In Conversation With Chick Corea

By Ted Panken

                       Chick Corea by Suzanne Cerny

"I like all kinds of sounds," Chick Corea told me some years ago. "I'm always realizing over and over again that the instrument itself is just a vehicle for the actual guts-and-blood of life, which is creating something and communicating it to other people. They're just instruments. An instrument is a tool with which to do something. I'm interested in the instrument, but I'm more interested in the effect. Sounds are sounds, and a musician uses sounds to paint music with. So I keep trying to use whatever instrumental techniques I have to create effects."

This remark is particularly apropos to Corea’s musical production across his seventh decade, during which he’s navigated multiple stylistic environments, moved back and forth between electric and acoustic feels, written books of music for various duo projects with old and new friends, recontextualized iconic units from his past, and also created new ensembles. The most consequential of the latter is Five Peace Band, Corea’s collaborative venture with John McLaughlin in observation of the fortieth anniversary of their mutual participation on the transitional Miles Davis albums In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Those dates helped establish the template within which, over the next decade, the movement known as Fusion took shape. Spurred by the prevalence of electric guitar in ‘60s pop culture, and by the presence of electronic instruments barely out of the beta-testing stage, Corea (with Return to Forever) and McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra) plugged in, along with such fellow sons of Miles as Herbie Hancock (Mwandishi and Head Hunters), Tony Williams (Lifetime), Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul (Weather Report), setting up experimental hybrids of jazz with contemporaneous mass market dance-oriented music—specifically rock, soul, and funk—as well as folkloric idioms from India and African- and Iberian-descended diasporic cultures. Towards sustaining the Milesian spirit, they convened a later Davis sideman, Kenny Garrett on alto saxophone, Christian McBride on bass, and either Vinnie Colaiuta or Brian Blade on drums, presented them with a corpus of original music, and developed their interpretations during a seven-month world tour that transpired over four legs, concluding at the beginning of May.

Above all else, Corea is a musical storyteller whose vocabulary contains a global range of reference—Bach and bebop, Bartok and the blues, Mozart and montunos, Ravel and rumba, Stravinsky and samba, all tempered with the Spanish Tinge. The hybrid is uniquely his own. He is also a master of his instruments, able to caress a lyric passage with the delicacy of a bel canto singer or articulate a wide repertoire of grooves with the precision and grace of a tango dancer. His hands are completely independent, and he tosses off fleet embellishments with no apparent effort. But he's no showoff, and never deploys his enviable technique as an end unto itself. Again, whichever keyboard he uses, the intent is to treat it as a sound carrier, a tool of his imagination.

It is apparent that Corea’s music is the sum total of his personal biography, which began in 1941 in Boston, where his father, Armando, a trumpeter, led a successful dance band. Coming of age, he soaked up the radical bebop and compositional strategies of Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver. He put his lessons to use on jobs with his father’s band and with Boston’s community of progressive musicians. He moved to New York in 1962. While studying Bartok and Stockhausen at Juilliard, he played Afro-Cuban music with legendary conguero Mongo Santamaria and funky bebop with trumpeter Blue Mitchell. In 1966, he made his first recording, Tones For Joan's Bones. That year he hit the big time with tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, and in 1968, upon a recommendation from drummer Tony Williams, a Boston friend, he joined the Miles Davis Quintet. During his two-year adventure with Miles, Corea went electric and stretched form to the limit. Then for a year he explored ways of improvising freely on abstract concepts and extended structures in an acoustic experimental quartet called Circle, with Anthony Braxton, Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. During that time he returned to melodic lines and harmonic progressions on two intensely meditative solo albums for ECM. Late in 1971, he plugged in again and made a commitment to melody, structure and consonance with Return to Forever, the fusion super-group that made him a mega-star.

We caught Corea while he was enjoying a little down time before embarking on his next journey, a summer tour of Europe that will find him playing solo and duo. In the fall, he tours again, this time in trio with bassist Stanley Clarke and drummer Lenny White, both RTF partners.

"At first, I thought that the trio was the trio and the piano is the piano and the 4/4 tempo is the 4/4 tempo," he told me in the conversation cited above. "But as I began to experiment and put my attention on the way a lot of different artists make music—ethnic music, classical music, written music, improvised music—I finally realized that in the field of art there are no ultimate authorities with rules that say you must do it this way or that way. I guess slowly the conviction grew in me that whatever material I could use that would make a creation bright and interesting was valid. The fun is the joy of creating."

You’ve been touring almost continuously since the beginning of last year—two marathon tours over the 14-15 months.

Yes, the Return to Forever tour and the Five Peace Band kind of butted up against one another. But it hasn’t been consistently out on the road. There are a couple of one-week breaks here and there. But for the most part, I pretty much keep my suitcases ready to go at every point.

Do you enjoy the road?

As the years go on, actually, the travel part of the road gets harder and harder. So we need to use more and more organizational energy to try to keep that part of it livable. But the payoff is the nightly playing—playing music with my partners, and playing music to live audiences everywhere. That’s my lifeblood. So in that sense, I would never stop touring. That two or three hours a night is what I live for.

Five Peace Band, which I saw twice at Rose Theater in April, seemed really to be set up for creative music-making. I know you’ve discussed this eight million times, but could you first discuss FPB’s genesis and the various steps by which it coalesced?

Simply put, it’s been a goal of mine for decades to get together with John McLaughlin for a musical project. We would always cross paths, or talk occasionally, as friends will, and there’s always been a very mutual high respect and admiration between the two of us. John is such a magnificent and unique musician. One of my criteria for wanting to get together with specific other artists is my desire to learn something new, and expand myself musically. John is one of those musicians with whom I felt I could do that. I wanted to get more inside his musical universe, to play with him—and learn. I love to learn new things. So with that desire in mind, maybe a year-and-a-half before we began the tour, and actually before we began to talk about even the Return To Forever tour, I began to present John with this idea. I had more recently worked with Kenny Garrett, Christian McBride, and Vinnie Colaiuta in various situations. I had never worked with Brian Blade before. But they were also at the top of the list for musicians whom I love working with and with whom I wanted to work some more. So in my head, I kind of put together a dream band. Gee, who do I want to go out on the road with and spend some time? Those were the guys.

Just before I presented the initial idea to John, I had dropped the idea to all three guys—to Christian, Vinnie, and Kenny—in a casual way. 'What would you think about it if we could get together with John?—blah-blah-blah.' 'Yeah, man, let’s go for it.' So I kind of had their interest up on it before I even approached John. When I told John, it didn’t take too long before he said it was a great idea, and all we had to do was find a schedule. I guess we settled on that period of time only some weeks after that—the end of last year through the beginning of this year.

It was a seven-month tour in four legs.

Yes, approximately that.

You’ve mentioned that each band for you is a body of music, a body of work. How did the body of work for Five Peace Band take shape? Was there an overriding concept for the repertoire?

For the kind of music that we were playing with that band, and the kind of music I like to play in a small group, I regard the compositions as kind of game plans. Different games. Different areas you can go in that have certain rules and certain freedoms that make a certain game that we would like to play.

Actually, the first thing John and I talked about was what the repertoire would be, and it turned out to be several new compositions by me and several compositions that John chose off of his recent recordings. However, that was only a small percentage of the input that finally resulted in what the music turned out to be. When we got together all the guys at the first rehearsal, and then the first couple of gigs that we did, the atmosphere of whatever that was that we did together got pretty firmly agreed-upon. Like how far we would stretch material, how much freedom we would take in developing it, and all of that, started to settle into a groove after four-five-six concerts.

For instance, I’ll give you an example. When John and I discussed it, John said, 'Maybe we should have different guys soloing on different songs, so that not everybody solos on every song.' He also said, 'For me, I’d like to keep the solos kind of short and not like the old days.' I said, 'Well, ok, let’s give that a try.' Heh-heh. That idea immediately went by the wayside, including John liking to stretch out himself. So it turned out that the game plan became anywhere from 15-minute to 45-minute renditions. Actually, 15 minutes was short for us. At the very end of the tour, even after you saw us (or maybe in New York as well), we were playing five tunes a night.

I think you played six in New York in a three-hour concert. You went past the union closing time! It sounded like you were tailoring the originals for the individuals in the band.

Well, the most tailor-made was 'Hymn to Andromeda.' I wrote that suite with everybody’s feature in mind, as it turned out. But the other pieces? I wrote 'Disguise' kind of just to add a mood to the band. But I did write absolutely with those musicians in mind. That’s the fun of writing for me, to have musicians to write specifically for who I love to play with.

You’ve mentioned a number of times how deeply the drums feed you, how attuned you are to rhythms. On FPB, you deployed two drummers with very different approaches to stating a beat and navigating the kit. In fact, it almost sounds like two different bands, Band A and Band B. I’m wondering how you conceived of it with Vinnie Colaiuta vis-a-vis Brian Blade.

Well, the conception was one thing, and what came out was a slightly other thing. I conceived of it only because those guys were the musicians I desired to work with. The other part of it, I guess, is that, because the way the tradition of a jazz rhythm section has developed through the decades (not all the time but a lot of the time), the drummer can really set the atmosphere of the group, especially if those playing with him give him the freedom and openness to do that, and encourage it to happen—which, in this case, is the case, because John also, like me, loves the drums. He could play with just drums all night.

So both Vinnie and Brian, when they took hold of the music, really set an atmosphere and an energy for our renditions. As you noticed, which is pretty obvious, the two styles couldn’t be any further apart! [laughs] The same set of compositions came out completely, completely different when Brian added his touch to the band. Especially what Brian did. After working with him for a couple of tours, he’s become one of my favorite drummers of all time. He thinks as a composer, and he carries the tradition not only of Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, but he also ... I don’t know ... In my mind, he kind of holds the torch of the creation of jazz drumming. But he does do what might be considered, in more conservative music, radical things. Like playing very quietly! [laughs] Or not playing at all, or playing very edgy and bombastically, all within the same framework. He’s very expressive. He came in and the whole set turned around. I’m hoping at some point we can extract from those last couple of tours another live set. Marketing-wise, it’s kind of funny, because it’s all the same tunes, but they came out so different, they’re worthy of being produced, I believe.

Another interesting thing is that the way FPB mixed electric and acoustic feels, although my impression is most of your recent band projects have been one or the other. Am I completely off on that comment?

You can never be off on anything subjective. It’s the rule of communication. It’s the ethics of communication, is what I feel. It’s a better conversation on what it is you actually observed than to try and pander.

I’m not trying to pander.

No, I know that. Maybe 'pander' was the wrong word. I meant try to be nice. But it’s interesting you mention it like that, because since maybe halfway through my experience with the Elektrik Band in the ‘80s, my goal has been to produce a band sound and a group sound that easily accommodated both the nuances of acoustic music and the impact of electric music. I like both sounds. Keyboard-wise, I like playing both ways. But drumming-wise and texture-wise and communication-wise, I like the stage texture to be such that we can always hear each other comfortably, and in order to do that, each musician has to develop a pretty wide dynamic range. It’s actually quite a technical feat to be able to do it. But it requires a drummer like Brian to be able to do something like that. Fortunately, John is probably, up to now, the only guitarist I’ve ever worked with who can do that with a solid-body electric guitar sound. He can play within the context of a delicate acoustic piano, and he can play with the impact and energy that was produced when he’s playing with Vinnie Colaiuta playing full-out! Being able to do that enables me, as a player and a composer, to explore a really wide range of emotions in music.

I guess Christian McBride also was doing something that very few bassists can do, transitioning between the electric and the acoustic seamlessly and with tremendous virtuosity. That’s also a characteristic of John Patitucci and Stanley Clarke, with whom you’ve played extensively.

It was the first time I’ve played with Christian with his electric playing, and I was very happily surprised. He’s a master at it. He’s also a master at being able to blend the instruments. This problem of introducing electric instruments onto an acoustic stage ... We do play in concert halls, and this has been happening since the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s always-always been a problem, as soon as you bring a P.A. system and drums with impact, and other instruments with impact, and amplifiers and so forth. The first mistakes that have been made and the horror that’s been created from acoustic stages with the use of electric instruments through the years is ...well, it’s legendary, isn’t it!? [laughs] It’s produced a lot of writing in print. But it is an actual problem. That’s one of my high interests, because it’s an actual living, physical problem that impinges on the creativity of the musicians and the enjoyment of the audience, and it’s really one that needs to be solved fully.

FPB’s creative approach fit in with the marketing of the band as a response to the fortieth anniversary of Bitches Brew, and the mutual intersection that you and John McLaughlin shared during that period with Miles Davis, with whom that kind of attitude towards nightly performance before large audiences was the default mode.


Were you thinking about that approach as an overriding template from performance to performance?

Well, John and I certainly wanted that from the very beginning. We talked about it, and we didn’t need to talk about it a lot, because, in fact, it’s what we both wanted as far as the blend on stage and the dynamic range of the music. That is, we wanted to be able to easily include the piano and the saxophone, and to play with a wide dynamic range. We strove for that, and I think, to a great degree, we accomplished it.

I’ll apologize in advance for asking this question, as I know it’s come to you 18 million times. But looking back on your days with Miles Davis, and particularly Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way, since these experiences so palpably influenced Five Peace Band, how do you now perceive that time?

All experience to me is ... Life is a cumulative thing that’s lived day by day, hour by hour, and you just keep living. Life is always right now, you see. So you just keep going, you live, and you have experiences. For me, what I think I try to do, and I believe what all people try to do naturally, is take with them successful actions, successful things, things that please them. Things that I liked, I take with me, and try to leave the things that were painful or unsuccessful behind—and just keep going. But it’s hard to evaluate, and maybe unproductive also to try to evaluate particular things in the past and how they were influential. So when I think about my period with Miles, and Miles generally, as the universe of music that he is, it’s hard to pinpoint things, other than to say generalities.

Fair enough. I asked because you seem not to let go of experiences in your musical production, as is evident from the Rendezvous in New York DVD set, where you revisited and updated so many different bands. I find it interesting that you’re able to create new contexts in which these old relationships can continue

                          Chick Corea by Richard Laird

I know what the truth of this is. The truth is that the experiences themselves are not what’s important. What’s important are the people in them—the relationships. Any friend that you had for a long time, for years or whatever, the important thing is the friendship itself more than the individual experiences. The communication. The thing that you had with that person, with your wife or your family or your musical partners—that kind of thing. For me, my life is as rich as I have friends and musical partners and family, and people who I love and who love me. The pay for life is living. The pay you get for the thing you do that we call 'life' is the actual pleasure of living, and the pleasure of living comes about by the pleasure of relationships with people.

You did tell me once that each one of your bands turned into a little family. Perhaps that’s another way of saying the same thing.

Yes, it’s associations with individuals and groups that is what makes life, life. It’s what makes it pleasurable. So the thing of 'returning to the past' or 're-experiencing' something, or the terms like 'reunion' or 'recreation' and all that kind of thing, I put them aside, because it’s all the bric-a-brac of the past, and what makes life exciting is always doing something new. Always. If I have a rich relationship with John McLaughlin, for instance, or Kenny Garrett, or my other musical associations, that is a richness that never goes away. If, hypothetically, Miles Davis took on a new body and came and played with us now, it would be a new creation. Do you know what I mean? That’s really the excitement of it.

