OctoJAZZarian Profile: George Wein

For the first time in jazzís 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 pianist and impresario George Wein.

By arnold jay smith

                     George Wein by Suzanne Cerny

The pianist and impresario George Wein (b. 1925) founded the concept of the alfresco jazz festival. "I'm sure my father would have preferred me being a medical man like him," he often said. "But both my parents were very supportive when I opened my first nightclub, Storyville, in Boston in 1950." Medicine's loss was jazz's gain. Although we'd palavered many times prior, we recently sat down for a pair of formal interviews. Our first occurred last fall in Wein's art-filled New York apartment. We talked about everything, from his career in music to his love of fine art and great winesóall the while trying to avoid going over the same ground covered in his book Myself Among Others (Da Capo). The second came this spring over the phone, when breaking news regarding the coming summer festival season demanded a followup.

The latter developments prove more pressing, for they directly pertain to the survival of Wein's babiesóthe summer jazz festivals he founded more than a half-century ago. Those festivals were jeopardized when he sold his Festival Productions to a group calling itself Festival Network, which subsequently ran into steep financial difficulties.

"They just ran out of money. They couldn't pay their bills, mine included," said Wein, alluding to the swirl of controversy which surrounded Festival Network's inability to pay not only his advisory fee, but the city of Newport's park fees, and any other payments needed to keep the storied Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals alive in '09. When all seemed lost, Wein stepped in. There will be festivals this summer at Ft. Adams in Newport, RI, but since the names "Newport Jazz" and "Newport Folk" were sold outright to FN, they'll be called "George Wein's Jazz Festival 55 at Newport" (see schedule and lineup here) and "George Wein's Folk Festival 50 at Newport," to honor their respective anniversaries.

"Everything you've read in the press is true," Wein lamented. He seemed saddened that the FN relationship had come to such a crashing end via the press. "The press has been good to us for all these years, in Newport and when we came to New York City in 1972. New York was a jazz desert in the '70s. Carnegie and Avery Fisher [nee Philharmonic] Halls were shuttered for the summer. Radio City offered us midnight concerts for a $10 ticket which wouldn't cover stage hands today. The Staten Island Ferry, the Apolloóat reduced pricesóopened their doors and gangplank to us." Over the years other, shall we call them mini-festivalsógrass-roots thingsósprung up: the Greenwich Village Jazz Festival, Bell Atlantic Festival, Vision Festival, and others, each taking a page from the Wein playbook.

Now the Apple will be without a big summer festival for the first time in 37 years. JVCóthe main sponsor for NYC, Newport and a host of other near-jazz festivalsóhas pulled back due to the faltering economy. GM has done the same in Canada. [Why are my taxes paying to name the Mets new stadium after a nearly dead bank, while the Mets raise ticket prices through the roof? But I digress.] Corporate sponsorship of festivals was another Wein initiative. Some of his former affiliations have included American Airlines, Schaefer Beer, and Kool cigarettes. [Factoid: The name "Newport" was dropped from the original "Kool/Newport Jazz Festivals" because Newport was a rival killer product.]

"You can't blame JVC for pulling out. If business is bad you have to cut back," Wein said almost apologetically. "I bear them no ill will, nor do I carry a grudge towards Festival Network." This last part bothers me. I'll carry that grudge for him, for what has and what almost happened. The demise of a large NYC Jazz Fest is blunted by the fact that, as Wein stated, New York is a jazz festival all year long. Ok, we dodged a bullet on that one. If truth be told, as Wein said "without the big names we lose money." Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and other pop, blues and R&B artists close to but not really jazz filled past JVC/NYC Festivals purses. There was precedent for that booking policy which began in Newport. The fans of a rock band stormed the Newport stage. Even Bob Dylan went electric for the first time at a Newport Folk Festival. [Wein assured me that Pete Seeger was not backstage with an ax poised to cut the cables. Nice folk tale, though.]

Most JVC/NYC jazz concerts, while artistically masterful, were undersold. Experiments like 2008's New York Ethical Culture Society chamber series were financial disasters, if the empty seats were any judge. But that's what George Wein is all about, bringing jazz to venues in cities where you would least expect, including college auditoriums and post-concert nightclub two-fers. "I need a mission, a message to bring to my audiences. If I'm not enjoying them, how can I expect the listeners to enjoy them? Just in case we get a sponsor, I have booked four concerts in New York for summer '09: Diana Krall for two, Jamie Cullum, and Jo„o Gilberto." [N.B.: The Gilberto has been postponed.]

George Wein is more than an impresario who brought us jazz festivals; he's also an accomplished pianist who introduces young or underexposed talent via his Newport All Stars touring band. Recently he was in Europe with bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding and multi reed player Anat Cohen, and brought them to the Newport stage. And in the finale of a three concert piano series at New York's Zankel Hall in the spring of 2009, Wein presented no fewer than 15 performers, ranging from his contemporaries Dick Hyman and Bucky Pizzarelli, to Cohen and Howard Alden.

The series was dedicated to his late wife, confidant, and business partner, Joyce. "I miss her, so I thought I'd play tunes with that feeling in mind," Wein said. "The first was an old Tin Pan Alley tune, which I love called 'I'm Stepping Out With a Memory Tonight.'" I told him that I had never heard it, so he sang it for me. I looked it up and came up with Allie Wrubel, music, and Herb Magidson, lyrics. Never heard of them? Together and with others they composed tunes for the movies and elsewhere such as "The Continental," "Gone With the Wind," "I'll Dance at Your Wedding," "Enjoy Yourself," "The Lady In Red," "The Masquerade Is Over," and one of my favorites, "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah." His second selection was also by Wrubel and Magidson, "Music, Maestro, Please." Wein's final selection was dedicated to all those who are involved in the Wall Street debacle: "If you can't find a job," he quipped, "you can always be 'Just a Gigolo.'"

Getting back to economics and declining housing values, Wein noted that the headquarters for his Festival Productions was located in one of those designer architect brownstones on the Upper Westside. "We sold it just at the right time," George said. "[To purchase the house in the early '80s] we had to borrow $50,000, which was half of what it cost at the time." Imagine that. $100K for a building that even now is worth millions? "I couldn't get a mortgage and I didn't have $100,000 cash, but I borrowed and paid it off." I expect that some of the proceeds went to CPR for Newport. "The house was then sold to the Festival Productions corporation, so whatever repairs, and there were very few, were tax deductible. "The entire house was offices; I didn't even have a bed in there." His was the only business on the otherwise non-business-zoned residential block, "but the neighbors didn't care because it wasn't a walk-in business." Getting a mortgage has historically been difficult for jazz people, but one neighbor who evidently knew better said it was ok, "so long as it wasn't a message parlor, or something," he remarked.

Speaking of people who know Ö After reading a New York Times article about George's extensive wine collection, my doctor, knowing that I write about jazz, asked me if knew him (mispronouncing his name to rhyme with the grape product in question). Of course, I expounded on our relationship. It seems that my doctor and his wife and George and Joyce were in the same club which seeks out and encourages African-American artists, much the same as Bill & Camille Cosby. Later that year at a JVC/NYC announcement party, I mentioned my doctor to George, who tugged my sleeve and said, "It's always good to have something personal with your doctor." I took his advice seriously and now I will not do business with any professional who does not know something about jazz (or baseball). If they don't know about jazz then they can't understand my needs.

Jazz isn't George Wein's only interest. He is a multifarious, dare I say Renaissance, human. His art collection is extensive and museum-like in its eclectic tastes. "I have a Chagall, a Renoir, a Dubuffet, all of which I bought years ago before prices went crazy." I mentioned that there was precedent for jazz people to collect fine art, namely Norman Granz who used Dubuffet prints in the original boxed set of Ella Sings Gershwin. "Granz had a tremendous art collection," Wein said. "He became friends with Picasso." Granz named his last record label, Pablo, after him; the logo is a Picasso drawing. "Picasso dedicated a painting to his friend Norman Granz," Wein said. "I once saw it come up for auction. The dedication was right there on the painting," he remembered. "Norman used to show me a coin on which Picasso engraved his name. His widow sold some of the art at auction and, from what I hear, did very well." Wein said that Granz was a very smart man with lots of chutzpah. He was among the first people in jazz I had heard of who moved to Switzerland to protect his wealth. "He became a Swiss citizen to avoid American taxes," Wein continued. "He owed a fortune in taxes. He probably had to pay some of it even after he left this country."

While based in Europe, Granz began a new series called "Jazz at The Philharmonic in Europe." Wein continued to wax on about his friend. "Norman had already sold Verve to MGM and formed Pablo. He was losing a lot of money when Ken Glancy of RCA stepped in and bailed him out." Wein sort of laughed and said, "I wouldn't want to leave this country. I pay my taxes and enjoy my life in New York."

Wein no longer owns property in France, Connecticut, or New York City, save the current flat ("which could flatten the Taj Mahal": Nicely Nicely Johnson). "When my wife died, I just sold everything. I have enough money to give away and live on for the rest of my life."

As we danced from topic-to-topic (avoiding his book), we lighted on George Wein, oenophile. "When I moved from France I gave away a lot of wine and shipped some home." The stateside stash was stored in a "walk-in closet" in the W. 74th St. headquarters. Walk-in closet does not cover the topic. Larger than my first apartment in the Village, the room housed an imposing collection which is now stored "somewhere in Yonkers. I have about 2000 bottles left. A lot of them are getting old." That's not as contradictory as it sounds. "Some wines don't wear as well as others, so I give them away to charities such as the Harlem Childrens Zone." The money the organizations get for a dinner where they serve the rare vintages George donates goes directly to them. "We've been doing this for the past 12 years, and we've raised over $600,000."

He hasn't seriously bought wines in some time. He's not into collecting anything anymore. "I'm enjoying life. I miss Joyce terribly. [They were married for 46 years.] I have a lot of friends; I take a lot of trips. I like ships. I volunteer to play on them and the other passengers love it because they're all my age and I really know how to reach 'em." [He smiled at the thought.] The last ship trip was a short one from Copenhagen to St. Petersburg, Russia, through the breathtaking Swedish Archipelago, about 200 people. "I did 45 minutes one night, and when I walked into the dining room it was like I was a diva: they all stood up and cheered." The sublime look on his face made me feel that he was reliving that moment.

George is playing more: Newport, Dizzy's Club Coca Cola at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Zankel. "I'm playing better than ever in my life because," he said good-naturedly, "I don't give a damn what you critics say or think. I used to worry because they used to say that I had no right to play at my own festivals. I was intimidated and consequently didn't play as much as I should have. But when I went back to Dizzy's last year I enjoyed it so I thought I'd do more." He'll be at the '09 Festival International de Jazz de Montreal to play and receive an award. Then he'll do Europe such as Holland to receive their Charlie Parker Award. "Hey, I'm the grand daddy of all those festivals."

While on the subject of European tours, I asked George how his accompanying musicians in Berne came to include two the young women, Spalding and Cohen. He had heard them during the preceding year (2006), especially Spalding, as a bassist and not a singer. He asked if they would come along and they acceded. The rest of the band was Randy Brecker (61), Howard Alden (41), Jimmy Cobb (78), Spalding (23), Cohen (22) and Wein (82). "And we played together as if we'd been doing it all our lives. My instructions were to play like you're having fun. They did."

The group was introduced to the '08 Newport Jazz Festival audiences, with the addition of Esperanza vocalizing on "Midnight Sun" to loud cheers. "With the right direction she'll go to the moon," Wein boasted. "She plays and sings so many Brazilian tunes that you'd think she was a native. She's from Jersey! She's brilliant, speaks many languages and was the youngest professor at Berkley in its history."

Education has always been important to Wein. "I gave the first lectures on jazz history for credit at Boston University some 40 years ago. For two years I was an instructor on the history and evolution of jazz. They paid me $750/semester. I wrote a syllabus, gave exams and grades and the students got three credits. Now jazz is part of the curriculum of every major school in the country." Let's hope it stays that way.

Wein says his own book, written with Nate Chinen, is not a textbook. It was written from the inside. "I knew everyone from about 1948-9. You have to know something about jazz to read my book. I didn't tell the significance of this one or that one, or discussed the various styles. I talked only about personal experiences. I talked about [Thelonious] Monk, [Duke] Ellington, Miles [Davis], [Charles] Mingus and the others only from my personal dealings with them, the incidents, anecdotes. No hearsay." He did use one third party story from Eliot Hoffman, his lawyer who was John Coltrane's road manager for a tour. "Eliot told me of waking up one morning to music coming from Trane's room. It was Trane playing the violin! But that was personal hearsay."

He has asked his other road warriors on staff to put their recollections on tape and he would do another book and call it "Road Stories." "These writers who maybe interview artists once then write a book with insights into them, that's not the way," Wein said. "Or the writers who collect their interviews into a book. Don't misunderstand me; it's great to gain different perspectives. But I enjoyed doing my book because it brought back a lot of memories."

In 1956, the world woke up to the Newport Jazz Festival with Duke Ellington's performance. Much has been written about the actual concert, the LP which came from it (or did it?), the CD which came from that, who did what, post-production-wise, and even about the tall willowy blond who broke up the crowd. So controversial and important was that event that a book has been written about the circumstances surrounding Ellington at Newport 1956 [Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport '56 by John Fass Morton (Rutgers University Press)]. "It took a vast amount of research to write that," Wein noted. "I read that book and it's like I'm there with him all over again. He did a masterful job of recreating what happened that night including interviewing the family of that blond, Elaine Anderson. She was from a rich family from Fall River with Boston real estate connections."

Word on the street was that Wein wanted Duke to make a statement and not just a set of his hits. And that others played light and loose in the editing studio. "There was lots of innuendo on 'Diminuendo,''' he began. "I don't know what happened in New York. I heard that [George] Avakian did some things.

I got a call from Duke while I was in the Lorrilards' house in Newport [the tobacco heirs and the original sponsors of the NJF]. I don't know how he got that number, but he did. He asked, 'What's happening up in Newport.' I replied that the whole world is coming to hear him. I asked what he was planning for the program. He said that he would do a couple of things, then a medley. I said, 'Edward. I am working my fingers to the bones to preserve the genius that is Ellington. I'm not getting any help from you; you'd better come in here swinging.'" Original works were never a topic during that call. Wein's best guess is that Ellington was already writing the Newport Festival Suite, which was supposed to be the climax of the set. "He wasn't going to tell me that until the day of," Wein surmised and gave an ironic laugh.

Surprise! The Suite, not the best example of extended Ellingtonia, paled next to the other musical fireworks: Louie Bellson's "Skin Deep" and "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue." The latter was not originally penned with the "wailing interval," but at Newport that year it was Paul Gonsalves and history. "I know that they went into a studio on Friday and came up on Saturday. I wanted him to cut the program." Wein's voice is heard on the re-released CD urging Ellington to conclude. It was the first time that that much enthusiasm was heard at a jazz concert and it frightened him. "I learned something from that night. Whenever a crowd gets that excited you play a slow blues. Duke called out Johnny Hodges who played 'Jeep's Blues.' The crowd calmed down right away." "Jeep's" was followed by "All of Me," another Hodges staple.

Newport was lily white. On the lawn of the town's Tennis Hall of Fame museum, men played wearing white uniforms with other strict dress codes. I Wein asked if race was a problem. "Race problems were everywhere at that time (1954)," he said. "You had trouble getting a hotel room in Boston if you were black with or without a reservation. Musicians never stayed in downtown hotels; they stayed in bed and breakfasts on Columbus Ave. Most of the racism in Newport came from the naval base, and the kids going to school there. We cleaned that up after the first year. They were just doing was what the accepted norm everyplace else. They changed that for fear of bad publicity.

"I married an African-American woman in 1959 [prior to any civil rights legislation]. I never had a problem. We'd have been put in jail in 25% of the states [due to miscegenation laws]. Whatever success I've had in life has been because of friends, white and black, who believed in me and Joyce. We went south and I was given keys to cities. I knew there was this good strain in the American psyche."

The topic brought us inevitably to President Obama. "I saw grown people, white people, crying [real tears] that at last America has woken up," Wein noted. "In retrospect it doesn't surprise me. Going into it, it surprised me." In the spirit of full disclosure, Wein was a contributor to the campaign to the maximum allowed. He has been generous to journalistic causes as well, notably the Jazz Journalists Association. "I feel sorry for jazz journalists. You are at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to earning a living. You probably get paid less than anyone else writing on a continual basis. As a professional form I think it is quite stifled. You deserve better."

