In Conversation with David Balakrishnan

by Eugene Marlow

David Balakrishnan is on a life-long mission: to re-interpret jazz standards in a classical music context, in this case, the string quartet. Over a period of 27 years, Balakrishnan has combined a love for rock and roll, the blues, and jazz with his deep background in classical music. The result has been one of the best known and successful “crossover” groups: The Turtle Island String Quartet (TISQ). And they have two Grammys to prove it.

                                The Turtle Island String Quartet

The first was for their album 4+Four -- a collaboration with the Ying Quartet. The second was for their Coltrane homage, A Love Supreme. Over the years the quartet has developed a unique and internationally acclaimed musical voice, drawing on the diverse influences of folk, bluegrass, swing, bebop, funk, R&B, new age, rock, hip-hop and world music (specifically from Latin America and India) and grafting them to their deep and solid European classical roots.

Anyone who has been to a TISQ concert (including this writer) appreciates the high, virtuosic skill level of the players, the musical sophistication of the arrangements, and the quartet’s passion for performance. This passion is clearly reflected in Balakrishnan’s description of the TISQ’s evolution in the following conversation. Incidentally, at the time of this interview (February 2008), the Coltrane album had merely been nominated for a Grammy.

Let’s talk about the Turtle Island’s latest album, which has gotten itself a Grammy nomination. You have done at least a dozen albums with the Turtle Island String Quartet. Yes?

Probably more, I don’t really have the count in my head. Not much more than a dozen, though.

And is this the group’s second Grammy nomination?

I like to call it the fourth Grammy nomination and I will tell you why. I, myself, received two Grammy nominations for arrangements I did for Turtle Island and that to me, they seem the same. I can’t help it. I so much feel I embody Turtle Island that to me it feels like our fourth. Not only that, everything we do is so much a group effort. Something I arranged has so much of everybody’s energy. So it feels like a fourth, I’ll put it that way.

Is it primarily you who does the arrangements or is it that somebody in the quartet comes up with an idea for an arrangement and then you score it? How does that process work?

It is a real fun part of the group. It would be very obvious for any other jazz band, but for Turtle Island, because it is a string quartet, that whole dynamic takes on a very interesting turn -- due to the whole tradition of how composers from the past wrote their greatest work for the string quartet form and put up this very staggering and imposing body of work.

Being in a string quartet we don’t want to go up there and dabble and be a gimmick. We wouldn’t have lasted this long if we had done that. I started the group with a compositional approach. I saw that the string quartet was really at least half due to the composer’s involvement as it was to the musician’s playing. From the very get-go this was a big part of what the group was about. Having set the tone by writing this music I quickly discovered that obviously players were required to make it come alive, to make it live. This meant that the players would have to be composers and arrangers themselves, that they had to come with that personality.

The playing, the improvising, and the understanding of the harmonic language of jazz, these are things that you get when you have a compositional mind. Everybody who has ever been in the group has composed and arranged for the group. Having said that, I have always felt there was continuity by my having kept a sense of keeping the bar really high and making sure we focused on what the group stands for. We now have this wonderful body of material that we self-generated. I am very proud of it because it so represents my very personal compositional aesthetic.

You started this in 1985?

Actually before. For me it goes back to 1981. That’s when I had come to a crisis as a musician. It was so very early for jazz string players and there were, of course, the greats out there, such as Stéphane Grappelli, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Joe Venuti was still alive at the time. And the history of jazz violin was there but still very scarce, and I had developed quite a wide range of interests at that point due to studying jazz and classical composition in college.

What led you to study jazz in college?

It has to do with being a kid growing up in the sixties and seventies and discovering rock and roll and wanting to play that on the violin. That is what got me off the page and that is the place that set the tone of my life musically. I saw this guy named Jerry Goodman, famous for playing an electrically amplified violin, who was performing in a group called The Flock, and he had hair down to his waist and he was waving it around playing rock violin. I saw that and I said that is what I want to do, clear as a bell.

Like comedian John Belushi really wanting to be a rock star?

Exactly the same thing. That got me off the page and learning how to play blues on the violin. There was a history for blues that has always been part of the violin, like blues singer and jazz violinist Sugarcane Harris, Papa John Creach, and various players like that. Jerry Goodman was the rock version of that. I got very excited by this group called the Mahavishnu Orchestra more in college years -- that Goodman also played in with John McLaughlin, a great guitar player.

The Mahavishnu Orchestra was not the first jazz-rock fusion band, but arguably one of the best. Not only did they have a violin player, but they also were using Indian music. My father is from India. So it was such a complete kind of connection to me in so many ways that I just fell head-over-heels in love with that. And because of that it took me out of the rock thing and through McLaughlin, especially, I started realizing there was a whole depth of language that came from the jazz tradition which is a much more sophisticated harmonic language, of course, which dove-tailed with my college studies at the time in classical composition.

Then the last thing that happened was I came across a group called the David Grisman Quintet that was for me another head turning situation. Up to that point I was used to thinking of jazz violin or rock as playing very loud with big amplifiers taller than me and using all these electronic toys. I heard this quintet and they all played entirely acoustic instruments and had all the same energy and drive, but were all so dedicated to the acoustic sound of their instruments.

So the stage was set. That is what happened to me when I was starting a master’s degree. I had all of these influences and yet I couldn’t find out who I was in all of this. The string quartet became the answer. It became a place where I could take everything: the compositional depth of the style, the focus on the acoustic sound of the instruments, the blending of folk and jazz and classical tradition phrasing, and then bringing in the Indian music. It worked perfectly because Indian music is so much about subtleties of intonation and the string quartet is about instruments that can play in between the notes, so to speak. There is no temper tuning. It just allows for so many things for me to work with.

Then the last step was the fact that at the time I didn’t have a string quartet to perform with, so I would just over dub all the parts myself. There weren’t players who could play this style the way that I was coming from. Luckily for me, gradually the players started showing up who could do it, especially Mark Summer, the cellist. When he arrived in town he heard what I was doing and at first he was not quite excited about this. He had more of a strong tradition in classical music and he was a bit put off by the idea of being in a string quartet like this. I actually had no idea. I had never been in a string quartet myself, I just was writing music for it. I didn’t know really what it was to be in a professional string quartet. I found that out later. It has another level of personal, what is the word, family dynamics that are very intense that Summer’s was hip to.

In my own listening experience I have found few classical players who could improvise and essentially bridge the gap between classical and jazz. Do you agree with that?

That is why I was going on and on about my history. For all four of us in the quartet we became excited about and attracted to improvising and getting off the pages as children or very early teens. The transition took place in our formative years. That’s what’s really important if you are going really be professional level at improvising. As you know, it is a very demanding style, every bit as demanding as playing a Paganini or a Brahms concerto to really play in the jazz style at a high level. I think that is no longer news to people, right? There is more awareness of the depth of the jazz style in terms of it being artistically equivalent, at least in my mind, to classical playing I am sure some people will argue. So it is important you begin that training as a violinist early so that when you go to “jazz it up” you are not crossing over from something you know to something you don’t know. You are actually building from the ground up and it is part of the way you hear and the way you express on both sides.

Would you agree that part of the reason for the TISQ’s success is that there are not a lot of people out there who can do both?

Right, exactly right. It is also part of the mission of the group to advocate for the expansion, to pass the craft on and to encourage a wider range. When I look out there and I see all these string players and I see my own kids and I see high school kids and I see what is going on, I know that it is going to be an increasingly hard sell for young people to be playing Vivaldi on the violin. And this approach to the string instrument allows for a more contemporary and a personal way of expressing. So instead of playing everything off the page, you are playing something that you are playing from your heart and your sensibility. I think that in the long run -- and it is not just us, there are other people doing it too -- the more this happens we can get in there and change this, open the door wider stylistically. So maybe twenty or thirty years from now there will be orchestras out there that can swing, where the string players will all have enough knowledge of how to play a swing rhythm that doesn’t sound hokey or contrived or . . .

Or stiff.

Or stiff. We are Americans and so why shouldn’t we breathe with that sensibility? We are listening to it all the time. It is on the TV, it is in the pop music, it is in the dentist’s office. Why shouldn’t that be how we play? We don’t only because we are trained so specifically away from it.

There are a lot of groups mixing it up musically. There are lots of folks doing it and this is not just in the last few minutes. This has been going on for twenty, thirty years. Would you agree with that?

At least. Absolutely! And longer. If you really look deep you will find that it has been going on since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Like what Bartok was doing? He was hanging out with his Hungarian folk people, getting into it and using it in his music. It just so happens that the players he was forced to write for had no idea how to play that music. We were in Latvia and heard these guys playing Bartok and it was like nothing I had experienced. They were playing it like they really lived it because they understood the folk-root depth. That is just the natural interplay between human folk roots music and the desire to reach for a more refined artistic view. They are both valid and it is natural that they would reach across each other. It gets into the idea of purity versus diversity and they both have valid points to them, but at the same time they can get rigid either side, and you want to have both.

You seem to have found an audience, clearly. You have found an audience for your music and for your particular sound. Where is that audience coming from?

We have been doing this for twenty-three years and we have done well to survive. I make a living of this and I am very proud of that. I really appreciate the support we have gotten from a number of areas. A ground swell of support comes from probably the string community. They are the ones who really understand what we are doing and see the importance of it and understand the significance of what is going on. Also, the jazz community recognizes how what we do can possibly expand the knowledge of the jazz tradition to more of the classical audience. That is when Turtle Island is working at its best. It is helping jazz bands learn about being more open to what the classical aesthetic is and vice versa with classical audiences opening up to how Coltrane can be regarded as a great composer alongside Shostakovitch.

