OctoJAZZarian Profile: Hank Jones

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 Hank Jones.

by arnold jay smith

I call him STB, short for “Save the Bones” from the title of the song “Save the Bones for Henry Jones (‘cause Henry Don’t Eat No Meat)” popularly recorded by Dizzy Gillespie, and Lou Rawls and Ray Charles. “Not many people call me that and I wouldn’t respond to them if they did,” the affable Mr. Jones said recently. “But in your case…” A faux scowl crossed his mustachioed face, and then broke into that bright, patented smile. Hank has a droll sense of humor. How droll? So droll that you have to wait some seconds before the punch line sinks in.

                                Hank Jones
                    Artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Like Benny Goodman, of whom we shared some stories, Hank Jones was one of a large family, flying in the face of population control advocates. Both the Goodmans and Joneses boasted multiple professional musicians, Hank and his brothers setting trends as they went. (For the record: arranger/composer/bandleader Thad, and drummer/leader Elvin. But you knew that already, didn’t you?)

Trying to catch up with this now 90-year old sprite is, well, trying. “He has a cell but he’s out of range right now,” came one response. “His mailbox is full.” “He’s closing up his upstate New York home (near Cooperstown and the Baseball Hall of Fame) so he’ll be incommunicado for a minute.” “He’s tidying up some personal business.”

Oh yes, he also plays the piano, at festivals in New York City, Montreal, and points West, North and South, particularly with saxophonist Joe Lovano and vocalist Roberta Gambarini. He has recorded duets with them both. At the recent Jazz Journalists Association Awards, at which he pocketed Pianist of the Year, he partnered with Lovano for a trio of tunes and drew a standing ovation. Hank was the headliner at a JVC/NYC Festival concert honoring none other than Hank Jones. Then he was off to the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal where he was honored at the 2008 Invitational. Each year an artist is given a week of concerts all to him/herself. Sometimes retrospective, sometimes introspective -- these are multifarious affairs with solo, small combos and larger units each night. Lovano went north with him. Hank squeezed our chat in between the two festivals, after a hearty Sunday brunch.

At that same JJA Awards luncheon there was a demonstration on a digital piano of Art Tatum recreating a concert. Hank and I picked up our discussion from there. “The first time I heard Art Tatum I really thought there were two pianists,” he said. “One guy could not play like that. He had to have help. When I found out otherwise, then I really was impressed.” He was 20 at the time and already he was accompanying singers in and around his native Pontiac, Michigan.

Jones’ father, a minister, was dead set against jazz, pronouncing it the Devil’s music. That unfortunate sobriquet was well on its way to becoming cliché. “He may have been right,” he said with a guffaw. “He came around, accepting jazz as a form of music, although he never allowed it in church. He was not wrong about that either. Sometimes religious music should be the only form of music in church. But more and more you’re hearing jazz and other music there.”

So it certainly wasn’t in church, or even at home that Hank first heard jazz. “There was nothing much happening in Pontiac so you had to go Detroit. It was at the Greystone Ballroom,” he remembered. “All the bands came through there. That’s where I first heard Louis Armstrong. There was an amusement area around Walled Lake which had an amphitheatre where some bands played.” But one time in Pontiac I did hear Eddie Cole’s big band which had his brother, Nat, at the piano. On one of the tunes, I think it was “Tea For Two,” there was a part where he would roll his hand and hit one note repeatedly. It was great visually. That’s about the only thing I can say about Pontiac, musically.”

The other two Jones brothers did not play in their father’s church. “They played in Detroit’s Blue Bird club. In the house band there were Billy Mitchell and Tommy Flanagan. It was a stop over for the guys from New York: J.J. Johnson, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker. Thad and Elvin worked in the house band there too.”

By the time his brothers came along Hank had already been in New York for some five years. (He’s roughly ten and fifteen years older than Thad & Elvin, respectively; there were other Jones kids in between.) “My mother used to have to go to work. On the way home she’d stop to buy some records for us to listen to. After making a miserable wage.” Being the oldest, Hank would stay home to watch the kids. “I remember carrying Elvin around in my arms. Not much later he could carry me around in his arms.” It was Elvin who took after Jones pere, “My father played some bluesy guitar and that’s what Elvin initially took up.” Thad, on the other hand, came to cornet via the hand-me down track. “Cornet-playing Uncle Bill [Jones] whom he admired, gave him one when Uncle Bill decided tennis was more his thing.”

Elvin decided on drums when he was in the Army and heard Buddy Rich. . Hank: “We were on a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour and we passed through Cleveland where Elvin was stationed. Now, Elvin didn’t play like Buddy, no more than Thad wrote like Duke Ellington. It was inspiration. And each went on to create his own style.”

Both Elvin and Thad were strong of body. Thad was quite the gentle man, but Elvin could hurt you. “If you met Elvin for the first time and he hugs you you’d best break away as soon as you’re able because you might not be when he’s finished with you,” Hank warned. Tenor saxist Zoot Sims didn’t break away in time and suffered a couple of cracked ribs from an Elvin hug. I knew of that love trap so after a set at a Finnish night club I came at him from the side. He grabbed me anyhow and the whiplash caused me to lose my breath. Gasping out a distress call to Keiko, his wife, who managed to break us up like a ref at a prize fight, I hobbled away. Interestingly, Buddy Rich and his big band were the closing act on the bill. A photo of the three of us plus Buddy’s manager Stanley Kay remains in my collection.

Like Elvin who never emulated anyone let alone Rich, Hank also had his idols. Like Tatum. “I never played anyone’s solos just as they had,” Hank said emphatically. “There are those players who do. For me it’s the style which is important. If you play in the same idiom you can do things that are similar. The whole idea of improvisation is to induce some creativity. If there’s no creativity there’s no improvisation, and vice versa.”

While Tatum was classically trained, Hank was considerably less so. But Hank played a Baroque-cum-Classical period instrument. On two memorable occasions he switched to the harpsichord, one was with the second edition of Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five and the second on an album arranged and conducted by Oliver Neslon called “Happenings,” a ‘60s title if ever there was one. Its unique sound is obtained by plucking the strings rather than striking them. In the original Gramercy Five, it was played by Johnny Guarnieri. A scion of Italy’s second family of string instruments artisans, I had heard that he was disowned by the family when they found out he was in America not to craft more violins, but to play jazz. Or that could be apocryphal. Hank clearly remembered that the Gramercy Five harpsichord was acoustic. On the Nelson recording he used an electronically induced instrument. “In any case, it was Oliver’s idea; he just wanted that sound.”

More to the classical point, some decades ago I asked him why he used a particular phrase which I remembered as having come from either Stravinsky or Prokofiev. I deedle-dee-deed it for him. His reply: “Am I still doing that?” My answer decades later: “Yes, you are.” Hank: “You know if the composer was alive he would probably approve so long as it’s the proper harmonic sequence.” Quotes are always appropriate and are as old as the music itself. Dexter Gordon did it so often that I thought his auto-bio might have been entitled “And Then I Quote.” Hank remembered that he did a recording with Artie Shaw which was “quotes and nothing but quotes.

“Artie was quite the intellectual,” Hank continued. “Like Tatum and Bird he could be conversant on any topic: current events, politics, sports, history, religion, philosophy. I asked him once why he got married so many times. [N.B.: Between playboy Tommy Manville, actor Mickey Rooney and Shaw there wasn’t a legsome beauty left for anyone else.] He said that it’s a moral issue. ‘It’s better to marry ten times than to marry once and have nine affairs.’”

Shaw was a perfectionist, and as such he had one of his more embarrassing moments. Composer Norman Della Jolla had composed a piece for him which he was to perform live at Bop City in New York with a 40-piece orchestra from Juilliard. Hank finished the story: “It was a difficult clarinet piece and Artie had to stop the orchestra three times. The notes just would not come out. The result was that it never got played.” You could see the pain in Hank’s face as he related the incident and he let out a sigh.

While on the topic of bandleaders, inevitably the conversation turned to the late 20th century’s greatest jazz big band: the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra. Thad had once told me that Hank was the pianist object of his desire. Hank demurred. “Roland Hanna,” was Hank’s emphatic replay. Then why was Hank on that premiere Solid State recording? “He was my brother, that’s all. I didn’t play any better than Roland.” Roland Hanna, also a Detroiter, was, indeed, the perfect piano interpreter for Thad’s music. Every pianist in that band followed his mold. “When someone is the first of anything you tend to want to follow, especially something as ground-breaking as that band became,” Hank noted.

That was 1964 and Hank was working for the CBS network in New York. In those days every network had a working band. Radio and television were live and even when it went to tape the bands played on. As a matter of fact, it was the Tonight Show band which sprung the TJ/MLJO. When they shut down in NYC, gloom and doom was forecast. “Hey, we’re big band people,” Mel admonished Thad. “Let’s form our own band.” Shades of Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.

“It was difficult for me to join them,” Hank lamented. “It was very difficult to fit them in to my schedule. I didn’t want to miss too many days [at CBS]. Those guys got off at 2 o’clock in the morning. If I had a 9 o’clock rehearsal I didn’t get any sleep. I had to drive back to and in from my Cresskill, NJ home; there was always a traffic jam so I had to leave two hours before that.”

The CBS stable of musicians included fellow pianist Dick Hyman, who was with Arthur Godfrey and the bands of Ray Block for Ed Sullivan and Archie Bleyer for Godfrey. “Ray Block was always listening to the ballgame so he would have his thumbs up against his headphones conducting with his pinkies.” Hank demonstrated. He looked like a moose.

CBS was light years from the chittlin’ circuit of Hank’s early years. “We did the South: Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, the Carolinas, segregated hotels, if there was one, more likely the bus, water fountains, toilets, restaurants, everything you see in the documentaries,” Hank painfully remembered. But there was humor. “We went to Paris later and found that they were serving chittlins at the finest places -- are you ready for this -- at a premium. And you had to order them in advance. Of course, they were vacuumed out.” We laughed. It became the running gag for the rest of the afternoon. I promised Hank I wouldn’t use the scatological term for what was inside those porcine intestines, but in French it’s merde. “You couldn’t pay me to eat that stuff, but [trombonist/vibist] Tyree Glenn loved it,” Hank said. “We were doing a telethon, seven hours. We got off at five in the morning. When we got to my home my wife, who doesn’t eat it either, made him a bowl this big.” [There was at least eight inches simulating a circle between his thumbs and forefingers of both hands] “He ate it all with gusto. It was difficult to watch.”

We were having so much fun with the chittlins episode that we forgot about the tour story. Meanwhile, back on that Southern tour, “We were doing one-nighters, 35 days, no days off, and if we got one it was to do laundry with the hopes that we’d get it back in time for the bus to leave. The instruments I had to play on were suspect at best: keys missing, ivory that would cut up your hands, keys that wouldn’t come up, or down, action gone completely, and sometimes so out of tune…how out of tune? It was on that tour that I learned how to transpose. After a few days I said to myself, ‘Henry. You’ve learned a valuable lesson here, never do this again!’”

It’s one thing for the physical hardships to affect your performance, but it gets worse. Everything was segregated in 1954. Only San Antonio wasn’t. “We had our bags lined up on a train platform which was street level. Along comes some guy in a pick-up truck and runs over our bags, on purpose. That did not make any of the guys very happy.” And not being able to do anything about it didn’t make them any happier. Therein lays the psychology and morale issues of the segregated south. “And if you’re in your car you’re pulled over for ‘DWB, driving while black.’ The other guys drank a lot, mostly to escape I imagine. That stop in San Antonio, though, was a welcome respite.”

Then there were the other kinds of tours, the ones led by Norman Granz of JATP fame. Hank: “Norman treated us well and stood up for us. Once he pulled us out of a concert because the audience was segregated. Paid us too.” Some bandleaders like Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey also tried. And let us not leave out Benny Goodman, the man who, with John Hammond helped integrate jazz on a grand scale.

Hank played with Benny off and on for some time. A BG story from Hank: “We’re sitting in a dressing room after having finished a gig in Alaska. Noticing my new coat Benny says, ‘Hey. What a nice coat. Mind if I try it on?’ Remember now we’re in Alaska. ‘Sure go ahead,’ I replied.’ He wore my coat back to the hotel while I froze. I didn’t get it back until the next day on our way to the airport.” I suggested that so many of us had similar experiences with Benny and I suggested to Hank that the incident was more forgetfulness rather than purposeful. “I sure would like to believe that,” he replied, but he did not seem placated.

Hank replaced Prof. Mel Powell in the BG band and groups. “He wanted me to play like Teddy Wilson as Powell did,” Hank said. Wilson was the pianist who along with Lionel Hampton on vibes integrated the small groups and later the big band. “I tried, but it wasn’t me. I remained true to my style.”

The topic turned to segregation in the movies. Lena Horne was turned down for the part of Julie in Showboat, even though the movie put a spotlight on miscegenation laws. I asked if he could imagine what would have happened if Lena was in that role and she kissed Robert Sterling, who played her husband? “We might still be hearing the reverberations,” he said. It doesn’t end in the south. Hank related an incident of not being served in a diner in Jackson, MI. “The owner paid a hefty fine rather than serve blacks,” he recounted.

As the topic turned to African-Americans in the mainstream we found ourselves talking baseball. Hank’s home is in Hartwick, NY a fast ball on the corner from the Hall of Fame. A former Brooklyn Dodger fan, he now roots for the New York Mets. (We share both of those afflictions.) “I got to see Jackie Robinson play when he was with the Kansas City Monarchs. There was a shortstop named Willie Wells; he used to play with the Chicago American Giants. I frequently saw him play opposite the (Pontiac) Michigan Giants. He has a vacuum cleaner. Nothing got by him and no one reached if the ball was anywhere near Willie. I only got to see the other Negro Leagues teams when they came through Pontiac.”

Regrets: “Funny you should ask. I wrote a tune called ‘No Regrets’ [not the Phoebe Snow hit]. I regret that I didn’t know Tatum for a longer period of time. I wish I’d known him sooner. I might have gone in another direction. I might have picked his brain. Would he have let me? That’s arguable.” I mentioned that I had heard that sometimes he covered his hands with a towel so as not to let anyone cop his style. “Perhaps,” was Hank’s reply. “But it was a pretty towel. Seriously, I spoke to him many times and I never saw him put a towel over his hands. How could anyone copy him? He was so fast. You couldn’t learn anything from watching him, but you could learn from listening to him.

While Tatum never changed his style, sometimes style evolution can be part of the essence of jazz. In 1944, Hank played the Village Vanguard with Oran “Hot Lips” Page, “and I was playing boogie-woogie, would you believe? That’s what was going around then so I played it. It was always natural for me to be a two-handed pianist [anyhow]. There was a two-handed piano player who never much left Detroit named Lonnie Scott. If there was anyone who could rival Tatum this was the guy. Another was Nat ‘King’ Cole. I went up to Andy Kirk’s house for something and I heard this piano from the other room. I thought, ‘My God Tatum is in there.’ Turned out to be Nat.”

Our long afternoon ended abruptly when three Japanese journalists/fans walked in to greet Hank. As will this.

July 30, 2008 · 3 comments


In Conversation with Johnny Griffin

By Ted Panken

Can you recall your impressions when you arrived in New York for the first time in 1945 with Lionel Hampton?

I remember coming out of the subway on St. Nicholas and 125th Street with Lamar Wright, Junior, and looking at Harlem, and saying, “Is this New York?” Being from Chicago, there was always this competition—so the Chicagoans would have you believe—between New York and Chicago. Actually I was not impressed; I hadn't been in mid-Manhattan where all the tall buildings were. That was like my first day of riding the train forever, and I was tired, and all I wanted to do was go to bed.

                  Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Do you recall where the gig was?

I think we came in and played a ballroom. Not the Savoy; this was a one-nighter. Not the Amsterdam Ballroom. Oh my God, I forgot where. Anyway, I remember going to this ballroom to play, and George Hart, who was later Hamp’s road manager, was on the door and wouldn't let me in.

He said, “Kid, where you goin' with that horn?” I had this old Conn in this raggedy tenor case. They wouldn't let me in until some of the trombone players came in. They said, “Johnny, what are you doing standing out here?” I said, “Well, these people don't believe I'm in the band.” I was 17 years old, about 4-feet-10, and weighed about 75 pounds. I guess they thought I was just trying to hustle my way into this dance. Finally the trombone player said, “No, George, he's with the band.”

Was this just after you'd joined Lionel Hampton?

Yes. This must have been in July, 1945.

And you joined Hampton right after graduating DuSable High School.


There's a funny story about your first gig. You had thought that you were hired to play alto saxophone, and were quickly disabused of that notion.