Wein was very close to Duke Ellington "right up until his death. He trusted me from the time he played at the first Storyville in the Copley Square Hotel. I'd go up to his room, bring him ice cream while he'd be on the phone with Billy Strayhorn." [If they were writing, just think of the hotel telephone bill!] "Somewhere along the way, he realized I wasn't just a businessman, that I wasn't in it to make a buck, and that I loved him and his music." Wein wanted to be Ellington's manager. "I needed a gig and Duke happily knew I wasn't what he wanted as management material."

Wein had managerial experience: Jackie & Roy, Teddi King, Jackie Paris, Lee Konitz. He was conflicted between booking artists on his festival and producing the festival itself. "I knew that the talent was very good, but they weren't Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan," Wein explained. "It wasn't a matter of comparing them but rather their place in the [jazz] spectrum. The way I was building Newport in those days I was trying to incorporate as much as I could and with the greatest names." Remember all the great jazz innovators were still alive and all played Newport no matter what their musical genre. Wein had his pick of the best. "[With fewer marquee names] now it's very difficult."

Wein's is the paradigm of the festival formatóin the U.S., Europe and Scandinavia, for jazz, R&B and rock. It's hard not to follow as successful a format as Newport's. About Woodstock, he said that he had no input. "Except that some of my people were involved: sound, lighting, crowd control. They were not fulltime employees but had some years of experience with me at Newport." Although some would disagree, he takes no credit for the Woodstock event. With a very little prodding I got him to lose some of the humility. "Look," he said. "Monterey Jazz came out because of Newport. Monterey Pop followed. In that case, sure, we had an influence. Before that it was all classical: the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, the Chicago Symphony at Ravinia, the Boston Pops at Charles River. There had been some ballpark events, charities. But everything else happened [and we hope continues to happen] because of Newport."

There was a Randall's Island Jazz Festival on that East River Island where Lollapalooza has been presented. Cirque du Soleil pitches its tent nearby. Without George Wein, summer events like those would have never happened. "As a result, there was a spate of jazz club openings," Wein noted. "Festivals involving clubs [begun in Scandinavia] were started here by us." Later the idea was picked up in Greenwich Village and elsewhere. Credit Wein with bringing back an Apple as the symbol of New York City. Food festivals with music were called "A Bite of the Apple" with a bitten- into delicious in the form of the skyline as its logo. "The New York concert halls now stay open throughout the summer thanks to our initiative," Wein pointed out. Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors is another resultant series, as are so many municipal music events throughout the country.

There were other George Wein concepts which are often overlooked. Some were financially successful, others weren't. All were musically important. "The New York Jazz Repertory Co." was a series of thematic all-star assemblages held at Carnegie Hall. "That was a very simple thing in my estimation," he said. "Why should the music of a great jazz musician have to die when he or she dies?" he asked rhetorically. His answer came without as breath. "We have to record it." That's what he did. In the beginning, the concept was to have current musicians play the music of the masters as they wrote it. Then something changed. At Wein's urging the NYJRC incorporated arrangers. "Dick Hyman did some re-arranging for us such as the Louis Armstrong Hot Five recordings written for three trumpets; he re-wrote Jelly Roll Morton for big band, and in one of the greatest concerts in history he took Erroll Garner piano solos and wrote them as big band arrangements with the Garner steady staccato left hand played by the saxophones. There was no piano involved at all."

There were concerts revolving around the music of John Coltrane and Miles Davis with Gil Evans. My personal recollection was of the Thelonious Monk night. Monk was ill and at curtain time he was not there. Wein was prepared with a couple of other pianists: Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris. Just as Harris was set to take the stage, who appears in the wings? Monk. He played the entire concert, never said a word, and walked off.

"The concept of playing the music as they [the originators] played it by musicians who don't understand the feeling Ö" he trailed off. "For example, when Baby Dodds played the drums for Louis, he played as only he knew how. I have this fight with Wynton [Marsalis] all the time. If you're going to play that kind of music it's gotta swing. You can't ask your drummer to play drums the way he doesn't know how. You gotta know what you're doing; you've gotta live it. It's like American musicians trying to play Latin rhythms. They can only approximate it."

A later Wein incarnation, the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, was formed to these ears almost as a response to Marsalis' Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The latter was a strictly repertoire aggregation, while the former swung harder and utilized newer arrangements. Sometimes they even played the same tunes, the one perfectly mimicking the original while the other shortened intervals, juxtaposed harmonies, and took the piece someplace else than what was intended. Wein: "I would sit down with Jon Faddis [CHJB's leader] and say let's not play so-and-so's music as it was written. Let's play it some other way. Let's get some of the new arrangers to rewrite it in a more contemporary style." Carnegie ran out of support money, and CHJB folded.

While he tried valiantly to not quote from his book, Wein could not resist a Louis vignette. "I once asked him why it is that no one played the way you do. Everyone was on top of the beat; you are behind it. In other words, where did that swing feeling come from? Where did you learn that? He replied that he just played the way he sang. I didn't ask him why he sang that way.

"Some players can swing without ever hitting on the after beat, without that traditional 'swing.' Danilo Perez is that way. He teaches you that you can swing without [he demonstrates with finger-snapping accenting 2 & 4]. I once played with Elvin Jones and I told him that I could even find [his] 'one.' Elvin laughed."

Will there be a Wein Newport Jazz 56 and a Wein Newport Folk 51? "Let's bring this one off first."

REGRETS: "One of the things I should have done when I was touring Europe with all these guys who were already stars or soon to become stars. I should have made 200 albums. There are records out which were made from my tours. I did some, but not enough. But that's minor. I have no real regrets."

Missed opportunities? "I missed Bing Crosby; I would have liked to present him with the likes of Red Norvo, Pee Wee Russell, the guys he liked. I wanted Lena Horne and I got her with others for a tribute to Billy Strayhorn."

But you didn't miss Sinatra, I added. "No, I didn't miss Sinatra."

CODA: Esperanza Spalding Ė "As most people already know George Wein is a legend in the music world and a most successful pioneer for the exposition of jazz. He represents all those things to me too, but I also consider him a dear friend, mentor, and fellow musician. Whether he is working to expose new music (including booking my band at one of his many festivals!), or smiling at me from behind the piano as we play "Johnny Come Lately" on a gig with the Newport All Stars, or simply grabbing a coffee to talk about life, music and work, Mr. Wein brings such an enthusiasm, positivity, and sincerity, that those around him wind up inspired and wanting to do whatever we can to keep the music pushing forward!"

April 28, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation with Anat Cohen and Duduka Da Fonseca

By Ted Panken

                                          Anat Cohen

On the face of it, there would seem to be few points of intersection upon which 57 year-old Brazilian drum master Duduka Da Fonseca and 30-something Israeli woodwind virtuoso Anat Cohen might base a fruitful musical relationship. Yet appearances can be deceiving, as was evident during this yearís edition of Umbria Jazz Winter. The festival booked Da Fonsecaís Samba Jazz Quintetóof which Cohen, featured on tenor sax and clarinet, is a charter memberófor a full week. As documented on the 2006 album Samba Jazz in Black and White [Zoho], the unit (which also includes pianist Helio Alves, guitarist Guillerme Monteiro, and bassist Leonardo Cioglia, with guest trumpeter Claudio Roditi and singer Maucha Adnet) addresses a repertoire by a broad spectrum of Brazilian popular and art composers with effervescence and nuance, upholding the Samba Jazz imperative of, as Da Fonseca likes to put it, ďmixing Brazilian rhythms with jazz that has a Blue Note vibe.Ē

Cohen is an active bandleader and recording artist in her own right, releasing four CDs as a leader (most recently Notes From the Village) on her own Anzic imprint. The label recently added to its catalog a reissue of Da Fonsecaís Samba Jazz Fantasia. Recorded in 2000 and the recipient of a 2002 Latin Jazz Grammy nomination, the album had been out of print since its original label, Milandro, went bankrupt.

Da Fonseca may not be a household name, but he has earned the deep respect of the jazz community. Consider the response of fellow drums-and-cymbals master Kenny Washington (who does not dispense praise lightly) to Da Fonsecaís brush playing on ďBala Con BalaĒ from Samba Jazz Fantasia: ďThe drummer is very good. That's a true art, to play brushes on a samba. Was that Duduka Da Fonseca? Duduka Da Fonseca is a bad dude, man. Nice man, too. The whole feeling of the thing was nice. He kept it light with the brushes, and it just floated along. It had that feeling. Of course, he knows about that.Ē

Curious about the roots of their simpatico, I spoke with Cohen and Da Fonseca on New Yearís Day, between SJQís soundcheck and their evening concert at Sala dei Quattrocento, an upstairs performance space in Palazzo del Popoloóa 13th century structure that eight centuries ago served as Orvietoís meeting hall.

Duduka, how did you start incorporating Anat into your groups and into your sound?

AC: Well, it started with me calling him for a gig. The first time we played was in a little music festival in Astoria, Queens, in 2001.

DDF: I fell in love with Anatís playing and her interpretation of Brazilian music. For a number of years in downtown Rio thereís been a movement of choro music, that semi-classical Brazilian form, and Anat is friends with a lot of the best musicians who play this style. Anat has been to Brazil many times, and speaks Portuguese fluently. In my opinion, she plays Brazilian music with no accent; with her phrasing and interpretation, she plays like she was born in Brazil. I love also the lyricism when she plays the tune.

Whatís the difference between someone who plays Brazilian music without an accent and someone who plays it with an accent?

DDF: Itís the phrasing. She thinks in 2/4, like in Samba, and most of the rhythms of Brazil are in 2/4. When you hear a batucada, the Samba School, you hear ting, dum-du, 2-1, 2-1, 2-1. Itís different to think in 2/4 than in 4/4óplaying 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 ... Do you agree with that or not?

AC: Itís subconscious. Itís not like I was saying, 'Ok, Brazilian music is in 2/4, so Iím going to think in 2/4 when I play it.' Itís that I feel at home with the rhythms. Maybe itís because I grew up hearing some of this music. This Israeli singer-songwriter, Matti Caspi, brought a bunch of musicians from Brazil to Israel during the Ď70s. People who later on I met in Brazil told me theyíd recorded with him in Israel. He translated to Hebrew a bunch of these songs, and made a record. And he took many other songs, and used those rhythms with songs that he wrote. So I grew up listening to this music played by authentic Brazilian musicians, but with Hebrew lyrics, thinking this was Israeli music. So when I started to play Brazilian music, it just felt at home. Maybe I wasnít officially thinking in 2/4, but it the rhythm just felt Israeli to me.

DDF: Going back to the 2/4 question, there is nothing wrong with playing Brazilian music in 4/4. As a matter of fact, I love to listen to Billy Higgins playing bossa nova, not to mention the interpretations of Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette, and Elvin Jones. But we in Brazil, and Anat too, when we play, our subconscious is in 2/4.

Anat, I had the idea (perhaps Iím wrong) that Brazilian music, or maybe choro specifically, was a great vehicle for you to return to clarinet, which was your first instrument, and one that you ... well, it just seems to be you somehow. Is there anything to that?

AC: Thereís a lot to that. Although keyboard was my first instrument, clarinet was my first woodwind. I started to play it when I was 12, for no specific reason. I could already read music because Iíd played keyboard before, and with clarinet I only had to read one line at a time, so once I could get a sound I was ok. The next band was the Dixieland band, so I got into jazz with the clarinet. I didnít pick up the tenor until I was 16, when they told me they needed a tenor saxophone in the big band at conservatory. At the time, people didnít really want to hear the clarinet on jazzóthe instrument was out of fashion. As I got into jazz, I played tenor saxophone. Clarinet was great for big bands and professional work, so I was always doubling, but I was not playing jazz on the clarinet.

[Bassist] Leonardo Cioglia, who plays in Dudukaís Samba Jazz band, is the first person who called me to play Brazilian music officially, when I lived in Boston. We had a group with a singer, and I played Brazilian musica populare, just playing saxophone backgrounds and learning all kinds of Brazilian songsóIvan Lins, Toninho Horta, all those famous songs that are not necessarily bossa novas. That gave me more versatility with the rhythms. Some Milton Nascimento from Minas, music from the north, music from the south. Then we formed a quartet, and started to play the same songs, but as instrumentals. We worked as a group for about two years, rehearsing and doing a weekly gig, and I got seriously into those rhythms, and I got really involved with the Brazilian scene in Boston. It was a great, productive time. Most of the people went to Berklee, so they were jazz musicians, people who have the jazz spirit looking for more depth and more exploration of the music, but based their music on Brazilian rhythms.

Then I fell in love with choro, and I canít get out. I donít want to really. Fernando Brand„o, a great flute player in Boston, invited me to play a weekly gig at Ryles called the Carioca Nights. He wrote an arrangement to a famous choro, 'Noche Cariocas,' and I learned the parts, and thought, 'Oh my God, this music is very complicated; let me take the clarinet and start to practice a little bit.' We only played a few shows there, but when I left Boston and went to New York, I reconnected with Leonardo, who had already moved there. I was doing the New York thing, going to play a gig and meeting a person. This drummer Adriano Santos, who was playing with me, told me to come to the Coffee Shop, where he was playing. There I met Sergio Brand„o, and he told me to come to the Zinc Bar, where he was playing. So I went to the Zinc Bar to sit in. Anyway, I started to play at the Cafť Wha? with a band called Brazuca, which was very dense pop-show, not jazz really, although there was some improvisation, some solos. One night Pedro Ramos from the Choro Ensemble showed up, and we met, and I told him, 'Oh, I love choro.' The next day he showed up in my house, entered with his bicycle into my living room in a very Brazilian way, and just said, 'here, learn these songs; weíre going to record a demo next week.' Then we started to play in Astoria in a little place, and I said, 'okay, Iím going to practice the clarinet.' I was playing with Diva. I went on the road. I had time to practice, and it was a very creative, productive time.

With choro, I found music again that clarinet fits perfectly into. Itís a technical music. For some of the songs, you have to have a virtuosic ability on the instrument. Clarinet is part of the sound of choro, and I heard other clarinet players playing it in Brazil, and it really inspired me to be serious about it. It has everything in it. Itís chamber musicófor the classical listeners, it has all the harmonic progression and the classical approach of perfecting the instrument and interpreting the melodies in the right way, which I love to do. It has the alegria, the happiness of the samba. It has the nostalgia, the saudade of the sad moments. It had the groove and the party part, and it has the interaction, like Brazilian Dixieland, with all the complement of improvisation and counter-line and harmony. It has all the elements that I think music should have, and it needs very dedicated musicians to play it. Thatís why not a lot of people do that. People underestimated this music. It can be very, very deep.

Youíve mentioned in other interviews specific stylistic influences on the tenoróDexter Gordon, Coltrane, obviously Sonny Rollins, the usual suspects. How about on clarinet? Is that more a self-developed style?

AC: In a way, it is. I listened to a lot of Benny Goodman when I was younger, and over the last few years, when it comes to swing music, Iíve heard Ken Peplowski, whom I really love, and Kenny Davern. For Brazilian music, everybody told me to check out Paulo Moura, who is incredible. Actually, touring Brazil with the Choro Ensemble, I realized that in New York there is no way I can go out hear anybody play it. Nobody plays this style. Well, Paquito DíRivera will add a choro to his show, but heís not playing regularly in town. So itís not the kind of music that I can go out and hear to be influenced by. So Iíve got to create my own ideas. If I play Louis Armstrong with David Ostwald, and on the same day I play with Choro Ensemble. Iím going to bring something to it that I just played before, and Iím going to make a mix. After a while, my influence is not necessarily a clarinet player, but styles that are influencing my ideas on clarinet. Sometimes, I try to put more klezmer on it. Actually, whatever I play on the clarinet, people ask me if I play klezmer. Somehow it comes out in the blood. Itís so natural. Itís all coming from the same place anyway. But the clarinet has such a sneaky way to fit different styles. I think people underestimate this instrument.

I started to become involved with many more projects that demanded clarinet, and Iím playing it more and more. Maybe because thereís a shortage of clarinet players. Who knows why? Iíve been involved in trad jazz, but also Venezuelan music, Argentine music, Colombian music. People call me to play clarinet maybe because of the folkloric approach. I donít know. As far as my own repertoire, I got Brazil-ified a few years ago, and I almost always play one Brazilian song in a show, and something with a Brazilian feeling. The feel changes, of course, with whomever plays the music. But it influenced me a lot. Apart from the bossa nova, there are so many great composers. I get shivers, just listening to these complex melodies, and yet they work so perfectly with the specific harmony; when you try to improvise itís almost impossible to come up with a different melody. Certain melodies are just perfect with certain harmonies. Yeah, I love Brazilian music. A lot of other things influenced me, but Brazilian music is a big part of me.

