Sextet with Billy Mitchell, Al Gray, and Bobby Hutcherson on vibes” – because I gave him that five dollars. So everything started to change right there.

We went on from there and worked the Apollo Theater. Besides playing the regular show, we played the talent night where they had to drop this cheese-cloth, and they’d throw all the rotten fruit at the entertainers who would come out. I had heard about that. That was unbelievable! I’d never seen people get fruit thrown at them. This was unbelievable. And the people were screaming, going crazy.

I think the next gig, we went on to Chicago, the Sutherland Lounge, and we worked opposite Redd Foxx. They would not let me in the club while Redd Foxx performed, because I would go crazy. It got to the point where I didn’t have to hear the joke. All I had to do was hear the sound of his voice, and I would be on the floor.

Anyway, after about a year-and-a-half, the group disbanded. I didn’t really know that many musicians. So I started driving a taxi.

TP: So they worked steadily, around the country, touring for 18 months, and then you move to New York.

BH: Yes.

TP: Quick question before we resume the narrative. There aren’t that many stylistic antecedents for a vibraphone player, but a few great ones. You heard Milt Jackson first, there’s Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, some others. Who were your models? All vibraphonists, or other instrumentalists as well?

BH: I’m going to tell you…I think I’ve told Tommy this. I really started listening to Tommy Flanagan. I think Tommy Flanagan… Tommy, if you’re listening, I love you. I just want you to know that I started listening to you to try to find another avenue, another way to come through the instrument.

TP: If you can, is it possible to describe the sound you were trying to achieve…

BH: I wasn’t really sure. I was just trying different things. I was just trying to be a part of. It was a situation, as I said, where I’m driving a cab. Herbie Lewis had moved to New York and he’s playing bass with the Jazztet. Grachan Moncur was in the Jazztet. So I started going over to their house and playing jam sessions as I was driving a cab. Now Grachan says to me, “I want Jackie McLean to hear you.” Jackie comes and says, “Oh, I like this.” He says, “I just met a new drummer in Boston; his name is Tony Williams. I’m going to bring him down, and we’re going to play at this club, the Coronet.” It was Grachan, Tony, Jackie, and Eddie Khan. We came in there. Everybody had heard about all these young kids playing at the Coronet Club in Brooklyn with Jackie. Alfred Lion, the owner of Blue Note Records, came in and says, “I want to record this; Jackie, I’ve got to record this.” After being at the studio, at Rudy’s studio, Alfred Lion came up to me after the first song that we recorded, and he walked up to me and said, “Bobby, how would you like to sign a record contract?” I said, “Whoa! Am I in the right place and the right time.”


TP: Jackie McLean was incorporating the sounds and ideas that you and Grachan Moncur were working with to get into what he calls “the big room” area of improvising.

BH: Yes.

TP: Had you been workshopping a lot of new ideas, experimental ideas in Los Angeles?

BH: You know how you can have your own personality, but if you get with someone else, another personality seems to come out of you and someone else… Well, that’s what started to happen. It got all of us together… We would be so silly — and be serious at the same time. But silly. I mean, we used to have comic books in our back pockets as we would come to rehearsals. So it would be really serious, but at the same time we’d be looking real serious, we’d be like, “this is the most ridiculous…”

What happened, besides doing those records then with Jackie, Grachan did a record with the same group – Evolution. In fact, this next cut you’re going to play, “The Coaster,” Grachan replaced Jackie with Lee Morgan, and Lee Morgan really played different on the original recording of Evolution and on “The Coaster.” I guess that’s really why when I did this last record with Verve, I wanted to remember those days.

[Bobby Hutcherson, “The Coaster” – from Skyline; “Little B’s Poem”-Components]

BH: Not a bad group.

TP: That recording featured four pieces by you and four by Joe Chambers; another album, Dialogue, comprised entirely compositions by Joe Chambers and Andrew Hill. It’s interesting that these Blue Note recordings became a forum for the ideas of other composers.

BH: The Dialogue album was my first album for Blue Note, and it was at a point where I wasn’t writing. All I was doing was working with other people. I was just trying to complete the circle. I didn’t really understand the situation, that in order to complete the circle (or complete the sphere), playing, and playing with other people, practicing, working on soloing…theories and stuff like that… You really start to complete the circle of music, or the sphere of music, by writing. Because then you’re really writing in your diary. This is what happened to me; this is how I feel today; this is the recipe for what happened today; this is the recipe for how this day went for me. Along with the routines that I went through to try to enrich my life.

TP: Did the recordings you did for Blue Note during the period when you were living in New York… Because then you moved back to California and formed a working quintet with Harold Land which was amply documented. Does it reflect the work that you were doing in New York as well? The performance situations, the gigs. Or do the albums more reflect a for-the-studio situation?

BH: I think it really reflected what was going on in New York. When I first came to New York, I’ll say a lot of my writing on the first album had to do with my still ties with Pasadena. This greenery, the relaxation type situations. Joe Chambers coming, as we met each other and started doing things together, it became a situation of looking into the sculpture of new things developing along with the renaissance that was going on, and the new people going on, and along with the fight for the Black people in the country. It was very common for me in those days to get in a cab and I’d be going to a rehearsal, and I’d be coming from 165th Street and Woodcrest, where I was living in the Bronx, and come past 125th Street and come past the Lenox Hotel, and Malcolm X would be on the steps in front giving a speech, and thousands of people would be standing there. The cab would stop at the red light, and even though I only had another 15-20 minutes to get where I was going, I’d tell the cab driver, I have to get out here; I’ve got to go listen to Malcolm X for a moment. I’d go over and listen and then get back in another cab, and then go on to rehearsal. It was a situation of that cabaret card, that police card that you had to have, which stopped an awful lot of musicians from working in nightclubs, and all the people playing in lofts in those days where you could hear all this writing. Everybody was writing music.

TP: So the recordings you did with Sam Rivers or Andrew Hill or Freddie Hubbard also reflected gigs that were happening at the time.

BH: Yes, a lot of it. Then, at the same time, I renewed acquaintances with Eric Dolphy, who was back here at the time, and we started rehearsing and doing things. I started doing gigs, playing here, at Brooklyn College, or we would go to Pittsburgh…Crawford’s Grill, on the Hill in Pittsburgh and play…

TP: Playing the type of music that was on Iron Man and Out To Lunch?

BH: Exactly. Going to Washington, D.C., and playing the Bohemian Caverns.

TP: Then you returned to the West Coast and formed a well-regarded group with Harold Land, who I guess you knew from your younger days in Los Angeles.

BH: Yes.

TP: Can you speak a bit about that band and your musical production during the 70s? I hear it as you blending the experimentation of the 60s with a look back to the fundamentals you’d come up with.

BH: When I went back to the West Coast… I got busted for some grass here. They took my hack license, my taxi license away; they took my cabaret card away – and scared me half to death. I decided to go back to the West Coast for a second and just regroup. So I went back and started working with Harold Land, and then I started getting calls: “Bobby, are you going to come back?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going to come back again and play.” The Slugs thing was starting to happen…no, it wasn’t starting; it had BEEN happening – but I wanted to come back. I always loved playing in Slugs. So I told Harold… There were some things happening over in Europe. I said, “Let’s form a group, come back to New York; I’ll call Joe Chambers and we’ll get a group together and we’ll start playing some music.”

At that time, it seems to me as though we stopped playing linear type things, and started playing a lot of intervals of 4ths and 5ths and 2nds, and tunes that went into that category. That was a change. That caused… Different combinations cause different things to happen. So that was a change in the sound, because of…solo-wise… A lot of the solos were constructed in 2nds and 5ths and 4ths and neighboring tones. I don’t want to get too technical. But that’s what started happening, and started the sound to change.

TP: With Woody Shaw there’s another evolution…

BH: Woody, yeah. Woody was playing different intervals. Woody was playing a lot of 6-intervals. Woody was playing more pentatonic scales. Our group was using pentatonic scales, but using different intervals, and Woody was using more of the pentatonic scales with a lot of the major VI in his. I didn’t use too much of the major VI.

TP: That was a very fruitful partnership, and you did a lot of records, though not all of them are around these days.

BH: Yeah. I used to go over to Woody’s house all the time, and we would start talking about what we were working on. Woody was always talking about the pentatonic scale that he was working on. It’s funny how all of a sudden there’s a style of playing that starts blossoming out of that.

TP: You’ve been at the center of several transitions. Then around 1980 or so, it seems you begin to go out as a solo voice with groups that elaborate your conception, and the co-led groups fade away. It seems for the last 15-20 years, it’s been Bobby Hutcherson’s sound. Is that more or less accurate?

BH: I went through another transition of the theories that I was working on. For a while, I started working on a lot of piling chords together, right next to each other, so it would be like a cluster, and it would become really hard to figure out what was the scale. I used to think a lot of times when I used to work with Eric Dolphy… He would say: “Now, Bobby, on this tune, this scale in this tune doesn’t end until it runs for 2 octaves, and every note is different.” I said, “Oh my goodness, what…” It was really different.

TP: You seem to have incorporated everything you learned, but also stepping back into the tradition in a personally meaningful way.

BH: Yes. It’s like taking some things, throwing them away, bringing them back. It’s just like sitting there and making something. I might say, “Ok, I want to make an old-fashioned apple pie. Do I get these new modern ingredients?” No. You have to use just some plain old apples and some sugar…

TP: Food is always the best metaphor.

BH: [LAUGHS] If that’s what you want, that’s what you’re going to have to put in there. It’s a great reservoir, if you can look and say, “Ok, on this I have to do this; and on this one, I’m going to try this.” To reach back and say, “Ok, this time…” Situations like not only that, but to say, “On this one, I have to play behind the beat; on this one I have to play on top of the beat.” If you want this situation to happen, you have to go from playing on top of the beat and slide into playing behind the beat, to get this feeling. And to think about those things as you’re playing is… It’s tough!

TP: Are you thinking about that consciously now, or is it a more organic thing?

BH: Exactly. You want it to be like it’s just a natural thing to happen, instead of it being a technical, mechanical situation. You want it to be just part of breathing. It’s almost a situation of there is no tempo. There is only feeling. There is only action and reaction. There is only You.

TP: On that note, let’s Bobby Hutcherson play “I Only Have Eyes For You” from his new Verve release, Skyline.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “I Only Have Eyes For You”]

TP: This Verve recording is one of the first in some time where you’ve had a decent budget and preparation time. A few ideas about your intents and purposes in putting it together.

BH: A lot of thought about each person. A lot of thought about music is not the image; it’s the reflection – and the images are the people involved and the love and friendship for them.

TP: We’ll conclude with a track from 30 years ago that you spoke off mic. You talked about trying to transcribe it some years later, and being in a totally different head space. This is it. It’s called “Visions,” originally from the 1968 date Spiral, which came out about ten years later, with Harold Land, Stanley Cowell, Reggie Johnson, Joe Chambers.

[MUSIC: Bobby Hutcherson, “Visions”]

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Filed under Bobby Hutcherson, Vibraphone, WKCR

A WKCR Interview with Han Bennink From 2000

A few weeks ago, I began a project of converting as many of the interviews I did during my 1985-2008 tenure on WKCR from cassettes to digital format, adding to the 100 or so I’d transcribed over the years. This 2-1/2 hour interview with Han Bennink came from a week where the Dutch master was playing in quartet with Dave Douglas at Iridium — a lot of information contained therein.


Han Bennink (Out To Lunch, WKCR, Sept. 23, 2000):

[MUSIC: Bennink-Dave Douglas, “Cherokee”-Serpentine-1996]

TP: Dave Douglas was the trumpeter, and Han Bennink on trapset and…

HB: No. I only played snare drum and clogs. No hi-hat, no bass. Only snare drum, brushes and clogs.

TP: Han Bennink and I are here for hopefully 3 hours. We have a wide array of music that brings us from 1964 to the present. Han Bennink is performing at Iridium with the Dave Douglas Quartet this week, with Misha Mengelberg on piano and Brad Jones on bass.

You were just describing to me your first visit to New York, which was 40 years ago.

HB: It was in 1960. I worked on a ship called the Maasdom(?—6:01) to play commercial or dance music for the passengers. Then we were about 5 days in Hoboken. At that time, I went to the Village Gate. I saw the John Coltrane Quartet. He was totally obsessed with “My Favorite Things.” The second set was Aretha Franklin playing an upright piano and a microphone in between her legs – and a drummer. It was just fantastic. Opposite the street was a joint called Caffe Ruffio, and I saw Steve Lacy there for the first time live. We’re now very good friends.

TP: You’ve recorded with him on a number of occasions.

HB: Yes, but he lives in Paris, as you probably know, and I see him often… Well, I actually saw him and his wife in Chicago on the 3rd of September.

TP: How does New York now impress you vis-a-vis 40 years ago?

HB: I am not a big city guy. I live very sort of lonely, like a monk, in a stable in Holland, like this sort of ivory tower. Here, somebody gave me a flat to live in, and it’s very nice for me. It’s opposite Central Park, so I can go bird-watching. After this enormous rain, the park was so fresh; it was really beautiful to be there. But for the rest, I am not a big fan of big cities. But most of my concerts are in big cities, and I’ve been traveling now for 3 weeks. I actually do 24 gigs in 27 gigs. I am so proud of that. But I have to travel for that a lot. And the last week is just fine; now I can go walking to Iridium. It’s only 45 blocks. That’s nothing for me. I like to walk. And back also in the night. So that’s cool.

TP: Forty years when you came here, you were playing on a ship, dance music. That’s how you started professionally as a drummer, isn’t it, playing swing music, dance music.

HB: Yes, my father was a studio drummer. Rein Bennink. He also played clarinet in Benny Goodman’s style, and very good tenor in sort of Coleman Hawkins’ style. So the first drummer I ever heard was Gene Krupa, playing with Benny Goodman, “sing, Sing, Sing.” My father also had a band where he played for the Army. I refused to go in the Army (but that’s another thing), but I still played for them when I was like 17 years old. So I started doing these gigs with my father. But besides the band, we had singers, acrobats, and sometimes a nude show or whatever. So I’ve been doing all that sort of shit, really.

TP: Who were the drummers you patterned yourself after? By the 1950s, Kenny Clarke had moved to Europe…

HB: Kenny is my absolutely favorite. I saw him a couple of times in Holland, because he was working with Pim Jacobs Trio with a female singer, Rita Reys. Rita Reys was sort of well known. She recorded in New York with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. I think it must have been around 1957. Then I was sort of teaching at the conservatory later, and I invited Kenny to do a master class. So I really did know him and his wife, who came from Rotterdam – she was Dutch. They lived in Montreuil, in Paris. Kenny set…it’s a black premier(?—10:42) still on the music school there. He was an amazing drummer.

TP: Say some more about his qualities and his place in the pantheon.

HB: The first time I saw him was in the Concertgebouw. The Phineas Newborn Trio was playing there, and Kenny was playing, Oscar Pettiford was playing there. Lee Konitz was playing there. The Concertgebouw is actually built for classical music, so it’s very boomy. When I saw Kenny playing for the first time, it was a shock for me. I was listening to a very tiny little radio at 12 o’clock under my blankets. We had Willis Conover from Luxembourg, and he had a jazz program. So I listened to music always fearing to control the button… But when you see the guys playing live, that’s another thing. It just sounded so amazing. And his brushes playing! I loved his brushes playing. And the feeling for the rhythm. It’s so light. It’s so up. It’s always dancing. It’s never draggy. It’s amazing.

TP: Who were other jazz drummers you paid attention to during your formative period?

HB: I’ve seen Philly [Joe Jones] a couple of times. Beautiful.

TP: Did he come over with Miles Davis and you heard him then?

HB: Yeah, and I saw him later with the group Dameronia that he was leading. An amazing drummer.

TP: But that was later.

HB: Yes.

TP: You were already a professional.

HB: Oh, yeah, professional. I am never a…

TP: Well, you certainly are. Over 40 years…

HB: Yeah, yeah, but it’s just such a heavy word.

TP: Anyway, describe his impact on you.

HB: It is hard to say. Enormous control. I was sort of aping the American drummers. But I come from Europe. It’s a completely different cultural background also. But part of the background, of course, is this jazz music. When we were young, we were listening either to Little Richard, Bill Haley, or jazz music – and that was about it. But now it’s hip-hop or rap or whatever.

But it’s very hard to say what it actually meant to me. For example, seeing Elvin live… And later on when I was playing in the Gato Barbieri band in Europe, we were traveling all over Europe, and it was the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, the Gato Barbieri group (I was in that group with Lonnie Liston Smith and Mtume and me on drums), and the other group was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. So I met them all.

TP: You’ve been playing drums, I’d guess, since you could pick up a pair of drumsticks, given your father’s profession.

HB: yes, more or less.

TP: So I’d guess that seeing these great drummers and the different ways they got sound from the instrument, you’d be a quick mimic – see what they did and get that feeling.

HB: Yes, trying to get that feeling.

TP: You had a reputation among American musicians.

HB: Well, in 1962, it went like very quick with me. I started playing with Rene Thomas, but later on with Johnny Griffin, of course, and Don Byas, and Ben Webster lived in Amsterdam, and Dexter of course, and Wes Montgomery and Clark Terry and all those cats.

TP: They’d come through, you’d be the drummer, and they liked you because you could swing.

HB: Yeah, that’s right.

TP: When did you and Misha Mengelberg meet?

HB: I know Misha since 1960.

TP: What were the circumstances?

HB: Misha had a trio, and he was very much into material by Thelonious Monk to play. It was sort of strange in Holland; they were more interested in a fluid style like, say, Oscar Peterson or that thing. If you did Monk, that was really outrageous. At that time, I was at the Academy of Art in Amsterdam, and I brought all those records to our lessons, like “Misterioso” and all those pieces. So it happened to be that Misha was looking for a drummer, and it was in Utrecht in a jazz club called Persepolis. I played with him, and since we’ve been playing all the time. It’s an incredibly long…

TP: 40 years.

HB: Yes. Amazing. So strange. I think the only people who could say that in the music were Duke Ellington and Harry Carney.

TP: Maybe John Lewis and Connie Kay… There are a few people, but not many.

HB: Yes, it’s amazing. And in daily life, I practically NEVER see Misha. Maybe I’ve been at his place a couple of times, but not for food.

TP: So you don’t socialize. You just play.

HB: Not so much.

TP: I’ve read in press clippings his describing a famously love-hate relationship.

HB: Yes, but Misha is a big liar also.

TP: He’s a big liar?

HB: Yeah-yeah-yeah.

TP: What does he lie about?

HB: About everything. But on a very high level.

TP: Perhaps we can hear how that manifests at Iridium this week as the Dave Douglas Quartet performs.

HB: It’s a brilliant quartet. It sounds very good. I am very happy to play. Especially with Brad. It’s for me the first time to work with him… Because we’ve been playing with Dave in a trio and I’ve played a couple of duo gigs with him. I played last year in Italia, in the Dolomites 1,800 meters high. So I know Dave. But to be with Brad is really nice.

TP: We have cued up a duo between Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink from ICP 031, I think.

HB: It’s old, maybe 9 years or something like that.

TP: It’s an improvised duo?

HB: Of course.

TP: We’ll probably have to cut out, because it lasts 33 minutes and 42 seconds…

HB: It’s beautiful, but it goes much too long.

TP: I’ll fade out when Han Bennink tells me to.

HB: Cool.

[MUSIC: Han-Misha Excerpt-1991; Dexter Gordon 4 with Han, “Scrapple From the Apple”-Feb. 5, 1969-Amsterdam Club Paradiso]

TP: You couldn’t have a better aural illustration of Han Bennink’s scope and the history that he encompasses in his tonal personality. I’d like to speak a bit about your experiences during the 60s with some of the American jazz musicians you mentioned – Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster. How long did you play with Dexter Gordon?

HB: I played a couple of years with him. Not years… he lived in Copenhagen and he came on and off to Holland for tours, like for 14 days. I used to do gigs with him, and I loved playing with him. He was also a very, very good singer. But at a certain time, he was working for an amount of money and I was working also for a certain amount of money, but my money was so less that I asked the promoter if he could pay me a little bit more. That was not possible at that particular time, so I left actually. It had also to do with the fact that at that time I was playing with Willem Breuker and Misha and Peter Brotzmann and Evan Parker. So I was still doing time gigs, time playing, and trying to swing as hard as I can, but also the other improvisation stuff that doesn’t have to be time. It can be but it doesn’t have to. So my real interest at that particular time was already on the other side.

TP: I’d like to talk more with you about that evolution. But you also played with Ben Webster, you played with Sonny Rollins…

HB: Sonny Rollins – fantastic! He’s my still living big example. What a guy. Amazing. I talked about Pim Jacobs already. He actually died. But he had a television jazz program, what was called Jazz Scene. Because he had the money and the power to invite people to come from America. Like, Donald Byrd played there, and Wes Montgomery, and Johnny Griffin – but also there was one thing with Sonny. Pim was not playing at all. It was his brother, Ruud Jacobs, who was playing the bass. So it was actually my favorite setup, like Sonny Rollins live at the Village Vanguard with Elvin and Wilbur Ware, or Pete LaRoca. So we did play maybe for a week or so. It was just amazing. Amazing. I recently received a letter from him while he was performing in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he was too busy and all that. I was very emotional, like, hearing him… But two days later, there was a big letter from him on my doormat. I am very proud of it. My big wish is to play once with him again, really.

TP: As you said, you were playing time gigs, swinging gigs, and also with the nascent…

HB: But now I am doing exactly the same with the Dave Douglas Quartet. We have let’s call it places in the rough, like with golf, but we have also straight gigs, or time – but that has to swing. There was a time with the so-called “new music” or “free music”… “Free” is such an incredibly weird title. “Free music.” Does it mean that you have to pay for it? Or what is free? Anyway, if a drummer is playing more a pulse than a meter… After a while, I found it to be boring. Because when I like to hear something interesting, you can also put your drumkit in a hailstorm and you can hear all sorts of sounds. But when it comes to tempo, I like to play rhythms as a drummer. I think that’s actually what a drum is made for – to play rhythm and to swing the band, rather than this plink-ploink stuff. I do that, too, but not all the time. I have a short counterpoint for that. Not too long. I also like a meter. And when it is a meter, it should swing – or at least trying to swing, like Kenny or Philly Joe or Roy Haynes.

TP: So Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes are in the back of your mind regardless of what the situation is.

HB: That’s all history. Right? Or Baby Dodds, or Zutty Singleton, or Ray Bauduc. All those people. Fantastic.

TP: When did the notion start to form of playing in different, or playing just with sounds if you wanted to just play with sounds?

HB: When I was just coming from the art school I started to listen to Albert Ayler. I saw the Albert Ayler Quartet in Hilversum with Sunny Murray. I borrowed my drumkit to Sunny Murray. Gary Peacock and Don…

TP: You loaned Sunny Murray your drumkit for that record with Albert Ayler.

HB: Yes. I saw Don there, and sometimes I played with Don with the Peter Brotzmann Trio. But that was like a shock, to see that in 1964. It was amazing.

TP: You were oriented to swing and bebop. How did it strike you when you first heard that music?

HB: Of course, I wanted to do that, too, and I started listening to the New York Art Quartet with Milford Graves and Roswell and John. So I got very much into that, and by the time I recorded with Willem Breuker for our own label, the New Acoustic Swing Duo, I was playing and was interested in playing tablas, mringdam, balafons and gongs. I had a whole van full of that shit. Really! Bells from everywhere. It was like a little museum. I needed so much space on the stage that it was a bit odd for Misha. Misha was sitting all the time in the corner and I was banging around. Now I am reducing myself tremendously. I just like to go like Marcel Duchamp, only use a couple of sticks, or a matchbox with two matches, and still play the shit out of it.

TP: Do you see analogies between Duchamp’s approach and the way you approach music?

HB: Actually, I am an artist and a painter, and I come from the art school. So I am still looking and looking. I don’t have much time to paint or to do art, because my heart and my desire is in playing music and I have to travel so much for that, so by the time I’m home I really have to rest before I start to do another drawing, I like to practice very, very long. There is less time. I have my diary and I make even the new record sleeves, something like that…or CD sleeve – sorry.

[MUSIC: Misha Mengelberg solo, “Ik Hab Een Turqoise…I have a Turquoise Cap”-Buzz Records; Misha-Han duo-1992; ICP Orch, 1997, from Jubilee Varia]

TP: That duo entered more orchestral sections. The ICP Orchestra has been existence in one form or another for over 30 years, as is the label ICP – Instant Composers Pool.

We’ve heard Han Bennink with Dexter Gordon, in duos with Misha Mengelberg and Dave Douglas over the first hour. The next segment will present music by the Clusone Trio, a group which I guess gave you in your late forties or early fifties…gave Americans their first consequential exposure to Han Bennink, who had been highly visible to an international audiences for many decades. Clusone emanates from ICP Orchestra. I’d like to step back to the 1960s, and discuss the gathering-together of like-minded musicians looking for new ways to express themselves, to shape form, to find their own voices within a European context.

HB: Well, you had in Germany Peter Brotzmann. He started his own label, actually a half-year before ICP started. ICP was at that time Willem Breuker, Misha Mengelberg and myself. In England, people like Evan were very busy, and Paul Rutherford, and Derek Bailey of course, and Steve Beresford…

TP: In the 60s, Steve Beresford…

HB: Yeah, yeah…

TP: John Stevens was doing it then.

HB: Yeah, of course. John was playing, and Trevor Watts.

TP: How did you find each other?

HB: It comes by playing on a festival or whatever. You just meet somehow. There’s no special reason for it. For example, I am not the type at all who comes out of his house or say, “Now I go to London to see what’s happening there.” No-no…

TP: You’re a working musician, and in the course of your work you encounter people and make associations.

HB: Yeah, that’s right. Peter Brotzmann had a bit more facilities in Germany – because Germany is simply bigger than Holland is. He invited Evan Parker and Derek and Paul Rutherford, and then it started working.

TP: I think my earliest document of ICP is a record John Tchicai did with you around 1970.

HB: Yes, that’s ICP 004. It’s called Fragment. It was Derek Bailey, John Tchicai, Misha and myself.

TP: I should have brought the LP>

HB: Wow. Well, you brought so many already.

TP: All CDs. But let’s talk about ideas evolved. It seems people from each country developed different ways of organizing sound, and developed distinctive personalities that merge when the individual musicians come together.

HB: Mmm. We always were sort of compared to the other European countries a bit tasteless. We were doing everything… Like, for example, in England in improvised music at that particular time it was absolutely forbidden to go into a blues or a march or whatever. We were absolutely tasteless in that sense. We took everything. That has a lot to do with Willem, of course, as a composer, and of course Misha. They were both writing for bigger groups. We were doing theater pieces, musical theater — still in 1974. Then Willem Breuker went his own direction and Misha stayed like ICP.

TP: How would you describe the difference?

HB: Still I love to play with Willem as an improviser, but I don’t like to play like a fixed program, in a way. It was a bit too static, in a way, probably for me. But nevertheless, I admire Willem tremendously, and all our work, all our CDs are coming via BVHaast, and distribution is done, and we have the same fantastic manager in ICP and Willem Breuker in the sense of Susanna von Canon, who has been doing this wonderful work for us. So it’s nothing like enemies at all.

TP: I was trying to get to the aesthetic direction more.