Right. Well, I was playing alto like a tenor anyway, you know. What happened was, I had graduated on a Thursday, and Hamp started that week at the Regal Theater in Chicago on that Friday. The late Jay Peters, the tenor saxophonist who had been hired to play in the band a few months earlier, had to go into the military service. Then Hamp remembered me because he had come by my high school, and had a jam session in the school assembly or something—so he asked for me. They found me on Sunday, and I went down and played a few tunes with the band with my alto. On the following Friday they went to the RKO Theatre in Toledo, Ohio.

No one said anything to me about I was going to replace a tenor saxophone player, because Maurice Simon or one of his brothers was playing saxophone in the band then. I had no idea what was to transpire, until I was walking on stage in Toledo, and Gladys Hampton stopped me. She used to call me Junior. She said, “Junior, where you going with that alto?” I said, “What do you mean?” She said, “Well, you're playing tenor in this band.” “What?” So I immediately caught a train back to Chicago. It was hard to come by a saxophone in those days, as the war was still going on, and they were making bullets and guns instead of musical instruments with the metal. I found an old saxophone and rejoined the band two days later.

When did you first get a chance to hang out a little bit in New York City?

Oh, I started hanging out as soon as I woke up that evening. At that time, New York was awash with after-hour joints. The hotel I stayed in was the Braddock Hotel, and in that hotel was the Billy Eckstine Big Band, the Count Basie Band, Lionel Hampton's Band, and other musicians. The Braddock was right on the corner of 126th Street and 8th Avenue, and backstage of the Apollo Theatre was right up the street between 8th and 7th. The Braddock bar was downstairs, and all the famous musicians of the day would come and hang out and drink. Just standing around that corner you could pick up two or three big bands any time.

Do you remember hearing any music that night?

I have no idea where I went. In those days I was drinking, at my young age. It could have been the Baby Grand around the corner, or... I really don't know where I went that particular night.

Do you remember when you first went to 52nd Street?

It could have been that night. I was in a rush to get down to 52nd Street, because I knew Dizzy was down there.

Now, I take it you were up on the latest trends in the music at that time.

Well, the latest trends being Charlie Parker. Yeah, as much as possible. I had seen the Billy Eckstine Big Band come through Chicago in '44, and that was most fantastic thing I had ever witnessed. Of course, I was in love with Duke Ellington's band and Count Basie's band and Jimmie Lunceford's band. But at the time, I thought that the Billy Eckstine band was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me.

When you were slightly younger, did you have a chance to see the edition of the Earl Hines Orchestra that had Bird and Diz in it?

I don't think I saw that band.

I know they played in Chicago.

I went down there, but I wasn't aware that they were... I don't think I went down there. Now, they worked in the Beige Room in the El Grotto at that time. You see, when I was a kid, 15 years old, I played with T-Bone Walker, the famous blues guitarist. His brother had a big band, and I would play off-nights at the Club DeLisa, the Rhumboogie, and the El Grotto, which later on turned into the Beige Room, which was in the Pershing Hotel.

On Cottage Grove and 64th, was that?

Exactly. It was where Ahmad Jamal later on, fifteen years later, made his records. But he did his band upstairs, in the lounge. I really didn't know about Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines band at that time. Now, I had gone down into that room, even underage. Billie Holiday sang in that room, and I never saw her down there either.

So your first memory of hearing Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker was around 1944 with the Billy Eckstine Big Band.

Right. I heard Bird on some Jay McShann records before that, and I had heard Dizzy on some records with Coleman Hawkins, when they did “Woody 'n You,” which they called “Algo Bueno.” Now, Billy Eckstine was very popular, of course, as a singer, as a balladeer. But to witness that big band in full flight, playing the new music like that, was quite a shock and very refreshing.

Were you trying to implement these ideas in your own playing at the age of 16 and 17 in high school?

Oh yes. Well, as soon as I heard Bird, that turned me around. Well, I was following in the footsteps of Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges (I still have some of that in me anyway), and then, of course, the late, great Lester Young. But Ben Webster was actually my first influence, although it was hearing Gene Ammons play tenor saxophone that caused me to want to play tenor saxophone.

What did your teacher, the famous Captain Walter Dyett, think of the new thing that Charlie Parker was doing? Do you ever recollect him saying anything about it?

I never heard him say one way or another. But he was the type of bandmaster that, any good music that came out, he would transcribe it off records, and he would have the band at school—the dance orchestra or stage band, whatever you called it—play whatever is there. But at that time, we certainly didn't have any Billy Eckstine arrangements. [At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Bud Powell, “Tempus Fugit,” Elmo Hope, “Happy Hour,” Monk, “Ask Me Now,” Elmo Hope, “Carvin' the Rock”]

Let's jump forward a few years. Under what circumstances did you first encounter Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell?

It was actually through Elmo Hope. Joe Morris and I had formed a band after leaving Lionel Hampton's band in 1947—I think May or June. First we organized a sextet with musicians from Chicago. Joe Morris played trumpet, of course, and George Freeman, who is the uncle of Chico Freeman, and Von Freeman’s brother, played guitar. That group lasted from '47 to '48. Then we reorganized. We were walking around Harlem one day, and we ran into Benny Harris, the trumpeter, and we were saying that we needed a pianist. He said, “Well, I've got just the pianist for you.” It turned out to be Elmo Hope, who was of small stature, but a very brilliant if erratic-at-times pianist. It was through Elmo that I met Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. They were like a trio, inseparable, always together. Somehow or another, they adopted me. When I say “adopted,” I was around them, from piano to piano, from house to house, daily, from '48 to '50.

This was sort of a postgraduate education for you.

That's exactly what it was. It was a very important part of my life. They still are important. They seemed to enjoy me, for some reason. I have no idea why, other than the fact that I had a little knowledge of the piano, so I could see what they were doing, and if I didn't understand what was happening, I wouldn't be afraid to ask, “What is that?” The three of them were masters in their own right. I heard Elmo and Bud Powell play piano duets, playing Preludes and fugues of Bach. They put on a program of Christmas music one year in the Bronx, at a club (oh Jesus, it's so long ago, I can't remember the name of this club—possibly the 845), for two pianos, and it was fabulous! It was really a trio, although during those days I didn't hear Monk play that much. Elmo and Bud were always playing when you'd go to different homes—they didn't seem to have a piano, of course. Other cats would play. Walter Bishop, Jr., would be around sometimes, too.

But I got a chance to hear Monk play mainly at his home, where he would be rehearsing Ernie Henry and other musicians in his band—I can’t remember the rest of them—for certain gigs in Brooklyn..

                  Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you playing with Monk at all then?

No, I didn't play with him at all during that time. I did play with Bud at somebody's house party. Of course, Elmo was working with the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band at that time.

Did you start to learn Thelonious Monk's compositions at that time, and Bud Powell's compositions?

Bud Powell's, but not Thelonious’. I didn't start learning Thelonious’ compositions until after I came out of the Army at the end of 1953. Monk came to Chicago. I wasn’t working then, and was at home, looking at television or something, when either Wilbur Ware or Wilbur Campbell called and said, “Johnny, come on over to the Beehive. Thelonious is in town, and we need a saxophone player.” So I immediately put on some clothes and ran over there, and jumped right into Monk's music. No rehearsals.

That must have been exciting.

Very, if you know Monk's music. Very exciting. I admire Thelonious more than any other musician that I have been around, in a way, really in my life. He always walked around looking like Jomo Kenyatta and people were afraid of him. But behind that facade was a real humorist, as if you listen to his music you can hear. Monk wasn't a person to speak very much. He could be quiet for a half-an-hour or twenty minutes at a stretch, and all the other musicians yakkety-yak and running off at the mouth, and Monk would enter the conversation and say about four words, and destroy everything that had been going on for the past hour—totally. He would total everyone with three or four words. That's the type of person he was. He used space as he did in his playing and his composition.

Later on, whilst playing with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in 1957, I was staying in Art Blakey’s home. In fact, I helped him move from the Bronx down to Manhattan. Now, Monk and Art Blakey were very, very close friends. Monk would come around the band, and Art Blakey was trying to get Monk to play piano in his band. This was at the same time Monk was working in the Five Spot with Coltrane and Shadow Wilson and Wilbur Ware. We even had a date on Atlantic with Monk playing piano.

Then the following year I played with Thelonious; he was trying to get Art Blakey to play in his band, although he had Roy Haynes playing drums and Ahmad-Abdul Malik playing bass.

But after these gigs were over at night, we'd go hang out at either my pad or Art Blakey's pad, or Thelonious'... Well, not so much at Thelonious', because he had a very small place, and we wouldn’t wake Nellie up. But Buhaina had a large place, and I lived alone, so it could end up anywhere. And the conversations would be torrid—about many different subjects, of course.

Can you say a few words about your relationship with Bud Powell?

Well, you see, Bud was a sick man. He had been injured by being in hospitals, and he had been beaten and had these electric shock treatments. So he was erratic, until he sat down to the piano to play, and then it all left, and he was the burner. I can still feel it. You will always feel it as long as you have recordings of him playing his music. Bud Powell was the Nth degree of a burning pianist. When I say “burning,” I mean the emotional content of fire. Volcanic, the way he played it. I consider him as a thumper. His touch on the piano was more of a thump than a touch, because he was very percussive, and you could feel the emotion in his lines and his solos, or even in his compositions. Very percussive. He was very strong, spontaneous, always fresh with so much strength. Yet still he could play a ballad, you know, completely on the other side of the coin, which would leave you breathless.

Elmo Hope had less recognition than Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. But you knew him very well.

Yeah, it's funny. They were like twins. I remember once I was at Elmo's house, and Bud's mother called up Elmo's mother to tell Elmo that Bud had just gotten out of the hospital, and “Please, Mrs. Hope, would you tell Elmo to let Bud get himself back together?” Elmo was like the ringleader, being a semi-devil's advocate of whatever was happening on the scene in those days. But before she even got off the telephone, Bud was about to break the door down at Elmo's house, screaming, “Elmo, it's Bud! Let me in. It's Bud. I'm back.” So there was no separating these two musicians.

[At this point in the radio interview, Griffin played the following recordings: Ben Webster, “Chelsea Bridge,” Johnny Hodges, “Passion Flower”; Lester Young “D.B. Blues”, Bird, “Ko-Ko”]

Ben Webster and Johnny Hodges, two of the pillars of the Ellington band, were two of your great influences.

Very much. “Chelsea Bridge” doesn’t have the tempo Ben Webster put on, say, “Cottontail,” which was made famous with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, when Ben was playing rough—this was a very tender ballad, of course. But if you notice the closeness of Ben Webster’s style of expression vis-a-vis Johnny Hodges. Their styles were so similar, except one was playing tenor and one was playing alto. Johnny Hodges was from the Boston area and Ben Webster was from Kansas City.

Which is funny, because after Johnny Hodges had died, I was with Ben Webster, and I took him to the Selmer Instrument Company in Paris. I thought he wanted to have something done to his tenor saxophone, but he wanted to buy an alto saxophone. Actually, he wanted them to give him an alto saxophone, which they did. When I was taking him back to his hotel, I said, “I know why you got that alto saxophone.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “You got it because you want to sound just like Rabbit.” That's what they called Johnny Hodges, because he looked like a rabbit, no expression on his face while he's playing all this beautiful music. Of course, Ben Webster looked at me and said, “Why you little-bitty” deleted expletive. . . . I can't say the dirty words that he used to call me—fondly, of course.

             Johnny Griffin, by Jos L. Knaepen

Were you emulating Johnny Hodges as a young alto saxophonist?

Yes, I was. Playing ballads. But if I played something in tempo, I'd be more like a rough Ben Webster, growling with the alto, not unlike an Earl Bostic sound, but trying to sound more like Ben Webster. I was really playing alto very hard. Seeing Gene Ammons play when I was about 12 years old made me decide right then that I wanted to play tenor saxophone. It was a graduation party for my grammar school, and Jug was playing with the King Kolax Band at the Parkway Ballroom. That started my voyage.

How old were you when you started going out to hear music regularly in Chicago?

When was I going out to hear it? As soon as they would let me go into any place, so that I could sneak in. I was playing with people, working when I was 14 or 15 years old, as soon as I could get in the Musicians Union. I lied about my birthdate.

You were at DuSable High School then, where the famous Walter Dyett was bandmaster. Did he facilitate that?

No, he had nothing to do with it. A group of us youngsters at DuSable had put together a band called the Baby Band, whch played dances for the kids in school—not in the school, but in the ballrooms where the big bands that came to Chicago would play. So this promoter had the brilliant idea of putting up a big poster of me—I mean three times life-size—on the school store, which was right across the street from the band-room. You'd look out of the third-floor band-room window and see this poster. I was playing clarinet... No, I think I was playing oboe in the concert band.

I happened to come to school, and the Captain had seen the sign down there. Now, he had his own professional band, also with a few students, called the DuSableites, and sometimes his bands would be in competition for gigs. Well, not really. But anyway, when he saw this photo, this huge publicity sign on me. . . . Well, when I came to school he told all the students—there were like 115 pieces—to go to the window and look out at the star, the musical star that's gracing the walls of the school store—this picture of me. He invited them all to sit down, and then he invited me to play my part on something, I don't know; it was probably Ravel's “Bolero” or something—that's why I was playing oboe anyway. I hadn’t practiced right, and I was embarrassed. He completely undressed me in front of the band, to give me some humility and to make me practice and, you know. . . . But Captain Dyett was a wonderful man. As he was to all the kids. . . . Well, he taught Nat Cole, Gene Ammons, Pat Patrick, John Gilmore, Von Freeman, Bennie Green, the trombonist, Charles Davis, the saxophonist, Clifford Jordan. . . .

We could spend an hour listing the musicians.

Yeah, really. Chicago was a saxophone town. I mean, there were a lot of blues guitarists there, of course—T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, Memphis Slim, Muddy Waters. But for jazz, it was really a saxophone town. Later it was an organ town, too. Most of the saxophonists tried to emulate the late Lester Young. Everybody knew Prez's solos by heart. That was the main direction. We Chicago musicians played the music not of New Orleans, but the music that was emanating from Kansas City. That was the style. The Basie band.

Did you hear that on records? Was Basie coming through town?

The Basie band all the time, because they were traversing all of the states—as was Duke's band and Jimmie Lunceford's band and other bands. But a lot of territory bands would also come, like Alex Larkin's band. Some would come from Texas, other bands from Oklahoma or Nebraska, and they would go no further east than Chicago. Chicago was the hub, as it still is, with the railroad system, and as O'Hare is as an airline hub. Some bands came to Chicago from the East, though not that many, and that's as far West as they would go. But it was mainly the bands coming from Texas, musicians coming up from New Orleans and Memphis, St. Louis, Indianapolis, and out west from Denver, from Omaha and Kansas City.

Kansas City was like the center of that Basie-type music, Walter Brown singing the blues with Jay McShann, the Jimmy Rushing-Joe Turner blues singing type. So the young saxophonists, most of whom were tenor saxophone players, opted after Prez's music—the swing! To show you the difference in this music coming from Kansas City. . .. You’d associate Ben Webster’s sound with the Duke Ellington Orchestra more than you would, say, with Count Basie's band. Which is funny, because Ben told me at my house one day (I had him in my house for about a week) how as a young man he studied music under Prez’s father. Lester Young (when I say Prez, I mean Lester Young) used to take Ben Webster on his gigs as a pianist, because he liked the way Ben Webster comped. Ben could play stride on the piano. He liked that sound.

To me, Lester Young was the trunk of the swing tree. By that, I mean (it might be a bit strong) no Prez, no Bird. Basie's band was originally more or less built around Lester Young and Herschel Evans, who was the other tenor saxophonist in that band. Prez and Herschel were very good friends, but the styles were completely different. Prez had a fleet, light filmy type sound, while Herschel Evans had a great big sound. I’d associate Herschel Evans’ style of playing with the way Arnett Cobb played, even Illinois Jacquet—although I think Jacquet had a touch of Don Byas in him also. But it was not like Ben Webster. It was completely different. Another approach. You would have to hear these records one by one to really tell the difference.

To me, Don Byas was the world's greatest tenor saxophone player. I call him the Art Tatum of the tenor saxophone, because he used some of the harmonic progressions that Tatum used when improvising. Don Byas had a big, warm sound, and enough technique to do whatever he wanted to do. He could play beautiful ballads, and he could play as fast as you want. He was not a bebop tenor saxophonist, but he could play with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. He played in a style between Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, like Paul Gonsalves, very smooth, but strong.

