In Conversation With John Scofield

By Stuart Nicholson

                        John Scofield by Nick Suttle

On John Scofield's 2002 album Überjam, drummer Adam Deitch performs a short, 20-second rap that includes the line, "Sco rocked for Miles and he's one of the best." Deitch's choice of words is telling. Sco rocked for Miles. A child of the '60s, Scofield listened to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, and B. B. King. He marvelled at their inventiveness as he did such traditional jazz guitarists as Charlie Christian, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, and Wes Montgomery.

As a teenager, Scofield was a fan of Berry Gordy's Tamla/Motown label. He loved blues and R&B. He played with high school bands that played in those styles, even as he studied bebop. Scofield's appreciation for R&B later stood him in good stead: in the '70s, when he was afforded the chance to work with drummer Billy Cobham's jazz-rock band (a group that also included Randy and Michael Brecker); and in the '80s, with Miles Davis's funk-oriented group. Many think the Davis albums on which Scofield played—Decoy, among them—were the best of the trumpeter's final period.

After years of recording for the enja, Gramavision, and Blue Note labels, Scofield began recording for Verve in 1996. Since then, he has made almost a record a year. The albums are a musically diverse lot: Quiet featured his acoustic guitar; A Go Go found him playing rough-and-tumble jam band tunes with Medeski Martin & Wood; Bump explored second-line funk. Recent albums have featured straight-ahead all-star jams (Works for Me), the music of Ray Charles (That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles), and collaborations with the English classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (Blood on the Floor and Scorched). It's fair to say Scofield does not wallow in a comfort zone. He moves between musical genres with accomplished ease, giving each his personal slant. His latest album is no exception. Piety Street is an excursion into Gospel music, given a distinctive musical flavor by a group of (mostly) New Orleans musicians handpicked by Scofield. It's quite different from anything he's attempted previously. We began our conversation by talking about the inspiration behind this latest project.

It's not a huge leap from Ray Charles to Piety Street. Could you tell what thoughts were going through your mind when you conceived this project?

Well, I wanted to make a blues-type guitar record. That was my first thought. But there are so many blues bands—on every corner, in every bar, guys playing 12-bar blues. I thought, 'We need a little more than that.' I've wanted to go to New Orleans for years to make a record, with New Orleans musicians, so I thought, 'What are we going to play?' Having been a fan of Gospel music for years and years and collected songs, performances, and recordings, I thought it might be a good base for stuff we could do. So I went down there played with a bunch of musicians and found the guys I thought would do the best job. They were into it, and we made the record.

How did you hook up with these guys?

I've known a lot of the guys down there for years, because I've played there a lot and hung out there over the years. I knew [singer and pianist] Jon Cleary; I'm a fan of his, I knew him through my brother-in-law Mark Bingham, who also owns the studio where we recorded. He lives in New Orleans. I met Cleary eighteen years ago, and have been following his work ever since. Also [bassist] George Porter, Jr. I'm a fan of the Meters and all those New Orleans records he played on, so I knew his stuff. I played with him a little bit—seven, eight years ago— at a big jam session that was organized by a promoter down in New Orleans. John Boutté, the other singer, I'd heard of, but didn't know him. He was recommended to me by Mark Bingham.

It was funny, because I wanted to get the same guys on the record that are going to be on the tour, rather than have all-stars on the album and not being able to tour with them. So I got all-stars who could tour, but I couldn't find a drummer who would commit. Two guys I really loved were busy, so I got Ricky Fataar, who is from San Francisco—not from New Orleans—but he's a great drummer and can play that music. Then we got Shannon Powell to play tambourine. He's a drummer, but he also plays incredible tambourine. He ended up playing drums on one of the tracks.

The album has fourteen songs, a lot of material by today's standards. You must have given a lot of thought to choosing the material.

I'll tell you, it's not that it was easy, but it was a joy. It got me into researching the music a little more. I have a friend up here in New York, Paul Siegel, and he's a gospel expert. Over the years, he's been feeding me all this stuff, and he fed me even more. It would have been easy to have made a Volume 2.

Can we talk about some of the songs? 'It's a Big Army' works particularly well.

Well, that's my composition, but it's my composition in the sense I took some elements from existing gospel music and stuck it all together. The changes are roughly from 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' [which besides] being the most-played jazz standard of all time … is a Gospel tune. We use this chant in between the percussion breaks—[sings] 'I'm a soldier, in the army of love, I'm a soldier in the army'—which is a recurring thing you hear on different Gospel performances, an up-tempo Gospel shout that comes up in all kinds of different places. We borrowed that. And Shannon plays cool percussion, so it's got this kind of Mardi Gras thing, too. I thought that track—for my guitar playing and the whole thing—came out really well

There are two songs by Dorothy Love Coates. Can you tell us about those?

She was a great singer and she wrote beautiful tunes. She had a group called Dorothy Love Coates and the Original Gospel Harmonettes. We do two of her tunes and Jon Cleary sings them … Cleary kills me, his singing and his piano playing. I think he's the star of the record. John Boutté sang three of the leads, but all the rest of the lead vocals were Cleary's. The first one is 'That's Enough'—'I've got Jesus and that's enough.' You know, people may talk about you and put you down, but it doesn't matter. I just love Cleary's singing on that.

And there's a stirring version of 'The Old Ship of Zion.'

That's a song by Thomas Dorsey, one of the greatest Gospel songwriters, not Tommy Dorsey! Thomas A. Dorsey used to be a blues singer called Georgia Tom until he got religion and wrote songs like 'Oh, Precious Lord' and other big standards. One of them I love is 'The Old Ship of Zion,' but we completely changed it around. It has this cool ten-bar section that we use like a ten-bar blues form, and I just solo over and over again—like on a 12-bar blues, only it's ten bars long. It's an interesting form and I never heard anybody play it like that. Then John Boutté sang beautifully, and he comes in at the end, singing about 'The Old Ship of Zion'—'I got on board early one morning'—and it's just those words that kill me. In the song there's this whole big long thing we didn't use, about how this guy was standing on the ocean and saw this ship, and the captain beckoned to him and he got on board.

Well, the album is quite inspiring. What do they say about Gospel? Hearts raised in praise of the Lord.

Yes. For me, I'm not a Christian per se. I'm not anything, I guess—not a member of any church. I came at this as a music nerd who digs soul music and grew up with it, and learned that there was this other soul music from the church, and that it might even be better, you know? But I get a lot inspiration from these songs and from the spiritual message. I haven't been 'born again'—I've only been born once—but I'm not discounting anything. I certainly don't know what's going on, and these songs of faith have a lot of feeling, especially the performances. I love the music.

Since Quiet in 1996, you've come up with a new project each year, more or less. I guess that creates its own kind of pressure.

I like to think of the records like books or films, [having] a concept and all. But if it ever became such a pressure that I wasn't making the music I wanted to make—that I started doing music I had no business playing—then I would stop doing it, because that wouldn't be good. But it's been fun to do these concept albums, like the Ray Charles record, because I've made records that were my own music. Quiet was just one where I made a kind of quiet record with a nylon string guitar, but it was still all my tunes. Most of my records have been like that. I like to make [each one] a special niche. But after this I might make ten records with the same trio, which is bad business for the record company. But business is bad anyway!

Interesting you should mention making ten records with the same band, because one thing jazz is missing is regular bands that stick together and develop their music in different directions. What are your feelings about that, because you've had some fantastic bands in the past: the Blue Matter band, and the quartet with Joe Lovano, for example?

I'd like to do something with the Blue Matter band again … I still have this thing with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart; we keep doing gigs as a trio, on and off. I'll bet we do another record at some point. I think bands are essential. Record companies want special projects all the time and that leads to the death of the band, but you know, a lot of bands shouldn't record a lot, because they'll just make the same record [over and over]. It feels good to them, but it actually doesn't have that difference from other ones. It takes a special band to make a lot of records.

Can you go right back to the beginning? You started out in blues bands didn't you?

Well, yes. I started out as a blues fan and a guitar player. I'm talking about when I was a teenager, and we tried to play blues. The bands I had as a kid in the '60s were Top 40 bands, the kind that played high school dances. But Top 40 bands in the mid-1960s, there was a lot of great music! Not just the Beatles and the Beach Boys. Those bands were really good, but also Tamla/Motown; we tried to play that music, and that kind of led me to the blues—B. B. King and that whole area … The blues [was] having a kind of popularity thing in the '60s, not only with Clapton and Hendrix, but B. B. King and Albert King, too. So I started by trying to emulate those guys.

So when did you become interested in jazz?

I started with blues. I always had a problem with the blues purist's thing, which had already started then: these white kids from the suburbs who played only the music of oppressed people from thirty years before. That whole thing. I was a little suspect of that, and then you know what happened? This is really weird. I went to hear Jimi Hendrix play, and I gave up trying to be a blues guitar player, 'cos he nailed the blues. Even though the music was psychedelic rock and everything, that whole thing of bending strings and having the guitar emote like that, he nailed it so hard that night that actually I thought, 'Maybe I'll be a jazz guitar player, that might be easier, all I have to do is practice.' I could never be like this wild, incredible guy, you know? Those were the thoughts I had that night.

I always loved jazz to—actually, I didn't always love jazz. I didn't know about jazz. My father, when I was very young, had bought me a Django Reinhardt album, and that was my introduction to jazz guitar. Then I took lessons from a local guy in Connecticut, which is 40 miles from New York City, and I took guitar lessons from this guy who was a bebopper, a wannabe bebopper. He was in his thirties at the time, and he really helped me. So by the time I was seventeen or eighteen and heard Hendrix and thought 'I couldn't do that,' I was really starting to study jazz. I loved blues and that had been there, and by the time I was seventeen I got way into learning about jazz, and still am.

Yet only six years later you were in Carnegie Hall playing with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker. That's quite a stride.

Well, I got lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. I was in high school. I was practicing on my own, just with my guitar teacher and two other kids. [Jazz] wasn't around me that much. It was around in New York City, but that was a foreign world to me. So I went to Berklee when I was eighteen, and hung out up there in Boston until I met Mulligan, and that's where I really got my shit together.

So what are your feelings about jazz education?

I have very mixed feelings about jazz education. We all do. Like everybody, I came up seeing jazz as this very alive art form and it was a street thing. The artists were incredible musicians, with all this romance about how they were living. And even though I knew they were studying, they were intellectuals: they were wigs, beatniks, and stuff. You read Sartre and played like Charlie Parker, something like that. And so jazz education and the squareness of the university just don't sit right with me, ever.

But you've got to get it together somewhere, and what Berklee did for me was, coming from a small town, I met all these like-minded kids and really good musicians. That's where I met some of the guys who were teaching there at the time, [who] really showed me how to play. Gary Burton and Steve Swallow, I met both of them, and then some other names that are not so famous who were locals in Boston. Boston has always had this music education scene and a pretty good jazz scene back in the '60s. Herb Pomeroy and his bunch were really great players, bebop generation guys. I got to play with them, and Alan Dawson, he was incredible. So because of Berklee, I was able to get around great musicians. That's what it can do for you.

Now, we've got situations with big universities that have jazz programs, with guys teaching at them who don't really play gigs and don't play out there on the scene. Those guys can really play, too, but there are more guys who can play 'Giant Steps' than ever, and they're all in this university world, and it doesn't feel really creative to me.

Now, Billy Cobham, you toured and recorded with him quite a bit.

Yeah, I was with Billy in '75 and '76. I had played a little bit with Mulligan. He wanted me to be in his band, but he didn't have a whole lot of work, and I had met Cobham, but had no idea that Cobham was going to call me. He produced this demo by a drummer named Horacee Arnold. I was still living in Boston, but came down and played basically for free with Horacee Arnold, because he had gigs that paid 30 bucks a night with good young jazz guys from New York. Cobham had come in to help his friend Horacee Arnold produce this demo, and out of the blue Cobham calls up and says, 'You want the gig, you got it.' He hired me for his band. I replaced John Abercrombie, and it was with the Brecker Brothers, later with George Duke and Alphonso Johnson. It was a great experience. We toured worldwide non-stop for two years. That was at the height of the fusion era and we played big shows. It was great!

From the perspective of a young guitarist soaking up knowledge, experience and information, what did you get from Billy Cobham?

Well, in a way I'd been in the ivory tower up there in Boston, trying to play bebop. This got me out into the real world. We were playing rock shows; we were playing opposite the Average White Band or the Doobie Brothers. It was also opposite Weather Report, Herbie Hancock's Headhunters, from the fusion scene. It was really playing for the people and part of this exciting music scene in the '70s, you know? It was really happening then. It was the Led Zeppelin years, not that I was in that scene, but I was on the perimeter of that scene and it was very exciting. And these guys were playing great music and were great instrumentalists. It got me into playing jazz-rock, which I really hadn't done. But because I had started out playing blues and rock and all of that, I was able to make a leap into it.

In the late '70s, I remember albums you did like Out Like a Light on the Enja label.

Well, I played in Billy's band and that broke up in '77. I was able to stay in New York until the end of the '70s. I started to have some of my own groups, and so I was playing little gigs around, and started to come to Europe at the end of the '70s. Enja records would help me get gigs, and sometimes we'd play just Germany for a month. It was great, because I had gigs as a leader every night and I never had that in the States. I would play once in a while on an off night in New York City, or go to Boston or Philly to play, if you hustled it up. So I was able get a group, and with Out Like a Light we had Steve Swallow, my old teacher and friend, and my mentor … I started playing with him a lot at the end of '70s.

The next major episode in your career was, of course, Miles Davis. Can you describe what led to that?.

Between Billy Cobham and when I went with Miles Davis, I was in New York and I was 'jazz guitarist for hire.' I did tons of stuff, and a lot of recordings, actually—a lot of gigs with a lot of different people, as well as my own gigs. Looking back, it was great. I got to play on two albums with Jay McShann on Atlantic; I got to make a record with Mingus on Atlantic. I did all kinds of sideman stuff—weird records that are now discontinued with various artists. I got to do some jazz studio work, and just playing gigs and just learning how to play. I was on the scene in New York and did all kinds of things.

And then in '82 Miles hired me. That came about because I knew the guys in his band. Mike Stern was the guitarist in Miles original comeback band. Mike and I were really good friends, we played gigs all the time together. There's a club in New York called 55 Grand Street. Mike and I played there quite often with bass and drums, in quartet, a loose, jamming guitar band. Miles loved Mike, but Mike was so strung-out at the time that Miles didn't know what to do, so he said, 'Okay, I'm going to have another guitar player here,' I guess to get Mike to get it together. Miles always did this; he would hire two sax players, whatever. He loved to have a competition.