Duduka, youíve told me that it wasnít until you moved to the U.S. that you wanted to delve deeply into all the different forms and idioms of Brazilian folkloric music.

DDF: When I started to play in 1964, the bossa nova movement and Samba Jazz were really strong, and I was privileged to see the great musicians who started this music playing liveóLuis Carlos Vinhas, Dom Salvador and his trio with Sergio Barroso [the bassist] and Edison Machado, who was like the Kenny Clarke of the Brazilian drums, using the bass drum to play melodic accents. I never had a formal education, but I learned by watching them. That made me fall in love with playing Samba Jazz, and thatís what Iíve been trying to do and develop since then.

Was Samba Jazz distinct from bossa nova or was it interrelated with it?

DDF: It was interrelated. A lot of the musicians who were playing Samba Jazz also played bossa novaólike Milton Banana, a great drummer, who played in his style of Samba Jazz with his trio, but also played on the album Getz/Gilberto, in a very soft way. Jo„o Gilberto and AntŰnio Carlos Jobim would say, 'What we play is samba.' Samba is the root of bossa nova. The bossa nova I think turned into an intimate style of samba: a little guitar, acoustic; not so many percussion instruments with it; soft, small voices. The samba was more open. The bossa nova was a breath of fresh air. A lot of lyrics in the old Brazilian compositions talk about the heart breaking, and situations where the woman leaves the guy and the guy is desperate and everything. But bossa nova, for instance 'Girl From Ipanema,' tall and tan, talking about beautiful and fresh things. Sometimes people would ask Jobim whether bossa nova was very much influenced by jazz, and Tom said, 'no, because jazz also has an influence from classical music.' Those chords he played ... he heard a lot of Ravel and Debussy. So it also comes from classical music.

How did you meet those musicians?

DDF: I was lucky enough to live in Ipanema, next door to one of the greatest drummers, Jo„o Palma, who recorded, in my opinion, the best AntŰnio Carlos Jobim albums with Claus Ogerman and some with Deodato arrangements: Matita Pere, and Urubu, and Tide. He is a little older than me, but at that time it made a difference. Both me and my brother Miguel were very good friends with Jo„oís brother, Marcus, who was our age. So we used to go to his house, which was a meeting point for many of those great musicians who were playing Samba Jazzóthe idea is to mix Brazilian rhythms with jazz that has Blue Note vibe. There, from my very early teens, we started to listen to Monk, to Miles Davis, to Coltrane, to Horace Silver, to Wynton Kelly with Wes Montgomery. Also at that time, they played a lot of shows, which Iíd attend. They welcomed me in that circle. That was it.

As you mentioned, you were self-taught. You didnít go to an arts high school as Anat and Omer Avital did.

DDF: I stopped going to school when I was 17. My family said, 'You need to keep studying.' But physics, those things ... I said, 'Iím never going to use that.' So I moved to S„o Paolo to prove to them that I really wanted to be a musician.

Your family are professionals?

DDF: My mother, Norma, worked with antiques. She worked with many things in the arts. My father is a retired Air Force pilot.

AC: Really!

DDF: Yes. He is 84 years old. Heís still flying ultralight planes. Both my parents love music, but especially my mother. She loves to sing. In fact, sheís good friends with many musicians in Rio and Brazil. Sometimes sheíd go to a nightclub, and when they finish, sheíd sit in and sing. So I grew up listening to Chet Baker, Gerry Mulligan, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, and, of course, Jobim and Jo„o Gilberto and Dori Caymmi. Thatís why I guess I fell in love with jazz at a very early age. My brother and I started a trio when we were 13, with me playing drums and him on bass. Heís an architect now, but he still plays, though not professionally. The pianist was a beautiful young woman who was his girlfriend, who had a classical background. We played all over Rio and on television, as kids. .

Didnít the period youíre speaking of coincide with the junta that took power in Brazil?

DDF: I wrote in the liner notes of Samba Jazz Fantasia that the president-to-be when the military seized power in Brazil lived in front of my house in Ipanema. March 31st is my birthday, and on that day in 1964 the military took the dictatorship. There was a revolution of the city and everything elseóthey took control of Brazil. That day I got my first snare drum. My mother and my brother went to downtown Rio to buy it. Lots of things were going on, fights and everything, but luckily they got the snare drum and brought it to me. I played the whole night. The house of the president-to-be was surrounded by police to protect him, and they thought that I was commemorating the revolution, but they were wrong. I just got my snare drumóI was playing the whole night. A few months later, I got my drums. Then my drummer thought I was playing drums better than him, so he decided to start to play the bass. Then we formed a trio in 1965.

So youíre a natural drummer.

DDF: Yes. I never studied. When I came here, Bob Weiner, my dear friend, asked me to teach at a drummers collective, but I was hesitant. I told him, 'I donít read; Iíve never taught before.' 'Youíve got to teach.' For one year, he was after my case. Finally, I did it, but I was a little insecure, so I called my friend Cyro Baptista, the percussion player, to do the class with me, because I wanted to rely on someone. We did a class on the interaction of Brazilian drums and percussion, and again it felt good. They started to ask me, 'What do you do with your left hand?' I said, 'I never thought about that. I need to start thinking about what I used to do.' After a while, Bob said, 'Letís do a book.' We used to go to a funky basement on Thompson Street in the Village, near where I used to live. Iíd play the patterns, and heíd transcribe. We worked on the book for four years. It came out in 1990. Itís called Brazilian Rhythms For Drumset.

AC: I have it. I know one of the bai„o rhythmsóI learned it from the book.

DDF: Itís very helpful.

AC: Itís very helpful, but itís not so easy as it looks. You can play it right, but it doesnít sound right! All the notes are there, but the feel ...

DDF: We did a CD that comes with it, which I play on. We did it in a studio, not the best studio, in the late Ď80s. We didnít have anything digital like now. Bob was in a little booth, and heíd say, 'Now Exercise #X. Ok. Samba with ....' Then heíd say, '1-2, 1-2-3-4-5-tik-a-tak,' and then heíd count all the exercisesóthere were almost 200 different patterns.

AC: You realize he counts in four.

DDF: He counts in four. Then we sent it to Jobim, to Airto, and to Steve Gadd. Steve Gadd said two things. 'On page 22 and 23 is a little mistake in the writing'óand it was! I was very happy because he took the time to go through the book. He also said, 'If youíre playing 2/4, why are you counting 4/4?' Because when you are in a gig like that, you count 1-2, 1-2-3-4. But he said, 'for a book, an eighth note, if youíre counting 4/4, is going to become a 16th note, and people are not going to understand.' I said, 'Bob, weíve got to change.' Bob was against it. I said, 'No, weíve got to change; Steve is right.' So I went to the studio, and they played the exercise, and in the middle of the song I count, '1-2, 1-and-2-and,' and then with the mouse, on the computer, they tried to match the pattern.

AC: That was a lot of work.

DDF: It was a lot of work. Now itís so easy. Now you can push a button, and thatís it. But then, we spent endless hours.

AC: Duduka was talking about the way he learned drums, and Iíve met other musicians who grew up like thatóa bunch of people who grow up together musically by getting together and making music. Thatís how you learn. The first time I went to Brazil in the winter of 2000-01, the creative atmosphere really blew my mind. People would write music, and first thing, they call their friend and say, 'Hey, letís get together,' then play each other their songs and share. Maybe it used to be like that in the United States, but I donít feel that this togetherness, getting together and sharing what youíre working on, is as strong today. In Brazil you also feel it when you go to bars and people play and everybody is singing and everybody dances. Itís such a different musical atmosphere.

Did that dynamic mirror things youíd done as a kid when you were learning music in school, before you came to the States?

AC: No. Iíve never done anything like that. Itís not 'check me out, Iím cool, Iím good.' Itís so much wanting to share and hear your friends. Thatís how people became such great musicians without going to an official school. Music isnít ours, itís everybodyís. Itís not just for musicians. Even if youíre not a musician, youíre invited to be thereóyou can tap, or sit there and sing. It doesnít matter. Sometimes the feeling with jazz is that jazz is for musicians, and music is for musicians. In Brazil, music is for everybody. Thatís definitely something that changed me.

Itís interesting. Youíre comfortable being a chameleon, fitting into swing and pan-American and Euro musics, in both your leader and sideman roles. Not everyone is so comfortable doing both.

AC: I love being a sideman. Or sidewoman. Sideperson. First, when youíre a sideperson, you just worry about the music, the specific whatever-it-is. As a bandleader, youíve got to worry about so many other elements, and the sometimes music is the last thing you worry about The first jazz ensemble I ever played in was a Dixieland jazz band in the conservatory, in Jaffa, where my two brothers and I went, and we played together. I absolutely loved itóloved the feeling of the Dixieland, loved the happiness of it, loved playing the written solos, loved getting up and playing and not needing to improvise. Then my next jazz ensemble was a big band, and thatís when I started to play tenor saxophone. The improvisation came later. I always played in big bands. I went into the Air Force big band, and then I came to Berklee and played in the big bands there. So Iíve always had an affinity for large ensembles. I love to sit in a section. I think itís super-important for any musician to have this experience.

Playing with the Diva Orchestra has been an important experience on several levels, both the musical level and the being-a-woman level. After I met them in 1998, I realized that most of these women live and work as musicians in New York. New York seemed very scary. I thought, 'Oh my God, how am I going to walk on the street with a saxophone; Iím a woman; Iím going to be robbed,' and I was tripping on all those things. The day after I met the Diva Jazz Orchestra, I called my Dad and told him I was going to move to New York. It was very inspiring, the idea that itís possible to be a woman and work in New York on a high professional level, and especially because the people who I knew were guys. I still donít have many women models for what I do. I didnít even realize it until about 2000 when a girl interviewed me and asked me about my idols, and said, 'Did you ever realize that all your idols are men?' Yes, itís true, but they are musical idols and they happen to be men. But then, on the other level, there are no really ...

But Diva helped give you the confidence to embark on your journey.

AC: Diva had a lot to do with it. Because until I played with Diva, I was following the path of my older brother, whoíd been in the high school, then the Army, and then Berklee. I was following what I felt I needed to do. When I joined Diva, it was the first time that I was like, 'Okay, no Yuval, no Avishai, Iím on my own; whatever I do in this band from here on, itís not because my brothers play well or because theyíre great people; itís just because of me and my music.' So it impacted me that way, too.

In New York, I got a lot of experience playing in a lot of different bandsóin an Afro-Cuban band, and then in a big band, a Dixieland band. None of them were my project. People would call me. I passed through my Colombian period, and my Argentinean period ... Well, I traveled to Colombia a few times to get to learn a little bit. I havenít made it to Argentina yet, but I was playing with and recorded a couple of records with Pablo Ablanedo when I lived in Boston, and got to know the rhythms of the dark side of tango.

Do you have a holistic view of all the different styles and forms that you play? You seem not to categorize so much between jazz or choro or dixieland or bebop.

AC: Well, I do and I donít. If you want to play the traditional way, you have to study. You canít play bebop and play something on it that is not bebop. You canít play choro and not make the right articulation, the right phrasing, and the right notes. Of course, in choro you can get by with less improvisation than bebop. But if you want to play the style, you have to do the homework and understand exactly whatís the component of that style, and exactly how it feels. I believe that itís very hard to learn exactly how Brazilian music feels if you donít play it with the Brazilian people. The same thing with Afro-Cubanówhen I was at Berklee, I played in a band called Mango Blue, next to Miguel Zenon, whose way of playing on top of the beat influenced my phrasing, and in New York I played with a Latin band called Pan con Timba. But my heart was leaning more towards Brazilian music; thereís something a little softer, a little less macho jazz. Itís funny, because I just got back from playing three weeks in Brazil, and people said, 'Wow, you sound like youíre a Brazilian.' I mean, I canít tell anybody, 'You sound Israeli.' It would be insulting, I think. But thereís this thing with Brazilians, 'You sound Brazilian ...'

Itís really important to play with percussion players who play the traditional instruments and traditional rhythms, and to learn the percussion parts yourself. At Berklee, I took some percussion classes, and picked up the Brazilian percussion so that I could understand the rhythms to try to imitate it at certain moments when I play. Just playing eighth notes and playing the nicer notes in the chords is not enough when you play this music; you need to think of the rhythm as well.

I like 'chameleon' players. I like to be able to fit into a situation and not to stand out. I like to become one with whatís going on, and then once I feel comfortable, once I feel, 'Okay, Iíve played this style enough, I understand it enough, I feel it enough, letís try to bring in other elements.' Thatís what Iíve been doing with the choro music now. If I want to sound more traditional, I can play more traditional, but then if I want to just say, 'Okay, letís just swing it a little bit' or 'letís funk it up a little bit' or 'letís bring other stuff,' I will do it.

TP: Letís get back to your mutual association.

DDF: I told Anat that I wanted to put a group together, and I asked if she was willing to play, along with Leonardo Cioglia on bass and Helio Alves on piano. At that point, we also had a great piano player who is Brazilian, who is a good friend of Anat, David Feldman, and we put him on Fender Rhodes. Then he went back to Brazil, and I called Guilherme Monteiro to play guitar. I was very lucky, because we rehearsed for one year with hardly any gigs. And we rehearsed a lot!

AC: Sometimes, timing is perfect. This was before Helio had kids, before we were all traveling too much. We all had time to get together once a week and play, and we really played.

DDF: You really played! I was so lucky. Anat used to say, 'Duduka, when are we going to get a gig?' I said, 'Iím trying.'

TP: Talk about what you were doing in the Ď90s.

DDF: I played a lot with Trio de Paz. In 1985, when Romero Lubambo and Nilson Matta arrived in the States in 1985, I was playing with Astrid Gilberto, and I also had a band called the New York Samba Band, which I called both of them to play in. Herbie Mann saw us, and he hired the rhythm section of the band, which had Mark Soskin. We [Lubambo, Matta, and Da Fonseca] started Trio de Paz in that same funky basementówe started to go there and play in the afternoons. In 1986, I had another band called Brazilian Jazz All-Stars with Eliane Elias, who was not well known then, and Randy Brecker, who she was married to at the time, and Bob Mintzer. We started to play gigs at SOBís. Mintzer and Brecker were great together, and Eliane played beautifully. I still have tapes from those dates.

But since I came in 1975, Iíve really been trying to do something. When I came to New York, the Brazilian jazz movement wasnít happening. Dom Salvador was in town, and he had a group with Charlie Rouse, with Portinho playing drums, and Claudio Roditi and Dom um Rom„o were already here. But the scene was scarce. We had a few friends here, but we were very broke. We were struggling, but we tried to make a space for us to present our own kind of music. We started to get gigs in the lofts, like the Jazz Forum, Soundscape, Environ. Some of the American musicians, like Steve Grossman and Walter Booker, had an interest to play with us, and we mixed with them. Then we started to develop a feel for playing the kind of music we love.

What brought you to the States?

DDF: The love of jazz. I wanted to play with American jazz musicians. Iíve been very lucky to play with some of my idols, like Lee Konitz and Gerry Mulligan, who I recorded with, and Kenny Barron, Tom Harrell ... Anyway, at the beginning of Ď76, soon after I arrived, I got a call to do a recording in L.A., and I made some good money. Then I came back to New York and said, 'Thatís it; thatís the American dream.' Then for more than one year, I had hardly any work. It was either rice or beans!

What was the biggest stylistic adjustment in moving to American hardcore jazz from a Brazilian background?

DDF: Well, the musicians love when we play samba with that jazz feeling. They want to play that. So we developed something very natural.

So you had something you could give them.

DDF: And they had something that I was looking for. You give something to them, they give you back their own way to see. What I love is the combination of the two cultures, the two ways to see the music. Jazz is so good. Jazz is like a big father that opened its arms for music from all over the world, and gets the influences from different cultures and develops itself.

Let me ask Anat something. On your new record, Notes From The Village, you play with Jason Lindner, Omer Avital, and Daniel Freedman, all close associates since you got to New York. The collective idea you spoke of seems to exist with them, and not just with this group, but also your label, Anzic. Can you speak to how those links began? Was it initially through Omer Avital, who attended the same high school as you?

AC: Yes, we did go to the same high school, but Omer was a few years older than me. He was a good friend of my older brother, Yuval, and they used to have a band in Israel. So I knew Omer, and Avi Lebovich, and Avishai Cohen, the bass player, and knew that they were all in New York, and hanging out at Smalls. I always heard about it, and when I was a student in Boston, Iíd come to New York on breaks, and play there. Omer then was a complete straight-ahead bebop player. All these cats are Barry Harris students, they adore him, but theyíre also people who want to explore, who embrace the world. Itís obvious now, when you think of the music theyíre all making individually, that theyíre all world music oriented. So at the time, they were combining that spirit of exploration ... Smalls is a great place to stretch.

