In Conversation with Jimmy Cobb (Part One)

by Ralph A. Miriello

Jimmy Cobb is the last surviving participant on the most celebrated jazz recording of the last half century, Kind of Blue. But a single CD, no matter how illustrious, can barely hint at the legacy of this great artist, who resume includes collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Sarah Vaughan, Clark Terry, Kenny Burrell and many other jazz legends. Cobb’s work with Miles also found him on Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, Someday My Prince Will Come and Live at Carnegie Hall, among others classic dates. Below the drummer, joined by his wife Eleana Tee, sits down with’s Ralph Miriello, in the first installment of a comprehensive interview.

You started playing professionally in your hometown of Washington D.C. You played with Earl Bostic, Billie Holiday and others. How did you get your start?

                                    Jimmy Cobb

Earl Bostic was after I left D.C. That was the band that I went on the road with, but the rest of those people that you mentioned are true. When I first started to play I played with a few guys that lived there, like Leo Parker, Frank Wess. There was a saxophonist that was around, he was about my age, a little older, his name was Rick Henderson and he was quite a musician. He use to have little bands in the time and I had occasion to work with a pianist…who was with Billie Holiday, his name was Carl Drinkard. I had the opportunity to work with Charlie Rouse who taught me all my bebop.

In D.C. I played in most of the little clubs that were there. I played in a place called the Caverns, later it was called the Bohemian Cavern. It was a place that was downstairs in the basement but on the inside it looked like a cave…. That was the place that they used to bring small shows into town. The lady that was running the club was Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche Calloway, she wound up being manager for Ruth Brown, so she brought her in to sing and I had the opportunity to play with Ruth Brown when she first came from Virginia.

There was a great piano player, he used to play with Billy Eckstine his name was Johnny Malachi. There was another great saxophone player named Buck Hill who …actually [he] was the guy that I played my first gig that we actually got paid for. I got five dollars! The gig was…in my grandfather’s tobacco barn, which was 38 miles south of Washington, D.C… He had a little spread down there and during the season he would raise tobacco, then cut it and hang it in the barn to dry. On Saturdays they would [get together] and play baseball and then at night they would all bring some food and go in the barn and have a little hoedown, I guess you would call it. That was the first time I played with Buck Hill and a friend I went to school with down there. His name was Ellsworth Gibson, he was a piano player…

Why did you choose to play the drums and who were your major influences?

In the ghetto, you know you walk through the streets, you know you hear all kinds of music. I was fortunate to have had most of the jazz records. I accumulated them because I had a paper route … two or three blocks from my house. There was one woman in particular that knew I liked music and so she used to buy me the latest albums…like Artie Shaw and the Grammercy Five, Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, you know all the big time records…big band records. It was all the big bands at the time. This was in the nineteen forties. She used to lay all the big band things on me.

When I first got interested [in the drums] ….it was Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, Art Blakey. Art Blakey first because I used to sit and listen to Billy Eckstine big band records and Art Blakey was the drummer, so that is why I say… that was a good time for the music. Everyone who got popular in jazz music after that was probably in that band or in Earl Hines’ band. Earl Hines had Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn in his band [at the time] so when Billy started his band he took Sarah, who was a piano player, when Johnny [Malachi] wasn’t doing it.

But the drummers who most influenced you at the time?

It was Max, Buddy Rich there was a lot of guys playing back then Sid Catlett, Cozy Cole, Shadow Wilson. I was listening to everybody. There use to be a lot of music would come through our town. They had variety shows that had different acts and I had an opportunity to see a lot of people. You watch them and you pick up things by seeing how they do things.

You weren’t formally trained musically were you?

I had one teacher who was the youngest percussionist of the National Symphony Orchestra at the time, his name was Jack Dennett we met at the time and I asked him if he would give me snare drum lessons and he said he would so we did that for a while. He lasted for a short while …and the rest I picked up from watching and playing.

What was it like to play behind “Lady Day” and was she in her prime when you played with her?

Yes she was in her prime. She had been through a few things, …In New York at the time you couldn’t get a cabaret card if you had anything with the law so she had been through that cycle, but she was on the other side of that when I played with her. The reason I played with her, speaking of Carl Drinkard, he was her pianist, and he was going to college then and he had this band and we used to do all the gigs we could do so he could subsidize his college [expenses]. So when she came to town he had [our] trio work for her. We worked two weeks in a pretty nice club, it was called Blue Mirror, it was downtown on 14th street in Washington. They used to hire all the big time acts.

How was it working behind somebody as like [as famous as] Billie?

She was great. She sang all the tunes that I knew already, so it wasn’t hard. It was nice. Then I had an opportunity to play with Pearl Bailey who was living in the area at the time. I think I played one gig with her.

You seem to have been in the right place at the right time throughout your prodigious career. Did you consciously position yourself to be around the action in the jazz circle or was it pure fortune?

Fortunately yeah. I used to go where things were happening, you know, I used to like the music so anytime somebody came in town I would go check ‘em out. I met Roy Haynes like that. I used to come and watch him play with Lester Young and then he came with another band that was from Boston, the first time I saw him… Buddy Rich ,Gene Krupa, Louie Bellson I saw them all.

You worked several years with Dinah Washington and one report I read said you were married to the mercurial singer for a time. Is this true? When was this and what is it like to play behind such a popular female jazz vocalists?

Yeah it was an experience. I met Dinah… the first band that I went on the road with was Earl Bostic. He was a very great saxophone player, under rated, the musicians knew about it but you know the general public didn’t know he was as good as he was. He made a few records and he got kind of popular. .. I met him [through] a friend of mine-- Keeter Betts, a bass player from Port Chester, New York. [Keeter] used to come to our city and used to work at a place two or three weeks at a time. So we got to be friends. He went out of town and came back and told me that Earl needed a drummer… so he asked me if I wanted to go on the road with the band. I said of course. We met up right here [in New York] at 125th street and St. Nicholas Avenue -- the first gig I met with them. Getting back to Dinah…they were traveling like [a double bill] Dinah Washington and the Earl Bostic Band that was the package. When Dinah sang she only carried a piano player and the piano player was Wynton Kelly so when she sang Wynton Kelly, Keeter Betts and myself played behind her as her trio.

We [Dinah and I] got to be sociable... I think she just put out in the paper that we were married, it really wasn’t legal, we never went to the legal thing. But that was what it had to be because her mother wasn’t going to let me stay in the house.

So it was like a marriage of convenience?

That’s right. [Jimmy laughs heartily.] Her mother was a strict woman.

Did her commercial success dampen her creative potential?

No, I think what happened to Dinah is that Dinah strained her voice like Frank Sinatra did once. When she went to see the doctor about it he told her to take off like maybe a couple of months… to give her vocal chords a chance to rest and heal. She couldn’t do that because she was in such a monetary crush at the time that she couldn’t stop. So singing through that thing kind of damaged her voice. At the end of her life she wasn’t sounding as good…like when we first met she had a really strong voice. She was piano player….and she came up in the Baptist Church. Her mother kept her in the church a lot so she used to sing and play piano for the church.

[She turned commercial] to make money that’s the same [way] that Earl Bostic had to play the things that he played to make money. He just couldn’t show his dexterity on the horn because people weren’t buying that. They were buying people walking on the bar playing one B flat note honking …

I read somewhere that even John[Coltrane] did that once and someone came in and saw up on the bar and he ran out.

Yeah and he said don’t tell nobody you saw me. But that was the atmosphere at the time. If you didn’t do that the guys wouldn’t hire you.

Can you clear up the controversy about how Ruth Jones got her stage name of Dinah Washington?

I think Lionel Hampton told her she had to change it, either Lionel or Gladys, Lionel’s wife.

You are certainly known as a great accompanist. How did this style of drumming develop especially in light of some of the more flashy drummers of your era?

Well I don’t know. The first job I got was with Earl Bostic and he played, what they called back then, rhythm and blues. I played with Dinah, when she played [and] I had to play a certain way with her, which was mostly with brushes, a little softer thing. I got used to having to do that so it got to be part of my shtick, I guess.

You have performed with some of the most talented jazz vocalists in your era, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan to name a few. What do you enjoy most about playing with great vocalists?

It is just a good felling playing with a great vocalist. It helps your playing too because if you know a song and you know the lyrics, you know all of that is a plus instead of just sitting there and not knowing what is going on. If you know the lyrics there might be certain hits you can put in with the words that are coming up. That is always a plus. I like singers anyway. I love the way Dinah sings, I loved the way Sass [Sarah Vaughan] sings. That was goose bumps every night. You know Dinah could shout. She could get into the Baptist thing and make you want to move. I don’t think her mother wanted her to do that [except in church]. Her mother was a strict lady.

Who is your favorite vocalist and did you play behind any famous male singers?

No, it has mostly been with the ladies. In recent years I made a record with Grady Tate. I had a chance to play behind Joe Williams once at a golf tournament once. Lady Day, Dinah, Sarah all of them later I had some gigs with Nancy Wilson. I love them all. I can’t leave Ella out of those, I never played with her but Keeter [Betts] did.

End of part one. Click here for part two

Jimmy Cobb’s web site is and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.

March 31, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Miguel Zenón

By Tomas Peña

“Zenón is a slick and savvy soloist whose gleaming sound and slippery rhythms give his improvisations a zigzagging brilliance. He’s reinventing Latin Jazz in his own image, eschewing familiar blends of Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music with bebop for a more integrated and sophisticated fusion of musical ideas from Puerto Rico and up-to-the-minute post-bop.”
                          Excerpt from a review by Detroit Free Press music critic, Mark Stryker

We last spoke in 2001, just prior to the release of Looking Forward. At that time you closed the interview by saying that you were hoping to “create a musical melting pot” and “looking forward to seeing your music evolve in the future.” Has your music evolved in the way that you hoped it would?

                                                  Miguel Zenón

My music has definitely evolved and I feel that I have grown as a composer, an artist, and a saxophone player. With time and experience you learn to do certain things in a more effective way so … yeah, I do feel that my music is moving forward. My musical preoccupation has always revolved around not getting “stuck,” not doing the same thing (conceptually) again and again.

As we speak you are touring with the SF Jazz Collective. Tell me about the origins of the SF Jazz Ensemble and how you became involved with the organization.

In 2002 or 2003, Randall Klein and musical director Joshua Redman came up with the idea of creating a band to represent their organization. The idea was to create a band like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with different instrumentation, pairing up established musicians with up-and-coming musicians, that kind of thing. They approached me and I agreed to participate. SF has changed and evolved over the years. Of the current roster, pianist Renee Rosnes and I are the only two members of the band that have been with SF from the beginning.

Who are the current members of the SF Jazz Collective?

Myself, Renee Rosnes, Eric Harland, Matt Penman, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano and Stefon Harris. Robin Eubanks is the band’s newest member.

That’s quite a lineup. What is the name of the SF Collective’s most recent recording?

That would be last year’s recording [Live 2007], which features original compositions by all of the band members and the music of Thelonious Monk. This year we are paying tribute to the music of Wayne Shorter.

So the SF Collective is currently performing the music of Wayne Shorter?

Yes, we are currently three weeks into the tour.

You composed all of the tunes for Awake over a two or three year period. During that time you were reflecting on your growth as a musician as well as your personal and professional priorities?

The tunes are a combination of old and new material. I have been revisiting some of the old tunes and writing new material that is along the same lines … I went through a period after I did Jibaro where I wanted to have a very clear idea of what I am doing musically. I tend to be very judgmental of myself and at that time I felt … I wouldn’t say stuck … but some of the concepts I was coming up with were starting to repeat themselves and I wanted to find a way out of that. I want my music to move forward but I also have to feel content with what I am doing. I reflected on the issue for some time, spoke to a number of musicians that I respect and got their feedback. In the end I came to the realization that all of the pressure that I was putting on myself wasn’t really necessary and that I should let things take their course and flow naturally.

It’s interesting that you would feel that way, given all of the accolades you received for Jibaro

You have to put all of that in perspective. It’s very rewarding when the peers, critics and the general public like what you doing, but there is a flip side. As an artist I am dealing with the music in a personal way, so it doesn’t really matter whether everybody likes it or not, I have to be satisfied …

So the title, Awake, speaks to that period in your life.

I guess you could say it represents an awakening to a new perspective about music. But it also represents a new perspective about other things - my family, my loved one’s, religion – in the end it’s about bringing all of these influences into perspective.

So the music is more introspective and philosophical than your previous work. You also added some new “colors,” the Fender Rhodes piano, strings …

Yeah, it’s not like I tried to do that on purpose but it brought out a different perspective. It’s hard for me to notice because I am so involved with the music, maybe somebody that listens to my stuff before and after would notice, or perhaps if I didn’t say anything at all …

You always perform the material in a live setting prior to going into the studio. Where did you work-out the material for Awake?