So he hired me, and the first year I was with Miles, it was with Mike and myself. [But] Mike couldn't get out from underneath the drug jones. It was rough, and he'll tell you the same thing. And Miles let him go. He loved Mike, but Mike was fucking-up, so Miles kept me and let Mike go. And then Mike cleaned-up, thank God, and has been in great shape for thirty years or whatever it's been since then. But at the time, that's how I got to be the only guitar player in Miles's band.

That must have been a different ball game with Miles, jazz's only bona fide superstar.

Oh, the only one of his kind. So this was such a thrill to be around him, because he was my favorite. I had always gone to see him—had every record, knew his work. I think I had in the back of my head, if I could play like anyone, I would like to play like Miles on guitar. I copied his solos. The experience was a whole other thing. Outside of the music, the guy was more like Marlon Brando or Pablo Picasso. As far as cultural cachet was concerned, this guy would walk in a room and it was all over, you know? And we would tour around, and there was a scene just being around him. It was major, it would probably be like being in Obama's entourage—I don't know. That was exciting, that was very much of a trip … the music was really paramount and important to him. He loved talking about music, talking about it all the time.

And then you went with the Gramavision label.

Yes, during the time I was with Miles people knew who I was a little more, and the Gramavision record label wanted me to record for them, so I did. The first record I made for them was called Electric Outlet. When I made the second one, Still Warm, I was still with Miles, too—making these records and getting these gigs between his tours. I left his band because I had done it for two-and-a-half years and I thought I had really experienced it. I didn't want what happened to Mike to happen to me—different circumstances, but I was thinking, 'Well, maybe Miles is getting a little tired of me, I'm not sure, so I'll just jump ship,' because I could get my own gigs and I wanted my own band. We made Blue Matter, and I put that band together right after I had left Miles. We were able to work all the time for a couple of years.

That band made quite an impression on people.

Yes, you know what it was the right timing, because I had gotten a lot of exposure with Miles. Because of playing with Miles I wanted to use these '80s funk musicians who were so great. I met Gary Grainger first, the bassist. He was raised in Baltimore and had grown up with this drummer Dennis Chambers. He said, 'I got this drummer, you better check him out.' And I had heard of Dennis with P-Funk. I had heard a bootleg tape and I thought he was incredible, and we started to play together, and it worked!

The quartet with Joe Lovano and Bill Stewart, that was quite different, wasn't it?

Yeah, I had been in this Miles world of funky rhythm sections—kinda like '80s funk, not the funk I started out with, but a new version. By the end of the '80s, I felt frustrated sonically and wanted to lay with jazz musicians—more straight ahead guys with an acoustic sound. I loved Lovano, was a fan of his since Berklee, and had played with him some … so I called him, and asked if he could make my gigs, and he did. The first record we did wasn't with Bill [Stewart]. It was with Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden,. It was called Time on my Hands, and that was a studio project. And that's when we started to work on our sound, me and Joe, our front-line sound. We put together the band with Bill Stewart after that.

And then came albums like Meant to Be and an interesting album with Bill Frisell.

Oh yeah, I did that. We had played together on Marc Johnson's Bass Desires on ECM. I did the two records on ECM with Marc and Bill [Frisell], and I love Bill's playing and invited him to do a record with me. He's so much fun to play with, [he has] a visionary thing on guitar, I think.

You then signed with Verve.

I had been with Blue Note, and Verve stole me from Blue Note, offering me a great deal. At that time Verve had a really strong European department; they were really able to help me in Europe. Europe has always been very important to me touring-wise, and it was where I got my start—like I said, playing in Germany for a month at a time with enja. I thought Verve was good that way, so I went with them.

A series of interesting albums followed. One of my favorites is A Go Go with Medeski Martin & Wood.

I just love these guys. I had been into '80s digital fusion, and then these guys came out, in the '90s, and they were bringing back some of the older funk stuff: upright bass, B3, clavinet. I just loved the way these guys played. They played this rootsy, old-school R&B kind of groove, and they went free. They're from the Downtown scene in New York, completely abstract, and I could, too. I thought, 'These are guys that I can play with,' and I called them up. They were quite established as a band in 1997 when I got in touch with them. We got together and played, and we made A Go Go. It's ten years since then, and we made another record a year ago. It's really great playing with them. They're so incredibly human, and it's great I can fit in with it. They don't have a guitar player!

In contrast is the album with the classical composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.

I did two records with him. The first one is called Blood on the Floor. I did that, which is Mark's piece; he incorporated me improvising in that incredible piece of music. After that we did a record called Scorch, which were my tunes that Mark arranged for orchestra. I played along with Peter Erskine and John Patitucci. That's cool, too. Mark is a giant. It's so rare you meet a classical composer who so loves what you do and wants to incorporate those sounds. He loves jazz and he especially loves Miles electro stuff. It's great the way he works it in with orchestra. We've become really good friends. I've learned such a lot from him, because it's such a different world. He's there in Stravinsky-land and really knows that music. I've never met anybody like him

He told me he studied under Gunther Schuller.

Oh yes, he's the real deal.

Jazz doesn't operate in a vacuum. We've got the credit crunch and a recession. How do you see things shaping up in jazz as a result?

Well, yes, there is this world financial collapse which hasn't really hit us too badly in jazz. We'll see it, though. I've got a bunch of gigs, a bunch of festival gigs. The fees are down, but the festivals are still there!

You were talking about how you were 'on the scene' in New York in the late '70s and early '80s. How do you read the scene today?

I don't feel I am on the scene the way I used to be. I was living in town, and knew everything that was going on. Now, I play my own gigs and concerts and don't even read Down Beat! But I meet really good musicians. I meet people that love the music. The whole jazz scene has always been underground, in a way.

There is a rise in the number of door gigs, which makes it hard for young musicians in particular to support themselves in jazz.

Yes, these gigs have never made a lot of money for anyone, unfortunately. When I meet young players and they tell me they're doing an $80 gig or something, I think that's what they used to pay in the '70s. Nothing has changed. The answer is to make great music, and then people will hear about it.

Well, on that positive note we'll end. Thank you for talking to

Thank you.

Dates for John Scofield's Piety Street tour can be found on

March 29, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Chris Potter

By Frederick Bernas

                 Chris Potter, by Jos L. Knaepen

“Music definitely gets to a different place when you’re playing live,” states Chris Potter. The saxophonist sits nonchalantly in the lobby of a London hotel, as conventional Muzak drones ironically in the background. He is due at Ronnie Scott’s club for a gig with Underground, his bass-less quartet that integrates the funkier side of jazz with a strong progressive aesthetic. “This energy thing builds up with the audience and it’s very exciting,” Potter continues, referring to Underground’s Follow The Red Line: Live at the Village Vanguard (Sunnyside, 2007), the third live CD he has released.

“When I established this band I was thinking about trying to use some of the influences I hadn’t expressed so explicitly before—like how much time I’ve spent with James Brown and Stevie Wonder, later Miles and the whole funk thing. It also feels like sometimes we get into this real kind of harmolodic Ornette-funk thing. There are a lot of influences that come and go, but I think we’re figuring out how to put them together in our own way, through our own four personalities.”

The project sees Potter joined by Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, guitarist Adam Rogers and drummer Nate Smith—a combination he feels is starting to develop very fruitfully. “They’re all really strong musicians; I don’t have to think about whether they’ll be able to play something I’ve written or not, I know they’ll come up with something unique. They all have such interesting backgrounds. Craig’s frame of reference is huge: he’s way into a lot of stuff I don’t know anything about, punk bands and this and that—a completely different world. And I hear that in things he goes for sometimes, he’s able to somehow bring it in. Nate originally started to play in church—you know, gospel—and he’s got this thing when it’s funk, but it’s really warm and easy to play with. It’s not that mechanical machine thing at all, it’s really soulful and pretty mad to mix with Craig. And Adam has so many different ways he can go and so many beautiful sonic things he does with the guitar. He’s amazing at finding some part within the whole matrix of the thing that really makes it come alive, besides playing great solos. And then I try and just not get in the way!”

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"Twelve Essential Chris Potter Tracks" by Jacob Teichroew

This faithfully minimalist, open attitude fosters a creative chemistry that manifests itself in all kinds of ways: sparks fly at live shows. For Potter, the group represents an open book of possibilities that help him to “grow” and “figure out” how he can pull together all his strands of thought into a coherent musical statement. “For a while, I made a rule for myself that I wasn’t going to write anything longer than a page for Underground,” he explains. “I’ve since broken that rule, but it’s still that kind of bare minimum of material: just a mood and some ideas to work with, but not too much. I want to hear what they bring into it. If there’s some specific idea I have for a tune and it’s not going in that direction, maybe I’ll say something, but I prefer to say as little as possible. It’s an organic approach, as much as I can do—I don’t want to stifle it.”

Despite heavy demand for Underground (this interview took place at the start of a significant European tour), Potter always finds time to work with a wide variety of other leaders, from Herbie Hancock to Ari Hoenig. With 14 albums under his own name, the saxophonist would be perfectly entitled to follow many of his peers by focusing on personal projects. It’s a complicated situation, a “funny balance,” according to Potter. “I get a lot out of playing with a lot of different people, but it’s a question I ask myself: am I shooting myself in the foot, in a way, by doing too much other stuff? I don’t know exactly what the right answer is, but I can imagine just wanting to be on the road a little less than I have been, because it’s been a lot. But, on the other hand, if somebody calls you for a really good gig, it seems a very strange thing to say no. You know how musicians are, dying for a good gig, wondering if anyone’s ever going to call you—you’ve always got to have that in the back of your mind,” he states modestly.

Furthermore, he is quick to acknowledge lessons learned from sideman experience—starting right back at age 18, when he played hard bop with Charlie Parker’s long-time trumpet partner Red Rodney. “That was a real introduction to what it was like being on the international jazz scene. And it was great playing with someone who’s a master of the bebop language as a real first generation thing. It was really something special to be playing Bird lines with him, knowing he played them with Bird.”

In terms of band leadership, Potter talks about “how to approach music” as being a key facet of what he’s picked up. Major mentors include Paul Motian and Dave Holland: “Everyone has a different approach, like the way Dave Holland is. He has a very methodical way of working through ideas, which has been very influential to me. But on the other side, working a lot with Paul Motian has been useful as a completely opposite thing: as un-analytical as possible. Freedom. Just going with your aesthetic instinct and not at all thinking about whether you’re painting inside the lines or not. So, between those extremes, and a lot of other people too, I feel it’s been very useful for my overall approach to music and leading bands.”

Both these musical ideologies prevail in Potter’s recent work. As well as ongoing development of the freewheeling Underground, his 2007 release Song For Anyone (Sunnyside) features a series of compositions for “tentet”—a group including instruments not normally seen in a jazz context, such as strings. “That was something I’d been wanting to do for years and years,” he explains. “I never really studied that much composition in college, definitely not orchestration. It was a little bit like I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I just went for it anyway. It was so exciting for me to hear real people playing it and hear it actually come true, it makes me want to do more someday. I haven’t yet, but when I listen to that record I think ‘how did I manage to get all that work done?’ It was a way for me to explore a new compositional side.”

Making the album also planted the idea of ‘spontaneous composition’ in Potter’s mind. It entails a slightly refined, contextualised approach to traditional improvisation, as he was required to view solos as only one part of a broader written structure—rather than a separate entity existing of its own accord. “I think I improved as an improviser by thinking about the composition from start to finish, not just improvisation that goes somewhere on its own. I had to think about it beforehand, and have a chance to plan what’s going to go where, lead to what, and when. It helped me think more compositionally as an improviser.”

Another knock-on effect has been fresh interest in “spontaneous group composition,” an idea he has been exploring with Underground. “I’ve been thinking about my role in that kind of situation—how to add what’s necessary and get out of the way when it’s not necessary. It’s a tricky thing.” How free? “It doesn’t matter if it has a form or not, we’re still trying to be as free with it as we can—whatever that means. Even when it’s within a certain set of guidelines, the feeling that it’s creative and growing comes from the freedom. Maybe choosing to play the written material sometimes, and judiciously choosing when to go away from that, doesn’t make it seem any less free than completely free playing.”

                 Chris Potter, by Jos L. Knaepen

Potter’s album Gratitude (Verve, 2001) saw the saxophonist pay eloquent tributes to his key inspirators on the instrument—Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Eddie Harris and Ornette Coleman included. When asked which of his own contemporaries Potter draws on, he spoke of a mutual cross-pollination they all use to raise the bar. “I really enjoy David Binney, the writing especially. Also Mark Turner, Chris Cheek, Seamus Blake, Josh Redman, whoever’s at a high level. But it’s funny, I think it’s just a different feeling we all tend to have about people who are from our same generation versus people who are older. We’re all looking up to Wayne [Shorter] and whoever and thinking ‘wow’—you know, he just doesn’t seem human! But I think it’s just a natural thing, a generational thing. In some way, I feel like with all the other saxophone players of my age it’s more like trading ideas back and forth a little bit. I think we all influence each other, or at least they influence me!”

This reflects the rich unity of New York’s contemporary scene, which is becoming increasingly vital amidst the music industry’s apparent impending doom. As major record labels are forced to downscale or completely abandon jazz-related activities, little collectives of like-minded artists are coming to the fore—think Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf Music or John Zorn’s flourishing Tsadik imprint. The trend has made its way overseas: budding independent operations are rising in London, with musicians eager to work together and spread a shared message. Potter asserts that, of course, “we just want to make music, not spend time on all that admin stuff,” but also understands that “most people are accepting they have to do a bit of both, especially when they’re starting off.”

His vision for the future (he’s still a thirty-something) sits on the principle of a perpetually open mind: “What any artist is ultimately trying to do is express their view of life and what it feels like to be alive. I definitely want to approach music in a way that, until the end of my life, it will be growing, and I’ll still be growing—I hope I’ll be open enough to react to what’s happening and smart enough to recognise something good when I see it or avoid something bad when I see it. That day-to-day search for inspiration isn’t even really a search, it’s just recognising it when it happens.”

With an Underground studio album freshly recorded, a customarily busy gig schedule and a collaboration featuring Dave Holland, Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Eric Harland in the pipeline, 2009 looks like it will be another good one for Chris Potter. Speaking again of the Underground band, he is clearly enthused: “I feel that now it’s starting to find its own language, which is exciting for me to be part of. It keeps getting better and better.” Long may this continue.

March 23, 2009 · 0 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Carline Ray

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

Our subject this month is bassist/vocalist Carline Ray.