Speaking of funky basements at the time.

AC: Exactly. Today itís a little less funky, but it used to be quite funky! Iím realizing that the type of club is really crucial to the music that is developed in it. Some clubs are more commercial. The audience has expectations; they are not complete jazz nuts. Then you go to a place like Smalls, where lots of students go, itís very cheap, you can bring your own drink, and then people are not afraid to just say, 'Oh, letís play one song for 45 minutes and everybody blow until we canít play any more.' It was very exciting to see that. There was some passion in the music they were making.

DDF: So much good music came out. I wasnít part of it, I didnít go there, but then I saw so much music came out from that. It was a sort of lab for them to develop their ideasóJason, Omer, Jeff Ballard, Kurt Rosenwinkel.

Anat, youíre speaking of the world concept that these people evolved, but as you mentioned before in relation to your own path, they also concentrated hard on the specific cultural traditions.

AC: Thatís true. You say 'jazz,' and itís like, 'Ok, what do you mean? What kind of jazz? When you say 'world, what kind ... In the Real Book, which at the time was a supposedly transcribed jazz encyclopedia, above the chart the only description of the music would be 'Latin.' But today, the word 'Latin' doesnít tell you anything. Everything got so specific. Thatís something I found fascinating about the cats at Smalls, and thatís something that Duduka could say about the Brazilian music. The little nuances. You canít say 'Brazilian.' You cannot say 'samba.' Thereís types of samba. Thereís a bai„o rhythm, and it can be from north and from a little bit less north. In Brazil, I was shocked to discover how many different rhythms there are. Each state has different rhythms. But people only know Samba around the world. There are some details that these cats, like Jason and Jeff Ballard and Danny, were all so open-minded to learn. 'Oh, I heard a great rhythm from Senegal; letís make something with it.' Then youíd tell them, 'I want a cumbia' or 'I want something from Colombia,' and they would know exactly specifically what to play. So I knew that I really had to study, because if I hear something, I have to know what to tell them to play. They created it among themselves with passion, like Brazilians do, get together, 'check this out,' 'check that out.' What they were doing was very influential on the compositions that I did on my first album, Place and Time.

Duduka, when you lived in Brazil, did you know all those different ...

DDF: No.

Was doing that book the galvanizing thing?

DDF: Yes. When I moved to New York, living away from my country, then I started to look back to my own musical roots. I hadnít heard samba enough. While teaching at the Drummers Collective, I started to research more about the folkloric music from the Northeast of Brazil, from Recife, Pernambuco Ö I went there to teach in the conservatory of music, and the promoter who brought me there took me to see the Maracatu. It was amazing to see all the folkloric music played in the slums, in the streets. I ended up learning much more than I taught, with the kids in the streets playing the way they playótheyíre fantastic. So rich, those rhythms from the Northeast of Brazil.

When I came back, I talked with my good friend, Airto Moreira, who comes from the South of Brazil, but he played a lot of bai„o with Hermeto Pascoal in Brazil, on the beautiful album, Quarteto Novo. Airto was one of the first pioneers to introduce Brazilian percussion. Before, it was just the congas and timbales, but Airto was the one who brought the toys, all the Brazilian percussion. Everybody now is playing the miscellaneous percussion, but at that time, no. I said, 'Airto, youíve got to go there.' I connected Airto with the promoter, and he ended up producing 10 or 11 albums of Maracatu in Recife. It is a very musical culture. I think Pernambuco/Recife keeps more the African-Brazilian tradition than Bahia. Bahia has become a center of exporting music, and in one way become too commercial with the influence of Reggae in their music. On the other hand, Recife keeps really their tradition of African-Brazilian music, which I think is fantastic.

When it was time to do the book, and write a little bit of history about bai„o, I asked Airto, 'Where does bai„o come from?' He said, 'I have no idea!' Then I asked Nana Vasconcelos, 'I am doing something about bai„o. Do you know?' Then I said, 'Duduka, if you put that in the book, probably thereís going to be some intellectual from Boston whoís going to say itís not true. But I believe that it has some Middle Eastern influence.' Thatís why if you go to a falafel place, like Maimounís on MacDougal Street, when you hear that music, the beat is like bai„o!

AC: Itís interesting. Thereís a technical difference, three-over-two. The Brazilian goes by the three, TAN-TAN, TAN-TAN-TAN, and the Middle Eastern goes by the two, ONE...TWO, DUH-DUH...DUH. Itís the same rhythm, but you feel it differently.

DDF: During the 6th and 7th centuries, when the Moors invaded the Iberian Peninsula, they heavily influenced the music of Spain. You see a lot of Arabic scales in Spanish music. Portugal was more reluctant to accept it. But bai„o comes from that time, I think. So thatís what I wrote. Itís interesting to see the different influences in the music.

Duduka, when you got to New York, you were interested in playing jazz? Art Blakey, Jo Jones, Elvin Jones ...

DDF: They were alive and playing. Everybody. Elvin heard me play in Idaho, at the Lionel Hampton Festival, and he gave me a big hug, almost broke my back. Each band has a trailer, and youíre not supposed to smoke or drink. Elvin called me inside his trailer, and he said, 'Fuck that,' and lights a cigarette, a beer, and we share a beer, and he told me about his life. The record I did with Helio [Alves], Songs From the Last Century, I dedicated to Elvin Jones, because he had just passed at the time, and I wrote, 'with whom I had the privilege to share a beer from the same bottle.' I told Kenny Barron, 'Man, I would like to write that,' and Kenny said, 'Why not? He had the beer, of course.'

Letís talk about the evolution of this band. How big is the book?

AC: We can easily play three or four sets. You have 40 songs, maybe.

DDF: Maybe even more. We have a lot of music, and some music we used to play but donít play any more. I have a list of songs that we used to do.

The range of reference is very broad.

DDF: All the musicians give their opinions. But I hear certain references. For example, in the first, Samba Jazz part of this show, the piano and the guitar are very active, but when Maucha comes to do the bossa nova, I ask Helio not to comp on the piano, but let the guitar be the center, to make a contrast. Helio plays more in a Jobim kind of style, without the comp. Through the years you play with different bands, and you develop a sound in your mind. Even though I donít read music or write it (well, I read a little), I have a sound in my head.

Art Blakey used to hear an arrangement once, and then just repeat it.

DDF: No! I need to record. And lately my memory is not as good as it used to be. So I listen, I record, and then I write. Thatís the way I did the albums, even with the symphonic orchestra. I listened to the music, then I memorized.

Anat, does Duduka stamp all of this music with his own sound?

AC: Most definitely. Iíll go further and say that certain songs I will not try to play with another drummer. Certain people know all the rhythms, of course, but then there is the Duduka groove, the one that we start the show with. Like Edison Machado ...

DDF: Edison Machado was the guy who really influenced my playing.

AC: Edison Machado. This groove. When we start the set with this CHINK-CHINK-TCHTCH-TCHTCH-CHINK-CHINK. When Duduka says, ď1-2, 1-and-2,Ē then I immediately start dancing.

DDF: Itís very inspiring to see her dancing, too, when I play, because sheís having fun. Itís good that youíre having fun, youíre happy.

AC: When the music is good, when itís grooving, it makes me move. It moves me from inside and from my feet. Whether itís the music of New Orleans, the music of Brazil, or Afro-Cuban, it doesnít matter. I like to watch the real dancing, the real steps, and I also like to just move to the rhythm.

TP: Back to Notes From the Village, it isnít particularly Brazilian-inflected, but itís very much a recording of the clarinet family. It came right after two very ambitious project, one with a big band [Noir], the other with a string quartet [Poetica].

AC: The first idea was to document the quartet with Omer, Jason, and Daniel. Weíd been traveling and playing for a couple of years, and I wanted to go into the studio and capture the live spirit of the band. So many times on jazz albums, everybody becomes more self-conscious in the studio, and the music gets condensed and proper for a CD. But of course, I couldnít help myself, and wrote a couple of new compositions that weíd never played. So itís a combination of songs we have played before and some new repertoire that we worked out especially for the record. I called [guitarist] Gilad Hekselman, whom I love and respect and is a great musician, and asked him to join the quartet on a few songs. There are four originals of mine. Itís become a tradition, not intentionally, to have one John Coltrane composition on clarinet.

Itís a nice tradition.

AC: It is. I would never have dreamed to make it a plan because it sounded to me so ambitious, but it just happened kind of naturally. Thereís a Sam Cooke song, 'A Change Is Gonna Come.' Of course weíre crossing our fingers. I donít want to say it came, because everybody has an expectation about this change. Weíll just wait and see.

Anzic also just re-released Dudukaís first record, Samba Jazz Fantasia, which burnishes that communal notion you spoke ofóyou play with Duduka, you have a label, you release an older recording that didnít have a chance to get the distribution it deserved.

DDF: The company that released it, Milandro, went into bankruptcy shortly thereafter. Itís more like a fantasia than the recent album, Samba Jazz in Black and White. I called some of my good friends with whom Iíd been blessed to record and play through the years in New York. 22 musicians play on the album. But itís impossible to do a gig, to reproduce the sound. My idea before I did the album, was to find tunes, configurations in which the different musicians could best express themselves. We did that, and we got a Grammy nomination in 2002, the year it was released.

Next, in 2002, I put the quintet together and started to rehearse it. Until that time, I had put a lot of effort into Trio Da Paz, and I still love them. We had many offers to work, but it became difficultóRomero Lubambo got busy, traveling here and there. Also, Romero is a very Brazilian player. Donít get me wrong, heís fantastic, he knows so many old songs, the whole book of music from the Ď30s and Ď40sóbut heís more like a folkloric Brazilian player. I wanted to the quintet to have the Samba Jazz feeling. Helio, Anat, Guillerme, Leonardo, all really know the jazz improvisational languageóthe jazz phrasing, the bebop phrasing, all the roots, but they are also Brazilian. Now, weíve been playing all those years now, and we received a good break to be invited to play at Orvieto, to show our music overseas. Hopefully, it will open new doors so we can keep coming back and perform in Europe.

Ted Panken interviewed Anat Cohen and Duduka Da Fonseca in Orvieto, Italy, on January 1, 2009.

April 25, 2009 · 1 comment


In Search of Dupree Bolton (Part 2)

By Ted Gioia

For many years, people have asked me to share the story of my search for the mysterious trumpeter Dupree Bolton. It is a painful story to tell, and has hardly become less so, even though some two decades have now passed since the events related here. Certainly I have been remiss in waiting this long before sharing my account of this tragic and talented artist, yet I welcome this opportunity finally to set the facts straight about Bolton's life and times.

Dupree Bolton Fireball

This trumpeter caused a sensation on the West Coast when he appeared‚ÄĒseemingly out of nowhere‚ÄĒat the close of the 1950s. He made a small number of recordings marked by his blistering speed and unbridled creativity on the horn, and seemed destined for stardom. But Bolton was a secretive man who refused to talk about himself. And then he disappeared‚ÄĒleaving the scene as suddenly as he had arrived.

That was where matters still stood, when I picked up the thread at the close of the 1980s. I was in the midst of writing my book on West Coast jazz, and Dupree Bolton was the biggest question mark in my research. I wondered where he had gone, where he had come from, how he had developed his formidable talent, and‚ÄĒabove all‚ÄĒhow a player this talented could simply fall off the face of the earth.

Below is the second and final installment of my article "In Search of Dupree Bolton." (For part one, click here.)

The Oakland location where Dupree Bolton had asked me to meet him was one of those blighted areas of the city that surrounded the renovated downtown district. While the city administration spent its time trying to recapture their lost NFL team‚ÄĒthe Raiders were in the middle of their twelve year sojourn in Los Angeles at the time‚ÄĒor bask in the limelight of their successful baseball team, the quality of life in this neighborhood had been declining at an alarming rate. I hardly felt safe here, even in broad daylight. But I waited for Bolton for as long as I could.

He never appeared. My mystery man had pulled one more disappearing act.

The previous day, Bolton had agreed to meet me in an out-of-the-way location for a conversation‚ÄĒthe result of some painstaking efforts on my part, and the first interview had ever given‚ÄĒbut the trumpeter cut it short after twenty minutes and asked that I drive him to another "appointment" across town. Wait until tomorrow, he had promised, and I will tell you stories worthy of a motion picture. But I now felt like a character in a film myself, typecast as the chump.

Some hours later, Dupree phoned me with apologies for his absence. "Something came up. I'll explain it later."

          Dupree Bolton at the Music Annex
                 recording studio in 1989

                        (Photo by Ted Gioia)

The promised explanation never emerged, but the next day our interview continued, and Dupree's story proved to be every bit as cinematic as he had promised. "The last forty-five years have been a story of drugs, music and prison," he told me in somewhat melodramatic fashion. As he set out the details of his autobiography, he proved that this was no idle claim.

Our dialogue began as Dupree described the first of his many encounters with the law. "The day before I turned seventeen, I was busted." He was living in a New York hotel with the dancer Benny Harris. Both were dealing drugs. Dupree's parents were still trying to find him. They put ads in the paper and offered a $25 reward‚ÄĒbut Bolton had so far eluded them. When he made his first recordings in 1944, he had used an assumed name to avoid detection. In New York, the following year, he continued to keep as low a profile as possible.

Bolton performed infrequently and supported himself mainly through selling marijuana. Harris precipitated the arrest by selling heroin to an undercover policeman. When they came for Harris, they found marijuana on Bolton. Both were arrested and convicted. Harris served two years for the heroin offense. Bolton's crime was the lesser of the two, but he served more time because of his age. "The judge sentenced me until my majority, in other words, until I was 21."

At age 17, Bolton found himself institutionalized in a Lexington, Kentucky hospital operated by the U.S. Public Health Service. "It was a bad hospital," he recalled, "but a good penitentiary. You know, they called them rooms instead of cells." But it was not, Bolton explains, a drug-free environment. Even while in Lexington, Dupree and his fellow "patients" had access to large amounts of the marijuana that was grown there for scientific purposes. By the time of his release he had gained an advanced education in the ways of techniques of drug addicts.

Bolton returned to Los Angeles after his release and was reunited with his family. He lived at home and tried to pick up the pieces of his music career. But his focus on the trumpet was gradually overwhelmed by his dependence on heroin. At this time, he was nursing a $20 to $25 a day habit ("Now it would cost you $100 a day," he told me at our meeting.) The financial rewards of a musician's life were hardly sufficient, even for a player of Bolton's talents, to pay these bills. Instead, the trumpeter was "stealing, selling dope, whatever I could."

Yet Bolton continued to practice and improve during the next two years, even though he rarely performed in public. He was a bebop player in the mold of Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, but the easiest work for an African-American horn player to find at the time came from rhythm-and-blues bands. "I wouldn't play that," he recalled with disdain. "I looked down on rhythm-and-blues. It offered no challenge. I was beboppin' to bebop."

Bolton's hero was Fats Navarro. Navarro had developed an easy mastery of his instrument and played with a warm, clean tone that was almost classical in its purity. Yet, like Bolton, Navarro, propelled his melodic lines with a fire and passion that had no counterpart in the symphonic tradition. "Fats was staying in New York and I saw him just before I went to jail. They used to call him 'Fat Girl' because he was a real big guy at the time. But after he got hooked and really into the dope thing, he started losing weight." Navarro died in July 1950 of tuberculosis aggravated by narcotics use. A promising career had ended at age 26.

The lesson of Navarro's death apparently had no lasting impact on his young disciple. In 1951 Bolton was arrested again, this time for forgery, and spent the next four years in Soledad. His memories of that period are laced with bitterness. "There was a lot of racial prejudice underneath the surface, and I represented everything the racists did not like. I was a young black who thought he was something. I kept myself clean and neat‚ÄĒthe very thing the racists did not want. They expected a black to be slovenly, dirty. I thought I was something, and they really stuck it to me, brother.

"The average guy, even a black guy, who went there and was like they wanted him to be, would do maybe 18 months. I had to do 51 months. I made it, but it was a drag being in the joint that long. So I started doing everything I could trying to get loaded, and there was something there damn near all the time to get loaded on. I started hustling inside Soledad." The saving grace of the period was the penitentiary's music program. "I got a job that didn't restrict me and I was able to practice every day. I would play tunes, but my main objective was to get down with the mechanics of the instrument. That meant scales and exercises. I would play them sometimes for 12 to 14 hours a day."