The first time I heard Charlie Parker was on a Jay McShann record that my cousin had bought, not to hear Charlie Parker but to hear Walter Brown sing the blues—the “Hootie Blues.” I was a kid, maybe 13 years old, and I loved the way Walter Brown sang the blues. Joe Turner also, and Jimmy Rushing. I loved the Kansas City blues. This alto saxophone player started to play, and it stopped me dead in my tracks. I rushed over to the machine, and started the whole thing all over. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, because I'm interrupting the dancing. But I had to hear this over, because I couldn't figure out who that was playing alto saxophone. First I thought it was Prez, and then I realized it’s an alto and Prez doesn't phrase that way—although there was something there, that type swing, that I had gotten from Prez. It was Charlie Parker. His record, “Ko-Ko,” was my music lesson for years.

You recorded “Cherokee” twice in the 1950's.

That tune was like the standard bearer for the jam session. When Sonny Stitt would come in town to challenge all of the saxophone players, he was. . . Now, Sonny Stitt was the devil. I don't mean literally that he was the devil—he was, like, the heckler. He lived in Michigan—Saginaw, I think—and he'd come to Chicago to disturb the saxophone players there. Even later on in New York, he would come in my room and say, “Johnny, play me something.” So I would play something on my horn.” He'd say, “Okay, now give me the horn.” Of course, Sonny Stitt was the master of his horn. He could play every modern cliché ever invented by Bird or Dizzy or whomever, and I would just pull my hair out by the roots to be able to do what he was doing. He would have made a helluva professor of music.

They say he would challenge musicians with how many pads there were on the saxophones. . . .

Oh, yeah! He would get very academic on you; you know, how many keys on a saxophone. And who in the hell would take time to count the keys? It's enough to play them without counting them! But he was like that. Or what's the notes in this scale or that scale. But he made me practice more than anyone else. Because it was my desire to be able to invite him on the bandstand to play with me, without being humiliated by his talent and the genius of what he was doing.

These type of sessions were very common in Chicago in the 1950's.

Oh, it was. Sonny Rollins used to come into Chicago to woodshed, especially to come in and woodshed with Wilbur Ware and Ike Day.

Ike Day was a little, thin, almost purple guy, he must have been about 5-feet-7-or-8, very thin and wiry. I mean, he was so bad on the drums that he set up two drums in this club in Chicago called the Macombo, and then any other drummer could come and sit in. Buddy Rich came in and saw this, and he couldn't believe it. He took him out of this joint on the South Side of Chicago to play in his big band at the College Inn in the Loop, which was a hotel where they didn't even want black people. That's how bad he was.

I think Ike came to New York around 1947 or '48, with Slim Gaillard, and immediately went to Minton's and tore the joint out.

Can you describe his sound was like?

From what I can recollect, his sound would be more like a Philly Joe Jones type, which in the beginning I found was like a cross between Max Roach and Art Blakey. I mean, that's not completely true, because there's a lot of Cozy Cole in Philly's playing, too. But Ike could do anything. He was a showman, but everything was really swinging at all times without turning into a visual circus. It was amazing the way he could play.

And you must have been backed by him on any number of occasions.

Yes. Well, what happened was, at one point, when the Joe Morris-Johnny Griffin band was in Ohio, Philly Joe Jones quit, and we needed a bass player and a drummer. I called Chicago, and Ike and Wilbur came and joined the band for a while. That was my first experience to actually get to know them. However, I had sat in with them at a jam session in Chicago, at the end of 1946 or early '47, in between the two times I played with Hamp's band. They were working with Gene Ammons at a club called the Congo, along with Gail Brockman, the trumpetist.

Your association with Wilbur Ware continued many years.

Many, many years. Now, Wilbur could play drums, too. I heard that he and Ike used to play on the street corners of Chicago. Ike would set up his pots and pans and stuff, and Wilbur had a 2-by-4 with him, a washtub with a clothesline bass—they'd get out there and make money on the street-corner.

He was also a tap dancer, wasn't he?

Exactly. Wilbur was very percussive. As you can hear in his bass playing.

Chicago had clubs just all over the place in the 1950's. From what I hear, you could just go anywhere and play, and there was a very supportive situation for young musicians.

Yes, there were many clubs there. Of course, at the time I came up, a lot of musicians were in the Armed Services, because World War Two was going on. So there were opportunities for younger musicians. Like I said, I was playing with T-Bone Walker's brother's big band on the off-nights in these Chicago nightclubs. Chicago was wide open. As I said, many musicians were always in Chicago, coming from all over America. When the big bands would come to town, there were jam sessions; Ben Webster and other musicians would go out and blow after-hours. Well, it really didn't have to be after-hours, because Chicago was a 24-hour town anyway. But there were many clubs in New York also at this time. There were many clubs in Detroit. Many clubs in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia used to be like my second home. If I wasn't doing anything in New York during that period, sometimes Elmo and I would go there with Jackie Paris' brother, an Italian singer, who had a little old car. He would drive us, and we would stay in Philly Joe Jones' house to go and jam with Coltrane. Trane was then an alto saxophone player. Jimmy Heath was playing baritone. Philadelphia was wide-open, except on Sundays—because they had that Blue Law. But the rest of the week, Philly was wailin’! It reminded me so much of Chicago, the way the residential areas were set up. It’s so close to New York, only an hour and change away by train, so driving there was nothing.

I was with The Joe Morris band was playing a club in Philadelphia called the Zanzibar with our Chicago sextet with George Freeman the first time I heard Philly Joe. Our drummer at the time was Embra Daylie, who had been in World War Two, and had been injured in the war in the Pacific, so he had a respiratory problem. During intermission, I had gone out, and when I came back, I was informed that they had taken him to the hospital because of respiratory problems. “Don't worry,” they said. “We have this drummer who is going to sit in.” We started playing, and I thought this guy was awful. I said, “Now, listen, wait a minute. We've got to get somebody else. . . .”

Philly was so conscientious. I used to watch Philly Joe and Joe Harris, the drummer who played with Dizzy's big band, practice all day long, really go through all the drum books of the day and practice getting control. They wouldn't practice on the regular, hard rubber drum pads like you find most drummers do. They would practice on soft pillow cushions on the bed, so that they would have to bring the stick back up with their wrists, which gave them that ultimate in control—which really did them well.

To me, Philly Joe was the greatest, most exciting drummer that I have ever been around in my life. Now, I played with Art Blakey, who was one of the most explosive. . . . like you're riding on a train with him. Buhaina when he's really bearing down is really something else. I played with Max Roach—the sheer tenacity and knowledge that Max could put into intricate drumming. Roy Haynes also. The swing of Arthur Taylor. Now, there's a drummer. I don't know any drummer that could swing any more than Arthur Taylor. I mean, Arthur Taylor to me is like a cross between Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones, in a way, with some Max Roach thrown in there.

But Philly Joe was the ultimate, like Ali Baba in the Forty Thieves or “Open, oh, sesame. . . .” We used to play these Monday nights in Birdland, and had, like, Charlie Persip, who is a helluva drummer, known mostly for playing with big bands, but he had a small group then, and Max Roach and all these cats would play some drum solos that were outlandish. But Joe was a magician. I'd look at him and think, “Now, what is he going to do?” But just when I thought I knew everything he could do, he'd find something else to do. I'd see him during the day walking around in his sneakers and stuff (I don't know what he was into), looking almost like Pete the Tramp. But then in the evening, when I opened up in Birdland, if I was playing with another group, when I'd walk on the stage there he’d be sitting right at the first table dressed up, looking like he'd stepped out of Esquire magazine—up tight, baby, too sharp! Over-charming. Unbelievable. Philly Joe Jones.

[At this point, Griffin played the following recordings: Philly Joe Jones, “Blues For Dracula”; Gene Ammons, “Nature Boy”; Dexter Gordon-Wardell Gray, “Move”]

This interview was conducted by Ted Panken on April 18, 1990 at WKCR. For more background information on this interview, see Panken's related blog article.

July 28, 2008 · 3 comments


The Music of the Tango

by Ted Gioia

Below is part one of Ted Gioia's survey of tango music. For part two, click here. See also Gioia's related Dozens feature on "Twelve Essential Tango Recordings," and Karen Kucharski's gallery of tango-inspired art.

The tango moves in a rarefied air. We have come to expect an earthy naturalism from the assorted genres of what we call, clumsily, "world music." But the tango holds stubbornly on to a haughty elitism. Its sensuality, like that of all great beauties, does not disdain the assistance of artifice and posturing. It casts a wary eye at naturalism. After all, one only says of the embalmed corpse, "Doesn't he look natural." And the tango is far too alive to accept such dubious compliments.

                                    Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

It is a music of extremes. One expects nothing less from an art form born of the brothel but destined for the loftiest palaces. The words of the famous tango "El Choclo," describing the origin of the tango, tells of this child of the "sordid mud" which yet came into life "searching for the sky,"—indeed the two blending, the song reminds us, much as one can see the reflection of the moon in the waters of a stagnant puddle. One hears the paradox in its notes: its harmonies which move dramatically from the major to the minor; its melodies which build lethargically in careful steps and half-steps, then leap to unexpected, yearning precipices. Its movements on the dance floor capture the same contradiction, combining the most abstract formalism with a bold personal intimacy.

Like so many other quintessentially Argentinean characters—Borges, Maradona, Che Guevara (no, he was not a Cuban, but an Argentine with a medical degree for the University of Buenos Aires!), Evita, even the General himself—the tango can seem to be accessible and familiar, tied to the common people, yet retain its haughty elitism. More than any other type of music, the tango can be both hot and cold, at the same time; sensual yet distant; can embody a defiant, almost aggressive posturing, yet also suggest something deeply introspective and personal. Here intense passion blends seamlessly with the mannerisms of the ballroom. The end result is a music equally at home on a polished marble floor, a lighted stage, an open-air courtyard; a music where two fantasies can intertwine, playing by the most formal rules, yet subverting all rules and regulating.

                                      Corner Tango, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Even the etymology of the word tango points to two, contradictory meanings. On the one hand, it evokes the Latin word "tangere"—to touch—a fitting old world description of the most tactile of dances. But it also looks back to Africa. Even today, maps of Africa show cities named "Tango." In some African languages the word refers to a enclosed space or reserved ground.

These two paths—one pointing to Europe, the other to Africa—are equally present in the music itself. Buenos Aires claims the tango as its own, but the closer we look at the tango's history, the more we are drawn outside of Argentina. The greatest tango singer, Carlos Gardel, hailed from France, born of French parents, and was originally named Charles Romuald Gardes. The most famous tango composer Astor Piazzolla was raised mostly in New York. Its most characteristic instrument, the bandoneón, was a German invention, and during the formative years of the tango the squeezeboxes were invariably imported from overseas. Indeed, one of the most moving tangos I have ever heard emerges unexpectedly in the midst of a Mahler symphony. Even the most definitive aspect of the music, its odd stop-and-start rhythmic propulsion, paradoxically both relaxed and tense, is apparently an import. Much of the musical inspiration for the tango's rhythmic flow came from the habanera, a musical style developed in Cuba. Shall we add that the most famous tango composition was written for a group of Uruguayan students? Recall also that the most successful tango stage production of recent memory was staged in New York, some of the most popular tango bands of today are based in Europe, and the movie most closely associated with the dance was set in Paris. (Despite what you may have heard, it was not the Last Tango.) Where is Argentina in all this?

Even the locals apparently had their doubts almost at the start: the Buenos Aires tango cabarets where the music flourished in its early years frequently took on French names—the Petit Parisien, the Folies-Bergere. Maxim, Montmartre, the Abbaye, the Pigall—as if seeking to dissociate the city from its most celebrated musical genre. Given all this, one can be forgiven for supposing that the tango's roots in Argentinean culture are only superficial at best.

                                     Chantilectra, artwork by Karen Kucharski

But this paradox disappears when we realize that Argentine culture often reveals tenuous links to its own native soil. If a nationality could suffer from an identity crisis, one would find it here. Buenos Aires in the days of the tango's birth boasted three foreign-born residents for every native son. A whole country and culture was shaped by newcomers nostalgic for the Old World, but equally anxious to leave it behind them. And the tango was their music, a Latin American creation that would have been inconceivable without its ability to evoke France, Italy, Germany, all those homes that were no longer homes.

This quality of the tango, present at its birth, would prove decisive. Unlike most other styles of ethnic music, which tend to look inward, which celebrate the local and particular, tango gazed outward and upward, and reached for the universal. This tendency allowed—no, it actually demanded—that the tango evolve and change, and incorporate new elements. Like jazz, the tango could never remain a static style, but would constantly draw elements of other musical idioms into its orbit. Today modernist tango bands such as Gotan Project or Narcotango mix in sampling and electronics with the same fervor that their predecessors borrowed elements of classical and popular music. Other countries boast song or dance styles that preserve a tradition, that serve as a time-honored folk music, retaining some pure extract from the past. Thus Irish singers harken back to the Celtic bards, and players of the Chinese pipa can look back on a tradition as ancient as the Great Wall itself. But the tango purist is destined to perpetual frustration. The tradition itself is impure, always was, always will be.

Of course, tango purists exist, and struggle to hold the music to some unchanging standards—but this is a task that is doomed to failure. Tango has always changed, always innovated. Its birth was spurred by changes in how the milonga, the predecessor to the tango, was performed, an evolution marked by borrowings from the dances of the African-Argentines of Mondongo. More innovations followed, most notably the addition of the German bandoneón at the turn of the century, followed by further changes in instrumentation. Even before the 1920s, Roberto Firpo and Francisco Canaro were eliminating the flute, which had figured in the earliest tango recordings, and replacing it with the double bass. But when Firpo recorded "Mi Noche Triste" with his band, it was merely an instrumental, while the rising star Carlos Gardel added a sentimental lyric to his version, which proved to be much more successful with the general public. His rendition sold thousands of copies almost immediately upon its release—thus giving momentum to the next innovation in the music: the tango song (tango canción). The tango would never be the same—but despite Gardel's global popularity, many tangueros long held on to the view that one did not dance to a tango that is sung, a view that persisted in many circles until the 1980s.

The rise of the so-called "evolutionary school" in the 1920s took these progressive tendencies to the next level. Consciously aiming to expand the interpretive range of tango music, these players—who included Julio De Caro, Osvaldo Fresedo, Juan Carlos Cobian and others—attempted to bring a more advanced harmonic and melodic vocabulary into their work, while mostly staying true to the classic sextet instrumentation of two bandoneóns, two violins, piano and double bass. A more traditional school of tango bandleaders resisted this movement, focusing on the rhythmic essence of the music, and offering what they felt was a more danceable beat. But even these traditionalists felt compelled to innovate, and many expanded the instrumentation of their bands. Hence traditionalist bandleader Juan de Dios Filiberto doubled the size of the classic sextet. Three or four bandoneóns were now propelling the music, while other instruments, such as clarinet, trumpet and drum were increasingly incorporated into the tango idiom.

These changes signaled a final and complete break with the symbolic folk roots of the music. When even the traditionalists plow ahead into new, uncharted waters, we are in a whole new phase of development, one which many genres of "world music" never achieve: the music becomes an aesthetic experience, driven by artistic considerations, loosened from the stifling constraints of nationalism, patriotic fervor, and ethnic idealization. But the musicians also understand their position as commercial artists responding to the marketplace, which brings with it other responsibilities and demands, but also breaks down allegiances to static styles of the past. In these regards, tango was undergoing the same transformation in the 1920s as was jazz music. What started as a self-sufficient, almost spontaneous and ingenuous, cultural expression of a certain people, time and place, became aware of its own destiny to mutate and change, above all to move ahead.

But musical evolution was not happening in isolation. The cultural ambiance of the tango was equally in flux. Who could trace its movements, or presume to know where it might appear next? The sensuous dance could now be found in tents, under the trees, on the patios of tenements, in the brothels, or the more finely named academias -- which sounded like formal schools of dance but were often themselves poorly disguised houses of ill repute. Tango also seeped into the upper class via many paths, emerging at the more reputable dance salons, cafes, bars, ballrooms, on stage at theaters, or less visibly at the garconnieres—apartments rented by the elite class for romantic trysts. One heard tango everywhere, at wedding receptions, out on the street, even accompanying the silent films at the movie theaters. The tango had captured the heart of Argentina.