By arnold jay smith

                        Carline Ray by Suzanne Cerny

Her late husband was Luis Russell, Louis Armstrong's bandleader/arranger/pianist. Their daughter is the singer Catherine "Cat" Russell. Bassist/ vocalist Carline Ray is a name perhaps not as familiar as some other Octos in our file, but she's been playing with notable jazz personages for decades. In the 1940s, she played with the pioneering all-female band, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm. She was Mercer Ellington's bassist and singer when he conducted the music for Alvin Ailey's first Ailey/Ellington modern dance celebration, some 30 years ago. She plays upright and electric bass, piano, and guitar. Her vocal tones are in the rich alto range.

Carline is also an activist and an icon for Women in Jazz—both the organization and the movement in general. She's advised and befriended countless young female musicians who might otherwise not have had the persistence to deal with the hardships of the road: the one-nighters, playing what is largely a male-dominated music, and trying to establish an individual voice while remaining side players. In so doing, she's earned the respect of musicians of both genders.

Our interview took place in Disneyworld North—aka the Times Square area of West 42nd St., New York City—in an increasingly noisome restaurant down the block from B.B. King's and not far from Carline's apartment. Our conversation belied the lack of intimacy.

"I didn't expect to be living this long [she was born in 1925], so I didn't know what to expect," she confided at the outset. '"I'm still excited about meeting interesting people and going to more interesting places." In 2002 she went to South Africa with dancer/choreographer Mickey Davidson, for whom she played bass. "Davidson's son, Malcolm, was marrying a South African girl. We briefly toured Capetown and went to Robben Island to see where Nelson Mandela had been incarcerated in that small cell for 26 years. He [and the other prisoners] had to break up rocks with shiny things in them [mica?], and they weren't allowed sun glasses." As for the music she heard there, the only "native" music was what was played at the wedding. "It was for tribal dancers, which we heard later at a presentation of dances. They were really letting go. The company was 15-20 strong."

Carline's musical exposure began at home. "I was born on the same day as Queen Elizabeth II, only a year earlier, and I don't carry a purse all the time. My father always had a lot of instruments around the house." Ray père was a graduate of Juilliard, specializing in brass, euphonium, tubas, and even a sousaphone, "which I saw him play most often as he played in marching bands," she remembered. You could sense her admiration as she identified her father as her musical hero. "He went to Tuskegee Institute prior to it becoming Tuskegee University. His was the last graduating class under the presidency of Booker T. Washington. During WWI, he played with James Reese Europe in France." He was offered a chair at Juilliard, but after Carline was born, a steady paying job at the Post Office seemed a safer bet. When she was 16, Carline applied to and was accepted by the school, but didn't tell her father, for fear that he would say that they couldn't afford it. It was a fait accompli when she finally told him. "I was a piano major under a marvelous teacher named Harold Lewis," she said. Carline remained a piano major for two years. "I decided to change my major to composition under Vittorio Pianini. Ellis Larkins was there when I was. We would corral him into a practice room to play whatever he wanted for us."

Her turn towards other instruments came when she met bassist Edna Smith, who was a graduate of New York's High School of Music and Art. "We were standing in line to register [at Juilliard], and we became friends. She was very aggressive when it came to digging up gigs. Up to that time I had been listening to 'The Street' [W. 52nd]: Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Red Allen. Edna's brother, Karl, had a car, and he would pick her up and take us uptown to The Nest, an after-hours place, where musicians hung out. We would also go to the Hollywood, where there would be an old-timer piano night. Young cats would go there as well. That's where I met Billy Taylor. Art Tatum would be the last pianist to go on. Nobody followed Art." One night someone asked Carline to sing. To this day she has no idea who even knew that she could sing. "Are you ready for this?" she remarked. "Art asked if it was alright for him to play for me." She thinks that she did a Gershwin tune, albeit shakily. "Then Tatum asked me, 'Did I play alright for you?' I made it my business to get up there more often to hear the likes of Willie 'the Lion' Smith." It was the mid '40s and the after-hours joints were jumpin'.

Carline was living in Harlem, when one night Erskine Hawkins asked her to come over to the Savoy Ballroom to audition as a singer. Did I mention that she was playing rhythm guitar at the time? After the vocal audition—she didn't recall what she sang, but she did remember that Charlie Buchanan, manager of the Savoy, approached her and said, '''Young lady, tell you what I'm gonna do. You will never have to pay to come in here again.' I loved to dance, so that was a major invitation. He was true to his word." Carline remained with the Hawkins band for about two years. "I did his famous recording of 'After Hours' along with reedmen Julian Dash ('Tuxedo Junction'), Haywood Henry and Jimmy Mitchell," she said. "Avery Parish, the tune's composer, was the pianist. There was some jealousy that I was getting more playing time than some of the other players, and I was told by Haywood—who was always looking out for me—that I would be 'approached.' But I was always treated like a lady and acted the same way."

International Sweethearts of Rhythm

There were lean, non-musical times, when Carline had to take other gigs such as managing a dry cleaners. But then there were The International Sweethearts of Rhythm and Luis Russell. "We had formed a trio: Edna Smith, bass, Pauline Braddy, drums, and myself on piano," she said. "Mr. Luis Russell, who was managing a room called Town Hill, came to the Village Door where we were playing. [He was] looking for a group to fill in while another of his groups was held over elsewhere. He hired us sound-unheard because he liked our press photo. The drum kit, the bass, and we piled into my car, and we made it for opening night. We had never laid eyes on Luis Russell prior to that."

Carline related an occasion when a police precinct captain paid Russell a visit. "They went into Luis' office scowling. When they came out they were both smiling. I said right there that I had to get to know Mr. Russell better." The Town Hill gig that was originally booked for two weeks lasted six months. Being a pianist himself, Russell kept the piano well-tuned for Carline and always asked her if "everything was all right."

Soon, she was dining at his house, where she sampled his native Panamanian cuisine. Things got warmer. "He took me to Basin Street East, where I got to meet Louis Armstrong for the first time," she said. "We became engaged on New Year's Eve 1955-56, which was my final year of my Masters at Manhattan School of Music." The evening was made all the more auspicious because Carline was doing a television show with Leonard Bernstein. "We were doing a choral Christmas and we had to memorize all the music because [Maestro Bernstein] didn't like having the music in front of us. I gave my brand-new engagement ring to Luis for safekeeping, because I was afraid of it falling off. No one knew we were even keeping company, so when I played Town Hill and they checked my fingers, no ring. Well, right after the TV show, who do you think was waiting for me to give me back my ring? Hubby to be."

I queried Carline about Luis's affiliations with Louis Armstrong. "He didn't talk about it much, but he did leave a steamer trunk, and in it is a box marked 'Louis Armstrong.' I don't know what's in it," she told me. "I do remember one time we were at Pee Wee Russell's house, where he was throwing a wedding anniversary party, when Louis telephoned. Seems he wanted to come over—it was after midnight—to take home movies of the event. Another time, Louis had asked my husband to go on the road with him, as his regular pianist Billy Kyle was ill. Luis didn't want to leave his new family, so he recommended another Panamanian pianist, Rod Rodriguez. Louis understood my husband's desire to stay home and he seemed happy with Rodriguez. That's about all Luis and I ever discussed about Louis."

[A fascinating digression as a preamble to her time with the Sweethearts: Her trio was being booked by Nat Lazzaro's office in the Brill Building, who also booked Stump & Stumpy, the famous tap duo. The story has come down to me that Harold Cromer (Stumpy) was at a rent party and fell over Dizzy Gillespie's horn, supposedly breaking it. Both Messrs. Cromer and Gillespie confirmed the tale to me. But Carline was there when it happened, and she tells a different story. She says firmly that the horn was never "broken," as first reported, just bent into its now internationally-renowned shape. And it wasn't at a rent party. "Edna and I were a duo playing intermission at a [midtown] place called Snooky's. Dizzy and his group were the headliners. During a break, he and his wife Lorraine went out for a drink. [Singer] Babs Gonzales walked onto the bandstand. When Babs left the bandstand and Dizzy picked up his horn to begin his second set, the bell was bent up. Did Babs accidentally step on something while on the bandstand? I don't know. Dizzy looked at it and murmured to himself as only he would, 'What the fuck…?' But when he played it, it worked. To my mind it sounded even better with the bell up. I guess Diz felt the same way because he never looked back."]

The story of her affiliation with the Sweethearts stems from activity in and around New York's Brill Building. "Ours was a different group then," she began. "Jackie King was our pianist; I was playing guitar by that time."

[Another digression: "One of the instruments in my father's house was a guitar, and it hung in my room. Edna Smith's guitarist didn't like to rehearse, so she asked me if she could borrow my father's, as we had upcoming gigs." Quickly and fearlessly, Carline taught herself the instrument.]

The Sweethearts (continued): "Edna [still a bass player] and I were walking to the subway, having left Lazzaro's office. She had her [electric] bass on her back, and we were off to our respective parents' homes where we lived—she in the Bronx, and me on W. 148th St. A nice-looking brown-skinned man came up to her and asked if he knew her. She replied, 'Unless you're a musician, I don't know you.' He went onto introduce himself as Maurice King, director of the Sweethearts of Rhythm. It seems he was looking for a group of girls to replace some who were leaving [the band]." In a coincidence straight out of a '40s movie, it happened that the configuration of Edna and Carline's group was exactly what the Sweethearts needed: piano, bass, and guitar, which was a very popular trio format. Think Tatum, Nat "King" Cole, and later, Oscar Peterson.

The Sweethearts were opening in St. Louis the next day. Carline was about to graduate from Juilliard, which took priority over all else, so she asked for a delay of a fortnight or so. King agreed, and sent her a ticket on the fabled "Spirit of St. Louis" railroad train. "I had never been west of New Jersey in my life," Carline remarked. "So here I go, on the road. The guitar I took with me was given to me by Steve Gibson (not related to the guitar family)—a custom-made flat top, round-hole Epiphone, which I recently gave to my son-in-law. We had a wonderful time [on the road] with both Erskine Hawkins as well as the Sweethearts, making all the black theaters, including the Apollo in New York and the Howard in Washington, D.C., and others across the country. It was like vaudeville. There were opening and closing acts, dancers and comedians in the middle. We backed them all. Along the way there was 'Moms' Mabley. Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown were sometimes on the bill. I stayed with the Sweethearts for about the same length of time as with Erskine—two years or so. I kept my eyes open and my mouth shut, and I learned a lot."

Carline was doing a great deal of backup vocal work. Besides Bernstein she worked for Patty Page and Bobby Darin. She was the backup baby on call for so many 1950s pop hits. It was also during this time that Carline met pianist John Browning, who became her teacher at the Manhattan School of Music. "No matter where he was, he would always make it back for my lesson," she remembered. At MSM at the same time were Donald Byrd and Coleridge Taylor Perkinson. "Perky and I became best friends. He got me my next teacher after MSM, Claire Gelza."

In 1956, baby Catherine came on the scene. "I took this child with me on gig after gig," Carline said. "She was old before her time. Luis put her on his lap at the piano and she would tinkle away. One time during a particularly popular TV commercial, I hummed the jingle. She said, 'No, mommy. You're in the wrong key.' And she would sing it for me. Perfect pitch and she couldn't have been more than five. Not long after that, I met Arnie Lawrence and he hired me for a date in a park in Queens. We were warming up and I had forgotten my pitch pipe, so I turned to Cat and said, 'Give me a G,' which she did." Neither Luis nor Carline had perfect pitch. I'll leave that as a non-sequitur. (Cue Twilight Zone theme ….)

Although I had heard her prior, my first formal encounter with Carline came when she appeared with Mercer Ellington's band backing the Alvin Ailey Dance Company during their first Duke Ellington season in the late 1970s. "It began when Alvin Ailey wanted to choreograph parts of Mary Lou Williams's "Mass," on which I had recorded some vocal parts. Actually, I was wearing two hats: bassist and singer."

[Carline had picked up the electric bass guitar, specifically a Fender, after hearing it played by Edna Smith. It was Monk Montgomery who first played it with the Lionel Hampton band, after Hamp had made a business arrangement with Mr. Fender. "When I saw Edna's I thought, 'Ah. A four- string guitar without the two top strings.' Edna would lend me her bass when she couldn't make a gig. I was hooked. I took to it naturally. Never studied."]

"Mary Lou's Mass" was a mainstay with the Ailey Company for three or four years in the mid 1970s. Then, in the late '70s, Ailey began choreographing Ellington's extended compositions. Carline knew all Duke's commercial tunes, but was excited to learn the longer things. Ailey presented that opportunity. The first was Ellington's setting of The Lord's Prayer, first sung with Ellington by Mahalia Jackson. Carline sang Mahalia's part. [The conductor was Joyce Brown, who achieved fame in Broadway's Golden Boy, starring Sammy Davis, Jr., and Purlie, starring Cleavon Little and introducing Melba Moore.]

"I had subbed for Mercer's bassist, and he liked what I did, so he asked if I could join the band. I was teaching at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, but they hadn't sent me an invitation letter for the next semester. So the next time it came up, I said to Mercer, 'Have bass, will travel.'''

When the band backed Ailey/Ellington in some of Duke's historic long-form masterpieces, Carline was there to vocalize and/or play her electric bass. The repertoire included "Three Black Kings," "Night Creature," "The River" (originally composed as a commission from the American Ballet Theatre), and a medley of Ellingtonia called "Pas de Duke." It was an honor when Down Beat magazine allowed me to review the dance series for the first time. For their 50th Anny in 2008-9, the Ailey Company reprised some of the Ellington pieces. They haven't lost a step to time (pun intended).

In 1980, at the encouragement of United Jazz Coalition founder Cobi Narita, Carline applied for—and won—an NEA grant to study upright bass. "I went right to my idol, Milt Hinton. But he was always on the road. My second idol choice was Major Holley, and he became my teacher." She continued playing electric, as well. "I usually carried my electric when I went on the road, because I heard all the stories of having to pay for another seat on the plane for the upright." That said, she has mentored others on upright bass.

Carline gives all the credit for forming International Women In Jazz to Narita. But it's always the purveyors who carry the music to public's ears and—in Carline's case—teach it to young aspirants. Many times Carline was the only female in the bands in which she played. Now, largely thanks to her and other pioneers, there are more all female or female-led bands than ever in our music's history. There's even a cable television program called "International Woman In Jazz." Hosted by vocalist/percussionist Fran McIntyre, the show has been a weekly staple on Manhattan Neighborhood Network since 1995. "Not only did we play [on the show]," Carline explained, "but Fran taught us how to use the cameras and the mixing board. She was one of my students … She calls me her mentor. She 'mentors' me to death," Carline laughed good-naturedly

Regrets: "Women musicians are simply not mentioned in many encyclopedias," Carline laments. "Ken Burns included Mary Lou, of course. But how many others?" The Burns PBS series, Jazz, also ignored European jazz, Latin jazz and Third Stream, to name but a few omissions. Dare I facetiously rationalize that jazz women are in good company with others who Burns omitted? Among the great women of jazz have been Marian McPartland, Marjorie Hyams, Mary Osborne, and Pat Moran, and that hardly scratches the surface. We owe thanks for the resultant preponderance of females now playing in your local saloons (or at least over their sound systems) to the perseverance of those pioneers.