That sixtieth birthday party that I had at the Blue Note with all of my musician friends brought me to the extreme realization of how important my friends are to me. That experience really brought it home. So rather than trying to be cool and hip and say, 'Yeah, I never return to the past; I always do something new'—which would irrationally equal that you never wanted to talk to your old friends again—is stupid. So I actually started to actively go back and find my old friends again, because the relationships were so rewarding. And the rewards have been coming. These two projects, Return to Forever and the Five Peace Band, are examples of that.

Let’s talk about the 2008 Return to Forever tour, then. There’s a new double-CD and a DVD, and also a 2-CD anthology of the old music. Anyone who is interested in RTF can saturate themselves in that body of music. Now, the edition of Return to Forever with which you toured last year wasn’t the only one. I know you’ve talked extensively to the press on this project, but please trace the genesis.

Return to Forever was probably, and probably always will be my breakthrough into having a band of my own. Not working for another bandleader, but either working in partnerships or with my own music. It was the first time that I did that, and it was a return to myself. It was a return to my own universe of music. In a sense, the concept of that band will always be special to me. Yes, the band has had many versions. RTF-1 I call the band with Flora Purim and Airto, and Joe Farrell, and Stanley Clarke. RTF-2 consists of the bands with mainly Stanley, Lenny White and myself, along with Billy Connors, then Al DiMeola. RTF-3 was shorter-lived but still was a creation that lasted a year to 18 months, the big band that Stanley and I had with Music Magic, with Gayle Moran, my wife, and the brass section. Getting back together, especially with Stanley and Lenny, brought that whole experience back to life.

Why the choice of Al DiMeola as the guitar voice?

Stanley, Lenny, and then Al were the guys who were in communication with me about wanting to keep the band alive. That version of the band was the one that had the most road experience together in the ‘70s. We made more records and did more concerts than any other version of the band, and created a wider repertoire. I guess it’s the version that most people remember.

Within that band, you created some of the compositions that are most associated with you, compositions you’ve revisited in many forms—an efflorescent burst of composition. Did the formation of RTF spur you in that direction?

You’re talking about the time of the ‘70s. Well, I was on a roll of the creation of that sound, and also on a roll of enjoying creating my own music, creating my music with musicians who turned out to be partners, like Stanley in particular and also Lenny. So the compositions kept rolling out. It was like having a personal orchestra to write for, and I took as much advantage of that as I could.

One of the most noted characteristics of the band is your use of Spanish and pan-Iberian rhythms within the flow. You’ve mentioned that your experience playing with Afro-Caribbean bands, a la Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo, had a big impact on the way you think about music—although you would move away from that approach for several years when you joined Miles and then did Circle and the trio with Dave Holland and Barry Altschul. But Return to Forever seems like a logical extension of what you were doing in those earlier bands.

There’s a natural magnetism that any person has for certain cultural things, certain artistic things, certain ways of doing things. In music, that’s always been my sort of geiger counter. That’s been my pointer. It’s been the thing that has led me into studying certain kinds of music, or learning from certain kinds of musicians. It’s the reason why, for instance, in the ‘50s, when I was growing up, or even in the ‘40s, when I was still a young boy, I was attracted to musicians like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. There was a magnetism to it, an interest that led me to that kind of music, rather than, say, Elvis and rock-and-roll back then, which I pretty much completely bypassed. It held no interest for me. So in a way, all through my life my interest and attraction has been towards jazz music, but also towards Latin music. Especially when I got to New York in the early ‘60s, the salsa scene, or the Latin jazz scene that was going on was very magnetic to me. I have great pleasure-moments of the stints that I did at the old Birdland at 52nd and Broadway, because five doors north on the same side of the street was the Palladium. On practically every break took from the gigs I had at Birdland, I’d be at the Palladium, checking out Tito Puente and Machito and Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. I had and always retained this attraction for Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, South American music, and then finally, in the early ‘70s, for what we call the flamenco music, from southern Spain. Whether I’m writing music directly out of that rhythm and dance spirit, like I did with Touchstone, or whether it’s just an echo of a flavor, it will always be there for me.

The Latin music is an extroverted dance music, and that was a great complement to the seriousness of jazz that I was into. Jazz and Classical music of the '60s was already a serious, almost introverted kind of performance. Jazz musicians never looked at an audience and were quite serious in demeanor, especially on stage. Go to a Latin dance, heh-heh, and you're back into the joy of life again, you know. It really was the complement I needed in my life to open me back up again to communication and sociability and the importance of an audience. That's mainly it.

There's a couple of different definitions of serious, and I don't want to confuse the two. When you say 'he's a serious professional,' that means that the guy is really competent and ethical about what he does. He puts his nose to the grindstone, and he really works hard and he gets a product. That's what that definition of 'serious' means. There's another definition, which is the one I'm talking about, which is the seriousness that one gets when one becomes very serious about a subject, and it's kind of heavy. That kind of seriousness to me is anti-art. You see someone on stage who is a little bit too introverted with his own scene.

Latin music took me out of all that, and I'm happy for it! Actually, my jazz heroes were always kind of extroverts. Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong were extroverts. Miles was a total covert extrovert. He looked like he was introverted, but he never was. He was really communicating to an audience all the time. And Coltrane, even though he didn't tell jokes from the stage, was very warm with the audience, even though he didn't say a lot on the microphone.

You once told me an anecdote of spending a long run at the Apollo when you were playing with Mongo Santamaria opposite Thelonious Monk ...

Yes. It’s a story I often tell when I’m trying to describe to other people that era or talk about Monk in particular. That’s definitely one of the things I experienced that shows what his humorous personality was all about. That’s one of my great pleasure moments. That was in the early '60s, about a five-week stint at the Apollo Theater that Monk's quartet was on when I was playing with Mongo Santamaria, so I got to be around him a lot and watch him play.

Did that have a big impact on you?

Totally. Completely, yeah. The man was just doing something completely unique and uncompromising, and it wasn't that flashy. It was just ... hip. [laughs]

On this particular occasion at the Apollo, I was watching him through a hole in the curtain, which was right by his piano, and he played this set. He had Charlie Rouse, John Ore and Frankie Dunlop. His first tune, he played 'Rhythm-a-ning.' He played the tune, he stated the melody, and they played the tune all the way through with long solos. The drums soloed, bass, saxophone—everybody soloed. It must have been a 10-12-15 minute piece. He stopped, and the people loved it, and they applauded, and Monk took a breath, and sat there for a moment, and then he started the next piece—which was [sings refrain of 'Rhythm-a-ning']. He played the same tune, same tempo, and they played the tune all the way through with solos fresh as a daisy, rhythm beautiful, everything was great, the audience loved it, and they applauded. And yes, he took a breath, and played it a third time. Same tempo, same tune. It was just hilarious. That's audacious! It's of the moment. He thought, 'I'm going to play this again.' Who knows how he came around to deciding that? But there was no question about it, because once he launched into it ... These guys, Bud and Monk, had a power of certainty about what they were doing that made their creations so unique.

I don’t want to put you in the position of comparing yourself to them, but the quality you evoked in that last comment does seem to infuse your musical production over the last number of years. In any way, can we take it as a self-description?

I stay completely away from self-descriptions, as you know. They are unproductive. But I can tell you that that quality of, oh, you can call it artistic certainty or just your own knowingness about what you like ... When I teach music or when I talk to music students, that’s one of the high concepts I try to get across in a simple way, is to trust your own judgment, to think for yourself, to know what you like and know what you don’t like. It’s the basis of all artistic creation. You cannot create based on some idea that someone else gave you that you’re just using without it being your own. I have noticed that the kind of artists and people that I get interested in, that I get attracted to, that I like to learn from, are ones who have that quality in abundance. You’ll find that same quality in every artist who is creating their own way, their own individual expression. That’s the quality of life. That’s the thing we struggle to keep alive. You can take that idea into reviewing social issues, and how society develops or de-develops, based on whether individuals are thinking for themselves or not. That was the whole idea of our founding fathers, for instance, if you want to take it into that subject. It’s the thing we love about the idea of democracy or a republic, in a social way—that it involves people thinking for themselves and interacting with one another, taking responsibility for life as individuals. It’s an attractive quality. It’s a basic spiritual quality. The more of it you have and can develop, the more life there is in life.

Bud [Powell] and Monk were musical adventurers in New York. They were New Yorkers, just like I sort of was; I was a Bostonian, but I came through New York as well. There's the whole wide world, and here's this thing called music and jazz and improvisation. They were the guys who for me on the piano held on to a creative motivation, a world of music that they heard that they immersed themselves in. They became their compositions in music. That's all they did, and spent their life that way. What they created was inspiring. So it was sort of like having someone who was doing something that I wanted to do, so they became mentors and teachers and inspirations, and I ended up spending a lot of time with their music.

Were you around in the summer of 1964 when Bud played Birdland?

Yes. He came back, and I heard one night of him playing at Birdland. It was very emotional to watch him play. It pissed me off in a lot of ways, in the sense that he was obviously mutilated by the psychiatric community. But through it all, he was still there, and once he got his hands on the piano, there it was, Bud's music. John Ore was there that night, and I think J.C. Moses was playing drums.

But you didn't get to spend any time with him.

No, I never got to meet my hero.

Talk about approaching his music as a fresh avenue of creative expression.

Well, it's totally a deep repertoire of music. Bud wasn't ever acknowledged enough as a composer. He was as a pianist. But his compositions stood on their own as great works. Some of the musicians would play some of his music; Miles recorded some of his tunes. So I had incubated the idea for years of doing a Bud Powell project where I performed all of his music. I had already done that with Monk, but it didn't get called a Monk project. But there was a recording I made in '81 ...

On ECM with Miroslav Vitous and Roy Haynes.

That's right. A record of all Monk's music. So I did my tribute to Monk, and this was my tribute to Bud.

Speaking of trios, let’s talk about the trio you’ll be playing with starting in the fall, which is the Return to Forever rhythm section, but as a trio. Is it a new entity unto itself?

It’s definitely a new entity unto itself, although it’s an old entity that we’ve done before. There’s a glorious week that Stanley and Lenny and I will sometimes reminisce about, which was kind of the inception of RTF-2, the electric version. It was a trio gig at Todd Barkan’s old club in San Francisco, the Keystone Korner. It was Stanley on his amplified upright bass, and Lenny on a small kit of drums. He used to have this bass drum that we called an oil can, because I think it was basically an oil can—it was a wild 18-inch bass drum. That week I played exclusively fender rhodes. I didn’t have a synthesizer or a piano. I just played Rhodes all week. One of the intents of that week was to audition guitar players for the eventual quartet that we wanted to play in together. But from that point forward, that rhythm section has become like an old, comfortable shoe that you put on. Working with those guys, that same warm pleasure is still there now. So we’ve decided to explore it some more.

This summer, you’ll be touring Europe mostly solo, and a couple of duos with Gary Burton and one with Stefano Bollani in Perugia. Speaking of Gary Burton, you made Crystal Silence right at the time that Return to Forever came out, beginning this dual track between what people have called your 'acoustic chamber jazz' and more dance-oriented, beat-oriented music. It’s a very long-standing duo. It’s 37 years since then. You’ve reunited on a number of occasions, most recently Native Sense: The New Duets in 1997, and The New Crystal Silence in 2007. Talk about the mutual attraction.

It can be easily explained. I think of that magnetic artistic connection that I make, that I go and befriend someone like Gary, who is this magnificent musician who makes a particular sound. We first played together, on a couple of gigs when Gary first founded his own quartet after he left Stan Getz—Steve Swallow had brought me on Stan’s gig after Gary left. Anyway, I was working other gigs, and that wasn't a preferred gig. But when we played our duet together, something clicked that was really pleasurable to both of us. We started discovering how pleasing it was to just play piano and vibes together. We didn’t need anything else. We weren’t thinking, 'Well, this is nice; let’s get a bass player and a drummer and do some gigs.' It was, 'Wow, this is kind of nice; let’s do this some more.' When we first got together, that idea was encouraged along by Manfred Eicher, who heard us play, and immediately, with the genius perception that he has, or the genial perception that he has sometimes of something that strikes him as interesting, he offered us a contract to do a recording.

That was the beginning of the duet. Just like my association with Stanley Clarke, it’s one of those lifetime relationships. You go into it, and an infinity of music is possible. It’s amazing how Gary elicits all that music out of what I’ve thought of as a metal thumb piano. Through the decades, I’ve found myself constantly going back and playing with Gary some more, and we’ve always come up with a new idea of some other area that we want to explore, until recently we finally realized this orchestral project. I think we touched on it years ago when we did Lyric Suite for Sextet, and we played the duet with that wonderful string quartet. It seemed such a beautiful sonic setting that I never forgot about that, and I always wanted to use strings again with the duet. So here we had the opportunity, and we thought, 'let’s go for it,' and we created those orchestral arrangements for the duet and did that last record. So the duet just keeps going on.

We have another idea now, another recording that we’re going to finally do, or a set of music we’re going to develop, that we began developing during that last tour, which had to do with, well, standards, and songs that I’ve always wanted to try to play. Like, for instance, the repertoire from Birth of the Cool, Miles’ record. I’ve always loved those songs, and not too many guys play them. Gary and I started exploring Bill Evans’ wonderful repertoire. Things like that will be the direction of our next project.

Duos seem to be a particular love of yours, and your most recent duo recording is Duet with Hiromi. It’s very far-flung, very sprightly, and seems to have been a mutually energizing project. You even did some Bill Evans on it—'Very Early.' You did Monk’s 'Bolivar Blues.' Many things. You also recorded not long ago in duo with Bela Fleck.

Philosophers and poets have eulogized (is that the right word, 'eulogized?') ... have poeticized about the beauty and microcosmic aspect, universal aspect of the relationship of two people. It’s the basic act of communication—living communication, one person directly with another person. In music, it certainly is the most intimate ensemble and, in a way, allows for everything that I like about music. It’s got an incredible amount of space and freedom, just because there are only two people playing, of course. But then it’s got this intimacy of just a straight communication line with one other person, which can be explored infinitely. So when I find compatible partners like Gary, or like Bobby McFerrin, or more recently like Hiromi or Bela Fleck, it’s a great joy. Also, the other kind of mechanical aspect of the duet is it’s very practical to tour with.

But it’s interesting that you seem to have created separate books of music for Bela Fleck and Gary Burton, and each partnership has taken on its own tonal identity.

Yes. That’s the beauty of it. Recently, I got together with Bobby McFerrin; we jammed a little bit and started putting together ideas for another project. When I step into a musical universe so huge as that, gee, all of these kind of new, fresh things occur. So it is a great way to make music.

Stan Getz seems to have been such a pivotal job for you. So much music you would do subsequently spun out of relationships that you formed in that band. In fact, you also seem to influenced his own musical production for a number of years after.

I felt that Stan always wanted to learn new things. He had already developed a beautiful lyrical style and had made his fame with 'Desafinado' and the Bossa Nova. But he always wanted to try new things. That's why he loved playing with Roy Haynes, I think, and that's why he started to like playing my compositions. Stan was a wonderful performer. He taught me the lyrical side of music and the quieter side. I was coming from playing free music, and Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and Stockhausen and Bartok were my mentors. When I got the gig with Stan Getz, I had to learn how to deliver up something a little bit more lyrical and compact. He didn't want 15-minute piano solos. He wanted two choruses. I learned a lot doing that.