HB: Willem liked to have a band and travel with a band, and the feeling of those… ICP, for example, our band now is Mary Oliver on viola, Tristan Honsinger on cello, Ernst Glerum on bass, and we have Ab Baars for reeds, Michael Moore for reeds, Wolter Wierbos for trombone, Thomas Heberer on trumpet, Misha and me. All of those people personally can fulfill a one-hour solo program. So in the end, they are all solo players. But somehow, the chemistry in this band is so well. They like to work for each other, and that is amazing. So the setting is already different, compared to Willem. We have, of course, a lot of material, but Misha just makes a program like, say, 5 minutes before the show, and then we’re waiting, looking for the sheets… I can’t read notes, so for me it’s very easy. I have it all in the head. Sometimes it happens that I am the only one who knows about all tunes by Misha — I can sing them. “How was that going?”

TP: Are some of the things ICP plays now thing Misha wrote in the 60s?

HB: For example, in the group with Dave for this week we play many old compositions from Misha. But also Herbie Nichols material, which is of course very nice, and some Monk pieces.

TP: Even Ellington. I think you were playing “Happy Go Lucky Local” to conclude a set at Tonic recently.

HB: Yes, with the ICP Band. But I am very quick moving from the Quartet to ICP.

TP: Sorry. You were talking about Dave Douglas; I was talking about ICP. Talk about what in the broader cultural milieu of Holland in the 60s influenced you towards incorporating theater and absurdism in your presentation. Misha Mengelberg has talked about being influenced by the Fluxus movement.

HB: Yes, absolutely.

TP: John Cage, Nam June Paik – those kind of people.

HB: Misha is, of course, older than I am, and he was doing some Fluxus movements. For me, I was very interested and reading about it, but I was in the art school… I met later on Wolf Vostell via Brotzmann, because Brotzmann was also a Fluxus member, and then we had a very good friend and Fluxus member, Thomas Schmidt, in Berlin. I met Josef Beuys and I played at his opening. So it’s not so much to say. It just happened.

TP: It was part of the milieu in which you existed and functioned.

HB: Absolutely, too, when we played in 1969 in Berlin, we played for the heavy left-wing student movement – Rudi Dutschke and all those cats. Peter was very much into that. I am not interested in politics at all. I can play for all parties, but I don’t like to play for fascists and rednecks. But for the rest I am very flexible.

TP: Was Misha political in the 60s?

HB: You should ask him. Yeah, I think he was, but not so heavy than all the other…

TP: Less so than in England or Germany with many of the musicians. Let’s talk about the affinities by which Clusone Trio was established out of the ICP Orchestra.

HB: The Clusone Trio…actually we had an invitation to play in Clusone. Clusone is in the north of Italia, near Bergamo. At the time we were invited to play, it was a quartet. There was no name for it. The quartet was Michael Moore, Ernst Reijsiger, the cello player, Guus Janssen, and me. Those are all fantastic players. But somehow it was set-up…actually thesame set-up that I work in this week… It was a jazz set-up. But Ernst was dealing with the cello, so there was no bass. But it was a real jazz quartet. I like actually a bit more space. I love to play with Guus Janssen duet. He’s most of the time playing with his own brother. But I love to play with him. He’s a very good composer and a very skilled piano player.

So Guus went out and we carried on as a trio, the Clusone Trio, and it became very, very successful. We traveled to Australia. We were playing in Vietnam. We were playing in China. We were playing in Burkina-Faso. We were playing in Mali, and all over Europe. It was really very nice. I know Ernst since he was 12 years old, and then he came to me already. So I had a relationship with him. Ernst was sort of responsible for getting Michael to Europe, so that was cool. And Michael’s interest in pieces and…

TP: He comes from a background not so dissimilar to yours, with a father who is a music teacher…

HB: Yes, his father is Jerry and he’s a very high-rated teacher in Eureka, California.

TP: So I guess it was a superb chemistry.

HB: Yes.

TP: And I guess the group disbanded maybe two years ago.

HB: Something like that.

[MUSIC: Clusone 3, Irving Berlin repertoire]

TP: We were speaking of the ICP Orchestra as it developed during the 80s, when it, as one of the clippings I read from Misha Mengelberg put it, it began exploring repertory, and specifically repertory by the composers who were his great influences in the 1950s, Herbie Nichols and Thelonious Monk and Duke Ellington. Had did this transition happen, from the raucous, more open-ended, theatre-composition from before.

HB: I think Misha actually is more interested to write his own material, but somehow I think he had an invitation for the radio to do a whole Herbie Nichols set-up. Because we always have to a little bit force him in the direction to put up or to come or play this older material. I think it was an invitation from a radio station, and it was the ICP Orchestra plus George Lewis and Steve Lacy.

TP: George Lewis was exploring electronic music and AI in Amsterdam at the time.

HB: Right. He was busy with his improvising robot. But of course, with us he played the trombone, thank goodness.

TP: The track we’ll hear features another trombonist, also appearing in town this week with Archie Shepp, Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille, and Grachan Moncur at the Jazz Standard. It’s Roswell Rudd, from a record titled Regeneration from 1982 on the Soul Note label, with Steve Lacy – both were involved with the music of Herbie Nichols and Monk during their formative years in New York. Also Misha Mengelberg on piano, Kent Carter on bass, and Han Bennink. What do you recollect about the album?

HB: This record was also an idea by our friend Filipo Bianchi, and of course, we knew that Roswell played with Nichols and there are more compositions of Herbie Nichols also, so we brought it together.

TP: On Herbie Nichols’ original recordings, the drummers were Max Roach and Art Blakey – also Dannie Richmond. Did you hear those recordings when they were out?

HB: Of course. I have them all. I particularly like them with Art Blakey. I have two 10″ he actually made for Blue Note, and a bigger one, a normal one with Max. But I prefer the ones with Art Blakey. Maybe it’s with the type of his piano playing… Personal taste.

TP: Herbie Nichols in his writing orchestrated for the drums.

HB: Yes.

TP: The feeling of the drums, and sometimes the parts were specific. In your interpretations, do you hew to that?

HB: Of course I hew to that. On one album for Blue Note, he wrote these fantastic liner notes. Of course, Misha, who brought me the whole idea of Herbie Nichols… When you play that stuff, I think you have to stay as close to what’s actually meant with the particular music at that time. Otherwise it doesn’t make sense to me.

TP: For you it’s all an aural process? Do you have the sort of memory where you hear something and it imprints itself… Do you hear like that?

HB: Oh, no-no. I can’t tell you nothing what I am doing. I cannot do that, because it’s music and it’s no words. When it was music, if it was language, so I could write a book and you could go from page to page what I am actually doing. But it is not. So I have to do it tonight again, and hopefully tomorrow again, and after tomorrow. But there are no words for that to me. I cannot declare my music.

TP: I wasn’t trying to break down your technique. I was thinking of the way music enters your mind and comes out.

HB: Yeah, but it’s completely abstract how that works. I can tell you nothing about it.

TP: So it’s as organic as language.

HB: Yes, I guess.

TP: I guess you’ve been doing it since you start learning language, so it’s organic as language.

HB: Yes. Well, you dive in the middle of a swimming pool and you try to reach the sides, and there’s nothing more to tell. I throw myself into a musical situation, and I have to…

TP: If you’ll use the analogy of being thrown in the swimming pool, then hopefully you’ve learned how to swim.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: You’re not diving in without a thorough background.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Mengelberg-Carter-Bennink, “Blue Chopsticks”; ICP Orchestra, “Spinning Song”]

HB: Dutch Masters was made in an awful little studio in Milano, really, with a terrible drumkit, and I had to sit in a drum booth that was horrible. Horrible circumstances.

TP: Sometimes beautiful pearls emerge from the ugliest surroundings.

HB: Oh, yes. For example, listen to Bird at St. Nick’s. It’s one of my favorite albums, and the circumstances there must have been horrible – so much noise.

[MUSIC: Rudd-Lacy-Bennink, “Hornin’ In”; ICP Orchestra, “Bospaadje Konijnehol”; “Mooche Mix”]

HB: Many people are not playing in our band any more. Our band has been changing all the time. I think now we have the best band there ever was.

TP: Why is that?

HB: It’s so well balanced. I’ve been learning a lot, so… I have a name that I can play sort of loud. But in the ICP Orchestra I have to behave, because now I cannot play louder than, for example, Mary Oliver who is playing violin, and in pieces where the sections are playing things, has to be heard. So I am reduced to lots of brushes work. That makes you a good brushes player.

TP: You said “reduced.”

HB: Yeah, sure. My English is sometimes a bit short.

TP: Now the ICP Orchestra has been performing the repertoire it has for 20 years; it’s an established fact, and a few generations of musicians have come up hearing it, some of whom are playing in the band. How does that affect their approach to the music once they’re in the band?

HB: It’s not easy to play in that band. Well, it’s Misha’s band. Misha is writing for it. But I am also responsible to bring in new people. Because I play with a big variety of people, so I actually brought everybody in except Thomas Heberer, the German trumpet player – he came via Misha. But for the rest, I brought in all. There’s nothing more to say about it; it just functions fantastic. We all love to play in that band. We do a lot music-wise. It’s not an ego thing at all. We just go for it in a positive sense.

TP: I’ll raise a question that we were discussing when the music was on? Does ICP play much in Holland?

HB: We never play in Holland. We play, say, 5 or 6 times a year in Holland. We’d love to play more. But it’s expensive to have 9 people on the road, and then the possibilities in Holland… Everybody from abroad thinks, “Wow, Holland is a mecca of improvised music.” It probably is, but the possibilities for us to play are very small. Also, we live in a very small country. In that country’s network, say like 15 clubs where you can perform, and maybe we can perform in 7 of those clubs. When you do that round once or twice a year, you’re done. You have to go to Germany or france or England or America. But then you must have a name that people like to have you as well.

TP: And you have to establish a tonal personality that people recognize and want to hear.

HB: Absolutely.

TP: Which Han Bennink has been doing all his life.

HB: I do my best.

TP: you travel around the world, more than ever.

HB: More than ever.

TP: You know musicians everywhere, and you cover every area of music. A lot of older musicians now, from different ends of the spectrum, James Moody to Andrew Hill, say that the quality of musicianship among young players now is the highest it’s ever been. They’ve never seen it quite like this in terms of what they can do and their openness to many times of music. What’s your sense of that.

HB: If you think in the sense of instrumentalists, a skilled player, there are many, many skilled players, and not only in our music but also in classical music. When I was performing in the Lincoln Center, I was passing by Juilliard School of Music, and I was surprised at how many people from Asia were carrying a violin and coming out of that school. So I think there’s a hell of a lot of competition in certain musics, and probably also in ours. I train myself a lot, more than ever. But I think exactly what Kenny Clarke said to me. “Well, you must have enough technique to explore yourself so you can make yourself…” Like, having lots of technique like a Buddy Rich, or other technique like, I don’t know, Roy Haynes or someone like that – those people have their personal touch and personal tuning for drums, and personal sounds. So it comes to a person rather than to an overall technique. But they are very skilled. Nowadays people can play… And standing on their head, for example. Well, I’ve seen it once. Don Byas standing on his head, playing saxophone, “Body and Soul”, upside-down, also backwards.

TP: He played the tune backwards and was standing on his head.

HB: Yes, and standing on his head. In a bathroom of the Hilton Hotel. It was a party. The Dizzy Gillespie band was there, and Don came from Amsterdam (because he was based in Amsterdam) to see that. He did all those sort of tricks. He was an amazing player.

TP: There’s a certain component to what you do that’s lost on a CD. You have a visual aspect. You’ll play the telephone…

HB: That might be true, but you don’t miss it in the music.

TP: I sometimes have to close my eyes when I see you play, so that I can focus on the musicality of what’s going on. The visual stuff can be distracting.

HB: Yes, but it is still based on the music and the musical possibilities – what’s going on at that particular moment in the band. When there’s nothing happening, there is for me no reason to leave the drum chair and play in the hall, because it means nothing. But when there’s a musical tension between Misha and me on stage, then I can leave him alone and I can leave him PERFECTLY alone, because he can take care of himself probably better than I do in music live. So then it is a reason for me to do something else. But when the music is not happening, I can’t do it. It’s sort of static. For example, when I have to play in a club like where we play tonight, that is more like a jazz club set-up – when you’re behind the drums, you are behind the drums. You can hardly move because of the little space. I like actually for myself halls not too big, but a space on stage where you can move a bit. Because for me, playing on the floor, on a wooden floor, or not even on a wood floor, is exactly the same for me as playing on a drumkit. Some drummers stay…or they want a 50″ bass drum rather than that high. I don’t have belongings in that at all. I am just pleased with two sticks, and that’s it. I like to make the best and the weirdest music out of that. That is my goal.

TP: Doesn’t matter what the drumkit is.

HB: Doesn’t matter. I’ve been playing on pizza boxes, carton boxes, pieces of wood, drumkits falling apart, broken drumheads, broken drumsticks – all sorts of stuff.

TP: You do that in your sculpture as well, no?

HB: Yes.

TP: A lot of it is with found objects.

HB: Yes, objets trouvees.

TP: We have two more duos before you leave. This is the most recent of many duo collaborations you’ve done with Derek Bailey over the years. I guess it goes back to about 1968 or so. On Incus?

HB: No. I did the first thing with Derek on ICP. It’s ICP 004. I think it must be 1969.

TP: Again, Derek Bailey’s vocabulary is now an established fact of the music, over 30 years. Back then…I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t totally new; there’s nothing totally new. But in some sense it was, because of its electronic nature. Again, how does that familiarity with your partner’s vocabulary change the nature of the interaction? And this is not a live encounter. Here, you’d tape something, send it to the other…

HB: Yes.

TP: …tape a response, send it back, a response gets taped, and so forth and so on.

HB: Right.

TP: Just to use the word “free’ in the commonly accepted sense of free improvising, these people are all shaping utterly personal vocabularies that no one else is using. How does that familiarity then shape the responses?

HB: I don’t like it for myself when it’s static or fixed. And I know exactly what you mean. I was playing in Tonic not long ago, and Derek was staying there for a whole month, and I saw a concert he did with Blood Ulmer. I have to say, when you hear the guitar sound you recognize Derek immediately. I think that’s an incredible pro. You recognize Miles. You recognize Thelonious Monk. All great players. Also Derek. But in a way, it’s already done… “Oh, that’s Derek then.” But I’ve been recording now with a Punk guitar player from the Ex, Terrie Ex. His real name is Terrie Hessels. He is not into certain technique or overtones or this thing at all. He just starts moving. He’s more like an action painting, in a way. The sounds that’s coming from this sounded to me different from Derek in a way… Well, you can’t say from Derek that it’s not fresh, because he plays always fresh. But you know that sound now. So for me, it was fresh to hear the other approach from Terrie coming to it. Because when you play with Derek, you never know what he is playing, but you know that particular sound. But the other… That’s different with Terrie. So in a sense, when you play longer and longer, you have to run, otherwise the time is eating you. You know? And there’s not much time. The grave is yawning, as we say in Holland. So you have to keep running. That’s why I’d like to leave the studio and walk it off.

[MUSIC: Bennink-Bailey- “Duo#3”–Fragile (Incus 34); Bennink-Eskelin, “Let’s Cool One” from Dissonant Characters]

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For the 83rd Birthday of Maestro Saxophonist-Flutist James Spaulding, Two WKCR Interviews from 1995 and 1993

I’ve been digitizing and transcribing interviews from a number of radio shows that I did on WKCR during the 80s, 90s and early 00s. Here are the proceedings of a pair of shows with the singular alto saxophonist and flutist James Spaulding, an Indianapolis native who was a fixture on some of the more venturesome Blue Note recordings of the 1960s and on several of Sun Ra’s late 50s Saturns, who made a terrific series of CDs for Muse records between 1988 and 1994. At the top is a Musician Show from August 1995; it’s followed by a briefer appearance on Out to Lunch in July 1993.

James Spaulding, Musician Show, August 9, 1995 and Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Song of Courage,” “Public Eye”]

TP: Before we move back in time, let’s talk about the present. There are a few engagements coming up in the next few weeks.

JS: This will be the Jazz Legacy group, Larry Ridley’s organization of musicians – Charles Davis, Virgil Jones, Frank Gant on drums, and myself. That’s the 21st of August at Jazzmobile on 122nd Street here in Harlem. Also, on the 27th of August a tribute to Bird at Tompkins Square Park – Lester Young’s birthday. Also, I’ll have my own quartet at Visiones on the 18th and 19th, plus a few Mondays with the David Murray Big Band.

TP: Anyone who’s ever heard James Spaulding play would conclude that you listened seriously and with much intensity to Charlie Parker as a kid, and on our first segment we’ll focus on some compositions of Bird. But first, let’s take it back. You were born in 1937 in Indianapolis. So you were coming of age at the time when bebop hit. Tell me about your intro to music. Your father was a guitar player.

JS: My father was a professional guitarist. He actually started the Original Brown Buddies orchestra in the 1920s, the late 20s, and he formed a small group that traveled around playing college concerts, dances mostly. Later on, Bob Womack, his friend, a drummer…they put the two groups together and later called the group Bob and the Bobcats. This carried on through the 30s, and I was born in 1937, so I came through the Swing Era.

TP: It was mainly a regional band around Indianapolis.

JS: Yes, just a regional band, and the first integrated band actually that began to have white musicians and black musicians play together – to start doing that at that time. 1937, on to the 40s and the 50s, and my father stopped playing quite early, because more children were coming on the scene… I was the third of seven. Large family, and economics weren’t that good, so he had to stop playing and take something steady.

TP: What was his name?

JS: James Spaulding. The 2nd actually. I’m the 3rd.

TP: Was he an improviser?

JS: Yes, he improvised and sang also. He did a little singing, and he booked the gigs. He did a lot of the business things that were happening for the band. Did a little traveling upstate. I think he told me he went to Troy, NY with the band when they traveled around. He never did come to New York. He always wanted to come here.

TP: is he the one who gave you the early musical training?

JS: He’s the one who brought the records home. He said, “Listen.” He brought home the Charlie Parker records. “Shaw Nuff” was one of the early ones. ‘Mohawk” with Dizzy and Bird. I was 10 years old when I heard Cab Calloway. I told you about that one. Then Charlie Parker came on the scene when I was 10 years old – listening to those recordings. Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. Man, the big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

TP: These inspired you to play?

JS: Yes, the Charlie Parker record, “Shaw Nuff,” really inspired me to play.

TP: When were you able to start hearing music live?

JS: Well, he used to take me around to bands that would come over in our neighborhood and set up right out there in the park and play. He would take us to concerts where guys were playing at the Indiana Theater. I saw Billie Holiday at this theater, and Lester Young. George Shearing was there. I believe it was called the Indiana Roof. I don’t think it’s open any more. He exposed me to music. He also wanted me to be a prize-fighter. He used to take me to the gym to work out. Which I didn’t have eyes for having my chops get mashed in. But he was a fight fan. He loved boxing.

TP: When did you start doing the little gigs? I take it alto was the instrument.

JS: Alto was the one. I got some gigs. I learned how to read in high school. I was able to develop my eyes so I could get through some of those charts, and I was reading quite… Actually I was reading before I got into high school, in grade school. I taught myself how to read through the charts. He would take me over to some of the older musicians around town and let me sit in and read some of the arrangements. I remember I got hired for a gig, and my father went with me to kind of chaperone me – because I was 10, 11 or 12, something like that.

TP: Indianapolis had a thriving musical community. A lot of great musicians from there. J.J. Johnson, the Montgomerys, Slide Hampton.

JS: Man, it was something.

TP: You were a little younger than them, though.

JS: Right. Leroy Vinnegar. Carl Perkins.

TP: Were they around?

JS: No. As you say, I was quite younger. Slide, Wes, all the brothers. Freddie and I had a chance to sit in with that group when they were working at a club called the Turf Club in Indianapolis.

TP: That’s Freddie Hubbard, who’s a year younger than you, and who you worked quite a bit with over the years.

JS: Yes. Freddie and I started off learning Charlie Parker tunes. I’d go over to his house, and he would come out to where I was stationed in the Army, out at Fort Harrison Army Base out there when I was in the band, and he’d come out and sit in with the band. He was playing then! He was up on his instrument. He was an executionist. At that age, at 17, which is how old he was when I first met him at a jam session.

TP: So you hooked up after high school.

JS: Yes. I was in the Army and Freddie was still going to high school. He was about ready to graduate from Arsenal Technical High School there in Indianapolis. He graduated, and came on out with us when Larry Ridley formed a group called the Jazz Contemporaries. We worked around Indianapolis at George’s Bar and the Cotton Club… Larry booked a lot of these gigs. He had that business sense about him to take care of these things, while we just enjoyed the music.

Yeah, Indianapolis was happening, man. Clubs all up and down Indiana Avenue. You could just walk in one club and out into another club. Just take your instrument. If the guys knew you, they would ask you to come up and play something with them.

TP: Who were some of the older musicians who were in Indianapolis? Slide Hampton talks about a piano player named Earl Grandy.

JS: Earl Grandy! Yes, he was fantastic. He just passed not too long ago, I heard. He was blind, and he was an inspiration to a lot of the musicians. He would show them changes and different things on the instrument. He played right up to his passing. It’s a great loss.

Jimmy Coe is still there, and there’s Pookie Johnson, a tenor player. There are a few more musicians there. But it’s no work there now. Nothing is happening there at all practically. I think they have one club, and it’s called the Jazz Kitchen. Wallace Roney and his brother performed there not too long ago. They said they had standing room in there. Two shows, two sets, and it was packed. I’m working on going down there with a group perhaps.

TP: Slide also talked about a ballroom run by the Ferguson Brothers, who booked a lot of big bands, so that bands would start their tour in Indianapolis. Was that still happening when you were coming of age?

JS: These brothers had real estate, they had a little money, so they were able to set up these places and get musicians come in through Indianapolis. Charlie Parker came through there once, I remember. I was too young to go see him. I remember seeing the posters on the lightposts, “Charlie Parker’s in town.” He was down at the Sunset Lounge, Sunset Café at the time. You could go down and try to listen through the door in the back, but it was very hard to hear. Yeah, I remember when he came into Indianapolis, man. It was quite a day.

TP: I guess it was whenever Bird came to whichever town it was.

JS: Wherever anybody flocked, man. Everybody loved him so much. He was such an inspiration to so many musicians.

TP: Bird was really your first inspiration, then? You hadn’t been checking out, say, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter, and then changed. You heard Bird and it just hit you.

JS: Yeah, it just hit me. I listened to the rest, but with Bird playing, it was just…I never quite recovered.

[MUSIC: Bird, “KoKo”; “Mohawk”; JATP (Bird-Prez-Roy) w/Ella, “How High The Moon”-1949]

TP: You remember hearing that “How High The Moon” record when you were 13 or so.

JS: Yes, I was about 13.

TP: Before “KoKo” had records like “Red Cross” and the Jay McShann records come to Indianapolis? Were they popular?

JS: They were, yes. “Red Cross” and “Buzzy” and “Donna Lee.”

TP: I take it you checked out everything as it came along.

JS: Yes, as much as I could. My father would bring those records. I’m so glad he did, man. I would have missed them.

On “Mohawk,” I just love that melody. I just asked Dad, “Play that over again.” That and “Shaw Nuff” were my favorites to listen to.

TP: Charlie Parker wasn’t the only saxophonist you were paying attention to. As a musician in school bands, you weren’t going to be able to play Charlie Parker’s language. Was there any tension between the requirement of playing “legitimate” or needing rudiments, and then the flights of fancy that would come to mind from hearing Bird?

JS: I was very fortunate to have a music teacher at Crispus Attucks High School, where I attended – my first year of high school. He was into jazz, and he would ask musicians if they would want to stay after school. He would stay there with us and work with us to learn to read these syncopated bebop tunes, like “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” Count Basie’s things they had these stock arrangements on. We formed a little group called the Monarch Combo with Melvin Rhyne. I think Virgil Jones was in the band. There was Curly Hampton, a cousin of Slide Hampton. We just learned how to phrase and how to play that music the way it was coming over on the record. We tried not to copy, but tried to stylize our playing as much as possible with that. And Mr. Brown (Russell Brown), he would stay there with us and work with us. I don’t if any other high school teacher was like that.

TP: So Russell Brown was the bandmaster at Crispus Attucks H.S.?

JS: Right. He was the bandmaster. And like I said, I had taught myself how to read good enough to get into the freshman band and the senior band, and then I got into the orchestra my first year of high school with Mr. Newsome, and I played the flute. I taught myself how to play the flute well enough to get into the string orchestra at school. That got me into the woodwind quintet. I played flute with that group, and we played concerts and…

TP: Is that the classical repertoire you were playing?

JS: Yes, we played classical repertoire, European pieces. We had played the dances around Indianapolis with this Monarch Combo group, which we would rehearse after school, and Mr. Brown would be our guide and our teacher. We sort of developed out of that, and we stayed around Indianapolis doing a lot of background playing for singers that would come into town, like Bull Moose Jackson (you remember him?), the tenor saxophone.

TP: Playing the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson.

JS: Yeah! He was something else, man.

TP: So you’re playing wind quintets on the flute, the blues behind Bull Moose Jackson, playing Charlie Parker tunes in the woodshed, doing all this…

JS: Yeah, all this music. All this happening. You start growing more and more, until I went into the Army in 1954. I got out in 1957, and went to Chicago.

TP: You mentioned that Tab Smith’s “Because Of You,” recorded in 1951, was the first solo you memorized.

JS: The first solo I ever memorized was “Because Of You.”

TP: He projected a different tone or timbral quality than Bird. Talk a bit about your sound on the alto, and developing it.

JS: I just tried to… I kept hearing Bird all the time, and I wanted to try to get as close to that sound as possible. Then I heard Tab Smith with his sound; he had a sweet, nice alto sound. And Johnny Hodges also…I listened to him a little bit, too, and was inspired by his playing. But Tab was right there and the music was right there, so I just said, “Let me just learn how to play this piece.” That was the first piece I ever played without reading the music.

TP: That became your feature…

JS: That became my little feature piece.

I first heard Illinois Jacquet at JATP, doing “Flying Home,” that exciting piece. Louis Jordan, “Open The Door, Richard” was one… Oh, he played so many pieces. He used to have me knocked out, man. It was so beautiful to hear this music played. And it still is. It’s still fresh to me every time I hear it. It’s a stone gift.

TP: Tab Smith, “Because of You,” with a Chicago-based band – Sonny Cohn on trumpet, Leon Washington (formerly with Earl Hines) on tenor sax, Lavern Dillon or Teddy Brannon, piano; Wilfred Middlebroks, bass; Walter Johnson, drums.

[MUSIC: Tab Smith, “Because of You”-1951; Louis Jordan, “Buzz Me”-1945; Illinois Jacquet, “Jet Propulsion”-1947]

TP In this first hour, we’ve taken James through learning the alto saxophone and flute and your experience at Crispus Attucks High School with Russell Brown, and playing a wide range of music during those years. You were also influenced by big bands, which, as we mentioned before, came through Indianapolis with some frequency.

JS: Oh yeah. There would be big bands that came through a lot, that would come in our neighborhoods and play right out there in our playground – set up a community thing. Like the earlier Jazzmobile. They got fed and the whole thing…

TP: Were there local big bands?

JS: Yes, we had the local big bands, they also…and bands that would come through and work at a major club there, and then come over and donate the music to the community.

TP: Where did the bands stay when they came through Indianapolis? It was a pretty segregated city, I take it.

JS: Yes, it was. They would stay at the Y. And a lot of the musicians would stay with musicians who were in Indianapolis – they would spend the night or whatever, stay there with the families. In fact, Teddy Wilson would come by my house and jam with my father and some more musicians who would come to town.

TP: So you met Teddy Wilson, had dinner with him and so forth?