Let’s talk about the recent album. You’ve done a lot, including several Brubeck repertoire re-interpretations, and now you have the Coltrane album. I noticed in your concert listing something about Duke Ellington. Is this old repertoire or new?

Oh, no. It is really brand new. In fact it is just off the printing press. We are just working it up this week. We are getting ready to play with a great vibes player, Stefon Harris, and the core material will be drawn from this really interesting period of Duke Ellington’s musical career. Do you know about his sacred concerts?

I know some of that music.

I am, to be honest, just coming to it in the last two months to prepare for this. What happens in our careers is that when we put together projects the first part of it can happen a year and a half before we have even gotten together and we are sitting around talking about what could we do. And we come up with these ideas and you hope that they are clear enough to inspire people to be interested, but loose enough to let our creative process go -- which is going to happen in a more spontaneous present time manner.

So we had this idea that there was this existing music Ellington had done in the late part of his career that was very much on the spiritual side and it kind of rang a bell. We had a great feeling for making A Love Supreme, and that has a similar kind of idea to it -- a jazz musician presenting something that has spiritual significance and also has great musical value. So here we are today. What is interesting for me, Ellington evidently did three concerts of this material at the end of his career and he felt it was the finest music he had ever done. He was really struggling to do essentially what you call crossover. He was trying to integrate gospel and classical music and jazz and klezmer music and all these styles and trying to look for some kind of spiritual undercurrents to link it together. It was all performed in churches. I think his was one of the first concerts to play in San Francisco at Glide Memorial Church. This is all in the late sixties.

The timing of it was rather unfortunate because Duke was such a commercial musician at his core. I don’t know the word for it -- because of the times of the Civil Rights movement and all this kind of intense need to recognize the African-American tradition and all that -- it kind of hit against that particular political situation. So when I listen to the music it is hard for me to say that is Duke Ellington’s greatest music, which is the way he felt. Nonetheless, there are a lot of beautiful aspects to this music and some gems. One of the pieces we’re playing is a gorgeous piece called “Come Sunday” that he had actually written earlier as part of another suite. The recording I have been listening to a lot is with Mahalia Jackson singing, and it is just incredible, gorgeous, deep music.

Is this a program that hasn’t been recorded yet?

Absolutely. Not only that, it hasn’t been performed yet.


It is just coming up and in the tradition of jazz it is happening in a very spontaneous manner and just like I said, just hot off the press.

Why Stefon Harris? I’ve interviewed him for I think I know what the answer is, but I would like to know your answer.

Stefon is a person who understands both sides of the equation really well, the classical side and the jazz side and that is really important and he has the desire to reach that way. That is what we look for. Kindred souls who can understand the beauty in both sides and have put energy into both sides. He is one of those rare great players who have done that and of course to work with a musician like that is fantastic, it is a great opportunity. I don’t think there is a lot out there for vibes and string quartet that I have heard, so I’m hopeful it strikes a chord, to use a bad pun. I think it will.

Why did you choose Coltrane as a theme for your current album?

I would answer that by going back to some of the things I was saying earlier about how the string quartet stands for some of the most noble expressions of classical composers of Europe. I know a lot of people think -- and you probably would agree -- that you have to include A Love Supreme as being one the main, greatest works of the jazz canon. Not only as a jazz piece, but it also gets into a higher realm in terms of the way it transforms jazz language away from European harmonic language into more recent Indian and African rhythms. It is one of those landmark recordings. So that’s part of it.

The other thing was how could a string quartet ever come close to reproducing a record like that, a sound like that? The pure challenge of it, to love something so much was a sound I lusted after, it drove me. When I was learning about jazz, especially having moved beyond the jazz/rock thing and understanding there is whole world of beautiful music in the classical tradition, Coltrane was one of the first sounds I came across and, God, it was so beautiful and I was so in love with the way he had this crying heart with this incredible language. I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As a violinist I wanted so desperately to sound that way in some way. In trying to go towards that over and over, over years of practicing and coming to that again and again, I kind of finally came to the place where I realized you couldn’t really ever sound like John Coltrane. Only he does. But in the process of reaching for that you find your own voice. It is partly a big part of how I felt I found my voice: falling in love with his sound. So to be as a composer looking for a way to set this piece was quite a challenge. I am really attached to it and proud of it and of course the rest of the record has great stuff on it as well. We used that as the center piece and we are looking to take different periods of Coltrane’s musical life and influences that led to his work and then what came after is the theme of the record.

I listened to the album and it sounded more classical to me than the previous album, although clearly it has jazz elements in it. Would you agree?

For what we were doing, for our history it does definitely go a little bit classical, you can say that, especially A Love Supreme which is a very rare situation for us. The first movement is actually Coltrane’s entire solo set to the string quartet. None of us are improvising and yet it was improvised by Coltrane. What that was all about was during that period they had discovered modal music, Indian and African music and yet they were such harmonic European language guys. Coltrane, especially, had developed this whole way of playing where he would use the grounding of the tonality and then go off into unrelated areas, in and out, and create this swirl of motion over this pedal point of McCoy Tyner and Jimmy Garrison.

What I did was take McCoy and Jimmy and let the voices follow his modulatory exploration. You get to hear Coltrane’s melodic genius in a whole different way just by my setting of his solo. It ends up in places that sound to me like Sibelius and Shostakovitch. I think it shows a little bit more of that side. At the same time, it is based on jazz first and foremost, and that was a challenge to find that joining point. Normally in jazz you play much more loose solos and let go of the written page.

It felt a little more rooted. That was my feeling. What’s next for the TISQ?

Like I said, we have been doing tons of collaborations and one of the things we just finished was playing with guitarist Leo Kottke, a great finger style guitar player, a total roots-folk player who is a great musician who doesn’t read music and is not somebody who is a solo guitarist. He is actually quite famous. He was a big star of the rock scene in the seventies and has continued to evolve himself creatively. I just love his music and I love him. He is a great person, a real genius. You’ve heard him a million times. He has done a lot of movie music that you won’t even know, like the soundtrack for “Days of Heaven.” That collaboration took us in a direction that was much more roots, folk, fiddly style for us. The next thing is we are about to start our month long tour with Stefon Harris. That is going to be another, totally different way of playing.

You sound quite passionate about all this.

I feel a lot of passion today. We have been rehearsing today and I kind of have a full steam of love for this group and what we are doing.

Terrific. Thank you David Balakrishnan.

April 22, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Benjamin Lapidus

By Tomas Peña

The fusion of musical cultures stands out as one of the leading themes in the jazz world during the new millennium, yet few artists have been as ambitious as Benjamin Lapidus in bringing together diverse soundscapes. His music spans the heritage of five continents, although he is especially skilled at bringing together the currents of Latin and Jewish song under the driving influence of jazz. On his new project Herencia Judia, Lapidus combines Afro-Caribbean currents with Jewish liturgical traditions in a unique and invigorating hybrid.’s Tomas Peña recently sat down with Lapdius for a fascinating conversation, which he shares with us below.

                  Benjamin Lapidus (photo by Robert Cadena)

Benjamin Lapidus was born in 1972 to first-generation American Jewish Brooklynites. He was exposed to music by his grandmother and father, who played in Latin and jazz bands in the Catskills in the 1950's. During the 1980s Lapidus became immersed in Latin music, when he moved to a predominantly Latin neighborhood in New York City. Deciding he needed a complete musical education, Lapidus earned two degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College, becoming one of the program's first jazz guitar graduates.

In 1994, Lapidus started to play the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban tres. After leading his own quartet at festivals and clubs throughout Europe and winning a grant to study briefly with Steve Lacy in Paris, he returned to the U.S. At the same time he began performing with Larry Harlow, Alex Torres, and other Latin music luminaries in New York and Puerto Rico. Lapidus earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2002. He has taught popular music of the Caribbean, Latin music in New York, and world music at Queens College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice where he is currently an assistant professor of music. For the last 13 years, Lapidus has performed and recorded tres and guitar on film soundtracks, video games, television commercials, and albums with notable musicians.

You were born and raised in Brooklyn, correct?

No, I feel like I was born in Brooklyn, but I was born in Hershey, Pennsylvania. My family moved around a lot. We returned to Brooklyn for about six months when I was fourteen. Six months later we moved to Manhattan, a few blocks away from Mario Rivera’s house.

How old were you when you took your first music lesson?

My grandmother played the piano, my father played the piano and my sister played the piano and cello. I was exposed to a lot of music, my father would play, my grandfather would sing. There were a lot of records in the house …

I started on the piano when I was six but I wasn’t into it … I played a number of instruments before I settled on the guitar when I was eight.

How did you come upon the tres?

I came upon the tres when I was in college. I had seen the cuatro and the tres and I thought to myself, “this is something I should do.” My first tres was actually a guitar that was given to me by Mario Rivera. It was sitting in his living room and it wasn’t being used so I turned it into a tres.

When was that?

Fifteen or sixteen years ago. I don’t remember the exact date.

In “guitar” years that’s not a long time.

Thanks, but I still have a long way to go.

I understand you had the privilege of sitting in with the late, Israel Lopez “Cachao” the last time he performed in New York. That must have been quite a thrill.

I went to the last run at the Blue Note and sat in with Cachao’s band and he allowed me to take a pretty long solo. Cachao’s thing is to push the music and he played all kinds of different stuff behind me. It’s one thing to hear his recordings and quite another to be on stage with Cachao and experience the method behind the music. You really get to see, hear and feel what he is thinking. I compare the experience to playing bebop with Charlie Parker or being at a rumba with Chano Pozo.