Classical music seems to be the foundation of a great deal of what you do. Were you studying classical music from very early on?

Not really. As a matter of fact, when I first was getting into music and playing the piano, classical music seemed conservative to me. I didn't get into the sound of it at first. What really attracted my attention was the jazz big bands, the trios, Charlie Parker's music. When I was eight or nine, my dad sent me to have piano lessons with a local pianist in Boston, a wonderful man named Salvatore Sullo, who played every year with the Boston Pops. He thought it was kind of silly that I played jazz. I auditioned for him and played 'Perdido,' and he said, ‘Oh, like Dizzy Gillespie,’ and he blew air into his cheeks or something like that. He introduced me to the piano music of Chopin and Bach, the easy pieces, and I became interested in classical music through the piano music more than anything else. But I didn't intensely study it. My interest in classical music was more analyzing orchestral scores as a composer. I fell in love with Stravinsky's and Bartok's music, and that was my first passion with classical music. But it wasn't until the early ‘80s that I became interested in what we term ‘classical music,’ meaning the music of the 18th century—Mozart's music, for instance. Then I decided that it would be a challenge and really fulfilling to try to perform some of that music live, and that's when I started to get involved.

Could you tell me something about your father, about what sort of musician he was? It's obvious that you were hugely influenced by him in your musical path.

My Dad was a real sweetheart and a great father. He let me have my own mind, as my mother did. They encouraged me in every creative effort I ever had. When I wanted to stay out late and hang out because of the musicians, they let me do it. Plus, he was a very, very good musician. He played very soulful horn. He played trumpet mostly. He played a little bit of piano. He played bass. He played some drums. He played violin earlier on in his life.

Was it a lead trumpet sound?

No-no. He was always the second trumpet player who played the jazz solos. He was the soulful guy. He was always up on the times. He had another trumpet player friend, and they used to listen to Miles play. I used to catch them. I'd come into the house, and they'd be in the back room where I had my hi-fi set, with Miles records on, smoking cigarettes, and with their elbows on their knees, close to the speakers—crying sometimes! He was a sweet man. He had a band. I used to sit in with his band. We played a lot of dances together as I grew up.

Was he a full-time professional musician?

Yes. He was a working musician. He had a successful band during the Depression. He played radio shows, and played at the hotels. His band played at the places where the guys would go and hang after the theater gigs, that sort of thing. They'd sit in with his band. But later on, as he got older, he didn't have his own bands any more, but he continued to get calls for work around town.

When you were younger, were you part of that very hip Boston scene? You're a little older than Tony Williams. I'm thinking of people like Sam Rivers and Jaki Byard and Hal Galper and Alan Dawson and Herb Pomeroy ...

I connected with some of those guys. I used to go listen to Herb Pomeroy's band play, at that club he played every Tuesday night, and I knew Herb a little bit. I played with Paul Fontaine and Jimmy Mosher. I played with Tony a little bit in Boston. I worked at Conley's a lot—I worked there with Pony Poindexter and Sonny Stitt. My school friend was Lennie Nelson, one of the young great drummers around town—unknown but great. And Bobby Ward, another wild drummer from that era. Roy Haynes I never knew as a Bostonian, but Tony I connected with.

So in a sense, your father taught you to be a professional, just by example.

Exactly. And how to live a life where you did something that you really loved, and where that was good to do, not something that was considered frivolous.

Was your father a first-generation American, or did he come here from Italy?

No, he was a first-generation Italian-American. He was one of 13 kids, and his father and mother only spoke Italian. So when I sat on my grandfather's knee, he used to tell me stories in Italian. I didn't understand a word he said, but I used to dig it.

Did he play Italian music also as part of his ...


That was corny for him?

It was corny for him. He was a jazzer. He wore loose shirts. He used to buy a new white shirt ... I used to see him do this—I’d hang with him. He'd take the shirt home, and the sleeves would always be way too long for him. So he'd measure it like about 2 inches above his wrist, which is where he felt comfortable, and he'd take it off, and he'd cut both sleeves with scissors.

You like to wear those baggy, guayabana shirts yourself.


Was your mother also musical?

She was a great mom. She was not a singer or a musician or anything, but she supported us, and went in the candy factory and worked her butt off and bought me a Steinway piano. She was the greatest.

So she really sacrificed for you.

She totally worked her butt off. She kept both of us in line. I was the only child. So she cooked for me and my Dad, and kept the house clean, and kept us going and encouraged us, and she was the best.

Perhaps as a wrap-up question: I’m not sure if you gave yourself this name or if it was given to you—'The Chameleon.' Who did give you that name?

I have no idea. But it’s used sometimes to describe people, isn’t it, 'the chameleon.'

It is, and it seems like a wonderful cognomen for you. It’s very descriptive of your ability to project your own personality within so many diverse situations consecutively. I read an interview where you mentioned Dustin Hoffman as a model, because he’s so good at portraying different characters, as opposed to DeNiro, who is always great, but, you said, pretty much always DeNiro.

Years ago, when I would try to describe what it’s like to invest myself in different musical directions, that was the first analogy that I came up with. I thought, 'well, maybe I’m the Dustin Hoffman of music.' But that’s apt, and that’s the way it goes. My desire as a musician has always been just to learn—always to learn something new. I think learning and growing more aware and more skillful is an infinite process. I don’t think it has a ceiling. So in order to do that, it’s always necessary to find something I can’t do, that I want to do, and then just go there. I’ve never had a sense of trying to be myself, if you know what I mean, or try to create my own sound, or my own way. I’ve never had my attention on that. I don’t care what I sound like, because it’s not where my attention is. My attention is outside of myself, and I’m always happiest when it’s that way, and whatever comes out, comes out. So what tends to happen is, I find myself playing a lot of different roles, or being a lot of different ways, or expressing a lot of different emotions, and it makes life interesting and rich for me.

It’s a great way of staying young, too. Mentally.

I guess, yeah! How about that?

Ted Panken interviewed Chick Corea on May 26, 2009

June 30, 2009 · 1 comment


In Conversation with Venissa Santi

By Tomas Peña

What do radio show host and jazz expert Bob Parlocha, Latin music icon Ruben Blades, the legendary promoter Dick LaPalm, and pianist Danilo Perez all have in common? They all agree that singer-songwriter Venissa Santi has a very bright future. In this engaging and candid interview, Venissa speaks about her family's legacy, her search for her identity, her musical training in the U. S. and Cuba, and her debut recording, Bienvenida.

Your parents, Enrico Mario Santí and Olga Teresita (Terri) Ros Husted, migrated from Cuba to the U.S. in 1961. How did they end up in Ithaca, New York?

              Venissa Santi (courtesy of Sunnyside Records)

My parents met in Middle School (in Miami). They were very competitive with one another academically and ended up dating throughout college. My dad went to Vanderbilt and my mom attended Barry College. They came from a lot of struggle … my mom's family especially had a difficult time. They strove for academic greatness so that they could get out of Miami. My Mom became a mathematician and my dad is a writer and professor of Latin American Literature. They are both published and are both amazing educators. His specialty is Octavio Paz, and he is an important figure in his field. He got his PhD at Yale. Soon after, he was awarded a position at Cornell University, in Ithaca, where I was born.

[Interviewer's note: Enrico Mario Santí is presently the William T. Byron Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of half a dozen books and serves on a number of editorial boards.]

You come from a long line of prominent artists. Your grandfather, Jacobo Ros Capoblanca, was a Cuban composer who entrusted you with his body of work and instilled in you a passion for music.

They called my grandfather 'Jaco.' Kind of like the great Jaco (Pastorius)!

In a past interview you described him as 'So full of music that everything made him cry.'

Oh yeah, he would always ask me to sing. I remember him conducting when I would sing 'Jingle Bells,' or any song, and he would cry. He was never able to compose after he came to the U. S. My mom and I cry a lot too. Music has the power to touch you and move you so deeply.

Your grandfather on your father's side, Mario Santi, was an artist, sculptor, and professor. I understand that he played a role in designing Jose Marti's tomb [in Cuba]. In fact, you have quite a few prominent people in your family.

He won a competition for the design, but I have yet to see it in person.

Tell me about grandfather Jaco's relatives.

Jacobo's brothers and sisters were musicians, pianists and singers. But his uncle was the Cuban chess champion, Jose Raul Capablanca. That's the teeny, tiny name dropping card I use when I meet other Cubans [laughs]. I have always felt the need to identify myself as Cuban-American—even though I grew up in the U. S.—and look and 'pass' as American. When I was a little girl my dad used to ask me, 'Tu eres Cubana o Americana?' I remember saying 'Cubana, Papi!'

I reconnected with Cuban music because of him. He took me to New York City for a weekend during my freshman year and we stayed at a friend's house who had an excellent record collection. I went to a convenience store and purchased a bunch of tapes so I could 'lift' his music. It was early Celia Cruz, Clifford Brown and Edith Piaf, to name a few. I sweated out those tapes for years and fell in love with early Celia. So much so that I transcribed the tapes and performed them during my senior year.

At the same time, I was pouring over the jazz standard repetoire, shedding and transcribing solos, and honing my sound with Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, and Betty Carter. I was [also] into Brazilian music. I realized that I had a responsibility to explore Cuba's immense repertoire, and that I had to find a master or masters to train me. Jaco left me all of his scores. I heard them for the first time when I went to college.

That must have been quite an experience.

It was ground shaking—one of those moments when you think, 'Oh my God, what is my purpose here?' What a weight on my shoulders. It was Jaco's dream. I recorded his song, 'Lucerito De Amor.' That's his voice at the beginning of the track. I have several more compositions that I hope to update, rearrange, and prepare for a Cuban orchestra. I have tapes of him singing all of his songs.

Tell me about your association with Artistas y Músicos Latino Americanos, or Artists and Musicians of Latin America [AMLA].

AMLA is a community school in the barrio of North Philly. That's where I began teaching private voice lessons after college, and where I met so many world musicians from the Philly community. That's where I saw Ban Ra Ra, a rumba group, and where I first saw the guaguanco. Oh my God, and yet again I had a ground shaking moment, when I saw people from my culture doing a dance that that showed no inhibition whatsoever. I wanted to open myself up to that, or be like them and play that kind of music.

Speaking about ground shaking and/or life changing events, tell me about your first trip to Cuba.

Pianist Elio Villafranca's former wife, Donna Bostock, a percussionist and educator, was running trips to Cuba out of AMLA. The way Cuba was described to me by my family, it was such a distant, faraway land. I never imagined I would actually go there.

I find it interesting that no one tried to talk you out of going to Cuba.

They had no objections to my going, but I couldn't find anyone to go with me. The first time I visited Cuba, I went alone.

What were your first impressions of Cuba?

That it's gorgeous. Rundown of course, with very illogical and oppressive rules—yet it is so full of life and energy! I met my extended family for the first time. My mother's first cousins, Pepin and Sofia turned out to be my surrogate parents. Overall, the people were very supportive. They laughed at me and called me 'La Cubanasa.' They didn't understand why I wanted to be there. Their attitude was, 'You're an American … you're fine. You don't have to come here. All the young kids here want to go there.' I explained to them that where I come from there is every culture in the world, and that the only way to identify yourself is to identify with your own culture and that I regretted the lack of Cuban culture in my life when I was growing up. I realize now that I am so grateful for being exactly who I am. If I had grown up in Miami, would I have fallen in love with my culture? If I grew up in Habana would I want to sing Cuban songs? If I didn't grow up in the U.S., would I have soaked up the jazz flavor and feel?

What part of Havana is your family from?

My folks took me to walk though the old family house in Vedado. It was a little eerie, because there's a different family living there now, yet all of my family's old possessions are still there. Of course, they don't own the house, it's owned by the government. It was lost when a relative chose to trade it for an apartment.

How did you connect with the musicians in Cuba?

Pianist Elio Villafranca gave me the address of the beloved rumbero and educator Gregorio ' El Goyo' Hernandez. I showed up at Goyo's house and they invited me in and told him that I wanted to study with him.

Goyo started teaching me Orisha songs. I sat with him and his son Lazaro for a few weeks. I basically lived as a student, taking Cuban taxis—'boteros'—from Miramar to Vedado to see Goyo. I tried to sound as Cuban as possible when I asked for a lift, because the cabbies charge tourists more money. I practiced saying 'Chicho por Linea?' which means, 'man take me to Linea,' a main strip. I spent two weeks in my room, tapping out 6/8 clave and practicing the Orisha songs, studying bongó and some rumba dance. I fell in love with Mayito Rivera's record 'Por Chappotin,' but I was not quite getting what I was looking for stuck in my room.

One day I went to the Feria with my family, and I saved these two young tourists who were about to be hustled by a 'jinetero,' and made friends with them. I dragged them with me to the night clubs to see Adalberto Alvarez and Anacaona. Those shows were actually not that much fun because there were no Cubans there and the cover charge was very expensive. The real party was at the matinee shows that cost pesos. My tourist friends took me to a party in Centro Habana one night. There was rum, dancing and James Brown playing, and big shrines for the Orishas in this one guy's house. Suddenly they turned off the music and the men broke into song. I later learned they were singers from Clave y Guaganco. It was amazing and it was exactly what I was looking for. I ran up to them and said, 'Oh my God, I have been looking for you.' and embraced them one by one. At the time they thought I was crazy, but I ended up studying with them. Later on, I went to El Callejon de Hamel and they eventually allowed to me to sit in and do coro [chorus/backup].

Thus far, you have visited Cuba on four separate occasions.

Yes. I went in 2001, 2002, and twice in 2003, and I'm dying to go back. To keep studying, travel, record, and do research. Every time I returned to Philly, I would share what I had learned with my students at AMLA, and play and hang with the world musicians, of which there are many: Elizabeth Sayre, Pablo Batista, Orlando Fiol (the son of the great Henry Fiol) and so many players and dancers that have been going to Brazil, Cuba and Africa to master the music.

Obviously the experience changed you and your music in a very big way. Looking back, did you find what you were looking for? Was it the missing piece to the puzzle?

In a word, yes. But at first it was hard to put it all together. I wanted to do rumba, standards, and original material. I was taught in school to be versatile, but for awhile it was sort of a curse. I wanted to do everything all at once. Guess what? I still do.

How did you hook up with the Rodriguez Brothers?

My voice teacher, J.D. Walter, whose help and guidance has been invaluable, told me, 'There are these two young Cuban-American cats, they are playing with everybody. Get them and record your album.' So I called up Rob [Rodriguez]. He might have thought I was crazy, because I had never met a Cuban-American musician before. He and Mike agreed to do the project! I invited Yunior Terry on bass, Francois Zayas on drums, and Cuco Castellanos on congas.

Special guest [guitarist] Jef Lee Johnson joined us to do 'Como Fue.' That was so cool … We recorded with Daoud Shaw at Radioactive Productions in Roxborough. He was the first Saturday Night Live drummer, and former drummer and engineer for Van Morrison!