But tango, like a true child of the New World melting pot, had wanderlust, and no sooner had it established its legitimacy in Buenos Aires, it began retracing its connections to the Old World. In 1907 three tangueros—Angel Villoldo, Alfredo Gobbi, and his wife Flora Rodriguez de Gobbi—arrived in Paris, drawn by the modern studios where they could make recordings of their music, such as Villoldo's aforementioned classic "El Choclo." At that time, tango was all but unknown in the French capital, but this obscurity would not last for long. By 1913, tango was a Parisian scandal and sensation, a cause for debate on moral decline, and the hottest commodity in the city's nightlife. It was the subject of lectures and exhibitions; it was used to sell perfume, clothing, and other items; it was celebrated on Parisian postcards. The dance even became associated with a color: a fashion designer found that his orange dresses sold better if the hue of the cloth was re-named "orange tango." Tango teas, starting at four in the afternoon and continuing until seven in the evening, were especially popular, imparting a veneer of respectability to the pernicious import. In 1913, a minister felt compelled to warn his listeners: "It is not what happens at a tango tea that so much matters, as what happens after it."

                              Night Cafe, artwork by Karen Kucharski

The "anti-tanguistes" leveled countess other charges against the dance, attributing everything from intoxication to murderous fights to the Argentinean dance craze. One French journalist went further in diagnosing a medical cause for this particular problem: "There is a whole category of jealous Frenchmen who do not love these Argentines, but we must also admit that there is a whole category of Frenchwomen who adore them . . . Let us also add that Argentine seductiveness produces its fullest effects on women who are beginning to suffer the torments of the menopause." And though these allegations were sometimes ridiculous, and often unwarranted, there remained a core of truth to their charges. An almost tyrannical sensuality imposes itself on the tango dancers. One is reminded of V.S. Naipaul's description of the ethos of the Argentinean male: "Machismo makes no man stand out, because every man is assumed to be a macho. Sexual conquest is a duty."

In Paris, the impact of this new dance was soon reflected in striking changes in social mores. Young women who, only a short while before, would never have thought of leaving their homes unaccompanied, were now frequenting tango events, where they surrendered themselves to the embraces of virtually unknown dancing partners. The Catholic Church, unwilling to let such matters pass, issued increasingly strident denunciations. Even the Primate of France, Monsignor Amette, felt compelled to issue a public denunciation, exposing the dance's wantonness, and urging priests to use the confessional to stress its sinfulness to parishioners.

Such steps did little to slow down the popularity of the new dance, and perhaps merely added to its allure. The tango craze spread quickly to other parts of the continent, finding a receptive audience in England, Germany, Italy, and as far away as Russia. By the summer of 1914, even British royalty was caught up in tango fever. For a ball given by the Grand Duke of Russia at Kenwood in Hampstead, a demonstration of new dances was planned, including an exhibition of the tango. But fears that Queen Mary, who would be in attendance, would disapprove of the sensual dance led to a decision to cancel its inclusion. The Queen, however, was anxious to see this much discussed dance, and expressed her disappointment to her hostess. The tango was quickly added to the program, and received the approval of the Queen.

Other royal personages were not far behind. The Queen of Denmark, it was whispered, attended tango teas. The Tsar Nicholas II, upon hearing that two of his nephews had learned to dance, demanded to see a performance, and was said to have approved of it. In Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm was less sympathetic—no surprise, since he still distrusted the "too modern" polka and waltz, preferring the minuet and gavotte at court balls. He prohibited officers in uniform from dancing the tango, which effectively stopped its use at many formal occasions, where officers in uniform were invariably present. But the passion for the dance continued in many parts of German society—even among the Kaiser's own household, where his son, the Crown Prince, was known to be an aficionado.

          Dance of Gold, artwork by Karen Kucharski

Even in an age of isolationism, Americans could not long resist this alluring export. ALL NEW YORK NOW MADLY WHIRLING IN THE TANGO, proclaimed a banner headline in The New York Times in 1914. The paper of record further noted the influx of dark-skinned men, who were setting up as tango instructors. Although these immigrants claimed to come from the native soil of the tango, the more skeptical suggested that they might merely be charlatan refugees from the recent upheavals in Mexico. Rumors and innuendos were insufficient to stem the popularity of the dance. That same year, W.C. Handy published his "St. Louis Blues," with its haunting habanera-based tango passage amidst a song that also plumbs the depths of the blues, revealing some deep-seated affinity between the two idioms. Of course, the tango's ability to migrate to new settings was already legendary: as I noted above, one of the most haunting tango interludes I have ever heard appears for a brief spell in the second movement of Mahler's seventh symphony, composed some ten years before Handy's song was released.

The tango craze could not continue at this heated level for long, and with the on-set of World War I, the public's attention was drawn to more pressing matters. But in the post-war years, the tango proved its staying power, and in the early twenties it had established itself as an important part of Parisian nightlife, especially in Montmartre, where musical imports from abroad were an important component of the bohemian lifestyle daily enacted in the vicinity of Place Pigalle. A whole community of Argentinean musicians had set up shop, meeting the local demand for the exotic music.

The Pizarro family was the most pervasive source of tango music for Parisian revelers; five different Pizarro brothers—Manuel, Salvador, Juan, Domingo and Alfredo—all led bands at one time or another. In 1925 Francisco Canaro brought his band from Argentina to Paris, where he entertained a host of celebrities, including Gloria Swanson, Arthur Rubinstein and Rudolph Valentino—the latter, who also used the tango sensation to enliven his image, encouraging Canaro to come to the United States (which he did, although after Valentino's death). Violinist Eduardo Bianco arrived from Argentina the same year, and would later enjoy the dubious distinction of having performed tango music for two unlikely fans: Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

All these successes would pale in comparison with the sensation caused by Carlos Gardel. As tango was destined to spread all over the world, a suitable ambassador was required, one who could become an international star. Overcoming barriers of language, culture and class, Gardel filled this role with great distinction and ease, and only his early, tragic death prevented him from becoming a household name—akin to Chevalier, Piaf, Dietrich—in lands far-flung from his native soil. "Crossing over"—as the marketing mavens put it these days—to the film industry was the last obstacle Gardel faced, but it was one for which he was well prepared, as his small body of surviving movie clips make clear. In his absence, other Latin American entertainers became international film stars; but not one of them, from Carmen Miranda to Cantinflas, achieved the dignity, presence and artistic depth that Gardel promised to bring to the silver screen.

His life story is, in its own right, a cinematic one, with all the visual cues and symbols one wants from a good movie. As a boy, Gardel would sometimes sleep clutching a stick, pretending it was a guitar. His voice attracted attention from an early age. At seven, he would sit singing at a street front door, attracting a crowd of youths with his renditions of popular pieces. Legends tell of a mis-spent youth, possibly even a criminal record. Researchers have woven a fanciful web of intrigue around some ambiguous documents —a 1907 court appearance by a Carlos Garderes or Gorders in Montevideo; a Buenos Aires news report from 1905 mentioning a "certain Carlitos"—involved in a violent altercation at a railroad station—proving nothing, but tantalizing many. Gardel's songs, with their intimate knowledge of lowlife pursuits, do little to discourage such speculation.

Before Gardel, the joyous, light-hearted feelings predominated in the tango, but this had now changed. Borges, in a famous poem on the tango, describes it as an impossible dream of dying, on a suburban street corner, in the act of fighting. Strange as it sounds, this odd characterization captures many of the core elements of the tango ethos. What Freud called thanatos, his controversial concept of a death instinct in the human psyche, permeates this music. The melancholy tone, the city setting, the mix of romance and violence, all weave their way into the fabric of the tango. Yet Gardel's music was never morose, despite the dark thematic content of the lyrics. He somehow delved into the sleazy, low-life side of tango culture and made it seem elegant, an aristocracy of its own making, with its own titular characters, from the compadrito, a violent, womanizing ruffian, to the porteno, the lowly port worker.

          Dance of Gold II, artwork by Karen Kucharski

One is reminded of Louis Armstrong, like Gardel raised without his father in an impoverished setting, branded as a juvenile delinquent, but able to rise above these circumstances by sheer will and a preternatural musical talent. And like Armstrong, Gardel retained this sense of the untamed street life, the outer fringes, in his music, even after success allowed him entry into high society. This fluidity and mobility explains much of the appeal. of these artists, with personal stories that mimic the flux of the larger societies they inhabited. Other popular musicians have hidden their working class roots, found a refinement in their art that their early lives never gave them—one notes how Sinatra's street-smart elocution and twang disappear the moment he starts singing—but for others this type of transformation on stage is not possible. Their childhood is so deep a part of the adult's worldview—in some ways they have never grown up—hat it can never be swept away under the carpet. The child waif remains present in the adult artist.

Gardel's appeal drew on these biographical elements. His music expressed the man he was, and the life he led. He did not try to hide his humble beginnings, or attempt to cultivate an image which was at odds with the rough-and-tumble life he led. A directness and honesty permeated his artistry, and the public responded to this in almost an intimate, one-on-one way. His singing was almost equally devoid of artifice and mannerisms. He sang his songs full-throttle, wearing his heart on his sleeve, putting himself deeply into his music. In this regard, it is interesting to listen to a recent recording of Gardel songs performed by the heralded young Argentine tenor Marcelo Alvarez. On the last song on the disk, Alvarez uses the latest studio wizardry to record himself singing "Mi Buenos Aires querido" alongside Gardel's original version. A revealing blunder! Listening to Gardel's impassioned rendition, one quickly forgets the polished charm of Alvarez's effort, which seems all too facile in comparison to the power and sweep of the original recording. The fact that the recording quality of Gardel's voice is so much poorer, despite the best efforts of the engineers, makes its greater depth of emotional experience all the more impressive. It is almost as if Gardel's personality is too big to be contained by the flat, one-dimensional sonics of 1934. Of course, the advance in sound technology has proven to be as much of a crutch as an advantage for the modern musician. A generation after Gardel's death, all popular singers would be slaves to the microphone, striving to convey the nuances and subtle shadings that the new technology made possible. Gardel was the exact opposite. He sang to his audience, the entire audience—not settling for an off-hand whisper into the metal ice cream cone in his hand—projecting to the people, with what one simply calls, for want of a better word, heart. Audiences could not help but respond to this fervent man with the emotion-filled, penetrating voice.

Conquering Europe required a more stylized effort, and for once Gardel took on some artificial trappings in order to further his career. For his early Parisian performances, Gardel wore an elaborate gaucho costume, perhaps fulfilling the fantasies, menopausal or otherwise, of his Parisian audiences. In this new setting, he quickly scored a hit with his song "El Carretero," recorded a few days after his local debut at the Florida cabaret in rue Clichy. Soon "El Carretero" was being hummed and whistled around Paris, and Gardel need only walk into some nightclubs to find the house band striking up the tune in his honor. His records were selling in excess of twenty thousand units per month, and his picture was featured on the cover of La Rampe's Christmas issue, the gaucho outfit now replaced by a stylish coat and tie. Cesar Vedani has provided an eyewitness account of Gardel's impact on Parisian audiences, which is related in Simon Collier's biography of Gardel:

Gardel began to sing, against a background of din and murmur. With his very first verse the noise began to abate. Within a moment or two the murmuring had ceased altogether. They listened to him in silence, a silence more impressive than the hubbub it replaced. At the end of the song they gave him an ovation. He sang a second song, and the same thing happened. And again, and again . . . He was lord and master of all those captive people. I watched the miracle happen.

By the time Gardel returned to Argentina in June of 1929, he was an international star. True, other tango singers—not just men such as Ignacio Corsinin and Agustin Magaldi, but also women like Azucena Maizani, Ada Falcon, Tita Merello and Mercedes Simone—enjoyed loyal followings, but Gardel was now firmly ensconced on a higher plateau than the rest. Rather than rest on his laurels, Gardel threw himself into work with a vengeance, entering the recording studio some thirty times over the next year. He boasted to a reporter that he recorded twenty songs every month, in addition to non-stop performing. Gardel also made ten short films, which captured his singing in top form and gave momentum to the embryonic sound film industry in Argentina. But necessity as much as artistic fervor was now driving him. Gardel was running up large debts, especially due to his passion for horse-racing and gambling. Other problems troubled the singer: difficulty with his throat which required surgery; his ballooning weight—which at times would reach 260 pounds; tensions with his manager; the waning of his long affair with Isabel del Valle; and a general economic malaise spreading from the North, which spurred political instability in Argentina. In this troubled setting, Europe beckoned again.

When you have seen Paris and enjoyed the applause of royalty, he told an interviewer, Buenos Aires no longer seems satisfying. From this point on, Gardel would be a citizen of the world, returning to Argentina only twice—for two months in 1931 and for ten months in 1933. His performances now consciously cultivated an international audience. Appearing to enthusiastic audience on the Riviera, Gardel now inter-mixed songs in French with those in Spanish. Returning to Paris, Gardel began work with an international revue, leading a troupe of around one hundred performers, which featured him, singing again in French and Spanish. Gardel was also making his first feature length film, Luces de Buenos Aires. His career seemed headed to the stratosphere, yet in fact it would end shortly in tragedy.


This is the end of part one of "The Music of the Tango" by Ted Gioia.

July 25, 2008 · 3 comments


In Conversation with Andrea Brachfeld

By Tomas Peña

I don’t think I have ever seen you in public without your flute. Wasn’t it pianist Barry Harris who said, “If you can’t carry your instrument you shouldn’t be playing it”?

Yes, he always said you should carry your instrument with you.

I understand that you grew up in an environment where it was “mandatory” to play the piano. Define “mandatory.”

Andrea Brachfeld

It was a suburban thing. You know, your parents would say, “you have go to dance class; you have to study the piano …”

Ah, the suburban mentality!


You started out playing the piano then switched to the flute at the age of ten.

But I continued taking piano lessons until I was thirteen.

Did you take up the flute because you had an affinity for the instrument or because you could skip the regular classes to take music lessons?

I think it was a little bit of both!

After grade school you attended The High School of Music and Art …

Actually, after grade school I went to live in France for one year.

Did living in France have an impact on your music?

It had more to do with broadening my life. My father was a professor and he’s from France.

When you returned from France you attended The High School of Music and Art and some of your classmates were (the late) Noel Pointer, Dave Valentin and Nat Adderly Jr. among others.

Also Buddy Williams, Earl McIntyre. There were so many people there.

I have fond memories of Noel Pointer. His artistry left a lasting impression on me.

Yes, he was a great musician.

Looking back, what do you remember most about Noel?

It’s interesting. I haven’t thought about this in a long time. Noel, (drummer) Paul Kimbarow, Hector Cente?o, Frankie Cente?o, and I used to get together at Gregory Coverdale’s house and jam until all hours of the night.

What kind of music did you all play?

I don’t know, we just jammed and played. That happened all through high school. I have no idea how my mother allowed me to do that … it was a house with three of four floor and people were just strewn about (laughter).

Sounds like fun!

Noel came from a very high-class, learned African-American family who really valued education. He was a classical musician and the first musician to sign with GRP Records (Dave Grusin’s label). Then he got (vocalist) Angie Bofill signed and she got (flutist) Dave Valentin signed. In any case, there was a lot of music going on at the time.

Unlike the music scene today.

You know what? It’s all good. It depends on your outlook. If you think that there is a lot of work, it comes to you. If you think there isn’t a lot of work, then it doesn’t. I truly believe in the law of attraction. Maybe I am not gigging all the time but I am always busy doing tons of things, I am diversified in what I do.

Do you manage your own career and handle your own publicity?

Yes, I also have a deal with a publishing company and I have all of my copyrighted material with them. Do you know Dave Weckl?

Dave Weckl, the drummer.

Right. He has diversified like a mother, he is all over the place with what he does and I really respect him. I use him as a model because he is always into something, writing a new book, or teaching online or whatever it is. It’s probably something that more musicians should do. There are a group of artists in the Latin jazz and salsa realms who manage themselves and are like that . . . Willie Martinez, Wilson “Chembo” Corniel, Jimmy Bosch, Ray Vega, we are all doing the same thing.

Kudos to all of you.

It’s not hard, it’s just time consuming.

Early in your career the Jazzmobile and the Jazz Interactions Workshop played a role in your musical development. Unfortunately, these programs are not as prevalent as they once were.

At that time they didn’t have jazz in the universities so those were the jazz universities of the street.

And a great way to pass down knowledge the old-fashioned way.

But it wasn’t one-on-one, it was a group situation. It was the beginnings of jazz education.

Today there are universities and colleges teaching jazz but where do the musicians go to woodshed and how do they get gigs?

That’s the part that a lot of people don’t really understand. Trying to get gigs and stuff like that . . . if you sound like everybody else you are dispensable.