Tell me about the connections you made between Afro-Caribbean music and Jewish liturgical music on Herencia Judia.

To be honest there really is not a huge connection. For the past number of years I have been a scholar in residence with the Jewish Museum of New York, which sponsors humanitarian and religious missions to Cuba. Through the Jewish museum I have connected with distant relatives in there. I have visited different synagogues throughout the world and in the Caribbean. There is no such thing as walking into as service and seeing bata drums, congas or bongos …

So the “connections” were your conception …

Basically, I took the songs from Jewish prayers, mixed them with secular music and tried to make the connections that made the most sense to me. I figured if it made sense to me it would make sense to others as well. I wanted to do this project fifteen years ago but I didn’t have the experience to pull it off.

Nevertheless you participated in Jewish themed projects in the past: La Mar Enfortuna’s Conviviencia, Robert Juan Rodriguez and Maurice Ell Medioni’s Descarga Oriental.

Yeah, it seems like a lot of people were doing this but they were doing it from a particular perspective. So I figured I would take it from another perspective, the one that I know. I don’t know if I would put it that way. Let’s just say this was the right time to do it.

You have alluded to your Jewish heritage in past recordings …

In the past five Sonido Isleño records I definitely tried to put at least one thing on there.

So you have been heading in this direction for quite some time.

It was there and I felt that this was the time to do it. I can’t honestly say that I am going to turn out record after record like this …

What I meant was, a project of this nature was inevitable. The idea was obviously percolating in your brain long before you went into the studio.

Sure, sure. I have been walking around singing these songs for fifteen years!

How long did it take to complete the project?

I mapped everything out before we went into the studio. The entire process – recording, mixing and mastering – took about two weeks.

You obviously handpicked the supporting cast. Was there a prerequisite?

I picked musicians that have a deep understanding of folkloric music. I have worked Jorge Bringas, Jeremy Brown, Antonio de Vivo, Cantor Roman Diaz, Samuel Levine, Onel Mulet, Oscar Onoz and Andy Statman in one capacity or another over the years.

Are you planning to expand on the material in the future?

Yes, I would like to. But I have to figure out how that is going to happen. I would like to see the project performing. We have our first performance on Saturday at the Midwood Jewish Center in Brooklyn. [Interviewer’s note: Ben Lapidus and crew debuted Herencia Judia to a sold-out house. By all accounts the event was a huge success.]

Herencia Judia fuses Jewish liturgical music with the rhythms of Puerto Rico and Cuba in a very intimate and soulful way.

This is the first time that the two genres have been brought together in this way. That said, the fusions are not seamless but I tried to create it in such a way that the genres do not detract from one another. The idea was to mate Jewish and Caribbean music as it is within me. These are the fabrics and threads that run through my life, from my immediate family to my daily existence. This is who I am and this is what I do. I felt comfortable with the idea of making a statement.

I call my kids Newjewricans as a way of reminding them that this is their legacy too. Anytime a person operates in many different worlds they have to find a way to reconcile those differences. Herencia Judia is my way of reconciling those differences joyfully.

The repertoire covers a wide spectrum, from festive tunes to somber, deeply religious material.

“Ein Kelokeinu” is pretty light. It’s a Puerto Rican bomba, a concluding prayer. I sing the lyrics in Jibaro and Ladino, which is Judeo Spanish. “Herencia Judia” is kind of a light tune. It’s a Cuban son … if you know both cultures well you will understand all of the references, sometimes I will sing something in Hebrew then switch to Spanish and say something humorous. It’s kind of an insider’s thing. “Comparsa de Simchat Torah” is a spiritual song. It talks about the Torah being the tree of life. It’s not serious but it has a more serious, somber tone. “Aleinu L’ Shabeach” is spiritual song but it is pretty light. It’s a concluding prayer but we lighten it up at towards the end by interpreting fragments of other prayers.

It’s done in the old rumba style of yambu

“Los Cuatro Preguntas” and “Los Cuatros Hijos” (featuring the voice of Cantor, Roman Diaz) recites two parts of the Passover haggadah that are meant to maintain children’s interest. "Dayenu" is a very long song that you sing during Passover where you recount the things that God did to take the Jews out of Egypt. About eight years ago I was asked to play this music for a concert and that’s where I first debuted this tune as a (Puerto Rican) plena. Plena is all about trabalenguas (tongue twisters) so it goes hand-in hand.

“Limpieza Judia” – Well, you know limpieza has to do with cleansing and some kind of sacrifice so I thought it was really easy to make the connection between Santeria and Regla de Ocha. It’s pretty deep … (Laughter) “Son de Hanukah” – On the lighter side, it’s an instrumental arrangement for three children’s songs and the only tune that showcases the group’s chops. You get to hear a good bongo solo, tres solo, conga solo.

“Ma Nishtana” is part of the reading for Passover. It called out for a changui from Guantanamo, Cuba.

You wrote a thesis on Changui, correct?

Yes. I also wrote a book about Changui and the history and culture of Eastern Cuba. Everybody writes about rumba and Santeria but Eastern Cuba is where the roots of the music are.

What’s the name of the book and when will it be available?

Changui and the Roots of Cuban Son and Guantanamo. It should be out in August.

You don’t hear much Changui these days …

It’s so swinging. The first time I heard it live in a concert I couldn’t believe it. Talk about spiritual, the groove is so deep. And when somebody throws a microphone in the marimbula (bass) and it vibrates, it’s so swinging. The repetition of the montuno and the syncopation … the first time you hear it, it’s like, holy cow!

Let’s get back to the music … “Na’nu’im”?

“Na’nu’im” is for the holiday of sokkot, where we build these little bohios (huts) in front of our house, to commemorate the years in Egypt.

Are we talking about a life-sized bohio?

Yeah, but you are not allowed to sleep in it. In Herencia Judia one of the soneo’s (improvisations) kind of makes a joke about not sleeping inside the bohio.

“Tzadik Katamar”?

It’s an old 19th century prayer that you hear very often. It made good sense to do it as a danzon.

“Comparsa de Simchat Torah” – Most of holidays are in the Spring and Fall. It’s when you finish reading the Torah in its entirety. You dance around and sing these songs … it reminded me of a comparsa (carnival).

Tell me about the phone call you received in response to “Kaddish for Daniel.” The song is about journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.

Thanks to an amazing piece that journalist Ed Morales wrote, I am in touch with the Pearl family. I wrote the piece for myself, as a way of coping with the tragedy of his death. I riff on a lot of things. The inspiraciones ask questions and talk about how there was something saint-like about his death.

What’s your take on other recordings that have attempted to fuse Jewish music with other genres?

It’s really tough when you do this kind of thing. It’s the same thing with Latin jazz. As soon as you get away from the traditional commercially accepted notion of what Latin jazz is and you start tinkering with other types of rhythms everyone is going to have an opinion about it. You have to know the styles you are working with really well. It’s not sufficient to know Jewish music and add a rhythm section. Nor is it sufficient to know Cuban music and add Hebrew lyrics. You really have to know what the conventions are … If you don’t, you had better ask somebody who does. Someone who can really lay it on you, but then it’s not your record! It’s a tricky business. I don’t dismiss stuff but a musician can hear when you add layers of awareness. You have to be careful if you want to be faithful to the tradition and be innovative at the same time. You have to know it.

You teach at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice …

I teach at John Jay in the department of Art, Music and Philosophy. I teach sections of popular music of the Caribbean and I teach World Music. Most of my students tend to be Caribbean and I cover music, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad and the Indo-Caribbean and of course, how it all relates back to New York City. I am really, really interested in the topic. For me it’s a joy to teach. I like opening up the student’s ears … if a student comes in and loves merengue or reggaeton I love saying, “hey, check this out.” You also learn from the students, it’s not a one- way street. You would be surprised. I have had Hector Casanova’s granddaughter, Yomo Toro’s grand kids and Bobby Sanabria’s cousin in my classes, so I have to watch what I say!

What’s up with Sonido Isleño? Is the band still together?

Oh yeah, we have a couple of gigs coming up. I am not leaving … I just wanted to try something else and everybody has been kind of busy. That band is where I first began to experiment and those guys are really near and dear to me. We are going to keep playing. We talk to each other a lot.

I just wanted to get involved with other things and I really like playing for other people and working in different musical situations.

You recently collaborated with Kaori Fujii, a Japanese flute player …

That would be Garota de Ipanema. I wrote all the charts for that and I was really pleased with the way it turned out. I am going back to Japan in August …

You are one busy guy.

I try.

Before we close, I would like to quote Bobby Sanabria, who described your music in this way: “This is not a novelty presentation but a unique project that demonstrates the universality of cultures and how they can, and have been blended, in a seamless way creating a new culture.” Thanks Ben, it has been a pleasure speaking with you.

Thank you Tomas.

Selected Discography:
Sonido Isleno – Vive Jazz (Tresero Productions, 2005)
Sonido Isleno – Tres is the Place (Import, 2002)
Garota de Ipanema (with Kaorii Fuji) – (2007)

April 18, 2008 · 2 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Randy Weston

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 pianist and composer Randy Weston.

by arnold jay smith

VERSE: I was recovering at home from a heart attack in 2001. A visiting rep from HIP was taking down my personals, you know, weight, height, generally how to prescribe treatment. He asked me what I want to be, presuming I wanted to lose weight, like that. Thinking of Randy Weston I replied, “six-two & 220 pounds.” He looked totally confused as my wife cracked up. As the guy left the phone rang. It was Randy Weston. True story.

