A conversation with mike ledonne
By Tomas PeŮa
I caught up with the pianist and organist Mike LeDonne upon his return to New York following a successful tour in Italy. Mike was grappling with the untimely death of his colleague and friend, drummer Tony Reedus. Although he was still a bit shaky, he agreed to talk with me about his life and career.
What a career it's been. Speaking to Mike is like taking a crash course on the history of jazz. It seems as if he's performed, recorded, and/or rubbed elbows everyone in the world of jazz at one time or another. Now it's his turn to shine, and that he doesówhether he's ticklin' the ivories or cookin' on a Hammond B-3. Five Live, LeDonne's 2008 release on the Savant label, was recorded at Smoke, a very happening jazz spot on New York's Upper West Side.
Congratulations on the release of Five Live.
Thanks, I am very happy with the recording. I like the sound quality, and the fact that it didnít get degraded. You really get the feeling of being there.
Yes indeed! And speaking of being there, I recently had the opportunity to catch your group at the Jazz Standard. I really enjoyed it.
Before we speak about the recording, tell me about your formative years. You grew up in a musical environment. In fact, your parents owned a music store in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and your father was a jazz guitarist. Was your father a professional musician?
Yes, he actually recorded and spent some time on the road.
With whom did he record?
He had a trio that was kind of like the Nat King Cole Trio, except that he had a vibes player instead of a piano player.
What is your fatherís name?
What kind of impact did growing up in that kind of environment have on you, and what prompted you to take up the piano?
I was always in the store, so the instruments were like my toys. My father was the first person to get electric guitars, a Fender Rhodes, a compact organ, and all of these electronic things, so it was great. I remember that the compact organ came with a small Leslie speaker, and I put a band together with a guitar and drums. I played the bass lines on the organ. We used to rehearse in my basement, and leave the window open. The kids in the neighborhood would come by and dance outside. As far as gravitating towards the piano, my parents always had a piano and an organ in the house. I started playing blues stuff and anything I could pick up by ear, when I was five. Eventually, I got to the point where I could pick out tunes and improvise a little. I played with my first group when I was ten.
I understand that your father was also your booking agent.
Yes he was. We gigged at junior high school dances, high school dances, church things. I played through junior high, high school, right up until the time I went to college.
And he bought you your first Hammond B-3 organ.
I have always loved the sound of the Hammond B-3. I loved any record that had a B-3, whether it was a rock group or jazz. My father had a lot of recordings by [organist] Jimmy Smith. Anyway, I bugged him until he found one at a repossession sale. My basement was like a mini-music store and workshop. I had a trap drum set, a guitar and an organ. I used to have some serious sessions down there.
I donít think there is an organ player alive who hasnít been influenced by the great Jimmy Smith, in one way or another. You've been playing the Hammond B-3 on Tuesday evenings at Smoke for nearly a decade.
Yes, I still perform at Smoke, but [in the beginning] I kept the organ thing in the closet. I was more interested in having fun than in creating a situation where I was in competition with others, or putting myself under a lot of pressure.
As for Smoke, I have a friend named Jim Snidero, who played [sax] with Jack McDuffís band, and he invited me to sit in. When I came off the bandstand, Jack shook my hand and complimented me on my playing, and encouraged me to continue pursuing the organ. And I did. In fact, I went out and bought an organ the very next day. From there, I started doing gigs around Harlem with a tenor player named Percy France (who recorded with Jimmy Smith) and a great drummer named Joe Dukes (who played with Jack McDuff). Together, we formed a trio and performed at a place called Showmanís for three years. Percy France was the person who really helped me to reestablish myself and get reacquainted with the organ. When Charles Earlandóalso known as the 'Mighty BurnerĒó-died, Paul Stash [of Smoke], who was a Charles Earland nut, organized a tribute for him. He invited me to sit in with the band. I donít remember what I played, but he invited me back, and I've never looked back. That was nine years ago.
Letís backtrack for a minute. Before you moved to New York, you studied at the New England Conservatory?
Yes, I met Jaki Byard at the New England Conservatory, and he was the reason I stayed there. I got into the Conservatory as a classical pianist, which is really something, because I only studied classical music seriously for about two or three years. Before I studied with Jaki, I studied with a guy named John Mehegan, who wrote books on music theory. After that, I really decided to get serious about classical music, and I went to Manhattan Prep. Thatís an interesting story, because I managed to put together enough of a repertoire to do some auditions, and I was accepted. It was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life, because I didnít listen to classical music and I really didnít know what I was doing. Later I found out that the school had a jazz program, so I split my time between classical music and jazz. Jaki was fantastic. He knew everything about jazz: the history, the new stuff, and everything in-between. I could not have asked for a better teacher, and he was a great guy, too.
Then I moved to New York and attended Barry Harris's workshop. After that, I studied with a guy named Nicolas Rodriguez, who was a real characteróa Panamanian guy and a theoretician who knew piano technique and had a very unique way of teaching. In fact, it was under him that I learned what real technique was. I teach his methods to my students today.