JS: Yes, he would sit there, and the guys would be jamming and we’d sit there and listen to them. It was quite exciting.

TP: You mentioned that your father brought home a lot of records – Ellington’s records, Cb Calloway. So you were hearing big band music from an early age, both live and on records.

JS: Yes.

TP: Did you know how to pick out the different soloists? As a kid, did you identify the sounds of Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney…

JS: Yes. I’d get to learn their sounds, to identify their sounds as well in the context. But those records, man, that was it. I’m so glad. My mother, too. She was very supportive, a very spiritual, church-going person. In fact, she just turned 84 this past June, and she’s going strong. She would always encourage me to keep playing and practice. She was very encouraging.

TP: Did she play music herself?

JS: No. She just sang in the church. A very spiritual lady.

TP: Let’s hear a short set of big band music, then we’ll review James Spaulding’s experience during the latter 50s as a working musician in the Chicago area. Unless there’s something else you’d like to say about Indianapolis.

JS: There was the Camp Atterbury, an Army base there, and the guys from the base would come in and support the music, and go from club to club at that time. That was one of many things that were going on up and down Indiana Avenue, as they called it. That was a strip. Like 52nd Street compared to that…but not quite… We had quite a bit of turnover; there was quite a bit of action going on during that period. There was a place called the Cotton Club, and there was a Savoy, and I told you the Sunset Café where Bird played. There was the temple, where John Coltrane played one of his last concerts, I believe.

So from 1954… I was in the Army band, and I did a lot of big band stuff there and combos. I was in Special Services actually at the time, so I got a chance to just play in the marching band, the dance band, they had a jazz band and had a little jazz combo. We’d play on campus and I would go off-campus… That’s how I met Freddie Hubbard, at this jam session at the Cotton Club.

[MUSIC: Ellington, “Take the A-Train”; “Sophisticated Lady”-1957; Calloway, “Minnie The Moocher”; Basie, “L’il Darlin”]

TP: After your got out of the Army, you went to Chicago, but first talk about your Army experiences.

JS: I was in Special Services. I had that set up before I even went in. My father had it arranged. I had to take these tests; I had to pass the exams. As I said, it was a good thing that I’d learned how to read. It was so vital. You had to sight-read some parts. So I got the gig in the Army! From there, after I finished basic training… Six weeks, I was in Fort Linwood, Missouri, then they shipped me to Fort Ord, California, and I continued band training out there. This was 1954, 8 weeks out there, then I came to Indianapolis to Fort Harrison, which is a few miles outside of Indianapolis. I was able to commute back and forth.

TP: What sort of functions did you do in the Army band?

JS: There was the Army Finance Center, which was not too far away from where we were stationed, where we had our housing. We would do our regular thing of marching…what do you call that thing before closing down… Anyway, we’d play over at the Army Finance Center, work there during the day with the jazz band. Then at night, sometimes we would go to the NCO club and play music for the non-commissioned officers there. We had some good musicians in that band, and we would jam and play charts and play arrangements. Going back to my being able to read, that also really helped me to continue to play.

TP: A lot of musicians found the Army a great finishing school, because you’d play all the time.

JS: Oh yeah. It was a great help to a lot of guys. A lot of them just in there 20 more years, and got a retirement thing. I wanted to get out. I wanted to go to Chicago and go to New York. I wanted to venture out some more.

TP: You mentioned meeting Freddie Hubbard when you were stationed outside Indianapolis.

JS: Yes. I went to one of these jam sessions that they’d have every Saturday afternoon, I think it was, and there I met. We just got together and started rehearsing tunes. I went out to his house and met his mom. Man, she could cook. Oh God, could she cook! He’d come by my house. And we’d go out to the Army base and play with the Army band members. Slide Hampton would come out there, too, bring his arrangements and test them with some of the guys out there.

TP: At that time, he’d just joined Buddy Johnson (55-56), and then on his way to the Lionel Hampton band. He was here last week, so I’m up on Slide’s career.

JS: He’s such a tremendous musician. He’d bring his arrangements out there for us to play, and that was always a treat every time. We’d go over to the Army Finance Center and play, and we’d give him a few dollars to come out there.

TP: What was Freddie Hubbard playing like at 17-18 years old?

JS: He was definitely influenced by…he was listening to Clifford Brown and Miles mostly. Those were the two trumpet players he’d really taken to. We’d work out learning Charlie Parker tunes, so we could go out and play together. Especially with Wes Montgomery and Buddy and all those guys, you had to be up on some tunes!

TP: Were the Montgomerys still around Indianapolis at this time?

JS: Yes. They were playing regularly at a club called the Turf Club. They’d have jam sessions every Saturday afternoon also. We’d run out there and jam with them. Then we’d run back into town to the Cotton Club and jam at George’s Bar; that would last from 5 until about 9, when the regular band would come on. We did a lot of playing.

TP: Was Wes Montgomery’s style fully formed by the mid 1950s?

JS: Oh, definitely. He went on to record with Cannonball. Was it Cannonball who brought him in…

TP: His first recordings were for Pacific Jazz.

JS: Pacific Jazz. I recorded with them. I did one of my first recordings on an album with Larry Rice.

TP: Let’s bring you to Chicago, which was a big center for jazz during the 50s, with a lot of great musicians – a self-contained scene unto itself.

JS: Definitely.

TP: Talk about what drew you to Chicago.

JS: What drew me to Chicago was Johnny Griffin – his records. When I first hear his record, I was in the Army, and I said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” I had to go to Chicago and hear this man. His speed and his dexterity. God! He played the tenor like you play the alto. He did play the alto at one time.

TP: But made it sound like a tenor.

JS: Yes. I went to Chicago and I finally met him. I met his mother. I was working a day job there that my cousin had gotten me. And I met his mother there. She told me where he’d be, and I went to see him at this club called the Flame. I saw Lester Young there, too. It was off 63rd and Cottage Grove.

TP: There was a strip of clubs there.

JS: Yes. McKie’s Lounge, and the Cotton Club right across the street, and around the corner, down the street (I think it was Cottage Grove), there was the Flame. Later it burned down.

TP: Went up in flames.

JS: Yeah, it was strange. But I saw Lester Young! Johnny Griffin was there first. I went down to see him, I met him, and told him I’d like to come by and just talk to him. He said, “Ok,” and gave me his phone number. So I got a chance to hang with him for a few times.

TP: In Chicago, you affiliated with Sun Ra, and the records you’re on by him are much prized. How did that come about?

JS: It was a jam session at the Pershing Lounge, at a place where you’d play until 10 o’clock in the morning. You’d go down there and just jam. I was jamming, and I met Pat Patrick and John Gilmore, and Pat approached me and asked if I would like to make a rehearsal, that Sun Ra liked the way I played. I said, “Ok.” That’s how it started. I went to this rehearsal, and Sun Ra wrote out a piece right in front of me – wrote out my part and gave it to me.

TP: What did the part seem like to you? Was it congruent with your style?

JS: I was able to read it enough to get the gig. But it was so different from everything else I had been trying to play or learning to play. Especially the improvisational aspect of it. He asked me to play. I didn’t see any chord changes. That’s what made me see there was something else happening beyond what’s on the paper. Pat would say, “Don’t worry about that; just play.” That started some other wheels spinning. I stayed with him off and on for a while, and we went on some… We went to Indianapolis, as a matter, with the band! We went on a couple of concert tours around Chicago and different places. But we mainly stayed there at Pershing Lounge. That was like a home base for most of the musicians.

TP: The Pershing Lounge had a long pedigree in Chicago, as a place where Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins played in the 40s and early 50s in the ballroom. Ahmad Jamal played downstairs…

JS: Downstairs, in the basement. So we were down in the basement, kinda like, with this breakfast jam, they called it, and we’d go down there and stay until 10 the next morning. Guys would straggle out. We’d go and have breakfast and talk. There was a lot happening.

TP: The next track features Sonny Stitt, who was very popular in Chicago as well.

JS: Oh, yes. He and Gene Ammons used to get together and lock horns. I saw them together in Chicago once. It was very exciting. It was like a shootout corral. The guys would come in the door, and look at each other, stop and pull out their instruments. The crowd was already there, waiting, so it was like a big drama thing. So when they got on the stage, Sonny had his fans and Gene Ammons had his fans on one side, and it was like back and forth, and they would solo and do the fours… It was tremendous, man.

[MUSIC: Sonny Stitt, “My Melancholy Baby” (Hank-Freddie Green-w. Marshall-Shadow Wilson-1956; Johnny Griffin, “Chicago Calling”; Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset”; Coltrane, “Dexterity”; Sun Ra, “Hours After”-from Jazz In Silhouette]

TP: We’ll now move into some of James Spaulding’s more far-reaching recordings of the 1960s, when he became a favorite of New York’s hip audience, some of whom are calling and sharing their memories. You returned to Indianapolis from Chicago for a bit, and moved to New York in 1962. Anything else to say about Chicago apart from your experiences with Sun Ra?

JS: I forgot to mention Jerry Butler, the Iceman, that was one of the first recordings I did before Sun Ra. I played a flute solo on one of his pieces, called “Lost.” I just remember that. That was back in the 60s.

But Chicago was…everybody was going to New York, I guess, before the end of 1959.

TP: George Coleman and Booker Little had left, Frank Strozier…

JS: Everyone was moving on to New York. But Chicago was very helpful, very inspiring, to go there and… I’m glad I went to Chicago instead of going to New York. Everybody said I should have come to New York first, but I think I made a better choice.

TP: Because it was more relaxed, you could get certain things together?

JS: Yeah, I could relax. Plus I could use my G.I. Bill to go to the school there, the Cosmopolitan School of Music on Wabash Avenue. It was down the street from Roosevelt University, upstairs there. Frank Strozier graduated from there. Bobby Bryant, the trumpet player, he graduated from there. I studied with Bobby Bryant. He helped me out a lot with the chord changes and stuff. He’s out in California now.

TP: Then your path to New York.

JS: Well, I went home and charged my batteries. Michael Ridley, Larry’s brother…we both came to New York together with 50 cents between us, in his car. We landed here, and I called up Freddie, and he called his brother Larry, and I’ve been here since.

TP: What were your first affiliations in New York?

JS: Actually, I just stayed with Freddie. I was trying to find some work, trying to find a place to live – that whole thing. Making these little gigs. Worked in the Time-Life Building as a messenger. Until Freddie called me for this Hub-Tones date. In 1963 I got married. Then things started opening up for me. I have two grown daughters now.

But Freddie called me in 1963. He was working with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, and they were traveling. In fact, when I was up in Canada, when I met Cab Calloway, I was telling you…

TP: That happened a little later.

JS: We worked in this huge place, right across from the Notre Dame, in that area. Cab was up there singing “Hi-de hi-de ho,” and I went backstage to meet him and talk to him about his experiences. That was about a week. My wife and I had a little honeymoon there. That was the first experience with him. I told him how I’d listened to his records when I was 5 years old. He was laughing; he enjoyed that.

TP: you’re on quite a few of these Blue Note recordings, some of the most venturesome of the 1960s, like The All Seeing Eye, Wayne Shorter; Bobby Hutcherson’s Components

JS: Yeah, right after Hub-Tones, which was the first date I did. Right after that, I was getting calls to come in and record with everybody. Duke Pearson was the A&R man during that time.

TP: Right. You’re on Sweet Honey Bee.

JS: Yeah, he was the A&R man, bringing in a lot of cats.

TP: If you’re working on a Blue Note record by Freddie Hubbard or Wayne Shorter or Bobby Hutcherson, did that mean you were also gigging with them? Were these working groups or set up for the studio?

JS: Freddie’s was the group that I began to work with after he left Art Blakey, and we started working with Joe Chambers, Ronnie Matthews and Eddie Khan on bass – a quintet. It was Freddie’s first working band. We did a few gigs around… We never did go out of the country. We kind of stayed around the area. We did a few things in Philadelphia, went up to Boston and did a couple of things. It wasn’t working that much, but at least we had a chance to tighten up before we did that Breaking Point album.

TP: We’ve been listening to jump bands, bebop, Gene Ammons and Johnny Griffin playing very straight ahead. But we listened to John Coltrane’s “Dexterity,” which you said had a big impact on you, as did Coltrane’s music in general.

JS: When I first heard Trane, it was in Chicago on that recording. It was a different label. But that “Dexterity” inspired me a lot when I first heard it, when I heard John Coltrane. I’d never heard of him before. I heard Johnny Griffin. But when I heard John Coltrane, that took me into a whole nother thing. His structure, his whole phraseology, his whole approach to the music was so unique and so HIM. You could identify him so well – his individuality. It stood out so profound.

TP: Had you heard Coltrane by the time you were Sun Ra?

JS: No, not yet. It was before I left, right around the end, around 1958 or 59, I heard that record. Then I had to hear him again. I came to New York and he was at the old Five Spot. It was so crowded that night, I was standing on my toes trying to see him. Freddie Hubbard brought me down there that night. And Birdland. That’s when I saw Dexter Gordon on one of those Monday night jam sessions they had. Lee Morgan was conducting the jam sessions, with Dexter up there cooking and Curtis Fuller. Freddie took me to that session also. I was a little nervous about coming to New York anyway. Freddie had to kind of pull me. “Come on, man, get your horn out and play some.” I said, “No, not yet.” He’d encourage me. “Come on, play, man.” He was a great inspiration to me. He still is. Everything looked like… All the clubs were closing down at that period. From 1963 on down to 67 or 68, clubs were closing, everything was changing. The scene was changing quite a bit.

TP: The music was changing, too.

JS: Yes, it was. Quite a bit. It was maintaining… It’s still here. Everything is still here. We listen to all these old cuts; all this music, when I hear it now, it still sounds fresh. There’s just so much that we can get from it. When you listen to it and you understand where it’s coming from, I think you appreciate it more. Know its origins, and reaching back and doing some research on it, and I’ve been studying and reading more books about the music and about the different artists who made those contributions, and those who weren’t as well known as others that made contributions but never got the recognition or the financial thing. It’s all out there. It’s all here with us, and I’m just happy to be part of it. I’m very proud to be part of this music. I look forward to doing some more writing for the big band with David Murray; I’m writing some stuff now for his band, and I’m hoping to rehearse it down there on Monday nights at the Knitting Factory.

It’s all connected. The name of my group is Linkage.

TP: One thing we can say about the music of the 60s is that the protagonists were all rooted in the sort of music we’ve been hearing on this evening’s show. Coming up are a few highlights from James Spaulding’s recordings for Blue Note during the 60s.

[MUSIC: Spaulding-Freddie, “Hub Tones”; Freddie-Spaulding-Mobley, “Outer Forces”; Wayne-Spaulding, “Chaos”; Bobby Hutcherson-Spaulding, “Little B’s Poem”]

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Bold Steps”-1988]

TP: Any memories from any of the Blue Note dates we heard? How about The All Seeing Eye? Any memories, or is it vague to you?

JS: It’s sort of vague. I just remember the music, Wayne’s writing on that date, and the excitement of having this material, beginning to get into our own and be able to express ourselves in the way we were doing in that time, in the 60s, when so much stuff was happening, so much energy was circulating. Going to the studio, we just couldn’t wait. Everybody couldn’t wait to get there and set up and do what we had to do. It was a wonderful time.

TP: One question someone asked you over the phone, and which I was asked to ask you by a guest earlier today: With all the recordings that you contributed to as a sideman, were you ever offered to record by Alfred Lion?

JS: Yes, he asked me to record. He wanted me to get into a commercial vein of the music. With all respects to Lou Donaldson, who I love and enjoy his playing… He wanted me to do some stuff that Lou was doing, the Alligator Boogaloo kind of thing… He wanted me to put some stuff out there on the jukebox that would push records, and I didn’t have any material like that. I wanted to play some bebop. I wanted to play some straight-ahead music at the time. I was working with Freddie and time went by, and we never did come to any agreement on that.

TP: You spoke of the impact Coltrane had on you during the 60s…

JS: All the saxophone players are influenced by Trane, I’m sure – they still are at this time. Every time you hear him it’s always something new. If you play it once, you have to play it twice, and then you have to play it again. Because each time you’ll hear something fresh and new. His own personal approach is what made it stand out so much.

TP: Did you know Coltrane at all?

JS: I saw Trane in Chicago at McKie’s Lounge. Elvin was on the gig. Jack deJohnette was also on that gig. I walked up to him, just met him and talked and said hello. He was waiting for Elvin to come in and start the set. The place was packed. The second time I saw him was in New York at the Vanguard. I talked to him after the gig, and got his phone number, and he invited me out to his house. We were going to get together. I wanted him to show me some things. He was such a nice cat. Such a beautiful individual.

TP: It’s a common story among musicians that you could approach John Coltrane and he’d invite you to his hotel room or to his house, and spend time with you.

JS: He was just a regular person and very approachable, and you could ask him questions and he’s talk to you and make you feel comfortable.

TP: Did you have any aspirations to play the tenor sax?

JS: I played the tenor sax in Chicago for a while, and I played tenor sax in the Army for a while. I had some gigs, but carrying the alto…I had the alto and the flute… You know how Sonny Stitt would carry all his instruments. I tried to do that, but it got a little heavy.

TP: Being a triple threat was a little too threatening.

JS: Playing one instrument is a job!

TP: We’ll hear “Hipsippy Blues,” something you requested by Hank Mobley, who was another associate of yours. You were on Slice Of The Top with him, and he was on Freddie Hubbard’s Blue Spirit date.

JS: Hank was a beautiful cat. I can’t say enough about his musicianship. He was an incredible musician. He gave you all he had. He really was involved and committed, and you could hear it in his instrument, in his writing. He wrote so MUCH stuff. I want to do a tribute to him on one of my next record sessions. I was trying to get Joe Fields and Don Sickler to set something up for that, pick out some of his unknown cuts to record. He had such a tremendous contribution to this music and to the alto saxohone.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “Hipsippy Blues” and “Down With It”]


James Spaulding on Out To Lunch, July 21, 1993:

TP: How did you come to be the latest member of World Saxophone Quartet? You’ve been working with David Murray’s Octet for a number of years now.

JS: Yes, it was David Murray who told me about the possibilities of becoming a member of WSQ, and Hamiet Bluiett was instrumental in calling me for an engagement out in Albuquerque, NM, with Jayne Cortez and Bill Cole. After that, they called me about a gig in Boston. It was December 11, up in Boston, the first day after we had that horrible rainstorm. That was my first engagement with the African drums also.

TP: Your experience on flute I’d think would fit in very well with the African drums. Last night you were playing wooden flute as well as regular flute.

JS: Yeah, we were definitely going back to the ancients in terms of sound and instrumentation, reaching back to the ancestral connections with roots, and basically being inspired by the great music that’s still coming through from the great continent of Africa, and different parts of it, from the time when great civilizations were born, jumped out – so instruments and music also followed. Here we are today, extended from that.

TP: In your early career, you recorded with Sun Ra, who was so involved in bringing out that kind of material, including one of his most famous albums, Jazz In Silhouette. How did it come about? You were originally from Indianapolis.

JS: Right. I got out of the Army… I had three years in the Armed Services, with the Army bands, doing marches and concerts. I got out in 1957, and I decided to go to Chicago and go to school on the G.I. Bill – Cosmopolitan School of Music. It was a great school. They introduced jazz and different studies outside of the normal curriculum. One day I was going out jamming. Jam sessions were happening all over Chicago. I met John Gilmore and Pat Patrick, and at the jam session they heard me play, and they said, “Listen, man, how would you like to make a rehearsal with Sun Ra?” I said, “Sun Ra. Sure. I’ll be there.

TP: Did you know who Sun Ra was?

JS: No, not really. I just heard his name mentioned a couple of times. So I made it to this rehearsal, and there was Sun Ra, sitting at the keyboard, writing out arrangements, giving parts out. That’s the first thing that amazed me. I said, “Wow, this is terrific.” So we ran down the parts, and he told me to play. I said, “Play? Play what?” I didn’t see any chord changes or anything. He said “Just play! Don’t worry about it.” So I played, and Sun Ra said, “Ok.” He liked what I was doing. I was quite nervous, of course. He started calling me for gigs in the Pershing Hotel. At the time we were playing in the basement for what were called breakfast shows. We’d stay there until 7-10 in the morning, playing. People would come down from their jobs, gigs and have breakfast, and musicians would come in and sit in. Sun Ra would have this tremendous book of music. Oh, God, all kinds of music, from dance music to concert stuff. He was complete. I’ve never seen a musician with so much energy and so much imagination.

TP: Were you rehearsing 6-10 hours a day, every day, as a number of the musicians have said?

JS: Yes, we’d rehearse quite a bit. He was serious. It could get hot. It could get quite hot in there sometimes.

TP: That was a very talented group of young musicians who’d been well-school through high school and/or the Army, like yourself, which I think is a characteristic of your generation. Very well-schooled either through the education system or the Armed Services or whatever, but with a real hunger for new horizons, new dimensions in music.

JS: Man, this was a whole new experience for me to play in this band. It opened up my sense of direction in terms of playing free, getting rid of the barlines, and the structural, scientific parts of it. I said, “Yeah, that’s it” later on. It took me a long time to digest this. Here, I’m coming out of Charlie Parker and thinking swing, and the structure things that were already mapped out. Being with this band, it just opened up another area. “Oh yeah, this works.” So as I developed with that band, I started incorporating that information with my information, and I started expanding that knowledge. I was starting to see where a lot of the free playing of this music was coming from. Improvisation! The raw improvisation that was coming, and it was the most natural! I said, “Yeah, this works.” So Sun Ra was very instrumental for inspiring me, and there’s nothing but good things I can say about this man and his inspiration to all of us.

TP: Could you say a few words about your upbringing in Indianapolis, where the scene was thriving at the time you were coming up? Was saxophone or clarinet your first instrument? And when did you start playing?

JS: Actually, the trumpet was – the bugle. My father bought me a little bugle, and I was around the house blowing with that. Then I picked up a little trumpet in grade school, and I was messing with that for a while. Then my father would bring home all these records. He was a musician himself; he was a professional. Guitar. He was manager of the Original Brown Buddies of the 1920s to 1940s. Another organization took over. But he formulated that band actually. He would bring home all these records – King Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, everybody. I was only 5, and I would listen to this music, and it just got into my system right away.

The wonderful part about it is that my father was able to let me listen and make up my own mind about the music. He didn’t force it on me. He didn’t make me practice. He saw that I was going to get into the saxophone. Now, when I heard Charlie Parker, I said, “Yeah, Dad, I want a saxophone; I want an alto. Charlie Parker. I got to do this. This is the greatest thing I ever heard in the world.”

TP: Do you remember the first Charlie Parker record?

JS: It was “Mohawk” with Diz. Now, “Shaw Nuff” was the one I really liked the most on this 78. Later I listened to more and more, and I said, “Yeah, this is great.” At the time I was with a band, a young group of musicians in Indianapolis who called ourselves the Monarch Combo. We’d play all the teenage dances around Indianapolis. Bull Moose Jackson would come to town; we’d play behind him. Johnny Ace – we played behind him. We played for all the dances. Man, a lot of things were happening in Indianapolis. Clubs. We’d go and sit in. We’d go out and sit in with Wes Montgomery and his brothers out at another club. Freddie Hubbard and I got together at a jam session. That’s how I met Freddie, at a place called the Cotton Club in Indianapolis, at a jam session. I was in the Army at the same time, see. I was stationed at Fort Harrison in Indiana at the time. It was like a job. I had a car; I was driving back and forth from the base back to Indianapolis. So I used to bring Freddie with me out to the Army base, and he would sit in with the Army band. We’d do concerts at the Army Finance Center. It was a lot of music and activity. It was incredible.

TP: The 50s is called a conservative time in histories of jazz, but on the grass roots level it was one of the most open times ever, because musicians were able to glean experience in almost every area they’d need to access to make their way later on as independent-thinking musicians.

JS: Yeah, and you could take instruments home. Now you can’t take the instruments home, I heard, I found out. I asked this little kid next door, “Where’s your instrument? You said you play the trumpet – where is it?” “It’s in school.” I said, “School is closed. You don’t have an instrument?” He said, “No.” I always brought my instrument home. I’d go in the band room, sign out a flute. I taught myself the flute by signing out the instrument. I could bring it home and practice it. I brought it back in good shape. The instruments weren’t that good. I had an old raggedy, beat-up clarinet that I learned the clarinet on. We had those kind of opportunities. We had places to go. We could go to the Y; we could go swimming, play ping-pong, all kinds of activity at one time. All this is gone now! Today in Indianapolis there’s no place for youngsters to go where they can be supervised by people who are paid to do these jobs. So we see all these kids now standing on corners. There’s nothing to do. There’s no space. No places to go. So the music is being deliberately cut off.

TP: Did you enter the Army as a musician?

JS: Yes. I went to Special Services. My father made sure of that. This was 1954, right after the Korean War conflict. I went out to California… First I went to Fort Linwood, Missouri, for basic training for 8 weeks, and then went out to California, Fort Ord, for band training, and I was out there with the band. You had to prove yourself to be able to read. If you weren’t able to read they would put you in clerk-typist school or some other occupation. I had to bone up and get ready, because these guys, everybody could read – marches and the concert pieces you had to do. Learn how to march in formation and a lot of other stuff.

TP: That’s another rather common experience of musicians from your time, that experience in the Army bands and really getting their music together in that environment.

JS: Yes, it was very important to have that knowledge. The discipline, first of all, to be able to read. I had that discipline, fortunately, from my father, who was very gung-ho on all of us. I came from a family of 7. There were 7 of us. We had to be on our toes. My fathe was very strict, and my mother was very… She was in our corner. She’s a very spiritual woman, who was into the church. She kept us aware of our integrity, our values, kept us closely together. And we’re still together, except for one brother who was killed in an automobile accident in California. He was only 40. That shook everything up for a minute. I lost my father in 1975, when he was 70. Everything continues. Everything keeps moving on, and you keep learning, you keep growing.

TP: You have a series of records for Muse, all very different programmatically in terms of personnel. Let’s now hear a selection of songs from these first two. The first is a dedication to Thelonious Monk, titled Brilliant Corners, with a mix of young and veteran musicians — Wallace Roney, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter and Kenny Washington.

JS: On the first record I did a tribute to Duke Ellington. I had the same idea for Monk. The musicians took care of business on the dates. I was very pleased with it. Monk? What can I say?

TP: Did you hear Monk on records in the 50s?

JS: I heard Monk on records, right, in Indianapolis. Then I came to New York and met all these people, Max Roach and all these people. It was a whole beginning for me. The inspiration was unlimited.

[MUSIC: Spaulding, “I Mean You”; “Caravan

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For the 75th Birth Anniversary of Peter Kowald (1944-2002), A Memorial Piece For The Village Voice, A WKCR Interview in September 2002, An Interview Conducted at the 2002 Vision Festival, and a Review of Several Kowald CDs for Downbeat in 2002

I was very fortunate to have had an opportunity to speak with and write about the great German outcat bassist Peter Kowald during 2002, the year he passed away in New York City. For Kowald’s 75th birth anniversary yesterday, I’m posting an obituary that I wrote for the Village Voice in their jazz issue of 2003, the transcript of a WKCR encounter conversation I had with Kowald and saxophonist Assif Tsahar in Sept. 2002, nine days before Kowald’s death, and a review column of Kowald CDs that I did for Downbeat earlier in 2002. At the bottom is an interview that I conducted with Kowald at the Vision Festival in May 2002 — it was for a prospective radio piece on the “avant garde” intended for Studio 360 for which I also interviewed Derek Bailey, Fred Anderson, and others.