                         Randy Weston, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

REFRAIN: From Brooklyn with the blues; from jazz to the mother continent making all stops (even Capt. James T. Kirk’s “next star to the right and straight on till morning.”). That’s what Randy Weston’s music does for me. Tough to describe as the music is in constant flux, dynamic as opposed to static. The sources from which it culls boggle the imagination: Nigeria, Morocco, where he owned a nightclub, Tangier, Togo, the Ivory Coast, Egypt, the American South, the Church and always the Blues, or more precisely the Blues all ways.

Randy, in his eighth decade of garnering experiential data, has no intention of either quitting or even looking back. “There is so much more [to be heard] so why stop now,” he said.

Randy’s first love was not the piano. “I wanted to play basketball,” the six-seven --I lied to the HIP guy-- musical giant said. “It was my father, Frank Edward Weston, a barber, who insisted I take piano lessons. He often said that we were Africans born in America and that I had to learn about my forebears. And that one day I would have to journey back. I thank him for [all] that everyday.”

Return he does and each time he comes home with new musical discoveries. I saw Randy at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal late last century with a group of musicians representing a people I had never heard of prior. “I met the Gnawans in 1967 and we’ve traveled all over the world,” he said. "2008 is the year the African community in Tangier honors me in return. We intend to talk about my club in Morocco, which I had for three years, called African Rhythms Club, and also the Festival we gave in Tangier in 1972. We presented over 200 African and American groups including Max Roach’s Group, Odetta, Pucho & His Latin Soul Brothers, Mandrill, Dexter Gordon, Kenny Drew. It was a cultural success, but an economic disaster.” He laughed then said “not bad for a guy from Brooklyn -- opens a club and lives in Morocco, gets involved with the culture and now they want to honor me.” He sounded humbled by it all.

You’ve no doubt read of musicians surrounding him as he matured, but to see the glint in Randy’s eye when he recounts them, it’s worth retelling. “We had a very hip community in Bed-Stuy [Bedford-Stuyvesant] Brooklyn: there were Cecil Payne, Duke Jordan, Len Gaskin, Percy Brice, Kenny Dorham, Eubie Blake, Ray Abrams, Ernie Henry, Wynton Kelly, Sonny Stitt and so many clubs. But most of all there was Max.” That would be drummer Max Roach, the southern transplant. “Max was so important that we are celebrating Jazz In Brooklyn for four days from April 25-28 and we are dedicating them to him.” (Events will be presented at Concord Baptist Church, Boys & Girls High School, Brooklyn Historical Center and Medgar Evers College.)

But I digress. In 1967 the Randy Weston band went on a State Dept. tour of 14 African countries. The personnel was: Dexter Gordon, tenor sax, Ray Copeland, trumpet, Bill [now Vishnu] Wood, bass, Ed Blackwell, drums, Chief Bey, African percussion, son Azzedin, then 15, went along.

Randy picks up the story: “Among the stops we made were Cameroon, Niger, Liberia; Sierra Leone, Tunisia and Beirut, Lebanon. We did the history of jazz starting with Africa, the Caribbean, the Black Church, and ‘When the Saints Go Marching In.’ That all came about because of my association with Marshall Stearns.” Stearns was one of the original historians and authors of this music we call jazz. His vast collection became the basis of the Institute of Jazz Studies currently housed at the Newark, NJ campus of Rutgers University. “Jazz started to take a back seat [to other popular music] in the fifties and I wanted to move to Africa anyhow. I might have picked Nigeria because I had been there, but the Biafra War was going on.”

After writing the required report of that tour Randy received calls from people in Morocco telling him how much they had liked his music. Would he come back? He did -- this time with just the trio of Wood and Blackwell. He ended up staying seven years. “Prior to the State Dept. tour I requested that I would like to hear as much indigenous music as possible. When it was possible the request was honored.” He went to Tangier. “The best school in Morocco was there; that’s why I moved there.” While in Tangier he met a Moroccan who had heard Randy was interested in traditional Moroccan music. “He suggested I listen to the Gnawa,” Randy related. “Up to that point [‘67] I had never heard of them.” A meeting was arranged for Randy to meet a Gnawan named Abdullah El Gourd who worked for the Voice of America. “He spoke not only English, but also French and Spanish; he said he was always interested in the history of his people and he played a traditional instrument with three strings called the hadjouj (formerly the guimbre). It was like hearing Jimmy Blanton. He would come by and bring some of the older Gnawa; we’d make tapes.”

Just as important were the stories of their own intra-African slavery, crossing the Sahara, or by boats from West Africa to North Africa (now sometimes referred to as the Middle East). “Some were put on ships and transported across the Atlantic and others were left behind. Gnawa was created within Morocco from the Songhay and Mali empires. When the Berber people heard this music they gave it the name of Gnawa.” Randy has seen to it that the world recognizes Gnawan music the name of which exists only in Morocco.

When I asked if jazz is really African music, which I personally do not believe, Randy replied that “the entire world comes from Africa, the cradle of civilization, farming, mining, gold, diamonds. As we migrate we take various instruments and cultures with us and we integrate with the established cultures. Thus the African Diaspora: tango in Argentina, cumbia in Colombia, samba in Brazil, reggae in Jamaica, steel drums in Trinidad, and Afro-Cuban [everything] in Cuba. The Egyptians created music to keep them in tune with the universe. Think of the music of the spheres where every planet’s orbit has it own frequency. Music is the basis of spirituality and healing.”

Meanwhile, back in the U.S. there was Duke Ellington’s early band, the so-called Jungle band, James P. Johnson’s piano concerto Yamekraw, Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha and James Reese Europe, whose early 20th century band not only got him to Europe as the first Black band over there (WW I) but was also the subject of a weekend of music presented at City College by Randy.

For Randy it’s not that jazz is or isn’t African music, “it’s a matter of helping me understand how the music had the power to influence the entire world and how Ellington and Thelonious Monk followed that tradition. The slaves came here with nothing; their freedom, their instruments, their communication were taken from them. And yet the music survived. You can’t explain it; it comes from God. You get your first lesson in your mother’s womb; the second lesson is the Black Church. That’s directly from Africa.”

Ellington and Mary Lou Williams created religious music as their final offerings, a sort of giving back to their creator what He/She had given them: their musical gifts. Randy made it even more personal. “When first I met Art Tatum he was doing so much that I felt it was coming from someplace other than himself. I was afraid to shake his hand. Tatum, Nat King Cole and Count Basie are like musical prophets.” I understood Tatum and Cole for creating new directions, but why Basie, I asked. “The blues. I have written some 40 blues. It’s our language. [Among our] people there are those who come on the planet to lift our spirits, people like Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong.”

Randy’s father was a (Marcus) Garveyite, who taught him that “we are responsible to give something back to our homeland, Africa. We never leave our mother and Africa is our mother.” She seems to keep on giving. “There are rhythms on this planet we haven’t even heard yet.”

CODA: The long-running Randy Weston Ensemble consists of T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe), saxophones; Benny Powell, trombone; Neil Clarke, African percussion and Alex Blake, bass.

T.K Blue: (28 years) “[From Randy] I have learned that African culture and music has influenced not just the United States. I have gotten books on the early African presence in Asia and Europe. I recently discovered that the Pope who started the celebration of Easter was African. You wouldn’t know to look at his images now; all the African traces have been removed. All that Randy saw about Africa was from the Tarzan movies; that wasn’t enough for him. He passed that [curiosity] on to us. As a result I moved to Paris to learn French so that I could better communicate on some level with West Africans.”

Benny Powell: (He says 28 years; I figure more like 33) “Randy Weston is among the wisest people I’ve ever met. You will never hear an unkind word uttered from him. When he plays the ‘hits’ they are different each time. For instance, ‘Hi-Fly,’ on which I am featured, has gone from a medium tempo to a ballad. That’s why I love playing with him; while we do have a set schedule he will change up. Most of us have been together for quite a while but we are still learning from each other. I never ‘met’ Randy; I encountered him. When you encounter a person you feel that you’ve known them for a long time. We walk on parallel roads and then our paths cross.

"I was in California working with Merv Griffin and told Randy that I wasn’t totally fulfilled. I asked to consider me if he needed a musician. He called me to work the [1975] Spoleto Festival-Charleston, SC. I had other commitments and turned him down. I said to myself, ‘You damned fool. You tell the man you’re drowning in California for lack of culture, he throws you a life raft and you throw it back at him.’ [Happily] He called again we’ve been together ever since. His character, like his figure, is head and shoulders above everybody. When I was on tour with him and on dialysis [Benny has had a kidney transplant] he made sure that I had a bed on the bus to myself while he had to fold himself into a seat. He prepared me for Brooklyn and their clannish attitude toward people from New York [Manhattan] even though I was there to participate in the Brooklyn Consortium’s festival at the personal invitation of [founder] Alma Carroll, [singer] Joe’s wife. He soothed the situation in the Addis Ababa airport when they were dumping out my bag and throwing things away. Playing with Randy is never just a gig; it’s an adventure.”

Special thanks to Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz Talks hosted by Dr. Lewis Porter whose one-on-one with Randy Weston was part of the impetus for the above article.

April 15, 2008 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Nik Bärtsch

by Stuart Nicholson

I first saw Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin in the Kaufleuten, Zürich’s classiest rock club, in 2006. Its foyer had a plush red carpet, tall mirrors and marble-top tables with massive vases of fresh cut flowers -- indications that closing time was here not the fraught experience it could be in some rock clubs in England, Germany or Holland that I’ve visited. At the time Bärtsch had built-up quite a reputation in Switzerland with his music which he then called “Zen-Funk.”