Initially you released Bienvenida as an independent recording. I understand that you submitted some of the tracks from the album were awarded a PEW Fellowship in 2008.

Yes, what a tremendous honor.

How did you connect with Bob Parlocha and Dick LaPalm?

Bob Parlocha loved the record and put it at number three on his Top 40 list and played it for two weeks. He asked me to send the record to his favorite record promoters, Dick LaPalm and Fred Mancuso. One day Freddy called me up and said [imitates his voice], 'Venissa, this is Freddy Mancuso from Las Vegas. I just heard your CD, and I have to say it is like an ocean breeze from Habana itself.'

Later, Dick called. Come to find out, this is Dick LaPalm, formerly of Chess Records, who discovered Peggy Lee … and was a long time friend and promoter of Nat King Cole. He was with Nat when he played at the Tropicana [in Cuba]. He expressed so many wonderful things about the record and asked me, 'Do you have a manager? Do you have a publicist? Do you have any money?' To which I answered, 'No, no, no!' To his credit, he shopped my recording and has been my constant guide. Dick has a PhD in girl singers, and he's a legend in radio. Eventually, Francois Zalacain of Sunnyside Records made me an offer, and it was released in April of 2009. That seems like a long time ago. Now Dick and I are old pals, and we have been working non-stop to get this record to its audience. It has been quite a journey.

Which brings us to the end result. Tell me about the track, 'Tender Shepard and Little Girl Blue.' How did you arrive at the idea of putting those two tunes together?

I don't know … these are things that just occur to me. I can only just say that it's my love of the songbook and my romantic and whimsical side. I have a few arrangements like that. I have an original tune that goes into a swing version of the Maria and Anita duet from West Side Story ... 'I Have a Love.' I hear medleys all the time. Maybe that's sort of what's kicking me into these leapfrogging standard journeys in my practice. The harmony is so close and the songs relate to one another. I first heard the Rodgers and Hart tune, 'Little Girl Blue,' by Nina Simone. The tune is from a show called Jumbo and it's about a sad elephant! But to me, it is about a girl who is looking for love, so I gave it to her.

How about your bluesy version of the Cuban standard, 'Como Fue?'

Once again, something that naturally happened in the course of interpreting these songs over a long period of time. Take a Cuban standard and a jazz standard … there are some that if you just put them on top of each other … think about it this way … 'Como Fue' and 'Georgia on My Mind,' and 'La Gloria Eres Tu' and 'There is No Greater Love.' I think I'm on to something here!

So there is a method to your madness!

But that's not what I was thinking of … it actually came out as blues when I was singing to my son and rocking him to sleep. All of these tunes came about that way, in 2004, when I came back from Cuba, got married, and had my son. I was home, isolated myself from the music scene, and worked on my repertoire. I sang songs to myself and my son in my rocking chair.

Much like Brazilian vocalist, Rosa Passos, who isolated herself from the music scene for a time in order to spend time with her family and raise her children. Despite the isolation, she never stopped singing or composing.

Tell me about the tune, 'Cumpling Cumpling.'

That's a song that my teacher, Jose Salazar, taught me. I think he wrote it. It's just a pretty little guaguanco. In the middle I do a verse that I made up, where I sing to the rumberos of today and yesterday and I mention all of the amazing teachers I had—like Goyo, Lazaro, el Negro (Miguel Angel) and Jorge Salazar.

There are also two original tunes on the recording: 'Talking to You' and 'Wish You Well.'

They are based on my first love. Those are just very personal little windows into my life experiences. The subject matter took awhile to come out. Now I am starting to write based on recent life experiences … although this one song has a line that I thought of in the 7th grade. I'm just now able to use it. All of my songs take a long time to piece together. I work them out separately in my head, until they are finished and then I transcribe them. Sounds like brain surgery. Yikes!

I like your treatment of 'Embraceable You.' It brings to mind great vocalists/scatters and rhyme masters like King Pleasure and Jon Hendricks.

That vocalese is by the great pianist, Barry Harris. It's known as 'Embarrysable You,' or 'Paradise.' He teaches it to his beloved community of followers and students. I have been to his class and have attended a few of his concerts. The wisdom and harmonies he drops on singers is so important. I learned the piece by rote from his former student, my friend and mentor Orlando Fiol. The vocalese repertoire is a must when you study jazz voice. Listening to Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, King Pleasure, Willie Bobo, Bobby McFerrin, Al Jarreau.

You must be very pleased with the fact that your recording has been so well received. Have you started developing ideas for your next project? Or is it too soon to be thinking that far ahead?

I hope by this time next year to have a new recording out. I am very pleased, but have my work cut out for me in this new music biz model. I have been very fortunate to have made the connections I have made. I work closely with my husband, Patricio Acevedo, who is a guitarist, and working with my drummer Francois Zayas. I am looking forward to collaborating more with Rob and Mike Rodriguez, too. We are brainstorming some new arrangements. For example, in 2010 I will be doing a tribute concert at the Kimmel Center's Jazz Up Close series for Billie Holiday. I've been singing 'My Man' for a while. In the middle part, my idea was to suggest a melody from Carlos Embale—'Tu No Debes Jugar Con Mi Amor' ['You shouldn't play with my love']. It's the male response to Billie, who is hopelessly in love with a bad man. Someone said to me, 'If the only people that will understand your music are Cubans, why would you want to do it?'

Your music goes beyond the parameters of typical Cuban music.

Right now I am happy to be percolating. I understand that I still have a long way to go, and that it is going to take time to develop my career.

Visit Venissa Santi's Official Web Site,, and her MySpace page,

June 24, 2009 · 0 comments


Don't Gonna Play That Kling-Kling Jazz:<br> A Prehistory of Jazz-Rock

By Geoff Wills

When rock and roll emerged in the mid 1950s, many jazz musicians were witheringly scornful about this supposedly moronic music. Their attitude is perhaps typified by Stan Freberg’s 1956 spoof on The Platters’ recording ‘The Great Pretender’. When asked to play a simple riff, the hipster pianist hired for the session says,” I don’t wanna play that lick no more, man. I come from a different school, like Shearing, Erroll Garner, dig man, oobi-oobi-a … don’t bug me man, don’t gonna play that kling-kling jazz”.

And yet one has only to look a little closer to see that the links between jazz, on the one hand, and rock and pop on the other, have always been symbiotic. In the 1950s Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner, Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Kenton, Andre Previn and George Shearing all had top 20 LPs in the US top 40 album charts. From the 1950s onwards, jazz often filtered through into the world of popular music in a subtle way, wielding a subliminal influence that laid the foundations for jazz-rock.

Wailing Saxes

Illinois Jacquet

Jazz had an immediate influence on rock and roll via the saxophone. Arguably, the trigger for this was the work of tenorist Illinois Jacquet with Lionel Hampton’s orchestra in the 1940s. His extravert honking solo on "Flying Home" made him famous and became the prototype for future rock saxophone solos. Other influential tenorists, employing a similar sound but coming more directly from a rhythm and blues background, included Big Jay McNeely, Sil Austin and Lee Allen. Altoist Earl Bostic was also influential with records like his hit version of "Flamingo" (1951). A hint of the Bostic sound can be detected in the alto playing of John Zorn, for instance on his Naked City album (1990).

Moonlighting Jazzers

Boots Brown

As early as 1952 Shorty Rogers, whose music was the epitome of West Coast cool, was masquerading as Boots Brown on an album entitled Rock That Beat with a band called The Blockbusters, in whose ranks lurked Bud Shank, Gerry Mulligan and Shelly Manne. Jimmy Giuffre, later known for his intimate clarinet style, produced an extroverted solo on the tune “Blockbuster” that ranks with Illinois Jacquet’s work. A later Boots Brown release, “Cerveza,” featured Bud Shank, Jimmy Rowles and Mel Lewis in the band—and the recording reached number 23 in the US charts in 1958.

Also in 1958, veteran jazz drummer Cozy Cole had a surprise hit with “Topsy,” parts I and II. This undoubtedly laid the foundations for other drum-oriented instrumentals such as those by Sandy Nelson. 1958 was the year that another jazz musician, the Canadian Moe Koffman, had a hit with “The Swingin’ Shepherd Blues.” Other hit singles by jazz musicians that set precedents for jazz-rock in a variety of ways included “One Mint Julep” by Ray Charles (1960), “Desafinado” by Stan Getz, “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” by Vince Guaraldi and “Walk On The Wild Side” by Jimmy Smith, all in 1962.

The Wrecking Crew

In his book Backbeat: Earl Palmer’s Story, Tony Scherman states that

The original rock and rollers—Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly and their ragtag backup groups—were amateurs, inspired tinkerers: folk musicians, really. By the late fifties, rock was too lucrative to be entrusted to untrained labor. The manufacture of hit records required a new worker, hip enough to understand the music, disciplined enough to crank out an album a day. Talented musicians streamed into late-fifties L.A. . . . The best of the new hired guns. . . became rock and roll’s Wizards of Oz, unsung, and essential in the evolution of the music.

The core of this group of musicians came to be known as the Wrecking Crew, because the older, more conservative, blue-blazered group of L.A. session musicians thought they were wrecking the session scene until their musicianship was grudgingly acknowledged. Many of these younger musicians—including Rene Hall, Plas Johnson, Earl Palmer, Ernest McLean, Harold Battiste and Mac Rebennack—came from New Orleans, and the majority had a background in jazz. Others included drummer Hal Blaine, guitarists Tommy Tedesco, Barney Kessel and Howard Roberts, bassists Carol Kaye, Red Callender, Lyle Ritz and Jimmy Bond, and pianists Don Randi, Larry Knechtel and Michael Melvoin.

Carol Kaye, in an article in Downbeat, provided insights into this scene when she said:

Rock and roll was a dirty word among L.A. bebop musicians in the late 1950s. . . . But if it hadn’t been for the huge hidden jazz influence in the 1960s hits, that musical era might never have happened. . . . Producers asked us to improvise lines, patterns and spontaneous arrangements featuring key changes, breaks, montuno lines, riff lines, fills. . . . These arrangements came directly from jazz improvisation, the things we’d do in our jazz playing and the arranging spontaneity that took place every night in the jazz clubs.

These musicians played on scores of hit records, contributing their jazz sensibilities. As Carol Kaye said: “We made good money, earned a lot of respect and made the music groove.”

Plas Johnson

 The Pink Panther

John “Plas” Johnson (born 1931) has been ubiquitous in the world of rock/pop and session music and he has played on thousands of recordings. The instantly recognizable sound of his rich, rasping tenor sax has appeared on records like ‘Moovin’n’Groovin’ and ‘Ramrod’ by Duane Eddy, the original hit version of “The Peter Gunn Theme” by Ray Anthony, ‘Cerveza’ by Boots Brown (Shorty Rogers) and “The Pink Panther Theme” by Henry Mancini. Yet Johnson is a tenorist (and altoist and flautist) who is equally convincing in both rock and jazz, as witness, for instance, his album The Blues (1975). As a jazz musician he is a full-toned soloist in the Hawkins/Webster/Byas tradition, and in having his feet in many camps he has been a highly influential forerunner of jazz-rock musicians like Michael Brecker and Tom Scott.

Les Baxter and Exotica

 Les Baxter

Les Baxter was a pianist, tenor saxophonist and singer who worked with Artie Shaw and Mel Torme. After working as an arranger for the Bob Hope radio show he arranged sessions at Capitol Records, and from 1950 he released some twenty albums under his own name on the label. These albums established the characteristics of the style that came to be known as exotica. Rebecca Leydon (1999) gives a vivid description of Baxter’s music:

… Baxter depicts ghostly abandoned cities, cities in ruins, the once bustling metropolis engulfed by encroaching natural forces, as in the ephemeral ‘Sunken City’ from Jewels of the Sea (1960) and ‘Lost City’ from African Jazz (1958). By far Baxter’s most frequently recurring pictorial theme is the jungle. The hugely influential Ritual of the Savage of 1951 marks the definitive inauguration of American post-war exotica.

Within the ranks of his orchestra Baxter used jazz musicians like vibist Larry Bunker and Plas Johnson, who contributed sensuous solos on the albums Jungle Jazz and African Jazz. It is not hard to recognize echoes of exotica in much jazz-rock: the influence becomes apparent if, after listening to “Amazon Falls” from Jungle Jazz one turns to, for instance, Don Sebesky’s “The Rape of El Morro” (1975), Weather Report’s “Black Market” (1976) or “Safari” by Steps Ahead (1984).


The Shadows

In the 1950s and early 1960s some rock musicians included the odd jazz number, however innocuous, on their albums. Duane Eddy recorded “Route Number 1” in 1959, while his colleague in the Rebel Rousers, guitarist Al Casey, recorded versions of “Tenderly,” “Laura” and “On Green Dolphin Street” in 1960 and 1961. In England, the premier pop-instrumental group The Shadows featured a jaunty tune entitled “Nivram” on their first album in 1961.

One recording of note from 1961 is “Image” by arranger Hank Levine. Beginning life as a radio station identity theme for Los Angeles KFWB, it was developed into a full-blown instrumental featuring the ever-present Plas Johnson on alto, pianist Gene Garf, vibist Emil Richards, and drummer Earl Palmer. It reached number 45 in the British charts and was later covered successfully by British organist Alan Haven. Probably influenced by Andre Previn’s “Like Young” (1959), “Image” featured a theme stated by alto sax that prefigured to some extent the work of David Sanborn, and funky piano against a background of strings.

However anodyne these musical examples may appear, they do seem to demonstrate that broad-minded musicians were prepared to blend influences from the mid-1950s onwards.

Movie Jazz, Henry Mancini and John Barry

 The Man With The Golden Arm

The casual fan or writer often associates jazz soundtracks with the classic films noirs of the 1940s, but it’s a mistake to do so. It was only when jazz attained a certain respectability in the 1950s that Hollywood was prepared to use it non-diagetically (i.e., not linked to a source of music on screen), to conjure up an atmosphere of post-World War II urban angst. The work of Alex North (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) and Leonard Rosenman (Rebel Without A Cause, 1955) springs to mind, and this style of music is epitomized by Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), with its nod towards Stan Kenton pieces like ‘Minor Riff’, especially in the “Main Title” theme.

Indeed David Butler, in his book Jazz Noir (2002) argues convincingly that Kenton was the most influential musician in shaping jazz’s use in film during this period. As he states, “The neuroticism and aggression of Kenton’s concept of jazz … made it an appropriate musical model for the scores of 1950s film noir and social problem films.”

      Stan Kenton, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

The Kenton sound had a direct influence on what is arguably the first jazz-rock recording, the theme from the TV series Peter Gunn, composed by Henry Mancini. Taking a twangy rock riff inspired by musicians like Duane Eddy and the Ventures ( of course Eddy repaid the compliment with a recording of ‘Peter Gunn’), Mancini’s arrangement combined it with blaring big band jazz which featured a tenor sax solo by Plas Johnson (again!) on the original hit recording by Ray Anthony (1958). As David Butler says, the inspiration for the Peter Gunn music sprang directly from Mancini’s previous film score, for Orson Welles’s A Touch of Evil (1958), with its mixture of big band and rock. This, in turn, was inspired by the Stan Kenton album Cuban Fire (1956).

