Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Preston, Don (Donald Ward)

Don Preston may be best known as the keyboard player with Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention band, but is first and foremost a fine jazz pianist who has worked with, among others, Gil Evans, Nat Cole, Charlie Haden John Carter and Carla Bley. A electronic synthesizer pioneer, he built his own instrument in 1965, and has worked an extraordinarily diverse series of musical situations over the years, encompassing pop, electronic, contemporary classical, theater and movie soundtrack music as well as jazz.

Don Preston was born on September 21, 1932 in Flint, Michigan, and grew up in Detroit. His father, Donn Preston, was a successful musician who played trumpet, became a staff arranger for NBC, and wrote compositions for the Detroit Philharmonic. Young Don took piano lessons from the age of five, but it was only when he joined the army in 1951 and was posted to Trieste, Italy, that he became seriously exposed to jazz.

In Trieste, Preston roomed with trumpeter Buzz Gardner, later to become a colleague in the Mothers of Invention, and Gardner enlightened him not only about jazz but also about composers like Bartok, Schoenberg, Berg and Webern. It was in the army that Preston began to play bass, working with flautist Herbie Mann among others, and also writing both jazz and classical compositions. He has numbered George Shearing, Stan Kenton, Lennie Tristano, Dave Brubeck and Bud Powell among his early jazz influences.

After army service Preston returned to Detroit, and in 1954 began playing bass in a late- night club, the West End Café, where he worked with such luminaries as Elvin Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Kenny Burrell and Pepper Adams. In 1958 he joined the Hal McIntyre orchestra on piano, and accompanied Nat King Cole on a tour of Canada. Moving to Los Angeles, Preston worked on both bass and piano, playing bass with Shorty Rogers, and piano in a duo with Charlie Haden at the Unicorn Club.

He also had informal jam sessions on piano with Paul and Carla Bley, having previously met Paul Bley in Florida in 1955. In the early 1960s Preston was becoming more absorbed by electronic music, and was listening to composers like Berio and Stockhausen. An interest in synthesisers was sparked by his friend Paul Beaver, who became the West Coast distributor for Moog. Preston also met Frank Zappa around this time and discovered that they had a common interest in experimental music.

After an initiation into rock and roll in a band called the Forerunners in 1965, Preston joined Zappa's Mothers of Invention at the end of 1966 in time to appear on the album Absolutely Free and to be featured on the track "America Drinks And Goes Home," giving a hilariously accurate impersonation of a lounge piano player.

Preston was the first musician to use a synthesiser in a band, having constructed his own in 1965, two years before the first Moog synthesiser appeared. In the Mothers of Invention, he was in a key position to make a crucial contribution to the use of synthesisers in rock music, and later in jazz. His favourite synthesiser solo from this period appears on the title track of the album Waka/Jawaka, and another excellent example is the sixteen-bar solo on the title track of the companion album The Grand Wazoo.

In 1971 Preston's synthesiser sound made a tasteful contribution to the Gil Evans album Where Flamingos Fly, and, at around this time, his old friend Carla Bley asked him to appear on her album Escalator Over The Hill, featuring such musicians as Gato Barbieri, Charlie Haden and Paul Motian.

In the mid-1970s, having left Zappa, Preston created some excellent music in a jazz-rock- funk vein that compares well to other music of the era, for instance that by the Brecker Brothers and Chick Corea. A good example of this is the track "Bannon Call" from the album Vile Foamy Ectoplasm.

Preston served as keyboard player and musical director for British pop star Leo Sayer from 1975 to 1978, and contributed orchestration and synthesiser work on the soundtrack of the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now

in 1979. Preston became a member of avant-garde clarinetist John Carter’s group and recorded four albums with him, and feeling that his time with Carter was a great musical experience.

For his part, Carter was keen to clarify what a pioneer Preston was in the field of keyboard electronics. Returning to his jazz origins, Preston recorded a solo piano album, Hear Me Out, in 1997 and a piano trio album in 2000 entitled Transformation. These discs confirm Preston’s status as an original piano voice with his roots firmly in jazz: one has only to listen to the atonal boogie of the track "Bad Boy" on Hear Me Out, or his quirky treatment of Cole Porter’s "I Love You" on Transformation.

Preston has kept up a constant stream of musical activity, composing movie sound- tracks, theatre music, contemporary classical music and appearances with the Grande Mothers, performing the music of Frank Zappa. He has said: “What I see in art is that everything is focusing down to one kind of form … I wish somebody would name it.”

Select Discography

As a Leader:

Alien (with Michael Mantler)(1985)

Hear Me Out (1997)

Transformation (2000)

The Don & Bunk Show (with Bunk Gardner)(2005)

Works (2007)

Vile Foamy Ectoplasm (2008)

Retrospective (2009)

As a Sideman:

Frank Zappa: Absolutely Free (1967)

Frank Zappa: We’re Only In It For The Money (1968)

Frank Zappa: Uncle Meat ( 1969)

Frank Zappa: Burnt Weeny Sandwich (1970)

Frank Zappa: Weasels Ripped My Flesh (1970)

Frank Zappa: Fillmore East (1971)

Frank Zappa: Waka/Jawaka (1972)

Frank Zappa: The Grand Wazoo (1972)

Frank Zappa: Roxy And Elsewhere (1974)

Carla Bley: Escalator Over The Hill (1971)

Gil Evans: Where Flamingos Fly (1971)

Buell Neidlinger: Marty’s Garage (1973)

Robby Krieger: Robby Krieger (1985)

John Carter: Dance Of The Love Ghosts (1986)

John Carter: Fields (1988)

Bobby Bradford/John Carter: Comin’ On (1988)

John Carter: Shadows On A Wall (1989)

Michael Mantler: Live (1987)

Peter Erskine: Aurora (1988)

Ivo Perelman: Ivo (1989)

The Grandmothers: A Grandmothers Night At The Gewandhaus (2003)

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Contributor: Geoffrey Wills