                                    Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (photo by March Metli)
        (L to R: Nik Bärtsch, Sha, Björn Meyer, Kaspar Rast, Andi Pupato)

It was certainly different music, but the means he used to achieve it were conventional enough ?- piano or electric piano (he has since dispensed with the electric piano), bass clarinet, bass, drums and percussion. It was music that throbbed with a pulsating dynamism that was almost hypnotic. The insistent rhythms made you think of trance, but when you got up close they also suggested the minimalism of Steve Reich. In fact, what Bärtsch had come up with amounted to a new musical concept.

Woven into the rhythmic tapestry was startling imagery that grew from simple beginnings, often opening with a repeated piano phrase over an insistent groove which gradually took on a trance-like quality that soon had the tightly packed crowd on the dancefloor of the Kaufleuten moving in time to the rhythm. Bärtsch knew just how long to build the tension, and before it reached breaking point, cued the band into a new section. With his head shaved like a Zen master, he had a flair for the dramatic. Inscrutably presiding over the interlocking rhythms and haunting melody lines, he carefully choreographed the lighting to match the moods of the music.

It was body music for the mind. Drummer Kapsar Rast summoned up the spirit of funky New Orleans groove master Ziggy Modeliste of the Meters; Björn Meyer’s bass lines took inspiration from James Brown; Sha’s bass clarinet haloed everything in mysterious ambient soundwashes; and Bärtsch’s less-is-more piano created a unique form of forward momentum. While “the groove” was central to each composition, Bärtsch built up layers of competing rhythmic and melodic complexity that gave the music a hypnotic, trance-like feel. Each piece was like a sonic journey that swept you along and before you knew it, sixty minutes of dizzying music detail had gone by, with more puzzling allusions than Ezra Pound’s Cantos.

Yet these influences flowing through his music were an organic meshing of musical textures, a process Bärtsch describes through analogy to Japanese martial arts (he is a black belt in Aikido), “You can study Aikido if you are Swiss or Eskimo, but behind Aikido there is a very culturally orientated aspect of Shintoism, very special, very Japanese. But that does not mean you cannot study Aikido and use its principals -- because they are universal and I am looking for that in styles [of music]. You must always check out what is universal in a style to use it. If I listen to The Meters there are some principals in this groove music that you can work out and study.”

In 2003 Bärtsch came to the attention of ECM record boss Manfred Eicher, who had heard the band play at Wasserkirche. A month later they met up, and plans for an album were drawn up. The result was Stoa, which was released in 2006. Since then Bärtsch has been touring Europe extensively but until recently their North American appearances were limited to two enthusiastically received concerts at last summer’s Montreal and Vancouver festivals, and a successful showcase at Joe's Pub in New York. Shortly after the release of Holon in 2007, Bärtsch embarked on his first full-scale tour of the USA, with dates in Portland, Los Angeles, Ann Arbor, Boston, Knoxville, Washington D.C., Columbus, New York City and San Francisco.

Bärtsch calls his compositions “Moduls” as he believes song titles can give audiences a preconception, or word picture, of what is to come, “I give no names to my tunes because I don’t want to give you a picture of the music, about the style it is,” he explains. That way, he reasons, audiences have to deal with his compositions on purely musical terms. He also speaks of the band’s way of working as a “spiral continuum,” rather than the newness-at-all-costs priorities of the Western avant-garde. With the release of Holon, the distinguishing characteristics of his music were clear: modular constructions, polymetric pulses, complex interlocking patterns and cells and repetitive motifs. What impressed me was the group’s cohesion, internal balance and ease in dealing with complex musical constructs while sustaining the groove.

Since we met in 2006, the group has worked a lot more together and grown closer musically, it seems to me. This aspect of working and growing together is so important in an age of pick-up bands, where so many ensembles meet for the first time on the bandstand. I think it is only by playing regularly together a group grows together and develops its own personality.

This is one of our main goals, also one of my own goals. Kaspar Rast the drummer and I met together as children, we have known each other our whole musical lives, so this relationship with Kasper is something we can build on. With the others in the band we have been working together for a long time, and we want to try and create on the stand a continuum where we grow, year on year. I think it is a big challenge – a funny thing working together so long, you create a spiralling continuum, you see the consequences of the continuation of your work, the consequences of what we’re doing and consequences of developing your work, and this creates a paradox. You find yourself back with older work yet you can see the new work developing within the continuum.

I guess what I mean was that by playing together regularly, an ensemble can develop into something greater than the sum of its component parts.

This record Holon, I was not sure what it meant, it is much more than the individuals when I listen to it now. And listening and comparing it to Stoa, I felt this spiral continuum strongly, because we always go back to the basics interests, the group playing, the microphrasing, and ghost notes, breaks in-between the lines of notes, but on the other hand we’re also working on the new possibilities of combining rhythms, to explore minimalist strategies on other levels, like pattern combinations and so on, trying to explore units based on cells, and create a landscape built-up of cells. For this kind understanding in a group there are a lot of things you have to talk about when you first come together new, but when you know each other for a couple of years, a lot of things we don’t have to talk about. We’ve developed a very fast and intuitive understanding of each other – and we challenge each other waiting and listening to each other. One of our main interests is waiting and listening until something happens, because always something happens. The whole is more than the individual players.

                      Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (photo by Martin Moll)

One thing that struck me about Holon is that the music sounds more at ease with itself, while in contrast Stoa sounded tense, wound-up tight as a drum.

Yes, probably true, because in the studio there was a lot of tension in our development of the band and also working with producer Manfred Eicher. There was another tension now, the tension had changed, and Stoa was very attacking, structured, very clear in its arc. This album for me has enormous power and structural clarity. Holon for me developed in a very smooth way. There are a lot of things happening that were not planned, unlike Stoa.

Of course, all the pieces are structured and composed like before, and I through-composed most of the pieces very strictly so I could show the band they had potential for growth. This is also a sign of respect to the band -- that I can present a structure that makes sense. But the beautiful thing in this record was the process of playing it before we went to the studio, working on the compositions. It was important as the compositions themselves. In the end, Holon is an album that created itself in a way, out of this group thinking, through the consequences of each person that was involved in that album. I’m very happy that you call it relaxed, because under the relaxed structure there is a lot of discipline and a lot of practising, but of course, this was not our goal, to show that this is complex music. We want to have a relaxed flow which surprises you on the one hand; on the other hand, allows you to get into the flow – a kind of relaxed tension.

I think this comes across on Holon with the ease the band handle complex musical constructs, and the delineation between the written and improvised, for example, is often never clear.

Playing together the solo actions are more integrated, as if the soloists are camouflaged in the surroundings of the sound, individual voices almost “hidden” in the whole. Soloing is more a matter of phrasing inside the compositions. It’s hard to tell where the solos leave the structure and what is or isn’t composed. The album is much more a group record than Stoa was. Together something has been created that is certainly more than my compositions.

Can we talk about some of those compositions now? The final track on the album “Modul 44,” for example, seemed to me a very interesting piece, both in construction and in execution by the band.

For me “44” was an interesting new composition process, a new approach, it grows out of a little cell which is based on a harmonic and melodic and rhythmic structure which grows and goes through different registrations and grooves. “44” was a very strict composition and it was my intention to create a piece that really works if you interpret like a classical piece, but on the other hand the band as a whole played it so much that it started growing and gave it a life which I never realised! So I went with the flow and grew with the piece.

It is very difficult to describe a lot of our work, a lot works intuitively from the mind of the band as a whole, from understanding each other, how can I say? It’s almost like dancing with each other, moving with each other, or maybe like a good team in sport, like in soccer, if you know what is happening behind your back, how everybody is running and is acting on the field you are able to run with ball. This process of becoming a band is very difficult to describe! It needs time, it needs respect from each other, it needs openness, so we can criticise each other, it needs a lot of playing time.

We have this club [called The Bazillus Club] we play every Monday in Zürich, we play together now for more than three years [and recently played our 150th concert there], and this is a very important thing. It has become so difficult to create a social situation to create a band and play together regularly, and keep this daily contact open. Each member of the band knows how important for us to get together and play and develop our repertoire. I think this is something special about the band we know it works like this, how important this is. Often bands collapse through economical pressure -- arguing, crisis are normal. This is a challenge.

Can I ask you to talk about another piece on Holon that fascinated me, which was “Modul 42”?

In “Modul 42” there is a very simple chord and it is very much through composed, there is no improvisation in the traditional sense, but in the interpretation in our sense often means giving life to a tune. Playing it with the knowing of improvisation, with a background of improvisation, with a background of soloing, all these possibilities give you a certain range that maybe don’t appear on the surface of a tune but are in the background when you listen to it. You kind of feel it. It is very important for us that soloing gives energy and new life to a composition it is often hidden in the root of the composition and suddenly when you move it disappears in the composition – this border between composition, improvisation and interpretation is a main topic for us.

You once coined the term “Swiss minimal scene.” is this still going on?

Yes, it's moved on. An interesting term here is the word minimal. When Stoa came out one of the main references was Steve Reich because of his work with patterns, and also because we talked about his influence. But the ritualistic aspect of minimalism is overlooked. You sometimes find it in ceremonies, or in the early music of Stravinsky, for example, a certain kind of popular or unknown minimalism, which I like very much. Every Monday in the workshop sessions we have people come who are interested in learning about practices and strategies about this music, about minimalism, the influence is still growing. Sha [the bass clarinet player in Ronin] has his own band now, he has recorded, so as records come out its influence grows. Many people have an idea they follow a minimalist strategy, for me the minimalist strategy itself takes a lot from “less is more,” a lot from folk art, changing on a people level, so its important to explore minimalist strategy over a long period.