The other day I went to The Iridium to see Jimmy Heath, one of my mentors. When I arrived, there he was standing right in front of me. When he saw me he said, “Hello Andrea, what are you doing here?” and I said, “What do you think?” (Laughter) Then he invited me to sit with his family, it was so sweet. So I heard Jimmy’s band and it was great. Afterwards, Antonio Hart came up to me and said, “You are Andrea Brachfeld, aren’t you?” and I said “Yeah!” Then he said, “Jimmy talks about you all the time, he thinks you are a great flute player,” and asked if he could study with me.”

What’s wrong with that?

I guess I was just a little taken aback.

I am always amazed by the fact that many musicians are so humble. I can’ tell you how many times I have said to a musician, “Man, I really dig your music, or “I can’t stop listening to your CD,” and invariably they reply, “Really?” Two people who come to mind are (percussionist) Daniel Ponce and (saxophonist) Paquito D’ Rivera. That was years ago but it stills happens today.

Well, the thing is for me everything happens so fast. I am such an intense person and my life is so intense and I am growing every day. I will play something and think to myself, “You know I could have played that much better.”

I can relate to that. I often feel that way about my writing.

Though in the past six or seven years I have felt really good about my playing, but I think that has a lot to do with the fact that my spiritual life has deepened.

Do you belong to a particular religious group?

No, not particularly, I am into world peace.

Ah, an optimist!

It starts with the person. I think I have always known that when I play it’s not me playing per se; I mean I am playing the flute but the music is coming through me. When you come to understand that you are part of a bigger spectrum . . . you become very humble.

You are not the first musician to say that. Pianist Omar Sosa told me the same thing.

So getting back to your life… I find it very intriguing that you would pick-up and move to Venezuela based on the strength of a phone call (in Spanish) that you didn’t understand. Which led to your living and performing there for two-and-a-half years, right? Has the situation for women improved?

When I got the phone call I really didn’t understand what the guy was saying but eventually I came to understand that he wanted to build a band around a woman flute player, so I committed to going there for one month.

Long story short, I was with him for a year then I played in the only jazz club in Caracas for eight months. It was wonderful getting into the jazz thing. Anyone who passed through Caracas would pass through that club because it was the only on in town. I got to meet all of these wonderful musicians.

Obviously that is where you learned how to speak Spanish.

I actually learned it in the street. I would walk around with my dictionary and ask, “Que signifca eso?” (What is that?)

So have things improved for women in Venezuela or no?

I’m not sure. I haven’t been there for a while. I was pretty oblivious to the situation before I got married to my first husband. Here (in the states) I am considered a rebel so in Venezuela I was off the charts!

What prompted you to leave Venezuela?

I left for medical reasons. I was pregnant and I couldn’t find a doctor I liked. Also I was very concerned about “La Cola,” do you know what that means?


“La Cola” is a traffic jam. I was so concerned about getting caught in a traffic jam and not being able to make it to the doctor on time.

In Puerto Rico we call traffic jams “Tapones.”

By then I had had enough. Interestingly, I had a feeling about the country. It was a new money oil country and people were not appreciating that. I had a funny feeling that something was going to happen with the economy and it wasn’t good for me. A few months after I left the economy collapsed.

Let’s talk about your Afro Cuban/Latin influences.

I was playing at this place called the Tin Palace in the Bowery (New York). I went to sit and (the late flutist) Mauricio Smith asked if I was working and if I knew how to play charanga music and I said no. Anyway, he turned me on to Mike Perez from the Charanga band, Tipica New York who is not the violin player for Orquesta Sublime. Felix Wilkins, a Panamanian flutist who was playing with the band was leaving so he took me on as his apprentice. So I played with Mike’s band and I had no idea what I was doing. I was really into jazz but I needed the work.

Still, you went on to perform with quite a few charanga bands.

From there I played with The Benito Sextet and Charanga ’76. I have to say, I was pretty unaware. . . . It’s almost as if some force had carried me along in my life.

Looking back on that period in your life how was it?

It was great. I hung out with Frank “Machito” Grillo and he would talk about Charlie Parker. I sat in with Tito Puente. They wouldn’t hire a flute player, but I sat in with them anyway. Everybody knew each other. It was wonderful.

When I was with Charanga ’76 we were doing about nine gigs per week. At the time I was going to The Manhattan School of Music and it provided the budget I needed to live. So it was a real blessing. I also played with Conjunto Libre for awhile …

Did you record with Conjunto Libre?

They offered me a recording but it didn’t happen because of me. It’s a long story. It’s probably one of the few things that I have regretted in my life but it’s OK. Anyway, I played with Tipica Ideal, Charanga America, Tipica Novel and I had my own jazz group.

So jazz has always been an important part of your life …

Absolutely and that is the direction I am going in now.

Which brings us to your new recording: Into the World: A Musical Offering. What was the concept going in?

It was very important for me to make a recording with my original music. My intention is to broaden the scope of my music, my audience and my fan base, thus the name Into the World. When I started writing the music I had a purpose but most of the time I don’t, it just sort of comes out. When I started writing “Passing Friends” my intention was to write a piece of music with the Kalimba (African thumb piano) and then it just developed and turned into this whole other thing.

On “Mambo Yo” I wanted to specifically use the congas as a melodic instrument and it kind of evolved into this mambo, Latin jazz kind of thing. You know it’s interesting. My intention has changed from the time that I wrote the tune to now. At first, the intent was to reach a wider audience but now it is a real conscious process of healing people. That’s where my head is at. I am learning how to play the Indian flute and ragas and I have collected a bunch of spiritual moral fables with the intention of performing healing music at yoga meditation centers.

Vicki Sola (Producer/Host of the long-running radio show, Que Viva La Musica) mentioned to me that you are a very spiritual person. Interestingly, when I hear the music of [your band] Phoenix Rising that side of you comes through.

Wow, thank you! People have come up to me recently and said “your music is so healing.” I just didn’t know that that was happening but since I have gotten into yoga and meditation it has become a very strong and pure intention. I got into doing yoga at my house about eight years ago and I found an incredible teacher who lives five minutes away. About six months ago I was driving by an Ashram that is twenty minutes from my house. Mind you, I have driven by the Ashram a thousand times before but this time I went in. Now I am studying the Bhagavad-Gita. I try to reinforce that everyday so that I can keep that vibe happening. Sometimes it’s really hard!

On another topic, I am a big fan of the group Sakesho. I like what you did their tune, “Karawak Dreams.”

I love that tune. Two of my favorite records are Sakesho and Maferefun by Tony Martinez and the Cuban Power.

Speaking of great music, the late Cuban flutist, Richard Egues was one of your mentors. . . .

He was a big influence. I went to Cuba in 2003 and he sold me a five key flute.

A charanga flute.

Yes. I have a workshop that drummer, educator Bobby Sanabaria help me put together that talks about the origins of the Cuban flute.

Tell me more.

I put it together awhile ago and every once in awhile someone is interested. This week I am doing a workshop with the Philadelphia Jazz Orchestra. They have a jazz camp.

So you present the history of the Cuban flute. How do you go about it? Do you demonstrate as you go along?

It’s actually a multi-media presentation. I have DVD’s and sound-clips.

So there is no live music in the presentation?

I perform when the budget allows for it.

That sounds like a presentation that would go over well in the public school system.

You know that I am an ESL (English as a Second Language) and Bilingual teacher.

Yes. I understand you have earned six certifications.

The things that I could be during the day I am unable to do because I am teaching. The summer is when I do most other things.

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

Classical Indian flute, Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess.

What’s in the future for Andrea Brachfeld?

At this point I am concentrating on my Latin jazz group, Phoenix Rising and my meditation and devotional music.

I find it interesting that your presence is low key but you are always present. Do you know what I mean?

I guess so. I try to be consistent with my life. Maybe that’s what you mean. I just keep plugging along.

Is there anything you would like to add before we close?

I also invited Mike Long and Paul Wess to appear on my recording. I studied with Mike and Paul was one of the directors of the Jazzmobile. I thought it was pretty amazing that they agreed to play on the recording, it was such an honor.

Like coming full circle. . . .

Yes. Beyond that, my dream has always been to write music and have wonderful musicians play it and that started to happen ten years ago, so anything that happens in addition to that is just gravy! Just amazing!

Thank you Andrea and good luck with your recording.

Thank you for doing this!

July 24, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Vijay Iyer

By Tom Greenland

Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer is anything but predictable. Innovative and provocative, his music draws on an eclectic range of influences, including hiphop, West African drumming, South Indian classical music and, of course, jazz, assimilating and crafting these sounds into an indefinable yet readily identifiable style. In a coffee shop near his Manhattan apartment, Iyer recently spoke about cultures and concepts in dialogue with each other. In juxtaposing jazz and Indian classical music, self and other, local and global, symmetry and asymmetry, purity and hybridity, and the known and the mysterious, Iyer’s observations seem to suggest that clashes and/or collaborations between these supposed “opposites” may lead to new imaginings and discoveries.

What’s on your mind?

What’s on my mind? [laughs] Um, well, the Democratic race is on everybody’s mind, you know? And that’s been, like, this absurd psychodrama that’s been thrust in our face for months and months. So that’s on my mind. And the catastrophe in Myanmar [Tropical Cyclone Nargis struck one week before this interview] has been on my mind as well.

Vijay Iyer

Well, let’s see: what else? This Miles from India project . . . just came out. I wasn’t on the album but I got asked to play on these concerts. So I had my first experience playing with Ron Carter yesterday, and I had this strange experience of teaching him how to play “So What” in 9/4! [laughs] It was so bizarre! I was, like, “You’ve been playing this song for fifty years or something like that—forty-six years,” and here I am. I wasn’t even on the record. That’s the track where they did this kind of transformed version of “So What” with Chick Corea playing on it, and even he apparently thought it was a crazy idea too. So anyway, it was kind of funny that here were these Miles alumni. Ron Carter’s been in my ears since I was fourteen years old or something like that. He’s one of the authors of the modern bass. I was pretty amazed just hanging out with him and playing music with him.

And last night’s concert was quite an event: Indian musicians interfacing with this Miles Davis repertoire, and these alumni who played in various incarnations of Miles’ ensembles; Lenny White was playing, Adam Holzman was playing, and these Indian musicians were playing. And it came off pretty well; it was wild. Wallace Roney played the role of “Mr. Prince of Darkness”; and yeah, it was interesting. What else? What’s on your mind? [laughs]

How was it “Indian”? In what sense? Did Miles really use Indian ideas?

No, he didn’t; he didn’t at all, really. Badal Roy [tabla] was on the concert, and was on one or two of Miles’ records. He was on On the Corner and a few others, maybe a couple of other cuts from that era, and that sort of helped bring Badal Roy into this whole world of improv music and creative music. But he’s also, of course, worked with Ornette [Coleman], Dave Liebman—a lot of different musicians over the decades. So he was sort of the lynchpin of it all. It’s not really that Miles dealt with Indian music. I mean, I’d say that if anybody did at that level it was [John] Coltrane, but that was in a different direction from what Miles was doing.

But you know there’d be moments where you could imagine it, like if it was “In a Silent Way,” which is oriented around this kind of drone. We did a version of that yesterday and that actually worked really well, you know, with this Hindustani melodist, Kala Ramnath, who was playing violin and singing also. There was a couple of other [Indian] artists—one other vocalist and a sitar player. It was kind of an experiment and it was sort of like [producer] Bob Belden’s concept, or conceit, you could even say. And it might seem at the outset like a stretch, but it was just more a process of bringing these traditions and these concepts of improvisation together that sort of became its own story.

Vijay Iyer

I don’t think Miles would really even have fit into this whole idea. “Why don’t you all do your own thing instead of playing my music?” I’m sure that’s what he would have thought. But I think it was more like, well, there are multiple ways to view or interact with these traditions and history, and here’s one possible way. That’s the reading of it that makes sense to me, because when I heard about the record, I was, like, What? That seems like that’s sort of like a crazy idea. And what’s funny is that a lot of the people who were on the gig weren’t on the record, including myself. Also some of these Indian musicians got pulled in at the last second to replace the original members—“original” meaning the people who were on the recording session last year—because some of them were unable to get work visas . . . . The thing is that there’s been a whole history of people from this area of music—jazz and creative music—interfacing with or interacting with aspects of Indian music.

Don’t you have some Indian heritage? Aren’t your parents South Indian?

Yeah, well they’re ethnically South Indian. My mother grew up in Bombay—Mumbai it’s called now—and she was an urbanite; that’s like growing up in New York City.

Did they play Carnatic [South Indian classical music] or any kind of music like that around the house? Do you consider that part of your musical culture?

Well, it’s part of my heritage. I mean, there was music around. It wasn’t thrust at me, really, and I wasn’t trained in it either, but it’s part of who I am. It’s part of the culture that I’ve had to come to terms with, being a hybrid American. It’s part of my history. So I wanted engage with it at that level: “What’s my relationship to this music?”

Rudresh [Mahanthappa] spoke about this. He grew up in Boulder and told me he used to listen to Grover Washington, Jr. and things like that, but that his parents had records and so he was exposed it a little bit.

Yeah, the same is true of me—not about Grover—but my parents had recordings like that and also we had a pretty strong Indian community in Rochester, New York while I was growing up. It was burgeoning in the seventies and eighties; it was growing. Now it’s really substantial and they’ve built infrastructure and institutions, so now there are two Hindu temples in Rochester and there are multiple Indian grocery stores and movie theaters where you can see Indian movies. In the seventies, when I was a little kid, that was not the case. But still, there were enough families around that we’d all gather on weekends and sing devotional songs. Someone would be playing harmonium and someone else would be playing tabla or something. It was antiphonal music where one lead singer sings a verse and the congregation—or whatever you want to call it: the group of people in the basement of someone’s house [laughs]—would echo the music, a communal experience with that kind of music. And every now and then Indian musicians would come through town performing and they’d play a concert. I remember a couple of those very distinctly from when I was seven or so.

In terms of really wanting to come to some kind of grips with all of that, with that whole history or that whole side of myself, I’d say that finally, when I was about twenty or so, I decided to be proactive about it and say, “Well, what is this music that’s somehow a part of me and somehow not?” It was really just about cultivating a relationship with it rather than being passive about it. I didn’t formally study anything but I started going to a lot of concerts. I was living in California by that time, in the Bay Area, and there are a lot of South Asians in Silicon Valley, as you can imagine. So they had enough of a scene happening that they would actually host concerts quite a lot—so touring artists from India would come. There were a number of organizations in northern California that presented Indian music, so I started getting to see the stuff a lot more and just be immersed in the culture.

I’d go to these concerts in Palo Alto; they’d be in some community college auditorium or something, but it’d be five hundred South Indians and everybody knows all the songs, you know? These would be Carnatic concerts, which are classical concerts of devotional music, and everybody knew all the music. Everyone knew all the talas [rhythmic cycles] and all those ragas [melodic modes] and all the lyrics. Everyone around me was completely at home in this music, so I learned a lot just being in that environment, especially because everyone there could’ve been my uncle or my cousin, or something like that. So it was kind of like a reconstruction for me of a situation that might have been mine. And I learned a lot over those years, throughout the nineties, ’92 to ’98, when I was in California. I had a lot of experiences like that, in addition to all of the other experiences I had playing jazz and studying West African drumming and jamming with Steve Coleman and all this other stuff that happened to me while I was in California. That whole experience was just getting a healthy dose of Indian music. That really helped bring it home for me.

Did you ever do any formal studies with a guru?

No, I didn’t do that.

I guess the piano’s not usually…?

Not usually, no. There’re one or two guys out there who are. Actually, I just met this guy on Facebook—that doesn’t mean I’ve really met him [laughs]—and he actually does Hindustani classical recitals on piano, so I need to find out more about what he’s doing, because all the melisma and all the nuances, melodically, it’s really hard to pull off on a keyboard or a discrete instrument. Although there is the equivalent: in Carnatic music there’s one tradition—it’s called jalatarangam, which is basically a bunch of tuned bowls of water, ceramic bowls; you strike them with a mallet or a stick or something. So people play Carnatic music on that. It’s basically a keyboard instrument; it’s tuned to be a discrete melodic instrument.

What if you’ve got a pitch bender or something like that?

Well, I guess the water sort of sloshes around [laughs].

I meant, for example, gamaka [Carnatic “shaking” ornaments]? Nyeeeah! [imitates sound]

Oh yeah.

You could probably do something with that.

Maybe. Well, that’s been done too, on the synthesizer; there are people out there doing that. Yeah, there’s a whole scene of people doing that stuff. But the thing about it is, for me, my mission is not to play Indian music. It’s not what I need out of music. Because, to me, Indian music is something you study for many decades and it takes a lifetime to master, like any form of music. You don’t just dabble at these things. You have to work and dedicate your life to it, or else you’re just not taking it seriously. And so I don’t want to pretend that I’m a master of this music that would take a lifetime to master. It’s more that I want to engage with it in various ways. For me, it’s been about interacting with Indian musicians and putting myself in dialogue with these traditions and these ideas and this music. That’s more my approach.