Unfinished: "I'm not going to add anything more because my life goes on and on and I don't know what I'm going be doing."

March 17, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation With Sheila Jordan

By Roanna Forman

Sheila Jordan is one of jazz's great individualists—a vocalist influenced less by other singers than by the first wave of bebop instrumentalists, in particular the great Charlie Parker. Her uniqueness hasn't made her wealthy, but it has earned her critical praise and a reputation as one of the most intrepid and affecting vocalists in the history of jazz. Last month,'s Roanna Forman spoke with Sheila about her life: her determination to go her own way, artistically and socially; her musical philosophy; the encouragement she gives young musicians; and her love for the great jazz artists who inspired her, especially Parker, whose friendship and music moved her so profoundly. C.K.

                       Sheila Jordan, by Jos L. Knaepen

I know that Charlie Parker was so important to you. You’ve called him your 'musical guru,' so I wonder what were the most important things you learned from Bird, beginning with the time you sat in the alley to hear him because you were too young to get into the club.

I was a singer – I always sang from the time I was a little kid. But I didn’t know what I wanted to sing, and then I heard Bird and that did it. From that moment on, I was just hooked on Charlie Parker. I heard five notes, and I said, 'Oh, my God.' I think [his band] was called 'Charlie Parker and his Reboppers.'

Was that the first thing you heard on the jukebox?

No, I’d heard a lot of things on the jukebox, and I saw this thing that said, 'Charlie Parker and his Reboppers,' and I thought, 'Oh, I wonder what that is? That looks interesting.' I put it on, and it was Bird, and it changed my whole life. I said, 'Oh, my God, that’s the music I’ll dedicate my life to.'

And you had never actually heard or sung jazz before that?

Well, no, I'd heard Duke Ellington, and the Ellington Band. But you know, where I grew up in Pennsylvania, we were very poor. We didn’t even have a radio. If we did have a radio, we didn’t pay our light bill a lot of times and it was cut-off, so we had to go by kerosene lamps. But when I’d go visit my mother in Detroit—my grandparents raised me until I was 14—but when I’d visit my mother ... say, when I was about 12 or 13, this guy across the hall had a Duke Ellington record. I think my mother had some records, and I traded him one of her records for the Duke Ellington record, and went back to Pennsylvania to play it. Just to have it, because we didn’t even have a phonograph in Pennsylvania, except one of those wind-up ones.

You really had one of those?

Oh, yeah, because we were very poor. We didn’t have hardly anything. I mean, we were lucky we had food half the time! But getting back to Charlie Parker again, I heard Bird, and that was it, and I said, 'That’s the music that I’ll dedicate my life to, whether I sing it, teach it, or just go listen to it.' I was in Detroit from the time I was 14, that’s when I moved from Pennsylvania to Detroit, and so it was at that time that I heard Bird, and I had to go find out where this music was. Luckily enough, Detroit was a hotbed for this bebop music, this great music—a lot of young cats coming up. But it was also a hotbed of racial discrimination, which was hard for me as a little white kid.

It was awful, and I never looked into that—I mean, I never thought about that, I should say. You know, I just love this music, and I wanted to be around the people that made that music, and I wasn’t looking whether they were brown or yellow or green. They were just beautiful people that I felt very close to. I thought I could connect with them more so than just regular kids that I went to school with. These were the musicians coming up that I wanted to be around, and these were the people that loved this music that I wanted to be around.

Tell me something. How, if in any way, did that racial tension affect the music that those folks made?

                       Sheila Jordan, by Jos L. Knaepen

Well, I don’t think at that time … that’s where I got to know Kenny Burrell and Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, and these were the guys that grew up when I was growing up, so I don’t think anybody was out there getting ready to go into [racial issues], because Detroit was a terrible place. I mean, we had horrible race riots there. The city was known for that; it was known for its racial prejudice, and I had no clue what all that was about. I just didn’t understand it, and believe me, the police were always stopping me when I was with Afro-American kids. The principal of my high school, when I first went to high school in Detroit, she brought me into the office and asked me why I wanted to hang out with 'colored people.' The principal of my high school!

And getting that from a principal of a high school, and getting that from the police who were constantly stopping me. These were people of authority. And I said, 'Wait a minute, something’s wrong with this picture. It couldn’t be me. I don’t feel that way; I don’t think that’s right for them to feel that way, and I don’t think it’s any of their business what I do, even though I am way underage.'

How did the musicians feel about it?

They took it in stride. I was with them, and we would get stopped, and they didn’t balk. They didn’t fight with the cops. They knew if they did, they would be beat up, put in jail, or whatever. They just kept a low profile, but that doesn’t mean they stopped being my friends, no way.

So the music was over here, and the relations with whites were over there; that kind of thing.

Well, there weren’t that many whites digging this music then, in Detroit, anyway. The few people that did dig it were very special, and they would be musicians themselves. There was one drummer, Art Martigan; he was white. Other than that, I don’t know many white musicians who were coming up at that time. Sure, Pepper Adams and couple of other people came up later. But basically when I was on the scene in Detroit, all of the bebop musicians were Afro-American.

Of course, things are very different today.

Yeah, well, the trend has changed today, and I was right all along. Because I knew something was wrong, and I knew they were wrong in questioning me like they did. Listen, the last time I was in Detroit, just before I moved to New York, I had graduated from high school, and I was taken down to the police station. They were in plain clothes when they stopped us. My friend, Jennie King, and I were with Frank Foster, my boyfriend at the time—very new, our relationship. Jennie, who was white, was with another guy, who was an Afro-American. They separated Frank and the other guy, and me and Jennie. They took us separately, and these two plainclothesmen took us in this one place and questioned me and her. The guy said, 'Does your mother know that you’re out with these …' using the n-word, which I never use—I hate it. And I said, 'I don’t know.' And he said, 'Why don’t you know?' And I said, 'Because I don’t live at home.' I left home when I was about 17 going on 18. That was the last time I was stopped, and I guess I was 18 then [this was 1946]. I said, 'I don’t live at home. I go to school, and I work to support myself.' He just looked at me like I was dirt.

Like you had two heads.

Yes, so then he said to me, 'See this gun in my holster? I have a nine-year-old daughter, and if I thought I was going to find her like I found you two tonight with those two ‘n’s,’ I would take this gun off when I got home and blow her brains out.'

I left Detroit shortly after that because I came to New York. The funny thing is, I came to New York, and I had this loft where I had sessions all the time, especially when I was studying with Lennie Tristano [this was approximately 1953]. But I remember I was having a session at my house, and all the musicians would come over because I had a loft in this building. It was three floors, and the other two floors were artists, painters. And so I went out to get something to eat at a Chinese restaurant with two artists who were Afro-American, and on our way back four white guys … jumped out. Three [of them] held the two guys, and the other one threw me down on the ground and kicked me, and knocked my tooth out.

Good God.

And you know my nose was bleeding, and I looked up and I saw this man walking across the street, with a gun. He had his gun pulled out. And I said, 'Oh, my God, I’m gonna die over this. Oh, wow, I know I’m right.' That’s all I could think. 'I’m gonna die over this, but I know I’m right.' So the guy came, and he said, 'Get your hands off of her. What is she to you?' And it was a plainclothesman who saved my life.

That’s an amazing story.

Yeah, because the plainclothesman in Detroit, I left because of all that bullshit, and then I come to New York and I get beat up on the street. Yeah, I remember that detective telling me that night, too, in Detroit, 'Oh you’re going to New York where it’s so cosmopolitan. And that’s what kept ringing in my head! [Laughs]

I remember one time also, we went to Hamtramck to hear Barry Harris, me and that same friend of mine, and the two guys that I used to sing with, Skeeter Spight and Leroy Mitchell. And we got there and went to the club, and it was in the Polish neighborhood in Hamtramck, Detroit. And we stayed for the set, and then me and Skeeter and Mitch sat-in and sang a tune with Barry. And then the gig was over and we got ready to leave and we were taking the streetcar with Barry, and the two guys that I sang with and Jennie, and maybe another guy or two. These white guys ran out of the bar after us; they chased us. Thank God, though, the Woodward Avenue streetcar was coming. Barry always laughed about that. He tells everybody I almost got him killed.

There seems to have been a lot of danger stalking you, but I think you survived.

Yeah, I’m shocked I did, but I knew that a higher power would take care of me, for some reason.

Okay, so we were talking about Bird and how important he was for you, and how he was an influence from the get-go. Besides Bird, and after him, of course there were other players—you know, Miles, Coltrane, many other people. Was there anybody who you got into on as deep a level as you did with Bird, and how did they influence you, those others?

Well, I would listen to the music, of course, and be inspired, but, no, no, God no—by the time I was finished with Bird, I knew exactly where I wanted to go with the music. I had studied his records, because there were no books then, and I had sung with his records, and sort of learned how to phrase through Charlie Parker, the phrasing I do. Bird always taught me—as Lennie did—to be yourself, and to be true to your own sound. And I remember I was singing one time up at the loft when Bird came, and he said that I had million-dollar ears … Actually, I guess it was in Detroit, I think. We were sitting in with him, Skeeter and Mitch and I, and Bird told me afterwards, he said, 'You have million-dollar ears, kid.'

So tell me this: when you hear something, do you get it the first time? Like when you copy a solo or something …

Well, I don’t copy that many solos. I really improvise my own solos, but I always hear the chord changes. What I do is, I always learn the tune first. I learn it exactly as it’s written, and then I learn the changes, I listen to the changes, and I get like a guideline going in my head of what the changes are. But I have to learn the melody first. I have to know exactly what that melody’s like, before I do anything.

How do you prepare a song emotionally behind the lyric? What do you do with it?

Nothing. [Laughs.] It’s born right in you. Either you have it or you don’t, I think. I don’t think emotion is anything you can go to school and learn about.

The University of Emotions …

No. I’ve lived a pretty rough life, and the only saving grace for me from the time I was a little tiny kid was music. I always sang, and it always made me feel better. And everything wasn’t so bad when I sang. I used it as a crutch. It was a crutch for me.

You sang as a child. Did you sing in contests?

Oh, yeah, I did singing contests. I was on Uncle Nick’s Amateur Hour when I’d visit my mother in the summertime in Detroit. I sang in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and Johnstown, Pennsylvania. They always had talent shows, you know.

And then a lot of times my grandmother, when my mother would come back to visit me, they’d all go out drinking, and take me with them. And there would be a live band, and I’d get up and sing with the live band. Because my family were very heavy drinkers. They were alcoholics. My mother was an alcoholic and she died from the disease … It was something to deal with, and I got through it.

A question about now. Who do you listen to these days?

A person that I really love is Tom Harrell.

How about singers?

Well, I listen to all singers, because I never listened to singers when I was growing up! I mean I listened to them … I mean my God, I would hear Billie, and I’d hear Sarah, and I’d hear Ella. You know, those were the three singers. But I didn’t buy their records because I couldn’t afford to buy their records. When I could afford to buy a record, it was to buy Charlie Parker, and so that’s how I learned how to phrase. I would learn what the tune was based on. If it was a tune based on 'I Got Rhythm' or 'Embraceable You' or 'Fine and Dandy'—if somebody had taken a tune like that, if Bird had taken a tune like that and wrote a different line on it, I was able to hear that. It was the original tune on it, but that was just from listening to Bird all those years. But as far as singers, I would listen to them, but I never bought their records because I couldn’t afford it. Secondly, I was very conscious of wanting to have my own sound. I didn’t want to try to imitate everybody else. And let’s face it, who’s gonna have the emotion of Billie Holiday? Who’s gonna have the chops of a Sarah Vaughn, of the most beautiful voice ever in jazz? And then who’s gonna scat like Ella Fitzgerald? So I was smart when I was a kid. God knows, I tried to scat like Ella when I was young, but, you know… I tried to learn her 'Lady Be Good' solo. Forget it…

There’re a lot of wonderful young singers coming up. And I teach a lot of them, I hear a lot of them. And that’s not to put down these kids that are out there today. I don’t put them down because they’re only going to enhance the music and make it more approachable by non-jazz people. But I’m really more into instrumentalists. Although, don’t get me wrong, I do love singers, I love to hear them. You asked me about the jazz people that I listen to today?

I’m just curious who you might be into.

There’s a wonderful piano player from Scotland named Brian Kellogg. They sent me his CD’s and I listen to him. I listen to all the kids that I’ve taught. All of the singers who come to any of my concerts and send me their CD, I always listen to their CD, and thank them for doing the music. I always do that, I always send them a postcard or an email that I got the CD, I heard it, how much I enjoyed it. I want to let them know that I’m in their corner and that they need a little inspiration and somebody to push them as I had when I was a kid, as was done for me.

Is that who 'Sheila’s Girls' are on your site?


That is such an incredibly generous move by you.

Yes, I just want to be there for them. I know how hard it is. So that shows that I really do listen to singers.

Oh, no I have no doubt.

Oh, no, but I mean, am I inspired by singers? No, not the way I was by Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Miles, and Dizzy. I loved the way Miles played, you know … the spaces he left.

You’ve got a really unconventional improvisational sense. It’s always working, every tune. What were the musical experiences that really pushed you to open up and really go for things, because that’s what you’re always doing on your tunes?

[Laughs] What did that? Charlie Parker!

I thought you were going to say that.

It was Bird that told me that. I wasn’t even thinking of studying. I was just thinking of the Bird because I loved him so much, you know, and I got to know him quite well in the end—the end of his life. I remember the first time I came to New York, and I came here basically to get away from the racial prejudice. Also, to chase Bird, to chase Bird down. To be able to go to all the clubs that he played at, and hear him in person all the time, and all of the bebop musicians in person. That was my desire, that’s why I went to New York.

And you hung out with Bird, I know.

Oh yes, I did. And I remember when I first saw Bird. One time I came for a vacation first, to see if I would be able to manage to live here, and I went to hear Bird. And afterwards he saw me and he said, 'Ah, you’re the kid with the million-dollar ears.'

He remembered you.

And he started singing a song that Skeeter and Mitch and I had sung, and it was an original composition by Mitch, Leroy Mitchell. And I was shocked that Charlie Parker sang that song for me. I mean he remembered it, he started singing it. [She sings the beginning bars.] He did the whole thing, and I was in shock.