The Kenton influence continued in Britain in the music of John Barry, who had studied with Kenton arranger Bill Russo via a correspondence course entitled “Composition and Orchestration for the Jazz Orchestra.” Barry’s “Main Title” from the film Beat Girl (1959) might be subtitled Bill Russo meets Duane Eddy, and his recordings “Beat for Beatniks,” with its ominous and relentless ostinato, and “Big Fella” (both 1960), inspired by Elmer Bernstein’s Johnny Staccato theme, bear the unmistakable Kenton stamp. Barry continued the jazz influence in his 1962 Dave Brubeck-influenced recordings “Cutty Sark” and “Fancy Dance.”

The 2i’s and The Flamingo

2i's Coffee Bar

In 1956 the 2i's Coffee Bar opened in London’s Soho, and soon became the mecca for British skiffle and rock and roll. The venue acted as a magnet for Britain’s young rock musicians, who frequently started out as jazz fans. For instance, Brian Bennett, later to become the drummer with The Shadows, listened as a boy to Willis Conover’s jazz radio program on The Voice of America.

Two significant British musicians both had inauspicious beginnings in the town of Leigh, Lancashire. These were pianist Mike O’Neill and pianist/vocalist Clive Powell, later to become Georgie Fame, and their careers were destined to cross paths, as were members of their bands. In 1957 O’Neill arrived at the 2i’s, and had soon played with a number of rock groups before forming Nero and the Gladiators, whose personnel included guitarist Colin Green and bassist Boots Slade.

Meanwhile Clive Powell had arrived in London, had played in Billy Fury’s backing group and been renamed Georgie Fame by manager Larry Parnes. While out of work and staying at Mike O’Neill’s flat, Fame spent a lot of time listening to O’Neill’s record collection, which included albums by Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, King Pleasure, Chet Baker and Cannonball Adderley. These influences proved to be significant in Fame’s musical direction.

Pete Frame (1997) is correct when he says:

The rise of rhythm and blues in Britain was a two-pronged affair—spearheaded simultaneously by Alexis Korner. . . playing what we can call Marquee R & B, and Georgie Fame and The Blue Flames, specialising in what we can describe as Flamingo R & B. Both groups hit the scene around the same time—February/March 1962. . .

Fame and The Blue Flames first played at Soho’s Flamingo, then almost exclusively a modern jazz club, when they deputised at a “Twist session”, and did so well that they stayed on. Black American GIs who came to the club turned Fame on to Eddie Jefferson, Richard Groove Holmes, Oscar Brown, Booker T and Jimmy Smith. Tenorist Mick Eve, whose own band had included Brian Auger, John McLaughlin and baritone saxist Glenn Hughes, joined Fame—he later said, “It was the first time I’d been in a band which could do commercial gigs as well as being musical! The Blue Flames was like a fusion of both sides – jazz rock!”

Personnel of The Blue Flames included, at different times, Colin Green and Boots Slade from Nero and the Gladiators; session guitarist Joe Moretti, John McLaughlin and Glenn Hughes, who all also worked with ex-Shadows Jet Harris and Tony Meehan; and jazz drummers Phil Seamen and Bill Eyden. The latter was replaced by Mitch Mitchell, later to join Jimi Hendrix. The music was a mixture of jazz, sophisticated rhythm and blues, and West Indian styles, and was very influential.

Interestingly, Pete Frame notes that by the end of 1964, Fame’s manager Rik Gunnell “operated Europe’s biggest R & B agency. On his books were … John Mayall, Zoot Money, The Cheynes, Ronnie Jones, Elkie Brooks, Chris Farlowe, Tony Colton … and many more. All were fortunate to get maximum exposure at the Flamingo before gigging further afield.”

Georgie Fame

Another musician who worked in a similar musical area to that of Georgie Fame was pianist Brian Auger. Starting off with a jazz trio featuring Rick Laird on bass and Phil Kinorra (formerly with Don Rendell and soon to become Julian Covay in a group called The Machine) on drums, he augmented the group with John McLaughlin and Glenn Hughes. Developing a liking for Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff, he bought a Hammond organ and reverted to a trio format. Rik Gunnell booked him into all the clubs and discotheques that were springing up, and, influenced by Mose Allison, Auger added vocals to his repertoire.

Over the next few years Auger moved through a series of musical developments, incorporating along the way contributions from singers Long John Baldry, Rod Stewart and Julie Driscoll in the band Steampacket. Auger’s Trinity, including guitarist Gary Boyle, was an excellent jazz-rock band featuring numbers like Herbie Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage.” Boyle later left to form his own influential band Isotope.

Manfred Mann

Any survey of the pre-history of British jazz-rock would be incomplete without mentioning Manfred Mann. Born Michael Lubowitz in South Africa, he was an aspiring jazz musician who took lessons from jazz pianist and educator John Mehagen and studied theory at Johannesburg University. On arriving in Britain in 1962 he taught, and wrote a series on jazz theory for Jazz News magazine. The group Manfred Mann had a string of chart successes, but their music was always underpinned with a jazz feeling, not only from Mann, but also from the drumming and vibes playing of Mike Hugg and the alto sax of Mike Vickers. Their album Soul of Mann contained a set of instrumentals including Cannonball Adderley’s “Sack O’ Woe” and Milt Jackson’s “Spirit Feel,” and there was a strong jazz feel to their soundtrack for the film Up the Junction (1968). In 1966 jazz musicians Henry Lowther and Lyn Dobson were members of the band.


When rock and roll emerged in the 1950s, jazz began to impinge upon it in a variety of ways. In its turn, rock and roll influenced jazz, laying the foundations for the fully-fledged jazz-rock music that appeared in the 1960s.

June 18, 2009 · 4 comments


In Conversation With Jack DeJohnette

By Ted Panken

                     Jack DeJohnette by Jos L. Knaepen

"I've always been curious about mixing different things, like an alchemist," Jack DeJohnette told me several years ago. "Different genres of music have always cross-pollinated, but the rate is speeded up now."

At 67, DeJohnette continues to add consequential pages to a curriculum vitae that exemplifies what it is to be a musical explorer. His most recent CD, Music, We Are (Kindred Rhythm), was recorded with an equilateral-triangle-oriented trio that includes the pianist Danilo Perez and bassist John Patitucci. During the group's April performance at New York City's Blue Note, DeJohnnette propelled the musical flow from behind a gigantic drum assemblage that incorporated a sampler and his own customized bells; he also played the melodica. DeJohnette conjured an assortment of driving grooves and precisely calibrated timbres, engaging in extended call-and-response with Perez.

This endeavor was an extension of a 2005 quartet project that included Jerome Harris on guitar. DeJohnette had composed Andalusian-influenced music which, he says, "needed guitar and six-string banjo." Over the last several years, DeJohnette has focused on other hybrids informed by various flavors of Afro-Iberian music: several concerts with nuevo flamenco pianist Chano Dominguez and Gitano singer Blas Cordoba, and a group called the Latin Project, a clave-centric unit (with Don Byron, Edsel Gomez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Luisito Quintero) devoted to an elaboration and abstraction of the groove. Other DeJohnette offerings over that period include collaborations with the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba, the South African singer Sibongile Khumalo, and Ghanaian griot Foday Musa Suso; improvised electronica with son-in-law Ben Surman and brother-in-law John Surman; and a group called Trio Beyond, in which guitar hero John Scofield, organist Larry Goldings, and DeJohnette reimagine the travel-the-spaceways musical production of Tony Williams and Larry Young in the cusp-of-the-'70s group, Lifetime.

Indeed, like Chick Corea, his 1969-70 bandmate with Miles Davis, DeJohnette in his golden years seems to grow ever more hungry for new sounds to assimilate, digest, and incorporate into his next step, which always appears to be imminent.

"I'm more refined now, but much looser in another way," DeJohnette reflected in 2005. "I'm taking in much more. My heart is more open, and I'm free to do whatever I want. So playing music is more joyful to me."

Your trio with Danilo Perez and John Patitucci evolved from a quartet engagement four years ago on which Jerome Harris played guitar. Talk about its evolution.

We played for the first time as a trio at the Panama Jazz Festival, after playing as a group with Jerome in Europe, which had given us experience playing together. We were getting these wonderful grooves, and we wanted to get more into it as a trio. So we put aside some time, and last February everybody came to upstate New York, and we recorded in RS Studios in the Catskills, which is not far from my house. We spent three days there. In the DVD that comes in the package, I think Danilo and John both talk about how the music reaches a certain level of quality and risk-taking when we all play together. They feel they can take off and do things that they don't do in other situations, because I've got their backs. They have mine, too! So we support each other. But grooves! All of us like to groove as well as play abstractly. Even when you play abstract, there is some melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic connection. There is some kind of groove even if you can't state it as in 1-2-3-4.

There's also a lot of color.


You don't usually hear Danilo Perez playing synth-keyboard.

Yes. Then I have an electronic percussion unit incorporated into my set. So we're not the average jazz trio. We use the colors, which is a good term. We use the percussion.

John Patitucci also plays the six-string electric bass in this group. A few years ago, you told me that you'd written some music with an Andalusian-Spanish flavor, and you were hearing John and Danilo's sound with that. Is that the base on which you're now ...

No. It's taken on its own identity. It spotlights everybody, without overshadowing. There's plenty of room, even when it's busy. So there's lots of space, and each night the music is totally different—we take different approaches, and we're not afraid to follow where it might go. We have a great time! Also, this group connects with its audience—we connect with each other facially, and that rapport connects the audience. Danilo is very outgoing, John is very visual, there's a lot of smiles and body language going on between us. It's like a shared, intimate thing, and it comes back from the audience.

You played on Danilo's first record in 1992. Did you meet then? Had you known him before?

I knew of Danilo, but that was the first time we played. That was the first time I heard him. He had his own voice. He was doing something different. There are quite a few Latin pianists who have incorporated the Latin aspect to jazz—Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo, and some others. But Danilo is unique. He has a sense of drama, orchestration—very orchestral. Both he and John have grown tremendously in that sense from being with Wayne Shorter. I think that translates into this situation, with this trio, where it comes out in a more accessible way—I feel that, anyway. We immediately got a rapport, but I think it took Danilo some time to get used to how to play with me.

How do you mean that?

Well, rhythmically, dynamically, the colors, and so on. When we were touring with Jerome in Europe, he was inspired, in a way, to develop certain things that he's playing now. There's a sort of multi-directional pulling—John plays in one direction, I play in another one, and Danilo is pulling in two or three ways, but we all know where we are with it, and then we all of a sudden come back together and hit a point.


Yeah. It's like breathing. It's fun. The music should have dynamics. If it stays on one thing all the time, it's boring.

If I recall correctly, you first recorded with John Patitucci in '96 or '97.

We first recorded with Eugene Pao, a Chinese guitarist from Hong Kong. Nice guitarist. I said to him, 'Hey, you and Danilo would sound good together; you guys have to meet each other.' I told Danilo that, too. And both of them, fortunately, did join Wayne.

Before that, they played with Roy Haynes .

Yes, they did. And again, that in situation, they played totally different. Roy likes to play traditional stuff.

In 2005, when this group launched, you were simultaneously presenting a lot of different projects. The Golden Beams label was new. You had a Latin Project, with Don Byron, Giovanni Hidalgo, and Edsel Gomez. There was the duo with Foday Musa Suso. There was the Brass Project with your brother-in-law, John Surman, and the remix project with your son-in-law, Ben Surman . You recently did a month with a group of African musicians?

Yes. I actually did it last month at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. That actually came about through Dave Liebman. Apparently, for his sixtieth birthday, Dave went with the saxophone player Jean-Jacques Quesada to Mauritania, just to hang out. When they got there, they were in a car, and the guy was playing this music of Dimi Mint Abba. She's like a griot there. Mauritania is a small country. It has 3 million people maybe. It has a city, but mostly it's a desert - very hot, no electricity .... At any rate, Dave met Dimi, and wanted to bring her back. She had performed in France before, but next time they tried to bring her back she refused, but then this time she decided to come. Unfortunately, Dave had another commitment that he had to fulfill, so he couldn't do it, and he asked me to come in. So she brought five of her musicians. She has a son and a daughter who are singers, and an electric guitar player, and a bassist and percussionist. Rick Margitza played and filled-in for Dave and Jean-Jacques. She's like a goddess there. This soulful African, Moroccan, sort of Mali-ish ... she's got a lot of things. She's powerful, man. She's got a spirit about her. So we played her music, and I did some duos with the drummer. We played for three nights at the museum.

I also noticed on your website a month-long tour in Europe last November with a South African singer.

The project you're talking about has been ongoing for the last couple of years. It first started out with Mino Cinelu in it, Jerome Harris, and a couple of British horn players: Byron Wallen on trumpet and Jason Yarde on saxophones. Both of these guys worked with Andrew Hill before he died, in his big band and small group—Nasheet Waits was in some of those bands. Anyway, it was with Sibongile Khumalo. She's from South Africa, from Johannesburg. I heard Sibongile in London, at the London Jazz Festival, and I thought, 'Oh, man, I want to play with her.' We have a booking agent who works there, John Cummings, with Serious Production, who does a lot with the younger musicians of Britain, and world musicians, too, from other places. She's amazing. She has a classically trained voice, but she uses another voice when she improvises, sings pop tunes. She is an improviser. It's like playing with a horn. It reminds me a little bit of playing with Betty Carter. Betty was like a horn. Sibongile is very much into dynamics. She'd written some pieces. That first band had Danilo, but the second time, last November, we took Billy Childs on piano, and it was fabulous. As far as keeping that going, I'd like to do it again at some point. It's a matter of making it financially worthwhile, especially in America, because she's going to have to come all the way from South Africa, which is a long trip, and these guys would have to come from England. But musically, it was great. Phenomenal.

We hope to continue the trio as soon as we get a real clear window on everybody's availability. Of course, I'm still doing the stuff with Keith Jarrett, and I'm working on a next project, which is kind of looking back and moving forward at the same time, doing some of my music from earlier CDs—music from the Fifth World, some from Special Edition. It would be Jerome Harris, David Fiuczynski on guitar, and playing here I'd have Don Byron in the horn section, but if I go to Europe I'd have Jason and Byron. Also here I was thinking about adding someone who plays piano and keyboards.

Three years ago, you said you were less interested in leading bands.

That's changed. I want to play some more of my music. I feel the need to do that. Also, I want to write some new music. It's fun playing my music! I haven't been writing prolifically for a while, so that's coming back. The juices are flowing.

In the '90s, you were doing a lot of sideman work in addition to being a leader. You were sideman-for-hire on a lot of one-off dates. That's not so much in the picture these days, is it?

Well, I think economics plays a big part in that now. A lot of people, for better or for worse, have their own labels, and they're struggling with that.

As are you, I'd think.

Yes. Well, Golden Beams is actually doing ok. We knew this release was going to be pretty strong. I hope to follow it up with some more by the Music, We Are trio, and also a group led by me.

As you expressed it to me, the idea of Golden Beams was to do projects that were financially feasible, i.e., the various duos with Suso and Bill Frisell, and your New Age record, for which you earned a Grammy nomination, and which I'm sure has sold a ton of units.