Do you use any of those elements in your compositions or in your arrangements?

Yeah, quite a bit.

Can you give an example of that?

Well, there are a lot of rhythmic ideas. I mean, just about any composition of mine, if you look at anything I’ve written in the last ten or twelve years, has some rhythmic ideas that are drawn from the, like, “rhythm science” of Carnatic music, from my understanding of it and my studies of it. I’m really interested in, especially as a composer: what are the sources of formal properties that are at play and what are the parameters of expression on the rhythmic side of Indian music that I could learn from?

When I was a child seeing some of these concerts, I remember being so dazzled by what the percussionists were doing rhythmically, and how there were these flurries of activity that would seem so ordered and yet so kind of mysterious. That’s partly who I am: I tend to gravitate towards those kinds of experiences that have a certain kind of mystery in them. It’s like an encounter with this mysterious order or something like this, with layers of structure and history and dialogue that you only see the surface of—that you’re only beginning to glimpse. That, to me, is such a key part to experience: the encounter with the unknown and putting yourself in dialogue with something that is partly you and partly not you. So I guess—not to get too symbolic about it or anything—that experience, to me particularly, about what rhythm does, how rhythm can really—well, the thing is, when you hear music, the rhythm is the underpinning of the way you experience it. In a way, the melody and harmony are secondary to that because rhythm guides you through the experience of time, and that’s such a fundamental quality of human experience. In terms of techniques for manipulating rhythm, to me, it seems like such a fundamental quality that I really wanted to get at, I really wanted to examine and study and get close to. It’s this elusive thing, really, because the more you learn about it the less you know [laughs]. It’s a universal mystery.

Vijay Iyer

So that becomes the primary way that I compose: thinking about these different ways of combining and layering rhythms. And some of that knowledge comes from my dealings with Indian music and some of that knowledge comes from my dealings with African music, West African drumming and stuff like that. And then from the whole African American tradition, like James Brown and Max Roach and Elvin Jones, and all that stuff.

Can you give some examples? Like on your new album Tragicomic, are there any tunes that use additive rhythms?

Oh yeah, yeah. Well, probably the most extreme example is the song “Machine Days.” That song’s been on my MySpace page for a few months and people keep sending me requests for the chart of that particular piece. Well, it’s dealing with these rhythmic cadences, but it’s not the typical thing you hear, like a korvai, or a mora, or a tihai in Hindustani music, these kinds of rhythmic progressions that resolve on the downbeat.

Like sam? [In Hindustani music, the beginning of a melodic cycle]

Yeah, exactly. Actually, this number 144 recurs throughout the whole album. It’s really interesting. It has all these interesting mathematical properties, let’s say, that make it kind of mysterious, because it has all this symmetry in it and then it’s also a Fibonacci number, which means it has this fundamental asymmetric quality in it too. So that’s 89 + 55; 89 and 55 are Fibonacci numbers. 89 is 55 + 34; both of those are Fibinacci numbers. 55 is 34 + 21; both of those are Fibinacci numbers. So you see you have these nested layers with Fibinaci numbers inside. So not only is 144 12x12, it’s also 9x16, which is the product of two other perfect squares [2x2 and 3x3], and then it’s also a Fibonacci number which has this fundamental asymmetric balancing.

I wanted to deal with this interaction between symmetry and asymmetry. But that is just the beginning of it. So that’s what a lot of these cadential forms do, the tihais and stuff like that, where you have this underlying meter which suggests a certain kind of symmetric order or regularity, and then you divide it in these asymmetric ways that have their own order, with their own kind of gravity.

Orders within orders?

Yeah, and also contrasting kinds of order that end up being in dialogue with each other. So that’s what’s going on in that piece, where you have 144, but that’s divided…uh…let me see, I have to think about it [laughs]. Yeah, so that’s: 34 + 21 + 34 + 21 + 34, is 144. So, in other words, that’s 89 + 55. So it has this ABABA kind of form too: 34-21-34-21-34. And that lies across sixteen bars of 9! So you see you have these additive and multiplicative orders that lie in contrast with one another, which is a good long-form cross rhythm over this groove. And that becomes the form of the piece. But then you hear it and it just sounds like a bebop tune with hits, or something like that [laughs]—not exactly, because the groove is a little bit irregular.

Do you think listeners can intuitively hear that ordering?

Well, to me it has this formal order that has a purity to it. It also has this cultural grounding and these kinds of rhythmic ideas from India. The specific groove that’s in there is something I heard by Les Têtes Brûlées, which is a band from Cameroon, a seminal Afro-beat kind of group over the last twenty years. It’s like 9/8 or 9/16, kind of like 3x3, but it’s divided in a way that feels like an asymmetric grouping. So I’m just looking at all these different ways of articulating time that come from these different parts of the world, and how they interact. And, you know, sometimes they interact uneasily [laughs].

I’m interested in those kinds of rubs too, that sort of friction that happens when you put them in dialogue with each other too. That’s more about where we are right now: it’s like all this information is just running together into this one gigantic stream, and it’s not always a clear stream. Sometimes it’s almost like these ideas are colliding. So that’s where we sit: we sit at the crossroads of all these different streams and we just need to make sense of it. So that, to me, is what pieces like that are trying to do. Again, I’m not trying to be overly symbolic or anything; to me it’s just the truth of the matter; it’s just the truth of life today on this planet. If you live in a city, if you have an urban existence, then you are constantly interacting with different perspectives that come from all over the world. And that’s been essential for me—even before I came to New York City—that hybrid perspective of being of this place and yet tied to somewhere very far away at the same time. That’s been the essential fact of my identity since I was born, you know? So that transnational perspective just frames the way I see everything. It informs the form and the content, I think.

I think a lot of people in New York feel that way: that they’re in this place but they’re not of it.

Yeah, yeah.

And I think jazz has been—is—informed by a lot of these…

Of course. Well, everything is. But yeah, jazz has been this essentially hybrid form since the beginning, and we always have to remind ourselves of that. In a way it was funny—these experiments, putting jazz next to Indian music. It sort of presumes that both forms were pure to begin with, and really they’ve always been very open forms. They’re music of cities. If you look to ancient Indian music, it was music that was of the courts These were sort of cosmopolitan centers; maybe they were embedded in the strict system of privilege, but they also were able to absorb influences from other parts of the world.

July 20, 2008 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Steven Kroon

By Tomas Peña

Congratulations on a fine recording. Getting (radio pioneer, activist, writer and keen observer of the Latin music scene) Felipe Luciano to write the liner-notes was a great idea.

Felipe and I grew up together, in fact my mother was his baby sitter. When I told him that I was making a new recording he insisted on writing the liner-notes. Felipe and I are like family.

Tell me about the significance of the title El Mas Alla.

Steve Kroon

I was simply going to call it Beyond. I like to write the title in English and Spanish but I wasn't sure of the translation so I asked my father to help me out. He told me that Beyond in Spanish also means "to transcend" and that really grabbed me! The title took on an even deeper significance with the passing of Ray Barretto, Don Alias, Carlos "Patato" Valdez, Tata Guines, Miguel "Anga" Diaz, Mongo Santamaria and more important, the death of my father last year.

Your father and hero, Efrain Kroon. Tell me about the significance of the cover-art as it relates to your father.

The photo was taken on a secluded beach in Pi?ones, Puerto Rico. My father was a merchant marine, thus the ocean in the background.

I like Felipe’s colorful description of your music, “Gut bucket jazz and a style of Latino music that speaks to the ears, feet, hips, ass, and arms.” Does that about sum it up? (Laughter)

Yeah! (Laughter) I actually went back to my old Harlem sound.

Meaning Latin jazz, which according to you “is where your heart is.”

It takes you right back to those old house parties where they played Ismael Rivera and Cortijo and people were just partying.

I am dating myself but must admit, I remember them well! Speaking of Harlem, you were born there but your family moved to Queens when you were nine. I hear that you had some remarkable neighbors.

I was so fortunate. I lived on the same block as (producer) Henry Glover, who did a lot of work for Roulette Records. He would allow me to attend his rehearsals with the Cleftones, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, etc. Also, Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis lived right around the corner and Lester Young lived four blocks away. I used to go to school with his son. We used to wait on the stoop until his taxi pulled up and Lester would get out of the cab with his hat in one hand and his horn in the other and we would be like, “Yeah! Prez!” Unlike a lot of kids today we knew who the elders were and we respected them and wanted to be like them.

I hear that Lester was super cool.

These guys were stylish. Arthur Prysock, Count Basie, James Brown and Brook Benton also lived in the neighborhood. I used to swim in Count Basie’s pool and wash Brook Benton’s car! And then there was the Club Ruby, where Charlie Parker played. It was an amazing place to grow up.

What part of Queens did you live in?

St. Albans.

How did you become a percussionist?

I was always into the drum. My big brother Bobby, who died fifteen years ago, was a big influence on me. I wanted to be whatever he wanted to be. Also, my father played a lot of records around the house. He loved Tito Rodriguez, Ismael Rivera, Cortijo and Tito Puente. I have vivid memories of my father taking us to The Apollo Theater to see The Symphony Sid Show. Check out the lineup: Mongo Santamaria, La Lupe, Kako, Willie Bobo, Carlos “Patato” Valdes, Cal Tjader, Armando Peraza and The Joe Cuba Sextet when they were at their height!

I understand that (percussionist) Tommy Lopez Sr. was also a major influence.

Tommy was an amazing guy and a major influence. He showed me how to play the proper tumbao and how to “sit” in the drum. I met Wilson Chembo Corniel through Tommy. We were both studying with Tommy at the same time but we had never met in person until one day I asked Tommy who his favorite student was and he said “there’s this kid that’s going to be great, his name is Chembo." Today we are the best of friends.

Getting back to Tommy Lopez, often times it wasn't so much what he taught but what he said. I remember we were talking about solos and Tommy said, “People play so much that it sounds like someone took a garbage can and threw it down the stairs! It’s what you don’t play that counts. You have to feel it.”

Tommy understood the dynamics of space, tension and release.

Unfortunately Tommy and Frankie Malabe never received the recognition they deserved during their lifetime.

True, but what Latin music aficionado can ever forget Tommy Lopez with the original Eddie Palmieri y La Perfecta? They were killin!

I saw La Perfecta at The Palladium, their groove was amazing. Eddie’s brother, Charlie Palmieri was not only a great musician but a great human being. I once commented to Charlie that I really wanted to make it in this business and you know what he said? “The first thing you have to do is stop chasing the train. Learn your stuff and when the train comes be ready to get on. Then ride it and never get off.”

Sound advice indeed. What's your take on the new crop of percussionists?

I respect everybody and I believe that everyone is doing the best they can. That said Giovanni Hidalgo has really raised the bar. A lot of guys look at Giovanni and see the flash, but what they don’t realize is that in order for him to get where he is, he had to learn the basics, the “old-school” stuff. I have seen Giovanni play just like Tommy Lopez and Mongo Santamaria. He’s special!

Who are some of the other people you studied with?

Don Um Rumao, a percussionist who came to the U.S. with Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66. He also played with Weather Report. I really took to Brazilian music because I like to play a lot of “colors." Don was really cool with me, we practiced together and became great friends. I also played with some of Don’s early groups during the 70s, when the Brazilian scene was happening in New York. We used to travel to Brazil every year, that’s where I met João Donato, Milton Nascimiento, and Gilberto Gil. Brazil has a whole different vibe; you can practically hear the music in the air.

Was there anyone else that had an impact on you?

José Fernandez, I met him through my brother. After Tommy Lopez, he was very instrumental in showing me the Cuban techniques, like La Mano Secreta (The Secret Hand).

Didn’t José Luis Quintana "Changuito" develop La Mano Secreta? I have always wondered about the technique, it sounds mystical.

La Mano Secreta is all about waking up the hand you don’t use. If you are right handed it’s about waking up your left hand.

You are extremely versatile and have wored extensively as a sideman. For the sake of our readers here are just a few of the names you have shared the stage with over the years: Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, Luther Vandross, Kenny G, Roberta Flack, Bette Midler, Spyro Gyra, Diana Krall … and the list goes on. What were the circumstances that led up to your working with so many wonderful artists?

Actually, it was through Crusher Bennett a friend and a musician who had established the connection and didn't like to travel. He liked the way I play so he turned me on to Luther Vandross. The rest is history. Later, I got into the jazz thing with Ron Carter, Stanley Turrentine, Hubert Laws to name a few.

How did Crusher make a living?

He made his money doing jingles and commercials.

Let’s talk about El Mas Alla and the repertoire. You composed four tunes ...

I wrote "Bobo’s Blues" and "Steppin" with Igor Italia. Oscar Hernandez and I collaborated on "Don Ramon" and "Matana."

You also selected material by Jaco Pastorious ("Used to be a Cha Cha"), João Donato ("Minha Saudade"), George Duke ("Brazilian Sugar") and Stevie Wonder ("Superwoman / Where Were You"). And if that weren’t enough you invited violinist Regina Carter and vocalist Freddy Cole to join you as your special guests. What a lineup!

I am so fortunate to know so many artists. A lot of them are my friends, like Regina. I have worked with her in the past.

Regina is a superb violinist.

And a beautiful person. She recorded "Superwoman / Where Were You" with me on her birthday. In fact, we celebrated her birthday in the recording studio. The tune has a great vibe and I thought it was perfect vehicle for her.

No doubt you remember violinist Noel Pointer (who passed away of a massive stroke at the age of 38). Regina has her own style, but there is something in her playing that reminds me of Noel.

Noel did the tune originally. Also, Regina and Noel were the best of friends. She told me that Noel’s vibe came through when she was recording the tune. She even played some of his licks!

What about vocalist Freddy Cole?

I heard Freddy about ten years ago and I couldn’t believe his voice. He has that kind of Hennessy, Courvoisier voice; do you know what I mean?

Seasoned, aged.

Originally I was going to have him sing "To Be With You," but it wasn’t a match so I chose "I Wish You Love" instead.

Good choice.

Even though I know a lot of people in the business I didn’t meet Freddy until we made the recording. I was working at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola (New York) and Todd Barkan mentioned to me that he was making a recording with Freddy Cole and needed a percussionist. I mentioned to him that I was interested in having Freddy appear on my CD and before I knew it Freddy called me up and said “Hey Steve, we can do this!” I couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true.

Let’s talk about your style. You are very conscious about appealing to a wide audience. Which brings to mind "The Steven Kroon Barbecue Theory." Please explain.

I am going to tell you two of the things that I think about when I put together a recording. I grew up dancing so there has to be something for the dancer’s.

Also, there has to be something for the ladies. And here’s where the barbecue test comes in, you put the CD on at a barbecue and walk away, you know what I mean? The music is accessible.

Coincidentally, my wife and I are planning a barbecue. I will have to put your theory to the test.

It's important to me that people come together and feel happy.

Who are the members of your band?

Igor Italia (keyboards), Bryan Carrott (vibraphone), Craig Rivers (flute), Ruben Rodriguez (bass), Vince Cherico (drums), Diego Lopez (drums), Oscar Hernandez (piano), James Shipp (pandiero), John Di Martino (piano), Roger Byan (saxophone), Regina Carter (violin) and Freddy Cole (vocals).

Final question: What’s in your CD player at home or in your car as we speak?

I listen to so much music on my iPod. I just put it on shuffle and go. Lately I have been listening to a lot of Mongo Santamaria. Have you heard Mongo Santamaria Live at the Blackhawk?

What serious Latin music lover hasn’t?

I love saxophonist Chombo Silva.

Chombo was the man, he is my favorite Latin sax player of all time.

He reminds me of Prez (Lester Young). I have also been listening to (Cuban drummer) Giraldo Piloto and Klimax. The arrangements are incredible. Another guy I was really enjoying just prior to his death was (percussionist) Long John Oliva.

Long John Oliva and The AC Timba Jazz Project with Omar Sosa and Orlando “Puntilla” Rios. Who can forget Zarabanda Culle?

They were killin’! I also like (Brazilian composer and arranger) Moacir Santos, The Ipanemas and (Brazilian vocalist) Carlinhos Brown.

Will you be performing in New York anytime soon? Are you planning on having a CD release party?

Yes, my CD release party is going to be at Sweet Rhythm. I have to firm up the date. I also have a contract to perform at Flushing Town Hall (Queens) in October. I have a couple of other things pending as well.

Well, this has certainly been a lively conversation. I feel like I have met a kindred spirit. Good luck with El Mas Alla.