He had billion-dollar ears.

No, he had trillion-dollar ears. And he was a genius.

You had lessons with Lennie Tristano.

I think I was one of the first singers he ever taught.

So what were those lessons like?

Well, I remember my first lesson with Lennie was to learn a Bird solo, he said. I think it was on 'Now’s the Time.' I don’t remember what tune it was, but whatever tune it was I said, 'Oh, I know that already.' And I wasn’t trying to be smart. But he thought I was trying to be smart, so he said, 'So let’s hear you sing it then, if you know it.' So I sang it. And he put on Bird and I sang it with Bird. Of course it wasn’t perfect. I mean, who can sing like Bird? But it was close enough for jazz. Lennie said, 'Oh, you do know it. Then, how about a Prez?' I said, 'Oh, no, I don’t know Prez.' He said, 'Okay, then you’ll go and you’ll learn a Prez solo.' He did things like that, and then he’d play for me to sing, and he’d get me involved with the emotional part—to let myself relax, just learn the tune and sing what I feel. He was my only teacher who taught me to sing the melody of the tune first, the correct melody of the tune. I learned that from Lennie, because I was jumping all over the place.

I think that new singers do that a lot of times when they’re first starting out.

Well, if they don’t know the melody. They don’t know where to go back to. They just don’t have that thing happening. It’s the same with scatting. They all want to scat.

I wanted to talk to you about that.

Oh, God.

What does that 'Oh, God' mean, forget it? Okay, we could skip it.

It means I know what to say, I’ll tell you what I have to say.

How important is scat, in your opinion, for singing?

It’s not important at all, that’s the problem that a lot of these young singers coming up today have. They think that in order to sing jazz, they have to be able to scat-sing. And my take on that is, listen: Billie Holiday was the greatest jazz singer of the world to me. She never scatted. But does that mean that she couldn’t? Yes, she could. I heard a tape of her at a party where they said, 'Come on, Billie, scat.' She did, and she sounded great. This wasn’t her cup of tea, or for whatever reason. Now, the only artist out of that group of people was Ella, who could really scat. Sarah wasn’t into that much scatting. Carmen wasn’t into that much scatting. And then later on came the Betty Carter, who was definitely a scatter. Then you had Jon Hendricks, who’s a monster. So these were like, the three scat singers to me.

Do you dig vocalese? You know what he would do, he would take a solo, Hendricks, and he would take an instrumental solo and he would put lyrics to it.

Amazing, it’s amazing what he does. But getting back to the scat, let me just finish that. Okay, so that scat thing was like, okay … like I said, Billie Holliday never scat sang. So I think that there’s too much emphasis put on scatting. You can scat if you’re comfortable and you dig it, like I scat sang, but I never scatted on my first recordings. It’s because I was listening to Bird and there weren’t words. So I had to learn a line, I would have to sing a line without lyrics. But the point is, my thing is this—and you can quote me on this—there’s a scat virus going around. I’m serious—a real scat virus. And they don’t have an antibiotic for it, but I do have an antibiotic for it. I have the antibiotic for it.

What’s that, Dr. Jordan?

It’s bebop.

I wanted to ask you about that, Sheila. When you were young, you basically stood on the shoulders of giants, the people who really made this music. You really learned it right from the source, from Billie, from Bird. You were there. Do you think that young musicians now, today—instrumentalists and singers—should be starting with bebop, really getting that stuff, and building on it?

Absolutely. They’re missing a lot. They’re missing the core of improvisation, as far as I’m concerned. They’re missing this whole freedom of swing. I mean, who could ever call Bird old, what do they say, tired, or whatever. That expression that they used when something …you don’t want to hear it anymore because it’s out of date, or whatever. Bird will never go out of date. Try to catch up with Bud Powell and Charlie Parker, for God’s sake. And I think that’s missing. I think they are skipping over a very, very vital music. That’s why there hasn’t been anybody come along like a Charlie Parker—go all the way back there in the forties. The closest thing to that was Ornette Coleman.

What about Coltrane?

Yeah, but Bird was already established. All I’m saying is, Coltrane listened to Bird.

I see what you mean, someone who was truly taking the music in another direction.

I’m sure he [Coltrane] listened to Bird and I’m sure he listened to Bud and all those cats. You can hear it in his playing, but he took it a step further. Trane died young, but he was no kid. I’m talking about a lot of the young kids coming up today in the schools, and what the schools are teaching them. They’re teaching them to be perfect. This music isn’t perfect, and it never should be. This is just my opinion, now. I’m not, you know, a connoisseur on this stuff. But my own personal opinion is, in the schools, a lot of the teachers are on power trips, and they don’t teach these kids with their hearts. They teach them with a 'you got to be perfect' [attitude]. What these kids do, they go to sessions and sit in, and they play exercises, because they’re afraid to take chances on creating, improvising on tunes.

I’m not putting these teachers down, don’t get me wrong. [But] a lot of teachers are not good teachers because they don’t teach with their heart, and they’re on power trips. Now I’m not talking about the working musicians who teach. But a lot of these teachers who are on power trips, if you look into their music, they don’t work. They don’t play anywhere. Actually, they never played that many places to begin with. They went to school and learned all the technical shit, you know what I mean, but they don’t really know. They teach the technical stuff, and that’s all fine and good. That’s beautiful. We didn’t have that teaching back when I was growing up. We didn’t have that. We learned by what we heard, by our ears, and by hearing, by practicing with the Charlie Parker records and with Lester Young records and with Bud Powell and with all those cats. We didn’t have schools. So they need to let these kids go out and fall on their face—'How do we get out of this, how am I going to get out of this?'—and then find out how to get out. Maybe you won’t get out, but that’s okay!

So the bandstand’s your best teacher.

One wonderful thing that’s happening today with the jazz world and the young musicians is they’re not getting strung out on drugs and alcohol. That’s wonderful, you know, because that was very prevalent when I was coming up.

What was that all about, people got into that?

Well, they wanted to play like Bird, and they thought if they took heroin like he did they’d be able to play.

How can an artist, even if they have talent, even function to play when they’re that strung out?

I don’t know, but they did it. You know, I think you become more relaxed and you take more chances than you would if you weren’t high. I’m assuming that. I’ve had a problem with alcohol for years, and I went for help. I stopped drinking on my own for 8 years, and I got into cocaine, thinking you couldn’t get addicted. But I finally woke up. Well, over 30 years I haven’t drank, 23 years I haven’t done any other drugs. But that’s also hereditary on my part. There were a lot of drugs going around. There were so many musicians that died so young from overdoses of heroin because they didn’t know any better.

But I just want to verify what I said about the schools. I think it’s wonderful that they’re giving purpose to these young kids, but I think they also have to be schooled in taking chances. There’re no places for these young people to play in.

So what’s the solution to that? That’s a tough question …

You know, there’s nobody really who has the money and power in this country, who’s willing to go to any length to make this music stay alive. And a lot of young people get discouraged. They see what’s happened. Most people can’t make a living at this music. You know, you have to do another job. Lord knows, I did, until I was 58.

I know that you raised a daughter, and that was a big part of what you had to do in the middle of everything else. Portrait of Sheila [Blue Note, 1963] was a pivotal record for you, then we see not a lot happening, until the late seventies, in terms of your records. So that was the period where you were raising your child, am I right?

Well, yeah, I was raising my kid, but also I sang. I found places to sing. I sometimes would go on little tours, but I was singing at the Page Three [in Greenwich Village] until I did Portrait of Sheila, and even after that. There was a club in the Village where I was singing two nights a week, and that sort of helped me, because I had a place where I could sing. You know, it wasn’t about the money, it was keeping the music alive. I did that.

Hopefully, there are places [today] that will have sessions. But my thing is this: that these young people need to go out there and take chances, and not play their exercises when they’re up there blowing. You know, they’re playing the exercises. Play from your heart—what you are feeling and what you are hearing, even if it’s wrong. If it’s wrong, make it right. They need to find places where they can do this, [even] if it means finding a place in one of the schools and having a session once every week, or something like that. Go to school all week, and let the music school authorities—or whoever’s in charge, the music teachers—open-up a little place somewhere where they can go and take chances and blow. And the singers, too. Have singers’ nights. It’s so important.

That’s a wonderful thought.

Yeah, wouldn’t it be wonderful. If I was a millionaire, I’d have a place for kids in every school. They don’t have a place to do it.

I wonder if I could ask you some specific questions about some of your recordings. For 'You Are My Sunshine,' from George Russell's album, Outer View [Riverside, 1962], my sense is that he just broached the idea that you do it unaccompanied. Am I right?

There’s a story about it, if you like.

Tell me.

It’s because of George Russell that I ever got recorded. He had me do a demo tape, and he took it to Prestige, and to Blue Note. And at that time, Quincy Jones was the A&R man at Prestige. Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, who were at Blue Note, heard it, and so did Prestige. I signed with Blue Note first, to do one recording. Quincy wanted me to do a recording for Prestige when I was already signed [with Blue Note]. He sent me a lovely letter, 'well, maybe another time,' you know. I did that recording, and I did that through George Russell. He’s the one that got me that date. He believed in me. He was wonderful; he was very instrumental. I don’t know if I would have ever recorded if it hadn’t been for George.

But what happened was, George came to hear me at this little club that I worked at. I told you I had two nights a week in the Village, and my daughter was young, and I had a babysitter, and I’d go down there and sacrifice my day job, because I’d be exhausted going to work the next day. So I was singing with this piano player. We’d get a lot of different piano players, and this one piano player studied with George Russell. He told George, so George came up to hear his student, and in so doing he heard me sing. And he approached me and he said, 'Where do you come from to sing like that?' He just made the hair stand up on my arms. And I said, 'Oh, really?' And I told him, I said I came originally from a little town in Pennsylvania. So then he called me up, and we became very close, and he said, 'I would like to go back and see where you grew up.'

So my grandmother was still alive. Nobody else was back there but my grandmother— everybody else had left or died. We went back, and she loved to drink, and I was drinking at the time. I didn’t take my daughter. My daughter stayed here with a friend of mine, and George and I went to Pennsylvania. And she [Sheila’s grandmother] said, 'Oh, come on, let’s go out and get something to drink.' So we went up to this bar about a mile away from my home, from where my grandmother lived. It was in a coal mining area, because that’s where I grew up. And so we were in the club, and there was only one old miner sitting at the bar. He was out of work. All the miners were out of work, and so there were not very many people in there that night. So, we had our drinks and my grandmother was bragging about we were famous, especially George—well, he was, in the jazz world—but I wasn’t and I said, 'Oh, Mom, you know … don’t do that to him.' So she said, 'Oh, you’re so famous now, do you still sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’?' And I said, 'Oh, no, I don’t sing that anymore.' And he said, 'Why not?' And I said, 'I don’t know, I just don’t sing it anymore.' And George said, 'Why not? Let’s play it and sing it!'

There was an old upright piano, and he started playing 'You Are My Sunshine,' and I started singing it, and my grandmother came over and pushed him off the piano bench. She said, 'That’s not the way it goes.'

How did George play it?

Well, he played it like—well, you know the way George plays. But I still could sing it, because I could hear it. And so my grandmother said, 'That’s not the way it goes.' She pushed him off the bench, and she played. I sang with her 'You Are My Sunshine,' and then George said afterwards, when we came back to New York, 'Your grandmother sounded just like Thelonious Monk.'

A short time after, he called me up on the phone, and he said, 'Come down, I want you to hear something.' I went down and he started playing this unbelievable introduction. It went on for quite a while, and then he stopped. He said, 'Okay, sing.' I said, 'Sing what?' He said, 'Sing ‘You Are My Sunshine.’' I said, 'Alone?' And he said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'What? With no piano, with no accompaniment or anything?' He said, 'Yeah.' And I said, 'I don’t know….' He said, 'What do you mean, you don’t know? You sang alone as a kid back in Pennsylvania growing up.' I said, 'Yeah, I know, but I was afraid. I used to have to go by the cemetery, and I’d sing.' But he said, 'So? Pretend you’re still at home.' So I started to sing it, and then he said, 'I want to record this. It’s like a documentary for the coal miners of Pennsylvania.' They were all out of work due to people not using coal anymore, and the mines were closing. So it was a musical documentary. But that song could have been anything. It would have been whatever that miner asked.

You have an incredibly independent ear, I have to say, if you’re holding your own with Eric Dolphy and all those other people on the recording.

Well, thank you, my dear.

You know it’s true, Sheila.

No, I don’t really know anything anymore. I’ve been a big supporter of myself, I mean I’ll tell you—I love the music, I love to do it, but when I record something I maybe will listen back to it once. And that’s it, and then I never listen again.

What’s the reason for that?

Oh, because when I hear it back I say, 'Oh I could have done this,' and I hear it differently. But the mind’s constantly creating.

You worked with Roswell Rudd. Like, for instance on his album Flexible Flyer [Black Lion, 1974]. Now how did that association come about? How did you get to know Roswell?

Oh, my God, you know, I don’t remember. You know it’s important to talk about these things. But I don’t remember how I first met Roswell. I just learned about him and …

I’ve got another question from that album. It’s easier. Who came up with 'Suh Blah Blah Buh Sibi?' Where did that come from? I love that song.

That was Roswell’s original tune, and he was inspired to write that when he used to drive a taxi cab. It was probably a combination of the travel, and the cars, and windshield wipers, you know. But that was a Roswell composition. Everything I did on that album except for 'What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?' was Roswell’s. That was unusual.

The way you guys started that, with him taking that dissonant line down against what you were singing, and then the way you open it up, when you go into the bridge …

Oh, that was all a freak accident. Roswell’s a very strong improviser. He’s really the greatest, as far as trombone, and the thing about Roswell is that he’s a hell of a Dixieland player and a bebop player. Roswell not only plays out, he can play in and really make it happen.

I’ve actually heard that about him. Somebody I know was turned on to Louis Armstrong by him. Roswell said that when he hears Armstrong play one note, it makes the hair on the back of neck stand right up.

Probably like I am with Bird.

A couple more questions about your singing, some observations on it. For me, personally, with jazz singers, what counts is the emotion of the song and the improvising that they do around it. But you yourself also have really impeccable diction and theatricality. You really put over a song really well. I can hear it right through everything that you’ve ever recorded, and I’m wondering if you consciously work at your diction. It’s really clean.


It’s just the way it comes out?

Never worked on it. A lot of singers, I can’t understand what they’re singing sometimes.

You recorded 'Inchworm' on three different albums that I know of, and each one is really different and really beautiful. What drew you to that tune, or was it just that after Coltrane did it, it fell into the jazz repertoire?