No, not yet. But it's definitely helped the profile of the label. Hopefully, that will pick up.

You're a very dynamic, assertive, strong player, apart from everything else. You're a force. What sort of people do you look for to play with?

I'm looking for people like David Fiuczynski, Jerome Harris— people who are very comfortable on their instruments and comfortable with taking chances. And like to interact. I provide a base for musicians who have those abilities to experiment and find out what they don't know about themselves. That's the kind of musician I like to play with. And those who have their own voice, too. For me, that's stimulating, and it gets my juices flowing. Certain music in certain circumstances that will create musical soundscapes, environments. I experiment with different colors, different concepts.

I'd like to ask you about drumming, aspects of your personality on the drum kit. When drummers talk about you, they talk about your timbre, the 'dry' snare sound that's your trademark. Could you talk a bit about the process by which you conceptualized a sound on the drum kit, how your identity developed, how it's evolved over the years? It could be very specific or very broad. Any way you'd want to respond.

Having played piano first, I think of myself more as a colorist. I'm a drummer, of course, and I create rhythm, but the drum set is an orchestra, and I tune each drum to different pitches. In the process, I design my own drum heads along with Roy Burns, who helped develop my signature drum head. But touch, tone, and cymbals—those are some of my signatures. I develop my own cymbals also, which are basically the icing on the cake, and also the bells that I use. So I'm always searching for ways to enhance the color; I hear all kinds of colors and tones. One thing I've liked to develop, and am still working on, is touch. No matter how light or how strong I'm playing, there's a lightness, an uplifting spirit that happens. The cymbals, again, are basically the icing on the cake. The sticks also create these different shades, depending on how I touch the cymbals and the drums themselves. A lot of times lately I play with the snares off, because that gives the drum more of a tribal sound—you just hear a tom-tom. The snare drum can overshadow the rest of the band, because the wire snares that are underneath resonate when you put them on. Not using the snare gives more clarity, but when I do use the snare drum, it's pretty crisp. All in all, I just hear the drums as music, as a musical instrument, just like you use the piano or a guitar ...

                          Jack DeJohnette by Jos L. Knaepen

At least this week, you're using a huge kit.

That's the kit I always use.

How many pieces?

An 8-piece kit.

Not including the cymbals.

I wouldn't count those as a drum kit.

So it's drums-and-cymbals.

Yes, I've been doing that for a while.

For many, many years.

Yes. But the bells are a new addition for the last four or five years.

How did that evolve? In the '60s you weren't using so many components.

No. That came maybe in the '70s. Drummers just started adding more drums to the palette. To me, it's just more colors. There are two smaller mounted tom-toms, an 8 and a 10, and I tune them up in bongo range. So it gives me a pretty wide palette of colors in terms of pitches for the drum set. So yeah, I love having those extra colors.

Are beats colors as well as pitches?

Yeah, beats can be that, depending on how fast or slow they're played.

Can you elaborate on your tuning system?

I try to tune the kit so it's in a range that doesn't clash with the bass or the piano. I tune my bass drum up high. As I said before, the two mounted tom-toms on my left, the 8 and the 10, are in the bongo range, which is a higher range. So if I want to make a point, make an exclamation, I can go to that, instead of a lower tom-tom. It gives me a comfortable range that can work with most any genre of music. Sometimes I tune to chords. Like, when I worked with Dimi Mint Abba, they sing in the same key all the time, so I actually tuned to a G dominant 7 scale. Other times, depending on what the music is and what the harmonies are, I'll change the tuning again to work with the situation. Otherwise, I keep it in a general range.

How much piano do you practice these days? Do you always keep up on your keyboards?

Not enough. I haven't been doing that enough. Although with this group, I'm playing melodica, which gets me back into keys. I plan to be doing more of that when I write new compositions, since I use the piano to write.

Now, piano is sort of your oldest musical friend.

It is. It's still my friend.

Your bio states that you started playing it at age five?

Around five, yes.

What were the circumstances? You had a piano at home?

I had a piano teacher come by.

You had a facility for it?

Well, I had a piano.

Well, some people might have a piano and not develop their facility.

I didn't get more serious about it until I was a teenager.

On the biography section of your website there's a photo of you as a small child with a toy saxophone. Where is that picture from?

That was at the Pershing Ballroom. That's the famous Pershing where Ahmad Jamal did "But Not For Me", Live at the Pershing. The guy holding the microphone is T-Bone Walker, who was playing. My uncle, Roy Hill, loved jazz, and he liked to go out to clubs and cabarets, and I used to listen to all of these records when I was around that age. At the time of the picture, I believe I was seven. This was one of these little plastic saxophones with cellophane in it, where you sing through it. I was playing ... I forget who the artist was, but I was playing this melody [SINGS IT], and the band came in right on it! They knew it. I remember being scared to death. I'm seven years old. 'How the hell did they know that?!' I knew the solo, and I was playing this solo, so now I think back, and they must have thought, 'Look at this kid, he's seven years old, and he's playing—he's listening to the record.' I sat in with the band. That was phenomenal.

Getting that positive feedback from grownups.

Wow. They must have been like, 'Wow, this kid is 7 years old and he knows this stuff.'

You also state on the site that your mother wrote the lyrics of 'Stormy Monday.'

So she says. She sold the tune to T-Bone Walker for 50 bucks, or whatever it was. In those days, people did do that. The jazz musicians used to do that. 'Hey, man, give me some tunes. Give me five tunes.' Then they'd put their name on them.

Was she involved in music at all?

No, she wrote poetry. My father had nothing whatsoever to do with music. Not at all.

So your uncle was the inspiration.

My uncle. And my mother wrote songs and poetry, and I used to put tunes to her words. She had music and she liked music.

At what point did it seem to you that music would be what you were going to do?

When I was a teenager. About 16.

What was making you think that?

I was naturally drawn to it. I knew I had abilities, natural abilities. At the time, I was working as a pianist, and then I got into drums, and I started working on both instruments. It was something I was really good at, and I enjoyed it, and I had a passion for it, and I said, 'Oh, this is what I want to do.'

As a pianist, were you emulating Ahmad Jamal primarily?

When I started, he was one of my first influences. I liked Erroll Garner. He was amazing. I wish people would reissue some of Erroll Garner's stuff so we can hear how phenomenal this guy was. There were some Chicago pianists, too. There was Jodie Christian, a legend who's still around. Also Billy Wallace.

He played with Max Roach for a while in the latter '50s.

Yes, he did. Then Muhal Richard Abrams was a great influence on me, not only musically, but as a male role model. I liked Wynton Kelly a lot.

Did you know Andrew Hill in Chicago?

Yes, I knew Andrew. I knew Chris Anderson, too.

Did you know Herbie Hancock in Chicago?

Yeah, I knew Herbie. Herbie lived down the street from me. Herbie was definitely an influence, especially when the Empyrean Isles record came out. I had a trio which used to play tunes off of that, like "One Finger Snap" and "Empyrean Isles."

Stylistically, what sorts of things were you interested in presenting in your piano trio?

I did standards and originals, things like that. Interacted with the rhythm section, learned how to use the rhythm section. It was good for me, because as a drummer, I knew what it felt like to be the soloist—and I'll play a melodica in front of a rhythm section also. It gave me insights into how to be a better drummer—and listener also.

Was your trio with [bassist] Scott Holt and [drummer] Steve McCall ?

Yeah, that was one of them. Then I had another drummer with Scotty, Arthur McKinney. Then actually, Harold Jones played with me and Scotty, also.

He played with Ellington and Basie.

Yes, but he also was the drummer on Exodus To Jazz, and he worked with [saxophonist] Eddie Harris. In fact, I filled in for Harold because he was a teacher at Roosevelt College in Chicago, and he had some graduation stuff to do. I went on the road with him. The first time I went on the road was with Eddie Harris. I went to Kansas City, and then played Pep's in Philadelphia. It was interesting, too. When I went to Kansas City with Eddie, we played a double bill opposite an organ trio led by Eddie Chamblee, and Aretha Franklin was on the bill. She had just made her first record for Columbia Records, and she was there with her mother.

Eddie Chamblee was a tenor player. One of Dinah Washington's husbands.

He could have been. Anyway, we were in this club for a week. It was a famous club, one of the last clubs in Kansas City. Count Basie had played there. And the hotel was down the street from it. I remember it very well, because Aretha came with no band, and they wanted Eddie's band to play for her. Eddie said, 'Well, yeah. Cough up some more bread.' The guy didn't want to cough up what he had. So Eddie Chamblee, the drummer, and the organ player wound up playing with Aretha. She was doing, 'Yeah, by the railroad tracks ...' — she was playing piano for herself. It was interesting. We talked. At the time she said, 'I might get a band together; maybe I'll call you.' But she never did!

So you were on the fence during those years between piano and drums, and as you've put it, Eddie Harris steered you towards concentrating on drums.

He thought I was a natural drummer, and he thought I'd be more successful at it—and as it turned out, he was right. When I came to New York in '64 or '65, I went up to Minton's, and Freddie Hubbard was there, and I sat in with him. John Patton was there, he heard me play, and he said, 'Hey, man, you got a set of drums?' I said, 'Yeah. 'Well, you got a gig.' That's when I decided, 'Ok, I'm going to make drums be my main instrument.'

What brought you to New York?

Of course! It was the mecca.

Of course. But a lot of great musicians from Chicago stayed in Chicago.

I exhausted every other avenue of places to play. At that time, disco was coming in, so a lot of good places to play jazz were drying up. So I just said, 'Ok, let me out of here.' Of course, some of it dried up here. I just caught Minton's before it closed, and Birdland was still going. A few years later, it closed. I got a chance to hear Al Grey and Billy Mitchell at Birdland, so I sat in with them on piano and then on drums.

Also regarding Chicago, you mentioned Muhal as an influence, Steve McCall was one of your drummers, and you knew a lot of people in the AACM . Can you speak to what your level of involvement was with those musicians? Were you sort of on the outskirts of it, occasionally doing a gig ...

No, no. I was right in it. I was there when Muhal got the charter to form it. First of all, Roscoe Mitchell and I were close friends. We went to college [Wilson Junior College] together. Malachi Favors went there, Joseph Jarman was there, and another guy named James Willis. Joseph said I broke up his marriage because I convinced him to have whole concerts in the attic of his house. I guess his wife didn't like jazz that much. But we used to charge some money and put on concerts up there. Joseph and Roscoe and Malachi would play together. Roscoe and I used to play at each other's house every day. I'd go to his house, or he'd come to my house, and we'd play for hours—just improvising. So that was the freer aspect. But when I say 'free'... I mean, these guys were serious composers as well as playing improvised music. They were coming at it in another direction.

They were very involved in structures and incorporating a broad range of vocabulary and ideas.

Oh yeah. But at the time, we also were involved in creating structures for improvisation—just go up and play.

You've also related a certain time when John Coltrane came to Chicago with the great quartet, and you were able to sit in.

Yes. I'd been coming almost every night to see him at McKie Fitzhugh's, on Cottage Grove. Elvin didn't return for the last set. I was there. The place was packed. People were outside; there were lines outside. I'd played some of the jam sessions on Monday night, and McKie said to John, 'Man, we need to play the last set. Let Jack come up; he's a good drummer.' John said, 'Ok,' and I went up and played three tunes with McCoy and Jimmy. It was one of the highlights of my career. It was fantastic.

Had you ever dealt with that sort of energy on a bandstand before?

No. It was the first time for that.

Was it a transformative moment for you?

Absolutely. John was a very spiritual guy, but he was also very magnetic. So I understood why Elvin had to play the way he played. Because whatever you could throw at John, John was like a sponge—he absorbed it. So I realized on an energy level how amazing John Coltrane was. So I'm happy that I was developed enough as a good drummer to hold my own in that, playing those songs. Later on, around 1966, I had the opportunity to go back to Chicago with John at the Plugged Nickel, when he had the new band with Alice and Rashied and Pharaoh and Jimmy. That was even more phenomenal, because we had two drummers, two saxophone players. I remember one night, Roscoe came and sat in. So musically, mentally, and spiritually, it was one of the most challenging gigs I ever did.

It's interesting, because of all the really major AACM musicians of your generation—Muhal, Roscoe, Jarman, Threadgill, Leo Smith—you're the only one who went to New York at the time.


A speculative question: What do you think would have happened had all those people gone to New York in the mid '60s? Would they have been influenced in different directions? Would history have taken a different course?

Maybe. I don't know. But it might have been possible, considering the climate in New York. By the way, in New York I worked with Sun Ra at the Vanguard and up in Harlem.

You spoke a bit about first establishing yourself in New York—you sat in at Minton's, John Patton offered you a gig. In 1965 and 1966, you recorded with Jackie McLean, and then in 1966 you went out with Charles Lloyd, which brought you to another level of visibility. But what scenes did you become part of after moving to New York?

Well, I moved to the Lower East Side, as they had been renovating buildings, and that's where a lot of the musicians were. They had just opened up a jazz club around the corner, on East Third Street, called Slugs, which was a bar, a pretty good club with sawdust on the floor, smoky. There was music happening everywhere, and I just lived, breathed, and slept music in that period. I started freelancing. I did various gigs. I worked with John Patton, and Freddie Hubbard called me to do one of those boat ride things out on the Hudson. I worked some with Betty Carter, and I also hooked up with Charles Tolliver, who was very influential—we became close friends and musical constituents. Once I played a concert with Betty, John Hicks and Cecil McBee, and then one with Charles, Gary Bartz , Hicks, and Cecil. Henry Grimes was around, Cecil lived on East 10th Street ... It was definitely an East Village thing. Herbie Lewis had a loft, and we used to go over to his house and play night and day. Charles was playing with Jackie McLean, and Jackie had been away, and then he came back to the city. He said, 'When Jackie comes back, yeah, man, you got to be his drummer; you're going to get a call from Jackie.' I'd gone to sessions, the Blue Coronet, and played with musicians like Charles Davis and Pat Patrick, who is the father of Deval Patrick , the Governor of Massachusetts. I knew Deval when he was a little guy. He probably doesn't even remember me ...

I heard Charles Lloyd when he had Gabor Szabo and Ron Carter ... was it Pete LaRoca on drums? But anyway, somehow Charles was looking for a drummer, and he called me. Then, I was playing with Charles for a bit, and Reggie Workman was playing bass, and Gabor was getting ready to leave, and we wanted to get another bassist. Since I'd worked with Cecil, I recommended him. Charles asked me about pianists, and I'd heard Keith Jarrett with Art Blakey. That became the Charles Lloyd Quartet.

Let me backtrack to Jackie. We did do some gigs, and we did the Jacknife album, with Lee Morgan, and Demon's Dance. Anyway, we played in Connecticut, we played the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore, and also Pittsburgh. The band had Larry Ridley on bass, Bobby Hutcherson on vibes, Tolliver, and myself. It was a pretty exciting band.

In New York, all of a sudden you came in first-hand contact with all the drummers you'd been checking out on records for years and seen occasionally in Chicago. There was Tony Williams . Through Charles you probably got to meet Max Roach. You got to know Roy Haynes and Elvin Jones. You've mentioned that you liked Arthur Taylor a lot, though he was probably in Europe by then ...