Peter Kowald Obituary, Village Voice, 2002:

“I lead the life of a traveler who goes to play for the people, opens his hand, gets some money, comes back home, and goes to the next one.” – Peter Kowald, September 12, 2002.

In the mid-‘90s, the late bassist Peter Kowald-–a man Butch Morris says “could drive for 24 hours and only stop for gas”–spent a full year at home in Wuppertal, Germany. His intention, Morris speculates, was “to lock in on who the Kowald was in his body.” He kept his car parked, and rode only his bicycle. At his house, he presented concerts with world class improvisers, collaborated with various Pina Bausch dancers, held workshops with local amateurs, and made forays into spontaneous form-sculpting with a “conduction” ensemble. Befitting an abiding passion for all things Hellenic, he fell in love with and married a Greek artist. Then he returned to the road, and broke up with his wife. He flew to New York in 2000, bought a 1968 Caprice station wagon, and, accompanied by French filmmaker Laurence Jouvert and a small crew, spent 10 weeks circumnavigating the United States in a succession of self-booked one-nighters.

Not long after they returned, Jouvert made the documentary Off the Road, an account of Kowald’s musical and conversational encounters in more than a dozen cities across America and various points along the highway. Meanwhile, Kowald, who had established himself as an important figure in the New York improv scene through his frequent visits over two decades, purchased a Harlem pied-a-terre to solidify his base.

The final week of this robust 58-year-old’s life was entirely characteristic. On Thursday, September 12, 2002, a few hours after joining me on WKCR to publicize an upcoming series of New York events, he flew overnight coach to Italy for a pair of weekend concerts. He returned to New York on Monday. On Tuesday, he made a recording session and worked at Triad with saxophonist Assif Tsahar and drummer Hamid Drake. The next night he worked downtown with saxophonist Blaise Siwula and guitarist Dom Minasi. On Friday he would play at B.T.M. in Williamsburg with trombonist Masahiko Kono, guitarist Kazuhisa Uchihashi and drummer Tatsuya Nakatani. He was scheduled to perform on Sunday at CBGB Lounge in trio with White Panther blues poet John Sinclair and Loisada saxophonist Daniel Carter, and then with Last Global Village, an ensemble comprising three Chinese flutists, Korean cellist Okkyung Lee, vocalist Lenora Conquest, and percussionist Ron McBee.

After the gig at B.T.M. Kowald began to feel unwell. On the ride home, he asked Kono to drop him off at the East Village apartment of bassist William Parker and dancer Patricia Nicholson. There he expired of a massive heart attack.

Had Kowald been an actor, director Rainer Fassbinder might have cast him to play proletarian everyman Franz Biberkopf in his epic film Berlin Alexanderplatz. Burly and attractive, with close cropped hair, Kowald moved with the deliberation of a butoh dancer and parsed his words with precision honed during youthful work as a scholar of ancient languages and translator of Greek poetry into modern German. He was a utopian, a pragmatic activist, a skilled organizer who learned the art of institution-building in the fractious milieu of radical ‘60s German culture.

At last year’s Vision Festival, Kowald worked the food stand, constructing two-dollar cheese sandwiches with the meticulousness of a master sushi chef. We can trace the existence of this annual event to his friendship with Parker, which began with a chance sidewalk encounter in 1981. Within a year, Kowald brought Parker to Berlin to play with heavyweight European free improvisers in concerts organized by FMP, the do-it-yourself grass-roots German music collective co-founded by his old friend Peter Brötzmann, to which Kowald had contributed mightly for more than a decade. In 1984 he received a government grant to live in New York for six months. He brought with him a 50,000-mark stipend from the millionaire painter A.R. Penck, with a mandate to make something happen.

Acutely aware that New York’s outcat community would mistrust his motives, Kowald reached out to Parker as a liaison. They held meetings to plan the logistics of the first Sound Unity Festival, settling on the FMP payment policy of $100 per musician, including bandleaders. In 1988, again using Penck’s money, Sound Unity spent $1000 to rent the Knitting Factory for a week, and played to packed houses every night. This did not escape the notice of proprietor Michael Dorf, who established the Knitting Factory Festival the following year. In response, Patricia Nicholson launched the Improvisers Collective, which in 1996 evolved into the Vision Festival.

“Peter would stop by a place that an American musician would walk past 20 times, and get something started just by being personable,” Parker says. “Especially black musicians, it seems you’re fighting all the time. You get worn out. You can lose your perspective if you’re not on top of things. But Peter was always probing and looking for signs of life wherever he went.”

Wuppertal is an industrial city of 350,000 in the Rhine Basin, the home of the Pina Bausch Tanztheater and the birthplace of Engels and German Communism. During Kowald’s formative years, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s electronic studio was a half-hour’s train ride away in Cologne, while Wuppertal’s own Galerie Parnass presented Nam June Paik’s first one-man exhibition and new work from Joseph Beuys. Saxophonist Peter Brötzmann, who had come to Wuppertal to attend the local art school in 1959, worked as Paik’s assistant, and accompanied him on Fluxus happenings in southwest Germany and the Benelux countries. Brötzmann urged Kowald, a teenage tubist, to learn the bass, preaching Paik’s liberating dictum: “the space is completely open, you can use any material, any ideas–everything is possible.” They began to play on a nightly basis in Brötzmann’s basement studio.

During our WKCR encounter last September, Kowald spoke frankly about the no-holds-barred milieu that framed his formative years. “The mood was, `Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning; there is a movement, we are not alone,’” he said. “Then you take a saxophone or bass, and do what you want–don’t worry what the teachers told you. I learned bass autodidactically until I was 26. We played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke, this famous student revolutionary, was in the second row. Grand times. I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in this climate, and that we always knew our enemies.”

Like most German radicals born in the aftermath of World War II, Brötzmann and Kowald came from educated, middle-class families in deep denial about the recent Nazi past. Brötzmann remembers that Kowald’s father had flown in the Luftwaffe and was an educator of the deaf, and that his mother was a housewife.

“Peter’s mother never forgave me for leading her son on the wrong path,” Brötzmann says. “But after the war we never got answers for the question, ‘Why did you do that?’ We had to look for our own answers and raise our own questions. We in Germany had problems with our fathers’ generation, and that’s why our rebellion was so strong and why our early music was such violent stuff, much more violent than in other European countries.”

Spurred by solitary investigations, encouraging encounters with passing-through expats like Steve Lacy and Don Cherry, and a few months on the road with Carla Bley, the young firebrands deployed American out jazz as a symbolic weapon, in Kowald’s words, to kill their fathers. Then they tried to kill the stepfathers, who proved to be unconquerable.

“Growing up in the `40s and `50s, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because it always carried this smell of Fascism,” Kowald said. “I saw that blues musicians and Jewish musicians related to their own tradition positively. My Greek wife loved her songs. But I never used my own culture in my music. I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and I took it all from there. When we started to improvise, our stuff clearly came from from jazz. But later we decided to do it the European way–not play Classical European music, but also not copy American jazz. Of course, looking back, I have to say we took a lot from saxophonists Albert Ayler and Pharaoh Sanders, and bass players like Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman.”

Lacking the virtuosity of early influences like Barre Phillips, Barry Guy, and Maarten Altena, or the force-of-nature blues anima of Fred Hopkins and Parker, Kowald functioned as a self-described chameleon, as comfortable playing in blood-and-guts trios with Charles Gayle and Rashied Ali or Floros Floridis and Gunter “Baby” Sommer as conducting extemporaneous musical dialogues with Tuvan vocalist Sainkho Namtchylak, body artist Ellen Z, or dancers Kazuo Ohno, Min Tanaka, and Jean Sasportes. His time wasn’t great, and he focused more on process than content. Nor was his vocabulary cliché-free; as he perfected his own novel techniques–like detuning his E-string and chanting low, gutteral tones over long drones in the Mongolian manner, or sticking the bow in the strings and rocking it to elicit seesaw overtones–he tended to use them regardless of context.

Somehow Kowald made his collaborations work. “Peter was looking to be a universal world musician,” Parker says. “He had what I call the X-factor, an ability to infuse the tradition of jazz bass in his playing and personalize it. He wasn’t coming out of jazz, so to speak, but he could play in all the styles, and added his idea of sound to the bands he played with. He always talked about wanting to play the blues, and I’d tell him, ‘You don’t have to be bothered with that; you are who you are, and whatever blues is there, it’s there.’ There was restlessness about him, and it seemed on all his journeys he was searching for something. I don’t know exactly what.”

There was something archetypally German about Kowald’s wanderlust. He was a nomad, a road warrior, a wanderer between the worlds–he hit the road not to escape his contradictions, but to confront them. “Peter was very social,” says Morris. “He wasn’t afraid to talk to anybody. If you said, ‘Hey, Peter, let’s go to Morocco and walk to South Africa,’ he’d say, ‘let’s do it.’ The adventures and the information he could get were right in line with his searching. Just to be on the way someplace satisfied him deeply. He could see that this music belongs everywhere.”


Peter Kowald-Assif Tsahar (WKCR, 9-12-02):

TP: Peter Kowald is one of the avatars of European improvisation, beginning in the early 1960s. You and Peter Brotzmann came up in Wuppertal, a city which also serves as the home of the Pina Bausch Dance Company. As you’ve told me, Nam June Paik was living there, and you came under his influence. Since then, Mr. Kowald has created a staggering vocabulary of extended techniques and ways of attacking the bass and creating dialogue out of those techniques. He’s one of the giants of that way of making music.


TP: Assif Tsahar is a generation younger, 33 years old, from Jaffa and grew up in Tel Aviv in Israel, and has been resident here for ten years. Peter Kowald is now a part-time New York resident, and has been for how long now?

KOWALD: A year-and-a-half. I found a place here now, and I’m going back and forth.

TP: Peter Kowald made an impact on New York as far back as the mid-1980s, when the Sound Unity Festival happened on 2nd Avenue and Houston, when you helped bring together what was a somewhat fractious community of improvisers into an extremely successful festival. It seems to me that this laid the seeds in some ways for the Vision Fest. So this is not New York’s first experience with Peter.

The two of you have developed a close musical simpatico over recent years. Deals, Ideas and Ideals is from 1999. How did you meet?

TSAHAR: Peter came to town, and he was staying with William Parker, who is his very close friend. Back then I was working on the Vision Festival maybe, the first year or so…

KOWALD: We met earlier, before.

TSAHAR: Yes, before. It was the Improvisers’ Collective. So we met there, and then I asked Peter if he had the time to play, to do a session. We played, we had a very good time. He was very supportive. One of Peter’s best qualities is that he has very good insights into the music; he’s very supportive in that way. That was the beginning. We played in the first Vision Festival. He played in the group I was playing in with William Parker and Susie Ibarra, and we’ve kept it up since then.

TP: This goes back to when? ’95 or so?

KOWALD: Somewhere around then.

TP: Assif, as a saxophonist coming up in Israel, how aware were you of the stream of music that developed in the ’60s in Europe…

TSAHAR: I was aware of the musicians. I was aware of some of the music. Growing up in Israel, more depended on what we could get, and those were very hard to records to get there. I knew of Globe Unity, so I knew of Peter from there — and Brotzmann. But I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about everything that happened there. I had more knowledge of what was happening here, just because that’s what we could get in the record stores. So I knew of all the things like Cecil Taylor… When I got to New York, I didn’t really know what was happening. I knew William Parker because of what he did with Cecil, but I didn’t know all the current things happening at the time in New York.

TP: But it’s the ’80s when you’re forming your musical aesthetic and sensibility. Was there a community of out players in Israel at that time, or were you operating in isolation? Are you operating with a peer group?

TSAHAR: It was pretty much in isolation. A very good friend was a piano player, Daniel (?). He came with me here. We were working together. Basically, we were almost it, along with a few others. A drummer, Egal (?), who also lives here now. We were kind of working together. There were five, maybe six people, and that’s it. Now it’s growing, I think. There’s a lot more awareness of it now in Israel.

TP: How frequently does this configuration play, the trio or augmented, of Peter Kowald, Assif Tsahar, and Hamid Drake, the drummer from Chicago?

KOWALD: We actually do play quite a lot in Europe rather than here in America, and we have a couple of tours. Like, every two months we have a tour or a couple of gigs together. So we’ve played quite a lot in the last one-and-a-half years, in fact. We had a tour in Israel last year…

TP: 50-60 performances in the last couple of years?

KOWALD: Maybe somewhere in there.

TP: That would seem to be a situation that would generate a lot of new music and a lot of ideas and new directions. How has the band evolved from the first meeting?

KOWALD: The trio is more organized that way, that we just improvise, and we don’t really use, or only rarely, any thematic material. But the quartet with Hugh uses the pieces. But then, the quartet doesn’t work that often. Only a couple of big festivals when they invite us. And we have rehearsals for the pieces. So the music is a little different between the trio and the quartet. the quartet sounds more like the structure of you have a theme, and then you have the solos and you go back to the theme, and the trio is completely open.

TP: Do you find in trios like that you tend to create compositions from a blank canvas? How do you sustain freshness in a situation like that?

KOWALD: I would say there are a lot of routines in a positive way, like things we bring… Like, we have a bag on shoulders, and in the beginning of the evening we pull out things, things we know, things we have in a similar way done before. But then also, new stuff is happening each night. Especially I find that the relationship with Hamid and myself has really developed over the time. It’s interesting, because he likes to go into rhythmical things, and I like that, too, but then I kind of seem to be the person who always takes him out of there again to go somewhere else. Then Assif is using the two instruments, the saxophone but also the bass clarinet, so we have different textures in the horn section. And then the bass is the bow and the plucked, like the pizz stuff, so it’s a different thing… The pizz stuff with Hamid is more of a free rhythmical thing, and then the bows goes to the bass clarinet. So there’s a lot of songs coming from different parts. Hamid sings, he plays the hand drum, and we have pieces where I sing and he sings. So there’s a lot of different textures.

TSAHAR: I think the group is interesting. When we were touring in Israel, because of Peter being from Germany and Hamid being a Sufi, who have a strong connection also to Islam, and myself being Jewish, it was very interesting. I think that comes off in the music. We come from different places but have a very strong meeting place. What comes together is actually very strong, but we all come from like different direction, but really meet in the middle. I think that interestingly works… It’s also socially like that. It also works out in the music like this.

TP: A number of Israeli musicians who have made an impact in New York, but in less open form situations, have all had quite a bit of exposure to North African and Arabic music. It’s part of their vernacular growing up. It’s unavoidable.

TSAHAR: Yes. It’s actually the stronger… It’s actually what we listen to. People think about Klezmer music when you think about Jewish, and actually when you listen to Israeli music, Arabic music is a much stronger influence.

TP: Now, what do you think that imparts to you that allows you to intersect with the broader realm of improvising, whether within jazz or a pan-improvisational manner? Is it that you’ve internalized these very complex rhythmic signatures, or certain scales that correlate to melodies…

TSAHAR: I don’t know. I can’t comment on that.

KOWALD: I would say for myself that in many ways I am playing a traditional European instrument. But I learned it autodidactically before I studied it. I played with Brotzmann ten years before I started to study the bass. I was autodidactic in the early years. Between 16 and 26, I was autodidactic. Then I studied classical European music, but it was kind of schizophrenic, because all the things I had to study in the day, I didn’t want to do at night. A lot of the things I did at night were forbidden in the day. So it was a real parallel thing, and the influences I had were rather not the classical European music, and the bel canto sound, as I used to call it, for the bass, and the classical European sound… I wanted to avoid that. I wanted to go into other aesthetics, and I took from all kinds of music. I tried to copy singers from Tuva and Mongolia and African music, and of course, it never worked on the bass, but then what came out was something… I was closer to the aesthetics of “world music” than of European aesthetics. That broadened the techniques, too. I had to find a way to put my finger on the instruments so it would make these kinds of sound I wanted to have.

TP: All the time. Have it not be an accident, but a systematic vocabulary.

KOWALD: Yes. And then I really tried to transform sounds and aesthetics of the pygmies onto the bass, and some of it worked, but of course, it’s not pygmy music. But suddenly I found out that the bass harmonics in a certain position with the hands do certain things which nobody does except me — but I got it from the pygmies.

TP: Can you relate what you were doing to the cultural milieu during the 1960s, the arc of the culture up to ’68 and the aftermath of that? Baader-Meinhof is happening…

KOWALD: Oh, yes. I can actually go back a little earlier. Because when I grew up in the ’40s as a little boy, and in the ’50s in Germany, it was very difficult to sing a German song, because everything had been used by Fascism and Hitler. So we didn’t sing our songs. It was very difficult. So I saw that every blues musician or every Jewish musician somehow related to his own tradition in a positive way. I used to have a Greek wife, and she loved her Greek songs, but I didn’t love my German songs. Then I became a traveler somehow. So I tried to be… I was always interested in what the other cultures had to say, and so I took it all from there. I became somehow a traveler from the beginning. But I didn’t ever use my own culture into my own music. Of course, there was Brecht and Weill and Eisler who were relatively modern people out of the last century, but in a way, their music was a bit of a tradition to me — or it became a bit of a tradition. But it was very difficult to sing a German song because it had always this smell of Fascism in it.

TP: It would seem that with Brecht and Weill and Eisler there’s a certain attitude or sensibility toward the material that becomes correlated through the years to what you were doing.

KOWALD: Well, the ’60s came… That was your question. Then the whole political movement came, and then there were two Germanies, East Germany and West Germany, and then we had all the sympathy for the East because Brecht was there, and things were discussed in a very different way — and some of them were not discussed, of course. But we were all left wing people, and we were part of this revolutionary thing that started in the mid-’60s, and then we had ’68 in Berlin and Paris and here in America, too, and in Italy and Japan… Many people don’t know that in Japan there was a very political thing happening in the late ’60s. We said, “Okay, we can change the world tomorrow morning — let’s go.” I was a little younger then. Brotzmann is three years older, and he was so confident when he was very young, in his early twenties. He knew what he wanted. He knew what he didn’t want. So I was kind of following him a little bit, in his shadow. So we played in Berlin, and Rudi Dutschke was in the second row, this famous German student revolutionary. So that was all part of it, yes. It was great. It was wonderful. Grand times. And I am happy I was in my twenties when I grew up in all this climate and always knew our enemies, so to speak.

TP: But you’ve mentioned to me that you were sort of imparted the notion that anything is allowable by Nam June Paik, who came out of the Fluxus movement, which in and of itself was an apolitical entity…

KOWALD: Well, it was not apolitical at all. But it was very open in terms of material, yes. Peter when he was only 20 was an assistant for Nam June Paik, certainly projects he did in Wuppertal, because we had this fantastic gallery all the time that would invite all these people in the early ’60s. Peter was a great painter and artist all the time also. He was much more advanced as an artist when he was in his early twenties than as a saxophone player. But then he decided for the saxophone. And I think he discussed a lot with Paik about these questions, about what is art today and what does it mean, what can we do in Art. I remember Peter saying that Paik told him, “Now, don’t worry about anything; you can do anything you want to do; the space is completely open; you can use any material, you can use any ideas — everything is possible; don’t worry about nothing; do what you want to do.” So that was the ’60s, which had all this air about this whole thing, and “okay, now we change the world tomorrow, we can do anything, we are able, there is a power there, there is a movement there, we are not alone” — and then take a saxophone, take a bass, and do what you want to do, and don’t worry about what the teachers have been telling you. [LAUGHS]

TP: Taking this broader political and cultural theme and applying it to the area you’re involved in, which is a specific way of translating sounds into vocabulary and narrative and creating this pan-national dialogue: How do you start reaching out and finding your peer group throughout the European Continent, which is sort of developing in parallel. While you and Brotzmann are talking to Paik, Derek Bailey and Evan Parker are developing what they’re doing in England, and Han Bennink and Misha Mengelberg are doing what they’re doing in Holland, and people are dealing with different things in France and Italy. And eventually, the Globe Unity Orchestra forms, which seems to be an effort to incorporate these strands. Talk about your initial forays towards finding this peer group and embracing it.

KOWALD: Well, in a way we were very local in the beginning. We started to play together in ’62, I think. But I was 17, and had to be home… I had to go to school in the morning, so I had to be home early at night. [LAUGHS] My parents were pretty strict about that. Then we just started to play, and we had this little basement place which was a club, and sometimes on the weekend bands played. Gunter Hampel came by, I remember. Different people. But we during the week, we just came played for ourselves with different drummers at the time. Every Tuesday and every Friday we went, and then after one-and-a-half years, the first person came to listen. Nobody wanted to listen to us. They said, “Brotzmann can’t play, and why do you play with this guy, he can’t play — you have to learn other things.” After one-and-a-half years, the first person came.” We felt quite isolated in the beginning.

Then in the mid-’60s, Carla Bley came, Paul Bley came, Mingus came with Dolphy, Coltrane was there with the quartet in this club in Cologne. So we could see different people. But I think very important for us was when Carla came, and we sat in that night. She had a quintet with Steve Lacy and Mike Mantler and Aldo Romano and Kent Carter, and then she left…

TP: You and Brotzmann sat in.

KOWALD: We sat in on night. I think there’s still a tape of that.

TP: How did that feel?

KOWALD: Well, I was a little boy who was over-impressed by everything, and Brotzmann was much more “Let’s go into it and do it.” Carla liked him very much, and Steve also actually, and Steve encouraged us, and said, “Go ahead; this is good what you are trying to do there.”

TP: What was Brotzmann trying to do?

KOWALD: Well, he played alto… The drummers we had, they were always still playing time. Then I think Aldo Romano in this constellation, and maybe a few months earlier, when the Paul Bley Trio came, I think it was Barry Altschul… They were the first drummers who didn’t use time, who used more of an open pulse or free…

TP: This is ’65 and ’66.

KOWALD: ’65 and ’66, right. Then these records came out on Dutch Fontana, and then of course, Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity came over on ESP Records. That was about the time when Carla was around, and then she asked us for a tour…she asked actually Peter to play a tour with her the last year, and she had planned to bring Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, but somehow it didn’t work out with them, and then Peter was actually very nice and said “I’ll only do the tour if Peter Kowald is coming also.” Then I was 22 years old, and I did a three-month tour with that group. That was a big experience for me in many kinds of ways. I did a lot of mistakes in all kinds of ways, but still…

TP: Were you playing her compositions on that tour?

KOWALD: We had compositions, but…

TP: And then taking them completely apart every night.

KOWALD: Yes. But the context was more like a free context. We had the compositions in the beginning, but then all the improvisations were free, and without changes, without time.

TP: Were you ever involved in situations as a younger player where you needed to deal with form all the way through your improvisations and were satisfied with that course? Did you come across those experiences, or were you always wanting to shatter form, as it were, within every performance?

KOWALD: Well, in the early years with Brotzmann, we still played compositions. We played Ornette Coleman compositions, we played Mingus stuff, we played Coltrane stuff…

TP: That’s what you cut your teeth on.

KOWALD: Yes. But we didn’t really use the changes any more. We freed ourselves and never really stuck to the changes and stuck to the bars, the whole clear form. But then, on the other hand, I did very strict things. I played the tuba also at the time, and I played with Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, and we recorded Cage pieces… There’s a record of this. So I did a certain amount of stuff of reading Contemporary Music and notation. That was the most formal thing I, in fact, did. It was very interesting, because they were themselves there. Earle Brown was conducting his own pieces and Morton Feldman was conducting his pieces. That was really interesting. But that was the most formal thing in fact I did while I improvised freely. We basically went to free improvisation.

And I think after the Carla tour was exactly the time when Globe Unity started to be. But Alex didn’t know us, because we were about 40 miles away from Cologne where they were, Manfred Schoof and Alex Schlippenbach. But then they heard us one night, and it was just when Alex was writing his composition “Globe Unity,” and he included the whole trio into his Globe Unity Orchestra. Finally there were two bass players and two drummers, and Peter was added.

TSAHAR: One thing I’d like to add, and see if Peter agrees with me or not. The free improvisation, there is something very natural about it that almost every musician goes through. Then, when they go to school, it almost makes you feel like they’re taken out of it. My first experience of music was free improvisation, was taking the instrument and playing, and then doing it with a friend of mine. I think there is something about that that’s very natural. It’s probably also what they were trying to do, without so much of the thinking that this is a revolution.

KOWALD: Well, I have to say that in Europe it was clearly forgotten. Improvisation wasn’t used at all any more. If you go back to Bach and Mozart, they could do it, and people like Messaien could do it, but in Europe as a method of working for music it was forgotten. But then Stockhausen came back and said, “Okay.” He gave a little advice, “Hear what you want to play and then play it.” He had very open pieces. But that was the same time we started to improvise, but our stuff came from Black American music, very clearly. It came from jazz. But then there was maybe a little step which I would call a healthy way of killing our fathers. I mean, I love jazz. I still love it. It’s the main music I’ve been listening to in all my life. In some way, I’m proud of it now, over these years. But we had a point in Europe where we said, “Okay, let’s do it the European way.” We don’t want to copy American jazz any more. We don’t want to play Classical European music, but we don’t want to copy American jazz.” Like, a lot of bebop players in Europe had done that for years. But looking back on it, I still have to say we took a lot. We took a lot from Albert Ayler, we took a lot from Pharaoh Sanders, talking about saxophone players, and I took a lot from all the bass players, from Henry Grimes, Gary Peacock and Reggie Workman. I will play a bass duo on the 15th November with Reggie Workman at Roulette, and I am very happy that he agreed to it. It’s part of a bass duo thing I’ve been doing with European bass players. There are 3 CDs out now, but more are coming. We are planning for one with William Parker to come out, and the concert with Reggie Workman will be recorded also.

TP: There are different attitudes to the form question. Someone like Dave Holland, a contemporary of yours, in the 1960s was playing with Derek Bailey and John Stevens and spent the ’70s playing totally free music with Sam Rivers and Anthony Braxton’s structural music, and then he made a decision that he didn’t want to exclude closed form, that he liked both of them. He felt that without structured forms you couldn’t necessarily springboard to the next step, that they contributed to his creative development. So you’re coming from a similar milieu, albeit he’s English and he’s German, but reaching two very different conclusions. That’s not to make a value judgment, just to show how two very different ways of approaching an instrument and an aesthetic can emerge from similar set of circumstances.

KOWALD: Well, I would say that the (?), of course, is quite a different one. But what I find is that the music we have been doing found a form, too, but it is as a very organic, natural form. I am very interested in… When I work with younger people it is always my theme: How clear can the music be? How clear can improvisation be? Is it just this process of what I call a cold spaghetti music, where everything just glues and sticks to each other and goes on and goes on? Or is it possible to have a more intuitive, formal consciousness about when you improvise? I am very interested in people who play with a formal consciousness. Maybe that is the European mind a little bit related to the mind over here. But I find that a certain element of being clear and making decisions also, which is somehow a formal thing, is very important to me. I think, in a way, I feel that I am respected over here, too, because I have that. Even when I play a solo, I mean, it’s completely open, but I have formal sections. I have sections in there, and people understand that. People understand that a formal background without it (?) so much from. But the difference from Dave Holland is that it is not a pre-given form. The form is coming while you do it. And Dave Holland and many other people like to work with pre-given forms. That’s just the difference.

TP: Peter Kowald has also contributed to the stream of out jazz through working with drummers like Rashied Ali, through working with drummers like Hamid Drake, working with saxophonists like Charles Gayle and Assif… There is now and has been for at least 20 years that component to what you do.

KOWALD: I would say, yes, the saxophone trio with a saxophone trio and a drummer…

TP: Where the bass functions as a bass.