July 19, 2008 · 0 comments


In Conversation with Norma Winstone

by Stuart Nicholson

Norma Winstone is one of the great jazz vocalists not simply because she is so obviously accomplished in what she does, but the sheer range of her singing embraces everything the jazz vocalist can be called upon to do. Yet no single aspect of jazz singing can be said to be central to her style; she is an interpreter of the American Popular Song par excellence, but she is not a standards singer; she can scat masterfully but she is not a scat singer and she is a brilliantly imaginative free jazz singer but she is not a free jazz musician. Her sight-reading skills have frequently been harnessed to provide a wordless tone color in both small groups and large ensembles; she has explored vocalese; she has worked with electronics and she has explored abstraction and collective improvisation with singers Urzula Dudziak and Jay Clayton (and later Michele Hendricks) in Vocal Summit. She has sung with unusual combinations of instruments and she has sung with orchestras and big bands and she has sung a cappella. Whatever the context, her performances have been both distinguished and distinctive.

Norma Winstone

Much has been written about the voice-as-an-instrument, but in Norma Winstone’s case, it is fair to say she is a brilliantly imaginative jazz musician whose instrument is her voice. Her style represents one of the first independent developments of jazz vocal technique beyond the borders of the United States.

Norma Winstone won a scholarship to study piano and organ for three years at Trinity College, London. In 1965 she began singing with jazz groups, her emergence on the UK jazz scene coinciding with a period of remarkable creativity in British jazz that saw composer, arranger and bandleader Mike Westbrook top the composer’s category and John Surman the baritone saxophone and soprano saxophone categories of the “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” section of the annual Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1969.

However, it was also a period that was overshadowed by Beatlemania, the explosion of pop culture and the massive popularity of groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Animals and the Spencer Davis Group. Yet British jazz of this period was by not entirely swamped by events going on elsewhere; the vibrant scene around Ronnie Scott’s club (both the “old” and the “new” Ronnies’), the more blues based Flamingo Club and the free jazz scene around the Little Theatre Club left a legacy of imaginative and original music that even today is not fully appreciated, even within the United Kingdom itself.

It was into this milieu that Norma Winstone stepped, first attracting attention when she supported the Roland Kirk group at Ronnie Scott’s. She was soon figuring in some of key UK jazz ensembles of the day such as the New Jazz Orchestra, where she came to the attention of the band’s pianist Michael Garrick in 1966. Invited to join his sextet, she can be heard using her voice as a front-line instrument on albums such as The Heart is a Lotus (1970), Home Stretch Blues (1972) and Troppo (1974) which number among the finest albums in British jazz.

She also performed free jazz with drummer John Stevens at the Little Theatre Club, in London, a small room up four flights of stairs in the West End of London that was virtually the headquarters of the London free jazz scene. Here, alongside the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts she was performing with some of the most adventurous musicians of the day.

In 1970 she invited by Mike Wesbrook to perform with his big band, and can be heard on Love Songs (1970) and the classic Metropolis (1971), a brilliant achievement from an ensemble that was virtually a who’s who of British jazz of the period. She also performed on Kenny Wheeler’s Pause and Think Again (1971) and with musicians such as John Surman, Joe Harriot, Michael Gibbs and John Taylor, and, as her reputation spread, leading European musicians, radio big bands and orchestras.

In 1971 she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll and made her recording debut under her own name with Edge of Time, which although has been long deleted was re-released as a CD on the Disconforme label. After almost a decade of diverse work that embraced virtually every aspect of contemporary jazz, she and her then husband, pianist John Taylor, formed the group Azimuth with Kenny Wheeler. They made their debut on the ECM label with Azimuth (1977), and went on to make a further four albums. Described by Richard Williams in the London Times as, “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced of all contemporary chamber jazz groups,” they set new standards in group interaction and opened up new ground by combining jazz and minimalism and ambient sounds a decade before they were fashionable. “It was a group that was ahead of its time,” Winstone says. Their first three albums have recently been released as three album box-set by ECM.

She has also appeared on ECM recordings under her own name, her Somewhere Called Home is considered a classic, and on ECM recordings by the likes of Kenny Wheeler and Eberhard Weber. If diversity was a hallmark of her early career, then it has continued to this day. In 1992, in collaboration with composer/arranger Steve Gray, she created A French Folk Song Suite (based on the Songs of the Auvergne by Canteloube), which she performed by the North German Radio big band. When she wrote the lyrics for pianist Jimmy Rowles’ composition “The Peacocks,” Rowles approved them, leading their collaboration on Well Kept Secret, an album of beautiful, lesser known standards in 1993. Other collaborations include those with Fred Hersch, Gary Burton and Steve Swallow as well as UK jazz greats such as Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins.

In recent times she formed a musical association with the Italian pianist Glauco Venier and the Austrian saxophonist and bass clarinettist Klaus Gesing which has seen her return again to the ECM label with the release of Distances. In the liner notes, the trio talk about their use of baroque counterpoint which they say is as musically relevant as New Orleans heterophony or folk music or free playing. These elements are thoughtfully juxtaposed under the overarching language of jazz to produce a unique album that opens a new chapter in Norma Winstone’s distinguished career.

I know you have no shortage of American admirers, so I thought it would be interesting to retrace some of the highlights of your career because few singers have covered such a diverse range of styles as you. I think your break came on the mid-1960s with the New Jazz Orchestra that led to your joining Michael Garrick’s group?

That’s going back! I had been singing in this club in the East End of London, that turned out to be owned by the Cray Twins [notorious London gangsters], just so that I could sing. I had this little group and I had used to book a guest each week, and one week [trumpeter] Ian Carr was the guest and after he heard me sing he said, ‘I should introduce you to Neil Ardley and you should sing with the New Jazz Orchestra.’ So he did that, and Michael Garrick was on piano.

Michael gave me some songs he had written and I took them away and learned them and I went along to a sextet gig that he had, and he said, ‘Would you like to sit-in and sing one of the songs?’ I did that and he said, ‘Well, don’t sit down, stay on and join in the next piece.’ Well the next piece had no words, it was just like a one chord raga piece, and I just sang on it. At the time his front line was Art Themen and Ian [Carr] – that was before [trumpeter] Henry Lowther joined – and Jim Phillips [on tenor saxophone]. And Jim was leaving for some reason so Michael said, ‘Would you like to join and take over and sing Jim’s saxophone parts?’ So I did.

Around this time you were also involved in the free jazz scene around drummer John Stevens in the Little Theatre, which I don’t think is that well known.

Probably not. The free music scene with John Stevens was where I met Kenny [Wheeler], that was a learning thing. I had no idea what I was doing! But he’d get me along to sing and there’d be Dave Holland on bass, just before he left to join Miles Davis, there’d be all kinds of musicians there. We’d just make music and I liked the idea of that but eventually I felt I couldn’t really control it, too many people involved, and as a voice you’re at the mercy of everything else, you can’t really control too much – not that I wanted to control – this was at the Little Theatre Club where they all came to play in London, all the Young Lions from all over the place.

Even at this early stage of your career you were covering an incredibly diverse range of music.

I was improvising and I had worked with standards and I’d improvise with different words and melody and then I did some scat singing, but it wasn’t like Ella’s scat singing, because I felt those syllables would sound wrong from coming from me, an English person, they wouldn’t sound right. So when I sang these things with Michael [Garrick] I had never heard anybody sing that kind of material before, and he was very interested in words, in literature, and he had things with words but I had no influences about how to sing them, or how I should sound.

Norma Winstone

Before then I always listened to people like Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Sinatra of course, from when I was a child, Sinatra and Lena Horne – I loved Lena Horne’s way of singing – so suddenly I was singing things which there was no precedent for, if I had an American accent before, then when I was singing with Michael [Garrick] I lost it, because why do you need an American accent? These were English songs, English words, and that started me trying to find out who I was and what I could do.

I remember the liner notes for the Gilles Peterson Impressed Vol. 2, a collection of modern jazz highlights from Britain during this period, where you said that when you sang “Will You Walk a Little Faster” with the Neil Ardley Orchestra, using lyrics from a poem in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and there was much discussion about whether you sang “dance” with an American pronunciation or an English pronunciation.

Cleo [Laine] always sang with an English accent, but it was still a little bit new. America rules the whole of jazz so these kind of things, setting music to English poems, they had no time for it on the American side of things.

You also sang with many key British ensembles of this period, not least those led by Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, John Warren, Neil Ardley and Kenny Wheeler, of course, and contributed to several classic albums from this period. But could we move on to Azimuth, which many people, not least yourself, have said was a group ahead of its time.

Azimuth started out just as John Taylor [on piano] and me. It was at a time when recording companies started cutting down their jazz content [in the mid-1970s], but Kenny Wheeler had recorded for ECM, he had recoded Gnu High, and had asked for John to do it, but Manfred [Eicher, boss of ECM] said ‘I think you should do this with Keith Jarrett.’ So Manfred knew John’s name because of that, so we made a duo recording, John’s tunes, my words, with the idea of sending to ECM.

The night before John went to see ECM he was playing around with this new synthesizer he had just bought and found some unusual sounds and made a loop and said, “Just improvise over that.” And he recorded it as well and that was thing that Manfred latched onto immediately, he said, “Yes, I can hear a flugelhorn with the voice.” I think he heard something he could do something with. And that is the piece that ended up being called Azimuth.

But when we went to record it, it had no title, so we recorded it, and left the session with no name for the piece and no name for the group. And Manfred said as soon as you get a title for that let me know. So we talked about it, John said it sounds like a journey, so he went into the thesaurus, and he found the word “azimuth,” and he looked it up in the dictionary and it means the arc from the zenith to the horizon and so he said we’ll call the track “Azimuth.” And Manfred said you should call the whole album Azimuth, and call the group Azimuth – it’s a good name!

You made your first album together in 1977, and this and The Touchstone and Depart have just been re-released by ECM as a three album box set. Here you use the voice-as-an-instrument, could you talk about your aesthetic underlying this approach, which I am sure young, aspiring vocalists would be fascinated to hear.

I was always using it as an instrument, in the 1960s with Kenny [Wheeler’s] big band, with Michael Garrick, I was an “instrument.” But I never thought of it as copying an instrument, I thought of it as a sound, which is what it is. Why can’t a voice be used as a texture? I could never see why some people didn’t like the idea of it, it’s a whole interesting world, I like singing words too, but I don’t see why you’ve always got to sing words. I don’t know how it developed really – Kenny’s, Michael’s, John’s compositions.

So by the time of Azimuth, we were all very used to each others playing, but there was no real rehearsal. We used to get together if there was something coming up, but we used to laugh about it because we didn’t really “rehearse,” we just played. John might go off into a free thing and Ken and I would think, “I wonder where this is leading?” and we’d suddenly hear something, and “Ah, yes!” It was a wonderful group, really.

Your latest album Distances is your first ECM recording in a decade since you made your last album with Azimuth. Perhaps you could tell us about your association with Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone?

Well, an agent in Italy called me, Andrea Morrini, who I think is Kenny Wheeler’s manager and John Taylor’s manager now, and said would I like to go and work with two local musicians? And I said no, I don’t really want to work with people I don’t know. Then he called back again, and he said they’ll play your music, just bring your own music, and anyway you know the piano player because you did a recording with him.

When he explained, I of course remembered the circumstances, because in-between takes [during this recording session] he would play some very unusual tunes from shows. And I thought, well, he’s not just an “avant garde” player. Andrea said he played with a saxophone player from Germany, they had a duo, and it was their idea to ask Andrea to get in touch with me. So I sent my music on to them, they were happy to play anything, so we did a concert and I could tell they didn’t mind taking chances, things happened and it was a really nice concert. I got a recording of it, and I said to Andrea I was really happy with that and let me know if anything else comes up.

A few other things came up and I said if you’re any good we should make our own recording with our own material otherwise we’re always going to be like a second-class Azimuth, or whatever. So they came out to my house for a few days to go through material, and we played through things, and we selected enough to make a recording. Some pieces I wrote were without words at that stage, and we recorded these tunes in this studio where I had met Glauco in the first place. We had difficulty in finding someone to take the album, but Klaus found someone in Universal in Austria who liked it and put it out, but only in Austria, where we had some concerts.

By coincidence, Manfred Eicher was listening to the radio and heard Klaus being interviewed late at night and they played one or two tracks from our album. It so happened that Manfred had begun using the same studio where we had recorded this album. Enrico Rava introduced him to it. So Manfred began going there and they brought Glauco in, who is a good friend of the recording engineer to translate, and while he was there Manfred said “Who are you?” and Glauco said “I’m the local piano player, I often play with a saxophone player called Klaus Geesing” And Manfred said, “I heard him on the radio he’s made a record with Norma Winstone and a piano player,” and Glauco said, “Yes, that piano player is me!” And Manfred said, “You should have brought that to me.” So Glauco told me this.

However, there had been a bit of a falling-out between Klaus and Glauco. One is very Italian and the other is very German, they are really great friends, but there seemed a chance that the group might not continue. They seemed as if they were not that keen for personal reasons to work with each other any more. So I thought I’ll take a chance here, a last ditch attempt to keep things together, so I picked up the phone and rang ECM. I spoke to Steve Lake, and explained Manfred expressed an interest in recording us, we were hoping to make a new recording, and if he’s interested could he call me? I put the phone down and ten minutes later Manfred rang saying he wanted to record it! So I phoned Klaus and Glauco and said, “We’ve got an opportunity to record for ECM, do you want to do it?” That made a difference to Klaus and Glauco. Suddenly they were able to deal with their differences!

This recording is perhaps more of a “songs” ensemble than Azimuth, and although you do revisit the voice-as-instrument on “Gorizia,” the album is very much a chamber jazz approach to songs with lyrics.

When it came to the recording date, Manfred was ill. I had heard a rumour he was ill, and I thought he was going to cancel. So we spoke on the phone and he said, “I don’t want to cancel, just go ahead and do what you want.” He was at the mixing, though, where you choose what goes onto the record, and you get down to the sound, the finished sound which he’s brilliant at. Listening to Distances some people may get the impression we play all slow pieces in live performance, but we don’t. It’s just that those were the pieces that Manfred thought would work best on the recording. That’s where Manfred is very clever, I think, he sees something as a whole package.

Perhaps you could take us through some of the songs on the album, a mixture of originals with your lyrics, poems adapted to songs and standards.

Glauco is very keen on folk music from Udine, the area where he lives in Italy, and with Klaus they play some folk tunes which he had re-harmonized, and there was one I particularly liked, and I mentioned it, and he said we could try and do it as a trio. That’s “The Mermaid.” The tune was originally the name of a fishing village not far from where Glauco lives, and I had that kind of image in mind, and that was the inspiration for the words. He had another piece which he had written about the area called “Gorizia,” but without words, I couldn’t think of words for that, so we did it without words. Then there was one piece, “Petite Ouverture á Danser” by Satie and we were going to do that without words and suddenly Glauco said, “I’ve found this wonderful Pasolini poem and it fits the tune!” It’s called “Ciant” [on the CD] and it fits, and I’m really happy about this, I like folk music but it doesn’t come out like folk music. And then Klaus composed quite a lot, we did a few of his pieces but not all got onto the album, but I think they probably needed more work.

Norma Winstone

Before the session, they had come over to the house and brought various things and I suggested one or two pieces, like the Peter Gabriel piece, they hadn’t heard that, “Here Comes the Flood,” I played them that and they really liked it. As soon as I heard a tune by Klaus called “Fly Spanish Fly” I thought that could be a song. It’s going to be difficult because it’s a very, very long melody and doesn’t resolve for a long time, but immediately I knew there were words that would come out from it, which is the way I approach lyric writing, I just find the words that are in there, and that is called “Drifter.” Then Klaus had done a Coltrane project in Vienna which I sang, I wrote some words to things he had set, including “Giant Steps” but he had written this bit that starts and ends it, we liked it and decided to record it and call it “Giant’s Little Stride,” and Manfred liked it, so that was included on the album. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” was a song Klaus and I had planned to do as an encore that night in Vienna. So we began [on the record] as a duo but let Glauco come in where he felt like it.

We all agree that to do standards you need to freshen them up. It helps your interpretation if you can make them fresh for you – perhaps you re-harmonize slightly or don’t do it in the obvious way, just taking away the piano in the beginning and inferring the harmony in the beginning and playing very open harmony so you don’t actually know what it is at the beginning. Whatever. I always need this sort of thing when I’m singing anything really. I like to be thrilled by something, or “what is that?” Or even “where am I?” It helps, I think. I don’t know if it helps the outcome, but it helps me! I feel better about it that way, it works for me.