No, he was here when I got here. You could see him at the Five Spot. I got a chance to go to the Five Spot before it closed, where I saw Roy Haynes. At that time, groups used to go in and play for two weeks or a month, so they could really get tight. Before I hit the scene, Coltrane had worked there with Monk, and then Johnny Griffin with Monk, and then Roy Haynes was there with Wayne, and pianists like Albert Dailey, and Tolliver. I used to see A.T. there. Like I said, New York was a mecca of a lot of creative music.

When you were accumulating drum vocabulary and making the decision that drums would be your main performance instrument, were you a drummer who would deeply analyze and emulate what other drummers did, or were you the kind of guy who would hear what people were doing and tailor your approach to incorporate this, eliminate that ...

More of the second. I adjusted what I played to what the musical situation was. I had influences. I had Elvin, or I had Tony, Roy, Max, and all those, but I also knew very consciously that I had to develop my own voice. So I took what I liked from the other drummers, and tried to turn it around into Jack DeJohnette, and basically had the good fortune to be in situations ... The best situation is where musicians are taking risks and trying different things. I had a chance to experiment. And through those musical associations, I developed my own voice and my own concept around utilizing drums as an integral part of the ensemble, as well as solos. I'm not an analytical player. I'm more an intuitive player, really.

But your playing is so precise. There has to be some sort of analytical component to your personality.

Well, yeah. But that sort of happens in the instant that I'm creating something. I'm not sitting down and saying, 'Well, I did so-and-so and so-and-so.' I just take it in.

Were you a big practicer?

Oh, yeah. But I tailor-made my practices, to have the speed and the touch and the dexterity playing time, different kinds of feels. I practiced a lot, to the point where I could ... you know, with a tune-up at home, playing around, I'm ready to go. I didn't study a lot of drum books and all that kind of stuff, but I practiced rudiments and did a lot of listening—listened to the different drummers and listened to things I liked, and the feels that I like. I listened to a lot of the Blue Note records. I took some of that, and became one of the drummers called a lot for gigs. Fortunately, it's kept me working all of these years.

You always seem to have had the ability to generate a lot of velocity and energy without playing loud.

Yes. That's something I constantly worked on. The drum by nature is a dominant instrument, and it's very easy to overpower a band. But having a lot of experience playing with Keith ... If you look at my history, I've done a lot of things with piano trios. So I learned a lot about dynamics, but playing with singers, like Betty and Abbey Lincoln, and also playing with singers in Chicago. I learned how to support people. As well as being a leader, you also have to learn how to support and encourage, without obscuring the other musicians in the ensemble.

You joined Miles Davis in 1969 , and you played with him for two years—'69, '70, and '71.

Well, '70. I came back in '71 to play one or two gigs with him.

Did playing with Miles affect the way you thought about playing drums?

Well, before I played with Miles, the way drums are played, especially when Tony joined the band ... yeah, that changed. It changed before I joined him, really. Between Elvin and Tony, I was already set up for that. Miles and Jackie McLean had similar taste in drummers. Jackie always said to me, 'Miles is going to hire you, because Tony was with me before Miles hired him, and we have the same taste in drummers.' Sure enough, one night I was in Slugs, and Miles came in to hear me. He'd heard about me, so he came.

Yeah, it was great to play with Miles, because Miles loved the drum. Everything came from the drums. He liked boxing, he was a big boxing fan, and he saw drums in jazz as having similar aspects. The drums and the horn player have to set each other up. He would talk about that,'Ok, now you've got to set this way ....' If you play a phrase, you have to know how to set a guy up. The same thing with boxing. You set a guy up, you feint with a left hook and then catch him with an overhand or uppercut right. It's in the rhythm.

Did you box yourself?

No. I love boxing, though. I have punched a bag a bit, but I didn't want to get into it.

You have to keep your hands safe.

Yeah. No, no, I don't want to mess with that. But I'm big boxing fan. I love boxing. But I love the art of it, not the ... When guys are evenly matched, I like that.

Correct me if I'm wrong here. But the way Keith Jarrett put it, it seemed to him that you helped Miles—and Keith as well—move into the new areas that he wanted to explore, in bringing contemporary dance rhythms into the mix. He said that Miles was not happy when you left. He wanted you to stay, and Keith felt that things in Miles' music got more chaotic once you left the band. I think I'm paraphrasing it correctly.


Can you speak to what you consider to have been your impact on the direction of Miles' music? That would also extrapolate into having an impact on the direction of creative improvised music in general.

One of the things Miles was trying ... I think Miles was at the pinnacle when he did those Cellar Door sessions, and I'm glad that they released the different nights.

You mean the nights John McLaughlin wasn't present for.

Yeah. Because you can hear the development. Each night it was different. But Miles liked me because I knew how to anchor. I could be as abstract as I'd want to be, but I knew how to lay out a groove, and Miles loved to play with the grooves I laid down. So I had the technique and imagination that he wanted, but he also wanted something that was going to be rock-steady. One of the reasons I left is because the music was getting more restricted and more predictable. I left, because I wanted to keep doing freer, exploratory things. But that's what Keith and I brought to that. Keith, like myself, can lay down and get in a groove and just sit with it, and that's what Miles loved, was the ability to sit with that. Keith and I both had played at the Fillmore with Bill Graham. We had that done that circuit with Charles Lloyd before. So we'd already experienced that. Miles came after that, and he went out to the Fillmore. So you get the Fillmore recordings as well. So it was done twice, with two interesting bands. The Charles Lloyd Quartet was a crossover band even before Miles decided to move and more in an electric direction.

With a music as nuanced as jazz, there's a difference between playing in an arena or theater and projecting those kinds of ideas and energies vis-à-vis doing it in a club. With Charles Lloyd, you really developed a way of projecting those qualities on a large scale.

Yes. That group could have been really huge. But it reached its pinnacle, and we moved on from there.

You were so known for your deep grooves and energy, but as the '70s progressed, a lot of your activity—though by no means exclusively—was with European musicians on ECM, and you became an influence on a European sound through Jon Christensen and people who were influenced by him. What kind of transition was that for you? Was it a natural evolution? A different side of your personality that was waiting to come out?

I think it was. Manfred Eicher had this vision; he's a visionary producer. His deal was that you could be successful recording artistic music, be it jazz or classical music (he was a classical music producer at Deutsche Gramophon before he started his label). He had a vision about sound and recording not just being a session, but a production, like in a movie sense. He encouraged me to be more artistic, but through packaging and promotion, ECM has been one of the most successful independent labels in the world.

You were on so many sessions in the '70s that their interpretation of your sound on the drums became a sort of signature for the label, it seems to me, at least initially.

                     Jack DeJohnette by Jos L. Knaepen

Those recordings with Miles ... Manfred was very interested in getting those musicians, like myself, Gary Peacock, and Keith, who extended that kind of creativity. He heard the nuances in my touch, my cymbals—he had another kind of sensitivity about that. From being a classical music composer, he paid attention to detail. So he brought out my cymbal work, and encouraged that. He always took great care for the sound of all the instruments, really. As a consequence, I got a chance to play with a lot of European musicians, and get this sort of cultural exchange, musical exchange. It's been very valuable, even to this day.

Sometimes artists experience a feedback loop, where you produce something, you reflect on it, and it might have some residual impact on your next step—it helps to build ideas incrementally. Did the experience with ECM refine your sense of playing the drum kit, or, for that matter, your evolution as a musician?

I would say in that sense, yes, that hearing the drums and hearing the production definitely fine-tuned my ears to what I was doing and how I was doing it. I guess on a subconscious level it became more refined, not only via the sound quality, but the music that we were doing: people like John Surman and Jan Garbarek and, of course, the Keith Jarrett Trio, plus Abercrombie and the Gateway Trio—those kinds of things. Then, my records as a leader: Special Edition, Directions, and New Directions. So it was a place to build upon refinements. The combination of making recordings and touring, making music, touring-touring-touring, playing for audiences, adjusting to different acoustic circumstances, all that works ... to learn how to play the drums in concert halls. You have to adjust your playing and make some adjustments to the drums so that they don't ring a lot. Because concert halls can be very reverberating places, even with audiences in them, depending on what materials they're constructed of, what type of walls and so on. You mentioned my being able to play intensely without overpowering the musicians—that's something I worked on and developed to a fine craft.

Your earliest bands had guitar, saxophone, with a kind of jazz-rock vibe, and as the decade progressed, they changed tonally, became more abstract. I'd like to talk about why different groups took on the tonal personalities they did.

Well, they take on that personality because of the personalities. The first Special Edition album I did with Arthur Blythe, David Murray and Peter Warren—I consciously hired those guys because they were the new guys on the scene, and they had individual voices, and their styles were so the opposite of each other that they complemented really well. So those personalities came across.

I seem to remember a Special Edition concert at the Public Theater on which Julius Hemphill played.

He filled-in a couple of times. Hemphill was amazing. I miss him. This guy was a great composer and arranger. He arranged some 16-piece orchestra things for me, for some of my compositions, and I take those charts when I go to universities and do orchestras. He did a beautiful job. But the various groups, I've had Chico Freeman, had John Purcell, had Howard Johnson. Then later on, Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Mick Goodrick , who was phenomenal.

A very different sound with that latter band.

Well, those were younger guys, and we got to electronics, using electronic keyboards and sequencers—experimenting with sound and colors. We did a few albums. We did Irresistible Forces, then Audio/Visual Scapes, Earthwalk, and Extra Special Edition . I had Marvin Sewell replace one of the horn players. Then Michael Cain came along, and we had a long, very beautiful association.

It's interesting how you've stayed on top of technology and incorporated new rhythmic developments into what you do. You always seem to be assimilating new information and enveloping it into your production. An interesting process.

Yes. We can talk about how that works on my label, Golden Beams, on which we recorded a duet between Foday Suso and I, and then had Ben Surman, my son-in-law, remix some of the stuff. We had the DeJohnette Golden Beams Collected, which are remixes and re-remixes. Ben is light years ahead of anybody else I've heard in terms of knowing how to remix. He's a great sound engineer, and he took material that was recorded and totally reinvented it. We also have the group called Ripple Effect, which has his father, John, me, Jerome Harris, and Marlui Miranda from Brazil. We're going to be doing some gigs in the fall. So that's a combination of acoustic jazz, world music, and remixes, and doing improvisations on the fly, too.

When did the world music element start to become a serious part of your palette?

Well, world music has always been there since the '60s. I was into the Beatles, I was into Ravi Shankar, I was into listening to the Nonesuch and Folkways records.

Did you listen to Afro-Cuban music when you got to New York? On the Lower East Side ...

There was a lot of it going on. But I didn't get into it 'til later, when I went to Africa and started doing things with African musicians. But I really got into the Afro-Cuban thing, like Eddie Palmieri and Pancho Sanchez . I love the grooves with the son and the salsa and the merengue. That's what I like about playing with Danilo and John, as well as Gonzalo Rubalcaba. Because John understands the clave rhythm. So we go into those feels, but we extend them. I like to dance. We like to move. That's why when we play the grooves, the grooves have such an insatiable tinge to them.

Danilo himself has taught a lot of musicians younger than he a lot about rhythm, showing them ways to phrase music in new directions. He's a great teacher.

But you've told me that you take those ideas and beats more by osmosis than through an analytical process.

Well, I guess it goes into my creative conscious brain and comes back. Because I do things independence-wise on the drum set which influence Danilo. Danilo says, 'Man, you were doing that.' I said, 'Well, because you were doing this-and-this-and-this in your left hand, so it set me off to do this.' In other words, we're feeding each other creatively. I guess in an analytical sense, we'll discuss it, we'll talk about it afterwards, or sing what we did. So in that sense, the process is looked at and talked about and commented on. 'Oh, man, that was a great hit, but let's try this and this.' So we build on it in terms of the interaction musically and the interaction of talking about it. It doesn't get intellectual. It identifies a specific thing that we explore.

Perhaps I can make a summational statement. Throughout your professional career, which spans about fifty years, you've been able to pull off this rare trick of being able to function as a creative musician, to incorporate all of this new information, but also be a highly visible, commercially pretty successful guy. You can fill the Blue Note for a week, you can fill larger venues, and command large fees as a sideman on arena tours by dint of your identity. So you've been able to balance these two very crucial aspects of a satisfactory career as an improviser, both to be creative and to be commercially successful, and live the way you want. Presumably you like the lifestyle in Woodstock ...

Oh, I love it.

Has it ever been a difficult proposition for you to stay on that aesthetic course?

No, I chose to do that. I consciously chose to do that. Because that's what I love to do. It's my passion. So I continue doing that. Now, with today's climate the way it is, I expect there will be challenges in years to come. But I'm trying to stay positive that somehow the music and the environment will change to a more favourable and more balanced and more caring society. But we will see. That remains. There are a lot of challenges ahead.

Ted Panken interviewed Jack DeJohnette on April 18, 2009

June 15, 2009 · 2 comments


In Conversation With Fly: Jeff Ballard, Larry Grenadier, and Mark Turner

By Thierry Quénum

                           Fly (photo by Lourdes Delgado)

A cooperative group born in the early 2000s, Fly has developed an utterly original approach to the sax/bass/drums trio. They released their first album in 2004, the eponymously named Fly, for the Savoy Jazz label. The release of their second record, Sky & Country on the legendary German-based ECM label, has further raised their collective profile.

A current European tour brought saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Jeff Ballard to Paris for a few days at the end of May to play the Sunset, one of the premiere clubs of the French capital, and to teach a master class. Paris-based Thierry Quénum, a regular contributor, asked them to talk about their vision of music and the history of their group.

How and when did the three of you meet?

Mark: I met Larry in high school in California in 1984, and I met Jeff in New York in '91.

Larry: I met Jeff in the early eighties at a jazz camp in California. I was still in high school and he was already in college. We started playing together during the eighties. As for Mark, after our first meeting in California, we met again near Boston, where we were both studying in the early nineties. Then we moved to NYC, where Jeff had moved a year before. Jeff and I lived together downtown, while Mark was living in Brooklyn. We had a lot of sessions at our house, and once we invited Mark, which was the first time that we played trio together, around 1991.

Jeff: In fact, I was the one who put the band together officially for the first time: in 2000 Chick Corea presented his sidemen, with their own bands, on an album called Origination. So Fly first appeared on record as the Jeff Ballard Trio. We all felt great about this, so we kept on playing and made our record for Savoy in 2004 ...

Larry: … and we continued, even when the relationship with that company faded away. We had gigs in New York and other places in the States.

Did you decide right away to use a collective name?

Mark: Yes, pretty much.

Larry: It seemed like the music that we are making was not about one person being out front. It was not about a saxophone with bass and drums accompaniment, so it didn’t seem right to call it one person’s name. It was three equal parts.

Jeff: The fact that the three of us have been sidemen more often than leaders also pushes us to take greater care of the two others. Hence, this collective conception of the trio.

Were you conscious that you were different from most sax/bass/drums trios?

Mark: Maybe in the hindsight, but it certainly wasn’t a conceptual idea. There were things that we knew we anted to do—the length of the compositions being an obvious example, or the fact that the improvisation shouldn’t necessarily be on the entire form of the song—that may be markedly different from what other trios do, but it never was meant to be so. Of course, we thought about the form of the tunes, because that’s what came [from] checking-out the possibilities of this bare-bones band.