I arrived in New York in the late 70s, which was a very fertile time. Guys like [pianists] Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones and Ray Bryant were playing at small clubs like Bradleyís. Back then, there was no cover-charge. Anybody could just walk in to a club and listen to music all night. The audience was usually college students who talked through the entire set. But I got to see back-to-back giants like Tommy Flanagan, Cedar Walton, and Hank Jones, to name a few.
The days of just walking into a club and listening to music all night are long gone.
Those days are totally gone. Right down the street from Bradleyís was a place called Knickerbocker's, and not far from there was 1 Fifth Avenue, where I saw Al Haig. I saw Tommy Flanagan and Teddy Wilson play duo at Fat Tuesdays. Johnny Griffin and Roy Eldridge were playing at Jimmy Ryanís, where I ended-up working. It was just a magic time. On the average we played six-hour gigs, six nights a week.
Just to backtrack again ... Before you moved to New York, you were a member of the Widespread Jazz Orchestra?
I met those guys when I left school. They had a band that performed the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Earl Hines, which was music that I was interested in but had not 'devoured' yet.
It was a swing band, correct?
Yeah, it was mostly the music of the black bands, the prime stuff. They were a bunch of young guys who were transcribing the arrangements and playing the music, and people liked their sound. I remember that we received a salary of 120 bucks per week, whether we worked or not, so it was priceless. Also, it gave me an opportunity to develop an appreciation for the music of Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Nat King Cole, the guys that created all of that swinging music back then.
From there you went on to play with the Savoy Sultans.
Drummer Panama Francis called me. That was a big moment, because it was the real deal. The Widespread Orchestra was a bunch of kids having fun and playing the arrangements with good spirit, but Panama had a band that was the equivalent of a Basie small band. The musicians were all African-American veterans in their late 60s and early 70s. At the time I was twenty-three!
Who were some of the veterans?
Letís see Ö Bill Pemberton, who played bass with Art Tatum; Howard Johnson, who played alto with Dizzy's big band; Irvin Stokes, who played trumpet with Buddy Johnson and Thad Jones; and Francis Williams, who played trumpet with Duke Ellington. That's to name just a few.
Did they take you under their collective wing and school you?
They totally schooled me. Not only that, but I got to sit inside the real pocket. We played jazz, but we also did extended gigs at the Rainbow Room. That was a real society gig; they were very strict and the schedule was grueling.
Letís talk about your experiences at Jimmy Ryanís.
Eddie Condonís and Jimmy Ryanís were both located on 54th Street. Eddie Condonís charged $1.25 per drink and stayed open until the last drink was served. Everybodyóand I mean everybodyó hung-out there! At Jimmy Ryanís and Eddie Condon's I played with Roy Eldridge, Papa Jo Jones, Ruby Braff, and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis, among others. It was one hell of an experience, because we played Dixieland music for the melodies, but when we took our solos we were allowed to do anything we wanted. That was Roy Eldridgeís innovation. Jimmy Ryanís was a good education, and I am glad I did it.
There's no substitute for on-the-job training.
All of those guys were there when I arrived [in New York]. There was another place uptown called the West End Cafť. All of these old dudes like [guitarists] Al Casey and Tiny Grimes used to hang out there, they were still active. There was still a lot of history in New York back then. As a young guy, you never spoke out of turn and you were always very respectful. When you sat-in, you always wore a jacket and tie.
I remember the days when jazz musicians prided themselves on being 'sharp.' In 1988 you joined Milt Jacksonís quartet. In fact, you played with Milt for eleven years. Tell me about that.
With Milt it wasnít a complicated thing. Either he liked you or he didnít. He liked me, and he liked the way I played, and he never stopped liking me. We became beautiful friends, even though at first I could barely speak to him because I used to get tongue-tied. He was my idol, but when that broke-down, we became like family. It was a tremendous experience. Milt never played a bad note. I learned so much from watching him play. After he died, I organized a tribute for him and during the process I worked with a lot of vibes players. With all due respect to their talents, none of them can touch Milt Jackson. Actually, thatís not true; Bobby Hutcherson has it.
I was just about to mention Bobby Hutcherson. In my view, he's Miltís successor.
Jazz, swinging, and playing the blues is a special thing. Itís something that you canít really learn. Milt had all of that, but he never got the recognition he deserved. Everybody knew who he was, he would always win the Downbeat polls and that kind of thing, but he was never a superstar on the level of say, Oscar Peterson. He worked like crazy, but he never achieved superstar status with the public. Mention Benny Goodmanís name to anyone and they know who he is. Not so with Milt, and thatís a shame.
I blame a lot of that on the demise of radio. When was the last time you heard a tune by Milt Jackson or the Modern Jazz Quartet on the radio?
That is so true. Plus, the powers that be, the recording people havenít done a great job of supporting this music. When Milt died, [renowned festival organizer] George Wein and I produced a great concert in his honor at Symphony Space. We had Jimmy Heath, John Faddis, Slide Hampton, Mickey Roker, Bob Cranshaw, Steve Nelson, Etta Jones, and Stanley Turrentine. It was a knockout concert and it raised the roof off of the place. Afterwards, I put together this same package for a recording and took the idea to Blue Note records. All the musicians gave me a special price because it was for Milt, and the fee was very reasonable. I thought they were going to jump at it, but instead they turned it down. They told me that they werenít interested in recording 'straight-ahead' classics anymore. I was shocked, because I really thought it would be a hit. No one had done anything like that in a long time, and we had all of these great musicians Ö
What disappoints me most is the fact that the event was not documented for posterity.