We performed the material at the Iridium in New York.

Let’s go through the tracks. Tell me what was on your mind as you composed the material. Let’s begin with “Camarón.”

I was thinking about the flamenco singer, El Camarón. Many consider El Camarón to be the single most popular and influential flamenco cantaor (singer) of the modern period.

And “Penta"?

That’s a new composition. It’s something that is based on a geometrical figure, it kind of looks like a star, it’s called a pentatonic scale. The composition is created around the numbers fifteen, five and three …

Funny that you should mention that. When I listen to your music I envision mathematical equations and geometric shapes. I read somewhere that prior to becoming a musician you had given some thought to the idea of becoming an architect …

An engineer …

Maybe that explains it. How about ”The Missing Piece”?

It’s an older composition that the band developed over time. We added the “missing pieces” as we went along.

And “Ulysses in Slow Motion”?

It’s based on the book Ulysses by James Joyce. The book deals with everything that happens within the course of one day. It also deals with a train of thought, what the characters are saying, what they are thinking and how one’s brain connects events and thoughts into different ideas. So I was trying to write something like that. Of course, I couldn’t really go as deep as Joyce … because my idea was simpler I decided to name the tune ”Ulysses in Slow Motion.”


I was watching TV and as I flipped through the channels I came to a Christian channel. The setting was kind of like a mosque and there was chanting. So this one melody caught my attention. It kind of reminded me of something that I had heard in the opera, Tosca. Anyway, I started playing around with the melody and the tune wrote itself. "Santo" is one of the newer tunes …

I understand ”Lamamilla” is your wife’s nickname …

Yes, the tune is dedicated to my wife, Elga. I used a system that assigns a note to every letter. The melody spells out her nickname.

And ”Third Dimension”?

The song has cycles of rhythmic dimension that overlap and meet at a certain point. Some of the ideas were inspired by saxophonist, Steve Coleman.

Awakening – “Prelude,” “Interlude” and “Postlude” is obviously the main theme …

Awakening is the oldest composition. It’s the main theme and it appears at the beginning, middle and end of the recording. I recorded it different ways … solo, with strings and with the entire band playing “free.”

Tell me about the musicians you chose for this project.

Well, the core group is pianist, Luis Perdomo, bass player Hans Glawischnig and Henry Cole on drums and percussion. Special guests include saxophonist Tony Malaby, trumpet player Michael Rodriguez and Ben Gerstein on trombone. And then are the strings: Judith Insell, Orlando Wells, Marlene Rice and Nioka Workman. I have known Luis and Hans for a long time. This is the first time that Henry Cole has recorded with the band.

Not long ago I had a conversation with Hans Glawischnig. During the course of the conversation your name came up. Here is some of what he had to say about you: “Miguel is a great example of someone who has absorbed the tradition but is not hindered by it. He has managed to fuse the intellectual and visceral components of music, something few musicians have achieved.”

I wish he would tell me that [Laughter].

(Laughter]. So where do you feel the music is headed, circa 2008?

That’s a hard question because there is a lot going on that I don’t know about, however, from my experiences in New York and traveling around, there are a lot of people doing creative things and there is definitely a strong input from international musicians who are fusing their culture and their folklore with jazz. In terms of young players there are so many. There is one guy that I like a lot. I don’t really know him so I don’t know if he is younger than me or close to my age, but his name is [saxophonist] Steve Lehman. He’s made a bunch of good records. Conceptually, he’s a great player, thinker, very unique. Also, there are a lot of young Latino’s trying to make it in jazz music – the Rodriguez Brothers, Henry Cole, Ricky Rodriguez from Puerto Rico. They are all very talented guys.

What are you listening to as we speak?

I am listening to something right now!

What might that be?

Keith Jarrett’s Survivor’s Suite. I have been listening to a lot of his stuff lately. Also, the recordings Keith did in Japan [The Sunbear Concerts], the African guitarist and singer, Ali Farke Touré and the Brazilian vocalist, Djavan, a recording by the name of Luz.

You are scheduled to perform at the Jazz Standard on April 29th and 30th. Will this be the band that is on the recording? Will there be a CD release party?

Yes, it will be the band that’s on the record. I think we are going to treat the event as our official CD release party as well.

I hope to see you there. Is there anything that you would like to say to’s readers?

I hope to keep making music for as long as I can and I really appreciate everybody that has enjoyed anything we have done. If this music makes people happy, that’s enough of a reward.

You’ve made me a happy camper!

So I guess I am all set … [Laughter]!

And on that note … it’s been a pleasure speaking with you Miguel. Thank You.

Thank you Tomas.

Suggested Listening:

As a Leader:
Jibaro, Marsalis Music (2005)
Ceremonial, Marsalis Music (2004)
Looking Forward, Fresh Sounds New Talent (2002)

As a Sideman:
SF Jazz Collective, Nonesuch Records (2005)
Mingus Big Band, I am Three (2003)
David Sanchez, Melaza, Columbia Records (2001)

For More on Miguel Zenón visit

March 25, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Wayne Shorter

by Bob Blumenthal

Of the many interviews that I have conducted in Burlington, Vermont at the city’s Discover Jazz festival, none has proven more memorable than my conversation with Wayne Shorter in 2002. As is the case with a handful of artists (Ornette Coleman and the late Andrew Hill come to mind), Shorter is a thinker of substance who speaks in images all his own, images that can sometimes be tricky to follow. In addition, I had seen interviews by others where a focus on historic and technical specifics evoked terse responses from Shorter, at best.

Related Article: "One Dozen Essential Wayne Shorter Tracks" by Matt Miller

As you will see, Shorter was relaxed, loquacious and humorous, often slipping into voices or following his own stream-of-consciousness leads, but always addressing the issue at hand. The only moment of discomfort occurred in the section of audience questions, when someone asked what needed to be done to “save” jazz; but even then, after scowling, Shorter made his point. I’ve tried to retain as much of the flow and the flavor of the conversation as possible, and want to thank Shorter for his permission to publish our exchange.

A lot of musicians are identified with their home towns, and you often hear talk of all the greats from Philadelphia, Detroit…You come from a place that I suspect was also a hotbed of music, Newark, New Jersey. What was the music scene like growing up in Newark?

Wayne Shorter, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on, because I was not into music until about the age of 15. I had been drawing, majoring in Fine Arts. Knowing about music only meant, to me, what I heard in film scores, but we didn’t use those words. We called it “soundtrack,” or “background.” I had heard about the background stuff that the organ player played in the Twenties, behind silent films. My mother would tell me about how people sat in the theaters, listening, and would say, “Uh oh, the organ player’s drunk!” They could really tell when they were doing that “Follow the bouncing ball” stuff. So my parents’ generation was really glad when sound came in. But that’s the earliest recollection of something staying inside of me. I’d go to the Capitol Theatre and see Captive Wild Woman with John Carradine and the guy who played Doc on Gunsmoke

Milburn Stone?

Yes, that guy. He was the lion tamer, and the actress’s name was Aquanita. She only had one name, like Burgess Meredith’s wife, Margo. Those are the things I was noticing – people with one name, and the music behind Bela Lugosi when he played Igor in Frankenstein [WS pronounces it Frankensteen], the Son of Frankenstein. Then The Wolf Man. Now The Wolf Man was the start of something, the first time we went to the movies at night. When you were eight years old, going with your parents at night was a big thing. And they had two films, The Wolf Man and a movie with Olivia De Haviland called To Each His Own. It was a soap opera, but she was good in it. But as kids, we were waiting for The Wolf Man.

I always identified your piece “Children of the Night” with Bela Lugosi and Dracula.

Yes, but then “Children of the Night” became astronauts, going out into the darkness of the unknown. But that film music, the backgrounds when Lon Chaney was changing into a werewolf, or The Mummy. It seemed like those composers had carte blanche. No one was leaning over their shoulder saying, “We want a hit. Let’s get my cousin to write a hit song.” That kind of writing in those films got me interested about sound, and I just got curious and more curious.

Then I heard a lot of stuff on the radio, and I got really interested when I heard Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach and all those guys. I remember one evening, just when I was turning sixteen, some of the guys saying “You ever heard of Charles Christopher Parker?” These three or four guys, they were hip. We were the only ones in the school who were paying attention to Charlie Parker. We went to this theater around the corner from school, the Adams Theatre, they would have a movie and a show there, and they had all the bands there: Stan Kenton, Woody Herman. I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band there, and of course Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, his brother Russell Jacquet, Andy Kirk. And comedians like Timmie Rogers. He used to say “Oh yeah!” all the time, and we’d say “Oh no!” So all of that, sight and sound, was getting to me.

I played hooky a lot my third year of high school, going to that theatre. They caught me because I wrote a bunch of notes falsifying my mother’s signature. This was the first high school to have an intercom and an elevator; when they called you down on the intercom, the whole school heard it. “Miisster Shhhorter [imitates a bad intercom], report to the Viice Prrincipall’s offfice immediately." To me, the whole school stopped, because I was supposed to be one of the nice guys. “He played hooky?” See, I would skip one class to hear the band at the Adams, go back for another class, and then skip again later in the day when the band would come back on. I had 56 absences in a short period of time. So they called my parents in and the Vice Principal asked, “Where do you go when you play hooky?”

“The Adams Theatre.”

“Oh, do you like movies?”

“Yes, but also the bands there.”

“Oh, do you like music?”

So they called in the music teacher, Achilles D’Amico and told me, “We’re going to put you in a music class, so you can study music from the ground up. But this is primarily disciplinary, because Mr. D’Amico is a disciplinarian.” And the first day I was in his class – and this is the hook; this is the hit – he stood up after we had listened to Mozart’s G minor 40[th Symphony] and said, “Music’s going to go in three directions.” Then he held up The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, another record that I had been hearing by Yma Sumac, Xtabay, and a third record, which was Charlie Parker. That was the stuff on the radio.

So I remember what Charlie Parker was doing, and I remember the bunny hop at the prom. The band would play the bunny hop, but I wasn’t in the band. “They have to play the bunny hop, and wear band uniforms? Get out of here, man.” Then at 15 or 16, I started taking clarinet lessons, but I was checking out the college guys. They had the brown and white bucks, the seersucker jackets and suits. Some had cars, and some of the other guys, with the leather jackets, had motorcycles. This was around the time that The Wild One came out, with Brando. Our schoolyard had a whole section for motorcycles, and another for cars. They guys who didn’t have cars or motorcycles walked home. I was walking home, carrying my saxophone and a bag of books, thinking “The guys getting rich are the guys making hits; but this stuff – bebop, progressive music…,” because I was interested in all modern music.

I used to listen to a program every Saturday afternoon, New Ideas in Music, about the evolution of classical music into contemporary and onward. Anyway, I knew that this was going to be a long, long struggle, a long road. Because everybody I knew, at the parties and the dances, if you brought a modern record and put it on…They wanted the slow drag stuff, so the guys could dance with the girls, hook up and make time. But put something interesting on and shhhhhhhh [imitates a needle dragged over vinyl], “Take that off!’ My brother and myself and another guy, Pete Lonesome, made it a point to keep going straight ahead. At the universities, they [Alan Shorter and Pete] would crash the fraternity parties to get new ideas from the records they were playing there.

That’s the only way that I can talk about music. Playing music, to me, reflects what’s happening and what’s not happening. And what some people wish could happen. Sometimes you get in a fantasy place all by yourself, you can be self-contained. Get a little cash flow, just do music for yourself while not being selfish. Don’t record, just make music at home and little videos, like that. An interviewer asked me what I would do if I didn’t do music, and I said it didn’t make any difference because everything is connected. But the way things are going now - what is considered top-drawer, what a lot of young people consider great in music, books and films, “towering” this and that…

Two thumbs up?

Yeah. I don’t see a lot of people in the science fiction section of bookstores. The imagination thing. You don’t have to be a bad person to use your imagination, but if you have an imagination you can be 10,000 steps ahead of a lot of bad people. And this country is the greatest country for having this open-door policy, open-end for thinking and ideas. Everything stopped with “classical,” modern contemporary, with Gershwin and Copland and Leonard Bernstein. We’ve got to keep going, but now guys are writing for movies: John Willians, Goldsmith, James Horner. But we need more than that from Hollywood, with its closed-door policy. If it’s racism, to hell with racism. We’ve got to keep moving. As far as the imagination, there are a lot of people slipping through the cracks who could be inspiration for the salvation of the whole planet. A lot of us will say, “Oh, I won’t do it, I can’t do it.” But go back into your little dream box that you were in as a kid, and hey.