Well, to tell you the truth, I actually did it before Trane. I used to do it at the Page Three. There was a maître’d down at this club, who sort of ran the club, who said that I should look at this tune. And I said, 'Yeah, I’m looking for waltzes.' So I was doing that tune at the Page Three and then Coltrane came out with it.

So you scooped him on it.

Well, who knows, he was playing it around the same time I was and never recorded it, but I know that I never recorded it at that time, but I was singing it.

Of course, it’s also a children’s song.

Yes, plus I used to sing that song to my best friend's little girl, and I used to sing it to Jay Clayton’s little girl and son.

They were lucky kids.

And they loved that. [Sings the opening line of the tune.] I treated it like a kid’s tune, and they used to love that. When they would come to any of my concerts when they were kids, like especially my best friend’s daughter, I would have to sing 'Inchworm.'

My favorite version of it was the one you did on Confirmation. That was really a very hip recording.

Well, now I have it with strings, I think, I did it with strings.

You did it with Alan Broadbent.

Alan arranged it. I did those arrangements in November [2008], on my 80th birthday. Yes, at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. I was there for three nights. I did the Steve Kuhn Trio with the string quartet. It was wonderful—and well-attended, too, I might add. And I was happy that it was well-attended.

Of course it was. You’re a real key person in jazz. You know, at this point, you’re a National Treasure.

Oh, thank you.

You truly are, did you know that? Congress voted you a National Treasure in 1997.

I didn’t know that. But I did get the Mary Lou Williams award, and I got the humanitarian award before IAJE went under. The Lil Hardin Armstrong Jazz Award for women in jazz. The MAC award—that’s the Manhattan Association of Cabarets & Clubs Award, they gave me that. So I’ve gotten some really nice awards.

Well-deserved honors, I have to say.

Thank you. I don’t really think that way. When I get them, I’m kind of surprised. I always say, 'Why me?' and they say 'Why not?' The Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Award presentation was broadcast on NPR from WBGO. I don’t know if you know about that one. Deedee Bridgewater hosted the show, and she and I go back a long time ago.

It’s like talking to jazz history to chat with you. You’ve said, and quite rightly, you pioneered the voice/bass duo.


Why do you think that few singers choose that form to this day?

Because they don’t know the joy of singing off the silence. We create off the silence of not having the drums and piano, and I love the sound of the bass. I just hear that. I love all that space, because it gives me all this room to do what I want to do, and I don’t have to worry about whether I’m hanging up the piano player or hanging up the drummer.

I think maybe in another life I was a bass player. I never started to do the bass and voice because I wanted to be different. I guess I was different in sound without even realizing it. I did it because I really love the sound of the bass. I just communicated so much easier with the bass than I did with just piano or drums.

One of reasons that I love doing the bass and voice is that I love the freedom. I’m not removed from the high I’m on with the music. I’m not removed from that or jolted back by a drummer who’s too loud, or a piano that’s playing too many notes. I love the space, and one of the things with doing bass and voice is having that space. We work on arrangements to get in, to get out, and in the middle it’s free, it’s open. But the point is that when a bass is too busy, I will tell them, even when we’re rehearsing. For example, I’ve been with Cameron [Brown] now for a while, and if he’s too busy, which in the beginning he was, I’d say, 'You don’t have to play in all those spaces, man.' Don’t play all that. Less is more.

The other thing that’s very important is working off the silence. Bass and voice works off the silence, and in so doing, you can’t do this just anywhere. You can’t do this in a club that’s not going to have the full undivided attention. You can’t do it because you get distracted. You can’t do it if there’s a fan running, because immediately my ear will go, or his will, to the fan, which will set the pitch off, so I have to be extremely cautious where we do this.

And the other thing is trusting one another—trusting to know that it’s fine, you can just undress yourself emotionally and otherwise, and know that it’s okay, because you trust whoever you’re playing with. But that’s in any music, or I should say in any combination.

I remember one time I was doing a bass and voice concert in, I think it was Ottawa. It was in a club, but it was during a festival. And we were on the stage and we were doing this concert, and a guy came and stood there by the door, and when we were finished, he yells out, 'Where’s the piano?' You know how sometimes things come out of your mouth and you don’t know where they come from? What came out of my mouth was, 'In my head, man.'

It just wasn’t his thing.

A lot of times people don’t want to take a chance on that, because they feel they’re getting gypped. I’m going to this concert and it’s just the bass and voice, why should I pay $20? I’m sure some of them feel that way. And then they don’t always get it on the first tune or two. Usually, with us, by the third tune, they’re hooked.

Harvie [Swartz] had a good thing. In the beginning I thought, 'Oh, God, stop being a prima Donna with this.' He used to say, 'Please don’t play music before we go on.' Because—and I understand now—the audience gets used to that, hearing the drums and the piano and the horns and the whole thing. Then we come on, and that takes a while to adjust. And he was right, absolutely right. Bass and voice is not everybody’s cup of tea.

In what way?

I don’t think that they [the audience] open up their ears enough to take the time to listen, to become involved with what the bass and voice are doing. Secondly, if it is a club somewhere, and they’re set up for this, they’re gonna be quiet as far as glass tinkling goes on, but that can throw your pitch off. But sometimes they don’t want to be that quiet, because it takes total concentration at first.

Do you think some singers are afraid of the amount of chances you have to take? You have to really command things when it’s just those two instruments.

I think a lot of it has to do with not feeling comfortable, and not hearing the bass the way I hear it. Now I notice singers are doing one or two tunes on their recordings with bass and voice.

Any specific singers stand out to you, who do things you find particularly interesting?

Not offhand, which is not to put other singers down? Nancy King, I would say. She had a thing going for a while, and she had it covered.

I know you teach people. Do you teach them ways to open up, to really push themselves to take chances, or do you just work with what you’ve got?

I talk about it with them. The ones I feel really want to try ideas, I say, 'Don’t look back, twenty years from now, and be sorry that you didn’t try it.' If you feel it strong enough, then try it, even if it’s not accepted. Lord knows I wasn’t accepted, for years. I don’t even know if I’m accepted now. It just depends on what is your goal. If your goal is to become a big star, then this is not the way you approach it. If your goal is to just try to create a new way of expressing oneself and the joy from that, as opposed to the joy from the money you might make as a big star, then do it. My goal was never to be a big star. My goal was to be as original as I could be, and sing what I believed, and not force things I didn’t feel or didn’t hear. That’s what I get with the bass. I’ve had out-of-body experiences. You don’t get a lot of them, but I’ve had them, when I’m performing.

What’s it like?

You are doing music with somebody, and you are so trusting and so involved that the sound becomes one, especially with bass and voice. And you are communicating with that other instrument, and all of a sudden, it’s not even you. You float above it. It’s happening, and you’re not even part of it. These out of body experiences don’t happen a lot, but when they do, that’s something money will never buy, that fame will never buy. That communication between musicians is so strong, and you all are so spiritually connected, that you become one. And, man, I’m flying when that happens. And when it’s over and I rush back to reality, it’s like, what happened? And I don’t share it. I never let the audience know. I’ve had about seven in my life; a lot of times it was with bass. I think I had one with Harvey. I had an out-of-body experience with Brian Kellogg. You’re always waiting for it to happen; to use the old expression, it happens when you least expect it. I think that’s when you let all your armor down.

Do you think it's the natural consequence of being the type of person who takes chances up there?

I don’t set out to chances. I learn the tune exactly as it’s written, learn the lyrics, learn what they’re about and really get into the tune, and then I let it happen. Sometimes I sing it exactly as written.

It’s interesting that later in your career, there were more instances where you did things exactly as written.

Yeah, because I have to practice what I preach to the young people coming up. When I first started liking the music as a teenager, I was all over the place, because I thought that’s what it was about. So I know what a lot of these kids are going through. God forbid that I’d sing anything the way it was written. You can tell when it’s forced and when it’s natural. It gets back to that landing on the melody again—take-off and land, take-off and land.

As you look back, are there any particular recordings or dates where you said, 'Those were great.'

No, I haven’t made it yet, and I probably never will make it. Nothing that I’ve ever done up to this point is anything that I think is great, and I’m serious about this. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop doing the music. I just know the feeling of when I’m doing it in front of a live audience, and then hearing it back, there’s a certain element that’s missing. I’m never satisfied with what I’ve done. I was rather pleased with the Heart Strings [Muse, 1993] with the string quartet. I liked some of that. Some people have lack of self-confidence, or maybe I just set very high standards, and I haven’t reached those.

When I’ve had those out of body experiences and I came back into reality, I often thought, 'That’s the kind of feeling I want to have when I record.' And it hasn’t happened.

How do you pick your songs?

I go for melody first. Without even knowing it at the time. Sometimes I get the lyrics and I find out what the lyrics are all about, and if they don’t knock me out, I change them around. And most singers are into the lyrics. You know I made this statement at one time, and some critic said that I had no regard for the lyrics whatsoever. Boy, did she get me wrong! That is not what I said. I said I hear a beautiful melody and pray that the lyrics are just as good.

In closing, do you have any other advice for young singers?

Keep your own sound, and don’t look for anybody else’s, no matter how many times you might get discouraged. You think you might not find places to do music. You will find it. Don’t give up on it, because if you give it up, you’ll never get it back again. Years down the line, regardless of who you’re singing with, if you give up this music, and you try to get it back in 20 years or more, either you’ll never get it back, or it will be very, very difficult, and you’ll have to work harder than you ever thought you’d have to work. Harder than it was in the beginning.

So find places to sing; find musicians to work things out with, and enjoy it. That’s what it’s about. It’s about joy, and life, and love: it’s everything.

March 14, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation With Joshua Redman

By Ted Panken

"They're all for Obama," Joshua Redman said towards the end of a post-Inauguration Day concert at Manhattan's Highline Ballroom. "Every song we ever played up 'til now, and every song we'll ever play—before we even knew who he was, they were all for Obama. All of jazz was for Obama."

                       Joshua Redman by Ron Hudson

In keeping with the spirit of the occasion, Redman and his ensemble (bassists Larry Grenadier and Ruben Rogers; drummers Brian Blade and Greg Hutchinson) sustained an ebullient mood on a repertoire drawn from his new recording, Compass—in contrast with their album interpretations of the material, which have a subdued, wintry ambience. Following Back East, the saxophone virtuoso's first documented exploration of the saxophone-bass-drums trio format, Redman extends his reach on Compass, deploying his personnel in trio, quartet, and quintet configurations. The music is made with the same open-ended attitude that he also revealed on the albums Elastic and Momentum by the Elastic Trio, his plugged-in unit with Blade and keyboardist Sam Yahel.

Some in the full house may have been aware of certain parallels in the life histories of Redman and the new president. Both are biracial, and both had black fathers who were absent during their formative years, leaving them to be raised by their white mothers. Both can claim Harvard '91 on their resumes: Obama as a distinguished Doctor of Laws who headed the Harvard Law Review; Redman as a summa cum laude pre-med student who, towards the end of his time at Harvard, applied and was accepted to Yale Law School.

There, the paths diverge. Obama went into community service and politics. Redman, who spent much of his Boston down time taking the T across the Charles River to interact with such talented Berklee and New England School of Music students as Grenadier, Seamus Blake, Jorge Rossy, Mark Turner, Antonio Hart, and Roy Hargrove, deferred legal studies to explore the jazz life in New York City. Settling in Brooklyn, he played and recorded with his father, tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman; submitted a tape to the 1991 Thelonious Monk tenor saxophone competition; won first place over Chris Potter and Eric Alexander; received a lucrative recording contract; made an inaugural world tour with sidemen Pat Metheny, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins; and formed a band with peer groupers Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Blade. He never looked back.

Highly visible from the start, Redman never enjoyed the luxury of anonymity that allows developing young musicians to beta-test ideas out of public view, to smooth-out the rough patches in the arduous course of developing an instrumental and group sound. But although Redman is a pragmatist (he knew first-hand from his father's material struggles how difficult the jazz life is), he was never a play-it-safe musician. This is evident on his albums of the '90s, which, if not formally venturesome, display his incremental progress towards new arenas of expression. All showcase Redman's impeccable musicianship—the unerring time, centered tone, and meticulous articulation—which he deploys in the course of "telling a story." He's always had an enviable knack for creating elegant melodies within complex structures, and infusing them with emotional content.

"Sound is your voice," he told me in a 1994 interview on WKCR. "It doesn't matter what you're saying if you don't have a voice to say it with. The sound is your soul, your spirit, the essence of your emotion, and to me, emotion is the key to jazz—and to all music."

Not to start off on a negative note, but you're about to turn 40.

I am about to turn 40, and yes, there are many ways of looking at that, some negative, but many not so negative. I can't say I'm looking forward to it. But I'm very accepting of it. I hate to say I'm at the happiest point in my life, because we're all still trying to calibrate happiness and figure out exactly what that means. But I think I'm at a place where I'm the most settled, most at-peace with the various aspects of my life. I feel like I'm in a good place musically. I have a beautiful son. I'm in a wonderful relationship. So yeah, I'm probably at the happiest point in my life.

You've been quoted as saying that Compass reflected a process of contemplation and personal struggle.

Yes … which contradicts what I just said. I don't know the best way to describe this. The conditions of my life—where I live, my relationships, my music, my career, my friends, my family—over the past few years have been fantastic. Which made it almost paradoxical is that a couple of years ago I started to go through some particularly troubling stuff in a very interior way. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say that there was an inner struggle, a sense of disorientation that didn't appear to have anything to do with what was going on in my life.

For one thing, your father died two years ago.

Yes, my father died, and my son was born in the same year. My son was born in February and my father died in September of 2006. Those were obviously two huge life events. It was both a very joyful, inspiring year, and a very sad and melancholy year. I'm sure those stayed with me. It's not as if I felt directly, a year later, that I was dealing with those things in a conscious way. But certainly, I think the intensity of that year emotionally, psychically, spiritually ... There were repercussions, and perhaps my struggles over the next couple of years came out of that.

Without being reductive about it, is there any connection between this struggle and your choice to navigate the trio format and the subsequent extensions of the trio format, as documented on Compass?

Saxophone trio is a more abstract musical context—also more raw and naked, more exposed, one could say more vulnerable. But I don't feel that sort of direct relationship factored-in when I started [playing with a] trio. However, at the time I was writing the music for this new record I was definitely approaching the height of the more personal issues I referred to. Some of that struggle, that anxiety, that contemplation was reflected in the music that I was writing. Then the time we recorded the album was in certain ways the peak—or the nadir—of that interior struggle. So with the new album, yes, there was that relationship.

Take me through the project. Was the configuration of Compass something you had envisioned at the time you made Back East, or did it stem from its repercussions?