If it has to do with jazz music, it canít just be a bottom line business. Jazz music is like a mutual fund; you put money in, and you make out over the long term. All of the record companies and all of the club owners need to know that. Take my gig at Smoke. When I first started playing, there were a lot of empty tables. Nobody knew what was going on, but in six months the place was packed. In other words, it takes time to develop a 'scene.' I've been going strong there for nine years. Thatís the way jazz music is. What the record companies fail to realize is, when you put money behind someone like Milt Jackson, it's money in the bank.
Amen to that. On another topic, I was looking over the reviews for Five Live, and I couldnít help but notice that a number of the reviewers seem to be under the impression that you are primarily an organ player.
Yeah, I noticed that, itís like 'Wow! He plays the piano too!' (Laughs) I have made all of these records, played all of these great gigs and have traveled the world for thirty years, and I still get that. More power to Joe Fields and Savant Records for getting the records out there and getting them played a lot.
Itís your time.
I feel good. I still want to improve, and I want to get to another level. There are always guys that you listen toóguys like Mc Coy Tyneróand say, 'Wow! I would like to be able to play like that.' I am just happy that I havenít faded away.
Fat chance! Letís talk about Five Live. Tell me about concept, and how you went about choosing the material.
This is the record I have always wanted to make. I needed to make a record that has live power, and not what I call the 'studio daintiness.' There's something about recording in a studio that takes some of the energy away.
Or makes the recording sound too perfect.
Yeah, you get into things like Ö how short does a track have to be? Or, you donít get to stretch-out; or you err on the side of trying to be radio-friendly. I know that when I play at Smoke, itís always powerful, and itís always a great experience. So I thought to my self, 'Thatís what I want on my record.' So I did that; I wrote some tunesóthings I've been playing around with for awhile. I'm always writing tunes, and I picked a couple of things that I've always been interested in. I wrote a tune for my little girl, Mary.
Thatís 'Little M.'
Yeah. And I did a pop tune, 'You and I' by Stevie Wonder, which helps people to connect with the music.
I like your rendition of 'Manteca.'
Thanks. The album was meant to be swinging and powerful, but I wanted it to also have some pretty moments. I always end my sets with the bluesóreal blues, not a warped-out, rethought, re-harmonized blues, but a regular old blues.
Thatís 'Bleeker Street Theme.' I understand that you close your shows at Smoke with that tune. Letís talk about your band. Is trumpeter Jeremy Pelt a new addition to the band?
I liked Jeremy from the first time I heard him, so I decided to include him in this record. Heís got all the stuff I like. He plays the advanced chord changes, but he can also get greasy when he has to.
He looks like someone who shows up to go to work Ö
Heís also sharp, and a very nice guy. He just takes care of business.
Who are the other members of the band?
Eric Alexander on tenor sax, John Webber on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. They're all great musicians.
You also teach at Julliard?
I taught at Julliard for four years. I left in 2006.
And you co-authored Jim Snideroís Jazz Conception for Piano (Advance Music).
Yeah, I worked on that with him. We put out a play-along CD and a comping book.
Name five recordings that have influenced you in a big way.
Thatís hard, but right off the bat, Relaxiní by Miles Davis. That record was made on the day I was born. Also, Miles Davis's Live at the Black Hawk, My Funny Valentine, and Duke Ellington, anything in the Columbia series. And there are two records by Coltrane: Crescent and Ballads, as well as The Dynamic Duo, by Wes Montgomery and Jimmy Smith.
Over the years, you've received countless accolades and awards. Whatís next for Mike LeDonne?
I hope to get more work as a leader. I have tours of my own coming up, and I look forward to doing more of that. Right now my main gig is with Benny Golson. I've been with Benny for twelve years. I love Benny; he is the greatest guy in the world, and his music is outstanding. He just put together the New Jazztet, and we just completed a new recording.
How did you feel when the great Oscar Peterson singled you out as one of his favorite piano players?
That was a real shocker for me! Someone I know mentioned that he'd been listening to Marion McPartland's Piano Jazz interview with Oscar on WBGO [the Newark, New Jersey public radio station that specializes in jazz], and when she asked Oscar who his favorite pianist from today was, he said my name. I couldn't believe it. He said it again in a magazine interview, as well. What an honor.
I must get down to Smoke and catch you on the B-3.
Yeah man, come down.
Good luck with Five Live. Itís a great recording.
Thank you, Tomas.
Mike LeDonne's Web site: www.mikeledonne.com
AS A LEADER:
Then and Now (Double-Time, 2001)
Bags Groove: A Tribute to Milt Jackson (Double-Time, 2000)
AS A SIDEMAN:
Remembering Clifford w/Benny Golson (Milestone, 1998)
Sa Va Bella (For Lady Legends) w/Milt Jackson (Warner Bros., 1997)