I’m ready to kick ass. I’m going to be 70 in August 2004, and it feels like [in conspiratorial voice] “there’s a red door down there, waiting for me.” But before I go through that door, I’m going to go to the end of the line and stick with what I’m doing. But I’m bringing things in. My next record has music from the 13th Century, a Villa Lobos thing, something from Wales, something I wrote about Angola, something from Spain that Miles had given me the sheet music for in 1965 and said [imitating Davis] “Do something with this.” Also, music I did as an assignment in my modern harmony class in 1952. Maybe eight measures that I had put away and brought back out in 1997 and developed a little bit. Herbie and I recorded it. It’s about the lady in – I still call it Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi. So when I talk about recording as I go to the end of the line, for me it’s to celebrate everybody, all humanity, and the eternity that we all possess.

If you can remember the first thing of consciousness when you were a baby, if you can remember and can put a word to it…Some people can’t, but when I go back I can see the high chair. After that high chair there’s nothing, but there is a word, and the word that comes back to me now is always…I want to celebrate eternity. Celebrating eternity means to me to manifest all of the time as a human being. Eternity presents surprises. I’m celebrating life’s adventure. I like that guy on Oprah Winfrey who said that life is the story of everyone’s soul. It’s a one-time story, meaning one-time to me; but there are billions of stories, and they are linked. To be original, to me, is to want to celebrate something so hard that you want to give it a present. The more original you get, the deeper your confirmation of eternity itself. To celebrate oneself selflessly, not selfishly; to say that life is the damn religion. The entire alphabet can’t exist without A, a million dollars can’t exist without one penny.

    Wayne Shorter, photo by Jos L. Knaepen

This is what I think about when I’m talking to myself, when I’m checking out movies, books. There’s a good book called Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon Green, another one I have. The guy, Glenn Kleier, wrote one book, what is its name…about a woman wandering around in the desert who is the sister of Jesus. She’s called Jeza, and she goes to Rome and says, “I come not to kiss the ring of St. Paul, but to reclaim it.” It’s called The Last Day, and it’s a damned good book. Some lawyers read it and said, “Damn, if they make a movie out of this one, everybody’s going to go to court.”

I have fun, I don’t get serious. [In haughty voice] “Oh, you take a minor third, and I use a Rico #4, I’m looking for a Mark VI.” I can’t get into that. I get into “what is anything for?” I don’t talk about music like “Me and my horn, me and my little saxophone.” I’m not the cellist who grows up hiding behind the cello, or some actors who hide behind their characters. That’s okay, you can hide behind them, because it’s never too late to come out. I think life is supposed to be a lot of fun. The reason for life is happening, it’s happening right now. I don’t like words like ‘beginning” and “end.” We lean on them for our sanity, but they are artificial, and they create a lot of other artificial stuff in our head, boundaries that we can tear down. People who stutter and want to break that habit, or bite their nails or twitch. I’m not making fun of that – but they don’t really stutter, it’s something they are determined to break through. I think playing music and hearing more variety of stories and celebration in music, instead of only seeing red, blue and yellow, or having just CBS and NBC, or people trying to control the internet…If we all had our own newspaper, how about that? It would be like Network, “I’m not going to take it anymore!” The internet is one breakthrough, but there is going to be another breakthrough, I think, in home entertainment. Soon we’ll have Laundromats in our homes, nursing homes with a robotic paramedic.

In the notes to Night Dreamer, you say that up to a point you created music out of your own experience, but now wanted to start connecting your experience to the world. I read that recently and was reminded of when Joe Zawinul told me that you were the first person he met with what he called “the new thinking.” Were there particular experiences that brought you to these turning points and revelations?

The first book I read when I was 13 was Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I just called London and talked to an old lady who has a shop near the Thames. I wanted an 18-something edition, and I got a book by Charles Kingsley’s son. She said [in halting, old voice], “I-have-a-1935-edition, but-I-think-I-have-an-older-one. I-just-have-to-look-in-the-cupboard.” And I was thinking, “Man, that’s where I want to be – with her, going into the cupboard.” I have about five or six copies. The first one I read had nice pictures; it was for children. It’s about what happens when the hero goes to the ocean to see what’s happening. There’s some stuff in there, wow.

Then, at 15, I read Occam’s Razor. What a nice title, though now it would be considered too Middle-Eastern. That book is about slicing time and walking through it. Then I crawled through Dune. Then I came to a screeching halt with The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand came to my school, NYU…I took a class in philosophy there, and the professor used to walk around, reach over you and put the final grade on your paper before you were finished. On the day of the final exam, he reached over my shoulder, put a mark on my paper – I’m not going to tell you what he gave me – said “Why don’t you major in philosophy?” and kept on going.

I really dig science fiction, or science reality. I did a record with a Japanese friend, and a friend of his used to escort Stephen Hawking around Tokyo. So when my friend did a record about galaxies, he got Stephen Hawking to open it, [imitating Hawking] “There are at least two hundred million stars in our galaxy,” and he goes on. Anyway, Hawking enjoyed the project so much that he sent my friend some lectures on quantum physics, and he opens one with a limerick:

                    There once was a lady from Wight
                    Who could travel much faster than light
                    She took off one day
                    In a relative way
                    And arrived on the previous night.

I read that and said, “Stephen Hawking, my man!” As to the lectures, I read them a line at a time, think about them, go back to a science fiction book or a movie. But that’s what’s going on. I seem to attract that kind of thing now. I was seeking it when I was 16. I used to stay in the library when it closed, back on the floor reading about Beethoven or something else.

With so many vivid interests, why did you choose to pursue music?

Music has a sense of velocity in it. There’s also a sense of mystery. But everything is really mysterious. I used to look at my hand and say, “What is this?” Everything in life is not down pat. With music, it’s another kind of meal, another dimension, not just a language but another miracle. It’s a gift – not to do music, but just that music is there. And what else is there, that we’re not harvesting? So move over Bill Gates and Albert Einstein.

[Question from the audience] What influence did your brother Alan have on you?

We were influencing each other from the beginning, hipping each other to something, checking things out while walking down the street. My brother just talked out and said what he thought. He saw constraints in life that he didn’t want to deal with, like the dating thing. He just skipped through all of that, and said, “Nobody’s ready for me.” He played an alto sax for a while, and he painted “Doc Strange” on the side of his case. People used to call us Strange and Weird, so I put on my clarinet case “Mr. Weird.” Then we had this band together, nine guys. Another band at the time in New Jersey had bandstands, uniforms, lights, girlfriends who would carry their instruments, everything. We’d go to the gig, and my brother would bring his horn in a shopping bag, and play it with gloves on. He’d wear galoshes when the sun was shining; and we’d take the chairs and turn them around and start playing “Emanon” or “Godchild” or “:Jeru” by ear, with newspapers on our music stands, making fun of people who read music. We made sure our clothes were wrinkled, because if you played bebop you were raggedy, not smooth. You didn’t go out on dates, you made it with your instrument.

[Question from the audience] What can we do to save jazz?

I think that taking chances is the beginning. Being unafraid of losing this and that, jobs, friends. You don’t have to have the extreme you see in biographies of Van Gogh, always being by himself or arguing with others, but you’ve got a lot of leeway. Knowing the difference between what you’re told and what you find out for yourself; starting as an individual, being alone. We don’t have to preserve jazz; we have to start preserving the stuff that comes before all of that.

[Question from the audience] Can you talk about playing with Miles Davis?

I had the most fun playing with Miles Davis, and John Coltrane told me that, too. Now, the same kind of fun is happening with John Patitucci and Brian Blade and Danilo Perez, and over the years I had fun playing with Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. But Miles was a “source” kind of guy. You know how Captain Marvel would go to Delphi, to get his shazam stuff together? Miles was like that, and he was a buddy, too.

I stay away from calling people “best friends,” because best friends are always becoming; but Herbie, Joe, we’re all becoming better and better friends. There’s no end to this growth. We’re older now, we talk from time to time. I talk to Sonny Rollins on the phone once or twice a year, Horace Silver, Benny Golson. Gil Evans came to my home, unannounced, just before he passed away. I guess I’d better do a book, and keep it straight.

March 21, 2008 · 7 comments


In Conversation with Bobby Sanabria

by Eugene Marlow

Intense. Intense. Intense. Add to this passion, dedication, encyclopedic historical references, a strong sense of professionalism and discipline, a genuine generosity of spirit, and a down-to-earth Nuyorican attitude and vocabulary and you have pretty much described multi-Grammy-nominated “Drummer of the Year” composer, arranger, producer and educator Bobby Sanabria.

                                                      Bobby Sanabria

Sanabria’s latest Grammy-nominated album, Big Band Urban Folktales (JazzHeads 2007) is testimony to Sanabria’s eclectic musical worldview. With cuts ranging from the traditional (“Besame Mucho”) to the irreverent (Frank Zappa’s “The Grand Wazoo”) Sanabria once again shows his mettle by melding the old and the new, the traditional with the innovative. In a conversation with’s Eugene Marlow, Sanabria talks about the past, present, and future of the jazz tradition, and a host of other topics.

I have seen you perform on many occasions and it doesn’t make any difference if you’ve had two minutes, two hours or two days of sleep, maybe you just got off a plane from another gig from another city. But you always put in one hundred and ten percent of energy into your performance and you always engage the audience. It doesn’t seem to make any difference the context, whether it has a thousand people in the audience or there are fifty people in the audience. What drives you to perform at this level all the time?

I just love playing and performing. That is the only thing I can tell you. I really don’t subscribe to the approach that well there’s only a few people in the audience, so I am not going to perform that well. I guess I have a similar kind of work ethic to what actors have, the way they are trained to always be on even if there are only a few people in the audience. I’ve always felt you would be cheating people if you didn’t give them one hundred and ten percent or even more than that.

When I was older I started reading stories about people like drummer Buddy Rich. There is that famous story that when Dizzy Gillespie meets Buddy Rich for the first time it was at a jam session with Charlie Parker. Dizzy goes to Charlie and says, “Hey, your friend Bernard is crazy,” and Parker says “What are you talking about?” Gillespie says, “He plays every tune like it is the last time he is ever going to play it.” Parker says “I thought that is the way it was supposed to be.” They both laughed.

Have you always been this way or did one of your early mentors give you this kind of work ethic?

I have always been this way. From when I was a young kid in school, everything I approached I approached intensely -- which helped me a lot when I was younger. I was very much into sports. I am not a large person by any stretch, but that kind of intensity, I guess it is really passion that helped me in sports a lot and I just transferred that into music. I am a child of the sixties and seventies. Those were very intense times, politically, socially and musically. I grew up in the south Bronx in the projects. It was pretty intense growing up in that kind of environment.

What kind of sports were you into?

Major sports, baseball, football and track and field in high school. I did very well in track and field in high school.

Where did you go to high school?

Cardinal Hayes in the South Bronx. Track and field was very interesting because other than relay races, basically besides being a physical sport, it’s a mental sport because you are basically alone. It is not really a team sport. To this day I like to watch track and field on TV, what little of it is left in terms of being broadcast. Basketball. I was very much into basketball also. All those sports helped me tremendously as a drummer and a percussionist.

How so?

Because of your reflexes and strategy and how you approach things, especially when you are a drummer. Being a drummer you have the most powerful position because you actually lead the group. Whether most drummers know that or not, that is the truth. It is like Panama Frances used to say, “The drummer drives, everybody else rides.”

The usual cliché about a jazz band is that the bass player leads, not the drummer.

Bass players and most people have been under the wrong assumption for years. The bass player, you could say, leads harmonically, but really it is the drummer who is the driving force and the instantaneous arranger on the bandstand. You can have a great band but if it doesn’t have a great drummer that great band will be reduced to mediocrity. If you have some musicians who are not that great but you have a great drummer, all of the sudden it raises the level of intensity and performance to another level. Drummers don’t really don’t get the recognition and the deserved kudos they should get.

Why is that?

Because drummers aren’t looked at as musicians. For many, many years that was the case. Most drummers were not as proficient on the technical side of music as, say, a saxophone player, trumpeter, bass player, pianist, or a trombonist because drummers, for the most part, in jazz groups, especially in small jazz groups, don’t read music. But that has completely changed over the last, I would say, thirty years and even going back further because you have drummers now who are fantastic writers and arrangers.

Give me a couple of examples.

Well, the most immediate example that comes to mind is Tito Puente as an all around musician. He is the epitome of musical excellence: an arranger, composer, incredible virtuoso on percussion.

And a dancer.

Yeah, a great dancer. A great vibes player. A lot of people don’t know he was also a great piano player, and he played clarinet and alto saxophone. He was the quintessential bandleader. He was a pretty good drummer and the reason he was such an incredible player was he studied drums formally and transferred that technical aspect to other instruments, particularly the timbales. He is a great example of what drummer Max Roach said. Max Roach used to say any change in music in any form of music always historically starts with the instruments of rhythm. In other words, when those instruments start changing the way they are played and approach the music, then you start getting innovation in music. Of course, at the center of that in terms of the world of jazz and Afro-Cuban music or Latin-American music in general are the drums and the percussion.