This may well have been the turning point in the trumpeter's musical development, the time of intensive woodshedding that transformed him from a journeyman player into a formidable trumpeter. Yet even after leaving Soledad in1956, Bolton had little opportunity to make his name‚ÄĒhe was soon arrested and another forgery conviction sent him to Terminal Island. His practice sessions continued there and by the time of his release in Los Angeles in 1959 he was a stunning player and a potential star. His technique was flawless and his reading ability the envy of many classical performers on the instrument. "In prison I was really making progress and I knew it." Soon the jazz world would know it, too.

It didn't take long before word of mouth reports began circulating on the Los Angeles jazz scene of an extraordinary player, who had come out of the blue and was (literally) blowing away the competition. Harold Land and Elmo Hope discovered Bolton playing at a club in Watts. They were looking for a fiery trumpeter who could read Hope's difficult charts for an upcoming session. They had been told that Bolton was an exceptional reader who could also solo with tremendous passion. After hearing him in person, they immediately enlisted him for Land's upcoming recording date.

A half century later, the resulting album, The Fox, remains one of the masterpieces of the period. Throughout the 1950s, the myth had prevailed that West Coast jazz musicians were soft, they were laid-back melodic players who lacked drive and toughness. If anyone still believed that old canard in 1959, it would have been easily dispelled by listening to this one album. Land and Hope perform with conviction, and contribute some of the finest performances of their distinguished careers. But the big surprise is Bolton, whose name, only a few months before, had been unknown in the jazz world. This previously unheralded trumpeter was playing like an established star, with an authority and conviction that turned heads. On the title track he took flight with a speed and energy that is still astonishing today. I recall one fan describing Bolton's work here as "a cross between Clifford Brown and a flame-thrower"‚ÄĒa witticism perhaps, but one that effectively captures the sensibility of this riveting performance. The tempo pushes a ridiculous 400 beats per minute, roughly the rhythm of a machine gun shooting off its bullets, rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat. Bolton leaps out of the starting gate like a man shot out of a cannon, and never looks back. He thrives on the near frenzy of the proceedings‚ÄĒindeed, it would be hard to find another trumpet solo that surpasses this one for sheer intensity. The other performances on the album confirmed that Land's sideman was something special.

Bolton's legend may only have grown from his marked silence during this period. He refused to give interviews and his past life was a complete mystery. In retrospect, he attributed his attitude to a reluctance to discuss his criminal record and periods of incarceration. "I didn't want to talk about myself because of my background‚ÄĒprison, using dope and the rest of it. Whereas now, it helps. It's kind of like coming out of the closet. But not back thirty years ago."

Almost as soon as he had arrived on the scene, Bolton again disappeared. He was arrested once more, and sent to San Quentin. He would spend a considerable amount of time in San Quentin during the 1960s. This first time he was imprisoned until 1962. It was a demeaning and disturbing environment‚ÄĒduring Bolton's stay, executions were still taking place periodically in the prison's gas chamber. "San Quentin was the worst," Bolton recounted to me, "but I learned quickly how to survive. I learned that if some convicts start fighting with knives, you don't run over to check out the action. You run in the opposite direction."


A brief period of freedom in 1962 led to Bolton's last commercial jazz recordings. He joined saxophonist Curtis Amy on the album Katanga. Bolton contributed the title song and once again proved that he could shine as a forceful and distinctive soloist. A few weeks later, Bolton participated with Amy's group in a session backing singer Lou Rawls, where even with his limited space to solo, he stands out. A snippet of film from this period captures him in performance with the Gerald Wilson orchestra. Some other odds and ends recently showed up on the Fireball compilation. Yet Bolton never had a leader date, and after this brief period of activity, his music would remain hidden from view for the next quarter of a century.

And why? Once again, Bolton was arrested.

"This is damn near the story of my life‚ÄĒgoing in and out of the penitentiary." Arrests for forgery (both for forging checks and prescriptions) and other drug-related offenses would be the recurring charges. "I never committed any violent crimes. It wasn't so much that I didn't want to hurt anybody," he admits with candor, "but that I was afraid myself."

Even back in prison, Bolton continued playing. San Quentin during the 1960s boasted a number of illustrious players, including saxophonists Art Pepper and Frank Morgan, drummer Frank Butler, who had gigged with Miles Davis, and pianist Jimmy Bunn, who had played with Charlie Parker. Morgan would win the Downbeat critics poll in 1991 as the best alto saxophonist in jazz, but he once boasted that the best band he ever had was back in San Quentin. Here Bolton continued to practice and refine his craft, but for the jazz world at large he was now a figure from the past.

A 1980 recording with a group of Oklahoma convicts would be his only released session after the early 1960s. Bolton took little pride in this recording. "The people on the record were not musicians. They were just people doing time. I did it because it was something to do." Dupree characterized the songs as "second-rate-country music." Yet Bolton was surprised to see the session listed in Bob Weir's booklet Dupree Bolton Discography, which I showed him at our interview. Dupree had never seen Weir's publication before. He asked me if I had compiled the information in the booklet. He was taken aback when I told him that it had been published by a man in England. "Is that right? Man, you never know. I didn't know anything about it."

Six years before our meeting, Bolton was released for the last time. He settled in the San Francisco area, where he was living when I conducted our interviews. He participated in a government supervised methadone program. "I don't like being on it, but it's saving me." He had recently started receiving Social Security checks, which supplemented his income from playing on the streets. After so many years of imprisonment, Bolton savored his personal freedom; yet he still managed to credit his periods of incarceration with preserving his life. "I'm still alive, and I know so many guys who are not because they didn't go to jail."

Even with his freedom, Bolton retained a low profile. "There was a guy down in Los Angeles looking for me. He put an ad in Downbeat asking people if they had seen me. A partner of mine‚ÄĒI thought he was a partner until he beat me for one of my checks‚ÄĒwrote him. The guy sent him a tape and asked him to interview me. But nothing happened. My partner didn't really want to do anything. You're the first one I've talked to."

Much of the mystery of Dupree Bolton had been solved for me by these interviews. He was no longer an enigma, but had become a tragedy. Even so, I felt that one last thing remained undone.

A few days after our last interview, I brought Dupree to a recording studio, the Music Annex in Menlo Park. Here I accompanied him on piano while he played trumpet. His approach was tentative as he felt his way around the new horn he had borrowed for the occasion. The fire-breathing intensity of his early recordings was apparently gone for good. On fast numbers, only an occasional phrase reminded the listener of the prepossessing trumpeter of the early 1960s. When we played ballads, he revealed a more delicate approach than I recalled from his earlier recordings, relying on filigreed improvised lines that sought for beauty rather than passion. "Yes, man, I can still play. I can still play," Bolton asserted. But the recordings, alas, would not live up to the inevitable comparisons with the work he had done in his youth.

I held on to the tapes from this session for some months. But then I did what struck me as the only honorable thing. I destroyed them. Dupree Bolton should be remembered, I felt, for the greatness of his youthful achievements, not the limitations of his later efforts.

I lost contact with Dupree Bolton after that day in the studio. In the late summer of 1993, I heard through the grapevine that he had died. I tried to get more details, but they were not forthcoming. In early October, I wrote to the Alameda County recorder's office in Oakland‚ÄĒwhere Bolton was living when I last saw him‚ÄĒbut they wrote back two weeks later saying that they could find no death certificate under that name. A few years later, researcher Richard Williams found the death certificate in this same office‚ÄĒlisted, incorrectly, under the last name of 'Bolten'. It showed that the trumpeter had died from cardiac arrest on June 5, 1993. He would have been 64 years old at the time.

His belongings at the time of his death were only a television set. As far as anyone could tell, the deceased did not own a trumpet. According to the county, Bolton was indigent, and he was accordingly cremated at the taxpayer's expense, his ashes placed in the community crypt at a nearby cemetery.

But if the physical inventory was scanty, the intangible legacy was substantial. Seldom has a jazz musician stirred more excitement with so few recordings. And in the history of jazz, replete with so many tragedies and dead-ends, so many speculations about "if only this" or "if only that" had happened, here was a might-have-been that still rankles me decades later. The Fox, Katanga‚ÄĒthose final documents, should have been, rather, the starting point, not the end, of a glorious career. Even so, Bolton made the most of these sessions, and it is hard to imagine him surpassing these performances, these grand, dramatic gestures that still leave us breathless so many years later.

April 23, 2009 · 27 comments


In Conversation with Marcus Roberts

By Ted Panken

Jazz critics over the last two decades have usually ascribed to pianist Marcus Roberts the aesthetics of "conservative neo-traditionalism." But the truth of the matter is somewhat more complex.

A virtuoso instrumentalist and a walking history of 20th-century piano vocabulary, Roberts is concerned with sustaining a modern dialogue with the eternal verities and transmuting them into present-day argot. Abiding by the motto "fundamental but new," he takes the tropes of jazz and European traditions at face value, and grapples with them on their own terms, without clichť.

"What I'm advocating is always to expand while using the whole history of the music all the time," Roberts said in 1999, articulating a theme that he more fully develops in this interview, conducted a decade hence. At that earlier stage in his career, Roberts had recently applied his nascent, individualistic conception of the piano trio to a suite of original music inspired by his muse, Duke Ellington [In Honor Of Duke], and a songbook homage to Nat Cole and Cole Porter [Cole After Midnight]. Those albums augmented a body of work that included an improvised solo suite on Scott Joplinís corpus, and customized arrangements of Gershwinís "Rhapsody in Blue" and James P. Johnsonís "Yamacraw."

"Ellington was not somebody who was going, ĎOh, there's Bebop; let's throw away the big band and solo all night on 'Cherokee,'" said Roberts. "He was about using the logical elements of bebop that made sense inside of his ever-expanding conception. I don't consider myself to be a New Orleans pianist, or a stride pianist, or a bebop pianist or any of that. I study the whole history and try to develop globally that way."

Now a working unit for 14 years, Roberts and his trio (Roland Guerin, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums) deploy that approach on New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 [J-Master Records], his first release since 2001. They address repertoire by Joplin, Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Waller, and Thelonious Monk, laying down a pan-American array of grooves, channeling the essence of the old masters without regurgitating a single one of their licks.

"Marcus Roberts was a whole other whole category of musician for me to play with," Wynton Marsalis told me a few years later, reflecting on the ways in which Robertsówho in 1986 replaced the mercurial Kenny Kirkland in Marsalisí bandóhelped trigger a sea change in the way Marsalis viewed his own musical production. "I had never encountered a musician around my age with that level of intelligence and depth of feeling about the music. He gave me a lot of strength. He made me understand you canít make it by yourself. You have to play with people, and his music is about getting together with other people. Marcus made me understand that if a person has a belief, that is their artistry. What Marcus Roberts told me then (and we were both very young men) is the truth: Your artistry is your integrity and who you are as a man. Who you are as a person. What you are about. Whatís inside of you. Thatís the most important componentónot whether you can hear chords quicker than somebody or play a more complex polyrhythm. I learned that from him, and from watching him and his development."

Is New Orleans Meets Harlem, Vol. 1 a recording that youíve been trying to find the right time to release over the last few years, or is it very recently recorded?

Well, Iíll tell you what. I first recorded it in 2004. I edited it and mixed it and mastered it, and ultimately it just wasnít quite what I wanted it to be, so I re-recorded it in 2006, and now Iím putting it out. Itís really the second version. I re-did the whole thing. If Iím going to put it out, in my estimation, I need to be happy with it if Iím going to expect anybody else to be happy buying it.

What dissatisfied you about the first incarnation?

I canít even put my finger on it. I just didnít feel that it captured where we had evolved to. By the time Iíd fixed it and edited it and did all the post-production, we were playingóhonestlyóso differently that it didnít feel to me as though we had captured that in the first iteration. The other issue was that the last recording of mine on a major record label, Cole After Midnight, came out in 2001, but it was actually recorded in 1998. In other words, the last anybody heard of my work really dates back 11 years.

What are some of the reasons for that gap? Itís not like you disappeared and hid in a cave. Youíve been performing a lot.

Itís been a few things. For one, after leaving Columbia I knew that I didnít want to sign with another major record label. So I was no longer interested in going in that direction, but at the same time, a lot of possibilities now available on the internet had not matured yet. A lot of changes were still in process, and I wanted to wait and allow us to use these different methods, strategies, and approaches to disseminate our work to the public.

The other reason was that, as happy as I was with my group, we needed to do some work to fill in some conceptual holes that I thought were there, and I didnít want to record anything until I felt those things had been resolved.

The third reason is pianistic. I needed to look at some major things to overhaul my technique, which you really have to do every five or ten years. You need to constantly examine what youíre doing, what you think about your general approach to sound, what new technical principles youíre interested in exploring that might require real time. So I felt I needed to take some time and invest myself in the piano to prepare for the next big stage of my career.

Those were the main reasons, off the top of my head, why itís been so long. One final one is that I took a job, a half-time position at Florida State University, my old school, to teach jazz and help them with my jazz program. Iíve been teaching young people my whole life, since I was a kid. I always liked doing it. You learn a lot when you teach, because you really have to think about what they need, what their talents and gifts are, and find a way to develop them using their skills and abilities, not just your perspective. Itís hard work if you want to be good at it, and it took a long time. Iím in my fifth year at FSU, and finally I feel Iím making a real contribution to the program.

Let me follow up on points two and three. You said the trio needed to bolster some things conceptually and you needed to overhaul your technique. What specific technical and conceptual things were you looking to do?

I was developing a real interest in exploring more deeply how classical music and jazz could be presented together. That meant I needed to invest more time. Conceptually, I was and am interested in exploring a much more refined approach to sound, which meant that I needed to pick up some old repertoire and really investigate it. Bach, for example, which is the foundation of any keyboard technique. I wanted to go back to Bach for my concept of contrapuntal playing, viewing the piano as an instrument that is primarily interested in more than one line at a time, which is one of the big gifts that the piano offers. Another issue is to be able to play these lines with a certain amount of balance and clarity and articulationóso Bach is perfect.

Another issue has to do with balance, being able to work on voicing and pedaling so that you can increase or expand the amount of nuance that you are capable of playing on the piano at any given time. I tried to focus on making sure that, if Iím playing something soft . . .well, where is the threshold when I feel Iím starting to gain control of that nuance, of these soft colors?

You can play a lot of different things when you study classical piano. The literature is clearly laid out, so if you know which things to study, you can cover a lot of territory. For example, if youíve been trying to work on articulation and more of a light, clear touch on the instrument, youíll play Mozart for that. If you want to deal with color and sonority, well, you canít get any better than Debussy and Ravel. If you want somebody who is in a direct line from Bach and Mozart, but a more romantic, sensual attitude, then Chopin is challenging, because you have to be able to play things very light and beautiful, but also play certain passages with tremendous power and virtuosity.

Itís hard to do consequential research and development when youíre on the road a lot, too, isnít it?

Well, it is a difficult thing to do when youíre on the road. Itís difficult to do when youíre in the middle of presenting music that youíve been playing for a while. New information reinvigorates you. Inspiration, in my opinion, is the key to a good imagination. Without inspiration, you just start playing the same old stuff, and your playing becomes, in my opinion, annoying and predictableóand I just donít ever want to go there. Iíll stop first. There is no point putting on the stage something that you donít care enough about to work on. Thatís just for me. Whether we want to call it 'new' or 'old' or 'innovative' or whatever else, if youíre not investing in it every day of your life, then youíre not as serious about art as some great artists have been. Thatís all I can say.

Back to point two, what did the trio need to accomplish?

I have to say that theyíre so talented. Jason Marsalis is capable ... You might sit down with him and be playing just a regular B-flat blues, and say, 'You know what? Weíre going to modulate to A-minor, and when we modulate to A-minor I want you to keep the same form but play it in 7/4 time.' He has perfect pitch, so when you modulate he knows youíre there, plus he can keep track of those two time signatures at the same time. No hesitation. Roland has a different kind of natural ability to use syncopation and grooves on the bass in this more folk type of styleófunk music, zydeco, Louisiana playingóand also has a love of Ron Carterís role in the Miles Davis Quintet, and a real deep connection with Jimmy Garrison from Coltraneís group. Heís figured out a way to put all of that stuff together. The two of them playing together get this sophisticated, more abstract view of groove and time and rhythm.