We are all the sum of our experiences, and perhaps you could end by taking a look back over your long and distinguished career and perhaps explain how your life’s experiences are reflected in, and have contributed to, Distances.

A nice easy question! Well, I love the Miles Davis groups and Herbie Hancock, wonderful, a big influence really, the why they sounded. The Miles group with Herbie, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, I saw them and I’d never heard anything like it, the way they improvised, it was just a real inspiration. In fact, the group Miles had when he recorded Kind of Blue that was a terrific influence on me, I loved it so much I played it over and over again, and it made me think I’d like to be involved in that music.

That made me think of how I’d like to be involved in the music. For example, if you just came along and sang a standard, and the band improvised in the middle and you sang the song again at the end, it didn’t feel to me like you were being really involved in the way I’d like to be involved. At the time I had no idea how I could achieve what I wanted but I thought if I find unusual material, or find somebody who could write words to pieces like “So What” maybe that may be a way of being a bit more integrated into the music. And I feel as if I have achieved that, even when I sing now I feel as if I am integrated into the performance. I never feel I’m out front and Klaus and Glauco are accompanying me. That’s what I have always wanted to do, and I’ve come back to singing songs, which I have always done, which I love, but that’s not the limit of it. Anybody, as long as your ear is good enough, can be involved in the process of making music more deeply and by various paths and I feel I have done that. It’s because I love the music, that’s what’s driven me, a passion for making music, and that’s really been my concern. It has never occurred to me not to do things that attract me for any reason.

Norma Winstone, thank you for being jazz.com’s guest.

Thank you.

July 14, 2008 · 3 comments


In Conversation with Rosa Passos

By Tomas Peña

Welcome to New York and congratulations on the release of Romance. It’s an exquisite recording.

Thank you.

Before we speak about your recording, I would like to ask you a few questions about the history of bossa nova. As I understand it the two key figures in the bossa nova movement are João Gilberto and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Yes, I learned the Bossa Nova from Joao Gilberto.

Rosa Passos

Bossa nova sounds so effortless, yet it is quite complex. How do you explain the intricacies of bossa nova to someone who has little or knowledge of the genre?

Bossa nova is very quiet and delicate. In order to understand bossa nova you have to be able to “feel” the quietness and delicacy of the music.

I read that bossa nova derives from samba. Also that it is “samba minus the percussion.” Is that so?

The dynamics and the rhythms of bossa nova are different from samba. I was asked that very question when I conducted a workshop at Berklee and I answered it by playing the rhythms side-by-side. It’s easier to hear the differences between than to put it into words.

You grew up in San Salvador, Bahia, known as Brazil’s “Capital of Happiness” and the center of Afro-Brazilian culture. How did growing up in San Salvador impact your music?

I grew up surrounded by music! But as a little girl my favorites were Dorival Caymmi and João Gilberto.

How about your father? I read that he used to play a lot of music (records) around the house.

Oh yes, my father loved music and he “kind of” played the guitar [laughter]. Everyone in my family played an instrument: my sister Arizete played the piano. Also, my two brothers played the guitar and the cello. I started out playing the piano but I switched to the guitar because it came very easy to me. I have always had an affinity for the guitar.

I understand that the film, Black Orpheus left a deep and lasting impression on you.

Yes, my sister brought the soundtrack home and I listened to it over and over.

It’s a timeless film and soundtrack. I have seen Black Orpheus countless times and I still play the soundtrack. It’s a classic.

It’s good to know that we have the same taste!

Did any of your brothers and sisters become professional musicians?

No, my brother (the cellist) tried very, very hard but in the end he opted to become a civil engineer.

Rosa Passos

When did you realize that music was your life?

Music has always been part of my life.

You first professional gigs were on Brazilian radio and television. In 1979 you recorded Recriacao, then you disappeared from the music scene for six years to be with your family. Was dropping out of the music scene difficult for you? Tell me about that period in your life.

No, it wasn’t difficult at all. I made a conscious decision to take some time off to raise my children. And, I never stopped studying, composing or playing. I just didn’t go public.

You resumed your career in 1985 and your big break in the U.S. came when Oscar Castro Neves invited you to appear with him at the Hollywood Bowl in 1996.

How do you explain bossa nova’s long-standing popularity in the U.S? From Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz to Djavan and Ivan Lins, the love affair is ongoing.

Bossa nova has always been well received in the United States. Speaking for myself, I love performing in the U.S. Even though I do not speak English I have always been well received by the public and the press. My “gift” to the U.S. is my music and in turn I receive such positive energy from the public. It’s very encouraging and uplifting!

Speaking of positive energy, let’s talk about Romance. When you were asked to do the recording you jumped at the chance to record an album of ballads. Is there any particular reason why you chose to do that now?

I have always been very comfortable with ballads and I was in the mood to do it. Also, the world needs it!

No doubt the world could use some love, peace and tranquility. Tell me about the repertoire.

I selected material by some of the greatest Brazilian composers: Antonio Carlos Jobim, Djavan, Ivan Lins, Dorival Caymmi, Joao Donato, Chico Buarque among others.

What’s your take on the new bossa nova? Are there any up-and-coming Brazilian artists that call your attention? Who are some of the artists that you enjoy listening to when you have a free moment?

I am a traditionalist and I am not involved in the new movement so I really don’t have an opinion on that. I like to listen to the divas of jazz.


Nancy Wilson, Shirley Horn, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and lots of instrumental music.

In Brazil you are known as “The Female João Gilberto.” Are you comfortable with that?

That has been going on for a long, long time. Overall I like it, but João is a legend so it’s a big responsibility. I would like the public to know that I perform all kinds of music in my own way, sometimes with a jazzy flavor.

As you did with Ron Carter (Entre Amigos) and Kenny Rankin (Here in My Heart) and Chris Botti (“Here’s That Rainy Day”). Have you given any thought to making a jazz recording your own?

Have you heard my recording, Azul (2002)? On this recording I perform in many different styles. If you haven’t heard it, give it a listen.

No but I look forward to hearing it.

Before we close the interview, I would like to echo the sentiments of one reviewer, who wrote that your voice “has immense warmth and sweetness.” And that “listening to you is like inviting an old friend to come and stay awhile.” Also I have a confession to make, “I am in love with the sound of your voice!” There I said it!

Thank you.

Good luck with your upcoming performance at Lincoln Center and Romance. It’s on heavy rotation in the Peña household!

Coda: Rosa did indeed perform at The Allen Room and she received rave reviews. According to Nate Chinen of The New York Times, “Her concert was a study in small gestures and subtle touches, and she made it feel both natural and special.”

Thank You to Rosa’s sister, Arizete Lockwood, who was kind enough to serve as our translator during the interview process.

July 09, 2008 · 1 comment


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Jimmy Heath

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 saxophonist and composer Jimmy Heath.

by arnold jay smith

                 Jimmy Heath, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

One might think that after all the years and experiences of saxophonist / composer / arranger / educator Jimmy Heath that he would have so much to say about the places and the people, the music he’s composed and performed and the influences on the instruments on which he is so proficient. Perhaps he’s saved those for his forthcoming autobiography, I Walked With the Giants, due in January. What we shared –and there was a bunch left unsaid of our 35-year ongoing relationship— was alluded to in the brief analysis and observations of the premiere of his Queens Jazz Orchestra at its home at Flushing Town Hall recently published in the jazz.com blog. (Click here to read it.)

The topic with which we are both most concerned is legacy. “I have two bands now, so I have to be careful not to have a conflict,” he explained. The other, much older band is the Jimmy Heath Orchestra which has its own schedule of appearances,” Whichever group he speaks on the subject is always about disseminating information about the music. We might be discussing his commissions of some thirty years ago, or his more recent ones, or the formal and informal teaching he continues on campuses around the country. Jimmy recently made a guest solo appearance with the New Jersey City University Jazz Ensemble under the direction of Ed Joffe. (In the spirit of full disclosure I am an Adjunct Professor of Jazz History there.) I had assigned my students to review the proceedings. Their reports emphasized Jimmy’s “youthful exuberance,” the manner in which he explained his music and the enthusiasm he elicits from the student musicians.

“I do a number of those every year,” he said. “I feel that I can give something so that the music will continue. You have to do things so that young people can understand there’s more to it than what they are being given.” He was alluding to the one-chord vamp with a drum beat that can so easily be played on a machine.


profiles of jazz legends who are creative and active beyond their eighth decade:
a jazz.com feature by by arnold jay smith (click on image below to view article)

Jimmy Heath by Suzanne Cerny

Jimmy Heath

Randy Weston by Suzanne Cerny

Randy Weston

Marian McPartland by Suzanne Cerny

Marian McPartland

Chico Hamilton by Suzanne Cerny

Chico Hamilton

Clark Terry by Suzanne Cerny

Clark Terry

Dr. Billy Taylor by Suzanne Cerny

Dr. Billy Taylor

The Heaths, i.e., Jimmy and wife Mona moved to Queens in 1964. “I was tired of the row houses in Philadelphia where I was married and living with my parents. I wanted to come to Queens after speaking with Clark Terry and Cannonball Adderley who told me that the Dorie Miller Coop [where he still resides] was where they lived and how many others lived there.” There were trees and the schools were better in Queens — there were none of the former in the part of Philly where he lived. He and Mona had two children together, so the latter was important as well.

The name Heath was already established by big brother Percy who, along with the rest of a Dizzy Gillespie rhythm section, formed the Modern Jazz Quartet. Jimmy began playing alto — he loved Charlie Parker — then tenor, and later soprano, and lobes began to stand at attention. [Read all about that in his forthcoming book.] But these essays are about more; it was his teaching and writing that fired my interest.

“I began teaching in 1980, at Housatonic College in Bridgeport, CT. Then for a year at City College. I taught at Jazzmobile prior to the college and university level. I was teaching privately while I was in Philadelphia.”

While at Jazzmobile Jimmy had the opportunity not only to teach, but to write, play and conduct for and with professional and student ensembles. Dr. Billy Taylor was the founder and director followed by Paul West then David Bailey. “Under Billy we had these lecture concerts in the Intermediate Schools,” Jimmy remembered. “We would do an evolutionary program beginning with ragtime and boogie woogie. The kids would love boogie woogie because they had been brainwashed by the repetition of the music of the day. We might play the theme from the television show “Sanford and Son” [by Quincy Jones]. I would play the soprano part. When we got to the more complicated parts of the music, Billy would talk about [people like] Art Tatum. At one school in Brooklyn one of the kids told us that all ‘they’ ever sent them were string quartets and like that. They were so happy that we brought jazz.”

That opened Jimmy’s mind to the fact that jazz was not being exposed in the schools. He gives Dr. Billy all the credit for doing that. And presently Wynton Marsalis as well.

In 1973 I attended a concert at the Town Hall in NYC presented by Jazzmobile of Jimmy Heath conducting an all star orchestra, big band and choir in the commissioned premiere of The Afro-American Suite of Evolution. It was a mammoth effort running some 30+ minutes, tracing our music from its inception to what was then current. While Jimmy unearths excerpts from time to time, the suite in its entirety has never been performed. No clean recorded copies of the premiere exist. “That was 30 years ago; why do you want to talk about that now? he asked me.” His recollections answer his own question.

He had applied for funding and Jazzmobile was the vehicle. “I had to study,” he said emphatically. “I had never written for strings nor choirs up to that time.” Every week for two years Jimmy became a student studying with Professor Rudolph Schramm, whose teaching of the Schillinger System helped make him legendary. “He knew what I was doing on recordings, etc., and took me from where I was to where I wanted to be. Prof. Schramm gave me the confidence I needed to complete the difficult task of tracing the history of African Americans through music.” Jimmy had heard Ellington’s Black, Brown and Beige, and still listens to the music of Stravinsky and other Western Classical composers. He knew that Bird, for example, had The Firebird score. I’ve heard that that music often wafted from Bird’s dressing room between sets. “We were interested in the harmonies, not the rhythm,” he said. “We had the rhythm!” The Suite was performed twice subsequent to the Town Hall debut: at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in Winnipeg, Canada.

[If there is a copy out there, might someone send it to me, please?!]

Jimmy still utilizes sections. “Each section is dedicated to one of my icons, my heroes,” he admitted. “'The Voice of the Saxophone,' with its dedication to Coleman Hawkins, was recorded twice: once with CBS and once with the Heath Brothers.”

Two of his other heroes are Dizzy Gillespie, for whom he wrote "Without You No Me," performed in Flushing, and Parker, for whom he was commissioned to write "Bird Is The Word" for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in Harlem and on the Lower East Side. “For the NYC Parks Dept. commission of 'Bird Is The Word' I used only seven pieces whereas the Afro-American Suite was for a huge orchestra. I had the band sing, chant, if you will, ‘Bird is the word, the music we all heard; he made it clear and his music is still here.’ I encouraged the people to chant along.” [I did.] Jimmy’s looking for a “connection” to record the piece.

For his latest commission for the QJO, "Cultural Crossroads," Jimmy again utilized a chant which was later echoed instrumentally by sections of the band. He explained that the use of a chant is not so much of African roots as it is from his experiencing the big bands at the Earle Theatre in Philly. “Jimmy Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Tommy Dorsey all had the band sing something,” he remembered. “When I was with Dizzy he had us sing some nursery rhyme. So when I wrote "Moody’s Groove" the vocalizations were homage to him. It’s a communicative thing. If it’s the blues it’s ‘Hey, baby let’s go home and do it.’ Unless it’s country & western; in that case it’s all about your truck, in sexual terms no less. Or ‘All my ex-es live in Texas that’s why I moved to Tennessee.’”

There is no chanting in the 'Basie' section" of the “Afro-American Suite” which was performed at Flushing Town Hall with the QJO. Count Basie was a long time resident of Queens and his presence triggered Jimmy’s warm feelings about the borough and its inhabitants. Jimmy and Cobi Narita were on a panel at FTH at about the time when the “Queens Jazz Trail” map was being created. The map highlights the homes of the artists. The map begat a motorized trolley to take people on a tour of said homes [refer to my previous jazz.com article for some names, or www.flushingtownhall.org and follow the trail yourself.] Jimmy said that if they got the funding he would put the band together. In fact, the title, Queens Jazz Orchestra was Jimmy’s idea. “I thought it was just another idea that would not come to fruition,” he remembered thinking. “They had jumped the gun by putting it on the schedule then said that I had to write something since it was already on the schedule.”

Cultural crossroads, indeed. Flushing has turned from upwardly mobile Jewish to Pan-Asian. Corona is multi-Hispanic. Nearby is Shea Stadium and soon the new Citi Field home of the New York Mets. Yuppies and their puppies have long-ago re-discovered Forest Hills and Kew Gardens. There are CUNY and other institutions now inhabiting former factories and warehouses in Long Island City. Want upscale shopping malls? Try Elmhurst. The diversified area has been featured in major newspaper articles, on radio and on television.

All of which is echoed by FTH’s programming: jazz, Latin, Broadway, photo and fine art exhibits, arts & crafts. The QJO was the next natural step. “The band is made up of the same quality musicians that I have in my own band,” Jimmy said. “The repertoire comes from the people who lived there. The idea is to have a touring organization under the banner QJO. Dates and venues have yet to be named. We have to crawl before we walk.”

REGRETS?: Jimmy made an appearance at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for an anniversary in 2007. Rev. Herbert Daughtry mentioned that he knew Jimmy from a certain period in both their lives and from a time and place of which Jimmy said, “I was stupid. I would like to relive that period when I had a problem with drugs. I would take out those four or five years and use them productively.”

UNFINISHED?: “Just to continue enjoying life. I have five grandchildren and four great grandchildren.”


With “The Queens Jazz Orchestra” now off to a good start with the success of it’s inaugural concert the plans for the future are almost writing themselves.

”Flushing Council on Culture & The Arts” is planning a “Jazz Camp” next year at “Flushing Town Hall” that will utilize “Queens Jazz Orchestra” members to teach jazz improvisation, harmony, history and technique to students who aspire to become proficient jazz players and perhaps pursue careers as professionals.

Plans to bring the Queens Jazz Orchestra on tour are already in motion and requests to book the ensemble are coming in. The Orchestra would like to perform at the major Jazz Festivals abroad including the Montreux Jazz Festival and festivals in Japan and India, as well as colleges in the United States.

Flushing Town Hall is planning a cruise for the orchestra, “The Queens Jazz Orchestra Jazz Cruise” for 2009, which will be an evening of music; dining and dancing departing from the Flushing Marina and the orchestra will have some special guests performing with them to spice up the summer night.

July 05, 2008 · 2 comments