Let’s talk a little bit about Afro-Cuban and Latin music. What, in your opinion, is the status of that music today? There was a strong heyday for Afro-Cuban music in the forties and fifties starting with Mario Bauzá and others and there is a whole lineage of people in that category. Where is it today and where do you think it is going?

As far as Afro-Cuban music being at an incredibly high level of visibility in the mainstream in the forties and fifties you have to understand that at the time Cuba was open to travel. Not only obviously to the world, but also to the United States and it was an essential port of entertainment. Of course, that involved casinos, gambling and prostitution. It was the Las Vegas of the day. That changed dramatically because of what happened politically: the takeover of Cuba by Fidel Castro and then the trade embargo in 1960 and then the travel embargo in 1962. So, the epicenter of the music was disconnected from the United States.

The recording industry stopped recording artists from Cuba -- all the mainstream labels that had artists signed from Cuba and from other parts of Latin America. They stopped; they cut off the source of the music, the entertainment industry. All the casinos closed in Cuba, the hotels, all that closed. So the music went underground and the epicenter became New York City, especially with the Puerto Rican community that adopted the music and kept it alive and forced it forward. It is kind of sad because from a cultural standpoint in mainstream America the music disappeared and then with the advent of the British Invasion, the epicenter of the industry we know as music completely changed and that also was basically a deaf knell to jazz in terms of jazz maintaining its position as a main stream music.

Didn’t that really change right after World War II with bebop coming along and swing ceasing to be a part of the popular culture and then add to that rock and roll?

I think that was the beginning of the end, especially when Frank Sinatra came on the scene as a vocalist. Many historians point to Frank Sinatra as killing jazz as a popular or instrumental music in general as a popular mainstream form.

How so?

Because the emphasis was on the singer becoming this incredible larger than life entity who would be getting radio airplay that was promoted by the publicity machinery of the large labels, etc., and it killed instrumental music. Don’t get me wrong. Jazz was still a viable force in the 1950s, even up until the early sixties, but once the British Invasion came in, forget it. Once the transistor radio was developed, I think it was 1956 or 1955, which coincidently was the height of the mambo era, once the transistor radio was invented, southern white kids started listening to African-American music, R & B, everything started changing and it happened very, very rapidly. We live in a society where everything happens almost instantaneously.

But, as you know, jazz was still a viable force to a certain extent and even had a small kind of resurgence in the late sixties, early seventies with the fusion movement, which to me, was an incredibly creative time period. You had certain groups opening up for rock bands, like John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra opening up for Aerosmith. People like Larry Coryell, the Eleventh House, etc. Of course, Miles Davis became the darling of the rock set. Everybody from Crosby Stills and Nash to the Grateful Dead were into Miles Davis after the Bitches Brew album. But slowly but surely the mainstream ties that jazz used to have to mainstream audiences disappeared.

This all relates to politics. When Ronald Reagan deregulated the FCC, all of a sudden all of these radio stations were up for sale and Viacom and Clear Channel bought up all them. They made them into pop, rock and MOR stations, over a thousand radio stations. Most of them were jazz and black oriented music stations. That really killed jazz. Today we only have I think about six or seven stations left in the country that play jazz.

That are purely jazz stations?

That are purely jazz stations. That is like an infamnia, like people in the mob would say. Which is ironic too, because they had so many ties to the music industry. It is sacrilege we only have six or seven jazz stations in the country right now. I don’t even know if that is the exact figure, it might be less.

What would it take for it to change?

It would take cultural consciousness. The public’s perception of the music would have to be completely retooled and the only way to do that is through education, through increased jazz radio and people who are always talking about how much they love jazz, like a lot of the people who are rock stars promoting the music. They always say they love jazz, that they listen to jazz. They need to make a concerted effort to start talking about the music and the great artists etc., who perform the music. In terms of education, not only the public’s perception of the music, we have to start making jazz part of the curriculum of every public school student in the United States. That is not so farfetched because you figure that this music is the greatest contribution this country has brought to the world.

I think you mean culturally.

Culturally, yeah. It should be part of the curriculum of every public school student. That doesn’t mean every public school student has to start playing a tenor saxophone, but it should be part of the curriculum, such as Social Studies. As soon as you get to the fifth grade jazz has to be taught as part of American history. It is a great tool for demonstrating multiculturalism, how people came together, the evolution of this country, and all the other popular music forms we have today come from it. Without jazz we don’t have anything that is happening today in the popular music world. And, of course, within the realm of jazz we have to talk about the blues, obviously, because the blues is part of all popular forms of music in one way or another -- whether it is a rock guitarist playing some blues licks or one of these pop-tart singers I hear all the time singing with a blues inflection.

I would like to talk to you about a parallel issue here. You are a dedicated educator. You teach at the Manhattan School of Music and the New School in New York City. And at every performance I have ever seen you do, including when you are fronting your own big band, you are an educator, a teacher talking about the background of the music and the composers and the performers and the historical context. Parallel to this, in the last twelve months or so there have been some press about the fact that there are hundreds of jazz programs at the high school, college and post graduate level and all of these young people, all of these musicians are very well trained being churned out from these programs, but there are not enough places for them to play. How do you respond to that?

A lot of them have to move to other parts of the world if they want to play this music. People talk about the war in the Middle East, but I am more concerned about what is happening here with this very issue. We seem to be like ancient Rome. It took one thousand years for the Roman Empire to fall. The same thing seems to be happening in this country, but obviously at a very rapid, rapid rate because we live in a technological society. Jazz is the best representation of what this country has to offer--from a spiritual level, from an intellectual level, obviously from a completely artistic level. It represents intelligence, but with strong spiritual roots. It has a very visceral quality. It has everything that anybody would ever want in terms of something that challenges your mind and excites the human organism.

And I am talking about all forms of Jazz. When I say “jazz” I am talking about the whole entire realm or scope of the art form. Depending on who you talk to, they have different opinions of what jazz is and we live unfortunately right now in a very, very conservative time where this whole neo-traditionalist movement is choking the creative possibilities of the art form. I think the last incredible creative time period in jazz was during the fusion era when people experimented with combining rock with jazz, combining different types of world music with Jazz. A perfect example of that was Weather Report and the recently departed Joe Zawinul. If you don’t believe me in terms of my opinion regarding the conservativeness in jazz, all you have to do is look at the jazz polls for the best fifty albums of the last year.

What would it take for things to change?

Well, jazz is a music to me that represents three things: truth, freedom and revolution. Artists like myself and others that I think are pushing the envelope in terms of the various forms that were involved in jazz need to be heard more. That is why I am glad you are interviewing me because I get a chance to discuss these issues, but we need a chance to perform and get out there and the critics themselves have to be more open-minded. They need to take a look at themselves and realize all this great music that is happening out there, especially in terms of world forms of jazz. By that I mean, anything that is outside of the normal, like straight-ahead swing. Artists who are combining Columbian rhythms with jazz, combining Brazilian rhythms with jazz, combining Middle Eastern rhythms with jazz, artists who are utilizing rhythmic structures from the world of rock with jazz -- all these types of jazz forms need to be explored more by the critics.

It is funny to me. We are kind of, in a sense, going backwards. For example, a person who was progressively minded and had a futuristic conception of composition and performance was a person like Don Ellis, performing in the sixties and seventies. There is nobody like that today. Look at the Don Ellis big band. Imagine a whole big band with the trumpet section, saxophone section, the trombones all electrified with wa-wa pedals.

I saw his orchestra perform in San Francisco in the early seventies.

The whole string section had wa-wa pedals and different electronic devices. He invented a four-valve trumpet so he and his trumpet section could play quartertones. Amazing. And forget about the stuff he did without meters. The time period right now in jazz is not conducive to free thinkers like that because it so, so conservative. We have got to break down those walls of conservatism. Historians always say that art reflects the time period it is created in, so it saddens me, but it doesn’t surprise me because we live in very, very, very conservative times in this country and that is reflected worldwide. There are great artists doing things in the world of what we call jazz, voices that are not being heard or they are not being written about, or, for whatever reason, people are not getting to hear their music. A part of that is the fact that we only have about seven or six jazz radio stations left in the country. All you have to do is look at who is popular, who are the highest selling artists in jazz today. They are mostly vocalists, I believe.

Diana Krall, Dee Dee Bridgewater?

Exactly. Now, they are great artists but they aren’t really doing anything new in terms of the art form and that is not to disparage anything they are doing. They are vocalists and they do the established repertoire that is part of the American songbook. It is very non-threatening, so it gets played on the radio. Not only on the little jazz radio that is left, but also on middle of the road stations, and what we call smooth jazz.

Now that is not to say that rock and hip-hop are at the same cerebral level as jazz, but I respect those art forms just as much as I respect the art form I represent, the jazz tradition, because those art forms came from jazz, but I think most jazz musicians, when they get mad about the way things are and they put down other forms of music, I think it is coming more from the fact that jazz is not getting the same play as those other art forms.

In the jazz world everything is downscaled. If you are talking about a rock concert, on a small level, you are talking about maybe five thousand people. . . In jazz you are talking about filling up a club with three hundred seats at most. There is no comparison. We have jazz festivals, but little by little, even the ones in Europe are starting to book artists who are outside the realm of jazz to attract people to come to these festivals.

These are issues that have to be brought to the table by the jazz community and addressed. For this music to survive, we have to illuminate the minds of young people and show them how this incredible art form relates to their cultural experience. That is the only way the music is going to grow and survive.

I will give you an example. I used to be able to buy Down Beat at any newsstand in the Bronx when I was a kid. Now I can’t even find it in Manhattan. That tells you a lot. I did see one interesting glimmer of hope though. The other day I was walking by a bus stop in the Bronx and I saw an ad in the bus shelter for Diana Krall’s new album. I did a double take and I looked at it and I said, “Oh my God, wow. So that means people from the ‘hood are going to be waiting at that bus stop and looking at that ad and saying ‘I wonder who this person is.’” It was funny. I saw a couple of young brothers standing at the bus stop saying, “Do you know who this lady is?” The other one says, “Nah dude, what the f--- does she do, bro?” I started talking to them: “Man she is a great jazz singer. She’s married to Elvis Costello,” and they go, “There was only one Elvis, bro.”

A closing question. If there were one question you would like to be asked that you would like to talk about, what would that question be and what would the answer be?

If I wanted to talk about one thing?

What would it be?

I wasn’t expecting that. Let me try to give the hippest answer I possibly can. I probably would want to talk about two people: Buddy Rich and Tito Puente.

Why those two?

Because they are fascinating. Those two completely lived and represented the American experience. They were born during the time of vaudeville. They experienced that world. They experienced modern technology developing over the 20th century. They were child prodigies: Buddy as a tap dancer and a drummer, and Tito as a piano player, dancer, and a drummer. They were child performers. Tito’s first recording, I believe, was when he was sixteen years old, with vocalist Johnny Rodriquez on a recording called Johnny Rodriquez and his Stork Club Orchestra. I have a taped copy of that. It is amazing. Buddy always performed as a child star. He and Jackie Coogan were like the highest paid child stars at the time. Then they went on to serve their country with distinction. Tito in the Navy, Buddy in the Marines and then as bandleaders after the war they completely revolutionized their art forms. Tito on the timbales and Buddy on the drums. Beyond that, Tito, as an arranger and a composer, completely revolutionized what we know as Afro-Cuban dance music in terms of bringing it into the modern day world. He was just amazing. I think if you just looked at Tito only as an arranger, his place in history would be cemented. And Buddy with his championing of the big band to the very day he died. Besides growing up in the vaudeville era, they completely made the transition through every era of jazz, from swing to bebop to cool jazz, hard bop, jazz rock, etc. and survived. Pretty amazing guys, both of them. Fascinating.

Obviously your heroes.

And Albert Einstein. I am reading his biography, Walter Isaacson’s book on Albert Einstein. He is another one of my heroes.

How many jazz musicians read about Einstein?

I’ve got a lot of heroes. Those are just three of them. I am just the sum total of everybody I have listened to and that is all reflected on my album, Big Band Urban Folktales. A lot of people have commented, how could somebody who is Puerto Rican from the South Bronx be into Frank Zappa?

Why not?

Yeah, I say why not.

My father told me, good music is good music. Unfortunately, young people today don’t get a chance to hear the variety of music that is out there, that is really good and hence we have this dumbing down of society now. This generation is going to inherit what we leave them and then the generation after them is going to inherit that. We kind of are living in dire straits right now. People are so concerned about whether the world is going to get blown up or whether they are going to have a paycheck to pay for their house or apartment that they are forgetting about “Man, I need to nurture my mind, intellectually and spiritually.” You do that by obviously reading the great works of literature, but you do that primarily by listening to music and it just saddens me that a fifteen-year-old or fourteen-year-old African-American kid doesn’t know who John Coltrane is or Duke Ellington. It saddens me that a fourteen-year-old kid from New York City that maybe is of Puerto Rican descent doesn’t know who Tito Puente is. It saddens me in general that most people don’t know who Tito Puente is. People like Tito Puente are true Americans. It goes beyond the fact that he was a person of Puerto Rican descent, that he grew up in New York. This guy is an American icon, as is Buddy Rich, as is Jimi Hendrix, as is Leonard Bernstein, and you could name a bunch of other people.