What I wanted to achieve with them was showcase that talentówrite arrangements that would make it easier for them to exploit nuance. Thatís one component that the public can address and digest comfortably. In the same way that when you go to a very sophisticated restaurant, you may not know the 20 ingredients in this chicken dish, but you know that it tastes good, and you know that there are some subtle reasons why. So I wanted to pay attention to these nuances and go in the direction of some of the other great trios that existed. The Oscar Peterson Trio was fantastic. Their execution was flawless. They had such a huge dynamic range. When Ray Brown would start to take a bass solo, it was a bass reflection of OPís virtuosic piano sound and style. Or Ahmad Jamal, who right now, today, can sit down at a piano and blow you away by himself, with a trio, with his conception, with his accompaniment ...

Frankly, we live in a loud culture, so everybodyís view of a jazz trio is kind of, 'Oh yeah, cocktail music,' or 'itís kind of cute, itís kind of nice ....' Now, if we want the American people, or any other group, to take a jazz trio seriously, we have to work hard to present a group that has the same power, virtuosity, and delicacy that we can find in a quartet, or quintet, or septet.

The second way to do it is by flipping around the roles of the piano and bass and drums. My modern view is that if we make room for the bass and the drum, theyíll be able to have equal access in bringing us where weíre getting ready to go. If Roland wants to change the form or the tempo, how do we set up a cue system so we actually can do that without the piano having to set it up? We had to figure out how to do it, and that changed the way we play.

Youíve been evolving that concept for some time, havenít you? You were talking about this ten years ago.

We talked about it ten years ago as a conception. It became a philosophy when we really started to be able to do it. Thatís the difference. The conception is always something that we can talk about, but the question is whether youíre going to really push and figure it out, or whether itís going to be mainly conception.

Looking at the repertoire and the concept of the recording, I canít help but be reminded of the recording Alone With Three Giants, from twenty years ago, on which you interpreted repertoire by three of the composersóMorton, Ellington, and Monkówhom you represent on New Orleans Meets Harlem. Letís talk about the arc of the repertoire. It seems to represent a fairly chronological timeline from the turn of the century to modernity, beginning with Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin, and concluding with tunes by Monk and your own original piece.

When youíre putting any record together, youíre trying to sequence it in a way that shows contrast and the naturalness of the set, so that when people listen they donít get tired in the process. Iíve even listened back to some of my own records and thought it was a little too intense the whole time. Just general observations.

So you want an ebb-and-flow?

Yes. You want people to have time to digest what theyíre hearing. So we start the thing with Jelly Roll; heís at the beginning anyway, so why not? 'New Orleans Blues' I thought was a good selection to start it off. Also, we kind of used that blues by Jelly Roll to be a sort of microcosm of jazz, because the way we do it, we are able naturally to cover a broad range. From my vantage point, the 21st century in jazz music has to be about presenting or being informed by the entire history of jazz at all times, not restricting oneself to a particular ten-year period. Which may have been how the music was built, brick-by-brick. But at this time in history, we live in a collaborative community, a world community, a global community. Where technology is right now, everything moves at the speed of light, and jazz music is the one music that can keep up with it. It has everything in it. It has virtuosity. It has folk music. It has stuff from the inner city. It has grandeur and sophistication and aristocracy in it. It has democracy in it. It has perhaps even tyranny in it, depending on who the bandleader is. Everything is there.

Most of the pieces on this CD Iíve been playing for years. Thereís not really a whole lot of new material. What is new about it is that itís all trio, and the concepts are organic, because Iíve been playing this stuff for a long time, and Iíve figured out how to rebuild from the ground-up to where it has a specific individual sound. To me, that was an important component.

So your Duke Ellington homage, In Honor of Duke, which was primarily comprised of original compositions, or Cole After Midnight, or Gershwin For Lovers, all trio recordings from the Ď90s ... how do you see those now?

I donít really see them in any particular way. A record just reflects where you are in your development. For example, Gershwin For Lovers was with Wyntonís rhythm section, not my band. That was about slick arrangements, to give a good record to Columbia that I thought they could sell. In Honor of Duke represents the beginning of my original trio conception. When you come up with a concept that you believe is different or new, you often have to use original music to bring it to the forefront, because thereís no music written for the conception yet. So I wrote that music, and also the previous record, Time and Circumstance, to represent the concept, if you will. But New Orleans Meets Harlem represents the philosophy. Itís matured. Itís grown-up. Itís no longer really a concept. At this point itís more a way of life. Itís how we play, what we believe in.

At what point in your life did the notion of having the entire timeline of jazz interface in real time become part of the way you thought? Iím sure it took a while to germinate, and once it began to germinate, it took you a while to find your way towards articulating it. Were you thinking this way before you met Wynton Marsalis?

I guess itís always been there. Meeting Wynton was more confirmation than introduction. But the thing about Wynton is, heís the only one in my generation who could articulate intellectually and with any real clarity what we were doing and why we were doing it, and he was the only one who really knew how to execute and operationalize it. Again, a lot of people have great ideas, but they donít know how to make them operational. Youíll get in the middle of it, then: 'Oh, I didnít consider it whole.' 'What do we do now?' 'I donít know.' So making ideas operational is important, and as I have developed, I have had to work very hard at sniffing out how to streamline some of my concepts, to bring together an operational structure with a conceptual structure.

Those are the real problems artists like to solve. For example, when you write a piano concerto, it needs to be playable. I mean, it might be difficult, but it shouldnít have you doing something thatís physically going to hurt you. So if you play a great piano concerto, or a great piece by Chopin, whatís amazing is how well it lies within the natural reach of the hand. Heís got all these problems with thirds and octaves and chromaticism and these kinds of elements, but he also has the solution right there. You just have to practice it!

As far as when I started to think in terms of the history Ö Well, Iíve always been in search of one general sound that I heard in church when I was 8 or 9 or 10 years old. I canít even explain what that sound is. From time to time, you hear and play things that have an eternal resonance. Youíll play or hear a melody, and you donít know when it could have been written. It could have been ten thousand years ago. Somebody might have hummed that way in Africa someplace, or in Japan, or in Europe. Itís timeless. Itís beyond the scope of our understanding. Itís like a subconscious/unconscious thing. Then, thereís the conscious implementation of a design that you impose on it thatís more 'modern,' new, relevant for our time, relevant for our generation, etcetera. But to me, you need both. Iíve always thought in terms of integrationóof more than one thing. That takes you into the realm of multiplication as opposed to addition. I mean, it becomes easy to play something 'new.' Iíve never had any shortage of creativity or imagination. Iím sure if you talked to Wynton for any length of time, he could say the same thing. Itís never been a problem actually to find new things to do.

One thing you do that Wynton likes to discuss when he talks about you, which he says is new and is pretty distinct unto you, is your ability to play different time signatures with two hands.

That came as a result of playing with Jeff Watts. Itís a different view of rhythmic syncopation. Monk was a master of syncopation; his music has syncopation built in on multi-levels. Thereís the syncopation that occurs between any two notes that are a half-step apart. Thatís my real view of bluesóthe tension that is established harmonically between two chords that are a half-step apart, two notes that can be a half-step apart, between a rhythm that could occur on-beat and another rhythm that could occur on the end of one. Syncopation means weíre imposing something on it against the ear. The earís got into this, and then weíre going to change it this little bit. It could even be dynamic syncopationóyour ear has gotten accustomed to something soft, and all of a sudden, BAM, hereís something loud. It could be the syncopation of two instruments playing, and now, all of a sudden, weíve got a third instrument. Itís a real complicated thing.

When you get to rhythm, once you have the general understanding of where the quarter note pulse is, and a tempo that is carrying that pulse, then the only issue is to determine on how many levels can we interject this quarter note pulse. Tain was able to calculate and understand the real math behind these permutations. To be honest, I never really understood it the way he and Jason Marsalis do. Theyíre on a whole different planet as far as understanding the rhythms you can play at these various tempos against other things. So that was a big part of Wyntonís philosophy, and my philosophy with my group. I was interested in adding blues to that concept, so that always, whatever the tempo or concept, it has the real feeling of jazz. Thatís that folk element Iím talking about.

Like, when you hear Mahalia Jackson sing. That voiceóshe could have been singing it a thousand years ago. It goes way beyond the generation youíre in. As I said earlier, you want to get beyond reducing anything to a ten-year period, which is kind of what a 'generation' is. When you hear a Bach chorale, are you really thinking about 1720? No! Youíre thinking that itís moving you right now. 'Wow, this is beautiful. How did somebody write that?' If somebody could write a Bach chorale right now, trust me, nobody would be mad! Theyíd say, 'Oh, Well, my-my. Somebody can do that again?' So weíve got to be real careful in terms of how we evaluate critically the value of something based on the time period that it took place in. Thatís a delicate issue.

New Orleans Meets Harlem begins in 1905, with 'New Orleans Blues,' and ends in 1956 with 'Ba-lue Bolivar Blues Are.' So youíre spanning the first half of the twentieth century in American musicóin Black American music. Do you have any remarks on the broader implications of this body of work?

Again, they solved problems. 'Ba-lue Bolivar Blues,' or any great blues that Monk wrote, has layers of syncopation that we can look at. Monkís music to me always sounds like poetry or real modern folk music. Heís almost a modern equivalent of Jelly Roll Morton. Monkís music is strictly jazz. Strictly. Youíre not going to confuse it with German music, youíre not going to confuse it with African music, youíre not going to confuse it with anything. American jazz. Period. If somebody said, 'Give us four pieces of music that sound 100 percent like jazz,' well, youíd pick a Jelly Roll Morton piece or a Louis Armstrong piece, youíd probably pick a Monk piece, you might pick something from Kind of Blue. I wonít speculate on the final thing. But for sure, you couldnít go wrong picking a Monk piece. You couldnít go wrong picking a Jelly Roll piece or a Louis Armstrong piece. You probably couldnít go wrong picking a Duke Ellington piece. Why? Because that music has such expansiveness.

Monk, Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Joplin, and Ellington: all were serious about the piano and serious about exploring different forms, different types of nuance, which is what Iím interested in. For me, itís always a question of figuring out who has the information that I need to develop my artistry. Thatís the selfish component. Now, Iím not necessarily going back to Jelly Roll Morton to be caught up in recreating what he did. First of all, it would be very arrogant to pretend you could do that anyway. Because youíre talking about somebodyís lifeís work, what they really went through. And again, these recordings are just a snapshot of part of a day of your life.

And Jelly Roll Morton had quite a life.

Man, quite a life. So I think the more relevant issue is what part of Jelly Roll Morton is also part of me and what I believe. So Iím playing 'New Orleans Blues,' which is a staple piece that I always will play and always have played. 'Ba-Lue Bolivar Blues,' I donít know how many arrangements of that tune we havenít thought up in this trio. Weíve played it all kind of different ways. 'Honeysuckle Rose' is another one that weíve played several different ways. The version on this record is not exactly the same version from 2004.

I think the importance of all the great composer-pianists, first of all, is that they reflect a range of understanding of the piano. Scott Joplin wrote down his music. He knew what he wanted people to play. Of course, he didnít really want folks improvising on it, but we do it anyway. But he was a serious scholar of the piano. His music, again, has this urban sound, but also this melancholyóa kind of aristocratic Folk sound. It also has this connection between pre-jazz and the classical music of Chopin. In other words, it has variety built into it. It has options built into it. Itís an operating system, like Windows XP. You can put anything that you conceptualize inside of that. It doesnít impose the moves of what it can be, but it does say, 'Well, youíd better write it in 32-bit code, or the operating system wonít acknowledge it.' Thereís the science of it, and thereís the art of it, the creative element. Again, youíre always balancing the design with the conception.

Who are some of your contemporary piano influences? By 'contemporary,' I mean roughly within your generation. Ten years ago, you mentioned to me Danilo Perez, and Iíve heard people who know you mention Kenny Kirkland, whose chair you filled in Wyntonís group. Are there other people within striking distance of your birthday who have influenced you?

Those probably would be the two. Kenny Kirkland, first of all, just his knowledge of rhythm, his knowledge of harmony, and how he could intersect the two using not just Latin influences, but also chordal structures taken from the music of Bartok and Hindemith. He was a modern thinker. A lot of stuff Kenny was playing was way more profound than the structure that he played in. He understood theory on an extremely high level. Heíd play a chord that had a rhythmic function to hook up with Jeff Watts and a harmonic function to hook up with Wynton or Branford, whoever was soloing at the time. He also, frankly, was typically the most serious person on the stage. Kenny Kirkland was one of the most consistent pianists that you could hear. I mean, tune after tune after tune, he was swinging, playing an unbelievable modern vocabulary, a great sense of Herbie Hancockís and Chick Coreaís conception, but again, put in this really modern but delightfully percussive manneróbecause it still has the theory and this European training behind it.

Danilo is someone who understood another cultureís view of our music, and was able again to interface them very organically. He could sit down with you and explain how he did it. Again, itís that concept of making something operational. Any programmer, before they start writing code for a computer program, first has to understand the function of the process. Once we know the manual procedure, then we can automate it. Danilo understood manually each of these styles, then he figured out where they intersected, and then he picked music to showcase what heíd figured out. Itís just brilliant stuff. Itís well-executed pianistically. I personally hate sloppy piano playingósomebody who doesnít understand that the sustain pedal is there and what youíre supposed to do with it. Heís a refined player. He understands the vocabulary of these Latin cultures, where he can get away with superimposing it, where he should leave it alone. Also, he inspires the musicians he plays with, which is another job of a pianist. You have to provide an inspirational environment for the bass player and the drummer to do their thing. You have to know when to lay low and stroll so that the piano doesnít get in the way of what somebody else is trying to play, even if itís your conception, your philosophy and your group viewpoint. Itís a hard job. Itís not for the faint-hearted.

You were mentioning earlier that youíve been looking your whole life for a sound that you heard as a kid in church. One development in jazz since you and Wynton got together has been a burgeoning of black musicians with church backgrounds and southern roots. This coincides with a period when MTV and hip-hop were rising in visibility and influence, and jazz wasnít part of the zeitgeist. Any speculations?

Well, I canít speak for anybody elseís experience. I can only tell you that this was the source of my upbringing and what led me into the piano, led me into jazz music, and that sound spoke to me. Now, did it speak to me differently than it spoke to Charles Mingus from Los Angeles, California? Probably not. I donít know.

Iím thinking of the time and place in which you grew up.

Thatís still so personal. The only thing I can tell you is, somehow or other, youíve got to access two conflicting things. One is the value of something that is bigger than you, older than you, greater than you; the other is the physical organization that is from your generation. Thatís the issue. If you grew up in church, then you found access to it that way. If your parents were jazz musicians, like Jason and Wynton and Branford ... Look, they didnít play in church. Obviously, the church is not the only way to find it. I think the main key for any jazz artist, any serious artist of any style, is you must find a connection with the beginning of it somehow. Somehow. It is never going to be enough for it to come just from your generation. Thatís never enough. Youíre not going to find anything great without it.

With your own label, do you plan to document your work more frequently?

Well, Iíve been documenting a lot. That hasnít been the problem. There are a whole bunch of records still to come out. Oh yes! But Iím just starting to put the stuff out. We certainly wonít be waiting another eight years to put out a record. It will be more like six months.

Primarily trio, or diverse contexts?

Itís diverse. I have a solo piano record thatís already done. I have another trio record of original music thatís done. Iíve got some septet stuff from live shows that I plan to put outóI donít know if Iím going to go in and redo it. But yes, Iím always trying to deal with a diversified viewpoint.

Any special projects for the spring and summer?

The most important concerts that I have coming up are with the Atlanta Symphony. [These occurred on April 4th-6th.] Weíre doing Gershwinís Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra. Thatís important to me, because thatís the first major symphony orchestra in the United States that weíve done this work with. I hit it off with Robert Spano; heís a great conductor over there. So Iím hoping that we can do a lot more work with them. Iím talking to him about possibly trying to do the same sort of thing with the Ravel Left Hand Concerto that I did with the Concerto in F. For me, that would be a huge undertaking, and it would take a tremendous amount of time and effort to pull off. But we are discussing it. At this stage of my career, Iím interested in meaningful collaboration. Itís certainly a little more streamlined. Iím not interested necessarily in just the regular play-gigs type of career.

Ted Panken interviewed Marcus Roberts on March 24, 2009.

April 17, 2009 · 3 comments


In Search of Dupree Bolton (Part 1)

By Ted Gioia

Trumpeter Dupree Bolton has long stood out as one of the most mysterious figures in the history of modern jazz. He emerged on the West Coast scene of the 1950s playing a blazing trumpet that seared into the imagination of jazz fans. No one knew where he had come from and Bolton never volunteered much information. When Downbeat's local editor John Tynan tried to interview him, the trumpeter offered a single fact: "When I was fourteen I ran away from home."

That was the complete extent of Bolton's only known interview.