KOWALD: Well, that’s one side of the extreme. And then to play completely European, free improvised music with the young people, where you sometimes don’t make a sound for minutes and think all the time, I like that, too. That’s the other extreme. My whole pendulum has been those two. I love to do the more jazz quality stuff, like we do with Assif and Hamid, but I also like to have that improvisation. Then also I work with Sanko, the Siberian singer, who gave me a completely new value since the early ’90s because her voice is from this Tuvan Shamanist breath and overtone harmonic music section. I went to Tuva with her twice on the Trans-Siberian train. So that is another leg I am trying to stand on.

TP: Assif, you’ve played with a number of bass players. What are the qualities that Peter Kowald brings to this real-time encounter, this collective improvisation that distinguishes his instrumental personality from his peer group?

TSAHAR: Well, it’s exactly what he said now, because his pendulum is so vast. So we don’t get locked so much into one thing, one area, which is very common to do. So it’s very easy when we’re playing with Peter. It’s both ways. He keeps it as a compositional thought from beginning to end, and also keeps the variety going. Because it’s very easy, let’s say… I mean, I love those Sam Rivers records; it’s a good example. But in some ways, it always stays within that jazz vein. But in some ways, when I play with Peter, even though if we go there, and go somewhere that’s in the jazz vein and in the swinging tradition, it will always go out of it and go into different places, and always have the possibility of going back into it. That’s why I love the experience of playing with Peter.

TP: Peter Kowald is leaving for Italy. The life of an improviser. You’re going to Italy for maybe one night, two nights…

KOWALD: I play two days in (?).

TP: Come back here.

KOWALD: Come back Monday.

TP: Come back Monday, do a recording, play this gig at Triad, do some other gigs during the week… I’ve been watching you create a schedule, and is Einhoven on the way from Frankfurt… The troubadours.

KOWALD: Yes. The everyday life of a traveler who just goes there and plays for the people, and opens his hand, gets some money and comes back home, and goes to the next one.

TP: Very much in the medieval European tradition of the traveling troupes, the caravans. The modern-day troubadours.

KOWALD: Well, in fact, Botticini(?), the great bass player, he had a bass that he could take the neck off, so in the horse coaches he could travel, and then he did the gigs at the clubs!

TP: We don’t have time to go in tremendous depth into recent work… We have cued up a CD called “Aphorisms: 26 Looks On a Situation” with saxophonist Floris Floridis, and drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer…

KOWALD: He’s from East Germany. We were not allowed to play together for a couple of years, but we played secretly in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But in the early ’70s we were not allowed to play together.


KOWALD: [after Kowald-Barry Guy duo] …It means “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp is Overvalued.”

TP: And why is it overvalued?

KOWALD: Well, it is something that Josef Beuys said. Josef Beuys was an artist of the area where I grew up. I really liked him in my early years, and he was very influential to me. Just to say it in short, he not only did his artwork for which people know him over here, but he also tried to put art in a social context in a new way again — again, something as a result of the ’60s also. He was very out there in the ’60s for us.

TP: Something that was antithetical to Marcel Duchamp, the idea of putting a context on anything.

KOWALD: He did a project which he called “The Silence of Marcel Duchamp has Been Overvalued,” and I thought it was really interesting because I liked Marcel Duchamp so much, too. Then Beuys said, “Okay, but let’s look what does it mean. Do we take certain things too seriously? Don’t we have to act in another direction now?” The ’60s again. Right? Actually, the Barry Guy record has all titles which are related to Art, which are actually sentences. Paintings used to be on the record, on one side, on the other side four pieces which are related to certain artists. Barry likes art very much. Then he decided for I think… Anyway, I decided for Beuys and Marcel Duchamp.

TP: The previous piece was a duet between you and Sanko, the Tuvan throat singer to whom you referred. An incredible sound. It catches your attention. Even Peter Kowald, who’ve heard this record and played with her hundreds of times, is sitting across from me… If you can visualize a totally attentive expression where no motion is possible for a moment until they reach the next moment.

KOWALD: These aspects… We are talking about Josef Beuys now, who on the one hand is an artist who comes very much out of my context, but he also has worked on the Celtic stuff. Or the Cayuta(?) piece, when he came to America, where he didn’t touch American ground, but was carried off the airplane and carried with an ambulance into a gallery so he wouldn’t touch American ground, and then spent a week with the Cayuta(?) (they didn’t know each other, and they became friends during this week), and then Beuys left again without touching American ground. It’s very interesting, because he worked with very old cultures, and he includes… When he came the first time to America, he wanted to talk about the old America, and the Cayuta(?) was the symbol for that. Then Seinko carries in her voice a thousand years — and maybe more — of musical knowledge that hasn’t changed much in that area. In Tuva and Mongolia, the music has remained similar. Then she carries that thousand-years-old knowledge and puts it into a contemporary context. This is wonderful and very interesting to me.

TP: This actually would connect you with a strain of European modernism that goes back to James Joyce and Ezra Pound and Picasso. Pound would use pre-Biblical language, Joyce recontextualizes Homeric myth, Picasso deals with African sculptural forms. And here you are using a similar process in this manner of making music. If there’s a narrative in the music you make, what would be the closest analog? Would it be vocabulary? Would it be the visual arts? Is it shapes? Is it colors? Because the words “narrative” and “vocabulary” are often used by musicians, but it’s obviously an abstract vocabulary.

KOWALD: I believe that artists and the way that we play music is a very similar process in many ways. I think a beautiful thing in the music (and some of my artist friends sometimes express jealousy about this) is that we do it in groups often, most of the time, and the artist is most of the time alone in a studio…

TP: You mean that music is a social even a social process.

KOWALD: Yes. Well, art is a social process, too. But then the artist usually works alone in the studio, while we work in a group on stage and in a direct way. The music is going out, and it’s right there. The artist works for months maybe, until the product is ready. But I believe certain questions are very similar, certain questions of how do you free your language, how do you work with form. I talk a lot with artists about this question of form and how to change… Once you have been doing it for years, the change gets smaller. When I was young, I thought every month something new came into the music. Now it is changing much less. Artists have very similar problems. That is classic with them. And artists sometimes have a more, like, formal consciousness, because they work on form for months; when they do a painting, for months they work on the form of the painting. Our form kind of develops organically and it’s right there when it’s just been developed.

But then you come also back to the question of form with Seinko from Tuva, the singer. What is interesting about her is she brings all the qualities of her culture, of her voice, all the Shamanistic breath techniques, all the overtones and all of that, but she left what I call the local song. She doesn’t bring her local song any more. She says, “I don’t sing my song any more. I put my stuff into an open context, so I can play with you or I can play with Evan Parker or Ned Rothenberg,” whomever she plays with. So she left the local song. But she still brings all that knowledge and all the thousand years with her. That’s a beautiful thing. Then suddenly, because the pre-given form, the local form is not there any more, the form is completely open, and we just all can work together. People from China, from Africa, from Tuva, from Israel, from Germany, we can work together instantly without even discussing the matters. That’s really good. That’s really what I call the Global Village. I have this group called The Last Global Village. We are actually playing at CB’s Gallery on the 22nd. We are playing with… [LISTS PERSONNEL] We don’t prepare the music. We don’t rehearse it. We just get together. And most of the people don’t know each other, have never played with each other. And it works, because we don’t arrive with a pre-given form.

TP: That brings me to another question. What do you observe your audience to be? And how has that audience evolved over the forty years you’ve been playing? Who do you find coming to the concerts? How do you think they’re receiving it? Are they involved-enthralled in the process of the music-making? My main response to hearing this kind of music is watching the interplay as it occurs from moment to moment. It’s not so much what’s being played as how I am perceiving taking shape in real time. Other people may have a different perspective. How do you perceive the process with your audience?

KOWALD: Well, the audience has been the same in many ways. There are little festivals in Europe where the same people come together every year to listen to basically the same musicians — the big family. That’s fine. But then, in the last few years, I see many young people coming. Also I play for a lot of artists, like for the art openings, and then you have an audience which has never heard this music. So what I tell in these workshops sometimes, the young people, what for me is important… We’ve talked about form now three times already in this little hour here. We talk about the believing and the love of it. This is important to me. I’m sometimes a little critical about some European players who do it so cold, in a way, with so much thinking and so much formal consciousness. I don’t mind the form at all, and I said that before. But I also believe that you need the love. You need to believe in what you are doing. If I don’t believe in the moment what I play, how can the people down there believe it? That’s what I try to tell the young people. Don’t just think about material. Just do that. Practice, check out the forms and do the work, but also try to come in contact with yourself. This is an esoteric term you read all over the place.

I remember this very young dancer of Pina Bausch who lived across the street, and we used to meet in the coffee house in the afternoon sometimes. He was 22, a French guy, Francois Durer(?), a fantastic virtuoso dancer, and Pina let him do all these little solos in the pieces. And then one afternoon he told me, “Listen, I know I’m a good dancer, but I haven’t found it in HERE yet.” And then he pointed to his chest. I found it really wonderful that a 22-year-old virtuoso dancer, a great artist already, understood that still he had to look for something inside. This is what I’m talking about. “If you don’t believe what you are doing,” I tell young people all the time, “how can they believe it? How can the audience believe it?”

That’s what you were asking about the audience. The audience believes it if you believe what you are doing, if you are in it, if you open your soul, if you open your heart. That’s the aspect people don’t talk about enough sometimes. I think in Black America people talk about it much more than in Europe. That’s I think an important point also to the question where I said I have this pendulum between, let’s say, Black American Jazz and very formal European improvised music. I think the music meets the heart.

TP: Assif, you’re from a generation for whom playing free music is almost another option for vocabulary. Last year I went to Cecil Taylor’s orchestra workshop at Turtle Bay Music School, and there were people who could play the music extremely well and lucidly. But in talking to some of these people, they might play bebop here, and here we’ll play this way, and here we’ll play a dance gig. There were all these options, and free music is one part of the craft of being a musician in 2001. It seems generational, that people with that attitude can embrace this music with extended vocabularies and extended techniques and tabula rasa playing as a genre of equal value to others. Maybe it has to do with the way education is presented now. Not to ask you to speak for your generation, but for you is this an operative thing?

TSAHAR: Well, it exists. Things are more formalized and more clear, and there’s more awareness that one is using certain techniques in a certain genre. Also, I grew up playing actually bebop on guitar, not on saxophone, so I had an experience of growing up and then being freed out of it. Because everything was done, there’s more awareness of what are the things that we’re doing. But in the end, the difference is of being a musician or being an artist, I guess. So for me, I’m trying not to think about it. I’m trying just to think about where I am, how I play, where do I find myself, and not think about playing like… If I find myself thinking about, “oh, I sound like…” Which was always with me. I think, “Oh, if I sound like Coltrane,” that’s not a positive thing. That’s a negative thing. That’s…

TP: Well, for a while you want to emulate a sound, and then move away from it, no?

TSAHAR: Well, I think that’s from the beginning, a certain awareness. I might have enjoyed it more in my earlier years, “Oh, wow, that’s cool.” But I was always aware this is not what I want to do, this is not where I want to go. I want to feel like I have no shadows chasing after me. Because all these thoughts of style and mentors, which could be like living mentors or dead mentors, are kind of shadows covering what I really want to do. So I’m trying to surpass them and not really… They only will get in the way, in a way. So being within a style thing of, “Oh, I’m playing free” or “I’m playing inside,” all those things, in a way, interfere with what I want to do.

But it is all there, because it’s all part of what I listen to, what I grew up with… You asked in the beginning how does Arabic music influence my music, and a lot of people ask me about Jewish music, and I say that for me I play Jewish-Israeli music if I want or if I don’t want. It’s like what I grew up listening to. It’s in my sound even if I don’t like it. A certain type of Arabic singing… Like, playing out of tune for me was the easiest thing ever…

TP: Microtonal.

TSAHAR: Or microtonal, if you want to be more intellectual about it. But it’s the way I heard people singing. The tone, the pitch always shifts and moves. It’s never like a very specific thing. That’s how I hear. That’s how I play. Because that’s what I heard growing up.

TP: Peter, you said before we went on mike that you could discuss some of the extended techniques you use on bass in the duos, say, with Barry Guy. And it’s interesting, because in some sense there’s a creative tension between the elaboration of these very specific techniques that comprise your sonic identity, and transmitting the heart and love and soul that is your ideal, the imperative for why you do it.

KOWALD: Well, there are different steps. On this CD here is Barre Phillips, who was a little bit my teacher in the ’60s when he came to Europe. He had studied with Fred Zimmerman here in New York. I met Barry Guy later, but then when I went to London in the ’80s, often I stayed at his house. We would drink until early in the morning, and then he would go to a studio and record this Mozart symphony which he hadn’t looked at. He went completely unprepared to the studio, and he could do them, and they all got these awards. So he is a fantastic classical player, too.

But now I want to talk about the third person, Martin Aaltena, who did something to me which really helped me a lot. He broke his arm in the ’70s, and he had it in plaster, so he knew he wouldn’t be able to play for two months. Then he put the bass neck into plaster, too, and then he started to play concerts like that. There’s a record out where there’s a photograph of the bass neck in plaster and his arm in plaster. I thought he had a courage which I don’t know if I’d have had to really go out and say, “I have to forget everything I’ve ever learned and do something completely new.” So he started to stick bows into the strings and made all this sound. The sounds he made were completely sounds that didn’t have to do at all with bass techniques he knew. He just wanted to spend the two months playing the bass, even with his arm broken, and he did that way. But also, all the sounds which came out really freed him from everything he had learned, and it helped to free me. Because I was kind of theoretically… I didn’t want to break my arm to do the same thing, but okay, let’s try really to put the hand on the bass in a way like I’ve never done it before. Then all these sounds come out which you don’t know where they come from. Then you have to combine. You have to combine your aesthetic will, maybe, something you have in your head and something which comes through the music you listen to, to combine with this how to put your hand on the instrument. If those two aspects get into a balance, then I think it’s really interesting.

TP: I’d like to pick up one other trope of this conversation, which is the relationship between your musical expression and the visual arts. So much of your music seems to be generated, performed, and perhaps even done in that context. You’re contemporaneous with German painters like A.R. Penck, Baselitz, Kiefer, painters who made an international impact in the ’70s and ’80s. I’m not trying to suggest any affiliation, but merely to note that their work was operating in parallel to you. Were there convergences?

KOWALD: I always like to hang out with the guys and discuss everything, and with the artists you often hang out and discuss… With the musicians, too. But then we discuss the methods, and discuss how does this function and how does this work. Well, artists don’t have an instrument. They have a very open way to use material. I have a bass. Of course, I could do other things, and now all the young guys do this electronic stuff, in order to have maybe a more free equipment to work with. But I was always quite a purist. I wanted to do all these things just on the bass. But then, artists have a lot of freedom. Many people do videos, installations… I just saw a documentary a couple of weeks ago in Germany. They are very free in terms of material. I think musicians can learn from that. That’s one thing I definitely have to say. But then our social thing is…I really don’t want to miss it. To go with Assif and Hamid on stage, and the three of us, and that smile, and then we just go, and we don’t know what the next minute will bring us. That’s the most wonderful thing to do.


Peter Kowald Review Column (2002):

“I sometimes like to be like a chameleon,” Peter Kowald said last May, five months before his death. “I like to change color related to the person or the group I play with. And it means that I don’t have a function any more. I am just a bass player, which means that I make sounds on the bass like other people do on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa.”

Born and based in Wuppertal, in Germany’s Ruhr Basin, Kowald brought that fluid aesthetic to innumerable extemporaneous encounters with a global cohort of speculative improvisers. Deploying a vivid, original tonal personality that blended tropes from jazz, Euro-Classical, and Mongolian and Pygmy folk traditions, he was as comfortable navigating discursively conversational duos as the complex terrain of hardcore free-improvised jazz.

Kowald is both chameleon and functional bassist on APHORISMS (Ano Kato 2015, 44:17, 4 stars). True to the title, Kowald, Greek reeds and woodwind virtuoso Floris Floridos, and innovative Dresden-born drummer Gunter “Baby” Sommer improvise 26 pithy vignettes from a veritable lexicon of extended techniques, parsing essences with precision and nuance, merging singular vocabularies into a collective sound that transcends instrumental gymnastics. Outcat trombonist Conrad Bauer, a multiphonics maestro who like Sommer was a pioneer of jazz in the GDR, joins Kowald and Sommer on BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH (Intakt 079, 52:46, 4 stars); they perform eight brief narrations with similar rigor and timbral scope, before stretching out for two vigorous extended blowout improvs that sustain compositional thought and variety from beginning to end on a minimum of thematic material.

Theme-solo-theme structures spur the intense interplay of OPEN SYSTEMS (Marge 28, 72:42, 3-1/2 stars), a sprawling, ritualistic recital by a first-time-out quartet of Kowald, post-Ayler saxophonist Assif Tsahar, bravura trumpeter Hugh Ragin, and drummer Hamid Drake. Convened in Paris in the spring of 2001, the unit only occasionally meanders, blowing with heat and wit through Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” and four Tsahar vehicles that conjure up the apocalyptic feel of 1969 BYG record by, say, Archie Shepp or the Reverend Frank Wright. Kowald chants low, gutteral tones in counterpoint to Drake’s muezzin’s call on “Heart’s Remembrance,” an open improv, and presents an idiomatic Ayler homage entitled “Fathers and Mothers.”

Kowald once noted that he and saxophonist Peter Brötzmann – his mentor in early ‘60s Wuppertal — deployed radical jazz as a symbolic weapon to kill their fathers. After encouraging mid-‘60s encounters with expat American avatars like Steve Lacy, Don Cherry and Carla Bley, the young Germans set to work at eliminating the stepfathers; in Kowald’s words, “to do it the European way.” FOR ADOLPHE SAX (Archive-FMP Edition 230, 50:25, 3 stars) reissues a rawboned, to-the-barricades 1967 trio album on which Brötzmann blows with primal violence, Kowald bows resourcefully and dynamically, and Swedish drummer Sven-Åke Johanssen jabs and pummels ametric texture out of the drumkit, setting an expressionist template for several subsequent generations of the young and restless on both continents. Dutch energy pianist Fred Van Hove, Brötzmann’s cusp-of-the-‘70s partner in a trio with Han Bennink, joins the unit for a strong, though predictable disk-concluding track recorded at Radio Bremen.


Kowald at Vision-Fest (5-27-02) – (Peter Kowald):


PETER KOWALD: …it’s about making a castle against the poor people. Like, America is a castle, and then Europe is another castle now. I guess in Asia there are castles, too. So it’s like a castle to defend certain things, certain standards.

TP: I know what you’re talking about. [ETC.] We’re in the boiler room of the St. Patrick’s Church Community Center, where the Vision Festival is being held… [ETC.] Peter Kowald, bass player, master of extended techniques…

What is your sense of the term “avant-garde” and how does it apply to what you do, to the projection of your musical personality?

[45:18] KOWALD: Well, the first thing I have to say: In Europe we don’t use that term so much. And it has been used in the last century…well, at the beginning of the century for artistic movements like Dadaism, Surrealism and stuff. Actually, it is a military term. As we know, the group in front. The group in front which may be in the most dangerous place, the most risky place, and also which can make decisions — or does make decisions which the people in the back don’t do. So that has been modified for art movements in the last century. The way we use it, or the way it’s used here in New York about this music we all are playing, it’s a way we wouldn’t use that any more. Somehow, the term smells a little bit in Europe. It’s a little old-fashioned.

TP: That leads to a question I was going to ask. If there’s a difference between the conception of the avant-garde in Europe and the American notion of what the avant-garde is.

[46:24] KOWALD: So I believe what it meant and what it means is that there’s a movement or a group of artists who do something new, something different from what has been before. And I guess in the ’60s the term came up for this music very strongly, and there has been a lot of breaking up of traditional matters. And so, it has been used now 50 years later…no, 40 years… Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” came out in ’62, no?

TP: ’60.

[47:04] KOWALD: Okay. 40 years later. I would say that’s a good moment, Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz,” which was definitely what at the time people would call avant-garde. It was breaking many, many rules, and trying to really open up the whole question of form. That’s what we maybe have to say first. Breaking up the form was what the whole goal was. Because all traditional musics, all over the world, they have a form. The Inuit singers or Indian Raga or African drum music, all this has form, however open or tight it might be. And I think the ’60s movement, what we relate to the term “avant-garde” now to what we are playing has completely opened up the form, which was not only the case in this music but also in contemporary art and… Remember Nam June Paik, the Fluxus artist, he came to Wuppertal in the early ’60s, and Brotzmann was his assistant for a moment, and Paik had said, “Now you can do anything. It’s completely open. Anything is possible now. Don’t worry about any tradition; don’t worry about any traditional form — anything is possible.” And that was maybe for us Europeans to think, “Okay, now the free…what does the free mean?” It basically means, in the first place, free of a pre-given traditional form, like bebop was and like a raga is or any other music has these forms. Free of a form. But of course, Ornette Coleman and Max Roach and the black musicians in America meant it also in another connotation of, well, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were around at the same time.

TP: Now, the Inuit musicians and the musics of India and the drum music of Africa, you don’t see this pattern of breaking up the form in this manner. These days it’s more that you see people who have mastered these forms intersecting with other people, creating this giant hybrid of vernaculars and cultural expressions. Why was the notion of breaking form so appealing to you at that moment?

[49:20] KOWALD: Well, I have been thinking about this a lot, in fact. What we might see in the ’60s…it started, and now it’s really obvious: That you could go all over the world in a plane in 24 hours, which means in one-night-and-day unit. Or you could have a CD or record at the time from any music of the world. I mean, there might have been very remote corners where you wouldn’t have something, but now everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. And at that time, at that exactly at this moment when this happened technologically, basically, that happened. The form broke open. So the traditional forms… They are still there, of course, and they are still very strong and they will stay. But exactly at that moment, the question came up: What does traditional form mean? Because traditional form is always a local form. But going around with a plane in a one-day unit means that the question of local has changed. And I believe that it’s very much connected, what I’m talking about now, that we can have information about all parts of the world, about all cultures, about all musics, about all art forms. We can have that now. We can discuss it. We meet people who play instruments who come from very different… Like, I play with Sanko from Tuva, and Tuva in the ’60s wasn’t even…nobody really knew about it here in the West, and now everybody talks about Tuva and the music there. So, so much has happened in these forty years. Which means that the local forms are still there, but they don’t have their importance any more. Or, they have it for the people who live locally. We all live locally, we have to say, too. But at the same time, there is a big exchange of all cultural values and traditions and all that is there. People call that the Postmodern maybe. I don’t know if I would like to use that term, in fact. But everything is there. Everything is to our disposal. We can use everything.

[51:30] So breaking up the form in terms of avant-garde, it meant — and Cage has said — that we can use any noise, and any noise is valued. And a saxophone player in New York, he would play saxophone in a way that would make certain screams, as we know, and certain noises. So noise has been with instrumental improvisers included, too. Noise was not excluded. So as Nam June Paik has said, anything is possible. We can include anything.

TP: You mentioned Nam June Paik twice, and in doing so you’ve touched on the next question. To what extent did artistic forms, cultural forms other than music — or politics — inflect the musical personality you’ve come to evolve?

[52:30] KOWALD: I mean, I grew up in Germany, and that’s why I talk about it. And I met Paik when I was 20. So he was very influential to me, in a way, through Brotzmann somehow. But also I was closer to the visual arts at the time, because I played the bass, and I played with Brotzmann, and I was 17 when I started to play with him, etc. But we didn’t grow up with the music like people here did. I was not Albert Ayler’s bass player at the time. What happened here, we watched really what came out here, the records when they came over here later — ESP and all of that. We really watched that and listened to it. But we were not here. We were in Wuppertal, Germany, which is a little town, and we were the only two people playing that kind of music at the time — or trying to. So we didn’t grow up with the music. So our connection with other art forms was more natural at the time. It was usually visual art, and then Fluxus was very important; it started in ’62-’63. Which again, the movement of Fluxus was about everything is open and everybody can what he or she wants to do.

So transporting this or transforming it to the question of playing the music: We tried to say, okay, we don’t want any tradition. We reject our own tradition in the sense of not playing Classical music, Classical European music, not even contemporary music in a sense, which is something which follows the classical music in the 20th Century. But then again, not what many Europeans had done before, learned the jazz licks and learned jazz and tried to copy or being with American jazz… We said, “We don’t want to do that either.” So that was our way to say, “Okay, we play a completely free, improvised music now.” And somehow, of course, Albert Ayler and Coltrane and Cecil Taylor and Ornette helped us to make these steps, and they were actually very influential to us in the beginning. But then also, we thought, okay, now we’ll try to have some European music which is just coming out of improvisation and no pre-given form.

TP: In the process, the most committed, adept improvisers developed specific identifiable vocabularies. Someone can tell you from William Parker from Barry Guy and so forth and so on. And you’ve evolved these vocabularies over many years. Has a music which was born from the idea of there being no form or the abolition of form become a formal entity unto itself, and how then does the music develop and advance within such a situation?

[55:36] KOWALD: Well, the pre-given form… Of course, in what we call now the avant-garde of this jazz music or post-jazz music…sometimes it has form and makes forms. But what I call the free improvisation doesn’t have a form — or a pre-given form. But each piece, of course, which is improvised, as a solo, as a trio, as a quintet, will have a form when it’s finished — has a form when it’s finished. Form is not something pre-given, but form is something which turns out to be in the process of playing. But this is basically a situation which is very open, open in the sense, too, that… And that’s what I love to talk about, too. I have played with a lot of people from different cultures. We all have. But I always looked for the question what the other cultures have to say. So from Sanko to Charles Gayle, or from a Japanese koto player…a Chinese koto player is in my group now, ..(?).., who is in my group in Germany now. to Pamela Z(?) from San Francisco, who uses body contact mikes. I like to play in other spectra. But that’s also part of the openness, too.

In a way, I sometimes like to be, as a bass player…like to be like a chameleon, which means I like to change color related to the person I play with or to the group I play with. Which means as a bass player I don’t have a function any more, like, up until the ’60s the bass player had. And still, sometimes, in a groups with saxophones, drums and bass, of course, I still use the function…I have the function of a bass player in that group, too, when I play with Rashied Ali. But in other times, I don’t have a function as a bass player. I am just a bass player, which means that I make the sounds on the bass like other people make it on the trumpet, on the koto, on the gu-cheng or on the pipa. And that means we are all individuals now. The openness is there. The openness… As I said, we can travel in one day to any part of the world. We can have music from everywhere we can listen to, and we can play with people who also live behind the local forms and just say, “Okay, we are open now, too.” We still use our aesthetics. Sanko, the singer, is an example I like to use often, because she is so obvious. She’s using the shamanistic breath techniques, and she is doing the overtones like in Tuva, but she opened up the form and she doesn’t sing the local song any more. And when we do that, then we can play together immediately, without any discussion. We don’t have to prepare anything.

TP: This is a very radical idea.

[58:45] KOWALD: Well, it’s an idea which sometimes… I don’t want to exaggerate, but sometimes I feel it could be a beautiful little model for how this world could function. Because of course, the forms… We need form, and that’s why many people also sometimes come back to it more than in the ’60s. Many musicians have gone back to pre-given forms — to compositions and to playing time and to playing chords sometimes. But all that is possible. All that can be included. We don’t want to exclude anything any more. Not the noise, but also not the sound. So we can include everything. And that’s nice. Because I believe if you look at it socially, politically, psychologically, everything that is excluded will be a problem later on. So we can include everything. Then when everything is on the table, then we can make our choice and say, “Today I eat the apple” and tomorrow the orange and then the day after the grapes. We can make the choice when everything is on the table. But everything has to come on the table first. And when it’s on the table, then we can make the choice.