The other thing I wanted to mention is this. I was thinking about your first question about where I get this drive to always exude on stage. I was witness when I was a child to great performances by people like Buddy Rich and Tito Puente and Jimi Hendrix and when I saw them I was fortunate. You always model yourself off those epiphanies that you have and each time I saw or heard these people, people like vibraphonist Cal Tjader and John Coltrane, I heard them at their maximum, playing to their maximum capabilities. That taught me that when you go up there on stage you are not supposed to be bull-shiting, that what you do is a gift and you should take it very, very seriously. I don’t take myself seriously. I always laugh at myself, but I take my profession very, very seriously.

That is obvious.

And that is why I love the jazz world because when you get up there people basically judge you on what you say on the instrument and if what you say is something that is revolutionary, truthful and shows the freedom of thought that you have, then it doesn’t matter what your ethnic background is. You are accepted as a person of this world. Now saying that doesn’t really transfer that well into the world of critics and radio sometimes, so that is a barrier, a Rubicon we still have to cross. I am very happy this new album has helped to do that because a lot of people have been talking about it, people I respect. I want to be able to bridge that gap, especially for Latino musicians who have always been involved in the jazz world, to get the respect they so rightfully deserve. You asked me before what the future holds. Well, the future of jazz is in Latin America. And we are at the epicenter of that movement. Just listen to my Big Band Urban Folktales CD and you’ll hear why.

Terrific. Thank you Bobby Sanabria.

Bobby Sanabria’s web site is and is part of the JazzCorner community of hundreds of official jazz web sites and more.

March 18, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Gabriel Alegria

By Tomas Peña

You grew up in a literary environment. Your grandfather, Ciro was Peru’s most famous novelist and your father, Alonso is Peru’s most acclaimed playwright.

Sadly, my grandfather died before I was born. He is certainly one person I wish I could have met. Growing up, one of the phrases I often heard was, “are you Ciro’s grandson?” On my first semi-professional gig with a big band, when I was seventeen, the bandleader announced … “and the youngest member of the band is Gabriel Alegria, the grandson of the renowned writer, Ciro.” So it was par for the course.

                                               Gabriel Alegria

I am happy to say that it has always given me a sense of pride. My dad is so humble that I never knew he was famous when I was a kid. I thought it was normal to fly to New York to see plays like “Crossing Niagara,” a beautiful and inspirational piece. I think there is definitely an influence there. My father’s work is always positive … and so is mine. It’s all about making people happy.

What prompted you to become a musician and where did you study your craft?

My dad’s house rule was “everyone has to play an instrument”… though I am the first person in the family to go professional. My grandmother and my aunt were accomplished pianists. What drew me to the trumpet was the fact that it was the loudest instrument. I started playing when I was twelve. Mostly I played in school bands, then the National Conservatory in Lima, followed by Kenyon College (Ohio), City College (New York) and the University of Southern California (Los Angeles). Looking back, I think that most of my learning took place on the streets in Lima and playing with other musicians outside of a school setting in the United States.

I did some research on the history of Afro-Peruvian music and was surprised to learn that one of the towering figures in the development of Afro-Peruvian music was Nicomedes Santa Cruz, a poet, musician, musicologist and journalist. Seeing as he was part of the literary world, I was wondering if there is a connection between your family and Santa Cruz. Also, what led to your connection with the music of Black Peru?

My father is a great friend of Victoria Santa Cruz and our love for the music has always been evident. My grandmother’s nickname was “La Negra” (a reference to a black female). I came to black music, paradoxically, through jazz. Los Hijos del Sol did an album during the 80s with Alex Acuña, Wayne Shorter and other musicians playing some of the music from the coast. I went to a concert and saw Eva Ayllón sing. It was mesmerizing how the saxophone and her voice and the grooves all laid together. Of course, that was not Afro-Peruvian jazz as I conceive it today, but it was a huge inspiration for me and led me to this path.

What sparked your interest in American jazz and who were some of the musicians who influenced you within that context?

I learned the tune "Round Midnight" through a really bad arrangement made for a high school band. Then someone suggested that I check out Miles Davis, so I bought the album. I was completely confused about what he was doing because I had never heard real jazz before. In fact, at first I didn’t like it… but then I decided to buy more recordings by Miles and pretty soon I became hooked on his electronic albums. I learned Miles’ history by working backwards. I also admire Wayne Shorter’s music and I am a big fan of Maria Schneider.

Is there a “jazz scene” in Peru?

That’s a loaded question because the scene is small and everyone knows everyone. The good side: The level of creativity in Lima is beyond anything I have seen anywhere else in the world. There is something about the syncretism in our society, the blending of races into this incredibly witty, idiosyncratic and extremely creative scene. Afro-Peruvian jazz music is according to many, “the next big thing” in the world of jazz. I’m not sure if that will pan out or not, but certainly the marriage between our music and jazz is the most organic of any traditional music anywhere. In many ways I think there is a true relationship to the emotional roots of jazz and the technical aspects that bind the two together. That coupled with sounds and grooves that bring tears to your eyes …it is a pretty potent mix and I am proud to be a part of this scene. So in Lima you will see many performances of jazz inflected music (Flamenco jazz, Latin jazz, Afro-Peruvian jazz, funk, fusion, etc.) Some traditional jazz is practiced but not as much.

The down side: Peruvians have very low self-esteem. Most musicians don’t realize what a special gift they have and what a tremendous opportunity there is to share with the world. Entrepreneurship is very weak, with a few notable exceptions, like the work of the Jazz House Peru, a school dedicated to jazz music.

You have explored the common roots of Afro Peruvian music and jazz. Could you elaborate on the commonalities between the two?

Technically, they are both triplet based. They come from the same place in a macro rhythmic sense (the triplet based grooves of Africa). More important, I believe that there is an emotional connection as well. In jazz music, as well as Afro-Peruvian music, there is space for dialogue. Musicians listen and react to the nuances …the music “breathes” and takes different directions based upon the sensibility of the performers. This is very different from Afro-Cuban or even Brazilian music. In those genres, the soloists play “on top” of a rhythmic matrix set up by various instruments that revolve around the concept of a clave. In Afro-Peruvian music, as in jazz music, there is no clave. This is the key to the give-and-take that we see in a compelling jazz performance. It is the same dynamic that gets to people’s hearts in Afro-Peruvian music. This is why the combination of the two is so mesmerizing and beautiful. There is a technical aspect, but the most important aspect is emotional.

According to what I read, The Un Rezo Jazz Sextet was the first Afro Peruvian band to successfully merge Afro Peruvian concepts with mainstream jazz. Tell me about the group and how it came to be.

In all honesty that statement has gotten us into some hot water. There are artists such as Richie Zellon and Alex Acuña that have been doing this “Afro-Peruvian jazz” for years. They re-harmonized traditional songs, or perhaps played them using jazz instruments or composed with this in mind. They’ve done a lot of work with non-Peruvian luminaries from the Latin jazz school as well. Richie and Alex started doing this in the 80s. In fact, when I was a kid I was inspired by their experiments. They were the true pioneers, so if titles must be given I would not say I am “the first.” However, what we are doing is actually bringing together the concepts into a language that has it’s own dynamic and discourse. I do think our sound is the first true result where there is a seamless combination of the two art forms. Peruvians say we sound very Peruvian and Americans feel that our music is jazz. In many ways the art lies in the fact that we fooled them all! Actually, it is a language that lies somewhere in the delicate space between the two. Although Un Rezo has some good examples, I would say Nuevo Mundois where it all came together.

Our style is a product of chasing the music for more than a decade. Drummer Hugo Alcazar has single handedly expanded and studied all of the canon to come up with a drum set language that is unique to Afro-Peruvian music. He is by far the world’s leading authority on the subject. Huevito Lobatón is the first percussionist to take the cajón, quijzada, cajita and zapateo and use them in a jazz context beyond that of world music and fusion. In other words, musicians playing the cajón in a jazz context abound… but he’s actually developed a vocabulary that bridges the two cultures. Sometimes I find it difficult to believe that I am associated with this man.

Guitarist Yuri Juarez is a dedicated exponent of the Afro-Peruvian tradition but has always loved jazz music. He’s comfortable with the language and brings a soul and spirit to the music that you immediately hear as coming from a very deep place. Laurandrea Leguia’s writing will be featured on the next album. She has written some gems in the valse/lando style. Melodically, we are studying constantly to find new ways to phrase over these rhythms and extended bar lengths. Finally, as of late we have added Ramon de Bruyn, a virtuoso South African bassists who has taken to our music like a fish to water. His knowledge of African music has been inspiring as he finds ways to interpret our music and take it to higher place without losing our strong roots.

Let’s talk about Nuevo Mundo. Judging by the first track, "Buscando Huevito", you combine festejo: a festive form of Afro Peruvian music and lando: a mix of both Spanish and African rhythms with American swing … correct?

Well, yes, roughly put, this is true. However, the reason that I believe it is compelling and powerful is because of the emotional and historical connections that exist between the genres you’ve mentioned. As you know, one can’t simply put ingredients in a pot and come up with a gourmet dish. This is an art form that that is much like cooking (and it just so happens that food is one of the most important things in Peruvian society). I like to think of “Buscando a Huevito” as a description of my life experiences with Huevito. I always tell our audiences the story of that piece because it informs the listener. We don’t want people to dismantle the music into discernable technical components. Rather, we are producing a sound that is emotional and these elements happen to be the right ones to express what we want to say.

There’s also an interesting take on Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” a concert for trumpet and bongo, a song that is dedicated to the arid region of Peru and another that is dedicated to the native women of Peru who were sacrificed to the Gods. That is quite a panorama!

In many ways the recording is about various locations. “El Norte” is based on Brubeck’s chord changes and a depiction in sound of Peruvian Paso horses, which is very common in Northern Peru. The groove spans ten beats instead of five and is adapted from a festejo. A Peruvian woman from Trujillo came to me in tears after a concert in San Antonio. She said that she missed the horses back home. Many Peruvians miss home and the music is about home.

“Las Hijas del Sol” - This was a very particular ritual and the piece is about Pachacamac, the place where the temple still stands today. The idea of a young woman sacrificed to the Sun God because of her beauty is perverse …and the piece goes from blissful to dark using rhythmic interpolations of landó and ¾ swing. Again, the musical elements are in service of the emotional content, not the other way around. There is just a lot to work with when the starting point is a completely original polyrhythmic groove like the landó.

I read somewhere that vocalist, Susana Baca ran into some resistance when she began exploring the music of Black Peru. How is your approach to Afro Peruvian music being received?

We’re going to find out in a very big way at the Festival Jazz Peru in March. We will be presenting Eva Ayllón as the headliner. Mind you, the festival has never had a Peruvian headliner. Eva’s fans (and there are thousands) will come expecting to hear her songs. We will be performing her music but it will be through our language. We will also present original material that was composed especially for Eva. It will be a test. Generally speaking, Peru’s eclectic radio waves can stand just about anything. Our society, made up the way it is, brings together a more varied and diverse cultural base than anywhere else in the world. At the same time, this cultural base cannot be separated into races or genres … it all melds together. The jazz fans in Peru love what we do and we are very proud of it. The real test is to see if Afro-Peruvian jazz will be widely accepted at home and abroad.

In addition to diplomatic missions you are involved with Jazz Peru whose mission is the advancement of jazz. I understand there is also a yearly festival …

Yes, Festival Jazz Peru. This is one of my personal projects and I work very hard to support it each year. The festival is unique in that it brings artists in as residents so that the cross-pollination and cultural exchange is immediate. All of the artists stay for the duration of the week and participate in newly created ensembles. The energy, and the Peruvian food, always generates a most intense atmosphere. Maria Schneider stood in front of a sold out house and said, “This is the best jazz festival in the world.” There is a lot of love at the festival, and everyone feels it.

You are also organize a ten-day tour where visitors get to travel with the band, attend clinics and see the sights. It sounds fascinating.

This is our newest project and we are hoping the tour will sell out. The response thus far, has been great. We will be taking somewhere between thirty and sixty people on the road with us on a ten day tour of Peru. We want our fans to be able to see how our music comes to be and to feel the energy that is unique to Peru. We will have workshops and drum circles, so that by the end of the tour everyone will be participating in our concerts from their seats.

The last time you performed in New York I tried to make a reservation and it (Joe’s Pub) was sold-out. Good for you, bad for me! Do you have any plans to perform in New York anytime soon?