I'd been doing some trio playing up 'til 2006, when I recorded Back East. The record was released in the spring of 2007, which is when I started touring heavily in trio format. I wrote the music for Compass at the beginning of that touring, all in a period of three or four days. Usually I am not a prolific composer. I tend to take awhile with compositions, to write them over a period of time, as opposed to a writing body of material in a very short span. So this burst of compositional productivity was unusual. I think that was May 2007.

Back East is a combination of original music, but also arrangements of other people's songs, and once I was really digging into it, playing trio a lot, I got inspired to write a lot of original music for that format. So basically the music on Compass was all original songs written for trio. When I thought about recording the music, my concept was just that—that I would do a trio record, with bass and drums, and just record this original music.

Back East had multiple trios, and you were performing and touring with multiple trios as well.

Exactly. So I decided for the next record that I would do multiple trios again, but my concept was a slight variation on the theme of Back East. On Back East there were three rhythm section tandems, and I recorded a few songs with each of them—with Reuben Rogers and Eric Harland, with Larry Grenadier and Ali Jackson, and with Christian McBride and Brian Blade. For the new record, I wanted to play with Larry and Reuben and with Greg and Brian; my concept was to do individual trio combinations, but do something with each combination—Reuben and Greg, Reuben and Brian, Larry and Greg, Larry and Brian. But something else happened, which became this idea of doing stuff with multiple basses and multiple drummers, and also with everybody together in double trio format.

Having decided upon that, it sounds like you did not go into the studio with a set-in-stone idea of how the arrangements would go. It's very fluid and sounds spontaneously arranged and internally orchestrated by everyone.

There was little arrangement ahead of time for the double trio stuff. There were some general instructions, or, I should say, suggestions that I made. But essentially, the arrangements happened organically and naturally and spontaneously as we were playing the music. In most cases, each musician figured out his role at any one particular time. The two drummers, Brian and Greg, figured out, without even talking about it, how they would interact and complement each other, and the same with Larry and Ruben. So it was very open-ended.

As a jazz musician, by definition you embrace the quality of an experience of surprise and spontaneity and the unfamiliar. That's what improvisation is all about. But I do have to say that with this album, maybe I embraced some of those things on an even deeper level, because I didn't really have an agenda or a planner or even a vision of what this double trio stuff would sound like. We all approached it with this idea of, 'Hey, let's give it a try and see what happens.' That was new for me in the studio. I tend to go into recording sessions with a little more of a plan. The band I'm playing with is the band I've been working with, so we've been playing the music in a live setting, and developed a certain sense of how to play the different songs, what the different songs can sound like, and maybe different directions in which we can take them. There's more of a musical history there to begin with, so when we do a take in the studio, we can sense how that take relates to how we might have played it in another context. In those situations, I can sense exactly what's going to happen (obviously, there's so much improvisation), but more the shape, the general statement or meaning I'm trying to extract from this song or this performance.

So on Compass the roadmap is much more nebulous.

Much more nebulous, yes. Roadmap? I don't think I generally have that much of a roadmap on anything. But yes, the orientation is almost to the point of being lost ... but that carries a kind of negative connotation which I don't necessarily want to express. But the sense of kind of being out there, as you say … yes, without a roadmap, without an anchor. We had to navigate ourselves in the moment without a clear and detailed map.

It seems you've always been very concerned with structure and creating form. We haven't actually done a formal interview since 1995, but in interviews we did on WKCR that year and in 1994 and 1993, you talked a lot about structure.

Well, I think structure is important. I don't know if I'm a structuralist—I don't know what that means in jazz. But structure is a very important part of the meaning in music. The shape of a song or of an improvisation certainly has a lot to do with the story you're telling. Although in the past I've done a fair amount of free playing, more often than not, I'd have a pretty solid structure for each song, whether that's a groove, or a metric system or a set of changes. That's definitely there with these songs, but there's more of a sense of creating the structure in the moment, as opposed to having an existing structure and then creating within it. There aren't that many songs on the record that are completely free. In fact, there's only one, the first, which isn't really even a song, but a kind of vignette. On lots of songs there's a structure, but an important part of it is a free area where we create our own structure. For example, 'Insomnomaniac' is very complex and detailed, with strange-shifting odd meters, but then in parts of that song we break down and the structure disappears. So yes, I think there's more of that balance and exploration.

All the musicians who play on this record have played with you for at least a decade. Maybe more. Fifteen-twenty years.


Everybody knows each other's vocabulary, and you've come up through the wars together.

Very much so.

You made a comment in one of those interviews from 13-14 years ago that you played a wide stylistic range, but predicted that as you and your generational cohort got older, the style-hopping would stop, all the various devices and approaches would become incorporated in people's own musical vision. That seems very apparent on Compass and also Back East.

Yes. I think that's a natural development. In a certain sense, it goes without saying in a music like jazz, that as you get older and have more experience you better digest and process the information that you've been exposed to. You become more mature, everything becomes more integrated, and you have more of a voice and more to say.

One unique thing about my generation is that we came up in a time in which there existed this dialogue, this faux controversy, this idea of a conflict between tradition and innovation. When I got to New York in 1991, that was a major topic of discussion in the jazz press. There was a sense that a choice had to be made, that either you are embracing the lineage and the legacy and the history of acoustic jazz, or you're doing something radical and revolutionary and new. Some musicians fell into that, accepted that dichotomy and that view, and chose a side. Others resisted it and chose not to choose. They tried to work within a variety of languages, hoped that over time those would get synthesized, and didn't consciously try to wear the mantle of innovation, but certainly also not to be backward-looking. As you might suspect, I consider myself one of those musicians, and a lot of the musicians whom I play with, my close collaborators and colleagues, definitely have that same view.

Hopefully, over time, our music has become more mature. I don't think it's even a topic of discussion now. No young musician who is coming up today is talking about 'The Tradition' with a 'T' as something to which you have to bow down and pay homage. At the same time, nobody is talking about how the only value in jazz is newness. I think this idea of naturally working with a variety of languages, immersing yourself in a variety of vocabularies, and hopefully expressing yourself in a natural, organic way, is the attitude of most musicians today.

The preparations for Back East occurred towards the end of your tenure with the SFJAZZ Collective, and the trio tours that gestated your music, it seems to me, followed or came around the end of your last tour with them.

My last tour with them was spring of 2007, and yes, Back East was released, so I basically went straight from touring with SFJAZZ to touring with trio. Also, I had been doing trio gigs on and off since 2004, so in a certain sense, they evolved in parallel.

It seems to me that an experience like SFJAZZ Collective must have been both an immersive experience and also a growth experience—immersing yourself in those canons.


I'm wondering if you can discern any impact from those four years on what you're doing now, as you approach 40.

It was definitely a formative period in my musical life, and I learned so much and grew so much during that time. I wouldn't say it was so much a matter of immersing myself in the canons, if by that you mean the canons of the great ...

I should say the vocabulary and the language of the composers covered—Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk—and the process of reinterpreting that vocabulary.

To a great extent, I felt as though I had earlier immersed myself in their music, in their languages. One irony about the Collective is that when we were working up our arrangements and our interpretations of the music of these masters, in a strange way, was a time when I was listening to their music the least. Part of that may have been by design. Part of our goal was to try to play this classic repertoire in a way that did it justice and captured some of the music's central spirit, but we also tried very much to offer our own take on the music, our own interpretations.

The band's principal orientation or attitude was original music, whether our own compositions or our original interpretations of other people's music. So the real formative aspect for me of that band was immersing myself in this world, being in a composer's workshop, as it were, and playing other people's music—incredibly challenging, intricate, beautiful music. I think that was where the growth happened for me more than anything. Just getting a chance, for example, to get inside a Miguel Zenon composition for four years straight. To me, he's one of the most gifted composers in jazz. I learned so much, and I carried many of those things away from me.

At a certain point, I hungered for the acoustic trio, because SFJAZZ Collective was a large ensemble, pretty much the largest ensemble I'd ever worked with on a regular basis. So as much as I loved being part of a four-horn front line, and all the harmonic and textural possibilities that this offered, there was something very attractive to me about playing trio, because it's very different—open, stark, naked, a lot of freedom.

It seems your other major preoccupation in the preceding years was the Elastic Trio, with Sam Yahel and either Brian Blade or Jeff Ballard.

We played a lot with Jeff actually.

That group really grew in scope over the years, and was very creative ... I shouldn't say 'was.'

Well, we're taking a sabbatical, for sure.

Can you speak to what you intended with that group, how it grew, and what qualities of that group infuse the current acoustic direction?

I'm glad you asked that. On the surface, there's a huge divide between the Elastic Band the acoustic trio. The Elastic Band is a lot of electronics, and we played mostly groove-oriented music—we didn't play any music that was swing-based. Even though there're only three of us, a lot of musical layers were happening at one time. There's a ton of harmony. With the acoustic trio, it's all acoustic, there are only three voices, and there aren't layers of harmony. We're playing a lot of swing-based music. So formally, they are very different.

But I really feel that my improvisational attitude, my orientation, my approach to playing with Elastic Band and with the trio are fundamentally the same. With Elastic Band, our goal was to take this open-ended, fluid, elastic sensibility that is part and parcel with the acoustic jazz language—that sense of collective give-and-take within the music—and explore that in an electric, groove-based context. To the extent we had a philosophy, that was it. I think it took us some time to make that work, to find that balance. I felt when we stopped playing together, it was at a high point in the sense that we had figured out a lot of things, and were feeling very comfortable in that format.

You mentioned texture before, and it did occur to me that one point of common ground between the Elastic Trio and this trio is that both are concerned with timbre to an extent that I don't think was the case in the '90s.

I agree with that. Maybe that's a natural evolution. When you think about the different aspects of music, the first things that come to mind are rhythm, melody, and harmony—and structure, in terms of meter and form. As a jazz musician, those are the aspects that I explored first. As I got more comfortable with those elements and got maybe more sensitive and subtle in my approach, then I could take on texture more. With this trio, and especially with the Double Trio, I really started to explore the spatial element of music. What I mean by that, in terms of a jazz band, I had never thought about how the music exists in space. I'd think about harmony and rhythm and texture and melody and timbre and tone color in terms of different voices occupying different places in the spatial spectrum. But with the double trio, for the first time, I started to think like that, because so much of the band's identity was based on how we related in space, setting up with the saxophone in the middle, the two basses on either side, the two drummers on the far left and right. That symmetrical formation informed the music. To the extent that I thought about arranging different tunes, a lot of it had to do with that sense of space, and passing call-and-response across the space.

One thing I've found admirable about your career is that you've maintained a creative path and growth whilst sustaining a successful performing career—doing it square-on in the spotlight. In retrospect, can you speak to how you kept your balance during those years?

I think it's very simple. I never gave any real credence to that world. I mean, I was very fortunate to have that attention and to have those opportunities, and I also recognized the importance of taking advantage of those opportunities. I shouldn't say that I didn't give any credence to it. I'm one of those people who, when I was young, loved reading liner notes. I loved reading analysis of music, criticism of music. When I first got to New York, I would often read reviews in the New York Times of jazz shows I went to see. I actually place a tremendous amount of value on jazz writing and jazz criticism of the serious sort. But what I mean is that, what people said, or wrote, or the interest that they took in me career-wise or publicity-wise, never informed or had any bearing on how I viewed myself or my own music. I never had the sense that the attention I was getting was in any way related to the quality of the music I was playing. Not to say that I didn't think my music had quality. But I recognized from the beginning the sheer luck and good fortune that went into this.

I've always been intensely self-critical, sometimes to a fault, sometimes in an almost paralyzing way. No matter what sort of attention I might or might not be getting, that never changed. Always my driving force was feeling like I sucked—not wanting to suck. For me, the self-criticism always happened before or after the fact, but never during. The great inspiration and joy and presence that comes with playing is the only reason I was able to survive artistically as a jazz musician and to keep playing. For me, the moment of making music is always positive and inspiring. Playing feels great. Even if I'm not playing well, it still feels great. But it's the aftermath, the taking stock of it, the self-analysis that happens after that's the hard part.

Do you listen to your older records?

I think I need about a decade's distance.

What do you think of your '90s records, then?

I will say that typically, the more recently I've [recorded] it, the harder it is to listen-to and the more frustrated and critical and disappointed I am with it. At a certain point, I get enough distance that I can maybe appreciate it a bit more. Sometimes now, I don't cringe if I hear something from Mood Swing or Wish or Joshua Redman (the first record). I recognize my voice. It sounds like me but it sounds like a very different me. I certainly made many choices that I would not make now. Generally, I listen back and just hear weaknesses that hopefully I've dealt with more, so that now I have fewer weaknesses in those departments. Sometimes I'm shocked and hear certain strengths, like, 'Oh, man, I used to be able to do that?' or 'Man, why don't I have that any more?' That's when it's instructive and helpful to hear something I've done in the past, because I might rediscover something that I got away from.

Who were your direct mentors in those early years? People who could talk to you when you had those periods of self-doubt.

Nobody! I had lots of mentors, but no one in the sense of someone who could talk me up from the self-criticism. That was something that I had to do for myself. But many mentors. My father was the first one, for sure. Before I got to New York, I played with him at the Village Vanguard, and when I got to New York I played with him regularly for two years, and I learned more from him in those two years about saxophone playing and about improvisation and about tone and feeling and the blues and freedom than I've ever learned from anyone. I had an opportunity to play a fair amount with Charlie Haden, who was a big one. Pat Metheny was a really big one. I learned a lot from him about music and also about being a professional musician. I had a chance to do a long tour with Jack DeJohnette and with Paul Motian. I'd say my peers were huge mentors for me. I played a lot with Jorge Rossy, with Mark Turner, with Kevin Hays, with Brian Blade, with Brad Mehldau, later with Greg Hutchinson. Christian McBride was a huge mentor and really a teacher to me in so many ways.

You're going to be 40. You're a father. Your father has died. At this point, you're a signpost along the jazz history timeline. This is probably for someone else to discern, and not you. But at a certain point, you were going to be a lawyer. You were going to be a doctor. You weren't going to be a musician. Do you have any reflections on your path?

I don't really have any thoughts or reflections upon my place or role in jazz history, or even my place or role in jazz-present. For me, thinking in those terms takes me out of a creative place. That's the worst thing I can do for my music. Anyone's place in jazz history ultimately comes down to the music that they create, I think, and the worst thing I can do for my place in jazz history is to think about my place in jazz history. So I certainly leave that to others, as you noted.