Can I ask you to talk about what interested you in jazz, and how you seem to have developed a complete musical philosophy around what you do?

What pulled me into jazz? As a child I played boogie-woogie jazz, groove stuff. I didn’t grow out of a musical family. I liked drums, and when I was eight years it was not possible to play drums in school because they said it was not an instrument. So my mother looked for a private teacher, then after two years more or less, I saw somebody play boogie-woogie. I was nine, and this fascinated me immediately. I don’t know why, symmetry? I have no idea why. Then it was not possible to study jazz in a music school, so my mother looked for a piano teacher who had an idea about jazz, a bit more deep than general ideas, and he showed me a lot of boogie-woogie, blues, and standards and a lot of Chick Corea tunes. And the only classical tunes were Bartok tunes, because they were connected to Chick Corea. So I liked it, and listened to a lot of music.

In school at the break a twelve o’clock I didn’t go to eat but went to the record shop and listened to the history of jazz, I was very interested in that. And then we started to play and jam. Until sixteen I didn’t have a real idea of classical music. I didn’t study it, I was not so interested. I played a lot in many styles, not very drawn into one style, always rhythmic aspects of the different styles. But at sixteen I started to work on classical piano. I had an “old school” classical teacher, very serious, and then I decided to study music at university, classical piano because I think if you are a pianist interested in jazz this is a must, to play a Bach sonata and so on. But also new stuff, complicated stuff. It is really important for a pianist to study in a classical sense. That’s a tradition also, then I thought what is really important, what really interests me in music is the economy of material, the less is more aspect, don’t waste too much material, like Monk, for example.

What in everyday life is important, to me is simple things like good food, love, good relationships, integrity, things like that and I think you can also bring this into the music world. . . . It makes you to think about form in traditional classical music. If you compose, you really compose, really think about the material, really ask the material what are the possibilities. In the jazz context it is more open, compositions sometimes mean melody and style, a few chords and the band does everything. It’s a different thinking it always influenced me very much, if you play a line, play it exactly, maybe fifteen seconds in the right spot, be more modest as a soloist, as in pop where you don’t have a lot of soloists, the band and the song is then very important.

I was interested in isolating some of the influences I hear in your music – ambient, trance, minimalism, Steve Reich, Gamelan, James Brown, the Meters – although some of these may not immediately obvious.

Yes. I think the James Brown aspect is more that I like funk especially, but not this P-funk thing. James Brown has this thing, how the band treats beats. A bit less famous, but very important, the Meters, these kind of funk people who treat rhythms in a certain way. That’s a very big influence, I love this music, I don’t know why. I love it, for its very important for everyday life and I think also for drummer Kasper Rast, my drummer, who is a close friend, we always liked this music. Then later Prince because he has this feminine treatment of funk, very tough, rhythm orientated but also smooth, in between, not stomping everything, that’s what interested us. The trance aspect is more an interest in ritual music as such, it may be written music in Japanese traditions especially, not trance as a club style, the question is always what is Trance? Is it the kind of trance that’s related to drugs? Maybe more stoned feeling and I was never interested in that.

I’m also interested in ritualistic music styles, folk music, especially in Japan. I am interested in rituals, how they treat ecstasy through escapism in a way, that’s very interesting. Not in trance as a “club beat,” but in a way more serious, in a spiritual sense, not religious sense, but the ritual sense. And that’s also maybe the connection to minimal music. Often you say music creates a kind of trance if you are not following the musical material in a kind of narrated way, but you have to follow it with your intellect, more in a way that you are getting into a room, or a kind of space, and you’re attention is focussed in details. Suddenly, I am interested in that. But also in a kind of seduction of the listener, I’m interested in that too.

You are about to tour the USA, which is very exciting.

Yes, we have been in New York last year for just one concert at Joe’s because we had been invited to the Montreal Jazz Festival and Vancouver Jazz Festival so we could arrange this concert in New York too. It was a very good experience and we had a very good audience and it was an important first appearance. Of course, it was too short, only one concert where we could taste the US audience and now it is the first time we have a regular tour, and see a lot of listeners directly, a lot of people who have already have brought Stoa and are informed about what we are doing. As you know yourself it is extremely important to see this band live, because a lot of the processes I have been talking about you can only see if you see the band live. I’m very happy and relaxed, the balance is a challenge stay focussed and clear and on the other hand on to stay relaxed and open on the other, this is a kind of paradox challenge, an ironic challenge sometimes, which makes it fun to explore music on a higher level.

Well, good luck on your tour and thanks for answering my questions in such interesting detail.

A pleasure.

April 09, 2008 · 2 comments


The United States of Jazz

by Alan Kurtz

The United States of Jazz

When, in the course of musical events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the bands which have connected them with another, a decent respect requires that they should explain themselves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident:

– That all jazz is created equal, endowed by its creators with certain unalienable Grooves, including Swing, Ad Liberty and the Pursuit of Copyright.

– That to secure these Grooves, Styles are instituted, deriving their powers from the Consent of the Grooved.

– That whenever any Style becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the Grooved to abolish it. Indeed, when a long train of Stylistic abuses reduces us to Ennui, it is our duty to derail that train.

Thus are we now constrained to dispel unswinging Styles, with their history of repeated injuries to the ear and goal of establishing a Tyranny of Tedium upon us.

We, the delegates of the United States of Jazz, do therefore solemnly declare these Free and Independent States absolved from all allegiance to unswinging Styles. And to affirm this Declaration before all the world and for all eternity, we do swear upon our autographed picture of Louis Armstrong.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF, each of the honorable States so conjoined has been assigned a representative Track dedicated by musicians in good standing to the objects of their Affection or Derision, as the case may be. Partisans of such States may condone or condemn the corresponding Track or its Review by affixing their Comments to the bottom of each page linked below.

     Alabama – John Coltrane: "Alabama"
     Alaska – Nancy Wilson: "Midnight Sun"
     Arizona – Charlie Byrd: "On the Trail"
     Arkansas – Béla Fleck: "Arkansas Traveler"
     California – Wes Montgomery: "California Dreaming"
     Colorado – Cal Tjader: "Colorado Waltz"
     Connecticut – Billie Holiday: "Yankee Doodle Never Went to Town"
     Delaware – Marty Nau Group featuring Phil Woods: "Delawareness"
     Florida – Fats Waller: "Florida Flo"
     Georgia – Toots Thielemans: "Georgia on My Mind"
     Hawaii – King Oliver: "Everybody Does It in Hawaii"
     Idaho – Art Tatum: "Idaho"
     Illinois – Illinois Jacquet: "Illinois Blows the Blues"
     Indiana – Joey DeFrancesco: "(Back Home Again in) Indiana"
     Iowa – Jimmy Giuffre: "Iowa Stubborn"
     Kansas – Christian McBride: "Little Sunflower"
     Kentucky – George Russell: "Kentucky Oysters"
     Louisiana – Bix Beiderbecke: "Louisiana"
     Maine – Terry Gibbs: "Main Stem"
     Maryland – Vince Guaraldi: "Maryland, My Maryland (O Tannenbaum)"
     Massachusetts – Gene Krupa featuring Anita O'Day: "Massachusetts"
     Michigan – Jelly Roll Morton: "Michigan Water Blues"
     Minnesota – Artie Shaw: "Minnesota (aka Aesop's Foibles)"
     Mississippi – Nina Simone: "Mississippi Goddam"
     Missouri – Lorez Alexandria: "Show Me"
     Montana – Oliver Lake: "Montana Grass Song"
     Nebraska – Scott Joplin: "The Corn Huskers"
     Nevada – Gil Evans: "La Nevada"
     New Hampshire – Taylor Haskins: "Live Free or Die"
     New Jersey – Naked City featuring John Zorn: "New Jersey Scum Swamp"
     New Mexico – Horace Silver: "Enchantment"
     New York – Frank Sinatra: "(I Like New York in June) How About You?"
     North Carolina – Bix Beiderbecke: "There's a Cradle in Caroline"
     North Dakota – Cassandra Wilson: "Red River Valley"
     Ohio – Bill Charlap Trio: "Ohio"
     Oklahoma – Count Basie & Joe Williams: "Alright, OK, You Win (I'm in Love with You)"
     Oregon – Stan Kenton: "Eager Beaver"
     Pennsylvania – Glenn Miller: "Pennsylvania 6-5000"
     Rhode Island – Blossom Dearie: "Rhode Island Is Famous For You"
     South Carolina – Anita O'Day with Gene Krupa: "Just a Little Bit South of North Carolina"
     South Dakota – Terry Gibbs & Buddy DeFranco: "South Dakota"
     Tennessee – Mose Allison: "The Tennessee Waltz"
     Texas – Tex Beneke and the Glenn Miller Orchestra: "Texas Tex"
     Utah – Mike Melvoin: "This Is the Place"
     Vermont – Johnny Smith Quintet featuring Stan Getz: "Moonlight in Vermont"
     Virginia – Paul Whiteman featuring Bing Crosby: "I'm Coming Virginia"
     Washington – Duke Ellington: "Washington Wobble"
     West Virginia – Louis Armstrong & Sidney Bechet: "Coal Cart Blues"
     Wisconsin – Woody Herman: "Woodchopper's Ball"
     Wyoming – Paul Marshall: "Cowboy Jazz"

April 06, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Jimmy Cobb (Part Three)

by Ralph A. Miriello

Below is the third and final installment of Ralph Miriello’s in-depth interview with Jimmy Cobb. Click here for parts one and two. Cobb’s wife -- and producer -- Eleana Tee was also present at the interview, and we thank her for her help in arranging this discussion. Cobb will be performing at Iridium from April 10-13 and again from May 9-11.