We have plans to return to New York in 2009. The Joe’s Pub engagement was a sell out and a great night. We are currently in the process of evaluating that venue and considering others for the 2009 tour. It also looks like the group will be going into the studio in late April to record a new album… and that is likely to happen in New York along with a jazz Fest commitment in Greensboro and a Blues Alley gig in Washington, D.C.

What’s does the future hold for Gabriel Alegria?

Chasing the music, always chasing the music!

Do you have any final thoughts?

Thank you for the opportunity to do this interview. I appreciate your sincere interest and thoughtful questions. The message I would like to get across is that we would like Afro-Peruvian music to touch their hearts and souls and, ultimately, bring them to Perú to get to know the source of our inspiration, laughter and joy. I would like to leave you with a piece that was written by a young fan in san Antonio Texas. Her reaction to our music is what I have always hoped for in a new listener.

It’s very moving. Here it is in its entirety …

Find Me Someone to Dance With: Why Afro-Peruvian Music is One Reason to Welcome Change

Written by Caitlin Phelps, a student at North West Vista College in San Antonio, TX

Fact: The human race as a whole, generally speaking, is afraid of change. Fact: Although some humans recognize that they have an aversion to change, they are still unwilling to face their fears and conform. Fact: I am perfectly OK with admitting that I am one of those people. That is, until last Thursday I was. The visitation of what is now my favorite band forever changed the way I view my life experiences.

You see, my Speech teacher, who did not attend her own class last Thursday, had all of us in for a surprise. We were led to believe that we were to be writing a paper on a speaker coming to the college, which is obviously every student’s favorite thing to do! Little did we know, the joke was on us! As I am sitting there in the student lounge, conversing with an ex-classmate, low and behold, in wheels a drum set, an upright bass, and many other instruments. A trumpet, a saxophone, an electric guitar, and wooden percussion-type instruments (which I assumed were not of the American origin by the way they looked) being hauled in by their respective players completed the sextet.

¿Que? I questioned. But what is this?

It was Gabriel Alegria and his Afro-Peruvian band. He then proceeded to introduce the rest of the band members and make funny jokes about why they were late to create a level of comfort with his audience.

Then, amidst his witty banter, comes the plucking of strings, a low staccato of notes that created a sense of suspense and relaxation simultaneously. Then a pitter-patter from this odd percussion instrument, like an erratic heartbeat. Then suddenly, a high-pitched, guttural sound that resonated from this trumpet and his player echoed furiously throughout the student lounge and it sent shockwaves of excitement through my entire being. It was as if I were suddenly transported to Havana, Cuba pre-Castro, where everything was about having a fun night out listening to a live band and dancing the night away. It was like stepping into a salsa club for the first time. It was feverish and emotionally driven, empowering and consuming all at once; a sensory overload. I closed my eyes and let the music course through my veins, the sporadic beat of the drums and the percussion instruments and the bass making my insides quiver.

The bass player’s head bobbed and weaved to-and-fro to the sound of his instrument. The drummer’s arms and wrists moved fluidly as if the very laziness of the beat were controlling his every movement. The percussion player’s eyes were glued shut, his lips pursed, letting his hands do all the talking. The trumpet player's fingers were quick and precise, lending ere to professional training, but his body arched backwards and rose into the sound that he was creating, an immediate and natural response only shown by a true musician.

The moment was extraordinary. I was enveloped by the urge to celebrate and dance until the day turned to evening, when the warmth of the sun was replaced by the crisp, cool night air. I have never felt more alive than now. To have the pleasure of this moment temporarily cease was like having the oxygen removed from my lungs. If that drum was to ever stop beating or if that percussionist ever halted the movement of his hands, my very heart would stop pumping blood through my veins, as if my heart and those instruments were one in the same.

An hour later, the sounds of “Summertime,” originally a Gershwin piece played to an Afro-Peruvian beat, found their way into my home, through my speakers, and out into the four walls that incase the haven of my bedroom. Just as their music controlled their movements, the same music controlled mine now as I danced nearly naked in my bedroom, letting go of all inhibition. I refuse to ever let go of Thursday. It was one of those unimaginably perfect days that replay in my mind over and over; one of those days you would trade your soul to have back. Yet now, because of these people and their gift and their passion to create something genuine and true, I finally embrace change! I embrace uniqueness in all senses, I embrace the willingness to not only go with the flow but to seek out new alternatives and my own desires and pleasures in such a stick-straight little world.

The power of music strikes again. What better way to close? Thank You Gabriel!

March 15, 2008 · 0 comments


Bixology (An Excerpt)

Author Brendan Wolfe is our resident Bixologist at -- that is, when he isn’t running the best (and perhaps only) Bix Beiderbecke blog in the web, the stylish and always enaging The Beiderbecke Affair, or probing the dark underbelly of Davenport, Iowa. Wolfe is also writing on a book on Beiderbecke, Bixology, and he shares with us the extract below from this work-in-progress. See also Wolfe's selection of "Twelve Essential Bix Beiderbecke Performances." T.G.

by Brendan Wolfe

Here’s a prophecy.

It comes from Mezz Mezzrow, who, in his 1946 memoir Really the Blues, describes an afternoon’s adventure with Bix and Pee Wee Russell. “Bix nearly got run over by a locomotive,” Mezzrow begins, and then tells of how he and Pee Wee followed their friend onto railroad tracks in search of buried liquor. Mezzrow writes:

              Bix Beiderbecke, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

”Down the path we followed him, across some fields, then over a railroad track and a high fence topped with barbed wire. Sure enough, he dug out a jug, handed it to Pee Wee, and started back. But as we were hopping the fence Pee Wee got stuck on the wire and just hung there, squealing for help and hugging the jug for dear life. If he let go of that crock he could have pulled himself loose, but not Pee Wee—what’s a guy’s hide compared to a gallon of corn? By this time Bix, having staggered down to the railroad tracks, found he had a lot of sand between his toes, so he sat down on the rail and yanked his shoes off to empty them. Just then we saw a fast train coming round the bend. All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there, but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us. That train wasn’t more than a hundred feet away when he finally woke up to what was happening. Then he just rolled off the track and tumbled down the bank head first, traveling so fast he didn’t have time to snatch his shoes off the rail. Those funky Oxfords got clipped in half as neatly as if they’d been chopped with a meat-cleaver.

””That just goes to show you,’ Bix told us, “it’s dangerous for a man to take his shoes off. First time I took those things off in weeks and you see what the hell happens. It just ain’t safe to undress.’”

There is a kind of terrible poignancy to this story. “All of us began screaming at Bix to get the hell out of there”—his obliviousness has never been in sharper relief—“but he thought we were just kidding him and he threw stones at us.” The Bix Mezzrow gives us is a familiar one—drunken, obviously, but also mischievous, remote, unconcerned. His clothes, as usual, are a mess. But now these traits are beginning to turn on him. They’re dangerous. They’re putting him in harm’s way. Still, even in the lazy summer of 1926, his friends are concerned about him. That seems to be one of the points to this story, that Bix’s friends have his back, even if it’s clear that their yelling didn’t do much to alert him to the train. (He just “woke up,” that’s all.) So what, then, does one make of Mezzrow’s rhetorical question: “What’s a guy’s hide compared to a gallon of corn?” Am I a scold for thinking this a bit callous? Pee Wee Russell was an alcoholic and a notoriously unhappy man. “He drank so much for so long that he almost died,” Whitney Balliett wrote, “and when he miraculously recovered, he began drinking again.” Bix, at the end of his life, was guzzling straight alcohol flavored with lemon juice drops. We all know what happened to him.

What’s a guy’s hide worth? Not enough, perhaps.

That was Red Nichols’ perspective. In a 1937 article in Down Beat magazine, the “carrot-topped” band leader and old friend of Bix had this outburst: “Gin and weed? Hell! They didn’t kill him. MUSICIANS KILLED BIX BEIDERBECKE! Some of those same musicians living today know what I mean. Bix died of a broken heart. And it was broken by the professional jealousy of musicians who couldn’t stand to be outplayed by him so easily.”

Nichols went on to charge Bix’s friends with appreciating their boy’s greatness only after he was safely dead.

                               Bix Beidebecke

                       Artwork by Suzanne Cerny

“Yes, Bix was appreciated after he was dead,” he said. “But when he needed a lift, they wouldn’t give it. Many a night they got him drunk and if he slipped or didn’t play up to his best, they would pan the hell out of him.”

Nichols’ accusations are, for lack of a better word, weird. How does one kill another person with jealousy? How does one die of a broken heart? According to the Down Beat reporter, Nichols was “[s]ober as a grim-pussed judge on election day” while being interviewed—this despite his being in a club, chain smoking at the bar, a glass of beer in front of him. “He didn’t touch it,” the reporter assures us. In this case, sobriety translates to a kind of seriousness, and Nichols is quite serious about wresting Bix away from the idea that he had anything to do with his own death. The real Bix, Nichols argues, was a god so delicate he could be snuffed out by his own admirers.

Et tu, Mezzrow?

Bix’s victimhood is particularly appealing because it neatly erases what might otherwise be seen as a rather glaring character flaw—heroes are killed, they might even kill themselves, but they don’t just go and gin themselves to death—and it has stuck like a burr to the Bix myth. You certainly find it in Frederick Turner’s 2003 novel 1929, which portrays Bix, in the days before his death, as picking up the phone to find Red Nichols’ wife on the line:

           “Bix, honey, this is Bobbi. What’s bothering you? Are you in trouble? Are you sick? Want me to call a doctor? Bix?” And then on the other end she hears him gasping and saying he doesn’t need a doctor, that what he needs is a friend, for Christ’s sake, and after all the guys he’s bought drinks for and dinner, too, you’d think just one of them would be here now, with him, when he’s got to have a friend to help him out . . .

No doubt many of his friends would have bristled at such comments. When Bix was playing the “Camel Hour” radio show in 1930, three of his bandmates took turns running by his apartment every day on their way to the studio—making sure he was up and dressed, making sure he had his horn, making sure he was in his chair and ready to play when the “On Air” light flashed red. But Bix kept at the bottle anyway, and that’s when he began making excuses for himself. In Bix: Man & Legend (1974), Richard Sudhalter and Phil Evans quote a fellow named Pat Ciricillo: “He told me that every time he tried to go off the wagon, friends came up [to his room] and visited him with gin bottles, and that tempted him.”

Is it possible that the “his friends killed him” story actually originated with Bix himself? “People came around, sure,” Sudhalter & Evans write, and what they found was Bix feeling sorry for himself:

           Always the same theme, that “Life has passed me by,” and that all the musicians who came around to flatter and pay court had “stolen my stuff” for commercial gain. “What about all those guys who aren’t ever around when you really need them? They wouldn’t give me a quarter now.”

Or, “Hell, there are only two musicians I’d go across a street to hear now. That’s Louis and LaRocca.”

Louis himself told the same story. “[Bix] had a lot of admirers,” he explained to Sudhalter & Evans. “In fact that’s what mostly killed him. He wasn’t the type of lad who had his own strong mind. When he felt bad and wanted to say good night to the gang he ran with, they would always say, ‘Aw, man, stay a little longer . . . and have another drink.’ Poor Bix would force himself against his will. And so he kept this up, until the gang just didn’t believe him when he said, ‘Fellers, I don’t feel well.’ When he finally did get home, he died.”

In Mezzrow’s anecdote, Bix disregards his friends; in Louis’, he’s in their thrall, so much so that he seems to have misplaced his free will. Poor Bix! He didn’t want to drink; he just wasn’t the type “who had his own strong mind.” According to the arranger Bill Challis, “he was still a kid—naïve, not childish, but a trusting sort.” He was a mark, in other words, killed, according to Pee Wee Russell, because he “couldn’t say no to anybody.”

Bix begins to look more and more like a Christ figure—betrayed by his friends, fated to die. But he also comes across, in the hands of those around him, as a rather poorly drawn fictional character. (Mezz’s Bix is familiar enough, but does he breathe?) The stories his friends tell slickly mythologize him and, by extension, themselves. That these stories might also implicate them in his death is merely an accident; what’s important is that they absolve Bix. Never once, though, did any of his friends stand up and ask, “Could we have done better?”

Ralph Berton, whose “friendship” with Bix is routinely mocked by Bixophiles, came the closest. After one of his trademark, blistering attacks against Bix’s parents, Berton lightens up a bit. “In defense of their fumbling,” he writes in Remembering Bix (1974), “let us note that no one else ever did much better, including his best friends and loudest admirers. Not once in Bix’s lifetime would any of us offer any clear, coherent view of what our confused hero was all about, or how he was to steer a rational course toward a rational goal. As one of them sadly remarked long afterward, none of us ever really knew who Bix was—least of all, of course, himself.”