But in terms of the choices I've made, and what I've done and haven't done, being a musician as opposed to a doctor or lawyer: One of the big aspects of turning 40, where I am right now, is that I think for the first time I can finally say I'm a musician. I'm a jazz musician. That's what I am. I am not someone who chose to check out jazz, 'I'm playing jazz, I love playing jazz, but there's these other things I could have done and still might want to do.' This is what I do. This is what I love to do. This is hopefully what I'll be doing for the rest of my life.

Ted Panken interviewed Joshua Redman on January 27, 2009

March 07, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation With Michel Camilo

By Tomas Peña

                   Michel Camilo by Jos L. Knaepen

Pianist, composer, and three-time Grammy award winner Michel Camilo was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1954. Fascinated with music since childhood, he composed his first song at the age of five and studied for thirteen years at the National Conservatory. At the age of sixteen, he became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Seeking to expand his musical horizons, Camilo moved to New York in 1979, where he continued his studies at Mannes College and the Juilliard School of Music. He made his Carnegie Hall debut with his trio in 1985, and has become one of the world's most prominent pianists.

I caught up with Michel as he was preparing to do a benefit concert for the Diabetes Foundation in the Dominican Republic. What began as a timed, forty-minute interview, quickly evolved into an enjoyable and deep conversation about his life, music, and career that lasted nearly an hour.

If you have ever wondered why Michel is so successful at what he does, understand this: Michel Camilo is a man on a mission, an individual who talks the talk and walks the walk, a musician's musician and a person whose smile spreads light wherever he goes.

Hola, Michel! You are one busy guy! Our time is limited so let's cut to the chase and speak about Spirit of the Moment. The album was released in 2007 and, amazingly, is still going strong.

That's right. This has been a long tour, but the album has a quiet intensity. After I recorded Live at the Blue Note (2003) I decided to stop playing with a trio for awhile. In between Live at the Blue Note and Spirit of Moment, I recorded Solo (2005), Rhapsody in Blue (2006), and Spain Again with Tomatito (2006). The break gave me a chance to work with a new unit [a trio] and develop a sound, and it has been paying off ever since because we have been touring since the album was released. Incidentally, the album came out of a tour where we did something like 42 performances.

You practically live on the road. How do you do it?

[Laughs] Thank God I still have the energy!

I have seen the trio perform on a number of occasions. The first time was at Lincoln Center about four years ago, and more recently at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in upstate New York.

Wow! The concert at Lincoln Center was probably the first time Dafnis [Prieto] played with me!

If it was, you couldn't tell. The trio was spectacular!

Thank you, I am very proud of what's happening with this trio. I think the advantage here has been time. Drummer Dafnis Prieto has been with me for four years, and bassist Charles Flores has been with me for seven years. There is no substitute for honing your skills and polishing the sound, the nuances, and the textures. Our level of communication has reached the point where I call it a 'seventh sense.' It's amazing how we hear things the same way and compliment each other's playing. It's a dream come true.

You really enjoy performing with a trio.

Well, it's my core foundation and my center. For me the trio is like a mini-orchestra and that's how I write for it. I like to challenge my sidemen, not with just the interplay that comes from improvising, but also the orchestral part of it. For example, the charts contain big band and ensemble moments. That keeps us interested in the music.

The interplay between the three of you is incredible. You respond to one another in a nanosecond.

That's what makes it so rewarding for us and the audience. We are definitely seeing the fruits of our labor because at the end of the day we have been touring this album for two years [the tour ends in May of 2009]. During this tour we performed in every situation imaginable, from the smallest to the largest clubs in the U.S. and in Tokyo, where we played for an audience of 5000 people.

Let's talk about the title, Spirit of the Moment. I take it that it has something to do with your philosophy of constantly challenging yourself and being and creating in the moment.

Actually, it reflects what happens within the trio. That was the whole thing, to try to capture that magic, that nanosecond, like you said before. It's that indescribable magic that happens when everything falls into the right place, when we hear things the same way and compliment each other perfectly and the energy is just right. As I mentioned previously, there is a quiet intensity to the album, and that's what I call 'the spirit of the moment.'

I understand that you composed the material in a relatively short period of time.

I wanted the process to be organic; I wanted it to be part of itself. That's why I challenged myself to write the material in eight days, or one tune per day. My inspiration was the trio, what we have done in the past, what I knew they could do for me and how we interact with one another. In fact, when we went to the studio we asked Telarc [Records] to record us direct to the master. That way everything is organically focused to the concept of the album.

In other words, it's like listening to a live recording.

It's about the immediacy and the moment that can never be repeated, which is very difficult to capture because it is so elusive [laughs].

That's the essence of jazz—improvising in the moment.

That's what makes us look forward to each concert, and that's why we are able to play the same material over and over and it still sounds fresh.

The more you play the material the 'fresher' it sounds.

That's what I mean! It's the ultimate trust between the leader and the sidemen and it's a three-way conversation. That's why you see so many smiles and winks on stage. We know each other so well that I don't even know how we do it. Recently, we were playing at the Regatta Bar jazz club in Boston and we did something that we didn't even talk about. We heard it the same way and nobody fought it, and when nobody fights the musical discourse it's a great flow.

It's like creating a great work of art then stepping back and marveling at it.

You discover new shades, new colors and nuances. Sometimes a song that has been bright becomes obscure. All of that has a lot of value for us because it keeps us on our toes creatively. And the fact that we encounter so many difference types of audiences all over the world and each one reacts differently. For some, a jazz performance is like a classical concert and they don't applaud until the end.

Where was that?

In Japan they respect us so much that they want to hear every detail, but it's kind of weird because we are used to interacting with the audience. Unless you are very seasoned you could easily get spooked! [Laughs] But thank God that doesn't generally happen.

Let's talk about your fascination with the number '3.'

You know about that, huh?

As part of my research I listened to an interview you did on National Public Radio with Maria Hinojosa, where you spoke about your fascination with the number three. Afterwards I visited a numerology site and came up with some interesting information.

Oh, really?

Among other things, the number 3 represents the triad: the father, the son and the Holy Ghost; the sun, the moon, and the stars; and spirit, soul and body. I understand that the album is divided into three sections that correspond to the number 3.

The number 3 is in all of my recordings, you just have to find it. The most obvious reference is the album, Triangulo (Triangle). I have been reading esoteric books since I was fifteen, and I learned that the number 3 spells out our nature. I am a Catholic, so you know there is the Holy Trinity—the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, all of that. That's why there are no coincidences and the album is divided into three parts: body, mind, and soul. The first four songs are original tunes, and the middle section is 3 + 1 (three standards and one original tune) and the last section is 1+3 (one standard and three original tunes).

Got it …

If you listen carefully to the tune 'Giant Steps,' you will see that the arrangement is based on the number 3. Also, there are three syllables in the words, Gi-ant-Steps. It's all there! And the treatment of 'Nardis' is based on the number 3 because it's a bulería.

A Spanish rhythm based on a three count.


Let's go to the first part: Body.

It's more intense and more robust. All of the tunes in the first part are originals because I wanted it to give the album my personal touch and show what I am about, not just as a player but as a composer.

The first part contains four original tunes: 'Just Now,' 'My Secret Place,' 'A Place in Time,' and 'Repercussions.'

There are three ballads on the album as well: 'My Secret Place,' 'A Place in Time' and 'Liquid Crystal,' though 'Liquid Crystal' is a little more esoteric because it has a groove under it. Also, all the titles have three words. For me the album is like a book that is divided into three big chapters with four parts that tell a story. It's no coincidence that the album starts in C-major and it ends in C-minor. The album was constructed organically.

Part 2 contains tunes by your idols.

Its people that I grew up listening to, that I admired as players, composers, and creators. It's my take on their music.

That's Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Wayne Shorter. It doesn't get any better than that!

[Laughs] It's about what they gave me as a jazz musician—my formation, how they helped me to get to where I am today harmonically-speaking, melodically-speaking. How they took chances with their careers, how they were able to shift and keep on going. All of that influences me. Not just the music, but the how they were able to stay current through every period of their lives.

Of the four, Miles and Coltrane were criticized the most for keeping up with the times.

That's what I am talking about. They were attacked but that's part of being a jazz musician. When there is no risk involved it gets very boring. It's the most important thing in jazz. I teach master classes all over the world, and I tell my students that we all change from day to day. You just have to notice the changes and allow your music to change with you. The more we travel and encounter new places and new cultures, more ideas come to you. You have to be open to change, if you don't change you are in a comfortable place, but that place can be the ultimate killer for your creative juices. That's why you see me doing so many different projects and 'jumping fences' [laughs].

Let's talk about Part 3: Soul.

The third part goes to a different place, especially the last take on 'Solar.' It's like a buildup to an abstract place, and yet there is a lot of power. You know, I have a friend who directs films, and he always says that a good movie dies in the last third and that the plot has to thicken in order to surprise the audience. That's what I try to do, surprise the listener and take it to a place where you never think we would go. Towards the end of 'Solar,' I just say [to the trio], 'let's listen to each other and create a chart.' I didn't want to play the melody, so I just hint at it.

The first time I heard you do that was with Tito Puente's 'Oye Como Va,' I didn't 'get it' until I played it a few times, after which I had a 'Eureka' moment.

We do it with 'Giant Steps,' too.

At breakneck speed …

That's true. The challenge there was to do a very short rendition. At our live concerts we do a standard [long] version of 'Giant Steps.' The idea was to do the tune in two minutes and get in and get out. We have played these tunes so much that now we are able to create with total freedom, in other words, not reading a part, or even putting a chart in front of anybody, just hearing each other. That's why it's called 'Explorations.'

'Solar' just happens to be one of my favorite tunes of all time.

We did three takes, and it was really difficult to pick the one we wanted to use. All of them were interesting. At one point I was considering including all of the different versions, but that would have ruined the architecture of the album. In the end, we went with the first take because it was the 'freshest.' I usually go with the first take. In this case, it's closer to the concept of the album.

Given the fact that you travel so much, how do you manage to keep your energy levels up and remain passionate about the music?

                   Michel Camilo by Jos L. Knaepen

Yeah, it's difficult, but you have to apply discipline. You may want to hang out but you might not be able to do it because you have a concert the next day. You can't do that to your audience. You can't get there wasted; you have to be in shape for it, so that means going to bed after a concert, eating well and listening to music. If you see Charles and Dafnis they are always hooked up to their MP3 players.

What kind of music do you listen to on your down time?

I listen to both jazz and classical music, but [Charles and Dafnis] are really intense, they listen to everything in jazz and are constantly hooked up, and always commenting on things. That's why they are such great musicians.

When I interviewed Dafnis he was really into Indian Music.

I think he puts more of those rhythms into practice with his own band. With my band he and Charles listen to a lot of straight-ahead jazz and Latin jazz, but they are always analyzing. That's what gets the creative juices flowing. And I also try to surprise the hell out of them. When I go to sound checks, I use different scales and chords in the same material that we have been playing. It's always great because it keeps them wondering about what I am going to do next.

Tell me what Charles and Dafnis bring to the table, individually and collectively.

Charles is very committed to his music. He is always practicing and listening to new music. He's also someone who is really instrumental to me in my new version of the trio. His first recording with me was Live at the Blue Note, and you could tell early-on that he was committed to me and my music. It was a real challenge for him, too, because he came to the trio after [bassist] Anthony Jackson, who is one of the geniuses. But I wanted to change the sound of the trio and go with an acoustic bass. Charles is an electric bass player, but I told him that in my trio he was going to play the acoustic bass and asked him if he could handle it, because there is a lot of intensity. His answer was, 'I will work for it,' and he did. He developed an incredible touch and an incredible sound and he has great pitch. This is the first time where I have used the arco bass [the bow], and the audience loves it. It expands the possibilities of a jazz trio. And at the same time he is very open-minded. The fact that we share Caribbean roots is something that we don't even talk about, but we draw on that, as well.

I have been a supporter of Dafnis from the beginning of his career. In fact, I wrote the liner notes for his first recording. I could see that he was a hungry musician—that he was very committed and a force to be reckoned with in the jazz world—and he has never disappointed me. On the contrary, he always surprises me and he keeps on growing and we are growing together. I call it a journey of self-discovery.

Music also teaches you a lot about yourself.

Some of the best concerts are precisely when we are very tired.

Is that because your defenses are down?

Exactly, there is nothing blocking the flow of ideas. I guess you could call it a second wind.

No doubt you are ready for a good nap after expending so much energy.

A nap and food, lots and lots of food! Dafnis is always hungry.

You would never know it to look at him!

The whole thing is how support each other. When one of us is down, the others give him moral support. You know, being on the road is hard, but all of those feelings and nuances go into the music. After all, the music is charged with all of our inner feelings and life experiences.

So what's next?

Well, we have a very interesting concert that we are going to do at Carnegie Hall on November 13th. It's going to be a real challenge for me because I have to play a double concert.

How so?

It's called 'Caribe: Solo/Trio.' The first half is solo piano and the second half is the trio, but I never leave the stage, so it's like a marathon. It's a tribute to George Wein, a close and personal friend. The common denominator is people who knew George Wein. George was the person who gave me my first big opportunity. Early in my career he heard me perform at the Blue Note and he asked me if I had ever recorded in the U.S. I told him that I had recorded two albums for a Japanese label and he said, 'Next week you are in the studio.' He paid for the recording session, took the tape to Sony Records and said 'You should try this guy out.' The rest is history.

I didn't know that. I remember seeing you perform as a sideman with Paquito D' Rivera when you first came to New York. I also remember you sitting in for pianist Jorge Dalto when he became ill.

Wow! I recorded two albums with Paquito, Why Not and Explosion.

Watching musicians like you and Dafnis grow has been a great ride for me. Someone really needs to document this stuff.

People don't realize that we are living in a golden era of jazz. Musicians of my generation are touring and playing constantly. The last time we played in Tokyo it was for a crowd of 5000 people, and that's not the only concert where we get audiences like that. We did a concert in Germany last year and it was filmed for German television. Things like that are happening … at some point somebody has to do research and document the era.

From your lips to God's ears! What is the most remote location you have ever played in?

A place called Tromso, in the Arctic Circle. It was dark the whole time we were there.

Where do you go from here?

I am doing a benefit concert in the Dominican Republic for the Diabetes Foundation, then we go to the Caribbean and return to New York. From there, it's on to Denmark and Spain. It's a lot of fun to do, it's very intense. I am very happy with the trio and I love them both, we are great friends and we have a ball. When we are not playing we miss each other.

The love, respect, and communication really comes across on stage, and the music is superb.

The music is sincere, honest, fun, and spiritual. It's not just a business. And somehow we still manage to surprise each other!

It's been great speaking with you, Michel. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with

Thank you, Tomas.

March 05, 2009 · 3 comments