TP: Now, this attitude, it doesn’t seem to me, was possible 40 years or, or 30 years ago, even. But now it seems a commonplace to say this. Why do you think that is?

[1.00.16] KOWALD: Well, that has to do with that the world got smaller, in fact, of course, and it has to do with attitudes of… We all travel more than we did in the ’60s. In the ’60s we had an old car, and went from Germany to Belgium, which was five hours. Of course, some musicians traveled at the time, too, but they were much less. And now everybody travels all the time to play concerts wherever in the world. Wherever people ask me to play, I go. Or if I were to invite a musician from wherever, I ask them to come.

So that’s part of that. But also the information has gone… I don’t look at television any more, but what they give you on television at least it’s a sign what could be possible of what we see from other cultures, what we see from other parts of the world. Television in Germany and in America and in the Western world don’t use that. But there are so many possibilities to get information. But then there’s so much information that we have to make choices again. We have to make choices all the time, because it’s too much. And then, okay, we made the choice to make free improvised music with a network of people between Asia and… Maybe there are people in Africa coming soon. I played with people in Africa who understood what I was talking about. Because they wanted to teach me their rhythms, which as a German I never would be able to learn, even as much as I would try. Then at some point, they said, “Oh, you play what you play and we play what we play,” and so we played together. That was a step into… Still people who were very related to their traditional form said, okay, you can do what you do and we’ll do what we do. That’s a step into that freedom you’re talking about.

[1.02.35] TP: You were saying just before that you will travel wherever anybody asks you to play, and you’ve been doing something like this for about 40 years in one form or another, and you’re 58 years old. How have you sustained your intensity and commitment?

[1.03.10] KOWALD: Of course, I have sometimes a longing for being in one place more. Now I have two places, because I am in Germany, as I used to be, and I have a place in New York now, too. So basically I have two legs I’m standing on now. Well, I don’t like so much to teach. I do these workshops sometimes, and I like to talk to younger people about this music, and maybe give away something I’ve learned over the years. But basically, I love to play. So I don’t want to be really a professor at a university and stay in one place. My family…my children are big and have children themselves, so I am completely free to travel. And that’s what I love to do — travel and play. Just play with anybody… Traveling is the biggest thing…it’s a little hard. But to play with as many people as I like to play with and who like to play with me.

TP: Derek Bailey kind of rejects the notion of performance as artistic activity. He refers to it as playing, which implies a workaday attitude. That he is a musical artisan, in a certain sense. If you were to use that general typology of what it is you do, would you characterize yourself as an artist? An artisan? Both?

KOWALD: Well, I would say that at the moment I play, I mean, this hour or two hours of a concert on a stage… Usually it is on a stage. But I prefer the little cafe, the corner of a little cafe; that’s my favorite place, where there are 50 people and everybody is in reach, really. That is my favorite. But this hour of music for me is a special moment, I have to say. I wouldn’t call it a holy moment, but a moment of great concentration. All I can give to the world is that hour, the music in that hour. So when I play with people in a situation where people listen to this music, and not just at home or in a rehearsal space or in any place, just playing… It’s a different thing, playing for the public, I feel, and playing for non-musicians. This is a special moment, and this is still what… I don’t care if you really call it art, but I believe it’s my art, yes.

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Filed under Bass, Peter Kowald, Village Voice, WKCR

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

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


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

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

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

TP: Were you playing organized ball?

BR: Yeah, I played in school.

TP: Where was that?

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

TP: Were you a guard, a forward?

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

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

BR: Yeah, and Fifties.

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

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

TP: Healthier!

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

TP: You were a paratrooper?

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

TP: Where were you stationed?

BR: Down in Kentucky, at Fort Campbell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: The validation.

BR: Right.

TP: Were you able to talk to drummers…

BR: Oh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Nobody’s business!

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

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

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

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

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

TP: But it’s very subtle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: To what you have today, yeah.

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

BR: Each one of them.

TP: Talk a bit about the scene.

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

TP: It becomes like a laboratory, a workshop.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: Talk about those experiences.

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

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

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

TP: Which room was this?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Oh, Bu and I…

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

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

TP: And it was always trenchant and useful advice.

BR: Always.  Always.

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

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

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

TP: Explain.

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

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

BR: One time.

TP: …and then he’d interpret it…

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

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

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

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

BR: That’s right.

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

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

BR: Small groups.

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

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

TP: And then Shadow Wilson.

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

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

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

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

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

TP: You got the mood.

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

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

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

TP: What do they mean by that?

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

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

BR: Yeah.

TP: Griffin had just left Thelonious Monk.

BR: Right.

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

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

TP: It was a very, very popular band.

BR: Right.

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

BR: Chase you out!

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

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

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

BR: Four o’clock.

TP: Last set ended at 4.

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

TP: 9 to 4.

BR: Yes.

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

BR: Yes.

TP: Where were some of those?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: The Kerry Dancers.

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

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

BR: That’s right.

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

BR: Roaring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: For years.

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

BR: No, no.  I hired him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: The ever fashion-conscious Sonny Rollins!

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

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

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

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

BR: That’s right, yeah.

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

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

TP: That was it?

BR: I was in the band!

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: So you dug the music and…

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Yes.  Is Butch Warren the bassist?

TP: Butch Warren.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Yeah.

TP: What did you mean by that?

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

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

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

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

BR: Shuffles, right.

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

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

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

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

TP: That gig lasted how long?

BR: Almost five years.

TP: From 1964 to 1969…

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

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

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

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

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

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

[MUSIC: B. Riley/R. Moore/B. Williams, “Black Nile”]


Filed under Ben Riley, Drummer, WKCR

For Bass Maestro Richard Davis’ 87th Birthday, A WKCR Interview From 1993

Richard Davis, one of the great virtuosos of the contrabass in jazz, turns 87 today. I had the privilege of hosting the maestro on WKCR in August 1993 — the transcript appears below. I wish we’d had a little more time, so we could have spoken more about the ’60s and ’70s, not to mention his years with Sarah Vaughan, but I’m glad to be able to share his testimony about the Chicago scene that formed him.


Richard Davis, WKCR, August 18, 1993:


TP: Richard Davis is one of the many gifted musicians who emerged out of Chicago onto the national scene in the 1960s. You’re a musician who has covered both the jazz and the classical areas. Does your orientation toward both idioms go back to your early education on the instrument in Chicago?

RD: Definitely. Because my high school teacher, Walter Dyett, Walter Henry Dyett, had that type of background himself, and he caught on a universal way. His approach was total universal . . .

TP: He was a concert violinist, I believe.

RD: A concert violinist. Also he played banjo in Erskine Tate’s band. And he played also piano. So his background himself entailed, you know, music of all types, and he encouraged and taught his students to be that way.

TP: Now, he was the music teacher at DuSable High School.

RD: DuSable High School, right.

TP: And many, many professional musicians of note, jazz soloists and people in other areas came out of there.

RD: Oh yes.

TP: Who were some of the people you heard there in your years . . . ?

RD: Okay. When you went to that school, even as a freshman, you were in awe of the people who had gone there before you in music. They were very popular and very successful, so you knew that you had some kind of shoe to fit into. Amongst them was Dinah Washington. Milt Hinton had gone to the previous DuSable . . .

TP: Phillips High, I think.

RD: He went to Wendell Phillips. And DuSable, when it was built, was I think called the New Wendell Phillips, but then they changed it to DuSable, which was a very prominent name in Chicago . . .

TP: The founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste DuSable.

RD: Yeah, he was the first one to settle.

TP: Milt Hinton, I think, came up under Major N. Clark Smith, who had been the bandmaster at Phillips High, I believe.

RD: See, that’s information that you’re giving me that’s something new. I don’t know. But that sounds very logical. And then there was Gene Ammons, there was Johnny Griffin, there was Clifford Jordan, Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins — you name them. John Gilmore. I can go on and on, and not even remembering half of them who are very prominent today. But that was the kind of thing he built, was a pure professional attitude toward the music, and his approach to the music led you to believe that anything you wanted to do was up to you.

TP: He also organized, I think, bands outside of the school, and had kids join the union and actually work as professional musicians.

RD: Oh yeah. I worked in his band.

TP: Tell me about that. What kind of material were they doing?

RD: Well, mostly the band that I worked with for him was mostly for dance, ballroom dancing. But he would play Jazz charts, and the people would dance because it was a big band. I worked with another band around there, too. Eddie King had a band of that same type. But Walter Dyett’s band I worked in, and . . .

Walter Dyett never left the teaching podium. I mean, when you were around him, you just sat and listened, because you knew you were going to grab something that would be meaningful for the rest of your life. Even after I left high school, I mean for the next 20 years . . . Let’s see. He died, I think, in 1968; I graduated from high school in ’48. For the next 20 years I was learning things from him. He was visiting New York. You’d see him anywhere. And he was always telling you something that was directed toward a positive attitude toward what you what you were wanting to accomplish on your instrument. He would have us sit down in the band room for twenty minutes without even touching our instrument, and we would talk about things that we wanted to get accomplished. Mind power, he called it. It was fantastic.

TP: Did he select you to be a bass player, or were you playing bass when you entered as a freshman?

RD: No, no. I asked him could I study bass with him.

TP: What was the fascination for you? Why did you want to be a bass player?

RD: Well, my dearest friend at the time, Ernest Jones, was in the band. And every day we would walk home together, because he lived in the same direction that I lived in, and he’d tell me about all these things that he was doing in the band room, about counting bars and rests, and recognizing this . . . And I used to stand over him while he was practicing at home, just to watch what he was doing. And I said, “I’ve got to get into this.” And I was always fascinated by the bass anyway. So I just went up to the band room and asked could I get in.

TP: Did you have the opportunity to listen to records when you were a kid . . . ?

RD: Yeah!

TP: . . . or see bands around Chicago? I mean, there was so much music around Chicago in the 1930s or 1940s.

RD: Well, see, there wasn’t any television. You know, you couldn’t sit at home and get all this. So what you’d do, you’d go . . . In my case, it was only four blocks from me. I would go to the Regal Theatre. And every band you want to mention would come into the Regal Theatre, and you saw them live. And you could stay in there for as long as you could stay in there. Because you’d just pay one admission there, and you’d stay around the clock if you could afford the time.

TP: And did you sometimes?

RD: Oh yeah! And then you . . .

TP: Who did you go to see?

RD: Well, all the great bands. Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Jay McShann, Lucky Millinder — just any band that you could mention was in that theatre.

TP: Did you have a chance, say, to see Jimmy Blanton?

RD: Well, it’s funny you mention that. Because he died in 1942, and I was 12 years old at the time. Now, it’s possible I heard him, but I really can’t recall. There were some older friends I had at that time who would take me to their homes and listen to records. In particular there was Karl Byrom that I would hang out with. He was in school at an older age than the normal high school student, because he had TB and he could never finish the term, so he was delayed. Which was to my benefit, because he kind of took me under his wing, and played all these fantastic records he had at home with Oscar Pettiford, Milton Hinton, Jimmy Blanton, you know.

TP: And these were the people who initially inspired you as a bassist.

RD: Oh yeah. It was a congregation of good feelings. Because you’d just sit there and listen to these older musicians play. I remember . . . I was a freshman when Johnny Griffin was a senior, and I remember watching him on the football field playing a clarinet, you know, in the marching band and stuff like that. And I remember Lionel Hampton heard him at what we called a booster concert, you know, to start off with the football season, and the jazz band would play, the school jazz band — and Lionel Hampton was the guest artist. And he heard . . . Johnny Griffin stood up and took a solo, and that was it. He took him right out of there. “Hey, you’re the one.”

TP: Now, you’re the generation that came under the sway of bebop, and you were a teenager when those records were coming out. I remember Clifford Jordan telling me about hearing “Red Cross,” I think . . .

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: He didn’t know it was “Red Cross,” and then he found it out — but that really just took him all the way in that direction. Did records like that have a big impact on you?

RD: Yeah, well, I hated it when I first heard it. Because I was just beginning to learn how to play boogie-woogie bass lines, and things of the swing era, you know, learning tunes off of records, and here comes Charlie Parker — I said, “God!” But it was lucky for me that it came at that time, because it caused me to develop. I remember playing a 78 record over and over again of “My Old Flame,” trying to find out what Tommy Potter was doing with the bass line.

TP: Were you listening to the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band with Ray Brown . . . ?

RD: Yeah! And Charlie Mingus. Listened to the whole thing.

TP: Everything.

RD: I mean, it got so that once I got involved, knowing I wanted to do that, which was from day one, I started going back and reading all of the old jazz magazines, doing research on the roots of the music I was wanting to play. And I started listening to, you know, an enormous collection of music, go to everybody’s house and exchange records. And I remember those Jimmy Blanton records I took from my friend’s house and went to a recording studio and had them copied from one disk to another. I still have those.

TP: Now, I recollect reading a profile of you in Down Beat from maybe 25 years ago where you talked about playing the Calumet City circuit . . .

RD: Heh . . . Yeah!

TP: . . . and doing all these gigs in Chicago after high school . . . It’s just such a full range of experience you’d get in Chicago. It sounds like you were doing your classical training . . .

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: . . . and playing blues and boogie-woogie gigs, and bebop gigs, and jump bands and the whole thing.

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: Is that how it was in Chicago?

RD: Yeah. Chicago was wide-open. I mean, you could go to jam sessions, like, five or six o’clock in the morning. That’s when they started, breakfast jam sessions. That’s when I met the great Ike Day and Wilbur Ware, playing at these sessions. So you had all that music just flowing around you. It was just wide open.

I should go back and say that my mother also had brought in records from New Orleans. I had records made in 1904 of, you know, different people who had recorded on RCA-Victor. And she was, of course, a contemporary of Louis Armstrong. They were born the same year.

TP: Is she from New Orleans?

RD: Yes. She was from Homewood, Louisiana, which was right outside of New Orleans.

So then you’d have all this exposure! You’d go to the Club DeLisa and hear big bands, shows, everything. You’d hear vocalists, Joe Williams, everything. Then, of course, you would jam with your friends. You’d go to each other’s house, you know . . . I was just looking over some old pictures of mine, because I had to do that to send off for some promo, and I saw a picture (and I’d forgotten I had it) of Sun Ra, Jimmy Ellis, a guy named Charles Hines and myself, right in my house rehearsing.

TP: You’ve mentioned a few names in the last couple of minutes who I’d like you to comment on. The first is Wilbur Ware, who really held sway over all the bassists in Chicago at that particular time, I think.

RD: Yeah, he was the king. He was the king. But the guy I really admired, and thought that he was really the king, because I knew him personally and hung out with him a lot, was Karl Byrom. Now, he was the all-around bassist, very talented. It’s just that his health just didn’t allow him to emerge into, you know, the atmosphere of getting to New York. It reminded me . . . It was almost as if I had my own Jimmy Blanton right in my own high school.

TP: He was that strong.

RD: Oh, he was strong. And all the recordings that Jimmy Blanton made, he knew them note for note, Slam Stewart note for note — and he had his own particular way of doing things. And I just loved him.

TP: Another bassist who was in Chicago a lot at that time, and one of the great masters, was Israel Crosby.

RD: Israel Crosby was another one. Ooh! See, we had all these great bass players around to listen to. Like Eddie Calhoun. Eddie Calhoun was the first one to show me something about the middle part of a tune, that’s called a bridge, and the “Rhythm” changes. And I grasped it very fast, because I already knew triads and chords. And he told me that, and I said, “Man, it. . .” Eddie Calhoun was the first person to order a drink for me in a nightclub. He was with Ahmad Jamal. Because I had gotten to legal age. And he said, “You want a drink?” I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What do you drink?” I said, “I don’t know what to drink.” I’ll never forget it, he ordered a burgundy with a ginger ale! [Laughs]

But Eddie Calhoun was a fantastic player. You had Israel Crosby, you had Wilbur Ware, and there was another bass player — I can’t think of his name at the moment. Oh, what was his name? A very short guy.

TP: Leroy Jackson?

RD: No. There was Wilbur Edmonson(?) there, too. He was phenomenal.

TP: We’ll call it to mind in a moment, I’m sure, probably when we’re doing something entirely different. You also mentioned the name of Ike Day, who has recorded I think one session, and you can hardly hear him, so any time I have someone up here who heard him in the flesh I ask them what he sounded like.

RD: Well, let’s see. At the time I heard him, I don’t think I was mature enough to analyze and say what it is that you want me to talk about. But I was fascinated, because I saw this very small, skinny guy approach the drums, while I was playing, and when he started to play it was like a football field. Every person in the audience started saying “Ike Day, Ike Day, Ike Day.” And I looked around, and I got very nervous, because then I knew who it was. And then Wilbur Ware came up with his bass, and we played together, two basses and Ike Day and whoever was in the front line. But I can only estimate that his contemporaries being Max Roach and any other drummer along that line of time. . . I heard that they all . . . when they came to Chicago, that’s where they made tracks to, was to hear Ike Day.

TP: You mentioned Sun Ra as well, and a picture of him in your house. That period of his career has been talked about and written about, but again we haven’t really heard it. Can you talk about what Sun Ra was doing in 1950, ’52 . . . ?

RD: Oh yeah! Well, thank the Lord that he was around. Because I learned a lot from him about not only just music, but about life. And at that time, his name was Sunny Blount. It all goes back to a period in my life where I needed to hear a concept of someone who was individualistic, as he was, who was dynamic in their resolve philosophies; you know, philosophies that I think had been tested by him already. And it was during this period where they wanted to take me into the Korean War and all that crap that I had never heard about. I had never heard the word “Korean” or “Korea” before the war started, and I didn’t think it was my business, heh-heh, to be involved. But Sun Ra was definitely the person to put a cap on that, to tell you philosophically what was happening in the world.

And I remember the first time I met him, the first thing he said to me . . . He said, “I don’t think you’re ready to go to the Moon yet.” That’s the first thing he said to me. And I listened . . . As a matter of fact, I’m going to have some tapes transcribed that I interviewed him when I worked with him in Paris, oh, maybe ten years ago. I have a lot of things that he talked on tape, maybe three hours of it, you know. But that’s one of the projects that I have in mind to get done for historical-archival things that just should be documented, you know. Because his thoughts were just dynamic.

And I had never heard a person talk like him before. My father also was a great talker and a spiritual guider. But then this was a contemporary in the sense of recent thoughts that he penetrated through. That’s why so many people stayed with him, because he was the man.

TP: But he was running rehearsal bands, even at that time, with many of the top young musicians in Chicago (yes?) in the late ’40s , early ’50s?

RD: Well, I don’t know. You can verify that yourself. But my association with him was that he would have meetings every Sunday at his house, talking. And then, if we had a gig, then we’d have a rehearsal for a gig. And I’ll never forget him saying . . . There was a tune I didn’t know that was a very popular standard, and he said, “You should have known that eons of years ago.” He said, “We have to advance towards some other aspect of tunes.” And when he said that to me, with the respect I had for him, I started learning more and more and more tunes as fast as I could, because I came to play with him — I knew I had to perform. It was him I worked with in Calumet City. You mentioned that word; I worked with him in Calumet City.

TP: What was the band? Do you recollect?

RD: I just remember Sun Ra and the drummer. See, a band . . . It was a burlesque house in Calumet City. The bumps and grinds of females, you know. They usually would hire a piano, trumpet and drums, just enough to make it a band. And of course, the musicians are used to playing with a bass player, so they would all chip in ten dollars of their fee, and hire a bass player. And I was a bass player in that particular group. I was going to college at that time, getting off at 4 o’clock in the morning and I had to be in school at 8, you know. But it was nothing, because I was with Sun Ra and, you know, learning a lot of things.

If you want to, I can tell you a beautiful story about my impressions of him at that time.

TP: Please.

RD: While . . . See, there was kind of a screen between us and the dancer. We could see her through a veiled curtain of some type, so that the drummer would catch the bumps and things like that. And we arrived back together back and forth to work from Chicago to Calumet City. And one of the waitresses used to ride in the car with us, and we met a couple of the dancers that way, too.

But the thing that impressed me about Sun Ra was that for the whole time . . . This was like you call a factory job. He would be reading a paperback book for the whole time he was playing, and he’d turn the pages, you know, and play and never missed a beat, turning the pages and reading. I said, “This guy is phenomenal.” I can do that now. I can do two or three things at once, and do them quite well.

But the thing is, he looked over at me and he said, “See the guy over there who’s drunk?” I said, “Yeah.” There was a guy laying on a booth, who had probably seen the show more than once or twice, but he was drunk — I mean, he was actually very drunk. As the expression goes, he was pissy drunk. And he said, “Watch me sober him up.” And I watched . . . And we were playing “Body and Soul.” Then Sun Ra started going further and further out with the chords, and I was watching his left hand to see what he was doing . . . He wasn’t playing any louder than he had been playing before, because it was all background music. And sure enough, this guy must have been about 50 feet away from us, and he stirred . . . and within three minutes he was standing straight up as if he was a soldier standing at attention. And then Sun Ra looked at me kind of with that little grin he had; he just looked at me and said, “See?” [Laughs] And I said, “What else do you do?”

TP: It sounds like a very impressive moment in the annals of music!

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: We’re speaking with Richard Davis on “Out To Lunch” on WKCR-FM, New York, 89.9, Ted Panken here, and Richard Davis and Friends are appearing at Sweet Basil this week, through Sunday. It seems to me we’ve been talking a while, and should get to some music. But since we’re talking about Chicago, maybe we can do the bridge this way and talk about . . .

RD: Bill Lee?

TP: Well, how you wound up . . . Well, Bill Lee, but also I guess the events that led to you coming to New York, and I guess leaving with Sarah Vaughan. . .

RD: That’s a funny one. Okay.

TP: . . . was your path away from Chicago.

RD: That’s a funny one. I can tell you about that.

TP: Well, Richard Davis, you worked with Sarah Vaughan’s group, I guess, for five years, was it . . . ?

RD: Right.

TP: From ’57 to ’62. And this really introduced you to the broader audience and to musicians all over.

RD: Mmm-hmm, yeah.

TP: So that’s the prologue to what Richard Davis will say, I guess.

RD: Do you want to play music first, or . . . Should we talk now?

TP: Well, let’s play some music. Tell us about the piece we’re about to hear, and then we’ll resume the interview.

RD: All right. It relates to Bill Lee. Bill Lee, in my estimation, formed the first two-bass combo group — to my knowledge. And I think this was 1969. I was playing the melody bass (it was my actual date; I was the leader on the date), and he played supporting bass. Bill had a . . . His melodic and harmonic concept was just powerful. He employed Chick Corea on the piano and Sam Brown on guitar, Sonny Brown on drums (where is he nowadays?), and Frankie Dunlop on percussion. I think I told Bill that I liked the melody to “Dear Old Stockholm.” That was all I said to him. And he came up with this arrangement on “Dear Old Stockholm.”

This session was reissued two or three times, as called With Understanding, and then it was released under another name with Chick Corea as a leader! I think that the company probably thought that his name would help them in the sales. I’m assuming this.

TP: In your group, usually everybody writes and you incorporate a number of your compositions, but the compositions from various members of the group as well. At least in the past that’s been the case.

RD: Right. I encourage that to happen. I think it’s a good idea to have people do their thing. I think it’s good for morale boosting, and the quality of the music has different attitudes because of different composers.

TP: We were speaking before, in a lengthy interview segment, about your formative years and coming to maturity as a musician in some sense in Chicago, playing at various joints in and around Chicago, with various policies, and you were in school studying the classical bass, and really covering a whole range of musical styles. You emerged from Chicago, I believe, with Sarah Vaughan — or perhaps it was before that. Were you in the ’50s traveling outside of Chicago with your contemporaries? If so, who were some of them?

RD: I did a lot of jobs with Harold Ousley around Chicago, playing cabaret parties, they called them, where you’d bring your own whiskey, and people would give you a set-up, or something similar to that. I didn’t understand exactly what it was, because I wasn’t into drinking, so I never, you know, found out what cabaret really meant in that sense.

But I gigged around with lots of people, John Neely and a lot of my peers in high school . . . But the first time I got which was more than local, in a sense, was a guy who lived in Chicago at the time, who had come from Pittsburgh — that was Ahmad Jamal. And that was the first job I got that had that kind of . . .

TP: When were you part of his group?

RD: This must have been 1952.

TP: So it was in the early group before he started using a drummer? Was that in the guitar-bass phase of the group?

RD: Yeah. He had Eddie Calhoun . . .

TP: He had Ray Crawford on guitar?

RD: Yeah. Ray Crawford on guitar, and then there was another guy on the guitar — I can’t remember his name now either! Then there was Ahmad, and I was playing bass, of course. Ahmad had a tune which required me to play maraca while I was playing the bass; I had to learn to do that with him, so he’d get this effect. And then Ray Crawford would thump on the strings and make it sound like a conga drum. It was a fantastic thing. And Ahmad had a sound and a concept that was just unbelievable. And of course, he attracted all of the guys coming in traveling to the club to hear him play, and it was always jam-packed. It was the first time I was with what you might call a consistent professional successful group.

TP: Was he working steadily with, like, several-week engagements at a time? And what clubs was he playing in Chicago?

RD: He would work at the Pershing Lounge, which was in the Pershing Hotel, oh, six weeks at a time, or more even.

TP: There were several levels to that club, weren’t there? There were like two or three different venues within that hotel . . .

RD: Well, the ballroom. See, the ballroom is where all the great traveling artists would come through. Like Lester Young; I remember seeing Lester Young. And several people would come. Charlie Parker . . . They’d all work in the ballroom. And the lounge was the place . . . I think that’s when first heard Eddie South, the violinist. I can’t remember all the groups that worked there, but I remember being there with Ahmad. And it was a classy kind of a joint. You know, there was a nice stage presentation, a lot of room on the stage, storage of the instruments — you know, it was very pleasant.

TP: Good piano.

RD: Good piano, yeah. And Ahmad . . . It was a good thing for me to be with Ahmad. The one thing I’ll never forget him telling me at a rehearsal, he said, “Who is your favorite piano player?” And I said, “Oscar Peterson.” You know, who else? And he said, “You want to know who my favorite bass player is?” I said, “Tell me.” I thought he was going to say Ray Brown or somebody. He said, “You are.” I said, “Me?” He said, “Yeah, because you’re here with me.” I said, “God, what a lesson!” I was the number-one bass player for him because he was confronted me being with him. That was a real booster.

But then after that, in 1952 . . . or was it ’54 . . . Yeah, in 1954, I was approached by this bass player, Johnny Pate, whose son is Don Pate. And I knew Johnny Pate; he was a helluva bass player, you know, and I used to hear him on different jobs around town, and Johnny Frigo was around, too . . . He said, “Do you want to go to New York with this guy I’m working with?” And I said, “New York? Yeah!” And he said, “Well, I’m getting ready to leave this guy because I don’t want to go to New York, and I told him about you, because I thought you were the one qualified to play what he wants out of a bass player. I said, “Well, thank you.” So I went and auditioned for the guy, and he liked it, and he said, “Okay, we’re leaving at such-and-such a time” and all that stuff, you know . . .

And man, I got the New York jitters after that! I said, “New York!” You hear about New York and all these great musicians there . . . And what happened is that we exchanged jobs. He went with Ahmad and I went with Don Shirley. But my job didn’t start until we got to New York, and I think we were going to exchange jobs at an appropriate time. But just before I supposed to leave for New York, I went to him and I said, “Look, man, I want my job back. I’m not going to New York. I was frightened half to death.” For some reason I was at the Blue Note; I can’t remember what for, but . . .