Berton’s is an indictment of his and others’ actions, sure—“we all failed him,” he writes at one point, “as he failed himself”—but it’s also an indictment of their imagination, of our imagination. If Bix were a three-dimensional human being, rather than some cardboard-cutout messiah, would we be so quick to rob him of his agency? If we knew Bix—as opposed to just admiring his music—would we not be forced to ask ourselves more pointedly and more honestly how and why he died?

Look at Hoagy Carmichael. In multiple memoirs, both published and unpublished, he described Bix as his closest friend and his greatest musical influence. His terms were never less than rhapsodic—remember how Hoagy fell off of—or onto—a davenport the first time he heard Bix play? “He had completely ruined me,” he wrote, so that when Bix died, the loss, according to Carmichael biographer Richard Sudhalter, was “bitter and lasting.” Hoagy’s flair for the self-dramatic was sometimes poignant: he claimed to carry in his pocket, for the rest of his life, Bix’s mouthpiece. He even named his son after Bix. But just as often his tales were sized a shade tall. Exaggeration was a function of the genre, of course, and Carmichael was driven by both his taste for sentimentality and his love for Bix. As a result, critic Benny Green was not inclined to take Hoagy’s “anecdotage” seriously. “The only time I ever met Carmichael,” Green wrote, “he had half a dozen Bix stories at his fingertips, stories I had never heard before, and I confess I found myself wondering whether Carmichael had either.”

As the years went by, Bix seemed to disappear into those stories. In fact, one of Carmichael’s recurring themes has to do with not ever knowing who his friend really was. In The Stardust Road (1947), he writes of trying to describe Bix to his oddball surrealist friend William “Monk” Moenkhaus. “I remember trying to explain Bix to Monk,” he writes. “I remember trying to put Bix together for Monk, so that he would see him and hear him and feel him the way I did. It was like the telling of a vivid dream and knowing that it wasn’t making sense.”

Green points to another passage from The Stardust Road in which Bix, near the end of his life, brings a girl to Hoagy’s apartment. “We didn’t have a drink,” Carmichael writes, “we didn’t talk music, and it soon became apparent that this girl had no idea who Bix was. And then the terrible thought struck me. I didn’t know either.” Green hoots at this last sentence, calling it “maddening.” One presumes he finds it aesthetically unnecessary, but it’s more than that. It raises a question that Hoagy refuses to address: what are the consequences of not knowing your own best friend?

In 1950, Hoagy starred with Kirk Douglas, Doris Day, and Lauren Bacall in the Hollywood adaptation of Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn. Baker’s novel showcased Bix in the guise of trumpeter Rick Martin and gave him an irresistibly romantic sheen. The movie went one better and upgraded Bix’s story to one with a happy ending. Its closing lines come straight from Hoagy’s lips:

           He learned that you can’t say everything through the end of a trumpet, and a man doesn’t destroy himself just because he can’t hit some high note that he dreamed up. Maybe that’s why Rick went on to be a success as a human being first—and an artist second. And what an artist.

Sudhalter makes the case that Carmichael, not the screenwriter, wrote those words, but he also ignores the heartbreaking irony. Bix did indeed destroy himself, and while Hoagy certainly felt the loss, he responded by drowning himself in parties, alcohol, and all that anecdotage. Did he feel torn and guilty about Bix’s death? Did these feelings of guilt drive him to forget his friend for the legend? Sudhalter doesn’t speculate and neither, over the years, has anyone else.

Instead, we allow Bix to suffer, we encourage it even, because it serves our mythic needs. The literary critic Sven Birkerts wrote about this in 2003 after the overdose death of writer Lucy Grealy, an outsized character who had battled disfiguring cancer all her life. “Reading Lucy’s work we realize how vigorously we cling to the myth of inwardness, the idea that personal suffering can become a source of strength,” Birkerts wrote in the Boston Globe. “When she died, we lost, along with the person, some of the consolation of that myth, though of course most of us will renew it elsewhere and in others. It is that essential.”

Birkerts then noted Grealy’s love of attention and wondered, cautiously, whether it had made her a co-conspirator in her growing legend. “It was all the more sad, then, in recent years, to catch glimpses of what was happening in her hidden life,” he wrote. “For the hopeless side of Lucy had found its way first to painkillers, then to heroin, and through heroin came the downward pull of oblivion. That her decline was as gradual as it was suggests to me that there were rallying surges of resolve, and renewals of faith in the possibility of transformation, if not outward then inward. Certainly there was the care and attention of her many friends.”

Notice how Lucy, like Bix, isn’t to blame for her addiction—the action belongs to “the hopeless side of Lucy,” an “it,” not a “she.” Notice, too, the way Birkerts imagines her pain in the feel-good terms of “resolve,” “renewal,” and “transformation.” Initially, he had seemed skeptical of fetishising other people’s suffering, but not any more.

And then there are the friends. When it first appeared, I e-mailed the Birkerts essay to a buddy of mine, a recovering alcoholic who had once met Grealy. His reply was quick and fierce:

           I find it appalling that her friends aren’t angry, at her, at themselves. A “slow downward spiral into pain killers, then heroin.” Just how the f--- does that happen out of “friend’s” notice? (And I know that it does); what allows people (and those around them) the luxury of such a spiral . . . do her scars pay her fare on that particular train? Do the rest of us just have to suffer the long lines in stand-by and economy? I’ll suggest that suicides tend to come when people view their lives as a sequence of diminished returns. They remove “the shock of possibility” from their lives, supplant real risk with drama, and in cahoots with “friends and family,” they begin to live their own fictions.

There is little evidence that Bix consciously lived his own myth, but stories have a way of looping back into our reality, controlling what they once only described or explained. His friends saw Bix as a boy genius destined to die, a hapless victim of fate, a kid without “his own strong mind.” Even Bix seemed to believe that (“Life has passed me by,” etc.), so that when he did finally die, his death was both the culmination of all the stories about him and the cause of still more. Bix himself, meanwhile, drifted farther and farther away. Who was he? Like Hoagy, we will always wonder. What seems clear is that Bix’s friends didn’t kill him. In the face of alcohol and addiction, friends are powerless. Lucy Grealy’s friend, the novelist Ann Patchett, discovered as much. “What she was suffering from was beyond me to fix,” she wrote in a 2003 essay for New York magazine, an essay that was later expanded into the memoir Truth & Beauty (2004), “so I did what I knew how to do for Lucy: I made her happy for a little while.”

It wasn’t enough.

While he was alive, Bix’s friends tried to save him. Or they didn’t try to save him. He died either way, and their gift to him, which was also a kind of apology, was Rick Martin.

March 09, 2008 · 8 comments


In Conversation with Hans Glawischnig

By Tomas Peña

Your father, Dieter Glawischnig is a classically trained pianist and composer whose heart lies in the jazz idiom. He obviously had a big influence on you.

My father is a renaissance man. He is classically trained and well versed in the jazz tradition. He was one of the first musicians in Austria to embrace free jazz and traveled extensively with his trio, The Neighbors. He is also trained as a conductor (classical and jazz). He was musical director for the NDR Big Band (North German Radio) for over 25 years. My father was very encouraging and made me aware of the basics; versatility, studying and internalizing the tradition of whatever type of music one is investigating, while moving the art form forward (too bad the latter gets forgotten all too often). He urged me early on to practice with the bow, a sound I'm starting to use more and more.

You have been involved with music since you were six years old. Initially, you started out as a violin player then switched to the electric bass and finally settled on the acoustic bass. Why the acoustic bass?

I came to the acoustic bass via the electric bass. My uncle (on my mother's side) had a small music store. On a summer visit to the U.S. I sat down with an electric bass and I immediately felt comfortable. It had 4 strings like the violin but was tuned in fourths, which made the fingering more logical in my mind. Fueled by my progress, I improved rapidly. When I was 16 my father recommended I try the acoustic bass. I took lessons from bassist Wayne Darling at the university in Graz, my hometown. For years both instruments co-existed in my musical life. I was doing all sorts of gigs, from funk to singer-songwriter stuff to rock to jazz gigs, and eventually to Latin music. Since 1998 I've focused more on improving my upright (bass) playing.

You credit the late (percussionist) Ray Barretto and (saxophonist) David Sanchez for inviting you to perform with them even though you lacked experience.

And speaking of Ray Barretto, Barretto’s Way is one of my favorite tunes on this recording.

At the time Barretto was looking for a bass player. I had dabbled with jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, which in included vibe player, Stefon Harris and pianist Luis Perdomo. We were playing in the style of the Fort Apache band but my knowledge of the idiom was marginal. I listened to a few records and checked out a few books like Funkyfying the Clave by Lincoln Goines, which had a lot of basic information. But playing with Barretto meant that I had to become familiar with the idiom and be expressive within it. It involved internalizing the feel of the music, how the various parts and rhythms all connected, what makes the music swing etc. Ray was willing to put up with my deficiencies and lack of experience because he knew I was committed to his band and saw my potential.

It’s the same scenario with David Sanchez (two years later). With him I had to go one step further: his Melaza group was about stretching the idiom and abstracting it without losing the flavor of the source material. A good example of this is his CD Melaza, where you can hear the abstraction of plena (a folkloric music from Puerto Rico) on "Puerto San Juan," or the harmonically dense bomba piece "El Ogro." "Orbitando" dealt with dissecting the Cuban angle. This required that I investigate a lot of traditional music. David suggested I listen to records by Ismael Rivera and Los Munequitos de Matanzas to help me understand bomba and plena, as well as Cuban Yoruban music.

“Barretto's Way” started out with a bass line. Originally the song was to have more of a Spanish flavor but when I came up with the Bach-Middle East inspired melody it occurred to me to make this a tribute to Ray by adding a montuno (vamp) at the end for a drum solo.

You credit the “Latin guys” for inspiring your rhythmic style. How so?

Dealing extensively with Latin music helped me to understand the concept of rhythmic counterpoint, how certain parts connect and create a whole picture, and all those musicians wound up being conduits because they gave me the freedom to learn by trial and error. David would always talk to me after our concerts to make remarks and give constructive criticism. He wanted his music at that time to have the feel of dance music, no matter how abstracted the music got. That meant we had to feel rhythm and time as a whole, to really connect to open up the music without sacrificing the feeling.

Is there a particular bass player who influenced you above all of the others?

Dave Holland and Jaco Pastorius, for their iconoclastic approach to the instrument, their role as not only bass players but composers, and, more importantly, “conceptualizers” in their bands.

Your first CD, Common Ground was based on lead sheets and giving the musicians plenty of room to stretch out. Panorama has more moods and colors. What was the concept going in?

It started with a couple of ideas I was experimenting with that turned out to be the songs like “The Orchids,” and “Line Drive.” I wanted to have more contrasting pieces on this recording, like a frenetic type of piece like “Gypsy Tales,” which came about during my time with Chick (Corea). I also wanted to have a simple “blowing vehicles,” that was the purpose of “Rabbit Race” and “Panorama,” which is an older piece.

You composed and arranged all of the tunes for Panorama. How does the creative process work for you? Explain what inspires you and the methods you use for arranging and composing your music.

I've found that if you have a strong embryonic idea, and it can be anything, a special melody, bass line, a set of chords or rhythmic cell, the music will almost write itself in that it becomes clear where the piece needs to go. I write slowly, naturally and trust my instincts. I also do a fair amount of fine-tuning. Sometimes I feel that a piece needs to go in a different direction and I will scrap half of what I wrote. The inspiration for me usually happens when I am under no pressure, often I'll be practicing or playing around at the piano, and by coincidence I will stumble on that embryonic idea.

I have recently challenged myself to write in more specific moods which involves being able to see the big picture and to evaluate where a piece is going, what fits into the mood and what detracts from it. Hence, the idea of 'filling in the holes' to create a work of contrast without sacrificing continuity.

“Set to Sea,” “Oceanography” and “Beneath the Waves” are a nod to Stanley C. Shaw, your maternal grandfather.

Actually, only “Set to Sea” is a dedication to him. The other pieces are only connected by their maritime titles. My grandfather was a sturdy soul, conservative by nature but very fair. He liked music and art. He took extension classes at Harvard University and jogged an average of 800 miles per year until his late 60s when a couple of heart attacks forced him to lay low. He was a man of few words. He only spoke when he had something to say.

Chick Corea, who appears on “Oceanography,” was the person who encouraged you to go out on your own. “Gypsy Tales” and “Rabbit Race" were both written while you were in the rhythm section for Chick's Spirit of Mozart tour. What is it like working and performing with Chick Corea?

It was a real eye opener to watch a leader assemble a work of such complexity as his second piano concerto. It was a lesson in grace and self-confidence. Like every master, he manages to internalize and make something his own immediately, something I witnessed when he came to record with me. On his tour we had an immediate connection, both musically and personally. The fact that he had so much trust in my abilities and confidence in my judgment was a real morale booster. It played a large part in my deciding to pursue a career as a leader (playing my own music).