Dupree Bolton Fireball

Bolton's future would be as puzzling as his past. For a brief interlude his listeners could at least relish his extraordinary performances in person, but for the last half of his life, Bolton's music was available only through the few recordings he made before he disappeared. For the most part, this musician's reputation rests almost completely on two records‚ÄĒbut what tantalizing records they are!

In particular, Bolton's 1959 collaboration with saxophonist Harold Land, released as The Fox ‚ÄĒan album which brought the trumpeter to the attention of the jazz world at large‚ÄĒremains one of the landmarks of the era. The Fox showed that this young trumpeter could withstand comparison with the very best on his instrument. The title song, in particular, a riveting and maddeningly difficult composition penned by pianist Elmo Hope, finds Bolton spewing out lightning fast improvisations with a rhythmic drive and mastery that are as exciting now as they were almost a half century ago when first recorded.

Even before the release of The Fox, the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding Bolton had begun to grow. On October 15, 1959, Downbeat published a page of captioned photographs taken at the session. The text read, in part: "West Coast musicians who have heard the tapes from a recent recording session produced by Dave Axelrod are flipping over trumpeter Dupree Bolton. . . . In [picture number] 3 Land looks as if he honestly didn't believe what is coming from Bolton's horn. Gifted with exceptional technique and fierce power, Bolton is being compared to the late Clifford Brown for the brilliance of his lines. But he's something of a mystery man: not even Land seems to know where he came from."

Land had heard the dazzling trumpeter at a local club, and immediately knew that he was the right man for the forthcoming session. Bolton boasted a flawless technique, an expressive tone, and‚ÄĒperhaps most striking of all‚ÄĒa fierce intensity, an electric quality which made his solos, especially at fast tempos, absolutely mesmerizing. As if this were not enough, Bolton was a crack reader; Hope's complex charts for the date, which would give many trumpeters fits, were navigated by Bolton with ease. If any question remained about Bolton, it had nothing to do with his musical talent, it was simply a puzzled wonderment over where this full-fledged trumpet star had come from. How could such a musician simply emerge, already at a world-class level, with no known history or background, immediately capable of playing with the very best?

Land, who passed away in 2001, still practiced his craft in Southern California when I was researching my book on West Coast Jazz, published in 1992. He remembered the session vividly, but could shed no light on the trumpeter. When The Fox was reissued in 1969, Land had commented: "If things had worked out right for [Dupree] he could have been one of the most important trumpet players of our time. There was a certain grandeur he was able to capture. . . He had a unique, fresh quality‚ÄĒsomething different."

But instead of developing into a leader of the jazz world, Bolton simply disappeared. In a 1963 review of a club appearance Bolton gave with Curtis Amy, shortly before his vanishing act, John Tynan wrote: "This reviewer recently replayed a HiFi jazz album, The Fox, recorded about three years ago, which features Bolton in his first known recording. His playing was impressive then; today it is out of sight. . . . Since joining Amy, he's been turning heads around all over town. On trumpet he's a fireball equipped with fearsome chops and a seemingly bottomless barrel of ideas. His sound is big and honest and sometimes so raw it rips a listener's head off. . . Bolton is shouting 'Hear me!' every time he puts the horn to his lips. And one has no choice but to listen."

As it turned out, Tynan witnessed one of the last performances at which he‚ÄĒor anyone else‚ÄĒwould get a chance to hear this extraordinary musician. In a final album with Curtis Amy, entitled Katanga!, Bolton showed the truth of Tynan's praise. Although the surrounding cast of musicians is not as impressive as on The Fox, Bolton's playing is again stunning, living up if not surpassing the impressive standards he had already set for himself on the earlier release.

It was at this juncture, seemingly at the start of an illustrious career, that Bolton disappeared completely from the Southern California jazz scene, his departure every bit as unexplained as his earlier arrival. He left behind a glittering reputation, a handful of recordings and many unanswered questions. Leonard Feather, the ultimate expert on jazz biography (he single-handedly wrote the first Encyclopedia of Jazz), penned the liner notes to the reissue of The Fox, but even Feather's many sources of information were of no avail when it came to Bolton. Feather mentions Tynan's brief interview, and could only add about the trumpeter: "Nobody knows where he came from or where he is today."

     Dupree Bolton in 1989 (photo by Ted Gioia)

During the twenty years following, little additional information came to light. Jazz historian Robert Gordon, writing in his 1986 book Jazz West Coast, provided no more biographical details, but his appreciation of the trumpeter was undiminished by the mysteries surrounding the musicians. "A photo on the album sleeve shows Harold looking on almost incredulously as the trumpeter works out," Gordon writes; "those listening to the album are likely to have the same reaction." The 1988 Grove Dictionary of Jazz, the most exhaustive reference on jazz biography of its day, stated in its brief entry: "His few recordings reveal Bolton to have been a brilliant and stylish player; a mysterious figure, his reputation has, if anything, been enhanced by his tormented private life and obsessive personal secrecy."

Even today, the Wikipedia entry for Dupree Bolton is only one sentence long. Anyone who tries to learn about this musician inevitably walks away with more questions than answers.

The puzzling history of Dupree Bolton fascinated me over a long period of time. For many years, as I worked on my history of West Coast jazz, I looked at Bolton as my one unresolved issue, my one unsolvable enigma. Who was he? Where had come from? How had developed his phenomenal talent? Where did he go?

In England, researcher Bob Weir had come up with a little more information through his discographical research. Weir found that Bolton had, in fact, recorded under an assumed name in the 1940s for the Buddy Johnson band. Even more intriguing: Bolton was said to be featured on a privately circulated recording made in 1980 by a group of Oklahoma convicts. Weir published these details in the latest edition of his Dupree Bolton Discography, a booklet which came into my hands in 1987. These tantalizing bits of information only added to the overall mystery. Apparently Bolton had been hiding something even back in the 1940s, and had survived‚ÄĒand was still performing‚ÄĒlong after his last commercial recording date in 1962. Beyond that one could only speculate.

Late in 1988 a startling piece of information raised my hopes of learning more about Bolton. A saxophonist friend told me about an exceptional trumpeter he had heard playing on the streets of San Francisco. This trumpeter was working the streets around Chinatown earning tips by performing unaccompanied versions of ballads and jazz standards for passing tourists. My friend had joined the trumpeter in an impromptu street-corner duet and had been markedly impressed by the caliber of his playing. I paid scant attention to this anecdote until he added that the trumpeter's first name was Dupree. Upon my questioning he added that he thought his last name was Bolden, like the New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden.

My attention was riveted by this revelation. The similarity in names couldn't be a matter of chance. Dupree "Bolden" seemed likely to be the mysterious Dupree Bolton, who had eluded the jazz world for over a quarter of a century. And if my friend's story was true, Bolton was not only alive but still actively playing.

San Francisco has long been a haven for street musicians and I could well believe that Dupree was playing there. The San Francisco authorities are more tolerant of sidewalk players than their counterparts in many other cities. This tacit acceptance by the police, combined with temperate weather, make the "City by the Bay" the U.S. capital for wandering minstrels and the like. Some, like the city's famed "Human Jukebox," captured the public's imagination by a bold gimmick. Great musicianship is less easy to sell to passersby, but it too can be found. Around the same time I was searching for Bolton, I would occasionally hear the noted saxophonist Sonny Simmons playing on a San Francisco street corner. Simmons, a fervid player with a top notch jazz pedigree, was relegated to playing requests for pedestrians. (Yet a short while later he rose again to prominence, in a gratifying turnabout. Simmons's 1994 Ancient Ritual was released by a major label to great acclaim.) But Simmons's story is not an isolated one, and many of the street players deserve a better fate than the indifference of tourists and the noise of passing traffic. Given the sorry state of San Francisco's jazz clubs and the fickleness of jazz fans, I imagined a similarly outcast fate for Dupree Bolton. His zeal for privacy and secrecy would only compound the challenges he faced in making a living with his horn.

Almost two months passed before I was able to meet the Chinatown trumpeter. The winter weather had sent many of the older street musicians indoors. Finally, in late January of 1989, I was able to set up an interview at an Oakland musical instrument repair shop where I was told he would be waiting for me. This first meeting, so long anticipated, lasted only twenty minutes‚ÄĒhardly more time than John Tynan had managed to secure during his brief, and only, discussion with the trumpeter three decades before. The trumpeter showed up shortly after I arrived. He was an older black man with a full head of gray hair and a face that seemed much younger than what I had expected. Although Dupree Bolton's date of birth was unknown to me, his first recordings, according to Weir's discography, had been made in 1944. Assuming he was around twenty years old at the time he recorded, I anticipated a man around 65 years old. The person in front of me seemed younger than that. (Only in our later meetings would I notice tell-tale signs that suggested a greater age than I had initially suspected. These were most notable when he walked: his limp and slow movements gave hints of advanced years not evident in his visage.)

My interlocutor admitted that he was, in fact, the mysterious Dupree Bolton. "There will be no mystery about me, though, once you've heard what I have to tell you." Facing me across a cluttered desk in the small backroom of the shop, he began providing me with a thumbnail outline of his life story.

Bolton had been born in Oklahoma City on March 3, 1929. This made him only 59 years old. His first recordings in 1944 were made not by a young man, but by a fifteen year old who had just run away from home. Against his parent's wishes he had left to become a traveling musician with the Jay McShann band. (Jazz musicians are as notorious as Hollywood starlets for lying about their ages. Although I later learned to treat many of Dupree's claims with skepticism, I felt he was not deceiving me in this regard. His alleged birthdate fits with the one previously known biographical fact‚ÄĒhis leaving home at 14‚ÄĒas well as with information he would later give me.)

Like many Oklahoma families of that time, the Boltons were sent by the ravages of the Dust Bowl to the more fertile pastures of California. Dupree's parents were, however, more fortunate than the Oklahoma farm-pickers depicted in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Bolton's father worked in the defense industry which was then a growing part of the Southern California economy. His mother provided a good home, and the young children were encouraged to study music. Dupree's father had been accomplished on all of the string instruments‚ÄĒwhile still in Oklahoma, the elder Bolton had been an important early influence on the legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian. Later he would work as a studio violinist in Hollywood. He wanted his son to study the violin.

"I started playing the violin when I was about four or five, but I wanted to play the trumpet," Bolton told me. "Later the music instructor at school gave me an E flat alto horn. I took that home and my daddy said, 'Hey, you can't play this! This is an after-time instrument.' But in three or four days, I had learned the fingering on that instrument and could play it. So my daddy told me, 'Okay, I'll get a trumpet for you.' He sent to Sears & Roebuck for one of those mail order trumpets for me. I think it cost $19.95. I remember watching for the mail truck every morning, waiting for it to arrive. Finally one morning the mailman arrived and had that big package. I rushed out there and there it was. I had a trumpet."

His rapid development on the instrument showed that the boy possessed remarkable talent. By the time he was fourteen, Bolton had gained enough proficiency to begin playing professionally. The war had created a shortage of musicians, and even top bands were willing to hire underage players to fill the constant gaps in the ranks. Dupree's big break came with his opportunity to join the Jay McShann band in 1944. He had not yet turned 15 and already Bolton was in heavy musical company. Charlie Parker had just left the band when Bolton joined, and McShann and his men ranked among leading exponents of the swinging Kansas City style of jazz.

"I told my mother I wanted to go on the road with that band and she said 'You're not going anywhere with any band. You're going to stay here and go to school.' So I went downtown to Main Street in Los Angeles and bought myself a suitcase and took it over to the hotel where the McShann musicians were staying. Over the next few weeks I'd sneak out my clothes, a pair of pants at a time, a shirt at a time. When I was done, I ran off with the band."

His mother's worst fears proved to be well grounded. Almost immediately Bolton was initiated into the world of drugs. The older bandsmen sent 15 year old Dupree to a drugstore with a forged prescription. When he returned with drugs he was give a portion as his reward. "That was the first time I used dope. It was a painkiller for babies. Each dose had one ounce of opium in it. The dope addicts would take it, fix it, burn it, boil it, and draw the dope out of it."

Within a short period, Dupree was heavily involved in drugs. By the age of 16 he was shooting cocaine with Charlie Parker in Bolton's New York apartment. "I was in awe of him. He was a giant musician and everyone looked up to him because he was really the man. I was no exception." Like many jazz musicians of his generation, Bolton had the misfortune to follow Parker's lead in both music and in drugs. From painkillers for infants, Dupree had soon progressed to heroin.

At this juncture, Bolton called our interview short. He had shared with me his life story until his sixteenth year, but refused to say more‚ÄĒat least for now. But he promised to meet me the following morning and continue his narrative. "They just made a movie of Parker's life," Bolton concluded‚ÄĒreferring to Clint Eastwood's recently released film Bird. "They could do the same with me."

The next morning Dupree stood me up. . . . [To be continued]

This is first installment of a two-part article by Ted Gioia. Click here for part two of "In Search of Dupree Bolton."

April 14, 2009 · 15 comments


In Conversation with Rudy Van Gelder

By Andy Karp

       Rudy Van Gelder and Alfred Lion by Francis Wolff,
                             courtesy of Mosaic Images

Although Rudy Van Gelderís name usually appears in small type among the credits on a jazz CD, it is writ large in the annals of jazz. As the engineer who recorded such seminal albums as John Coltrane's Blue Train and A Love Supreme, Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus , Miles Davis' Workin', Andrew Hill's Point of Departure, Freddie Hubbard's Red Clay, and Hank Mobley's Soul Station, Van Gelder is revered by jazz fans the world over. The timeless music he captured and the sonic qualities of his recordings define the sound of small group jazz in the 1950s and í60s. Yet that soundóclear, detailed, dimensional and, above all, musicalóremains fresh and is still admired and emulated.

A native and lifelong resident of New Jersey (ďthe birthplace of recorded sound,Ē as he proudly points out), Van Gelder continues to work from the studio and home he has maintained in Englewood Cliffs for nearly 50 years. He remains active, recording the music he loves by combining old-school savvy with the latest digital technology. Recent projects include remastering many of his classic Blue Note recordings and making new recordings such as Just Between Friends, a duo album on HighNote by bassist extraordinaire Ron Carter and tenor saxophone giant Houston Person.

Long acknowledged by musicians and fans as the dean of jazz recording engineers, Van Gelder received even wider recognition this past October when the National Endowment for the Arts honored him as a 2009 NEA Jazz Master.

Van Gelder recently took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions from Jazz.comís Andy Karp about his landmark recordings, the notable producers heís worked with, and his artistic legacy.

What sonic characteristics do you strive for in your recordings?

Aside from all the mechanical details, I personally prefer recordings which have a sense of space. The degree of that relates to the characteristics of the music.

Have those characteristics changed over the years?

Yes, the characteristics have changed over the years. In the very early years, of course, there was just mono. I believed thenóas I do nowóthat the sense of space adds to the effect of the music. People have said to me that even in my mono recordings they feel a sense of space, and I agree with that. Spatial characteristics are not related to stereo only. Over time the characteristics of the music changed, and that controls what I have to do to create a presentable picture.

What recordings other than the ones you did yourself do you most admire for their sound quality?

It depends on what time period you're referring to. During the years before Sony acquired Columbia, when the original Columbia 30th Street studio existed, I liked virtually everything I heard out of there. Engineers Fred Plaut, Frank Laico, and Bud Graham Ö I admired almost all I heard coming out of that place.

Which of your own recordings are you most proud of?

                      Rudy Van Gelder by Maureen Sickler

Generally I like the recordings that I made for Creed Taylor: Freddie Hubbard, Don Sebesky, Jobim, Stanley Turrentine, Wes Montgomery, Quincy Jones' Walking In Space, including the song ďKiller Joe.Ē For Blue Note: Blue Train, Sidewinder, Horace Silver, Hank Mobley, and many others. For Prestige: Miles Davis's Walkiní, Miles with Red Garland, Sonny Rollins. For Impulse: Oliver Nelson, Gil Evans, John Coltrane, Ray Charles, Stan Getz. The latter-day organ players from Prestige and Blue Note: Groove Holmes, Jimmy Smith, and others. With regard to remastering, the Miles Davis Capitol recording of Birth Of The Cool.

What were some of your most memorable recording sessions?

Again, the orchestral recordings for CTI, Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

What do you regard as the most important advances in recording technology in recent years?

The most significant in its effect on the music has been multitrack. The other is the capability to record audio digitally.

Today I still use the microphones I used years ago. As far as the rest of the chain, up through and including speakers, today's equipment is light years ahead of what I had available years ago. More reliable, more accurate. What more could a recording engineer want?