TP: The Chicago Blue Note on the North Side.

RD: Yes. I remember being there in the daytime, and Sarah Vaughan was beginning to rehearse there. But her bass player was there; Beverly Peer, I think was his name. And he was working with Sarah Vaughan, and I was asking him about New York, and I knew Sarah Vaughan was going to come to that club and rehearse, you know . . . That was frightening me to death, man.

So then, Johnny Pate said, “Look, man, you can’t have your job back. You belong in New York, and that’s where you’re going to go.” I don’t know what made him say that, but it was the best thing for me . . . heh-heh . . .

TP: But it seems to me that Chicago would be the ultimate preparation for going to New York and dealing with the music, just considering all the types of experiences you could have. I presume you were sitting in with the people when they were coming through town and doing these types of gigs . . .

RD: You’re right! You’re right. I mean, some of the experiences I had in Chicago, you wouldn’t believe. You know, I learned a lot from another saxophone player who taught me a lot of . . . You know, people would teach you in Chicago, as for your grounds. But still it’s frightening. Even leaving Chicago to go to New York is frightening. And I just didn’t want to go. I got nervous. And he said, “You’ve got to go.” And he wouldn’t give me my job back, so I had to go!

TP: What was it like working with Sarah Vaughan for those years? One thing that I think probably gets lost to the general audience is the level of her musicianship. I’ve heard a story that she was on a tour with a number of musicians, including Nat Cole in 1952 or so, and Nat Cole couldn’t make it, couldn’t make a night, or he was sick . . .

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: So she came out and sing his whole thing and played all of the piano parts.

RD: That sounds like her! Like Shirley Horn today. Boy, that sounds like her.

But the thing about . . . See, Roy Haynes used to come through Chicago, and I met him — and he was working with Sarah Vaughan at the time. And he and I kind of pal-ed off right away. And it’s possible that he was the one who recommended me. I never knew that for a fact, but looking back, I think that’s what happened. But I went to do the job with her, and man, I was too frightened to play. And the first two or three nights playing with Jimmy Jones and Roy Haynes and Sarah Vaughan on the stage . . . I just kind of just. . . I was tip-toein’ through the tulips, just making little announcements out of the bass and all that kind of stuff. And then I looked around and said, “Hey! They must have called me here for a reason.” And so I said, pardon the expression, but I said, “Hey! I’m gonna just play. What the . . . ” — you know. And then I started opening up, and started playing. And right away, I noticed they started looking back and saying, “Oh, he’s opening up now.” But it took me two or three nights before I could really relax and really begin to play.

TP: Were you based in New York while you were working with Sarah Vaughan?

RD: Yeah, I moved to New York, and they called me. I went to New York with Don Shirley. That’s the guy whose job took me to New York. And I stayed with him for two years, I guess to 1956, and between ’56 and ’57 I was just gigging around, taking any little gig I could get, and then I got a call from Sarah Vaughan’s office in 1957.

TP: I guess the series of recordings that really started to put your name internationally on the map, where you could begin to express your creativity as a musician and so forth begins in the early 1960s with a series of recordings for both Blue Note and Prestige . . .

RD: Right. Because after I decided to leave Sarah, after five years, the first person I ran into with a prominent gig was Eric Dolphy, heh-heh. . .right in the subway station. And he said, “What are you doing next week?” I said, “Nothing.” And he said, “Why don’t you go down to the Five Spot with me?

TP: 1961.

RD: Yeah. And that was it! I said, “Man, oh God, what a way to come into New York.

TP: You did some very famous duets with Eric Dolphy where he played bass clarinet and you on bass, the Douglas sessions.

RD: Mmm-hmm.

TP: A few words about him, and then we’ll get back to some more music by your current group.

RD: Well, I think that first session was supposed to have been under my name. I can’t remember whether it was or not. Not that it really matters. But [engineer/proucer Alan] Douglas, who I had done a lot of folk music with, I was playing a lot of folk music, folk singers and things . . . . He said, “If you were going in the studio to play a duet, who would you choose? Who would you want to play with?” I said “Eric Dolphy.” And that was the beginning.

TP: Where did you first meet him?

RD: On the subway!

TP: Oh, that was it? You hadn’t known him before?

RD: I don’t think so! [Laughs] Maybe he knew who I was. But when I saw him, to be honest with you, I couldn’t tell whether he was Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman. Because I think they both wore goatees at that time.

TP: Well, you and Eric Dolphy were part of a very famous date which is at the top of the stack right next to me, called Point of Departure by Andrew Hill, one of four or five recordings you did with Andrew Hill then . . .

RD: Yeah!

TP: This was such a creative period. You were on Bobby Hutcherson and Andrew Hill records, really extending the form, and there’s a real sense of speculation and searching in these records.

RD: Uh-huh.

TP: Can you talk a little bit about the attitude that was behind the making of them?

RD: You mean as far as my contribution as a bass player?

TP: Your contribution and the overall spirit of the groups and the musicians.

RD: Well, first of all, you had a company that really organized these sessions, like Alfred Lion and those guys. They really rehearsed, they paid you for a rehearsal, the rehearsal was set up in the studio, you went over what you were going to do, who was going to solo, and the tunes and all that. And I remember Alfred Lion always eating chocolates, and he always gave me some, because I liked that . . . ! But then his friend, Francis Woolf, he was always taking pictures. So it was a great organization of a type. These guys were dedicated to the music.

And on this date also was Kenny Dorham. Now, Kenny Dorham, I worked a lot with him in clubs in New York. And I just loved Kenny Dorham. He was slick. He used to call me the Fox, because he thought I was kind of extra. . .

TP: Well, then he wrote a tune after you, didn’t he, on Trompeta Toccata! That’s you!

RD: I don’t know whether he related it to me exactly on that tune, but he called me the Fox. And Eric called me the Iron Man, and he wrote a tune called “Iron Man.” Because he thought I had endless energy — which I do. And he said, “Man, one day I’m going to be like you; I’m going to be as busy as you are and be able to . . . ” A lot of people thought I was using dope to do all of the things I was doing!

Of course, that’s always applied to musicians anyway if they’re doing something that is beyond the ordinary. Even Eric Dolphy, with his performance ability . . . I remember a guy running backstage when we were at Birdland one night, and he said, “Where is he?! Where is he?!” He was all excited. And he says, “Does he use dope?” Man, Eric Dolphy was so far removed from dope. . . He was just high on the music, all the time. The music was so tremendous.

And Kenny Dorham had this very, very professional approach to his writing and to his sound. He was a guy who I had heard when I was just learning how to play the bass! And for me to be on the stage with him, it felt so good. And then there was Joe Henderson, with that unique sound and concept that he plays with . . . Man, I was in heaven. And there’s a young Tony Williams from that date.

TP: We don’t even have it cued up. Would you like me to put something on from it?

RD: Yeah.

TP: Which one?

RD: I wouldn’t know what to select, because I haven’t heard this in years. You probably have heard it more recently than I have.

TP: Maybe so. How about “New Monastery”?

RD: Okay. Whatever you say, doctor.

TP: You’re the doctor . . . By the way, are you a Doctor in Music. You do teach at Madison.

RD: Well, I do have a doctorate. I have what is called an honorary doctorate in music. I am a Professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison camps.

TP: Your curriculum at University of Wisconsin and the band . . . Is there an enthusiastic turnout for the jazz history course that you teach? Is it well- received, well- attended? What’s your impression of the students at this point?

RD: Well, the class usually closes out in the first day of registration, which means there are four days when students are still trying to get in and wanting to be on a waiting list — which I don’t encourage. Because I want a nice, intimate, smaller group of people. And I try to limit it to 85, but it normally creeps up to about 110. And it’s an auditorium which seats 200, so it’s comfortable for everybody. And I see students all over the country who have been in that class, and they come to see me when I’m in their town. Like, I was in L.A. last week, and I saw about six or seven students who had been in the class, and here in New York I saw three or four last night, the first night.

But it’s been a good experience for me also to enhance my continued growth and knowledge about the traditional jazz heritage. It has given me lots of reasons to read more global things, because I relate them back to the situation with jazz and how it fits into our society — things like that.

TP: What’s your approach to the curriculum? Do you cover it chronologically from the beginnings up to the modern?

RD: The way I handle that, to keep from being bored (which I dread that feeling), is that . . . At first it was like 1920’s to present, general history. What I did, I broke it down into four categories. One semester you have saxophones, concentrated on that. Then the next semester, trumpet players. The next semester, vocalists, miscellaneous instruments and trombones. And the next semester you have rhythm sections and combos. I don’t do the big band, because another professor does that; he’s the band director, concert band and marching band — and he does big band things.

But what I do is concentrate on making the student know a particular personality who is innovative in the role of how the music developed between the 1920s and the present. I talk about the social stimuli, economic conditions, and other things related to the music being produced the way it is produced. One of my favorite subjects, generally speaking, in the music (and I just received a grant for that) is jazz protest songs and experience in the 20th Century.

TP: One last question before we get to the final piece of music is your sense of the way the music is being produced today and the conditions under which it’s being produced. Particularly the kind of repertory approach to jazz amongst many of the young musicians. Just generally, what’s your sense of the attitude to music by the younger musicians who will be the future of the music that you’re aware of?

RD: If I’m understanding your question correctly . . . This might be something that does not answer that question per se . . .

TP: It may not be a clear question, too.

RD: Yeah. I’ll just give you kind of a capsule conception of what I’m seeing today with the younger musicians. I see them as the next generation to what’s happened before them, and the ones that I’ve met . . . Javon Jackson, I just spent a week with him in the band in California. First of all, it was great to see the personality that he has, which is dynamic. I mean, he asked me if he was my son! And I was honored. Because he’s not my son, but when you see the next generation coming up, you look at it in the same sense of the Son of the Music — the next generation. And his talent, to my estimation, is very strong, and his attitude towards honoring the music is just tremendous.

I also have a godson, Eric McPherson, who plays with Jackie McLean on the drums. I was there in the hospital the day he was born, just taking his mother to the hospital. And to watch him come up and watch his attitude as a gentleman, first of all, and a kind person . . . You know, we used to just go out for McDonald’s hamburgers and go to movies, just to keep an association when I’d come to New York, and then he starts playing drums, and he’d come to the club every night, and he’d sit there and sip on that Coca-Cola, and he was listening to Freddie Waits and any drummer that I had with me at the time (Billy Hart), and he started studying drums . . . And now to see him actually playing professionally, it tells me that the music is honorable, because the next generation deems it necessary to want to play it — and the challenge of trying to play it is very demanding. He got a scholarship to go and study with Jackie McLean. And I can mention his friend, Abe, alto saxophone . . . He sat in with me once because our saxophonist didn’t show up, and he really roused the audience . . .

TP: There’s some amazing talent out there.

RD: Amazing, amazing talent out there. And I can name quite a few guys that I have heard and have heard of, you know, through recordings and whatever you want to talk about, that tells me that hopefully we’ve handed the baton, and we have handed it to the right person.

Plus, the other thing that is so phenomenal is that their business attitude is quite different than ours was. They have nice, prominent young lawyers representing them, like Terence Blanchard . . . I worked with him on that memorial thing for Eric Dolphy. He had a bright young lawyer right there talking in his behalf, and the guy was in his mid 20s, if that old, but he was very, very polished!

Whereas some of the older guys in our generation had all this talent and equipment with writing and playing, but never really quite handled the business well enough to escape the plantation. You see what I mean? Because it was almost like saying, “I’m glad to get what I can get.” But these guys now know that they have something that’s marketable, not in the sense of a Michael Jackson recording . . . But whatever it is that people are buying from them, they are selling it with more intelligent attitudes.

TP: I guess we can safely say that you feel good about the future of the music.

RD: Oh, I feel good about it.

TP: And you continue to be part of the future of the music.

RD: Oh yeah!

TP: As is evident to anyone who will go down to hear Richard Davis and Friends this week at Sweet Basil.

RD: Yeah!

TP: We’ll conclude with something from a recording from 1987 that’s a dedication to your daughter . . .

RD: “Persia.” That’s my heart right there . . 

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Filed under Bass, Chicago, Richard Davis

For Master Drummer Arthur Taylor’s 88th Birth Anniversary, The Proceedings Of a WKCR Musician Show With AT and Walter Bolden in 1992

Yesterday was the 88th birth anniversary of master drummer Arthur Taylor (1929-1995). I got to know “A.T.,” as he was familiarly called, when I had an opportunity to engineer a number of Musician Shows that he conducted at WKCR  during the mid- and latter ’80s, and subsequently when he asked to transcribe a number of interviews for a prospective volume two of his essential Notes and Tones, which never did get published. These included conversations with Red Garland, Billy Higgins, and a number of other greats. During the last 5-6 years of his life, AT put together a tight, ferocious group that included such outstanding musicians  as Willie Williams, Abraham Burton, Jacky  Terrason and Tyler Mitchell.  In 1992 I had an opportunity to turn the tables on AT and interview him on a Musician Show together with drummer Walter Bolden, the transcript of which I’ve appended below.


Arthur Taylor/Walter Bolden (11-11-92) – (Musician’s Show):

[MUSIC: Taylor’s Wailers, “Mr. A.T.”, Coltrane, “Good Bait”]
Q: Now, you’ve reconstituted Taylor’s Wailers over the last couple of years, and you’ve been associated, particularly in terms of writing, with Walter Bolden, another superb drummer. You’ve really been on the scene together ever since you emerged. Your careers span just about the same amount of time, I think.

AT: Yes. Well, we have similar feelings about drumming, and our styles of drumming are similar. We’ve been friends since Walter came to New York. He came out of Connecticut. To get from that point to this moment, his writing, to me, has the same flavor as Horace Silver or Gigi Gryce, who are two great composers in my estimation. I later found out that they had studied together, so maybe that’s the reason why rhythmically… Well, Walter’s a drummer, so what he would write would be interesting for a drummer in the first place.

Walter wrote the title song of Taylor’s Wailers’ latest CD, which you heard, “Mr. A.T.” I went to visit Walter one afternoon, and I walked in, he was playing the piano. He said, “Yeah, T, how do you like this?” — and he started playing this song. I said, “Yeah, I like that, man. That’s fantastic. I really like that.” He says, “Do you really like it?” I said, “Yeah, man. You know I wouldn’t jive you. I really like it, you know.” He says, “Yeah? Well, that’s for you. And we’ll call it ‘Mr. A.T.'” Now you tell them about it, Walter.

WB: That’s exactly the way it happened, too. I had written the piece, and I was wondering who I was going to give this piece to that I thought could really do it justice, the way I would like to hear it played — and I thought Arthur Taylor and Taylor’s Wailers would do a wonderful job with this. So I had named the tune “Mr. A.T.” because it was really especially for him. And I was very-very-very pleased with the job that they did on it.

Q: Well, Walter Bolden, tell us about your impressions of A.T. back when you first met him. When was it, anyway?

WB: Well, this goes back to December 1950 on into 1951.

AT: You even know the month.

WB: [LAUGHS] Well, I have a knack for that. Of course, naturally, I didn’t read it off the record jacket right here! But ever since then we have been very, very good friends. We used to hang out a lot together, and be on some of the same scenes, and we had the opportunity of playing with some of the same great musicians through our career.

Q: Who were you playing with at that time?

WB: Well, before I left Hartford, I was playing with Gigi Gryce, studying with him, and Horace Silver, and a bassist named Joe Calloway, and an alto player by the name of Harold Holt who was up there, and a trumpet player by the name of Richard Taylor. Horace Silver formed a trio with Joe Calloway and myself. We were working around Hartford and up in Massachusetts, and different little towns in Connecticut. We were working at a club called the Club Sundown up in Hartford, and Stan Getz was booked there as a single to work with our trio. He liked what we were doing, and he talked to Horace about hiring the trio to go back to New York with him and work — at which we were very, very elated. And this is what really got us out of Hartford, working with Stan Getz.

Q: You recorded with him for Roost, and the results are on a recent set called Stan Getz: The Roost Quartets. But you and Horace Silver go back a long way. About how far back do you go?

WB: Let’s see. We go way back, I guess to ’47.

Q: So since your late teens, basically?

WB: Right.

Q: And you were working around Hartford as a teenager?

WB: Sure, I did. I was in a band of Gigi’s that had Joe Calloway in it, and a piano player by the name of Gene Nelson. We used to go down to New Haven, and hook up with Horace Silver and Keeter Betts and different people from that part of Connecticut. At that time, Horace was playing tenor saxophone — which he leaned towards the Lester Young type of sound and feel, very, very warm — and he also played piano. But the three of us, Horace, Joe Calloway and myself, got together, and we decided that we would just get into a trio type thing. That’s how that happened. We were working all over the place at that particular time.

Q: How long have you been playing the drums, and who were the first drummers you liked and modeled yourself after?

WB: I started playing professionally around Connecticut at 16 or 17 years old.

AT: You’ve been playing since you were 16? Hey, wait a minute, now…


AT: I don’t like this disadvantage in here. This stuff is getting serious, now!

WB: Well, it was right around Connecticut, you know, which was great. A lot of musicians used to come through Hartford. In fact, the State Theater was the big band theater there, where Count Basie and Duke Ellington used to come through from New York. When I was a kid, we’d sit down in that theater all day long, and listen to these people.

Q: So you’d see all the drummers from the big bands.

WB: All the drummers, you know, from Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, I would say Jimmie Crawford…

AT: You saw Chick Webb.

WB: Sure.

AT: You’re a lucky man.

WB: [LAUGHS] You know!

AT: Yeah.

WB: Sonny Greer…

AT: I saw him, too.

WB: I know you did.

Q: When did you first see Chick Webb, A.T.?

AT: I saw him at the Apollo, the Apollo Theater, yeah. That’s when he had Ella Fitzgerald, she was a star, a child star, like.

Q: So it sounds like he really impressed you, as I’m sure everybody who had the good fortune to hear him in person.

WB: That’s right.

AT: I would say the young Tony Williams.

WB: That’s it. Very, very fast hands, and his concept, everything. Beautiful. Beautiful to watch, too.

Q: So those were the drummers who affected you when you were coming up.

WB: Early, right.

Q: Walter, when you and Horace Silver were playing together, it was after World War Two, and Charlie Parker’s records had come out. Did those really turn you around when you heard them, and Horace as well?

WB: Of course! It was really a totally different thing with Dizzy and Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Now, Horace and Joe Calloway and myself used to model a lot of things we did in our trio after the Bud Powell trio, with Max Roach and Curly Russell, which recorded in 1947.

Q: You can hear that in some of Horace’s trio recordings in the early 1950’s, too, which are very much in that style.

WB: Right.

Q: But I interrupted you.

WB: So we were influenced very much by that. And Kenny Clarke, Max Roach, Art Blakey, you know…and on up! [LAUGHS]

Q: Now, did you get to hear these guys in Hartford? Would they come through Hartford and play?

WB: Max did. And Art Blakey used to come through with Billy Eckstine years ago. I used to sit down in a hall up there called the Footguide(?) Hall, where all the big bands used to come when they had dances and whatnot. I remember Art Blakey with Billy Eckstine’s band. He used to roll up his pants leg on his beat-a-ball, [LAUGHS], on the bass drum, you know, and I thought, “Why does he do that?” Then I found out later on that if you roll your pants leg up, your pants leg won’t get caught in that ball when you’re playing. [LAUGHS]

AT: That’s a drag, isn’t it?

WB: It happens, you know?

AT: It’s a drag.

Q: Now, A.T., growing up in New York, in Harlem, you had a chance to see just about everybody who came through in person as a teenager. Is that what you did? Were you able to hear a lot of music when you were a teenager?

AT: Yeah. Well, I think I was very lucky, because my father would take me to the Apollo Theater. I don’t know whether he liked it that much. Maybe he was just trying to get out the house or whatever he was doing, but it was really groovy. So he’d take me the Apollo Theater, and I’d see Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Duke, Charlie Barnet, Buddy Rich, oh, all the big names. Oh, I mean, all the big stars… I mean real stars. I’m talking about real stars. You know, when these people do their stuff, they’d turn the place out every time from the hearts. So that really impressed me.

And seeing all those drummers, you know… Then I saw Buddy Rich. That was impressive. Then we’d play hooky from school and go to the Paramount Theater to see Gene Krupa and people like that. But my real day was the day I saw J.C. Heard. I couldn’t be-lieve that. I’d seen Chick Webb and I’d seen Buddy and I had seen Gene Krupa, but when I saw J.C. Heard, I said, “Well, that’s it. That is it!” And I have modeled my drumming after J.C. Heard. Most people don’t know that.

Q: Well, now they do.

AT: I don’t know. Is anybody out there? Do you think somebody is listening to this show?

Q: Well, you can give us a call on the next break. You still remember the phone number, right?

AT: No, man.


Q: Was this before you heard Max Roach and Kenny Clarke?

AT: Oh, yes. This was before I was even interested in drums. I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: You were supposed to be.

AT: Yeah, I was supposed to be an athlete.

Q: What did you play? What was your sport?

AT: I was a heckuva center-fielder, a heckuva second-baseman, and I was not too bad a guard in basketball.

Q: Could you hit?

AT: I could hit. It’s funny. I’ve only seen out of one eye all my life, but I could meet the ball. I can’t figure that out today. I could always meet the ball. I could drive it sometimes, but I could always meet it. And talking with the boys I grew up with now and the people in my family, I’ve found out I was better than I even thought I was. But at that time, in professional athletics, they didn’t allow Negroes in, you know, so there was no future. My parents would say, “Are you crazy?” Everybody else in the family was going to Columbia University and all that kind of stuff, and here I wanted to play baseball. They said, “You must be out of your mind! Get out of here, boy!”

Q: What got you interested in playing drums as a profession?

AT: I’ll tell you what it was with me. I went to a jam session is, where Lincoln Center is, where I am playing tomorrow night, where the Walter Reade Theater at 8 o’clock, Taylor’s Wailers will be performing… Almost on the exact spot I went to hear…went to a jam session. And playing in this jam session was Fats Navarro and Miles Davis and Big Sid Catlett and Max Roach and Bud Powell and Freddie Webster — and I can go on and on and on. What really impressed me was the joy and the pleasure the people were having, and all the beautiful ladies there were…you know, thrills with their shit. I thought about that, and I said, “This is good. You don’t have to get up in the morning either. You can sleep late…”


Q: You go to bed whatever time…

AT: You can go to bed when everybody’s getting up, you know. So I said, “Yeah, that looks like that’s for me.” So that’s really how I got into it. Seeing Big Sid and Max that day, I said, “I have to try it.”

Q: Were you self-taught, or was there somebody showing you the fundamentals?

AT: I was basically self-taught. I had a teacher, but he couldn’t stand me, you know, so that didn’t work. He was a very fine teacher. He became a big union official in Local 802. His name was Aubrey Brooks. I didn’t have enough discipline for him, so he didn’t go for me too much.

Q: Walter Bolden, what got you interested?

WB: Well, growing up in the State Theater, when all the bands used to come through. But there was music in my family. See, my mother played piano, my father played the French horn, one of my brothers played trumpet, one played piano, and the other one played guitar. I used to fumble with the various instruments in the house, but I didn’t want anything that was there. I wanted something that wasn’t there, and that was drums. And I was influenced by the drummers that I saw at the State Theater and the drummers that used to come in through the clubs up there in Hartford.

Later on, Kenny Clarke and Max Roach and Art Blakey and Roy Haynes really got to me in my way of thinking about playing drums. See, before that it had been like, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, as A.T. mentioned, J.C. Heard, people like that…Jimmie Crawford, you know…

AT: Mmm-hmm. Mmm-hmm.

WB: The new music at that time really grabbed ahold of me.

[W. Bolden with Getz/Silver/Calloway, “Split Kick,” “Strike Up The Band” (1950); H. McGhee Sextet, “Ittapnna” (1953)]

WB: “Ittapnna” is Patti Ann spelled backwards.

Q: [ETC.] Our guests are Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden.

AT: You’re a guest also, Ted.

Q: I’m a guest?

AT: Yeah, you’re my guest.


Q: Thank you. Are you doing the Musician’s Show with me?

AT: I’m gonna interview you.

Q: I can hear radio sets clicking off around New York City as we speak. Boring the audience in New York! But maybe we can put you back in the role of Musician Show host with Walter Bolden. How about that, A.T.?

WB: Well, we think along the same lines.

Q: I remember the type of questions you would ask. I’m sure people would like to hear a little set.

AT: Yeah, well, Walter, what do you feel about Love and Marriage?

WB: Oh, my goodness. [LAUGHS]

Q: We can ask Sammy Cahn, and then…

WB: [LAUGHS] That sounds like “Tones In Bronze” or something.

AT: “Tones in Bronze”!


AT: Why don’t we just continue?

Q: Okay, we’ll continue. Then I’m going to get into ordinary biographical stuff. Look, A.T., around the time Walter Bolden’s first composition came out, I think you were working with Bud Powell…

AT: What year was that?

Q: 1953. That was June 8th of ’53.

AT: Yeah, I was working with Bud then.

Q: Was that your first real professional gig?

AT: Oh, no!

Q: What were the events that led to working with Bud Powell?

AT: Okay, let’s see if I can get it in some kind of chronological order. My first real… Well, I used to play the neighborhood with Sonny Rollins and Jackie McLean. That was real as you can get — even then, you know. As I was telling some people today, they were talented then and could play then. It wasn’t like that they were young and couldn’t play. They could play. They were great musicians at that time, too.

Q: Did you meet them in high school? Did you meet them around the neighborhood?

AT: We lived in the same neighborhood. We lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem. We were all interested in the same thing, which was, like, Charlie Parker, Bud and Dizzy Gillespie and people like that. They were the tops.

Q: And you were uniquely advantaged, because you were able to go and hear them frequently.

AT: Yeah. Well, Bud lived right down the street from me. I was telling some people today, we would go to Bud’s house, and he’d sit down and play Bach and Beethoven off the top of his head. It would frighten you, you know, like it was nothing — without any music. It was unbelievable. Well, Kenny Drew was a Classical musician anyway, first of all. Sonny Rollins had taken me to hear him and his sister do a Bach duet. I said, “Is this the guy I’m gonna play with? Shit, he’s playing Bach duets…” [LAUGHING] We all know what a great musician Kenny Drew is, I’m sure, also, at the same time.
We were in the same neighborhood, and some of the guys went to the same school, which was Benjamin Franklin, which was a very fine school in Harlem, and produced some really great musicians. Rollins came out of there, I think McLean went there, Percy France went there, I think Gilly Coggins went there — I mean, really fine musicians came out of that school. And we were in the neighborhood, and we had this little band. We were burning, playing for all the dances. People were able to dance to the music, then.

Q: That’s another thing. There were a lot of dance halls. People often said that Bebop was something that people couldn’t really dance to, but I think that’s really not the case, is it.

AT: No, no. I played many dances with Charlie Parker. Many dances. The Audubon Ballroom, Rockland Palace, the Renaissance. I played several places with Charlie Parker for dancing.

Q: Did people develop new dances for Charlie Parker?

AT: No, you just had to swing. You had to be able to swing. If you could swing, it’s all right, yeah. But then the music got a little different. You can’t dance to it. You’ve got to have a computer to figure it out, have a pencil and a piece of paper and everything. Which is all right, it’s okay, it’s good. I hope they keep doing that. Because I’m not going to play like that. [THE A.T. LAUGH]

Q: But we’ll get back to the places where you would play dances, though. Because I did interrupt you.