As a leader you manage to be dominant without being over bearing. How do you straddle the line between being a leader and a sideman?

When you assemble a group of musicians with common ground the music will play itself out without the intervention of a leader. I call on musicians because I know how they play and can usually forecast how they will interpret my music. "Line Drive" was written with Miguel's strident upper register in mind. If I need to say anything, it will only be in the most general terms and without getting into the micro management of each player's realm. While recording Beneath the Waves I asked the musicians to record a second version that was softer and gentler. It captured the mood of the piece.

As a sideman I try to understand what the composer is trying to do with the music and expound on it. If there is something I don't understand I will ask for clarification. Generally speaking, my approach is to go forward and take the music in a new direction.

I have seen you and Miguel (Zenon) perform countless times at the Jazz Gallery. It’s obvious that you and he have a good rapport. What are your impressions of Miguel and what makes him so unique as saxophonists go?

Miguel is a highly trained musician. I yet have to come across something he can't play. But it goes way beyond that. He has a rock-solid sense of integrity and honesty. Miguel’s sense of rhythm is incredibly strong, but he also is extremely advanced with respect to melody and harmony. His sound is totally his own. Miguel is a great example of someone who has absorbed the tradition but is not hindered by it. He has managed to fuse the intellectual and visceral components of music, something few musicians have achieved. Miguel has earned every bit of his success because he's a hard worker who still practices several hours a day and composes on a daily basis.

You, Dafnis Prieto, Yosvany Terry, Miguel Zenon, Luis Perdomo and Marcus Gilmore (among others) represent a new wave of up-and-coming artists. Where do you see the music going?

I get a sense that rhythm is going to play an increasing part in the music in the years to come. Musicians will draw from different cultures, mix and match elements from diverse musical sources. Technology will be a factor as more sophisticated ways of interacting with computers become available. For example, a program resembling a musical version of speech-recognition software could enable a musician to store different musical cue melodies that could act as triggers. These triggers could turn on sounds, different loops or other real-time alterations. But acoustic instruments are safe from time stamping. I doubt they'll ever go away, as long as there are talented musicians.

What are you listening to at home, or in your car as we speak?

I go through phases of listening to a lot of music then I will go for a month without listening to anything. My taste is very diverse, it ranges from alternative rock to classical music and Beck to Bach. Both make strong statements and have artistic value.

Any parting thoughts?

I've always believed in artistic forward momentum, something young musicians need to be aware of. However, that momentum should not happen at the expense of knowledge of the tradition. The most successful musicians are keenly aware of the need to pay homage to the past but not but to be governed by it, therefore their efforts are much more likely to bear fruit.

Hans, it has been a pleasure speaking with you. Good luck with Panorama.

March 05, 2008 · 0 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Chico Hamilton

For the first time in jazz’s brief century, many leading artists are staying active beyond their 8th decade. OctoJAZZarians is an on-going series celebrating these living legends, pioneers of the art from who were first hand participants in the evolution of America's greatest art form.

Our subject this month is drummer Chico Hamilton.

by arnold jay smith

               Chico Hamilton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

When I called this vastly influential drummer, band leader, educator, composer he was busy at work saying that he was between two chords. “Monday and Tuesday I’m giving my finals [at the New School] so can we talk later?”

My personal ills flow off me when I hear about OctoJAZZarian activity like that.

Those two chords were for not one but two CDs on his Joyous Shout label, one with trio and the other for his ensemble Euphoria. All sans piano. When I first heard Chico as a leader in the 1950s I presumed that he got that piano-less concept from an early boss, Gerry Mulligan. Chico’s explanation was simpler. “All the pianists I wanted were unavailable, especially Gerry Wiggins, the ultimate accompanist; so I went without one,” he explained.

Being a perfectionist, Chico developed his own sound with unison guitar and sax. Some of the guitarists he introduced --sometimes playing in tandem-- were Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo, Jim Hall, Dennis Budimir, Howard Roberts, John Pisano, and current long-time sideman Cary DiNegris. The saxophonists included Eric Dolphy, Buddy Collette, Charles Lloyd, Paul Horn, Arthur Blythe and Arnie Lawrence, the founder of the New School’s jazz program. Other sidemen include bassist Carson Smith and trombone virtuoso Steve Turre. For so many of these artists, Chico’s leadership was a springboard to their stardom.

Never standing still, Chico introduced classical cello to the jazz canon in the person of Fred Katz, later replaced by Nate Gershman. Hamilton/cello appearance in the classic film Jazz on a Summer’s Day solidified the efficacy of the cello sound in small group jazz. (Oscar Pettiford, Sam Jones and Percy Heath were also cello antecedents but they were bass-doublers. Percy said that his was even tuned like a bass. “I didn’t want to learn another instrument all over again,” he once told me.)

Speaking of filmdom, Chico’s group was a foil in Sweet Smell of Success (‘57) with drugs being planted on his guitarist, played by Martin Milner, to get him arrested and away from the Burt Lancaster character’s sister. (The Lancaster role was a thinly disguised Walter Winchell. Chico says the young woman was based on Winchell's daughter.) The Lancaster character had better plans for his sister than a jazz musician. (Has anything changed?) The film is classic black & white film noir with the added thrill of seeing a fine jazz group, and the ending in an abandoned Times Square.

I like to say that the best things that have happened for me have happened to me. Chico puts it much more simply. “Everything that has happened in my life has been by accident.” He claims that all those now legendary or near-legendary players in his bands just wandered into his life. There were moments, however, that “the word went out that I needed [sidemen] and they contacted me or I contacted them.” True, serendipity played a role, but not the kind you might think.

“I always considered myself as being blessed, he told me at his United Nations neighborhood penthouse. "Music is God’s will and God’s will will be done. This is my reward.” Reflecting on some of those blessings we spoke of a particular concert on a steamy afternoon at the Singer Bowl (now Louis Armstrong Stadium in Flushing Meadow) where the Chico Hamilton group boasted three guitar players. “I remember that gig,” Chico mused. “There was Larry Coryell, Gabor Szabo and Mike Santana. It was the first time that I had played before such a large crowd [80-90 thousand]. I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Arthur Ashe. At the time he was the only black athlete to tell the kids to stay in school and get an education. And they are still not doing it.” We talked of some of the inarticulate sports spokesmen who sound like they are on the corner. “They are supposed to be role models. Instead they talk of other things, but not education.”

At earlier times Chico Hamilton was an accompanying drummer to such luminaries as Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Sammy Davis, Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and on a now-famous multiple percussion ensemble recording with Tony Bennett. (It was Tony’s first time as producer.) But it was with Lena Horne (1947-55) that things began to take shape.

Chico spoke of the famous piano-less concept. He had decided not to go to Europe with Lena but stayed Stateside with the Charlie Barnet band. “Gerry (Mulligan) came to my apartment in L.A. where I was rehearsing my quartet and liked what he heard.” There was no room for a piano in his apartment. The vastly influential and oft-imitated Gerry Mulligan Quartet was formed from that nucleus: Mulligan, Chico, Bob Whitlock, bass, and trumpeter, later vocalist, Chet Baker.

If I am pressed to the wall I would say that this was the group that most personified the “cool west coast” sound of jazz in the 1950s. And the subtle, brushes-emphasis, soft, in-the-background, almost effortless drumming of Chico Hamilton was the rhythm sound. His opposite number was Art Blakey, the east coast “hard bopper.”

It was Baker who most impressed Chico. “Chet and Miles were two of the most handsome dudes on the scene,” he said. “The last time I saw ‘Chesnake’ [Chet’s given name was Chesney] was in Amsterdam.” Baker had moved there due to easy access for his drug habit. He died there in 1988. “Chet looked like a thousand year-old man,” Hamilton recalled.

I remember Chet in his prime, a young man “pretty” of face, voice and tone, and later when he would periodically return to NYC –Strykers on the Upper West Side and Highlights in Jazz at NYU-- looking more cadaver-like each successive time. He died having fallen (?) from a hotel window. “I was in Paris when I got the news. I don’t know anything about the circumstances,” Chico offered. “He might have fallen considering his condition. He didn’t have a vein left.”

After his stint with Mulligan, Hamilton went back with Lena. By this time (1955) Chico knew the concept of what he wanted his sound to be. His recordings for West Coast’s Pacific Jazz behind him, he moved east to Columbia under the aegis of George Avakian, then to Reprise. The piano never entered into his ken.

“The guitar’s sustaining power makes me able to do the things that I do, rhythmically and melodically.” He pointed out that his drum kit is not like others. “I play low on a relatively small set, drums and cymbals well below eye level. My arms get tired playing up here [he gesticulated] so I play down here.” His bass drum is almost a miniature. “Did you know that I was the first to play a small bass drum? It’s actually a floor tom turned on its side.” Actually, I had noticed from the get-go that all the drummers who followed Chico with Mulligan –particularly Larry Bunker and Dave Bailey— also played the smaller bass drum.

“If you are not comfortable and you start to hurt something’s got to give. And the first thing that goes is the tempo. So it’s easier to play down.”

Uniqueness in the Hamilton sound may also emanate from the fact that he makes his own drums. He laments that he was unable to buy skin heads during WWII so now he buys his own skins and makes the heads. Also due to that calf shortage, as an economy move Chico resorted to using one-headed drums. “I was the first to do that, too” he said matter-of-factly. Single-headed drums are now standard fare for rock drummers who want thud not reverb. He received a citation for that innovation from former New York State Governor Pataki.

Drums aren’t the only thing he’s built; how about an estate house in the Hamptons? “I built that sucker from scratch.” How about an advertising jingle company? “I was working with Lena Horne in London and working on Roman Polanski’s film ‘Repulsion’ when I got a call from Mike Wollman of Grey Advertising who asked me if I wanted to do a commercial. Seems that he had heard my work from the ‘Gerald McBoing Boing’ Saturday morning cartoons. I didn’t even know what a commercial was.” He was to write music for a cigarette called Spring.

There was a great deal of “modern” jazz being used in commercials at that time, especially in cigarette and beer spots. The music was considered so hip that the hucksters figured the identification would sell their product. Chico had fallen into liquid gold. “Not only did I produce it, I wrote it, arranged it and recorded it.

“When I found out how much they were paying I jumped at it. Do you realize one spot paid me more that a year’s worth of gigs?” He stayed on Madison Ave. for ten years, but never stopped playing and recording. “I was the first to use small groups in commercials and in bands when tv was live.”

And then there were the movies.

About Sweet Smell of Success, Chico remembers that they stalled for six months, “making sure we were clean.” The film, you might remember, was about drugs being planted in the guitarist’s coat. “The guitar scenes were innovative,” Chico said. “They alternately cut between John Pisano’s hands on the fret board and Marty Milner’s face when his hands were at his side. It worked pretty well, I think. One time I put my hands on the fret board and cracked everyone up. It stayed in, too. The royalties keep comin’”

You can’t be more unique than unique. Bill Cosby, who is known for his keen jazz ears, had heard “Blue Sands” on Jazz On A Summer’s Day and wanted to use it. But he didn’t call Chico. “He tried three other drummers, and they still didn’t get it right. He thinks I’m cute.”

Another TV celeb, the late Ed Bradley, was hosting an early New School Beacons In Jazz Awards ceremony. Chico’s printed bio was lost and I was asked to brief Bradley. I proceeded to delineate the aforementioned sidemen. Not only did Bradley memorize the names, but he stepped to the podium and gave a biographical sketch of Chico as though he had known him all his life. “I didn’t know him at all.” Chico told me. But Ed Bradley knew Chico Hamilton.

Our conversation had come full circle. “Remember I told you that I was blessed,” he began. “Twice in my life I experienced a Zen thing. I became my drums. I can’t begin to tell you the feeling; it was overwhelming. I felt it throughout my whole body. ‘Zen for you yesterday and here you come today,’” he quipped. I changed the subject. He’s somewhat disappointed as to the way the New School has turned out. “It’s become academia. The kids don’t know what jazz is all about. [Speaking of the New School] I pray for Arnie [Lawrence] every day.” The two met at Jim and Andy’s, a musician’s hangout beneath A&R studios in NYC. “Arnie was on the ‘Tonight Show’ band. I immediately put him into one of my commercials. I took him all over Europe.”

His affiliation with AFM/NYC local 802 is another story. “For years I didn’t own my publishing rights the way I do now. Now I can build up some pension because everything has been in Joyous Shout for some 20 years.

Chico Hamilton is at one with his universe. “There are still more good days than bad.”

What he wants for his next birthday? “Another one.”

Regrets? “Why bother with them?”

His future? “Keep on doing what I’m doing, playing, teaching.”

About television: “Fortunately, we’re not going to be around when all that stuff comes home to roost.”

March 03, 2008 · 5 comments