What modern recording techniques or technology do you wish youíd had available in the 1950s and í60s?

All of it.

Many of your classic sessions for Blue Note, Impulse, and Prestige were recorded live in the studio. Do you still consider this to be the optimal way to record jazz as opposed to multitracking?

No, not at all. Today I do not consider two-track recording to be the best way to record jazz. The reason for this is that musicians have 'Darwinized' or evolved to rely on the multitrack environment. When multitrack was first available, I thought it was great. I didn't have to do a perfect mix on the session. I could always remix it at a later time in a search for perfection. However, it wasn't too long before the musicians discovered multitrack was an opportunity to correct their performances, and today, they invariably ask me to do that. Now we have a whole generation of musicians, and I'm referring to jazz now, who expect me to do that. So the whole concept of an improvised jazz performance has morphed into a studio session that involves overdubbing or fixing. I really shouldn't be judgmental about this, so I will say it's not good or bad, it's just different.

What aspects of todayís recording technology have improved the sound of jazz recordings, and what aspects have had a negative impact?

I can only speak for myself. Every aspect of current recording technology is positive for me. The ability to record without tape hiss, very low distortion if you know how to do it, much easier editingómy side of the story is just great, I have no complaints. I'm enjoying it all.

When remastering your original recordings for CD release, how have you used digital technology to enhance the sound of your original analog recordings?

The advent of the CD allowed the listener to hear on his home system the sound of the speakers in the control room during the recording session, very closely, for the first time. Soon after that, when listening to other people's remastering of recordings I had made, I realized something was wrong. There was a disconnect between the sound of the CDs that were being made and my recollection of the original recording sessions with the original producers. The fact that I was listening in the digital domain made it very obvious to me. I would think to myself, 'Hey, that's not the way we did it.' Everyone listened to these early CDs, but there was very little relationship to the sound of the sessions. When I was asked to do the remastering, that was my first opportunity to give my version of it. My version, using digital technology, enables me to closely approach the way the speakers in the control room sounded during the original sessions.

What recording projects have been especially challenging for you?

John Coltrane's A Love Supreme really worked. Generally, though, the so-called avant-garde music of that time, the 1960s, and the concept of multiple improvisations with no structure known to me, impaired my ability to fall asleep on the sessions.

How has your work been impacted by the different styles of producers youíve worked with? For example, Alfred Lion versus Bob Thiele versus Creed Taylor?

Alfred Lion of Blue Note had a way of working that was totally different from Bob Thiele of Impulse, Bob Weinstock of Prestige, and Creed Taylor [of Impulse and CTI]. Alfred Lion came to the sessions very well prepared, and the musicians were rehearsed. He knew pretty well how he wanted the finished record to be before he even came to the session, particularly with regard to the music and the way the individual players sounded.

Bob Thiele was an experienced record producer in the pop field before he came to me. In the early days he used to have a jazz radio program, which I listened to as a kid. He knew a lot of the big stars, and had a fine sense of what a good jazz player was. Creed Taylor knew the jazz players and wanted to present them in a setting that would appeal to a wider audience. Larger orchestras, more chance for interesting soundsóthat provided exciting challenges for me. Bob Weinstock, on the other hand, liked small group jazz, was a jazz fan and was much more relaxed. He let the musicians dictate the way the session went.

In order to deliver what the producers expected, I always tried to vary what I did to fit what they had in mind. I tried to avoid the concept of recording the way I wanted to. I tried to adapt to what the individual producer was trying to do.

What are current recording activities and projects are you involved in?

Most of what I've been doing nowadays is remastering sessions that I did for Blue Note, Prestige, and others. As for new recordings, I like the most recent Houston Person/Ron Carter duo, Just Between Friends, that I did for HighNote.

Can you detect a Van Gelder influence on any recent jazz recordings?

Yes, absolutely. Most of them. Someone recently told my assistant, 'Rudy's DNA is in every jazz recording made today.'

Much of the jazz you recorded in the 1950s and í60s has stood the test of time. Did you have a sense when you made those recordings that you were capturing music that might have lasting quality and beauty?

Yes. All during that time I had the feeling that we were doing something important. More than the daily newspapers, more than politics. I felt we were doing something significant.

April 11, 2009 · 5 comments


In Conversation With Mulgrew Miller

By Tomas PeŮa

When I caught up with Mulgrew Miller, he was on his way to a rehearsal for a concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of two legendary jazz albums: Miles Davisí Kind of Blue and John Coltraneís Giant Steps, both feted this past February by Jazz at Lincoln Center. During the course of the interview, Mulgrew spoke about how, when he was younger, he often had to pinch himself and ask, "Am I really on the bandstand with Art Blakey?Ē Well, thatís exactly how I felt when I talked with Mulgrew, one of the greatest jazz pianists of his generation. Once, while attending a jazz camp at the beginning of his career, Mulgrew was singled-out by trumpeter Woody Shaw. ďYeah, I'm going to see you in New York in a couple of years,Ē Shaw said to the aspiring young pianist with a funny name, and he was right. The rest, as they say, is history.

                      Mulgrew Miller by Jos L. Knaepen

Welcome Mulgrew, itís a pleasure to talk with you. You grew up in a small town in the heart of the Mississippi Delta during the '60ís. Musically speaking, it must have been an incredibly rich environment.

Well, itís probably a little bit different than what you might imagine. I grew up in a little town called Greenwood, so it wasnít like I was walking down a country rode and there were guys sitting on the porch playing the blues. But yeah, the blues were all around, and there was church music and country music and I was there right in the midst of the civil rights movement during the early '60ís and '70ís.

Why did you choose the piano and not some other instrument?

I like to say that the piano chose me! My father bought a piano when I was six years old. This truck pulled up in front of the house Ö and there was a piano on it. As a lot of kids do when there is a piano around, I started picking out little melodies by ear. I heard a lot of hymns when I was growing up, so my earliest recollection of playing was a hymn. When my father would come home from work, I couldnít wait to show him how I had found the melody to a hymn. From that point he vowed to find me a teacher.

You started your formal training at the age of eight. Did you go to school or take private lessons?

I took private lessons with a gentleman named Mr. Albert Harrison. In fact, he still lives there.

You came up in the gospel and blues tradition, but it was pianist Oscar Peterson who opened-up your eyes and ears to jazz.

Thatís true. I first saw Oscar on television on the Joey Bishop Show.

What was it about Oscarís style that grabbed your attention?

It was that which made him probably one of the most popular jazz pianists of all time. There was very accessible content in Oscarís playing, not to mention his technical prowess. He had that kind of finger-poppiní quality in his playing, tooóa kind of foot-tapping swing thing that attracted a lot of people. To tell you the truth, up to that point I had never heard the piano played like that. I had heard classical piano played with a lot of technique, but I never heard it that way [laughs]. After hearing Oscar, I was a different guy.

In a past interview, you said that prior to hearing Oscar you were 'heading towards jazz.'

But it wasnít until I heard him that I realized the level that I would have to achieve, or try to achieve.

Another musician who had an influence on you was trumpeter Woody Shaw. In fact, Woody foresaw your coming to New York and someday becoming more prominent.

                      Mulgrew Miller by Jos L. Knaepen

I met Woody Shaw at a student jazz camp in 1975. To make a long story short, after hearing me play he complimented me and said, 'Yeah, I am going to see you in New York in a couple of years.' Well, I ended up in New York two years later to the day, and I saw him at the Village Vanguard. When I went over to introduce myself and he heard my voice he said, 'I know you. You're the piano player with the funny name.'

Woody never received the recognition he deserved.

That is definitely true. Woody was a visionary. His music had a certain sound. He dreamed different ideas from other trumpet players. Miles Davis even complimented him; he said something like, 'Thereís is a trumpet player with something different to say.' There were [other great] trumpet players too, like Freddie Hubbard.

Speaking of Freddie, in the latest issue of Downbeat Magazine you selected one of Freddieís recordings, Ready for Freddy (Blue Note, 2004) as one of your all-time favorite recordings. In terms of recognition, I think Freddie faired somewhat better than Woody.

Well, I kind of feel that no jazz musician gets enough credit in this culture. I am getting a little more recognition than others, but the music itself doesnít get any recognition.

I wouldnít say 'any,' but I agree that jazz is deserving of wider recognition and more respect. Case in point: one critic called you 'the leading pianist of your generation.' First, what do you say to something like that? Second, if thatís not recognition, what is?

I donít think about those things, I play music for the joy of it. [Critical praise] is just something to use in your resume because it impresses people. I try to be honest with myself and about what I need to accomplish. And guess what? There are still Art Tatum and Phineas Newborn records out there, all of the great masters. There's certainly no room for me to have a big head.

In 1977 you arrived in New York with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Prior to that, you had subbed with the band on occasion.

Yeah, I did a few gigs for a pianist named Lloyd Mayers [then the pianist with the Ellington band]. He was a very busy. He was doing all kinds of things, and sometimes he would have to miss a gig or two. I had friend in the band, [saxophonist] Bill Easley, and he recommended me to Mercer Ellington.

That must have been quite an experience. How old were you when you joined the Ellington band?

I was 21. It was the most incredible experience, not only on a musical level, but also on the human level. You are practically living in a bus with eighteen other personalities. I had to learn how to grow up [laughs]. You really have to learn to live with people when you live in that kind of environment.

How long were you with Ellingtonís band?

Three years.

After that you joined Betty Carterís band.

Well, Betty was a legendary singer who had earned the name 'Bebop' Betty Carter. She was so-named because, more than most of the other singers, she had a bebop kind of format. She was a big-time scatter and never made it to the realm of the jazz pop singer, as did Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [Vaughan], and Nancy Wilson. She didnít like that kind of 'politeness' behind her. She wanted you to hit with the same kind of intensity as if you were playing with a saxophonist. Playing with Betty was a great experience for any young rhythm section player.

That was quite a different scene from playing in a big band.

Oh yeah, most definitely. Playing in a small group and then having her was an amazing experience.

After Betty Carter, you joined Woody Shawís band.

I worked with Woody for about three years.

The thing that I find most amazing is that you worked for approximately 16 years without taking a break. Thatís unheard-of!

Actually, it was 17 years. For 17 years I went from band to band.

Just to be clear, at one point in your career you took a seven-year hiatus. I have read various accounts of your hiatus, but I am not clear on what actually took place.

I took a seven-year hiatus from recording and as a leader, but not from performing.

After Woody Shaw you did a brief stint with saxophonist Johnny Griffin. You then joined the 'School of Art Blakey,' better known as Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

Yeah, I was with Art Blakey for three years.

Who else was in the band during that time?

It was trumpeter, Donald Harrison, saxophonist Jean Toussaint and bassist Lonnie Plaxico.

Lonnie Plaxico must have been very young.

Yeah, the group was full of young players. I was the 'old man' in the group.

After the stint with the Messengers, you joined drummer Tony Williamsí band. I understand that you and Tony were close.

I would like to think so.

Unfortunately, we donít hear a lot about Tony these days. Tell me about Tony and what made him such a special person and musician.

Tony was a genius among geniuses. As an instrumentalist and as a musician I rate him like an Art Tatum or a Charlie Parker. As a drum master, technician, and conceptualist he was second to none. There was no one like Tony. He was a true visionary and a true innovator. He was a guy that was really deeply involved with music. Tony was a dreamer, a real dreamer.

In 1985 you signed with the Landmark record label and recorded several albums as a leader, including Keys to the City, Work, Wingspan, The Countdown, From Day to Day, and Time and Again. You also recorded for Landmark as a sideman with Donald Harrison and ,a href="http://www.jazz.com/encyclopedia/hutcherson-bobby-robert">Bobby Hutcherson, among others.

Something like that.

Letís talk about Wingspan, one of my favorite groups.

My first record with that group was called Wingspan. When the recording came out I called the group Wingspan, after a song in the album. Wingspan was also the title of the album. We worked together sporadically. We kept pushing-ahead, and several years later the group came together for a second recording, and that recording is called The Sequel, which is also named after a song on the album. The song is based on the chord changes to Miles Davisí 'So What.'

Your discography reads like an encyclopedia. How many recordings have you made thus far?

500, or something like that. [Laughs]

You've recorded with so many artists, itís difficult to know where to begin. One thing I noticed. You enjoy recording live.

Actually, my discography is not what it seems. It seems like I have made a lot of live recordings, but Live at the Kennedy Center, Volumes 1 and 2 were recorded in one night. Itís the same with Live at Yoshiís, so it would appear that I record live a lot more than I actually do.

Either way, your live recordings sparkle.

Thank You. Itís easier to be yourself when you are recording live. The studio can be a little stifling.

Letís talk about the upcoming show at Lincoln Center celebrating the 50th anniversary of two classic recordings: Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and John Coltrane's Giant Steps.

As you know, the show is going to be a tribute commemorating those two landmark recordings. The program has two segments. On the music from the Giant Steps record, we're going to feature four saxophonists: Ted Nash, Sherman Irby, Walter Blanding, and George Garzone. What they have done is, they've arranged all of the tunes from Giant Steps for saxophones, so it almost sounds like a small big band. Portions of some of Coltraneís solos are orchestrated for four saxophones, kind of in the fashion of that group that did the Charlie Parker stuff, Supersax [a '70s band that played transcriptions of Parker solos harmonized for five saxes]. Drummer Jimmy Cobb, who's the only living member of both of those recording sessions, is going to play on both segments.

I'm very excited about what is going to happen in the second set. The a cappella group, Take 6, is going to do the music from Kind of Blue. We are scheduled to rehearse tomorrow. I havenít seen the arrangements yet. I donít know if they are going to sing on every tune, or a few of the tunes, so I donít know exactly how itís going to go.

I have a live version of Take 6, recorded live at the Blue Note in Japan, where the group does a killiní version of Miles Davisís 'All Blues.' Speaking of Miles, did you ever meet him?

I met Miles when I was with Tony Williams. John Coltrane died when I was twelve. At the time I was still in the Delta trying to figure out how to spell the word, 'jazz.'

Are you teaching at all?

Yes, at this stage of my career I am very involved with jazz studies.

I am all for jazz education, but I still get the impression that there is something missing. Meaning, that there is no substitute for the oral tradition, woodshedding and earning your bones by being in the thick of things. Having said that, I realize that the scene has changed and many of the musicians of today donít have the same opportunities that you guys had.

Well, actually they have. Not a lot of clubs, but they do a lot of woodshedding and a lot of jamming among themselves. Whatís missing is the community set-upóthe club scene and the environment. They donít have that.

I've actually had musicians tell me that they have paid club owners to play in their establishments.

Thatís probably true. Our society has turned into such a pop culture. A lot of these kids today are not even used to hearing acoustic instruments. The sound of an acoustic instrument is foreign to them. Thatís one of the reasons why you donít get a lot of support from young people. And of course the music is not promoted. Toss in the recent changes in the music business, the rise in technology, the falling economy, and itís quite a mess.

In a past interview you called the New York jazz scene a 'jazz circus.'

To tell you the truth, itís a wonder that the music has even survived in America.

Ah! But wait, thereís a light at the end of the tunnel. President Obama likes John Coltrane! I read somewhere that he has Coltrane on his iPod.

I heard that. He likes Bird and Miles, too, so there's still hope [laughs].

You've had such a long and distinguished career. Are there any particular moments that stand out when you look back? Something special that occurred, or some magical moment that went beyond being on stage and playing with someone?

I just have to tell you that there were a lot of great moments with all of them, just because they were such phenomenal musicians. I'm not saying that just because I donít have an answer; I am saying it because there have been moments when I found myself literally pinching myself and asking, 'Am I really on the bandstand with Art Blakey?' 'Am I really on the bandstand with Tony Williams or Woody Shaw? This is incredible!' [Laughs]

Do you have any recordings in the works?

No, not really. The recording industry has kind of flatlined, bottomed-out. Even the company that I've been associated with most recently [MaxJazz] has slowed down a lot. If I put something out it will probably be on my own.

Are you currently working on new material, or do you have any idea what type of recording you might put out?

It might be a lot of things. It could be with a trio, or it could be just me on the piano all by myself. I havenít made a solo recording yet.

That would be a rare treat.

Itís about time for me to do that.

Whatever you decide to do, I look forward to hearing it. Thank you for taking the time to speak with me, it's been a real pleasure.

Thank you, Tomas.

Visit Mulgrew's Web site: MulgrewMiller.com

Wingspan (Max Jazz, 1987)
The Mulgrew Miller Trio Live at the Kennedy Center, Volume One (Max Jazz, 2006 )
I Remember Miles [w/ Benny Golson] (Evidence, 1992)

April 07, 2009 · 2 comments