There is often great debate about who influenced Miles most about his modal approach to Kind of Blue George Russell, Gil Evans or Bill Evans or some combination of all three. What is your take on this?

There you go all three.

You have played with some of the music world’s most creative composers and arrangers is there anyone that stands out in your mind as a true musical genius?

                            Jimmy Cobb

[As we mentioned before] George Russell, Gil Evans and Oliver Nelson. I didn’t play with him but you can’t leave Duke Ellington out of that. Quincy Jones. Thad Jones.

What did you like about Duke’s particular compositions?

Duke was the man of his era. He wrote most of the music that people played [at the time] Him and little [Billy Strayhorn].

One of my most cherished records from those times is the “live” Smokin’ at The Half Note with the trio and the great Wes Montgomery. Every time I listen to “No Blues” or “Four on Six” I can feel the energy and enjoyment that you guys had playing together. Can you shed some light on this performance and working with Wes?

Well, Wes was another genius. He sat there and played all that stuff with his thumb. That’s genius right there. The things he was playing, guys would look and say you can’t do that. They didn’t think it was possible what he was doing.

Do you think Wynton Kelly is under rated as a piano player and what was his greatest strengths on the keyboard?

Yes. He could play with anybody, accompany anybody and swing with anybody at all times -- sick, drunk, whatever.

What ultimately broke up this trio?

Well I think Paul died first. After that we went through different bass players. Then Wynton died so that took care of it. Wynton died and I had just started with Sarah Vaughn. I was in California and he was in Canada. They say he called up his girl friend and said he wasn’t feeling well. He used to do that at certain times with us, because in the later part of his life he started getting seizures. It was something that he didn’t have all his life.

You worked nine years behind “Sassy” Sarah Vaughn. What is most memorable about your time with her?

Every night we used to marvel at her. She could do everything good. Hell of a range and could hold a note for an hour and she was a musician. We got to go to a lot of good places. It wasn’t the regular jazz [clubs].

At the 75th anniversary concert for David “Fathead” Newman you played along with contemporaries like Phil Woods, Marcus Belgrave, Benny Powell and Howard Johnson as well as a revitalized Mr. Newman. Is it still fun to play with the elder statesmen of jazz?

Yeah. Because there ain’t too many of us left. We got the same feeling about the music.

You have played with so many greats over the years. Is there any one that you wished you could have played with?

There are a lot of people. I had the opportunity to play with Benny Goodman once at a college. They needed a drummer quick, so that was an experience. I always like Benny Goodman. I played with Charlie Parker for a couple weeks in a Symphony Sid All Star kind of a thing. I must have been about 23 or 24 at the time. The Symphony Sid All Stars were Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Milt Jackson and Toots Thielemans -- he had just come from Belgium and was playing guitar.

You have certainly set a high mark for your drumming predecessors. Are there any young cats that you are particularly impressed with now?

There is bunch of them out there. There is a lot of them that I don’t even know. Lewis Nash, some guys younger than that, Billy Cobham -- that’s my man he calls me his uncle -- Lenny White. Jack DeJohnette. He is my neighbor in Woodstock. I just saw Steve Gadd, his mother brought him by [in Rochester, NY] when I was in Dizzy Gillespie’s band. They had a sit in sort of jam session on Saturdays and his mother used to bring him to those, so she asked Dizzy if he could sit in and Dizzy said yeah so I let him sit in and he played a set with Dizzy. He was about twelve years old.

As a leader you are playing with a combination of new comers as well as journeymen. On your New York Time session you play with Javon Jackson and Christian McBride as well as veteran Cedar Walton. How is it playing with the“new” kids on the block?

I like it. They feel the same way I do about the music. A lot of young guys want to [play with me] because I played with certain people and they want to be a part of that [history]. I got a Russian guitar player, his name is Illya and every chance he gets he wants to play with the older guys because he is disappointed that he wasn’t born in the era that I was.

What is most different about playing with a guy like Paul Chambers as compared to a younger guy like Christian McBride?

Not that much difference. They are both good. They are both very good. Paul is probably the reason why McBride plays the way he does. Because all the bass players that I know revered Paul. Buster Williams, Peter Washington -- they all love Paul and ask me about him.

Your most recent working group, Cobb’s Mob, is made up of fellow musicians John Webber on bass, Peter Bernstien on guitar and your old friend Richard Wyands on piano. Is this an attempt to revive the straight-ahead guitar quartet format reminiscent of your work with Wes. Where do you want to take this?

Yeah, they wanted to play that music. It is just something we do to have fun. I am not trying to revive all that. We’re just having fun, because we know we can play that way if we want to.

After a lifetime of dedicating yourself to the art of jazz, what is your proudest achievement ?

I don’t know. To still be here. To still be above ground.

What inspires you to want to play or record a particular musical piece?

I probably have to like to do it, if it has already been done. Certain [signature] pieces that distinguish you over the years… sometimes I play some of those things just to remind myself of maybe Wynton and Paul, or Cannonball, Bird , Max…I got a lot of inspiration just from being around them guys..

As a seasoned professional, do you have any advise for young upcoming players that want to make music their life?

If I am in a clinic, and they ask me the same kind of question, I say when I am in school I want to learn everything I can learn. Because when you get out of school, if you plan to make this your life’s work and you have to get out into this world and this is going to be dependent of you paying your rent and all that stuff, you had better know everything you can know. Because it’s hard enough and you want to be prepared. So whenever your break comes your way you ‘ll be ready for it, because it doesn’t happen that much. You’ve got to be ready when it comes.

What can we expect next from the indefatigable Jimmy Cobb?

I am going to try to make more records. I got two little girls and I want to leave them something. The youngest one is named Jamie who is twenty four …and the oldest one named is Serena who is twenty six, she sings and dances, acts and plays the piano. Eleana, their mother, produces my records .

Some of my most recent recordings are New York Time with Christian McBride, Javon Jackson and Cedar Walton. We will be playing this album at the Iridium jazz club in New York on April 10-13th, 2008.

I made West of 5th”,a trio album with Hank Jones on piano and Christian McBride on bass and recently an album with Roy Hargrove on trumpet, Ronnie Mathews on piano and Peter Washington on bass called Cobb’s Mob, all produced by Eleana and all on Chesky Records. In 1983 Eleana produced an album with me where Gregory Hines is singing called So Nobody else Can Hear and we may try to re-release that one soon.

I am also working as an instructor on the Drum Channel and I do drum clinics with students.

Well the beat goes on for Jimmy Cobb. Thank you Jimmy, Thank you Eleana.

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

April 04, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Jimmy Cobb (Part Two)

by Ralph A. Miriello

Below is part two of Ralph Miriello’s in-depth interview with drummer Jimmy Cobb. For part one, click here. For part three, click here.

Your celebrated time with Miles Davis reportedly came as a result of his dissatisfaction with the antics of his former drummer Philly Joe Jones as well as his piano player Red Garland. How difficult was it for you to fill the formidable shoes of such a drumming icon?

Well basically it was kind of terrifying, but [Philly] and I …and Art Taylor were all good friends. Drummers are usually pretty good friends. We don’t have any animosities, so it seems, or at least we didn’t. . . . When Arthur Taylor had the gig I used to go hear him play with Miles, that was in between [stints with Philly] Joe. Then when Joe was there, I used to hear Joe play; and then when Julian Cannonball got in the band, I had been in a band with him before. He knew I played, in fact we had a band -- it was him and his brother [Nat Adderley] and Junior Mance, Sam Jones and myself. We made a CD a few years back called Sharp Shooters. It turned out to be a pretty good record. So he knew about me, and when he went with Miles, and Joe wasn’t showing up a lot, he told me to come and hang out with them. “If Joe don’t show up you’ll be there and play.” So that is what happened.

Why do you think that heroin played such a prominent role in the lives of so many jazz musicians and how did you manage to stay unscathed?

                                    Jimmy Cobb and Dinah Washington

Well, I’ll tell you, the reason. . . . Charlie Parker had an ailment actually that he needed treated by some kind of medication, so I think the medication he was taking morphine or something, cost a lot of money which he didn’t have. If he had a thing where he needed to treat this thing once or twice a day he couldn’t afford it, so like he found that heroin would do the same thing cheaper, so that is probably what got him hooked. The guys looking at him doing that figured that was what made him play as good as he did.

You know it is just simple-minded stuff, but they just started doing it just to be hip or whatever. They don’t know that that stuff hooks you … where you can’t get away from it. So I think that is basically what that happened to a lot of guys, you know they did it because it was like a fad.

Going back to Charlie Rouse, he had a band in Washington, where he had a friend that he went to school with [who] had a bar on the main street in the ghetto in Washington. So when Rouse came back to town, his [friend] said “why don’t you come, I have got this place and it has a place upstairs and there isn’t anybody in it, there is nothing going on. Why don’t you get a band together and play up there.” So that is what happened. We had a quintet that we could play anything we wanted to play six nights a week and stay there as long as we wanted to stay there as long as we were making money. We did that and from there I learned all the be-bop tunes from Rouse that he [had] learned from Charlie Parker…Bud Powell and all them guys. That was a real fruitful time. This was 1948, 1949. On the weekend we use to have entertainment. And the entertainment would be like Redd Foxx. So we were having fun.