AT: Well, I told you the places. The Audubon Ballroom was our main spot. At that time, musicians were producing, you know. Art Blakey used to produce every Sunday afternoon at Rockland Palace, and that was the event. People would come from Jersey, Connecticut and everything. The biggest event of the year would be when he and Max Roach had the drum battle. People would come from all over, they’d come from Boston to see this. This was the show of all shows.

I was born in Harlem and I lived in Harlem, and I didn’t have to go out of Harlem to work. I had plenty of joints there to work, and I’d always get a Sunday afternoon once in a while at Art Blakey’s thing — once a month or something I’d get a gig over there with Art.

Q: When did you first meet Art Blakey?

AT: Ah, gee, I don’t know. Art was always very active in helping young people. We were young fellas, and we used to go and visit Art when he lived at 117th Street and Lenox Avenue, and it was just a thrill just to sit there and look at him — if he didn’t say anything, you know. Just to be in his company, you’d learn something about something, or music at least! Or something. You learned something. He was so beautiful. He was one of our greatest, and one of the major contributors to modern improvisation. As far as I am concerned, if anybody, it’s Art Blakey, yeah.

Q: What I want to get to is how it came to be accepted that you could and get the jobs. Was it just through working around the neighborhood, people hearing about you…

AT: No. I’ll tell you how I got accepted. Lockjaw Davis was the bandleader at Minton’s, and if you couldn’t play, you had to get off the bandstand. When we went down there to play, Lockjaw gave us an invitation to come and play any time we felt like playing. That’s the highest point that I have ever reached in music! When Lockjaw Davis told me I could go and play any time, I didn’t even speak to myself! I may not even speak to you any more! Ha-ha. Because nobody knows about that. They have some guys over here, and somebody says they’re great, but when Lockjaw said “you can come and play,” that means you can go and hone your craft on the bandstand with guys who are better than you! And you can’t ask for more than that. For me.

Q: So when did the gig with Bud Powell come about? How did that happen?

AT: That came about in 1951. I had been playing with Coleman Hawkins. I played with Coleman Hawkins for a year with Kenny Drew, Tommy Potter and Harry “Sweets” Edison, which was a very fine group. The musicians that I play with now, I try to teach them some of the things that Hawk taught me.

Q: Such as?

AT: How to be able to maintain your stuff without being a dummy, without acting stupid, acting with humility, to have good manners, but don’t take anything from anybody at the same time. Because we’re exposed when we play this music. Anybody can walk up to us and say anything. They walked up and shot Lee Morgan down! It’s hard to get to people when they’re big stars, but musicians in improvised music, it’s…you know, you’re exposed.

Where was I… We were talking about…?

Q: Coleman Hawkins.

AT: Okay. My first job was with Howard McGhee. He took a band with Kenny Drew, Sonny Rollins (I got the job through Kenny or Sonny), and Percy Heath and myself to Utica. That was my first trip on the road.

Then, I started working with Hot Lips Page. Hot Lips Page, he was a rough man. He was a rough man. They need a guy like him around here now. Because he’ll punch you in the mouth if it don’t sound right. He’ll knock you out. And maybe you can beat him, but I don’t know, because he was a big, strong guy, rough — a rough, mean man. So I’d like to see… We need somebody like that around here now, and a lot of people wouldn’t be acting as tough as they think they are — physically.

Then after that, my main job was with Oscar Pettiford. I made my first record with Oscar Pettiford. We made 36 takes of “Love for Sale,” got in a car and drove in a snowstorm to Chicago. Super hip stuff, you dig it? [LAUGHS] 36 takes. If I’m on the bandstand now, if somebody calls “Love For Sale,” I get a cringe up my back. And I was the one messing up.

Q: It was you?

AT: It was me messing up. And every time I made it, I was getting worse, I was getting more nervous and getting worse and worse and worse. He was ready to kill me. Oscar was a perfectionist. He was a master. Oscar was a master.

WB: Hell, yeah.

AT: Oscar was a master. If you talk about bass, oh, man, wait a minute. [LAUGHS] Oscar Pettiford!

WB: Cello, too.

AT: Yeah, that’s right. Oscar was the first one to use an electrical attachment on a string instrument, as far as I know, in this field of improvised music. And the way the basses sound now, with the electrical attachment, that’s the way he sounded when he put the electrical attachment on the cello in Paris.

Anyway, after Oscar Pettiford, I got the job with Bud Powell, which is what I wanted. If I never did anything else in my life, that’s the only thing I wanted to do, was play with Bud.

Q: You worked with Bud Powell for five or six years.

AT: Yeah, for three years straight, and then off and on many times. Yeah.

Q: What was his manner as a leader?

AT: He never said anything. The only thing he’d ever say to me was, “‘Peanuts,’ Arthur.” That was my big solo. I had the introduction to “Salt Peanuts.” That’s all he said.

Q: That’s all he said to you in five years?

AT: Yeah, that’s about all. I would always say, “What do you want me to do?” And he would say, “Don’t worry about it, you’ll dig it.” I said, “I’ll dig it! Are you crazy?” [LAUGHING] I’ll dig it? Man! I don’t know what it was. I don’t see any reason for him to have that much confidence in my ability. But for whatever reason, he said I would dig it. So we made dozens of albums. They’re still classic, and people like them, too.

Q: I think we should play something with you and Bud Powell later, but right now we have cued up something from a wonderful Kenny Dorham session from 1961 titled Showboat.

AT: Yeah, I love Kenny Dorham. He’s one of our great… Well, he writes like Bud Powell. His writing is similar. Yeah.

Q: Did you first meet him at this time, too?

AT: Well, Kenny lived up on the Hill. Other people, too… Kenny lived on the Hill. Denzil Best lived on the Hill. And they were like gods, you know. Kenny Dorham! Because Kenny Dorham used to play with Fats Navarro. That’s enough right there, if you never heard him! [LAUGHS] That’s enough right there, if you played with Fats Navarro.

That’s a funny thing. You know Allen Eager, the tenor player? Some young guys were getting smart with him one day, or something about something. He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I played with Fats Navarro. I don’t know what you did.” [LAUGHS] That’s pretty rough.

Q: We’re with Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden on the Musicians’s Show, and Taylor’s Wailers is performing Thursday night at the Walter Reade Theater. By the way, we haven’t mentioned who’s in the group yet.

AT: Well, we have Jacky Terrason. He’s from Paris. I heard him in France about two years ago, and he’s really developing. I think he can develop into one of the finest pianists around. So I’m looking for very fine things from him within this decade. I would figure by the end of this decade he should be at the top of his form. Because it takes fifteen years to get your stuff together to start with; you know, to get your own sound, where you develop your own sound where you don’t sound like nobody else, and everybody can recognize that it’s you. That takes fifteen years.

Q: Do you think that’s always been the case? A lot of the people who were your idols, say, in the Forties, were just in their late twenties at that time.

AT: Well, I didn’t figure that out myself. In talking with Freddie Hubbard… As a matter of fact, it’s probably in my book, Notes and Tones, where we were talking about that. Freddie was saying (and I agree with him, which is why I repeat this) it takes fifteen years to get your own sound. It’s not like you’re going to say, “I’m going to get my own sound, and sound like me!” or something like that. This comes through practice and experience and discussion and listening, and you arrive at your place — and it’s you! It’s nobody else. It can’t be anybody else but you. And some people never arrive. Some people never get it. Ha! That’s one of our songs we’re going to play tomorrow night, too, “Some People Never Get It.”

Q: Who wrote that one?

AT: That’s my piece, and then…


AT: [LAUGHING] Then we’ll follow that with a piece by Walter Bolden, where we’ll say, “Some people never get it, because they’re all stressed out.” [LAUGHS] It’s all right if they never get it. That’s true! Some people never get it. It’s just like that. Everybody doesn’t get it, you know. But the Sun shines on everyone.

Q: But at any rate, after Jacky Terrason, you have two very talented young saxophone players.

AT: Yes. First of all, at the bass we have Tyler Mitchell. We have Tyler Mitchell on the bass. He’s a fine bassist. He’s been with me the longest of all the musicians in the group. We used to go to Europe and do tours with Steve Grossman, tenor player Steve Grossman. We did tours with him, and I would have Tyler on these gigs, so that we got familiar with each other. He has developed tremendously over the last two years. He’s just got to do a little more, and he’ll be all right.

Then we have Willie Williams on tenor saxophone. Willie was known for playing with Dollar Brand and different groups like that. What impresses me with Willie is his sound. He’s got a sound, you know. I’ve always played with saxophone players who can play loud. That interests me most if they can play loud. Gene Ammons can play loud. Jackie McLean can play loud, and Hawk can play loud, and Bird could play loud… You could hear Bird in Chicago if he was playing on 42nd Street, boy! He’d be loud, man. Anyway, you have to be heard before anything can happen. And at that time, they didn’t have all these sophisticated electronic things for your sound. So you had to blow. You had to put some air in those horns. You don’t just be foolin’ around. So Willie has a large sound, and he has a piercing sound that cuts through, too, which is what impressed me about him first of all.

Then we have Abraham Burton on alto saxophone. He’s a protege of Jackie Mac, my old friend, Jackie McLean’s. And he has a powerful… He’s a powerful guy. I mean really. They’re both powerful, you know. I mean, I’m amazed sometimes. I said, “Man, these guys are powerful!” And when the two of them play together, you know, when we play the ensembles, I said, “God…”


AT: Am I right or wrong?

WB: That’s right!

AT: Let Walter Bolden tell you about that, now. Because he’s written five songs at least that we use in our repertoire regularly. Since we’re talking about the saxophone, let’s talk about the power of these two young men, please.

WB: Yes. Willie and Abraham, when they play together, they get a sound that’s big. It sounds like a brass section. You don’t miss the trumpet. It has depth, and it’s wide-open. But being wide-open, it’s still warm. They have a knack of playing very, very mature even right now, although they have a little bit more to offer, I’m quite sure. But they are two of the strongest musicians out here that I have heard in a long time, really. Wide-open sound.

AT: That’s pretty rough, huh? Wow.

WB: Wide-open sound, right.

Q: The drummer is Arthur Taylor.

AT: Yeah, the drummer, man. I just go along.

Q: What do you think of him, Walter Bolden?

AT: Oh, it’s gonna get funny now….

WB: Well, you know….

AT: It’s gonna get funny.

WB: When you have two guys on the same instrument…


WB: A.T. and I, we used to practice together on the pads, you know. A.T. has a way of playing musical drums. You see, a lot of people play drums, but just patterns and so forth and so on. He has his dynamics, you know. He knows how to pull the sound out of the drum instead of beating the sound into the drum.

AT: Beat it out!

WB: He pulls the sound out. He pulls it out. And it’s amazing, some of the things he does, his coordination — it’s tremendous.

AT: I told him to say that, you know.

Q: He memorized all that? You wrote that? That’s beautiful. That’s great.
[MUSIC: KD/J. Heath/Kenny Drew/AT, “Make Believe” (1961); Gene Ammons, “Canadian Sunset” (1960)]

Q: I know that Gene Ammons, A.T., was one of your very favorite of all musicians.

AT: Yeah, Gene was great. First of all, my mother was a big Sonny Rollins fan for this piece, “This Love Of Mine,” that he did at one time — I think Blakey and Kenny Drew and I think Percy Heath was the personnel on that. She loved that record. But when she heard “Canadian Sunset,” Gene Ammons got her. She loved Gene Ammons. So I had to play this record. I’d have something on, and I’d have to put “Canadian Sunset” on. She liked that piece.

Gene was one of those saxophone players, you could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan. He had that big sound, you know. God, he had this big sound. And he would tell me, “When we get to the end of the chorus, I want you to drive me and kick me and spur me on and everything.” It was a great learning experience, because he was so much more experienced and so much older. I learned so many different things from Gene Ammons. Plus, he was such a sweetheart, one of the sweet guys of the music business.

Q: Well, you did a lot of recordings with him.

AT: Quite a few.

Q: You recorded on those jam sessions in the mid-Fifties.

AT: That’s right. Coltrane played alto on some of them. Jackie McLean used to be on them, and Art Farmer, Donald Byrd. We had a lot of great musicians. Doug Watkins used to do a lot of those things with us.

Q: When did you first hear him? On one of your first trips to Chicago?

AT: Yeah, I heard him in Chicago. They used to have the all-night jam sessions. And I had known of Gene Ammons, but to hear him in person and electrify the people… When he’d play a ballad, you just went, [SIGHS]; you’d just melt, you know, with the sweetness and the power at the same time. It was so beautiful.

Q: He was a star musician in Chicago since his early twenties, and he’d been performing since his teens.

AT: That’s true. And the Billy Eckstine year also. What about Jug? What about that sound? Let’s talk about sound. What about that sound he gets on that instrument, the texture of his tone?

WB: Well, T, I’ll tell you. With Gene, for me, like his sound was so broad and so warm, when you would hear him in person, you could feel it in your stomach. That’s the vibration. It was just that broad. You could feel it in your body with him. And his ideas. And the way he used to hold back on his phrases and things like that. It would just take you over. Pull you right into him. For instance, there’s a song I really like by him, and it’s called “Didn’t We,” where he…

AT: An original piece or something?

WB: No, it goes, [SINGS REFRAIN], “Didn’t we girl?” You remember that?

AT: “Didn’t we girl?”


AT: Wait a minute, I heard that!

WB: No, that’s the way the lyric goes!

AT: Oh, yeah, okay-okay-okay…

WB: If the man sings it. “Didn’t we, girl,” you dig? But he did a tremendous job on that. And he did so other wonderful performances. To hear him in person was like a magic…

AT: He had a persona (is that the word?) on stage.

WB: That’s right.

AT: He was such a big man, and he had this big sound.

WB: He had a presence that was… Oh, man, it was something else. Really-really-really something.

Q: Well, it seems like most of the saxophone players you played with were players with the big sound. John Coltrane had a huge sound, Sonny Rollins…

AT: Yes, that’s true.

Q: So what else do you want to talk about, A.T.? Bring up some topics!

AT: Well, Gene Ammons is… He’s quite a topic right there, you know, because he’s not spoken about that much these days. We would be on those record dates, you know, with Jackie and Coltrane and all those people, and Gene…I mean, whatever he said, nobody questioned anything. Because he was a master musician, first of all, plus he was a great, great creative person and a great improviser, had tremendous imagination. Looking back, I can picture it in my mind right now, these sessions we would do with Jug. Everybody was so thrilled just to be in his presence. And to be on the record date with him, that was a big thing in itself.

Q: We have cued up “Appointment In Ghana,” a sextet track by Jackie McLean, A.T.’s long-time partner, who you recorded with extensively in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

AT: That’s a piece that I like. I think we’re going to put in our book. That’s one of the new pieces we’re going to put in our repertoire. [SINGS REFRAIN] Tina Brooks, he was a heckuva saxophone player, too.

WB: Oh, yes.

Q: He was on this, and Blue Mitchell on trumpet.

AT: Blue Mitchell, oh, wow!

Q: And we have Kenny Drew and Paul Chambers…

AT: Oh, my goodness! Oh!

Q: You recorded with Paul Chambers on about eight thousand sessions.

AT: Oh, don’t get me…

Q: He’s going to say a few words about Paul Chambers.

AT: Oh, Chamb, Chamb, Chamb… Well, you know, Chamb’s favorite expression, I use it a lot of times with people, Paul Chambers would… I would say to Paul, “Oh, Paul, that was so beautiful, what you played, man. I love you so much. And he would say, “It’s only Chambers’ music, T,” and “We’re going to speed on to victory.” Whatever that meant, you know! He was a sweetheart. He was a sweetie.

Q: [ETC.] Arthur Taylor and Walter Bolden want your phone calls. They want to see the phone lines flooded.

AT: At 8 o’clock. If somebody’s out there. Anybody out there listening? I don’t see… Nobody’s calling. It’s just the three of us talking here, seems like to me. Nobody calls or anything. What’s going on?

Q: I don’t know. Maybe they don’t know the phone number.

AT: How many listeners do you have out there usually? Two or three or four?

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Five.

Q: Maybe at most.

AT: Six.

Q: Possibly, if we’re lucky, on a given night.
[MUSIC: J.McLean/B. Mitchell/AT, “Appointment In Ghana” (1960); R. Garland/PC/AT, “Hey, Now” (1959); PC/H. Jones/AT, “Yesterdays” (1958)]

AT: That was “Yesterdays” by Paul Chambers, with Hank Jones, Kenny Burrell and Arthur Taylor on the drums. And I will be performing with Taylor’s Wailers…tomorrow evening…at 8 o’clock…at Walter Reade Theatre…in Lincoln Center — and we’re gonna wail. And we’re waiting for you to call us. Now, we’re getting a coupl’a calls, but they’re all from guys. There are no ladies out there listening to this music? I mean, this stuff is getting strange now. I can’t handle it. You know, it’s getting out of hand. It didn’t used to be like that, you know, but it’s getting strange now. So I want to see… First, I wish you people would call and let us know you’re out there. Well, we’re sitting here with Walter…

Q: Well, the number, A.T. Give them the number.

AT: Well, you tell them the number. [ETC.]

Q: Why the theme Autobiography In Rhythm for this concert, A.T.?

AT: You want me to be honest?

Q: I wouldn’t want you to lie.

AT: Oh, okay. It’s a tricky situation, because Lincoln Center wanted me to do a program of Bud Powell’s music, and I love Bud Powell as much as anything I’ve ever experienced in my entire life. One of my greatest thrills is playing music with Bud Powell, and all of us, people like Walter Bolden and myself, we have a great regard and a great respect and love for Bud Powell, and his music, and his artistry — and him as a person also. But things like that have been done already. I had done that already at the United Nations, and I had done it at the JVC Festival. It’s been done. And I’m really most interested in promoting and developing the band that I work with, Taylor’s Wailers. We incorporate the music of Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Walter Bolden, Monk, Jimmy Heath, Jackie McLean. We play the music of all the master composers of Modern Improvisation. And just to put it in a box that you’re going to play this one type of music was a little too much. That’s how that came about. And even though I rejected it, they went ahead with it anyway. The opening piece of the program tomorrow night is that “Some People Never Get It,” you know, and then the second piece by Walter Bolden, “They’re All Stressed Out,” you dig, and then we can get into Abbey Lincoln’s “You Made Me Funny” — you know, “you’ve made me funny, you’ve made me sneaky…” I don’t want to be that way. I mean, I talk about it, but I don’t want to be funny. Do you know what I mean? Does that cover that question?

Q: I guess it does. A.T., I’d like to ask you if, in that last batch of phone calls, any topics came up that you’d like to discuss with Walter Bolden.

AT: Yes, well, one gentleman called and said, “Yes, you’re talking about a lot of musicians and this and that, but you haven’t said anything about Elmo Hope or…” He mentioned another pianist, I can’t remember…

Q: I think he mentioned Richie Powell.

AT: Richie Powell, that’s right, Bud’s younger brother. He used to play with Clifford Brown and Max Roach. The gentleman was correct. Those are wonderful musicians. Now, I never played with Richie, but I played with Elmo, and Elmo was, PSHEW, unbelievable. Unbelievable. Elmo Hope was something else. He was really something else. He epitomized the artistic manner of accompanying, of imagination and quick thought. I mean, from the brain right to the hand, immediately, at the right time and the place, the right note, the right chord, the right time, where everybody says, “Ah!” Where you don’t say, “Grrr,” you say “Ah!” — a sigh of relief, you know.

Q: He was a contemporary and a close friend of Bud Powell.

AT: That is correct. That is correct. I would see him at Bud’s apartment sometimes, quite a bit. Yeah, Elmo was quite a musician.

Q: A very distinctive style of writing…

AT: Yes.

Q: …and many enduring compositions.

AT: Definitely. But for me, his main thing was the way he would comp. Unbelievable. He was one of the masters, along with Bud and Red Garland, Wynton Kelly, and others also I can’t… The list goes on. But it’s not that long either now!

Q: It’s long enough, though. Of course, you played in hundreds of rhythm sections, with many bassists. I would guess (I have to hear it from you) that Paul Chambers epitomized maybe the ideal bass player.

AT: Well, I did most of my work with Paul. A lot with Doug Watkins, too. Paul was masterful. Like, when you go on the bandstand and start to play, you know what I mean, you go in a trance. I mean, you’re out of it. I mean, you’re only involved in what the other musicians are doing. Well, that’s the relief of playing music, because when you can play music, and if you really get involved in it, and you love it and you enjoy it, and you enjoy and respect the people you’re playing with, there’s nothing like that in the world. There’s nothing like that.

Paul epitomized that. He’s like a guy that goes in a trance. He’s right there, you can look in his eyes, but his brain is only in the music and only what the other musicians are doing and what he is doing. That requires a great deal of concentration. You have to be sympathetic. You have to be understanding. You have to be friendly, mean, nasty, cold-blooded and everything at the same time, you know — without being hateful, though. Paul was just a sweetheart. He was a sweetheart.

Q: Was the Red Garland Trio working a lot in terms of gigs, or was it primarily done for recording dates?

AT: This was primarily recordings. We would do gigs sometimes, but that was occasional, because Red and Paul were playing with Miles Davis at this period, just like John Coltrane was playing with Miles Davis at this period. But there were a certain group of guys, I guess you could call it a clique. It was like a clique. And it was hard to get in that clique. Pianists like Red and Tommy Flanagan, Wynton Kelly, a couple of people like that, and the bassists were Doug and Paul, and the drummers were Philly and myself, and then there were other people, too, like Louis Hayes was in there…

Q: Sam Jones recorded with Red later.

AT: Sam Jones. That was later, though. That was later. Jackie McLean and Donald Byrd. Joe Gordon, the trumpet player, a great trumpet player who died — Joe Gordon. Those are some of the main guys. And we would work with Gene Ammons, like I said before, and Art Farmer. So there was like a circle of musicians at that particular time. It was very difficult to get into that, because you really had to be playing, first of all, and second of all, the people had to like you, or it didn’t make any difference — you were out! Heh-heh.

Q: Of course, Red Garland and Paul Chambers were playing together all the time.

AT: Yes.

Q: But they sound like it was, you know, a working trio with a book, as though they were on the road or playing gigs like the Ahmad Jamal Trio or other trios of the time.

AT: Yeah. Well, Red was a very sensitive man, you know. I met Red when I was playing with Coleman Hawkins, and he had taken me to his apartment in Philadelphia. He said, “I want you to hear this,” and I sat down and listened to him play. He said, “Yeah, when I get to play with Miles, I’m going to use these chords; these chords are going to set him off.” It’s like you train yourself to play with another musician. And it was really like that, because you know, Miles would say, “Oh my God, do you hear that stuff Red’s playing? That’s too much, isn’t it?” He said, “I don’t have to play. I just stand there, you know.” And Miles was serious. “I don’t really even have to play. Because he’s doing so much beautiful stuff there, I can just do almost anything and it works.”

[MUSIC: W. Bolden, “Gift Of Life” (1978); Monk Big Band, “Friday The 13th” (1959); Bud Powell Trio, “My Heart Stood Still” (1953)]

Q: That was a Rodgers and Hart composition, “My Heart Stood Still” performed by the Bud Powell trio, with George Duvivier on bass and Arthur Taylor on drums. That was a working trio at the time.

AT: That was a working trio, yes.

Q: Speaking of great bassists you worked with, George Duvivier was one of the consummate masters of the instrument.

AT: Marvelous. I couldn’t figure out how he followed Bud. It was something else. It was incredible. It was really incredible. I would be amazed every night.

Q: Would Bud play something different every night? He didn’t have set…

AT: Every night. Bud was a real improviser, you know. He was never the same. Never the same. That’s what real improvisation. Every night it was different. He’d play the same song every night, but it was like another song, heh-heh — every time. People knew this, too. So that was nice also.

Q: So people would come every night because they knew it would be a different set.

AT: Every night, that’s right.

Q: Prior to that we heard you with Thelonious Monk…

AT: Thelonious! Yeah.

Q: The Thelonious Monk Big Band at Town Hall.

AT: That was quite an evening, yes, with Thelonious. The great Monk.

Q: Some drummers have said it was very hard to play with Monk. Philly Joe Jones talked about the difficulty of following him.

AT: Well, it was difficult. But we all had a great respect and a great regard for Monk because of his knowledge of music, and he was original at the same time, too. Nobody sounds like Monk. There’s nobody! Nobody sounds like that. Even when somebody plays some of his riffs, it doesn’t sound…it’s not Monk. But he was original. And as far as playing with him, I found it very difficult. That was my most difficult job.

Q: Why was that?

AT: Because Monk’s tempos were in between. It was just a fraction in between, which was the hardest tempo to play. It’s harder to play slow than it is fast, because when you play fast, you make errors going by so fast, you don’t know the difference. But if you’re playing slow… This is just my opinion, now; it’s not no gospel truth or nothing like that. But it’s harder to play slow. I could play something fast, at a great rate of speed, and I could mess up…

Q: Supersonic, as you like to say.

AT: Supersonic speed, that’s right, and mess up five hundred times, and nobody would know the difference, I wouldn’t know the difference even, it’s going by so fast. But when you play something slow, and you make an error, it stands out like a sore thumb with a big bandage on it, you know.

Q: [ETC.] We’ll end with a version of “Bullet Train,” from A.T.’s recent release, Mr. A.T.

AT: On Enja Records, which is available at all the record stores in the city. Go buy the records, because when you hear it, you may like it — and go buy it. Because we need the money.

Q: Now, I’ve heard somebody else say that before. “Tell your square friends,” right.

AT: We’re using some of Art Blakey’s stuff. We’ll use his stuff, too, you know, because he’s a master, and you have to use things from the masters also.

Q: [ETC.] Before we conclude the show with “Mr. A.T.,” we’re going to hear you on a recording with someone who was one of your closest friends, I would guess, you recorded with him frequently and played with him in Europe for many years, Johnny Griffin, from a 1962 recording.

AT: Oh yeah, the Little Giant. That’s my man, Johnny Griffin. Rough musician. He had one of those big sounds. You could hear him in Brooklyn when he was playing in Manhattan.

Q: I can hear you in the Bronx when you’re playing in Staten Island, too!

AT: [LAUGHING] Even when he’s playing fast.

Q: This is kind of an obscure recording.

AT: Yeah, I haven’t heard it. I forgot about that. We did that when he was leaving for Europe the next day. He hasn’t come back yet. He was leaving for Europe the next day, yeah.

Q: We’ll hear an original blues by Griff called “Slow Burn.” After that we’ll hear the short version of “Mr. A.T.” from your recent release on Enja…

AT: Actually, I’d like to hear the long version.

Q: Well, we don’t have time to play the long version. We played that at the start of the show.

AT: How long is the long version?

Q: It’s eleven minutes.

AT: But that’s what we’ve got. Exactly eleven minutes.

Q: No, but I have to play this, and then the short version.

AT: Is it necessary for you to play this?

Q: Yes, it is!


Q: We played the long one at the top of the show.

AT: Okay, compromise. You always have me in a compromising position. It’s okay. I just hope everyone enjoyed the show, sitting here with my buddy, the great drummer Walter Bolden and my good friend, Ted Panken. It’s really been a pleasure being back here at WKCR for a short visit this evening. And I’m thinking about you, Mo!

WB: And I’m very, very thankful to be invited here, especially with A.T. It was really-really-really a pleasure.

[MUSIC: Griffin, “Slow Burn” (1962), AT, “Mr. A.T.”]


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Filed under Arthur Taylor, Drummer, Walter Bolden, WKCR