But getting back to why I never did that [heroin], our piano player was a young guy from Kansas City, you know all them guys honored…they loved Bird. They probably fell into the same trap. This guy was my age and he was into that. So one day he says “hey Jimmy will you do something for me.” So he went into a room and he started to go through his procedure, and when I saw it, I made up my mind that would never, never be me. So that is what stopped me cold. Over the years guys would try to trap or talk you into it because they needed some help to get their habit going.

In a recent interview that I did with saxophonist Javon Jackson, with whom you did the recording entitled New York Time, we were discussing musicians having fun making music. I wondered whether it was fun to make such a serious record as Kind of Blue and he questioned what made Kind of Blue or for that matter any great record ‘serious’? He suggested that for you, the musicians, it probably wasn’t necessarily serious at all and perhaps even fun. He suggested I ask this question. Was this session a serious matter and was it fun to record?

It was always fun to record with them guys because, you know, look who you got man. Look who you got -- how are you going to make a bad record with them guys? I’m just worried about how I am going hold up with them. I wasn’t worried about them because all of them I knew they were killers, all of them. Then another thing, getting back to Joe [Philly Joe Jones] the music had changed, so I didn’t really have to do what Joe was doing so I could do what I was doing and it fit with what was going on. That is another thing about being at the right place at the right time. I was there when the music made a little curve.

[The session] wasn’t as serious to me as Porgy and Bess … with all them pieces. You know with Gil [Evans] with that twenty-piece band …. That’s serious! This was a like a the genre where we usually played [in]. I just think we went in there and made a good record. Guys always ask me, man: “Did you know when you were making that record it was going to be that big?”… I said no. No, none of us knew. If Miles knew, he would have asked for twelve Ferraris.

How long did you stay with Miles and what was the most lasting impression you have taken away from your experience with him?

I had a lot of fun with Miles. We used to hang out for one period. I used to take him to the gym or take him around when he needed some transportation. I went with him [to the gym] because he wanted to be a boxer. I used to take him up to 138th street and Broadway, Wiley’s Gym, and he would go through his little thing and I would take pictures of him doing it. A little after that he hired a trainer and use to take him on the road with him so I think he got to know about the fundamentals.

I’ve seen a lot of things with that boxing thing. When I lived down in Washington we lived on 122nd Street and 7th avenue, and I just walked myself there to the Theresa Hotel which is about three blocks [away] and checked in there. At that time [Sugar] Ray Robinson had the whole block between 133rd and 134th street … He had the whole block. I used to see him and his entourage every day. I was there when [Fidel] Castro moved into the Theresa Hotel, because they wouldn’t let him in any of the downtown hotels. [He and his group were] cooking chickens in the room, walking around in fatigues with one hundred dollar bills hanging out of their pockets, smoking those Cuban cigars.

What is the most lasting thing you took away from playing with Miles?

I just liked being in the best jazz band in the world at the time. He was a funny little guy to be around. Yeah Miles was a funny little guy.

In that famous quintet you also had the dual saxophones of Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and the exploring John Coltrane. Did you find the dynamic between the two a competition spurred on by Miles as has been reported?

Yeah he used to do that with everybody. He had Coltrane and Sonny Rollins once in the band. So he used to love to do that. He would just like to play the [opening] and then sit down and watch them play. See what was going to go on, he enjoyed that.

We all know now where Coltrane took his music after Miles. What did you think about his direction at the time?

I didn’t know what it was like. Most people didn’t. But I knew he was after something, and he was going to get it. … He would play a full twenty-minute solo on the stand and then come down and go and stand in the corner and practice during the intermission. So he was after something and he wasn’t going to stop till he got it. Then the last trip he made with us overseas on the bus he used to sit behind me and practice Ornette Coleman figures with the soprano. So he was practicing all the time. He was working on it, he was [wood-]shedding; he had an idea and he was trying to bring it through.

In an interview I did with the pianist Steve Kuhn, who had played with Coltrane for a short while, he said that he came to realize that Coltrane just wanted a carpet laid behind him. He eventually found that in McCoy Tyner. What do you expect he was looking for in a drummer and why?

Elvin [Jones]. I don’t think nobody else could have done it but Elvin. . . . [Coltrane] called me one time when Elvin couldn’t make it, and asked me to go to Chicago with him. He had like two or three weeks in Chicago, but it was dead winter time and I had to refuse him. When I sit down to play after the first tune I’m whipped cause that’s the intensity that I put [in], the energy that I put [into the music]. I told him, you know how I am, I get whipped from the start and we are going to play all night and I’m going to be in Chicago where people would have to hold onto to ropes to cross the [snow-filled] streets. I don’t want to be out there and get pneumonia, ‘cause I know that is what’s going to happen to me so that is the only reason I am not going to do it.

He said, “Oh, man Okay.” He said “… well who do you recommend?” I said well what about Joe [Philly Joe Jones], but he had enough with Joe, so he wound up getting Roy Haynes.

There are three guys you, Roy Haynes and Elvin that are muscular drummers with a lot of stamina.

Some guys use more finesse …but you see you have to [be strong]. You can’t be timid with John. You would have to be strong enough to do that [play behind John’s extended twenty or thirty minute solos].

I have read two accounts of the making of the album Kind of Blue and you were quoted in both of them. Do you think this album is as important to the music as all the accolades would indicate, and if so why?

I am sure that it is. Because it came at a time where the music took a turn where the guys kind of stop playing [the old format] and started to play in a new way.

How long were you with Miles?

From the end of 1957 till 1963 I think.

This album would never have been quite so impressive if your playing hadn’t been so perfectly filled with nuance and understatement. Was this your improvisational approach to the session or were you directed like this by Miles?

Nah. It is just the way I play. It’s the way we played together…there wasn’t a whole lot of direction given. I got into the band…he called me one night and said Joe’s not going to be here anymore I want you to come in the band. I said …”okay where are we working ?” He said “…actually we’re working tonight.” I said “Where?” He said “Boston.”

Now I’m in New York, he was probably already in Boston. I said “… What time?” He said “Nine. o’clock.” It was already six o’clock. So I said, “how am I going to get to Boston and be there by nine o’clock?”. He said, “you want the gig don’t you?” I said, “Yeah, okay man.” So I got to hustling, at that time they had the shuttle to Boston and Washington from New York, it took about fifty-five minutes. You could just get on the plane and give them twelve dollars, that was the fare, you would pay them like on a bus. So I got the drums together and went to LaGuardia airport. By the time I got there [to Boston] they were playing. They were playing like “‘Round Midnight” without the drums. So I started to set up the drums and [by the time] they were in the interlude (Jimmy hums a few notes of that famous part for emphasis)… I hit that with them and I was in the band. No rehearsal, no nothing.

No trepidation on your part either?

No. This was just from me sitting around waiting for Joe not to show up.

Besides you, the other unsung hero of this date was your rhythmic partner Paul Chambers. In some of the notes to the recording session, as documented in Ashley Kahn’s book Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece, it seems that Miles was sometimes chiding the young bass player to get the beat right, and Chambers seems to be somewhat apologetic. Was Chambers challenged by this modal work?

No. Paul was a great bass player. He could play any kind of way and sound good. So I don’t think he was challenged by it. He probably would want to play . . . like they had played before, because it was more challenging, more notes. Instead of three chords and some scales and stuff like that. He would probably want… to play fast. But he didn’t have a problem with [what Miles was doing.]

According to a quote in the Eric Nisenson book, The Making of Kind of Blue, attributed to Teo Macero, the producer of the session, he recalls that Gil Evans was actually in the studio during the recording of Kind of Blue, and believes he was the author of the haunting introduction by Bill Evans and Paul Chambers to “So What.” Can you lend some light on this subject?

He wrote that. He was there. They did that [intro] on an album we did with [Gil previously].

Despite the racism throughout the country during much of your time, I was always of the impression that jazz was the one safe haven where color didn’t matter so much as talent. It was reported that Miles, despite his appreciation for Evan’s abilities, used to keep Bill Evans on his guard all the time with taunts about his being too white. Was this the way Miles got the most out of his players, black or white?

That was the way he used to fool with people. He just used to like to do that. I’ve said this many times before. When we would be riding somewhere to a gig in a car and the guys would all be talking, and Bill would try to interject something, Miles would stop and turn to him and say, wait a minute we don’t want no white opinions on this. [Jimmy laughs.] Bill didn’t know how to take that. So then after a while he would catch on that he was bullshitting him. Then he told him some other stuff…he [once] said to Bill when a new guy comes into the band he has to make love to everybody [laughs]. Bill said, “I don’t think so.”

With the times being what they were, was it really that difficult for a white player like Evans, despite his talent, to play in black clubs and conversely did you find it difficult to get work in the predominantly white bands or the so called white clubs?

Bill could play. That is what interested Miles. Yeah it was [difficult]…I remember in Philadelphia, when Bill first got in the band. Philadelphia is where Red Garland was from, so they look on the bandstand and see [Evans]. . . . Wait a minute, something’s wrong with this picture. I am sure he felt something, and it happened at a few places we went to. [It happened] to me some, cause I think people would think they could do it as good as anyone else, and they wondered how I got there. But I never heard that. It never bothered me.

Do you feel that we as a people have finally become color blind now for the most part?

Maybe a little better. But it still happens.

For part three of this interview, click here.

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

April 02, 2008 · 0 comments