Larry: What happens with a band like ours is similar to what happens when you develop as an instrumentalist or a singer. You’re an amalgamation of everything that you’ve listened to and that turned you on. All this unconsciously finds its way into the music. But we never decided to sound like any particular band, or not to sound like any particular band.

There was one tune that you composed together on the first record, but none like that on Sky & Country. Was that deliberate?

Jeff: No, we just happened to be living closer to one another at the time, which made this type of things easier.

Larry: But even if they’re not composed collectively, these tunes all have our input. Lots of the tunes are not originally fully formed, and though one of us has composed them, we collectively decide how they’re going to evolve. The form is a huge part of this process and taking in everybody’s ideas and making them part of the tune can be considered as some kind of collective composing.

Are you conscious of an evolution between the first and second records?

Mark: I would say that the second is more pastoral. The improvisations are more woven to the sound itself than they were in the first. We’re writing that way and that’s part of our evolution. Just the same, we go towards longer forms.

Larry: We’re finding ways to create more musical interest, and one of them is to have different sequences to a tune so that a strong break between these sequences can bring a dramatic evolution to the next one. That goes for the improvisations too. The song becomes like a landscape that evolves over time, as opposed to giving the whole form at the beginning and repeating it at the end. It’s not your typical AABA jazz form, and we’re exploring the possibilities of what can happen with just these three instruments. Besides, the soprano that Mark uses on this new record brings a new element of sound.

Would the writing process that you’re talking about be possible with another type of trio?

Larry: Every band has its own plusses and minuses. The plus in this band is that by limiting the number of voices you’re increasing the possibilities for each instrument, but in each type of band you’re dealing with the possibilities for the sound to come out.

Jeff: Actually, we’re discovering that there’s more potential than we originally thought, and it’s very exciting. We even felt it these last few days, playing several nights at the Sunset in Paris, and I think the next bunch of compositions will reflect these evolutions. Being sidemen in other projects, we also bring back inspiration from outside this band, and the reverse happens, too.

Larry: This band is a laboratory in a way …

One last question about the repertoire: On the first record, in addition to the band's original compositions, you covered Jimi Hendrix and Reid Anderson tunes. Not on Sky & Country. Why was that?

Mark: We do play other people’s tunes live. For example, during the Paris concerts we played a Lucky Thompson composition. It’s fun to adapt other tunes to this band, it’s almost like rewriting them. But for this record we focused on our own material.

Does it have to do with the fact that it’s your first ECM record? Which brings me to ask you how you met Manfred Eicher.

Larry: I knew him from the records I’d done with Charles Lloyd. Besides, we all grew up on ECM records and they had a big impact on us. So when we started thinking of a label, ECM naturally came as a possibility, and when we brought the music to Manfred, he was immediately interested.

Jeff: It took a long time, though, even after he’d said yes, but that’s our pace anyway.

Larry: Some people are surprised that we are on ECM, but actually it seems to fit us pretty well. ECM has been labeled in a certain way, but if you look at their catalog—from the Art Ensemble of Chicago to Keith Jarrett through Arvo Pärt—it’s big and very diverse. We somehow bring something that was more present at their beginning than it is now, something that was part of their core stuff. It also fits, because of the space that comes through in our music and that can be played in the studio in a very cool way. Manfred is very aware of that, of the soundscape.

Was he present in the studio, and how influential was he?

                             Fly by Lourdes delgado

Mark: He was there, but he was mostly influential at the mix. It was a collaboration, something very unique. He also brought a lot of interesting ideas for the sequencing of the tunes.

Let’s talk about live music. Do you have more gigs now that you are ECM artists?

Mark: We’re playing about two tours a year, plus one or two weeks in New York. We’ll probably do more now that we’re on a label again, since you know labels facilitate work. But we’ve been working all along.

Your personal schedules allow you to do so?

Jeff: We’re consciously making it so that it happens. Larry and I already asked Brad Mehldau if he could leave some space free for us to play with Fly, and he was very open to the idea. So there’ll definitely be more happening.

How about venues? What do you like best: clubs or bigger rooms?

Larry: Most people would think clubs are the best for us, but we also like bigger places. We’d play a different set than in a club, but it can be nice too. Something about a club that’s unique, though, is that you’re right next to the audience and you can physically feel the energy going back and forth with them. There’s nothing like that to a concert.

Jeff: The club also gives you the possibility of playing several nights, and it’s good for us and for the people who can come several times and get a picture of what’s going on. I’d like more of these long runs.

Mark: When you think of Monk, who played several months in the same club, six nights a week—this really does have an effect on the music.

I don’t know about the United States, but are you aware of the fact that in Europe, Fly has become a reference for many musicians, mostly younger ones?

Jeff: We’ve noticed something from the audience that comes to see us. It’s always been young. As far as musicians are concerned, there’s been a lot of talk about Mark’s influence on tenor players younger that him, but we haven’t heard about an influence from Fly as a band.

Mark: Definitely, there are young musicians in our audience, but I think there are too in Kurt Rosenwinkel’s audience, in Brad Mehldau’s audience, or in the audiences of other bands where I’m playing.

Larry: I’m not aware of that influence either, but it’s cool to hear about it.

Jeff: If these younger musicians you’re talking about are attracted by our way of playing, I’m glad to hear that because I love our type of interaction and I’d like to hear it more. Of course one of the reasons for this supposed influence is that there are more and more jazz students and we can only hope that our supposed influence will help them develop their curiosity towards what influenced us. It’s a long process to check out music that is not easily available in the time when you grow up. To us, Count Basie has always been one strong influence, for example.

Do you often teach master classes, like the one you just did at the Paris Bill Evans Piano Academy?

Jeff: Quite a bit, yes. That’s fun. And the students actually asked us some questions about band playing.

Larry: I’m still thinking about this idea of our influence on younger players. I think that one of the things that may appeal to them is that our band is musically very inclusive. Everyone wants to be inclusive, but they don’t know how. How do you make Duke Ellington and Steve Coleman come together, or Ray Brown and Jaco Pastorius? This happened rather naturally for us, and I think it can be appealing to younger players.

Mark: In fact, I’m not sure many bands that are concerned about changing directions inside a tune, or weaving composition and improvisation more together have as many older influences as we do. For example, on the last record we have tunes that have an older feeling, that go back to the forties, a bit like that Lucky Thompson tune that we played live.

June 09, 2009 · 2 comments


OctoJAZZarian Profile: Joe Wilder

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

Our subject this month is trumpeter Joe Wilder.

By arnold jay smith

                         Joe Wilder by Suzanne Cerny

For as long as I have been reading about, listening to, or playing music, there have been names and faces that keep cropping-up in (or out of) a jazz context. We've all had that experience. Sometimes the names would be in the small print on the back of LP jackets; other times in a photo of a band; sometimes in the pit band of a Broadway show. Less frequently, you might catch a glimpse of a familiar face in a symphony broadcast and can't wait for the roll off to see who it was. In my case, that name and face has been, more-often-than-not, the trumpeter/flugelhornist Joe Wilder.

The handsome and mustachioed Mr. Wilder has lost count of the number of recordings he's made. When New York City was the undisputed hub of the recording industry, Joe played sessions of every type: mood music, symphonies, big bands, dance bands, soundtracks, television, and all manner of musical wallpaper. His sight-reading abilities and overall musicality have helped make him a first-call session musician. They also made him a fixture in Broadway pit orchestras, in the days when all musicals used full orchestras. As a sideman, his employers and fellow players fall easily into the much-abused "legendary" category. Joe Wilder is history personified. He currently records as a leader for the Evening Star label (which is owned by Benny Carter biographer Ed Berger).

We spoke of his beginnings late in 2008, sitting on a couch in the cellar of N.Y.C. Musicians Local 802, AFM. ("I think I saw a rat swing by," Joe quipped. "On what instrument?" I asked.) His near-total recall led to a lengthy conversation which was interrupted periodically when the music of bandleader Bill Warfield, who was rehearsing upstairs, wafted down to us and we couldn't resist listening-in. Warfield would join in our riffing.

Born in 1922 near Philadelphia and raised there, Joe didn't know of the area's great music teachers: Madam Chaloff, mother of Serge; Mrs. Eubanks, sister of Ray Bryant and mother of Kevin and Robin. "I wasn't interested in music," he confessed. "My father played the cornet, then went to sousaphone. He played melodies on sousaphone like 'Asleep In The Deep.'" [Joe sang it.] "Later he gave that up, as bass violin became the bottom. He bought a fine German instrument from someone in the Philadelphia Orchestra and paid it off over three years."

Philly was the boomtown home of General Electric, the Fels Naptha soap company, and Phillies Cigars. RCA was just across the river in Camden, New Jersey. "There was a lot of revenue being generated out of Philadelphia," Joe remarked. They also had two baseball teams, the National League Phillies and the original American League Athletics under manager Connie Mack. "The family lived [in a row house] in Colwyn, Pa.," he continued. "My maternal grandfather, who was only a few steps away from slavery, worked for Fels Naptha and put away a little each week. He eventually owned three houses, and we moved in with them.

"We were one of six or seven black families; most were Quakers. As we didn't have electricity, we used kerosene lamps … one time my youngest brother (we were four in all) was playing and some newspapers caught fire and the whole row of houses burned to ashes, necessitating the move to Philadelphia, which was only blocks from Colwyn." The family was long-lived. "My grandparents on both sides lived into their 60s and 70s, which was old for their time. My father died in 2001, months from his 101st."

His mother, who was also a musician, established a traveling beautician business. "Sort of a 'CC Rider' beauty parlor. My father, who met people on his musical travels, suggested that she do that, because there was no one else in that area for women's beauty needs. She began going to people's homes in Philadelphia. Eventually she opened a shop in her own home." The picture we're getting here is of an industrious cohesive unit which supported each other on every level. Joe's foray into a musical career was no different.

"I must have been in elementary school—say 3rd or 4th grade—when my father decided he wanted me to play cornet." You'd think they already had one around the house. Not so. "My father went to a hock shop and picked up a used Holton, which was in pretty good shape, but it had been in the hock shop for some time so it needed work. I began lessons with a trumpet player, Henry Lowe, from the Frankie Fairfax band. He also played with my father's band." Fairfax eventually became secretary of the local Philadelphia black musicians' union.

The cornet is a fabled instrument, one which most personified New Orleans music: the instrument of Buddy Bolden, Joe "King" Oliver and his protégé Louis Armstrong. Thomas Dorsey Sr. played it in a Carlisle, Pennsylvania church and taught his children Tommy and Jimmy to play it. But after Rex Stewart, it seemed to fall from grace in favor of the brighter sound of the trumpet. I asked Joe: Why the cornet?

"It was because of the military bands, which didn't use trumpets. For example, John Phillip Sousa used cornets," Joe said. [Think of the lyrics to that tune from The Music Man: "76 trombones led the big parade, with 101 cornets close behind."] "Some famous cornetists of that time were Herbert Clark, Del Staigers. While Lowe was a nice guy, my father was not happy with my progress, so he got me his teacher, Mr. Frederic P. Griffin. He could play any instrument. My first public appearance was in public school, standing in the hallway playing taps."

After that inauspicious start (inexplicably ignored by the critical community), Joe went on to Tilden Jr. High. "[Tilden] had an orchestra made up of students who played in the public schools which didn't have … formal bands. We played the music from 'The Pirates of Penzance.' We were just kids, but our teacher, Alberta Schenbecker, thought that if we had enough talent, she'd help us along. A fellow student and I practiced from the Arban book [a trumpet method book]—among other things, 'Carnival of Venice.' Usually the student trumpeters play the first part of the melody [he sang]. We got to be so good that we were triple tonguing [he sang again.] It really taught us how to improvise, as we would switch off doing four bars apiece." I joined him, and we demonstrated how two mouth trumpeters might sound doing "Carnival." Our duet had become so joyous that we began competing with the rehearsal upstairs; we were politely asked to tone it down. Joe concluded, "It got to be where you didn't know where one left off and the other began. Very rewarding, especially for two kids. It wasn't jazz; after all, it was still called 'the devil's music.' All of my musical friends, including my 'Carnival' buddy, went on to a high school which graduated them into such as the Baltimore Symphony.

Philadelphia was still segregated. "The first band to integrate was led by society bandleader Jan Savitt, which had a brown-skinned vocalist. In the '30s, Joe's father played with Jimmy Gorham's band at the Warwick Hotel. "That was the first all-black band to play there," Joe says. A few years later, as a teenager, Joe played with the same band in the same place. "That was the second time [for an all black band]. After that, the hotel was issued a warning by the white local union that if they continued that practice, they would not be permitted to hire a white orchestra." The hotel stopped using all-black bands.

Speaking of the Warwick gig reminded Joe of a sad but all-too-familiar tale. The Gorham band was playing a party for a southern advertising company. A woman from the company approached the bandstand. "In her deepest southern drawl, she told Jimmy how much she and her guests were enjoying the music. 'They've never heard such a hot nigger band,' she said, not even thinking that was not a nice word. In her circles it was commonplace," Joe said. "A few members of the band who were from the rural south went-off on her. They'd liked to lynch her." Words can hurt. "We need to stop blacks calling each other that," says Joe. "It will end, now with Obama in the Presidency. He's among the most qualified persons to hold the office, of any background, ever. All the negativism on both sides will melt away." Let us pray he's right.

Joe remembers prejudice in the world of classical music, as well. "Friends of my father auditioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra [under Leopold Stokowski]—first-class classical players … They were told that they did very well. 'But don't call us, we'll call you.' They never were, of course," said Joe. "It was the first time I had ever heard that expression. My father used to joke about that."

After Philly and Gorham's band, Joe played with Lonnie Slappy's band, which was based on the style of bassist John Kirby's band, which featured, among others, trumpeter Charlie Shavers. "Slappy's band played your basic jazz and ballads," says Joe. "Frank Galbraith, who was on trumpet, was leaving for Chick Webb's band. I was hired and I played lead as well as jazz improvising trumpet—my first time."

Now experienced, the still-young Wilder hooked-up with another Philly Kirby-styled small band, the Harlem Dictators. They were playing in Annapolis and the Kirby band was in nearby Baltimore. "They came over to hear us, as they heard we were playing their music. So I played one of Charlie Shavers' solos note-for-note. I like to think he was flattered." Much later, when Shavers had throat cancer and couldn't talk, Wilder visited him in the hospital. Joe began to write questions to him. "Charlie looked up and said, 'Joe I can't talk, but I can hear,'' said Joe. "We had a laugh, but did I feel silly. What a versatile musician! He differed from his contemporary Roy Eldridge in that Charlie played a lot of classical music. Here's a guy who could have been with any of the major symphony orchestras."

Trumpeter Billy Jones was the leader of the Harlem Dictators. "He had me play lead as well as the solos," Joe said. At one point the 16 year-old Wilder was blown out. "I couldn't play a note, I played so hard. I took two-and-a-half weeks off. Jones would come off the bandstand looking pressed and dapper even in the summer and there was no air conditioning." Of course, he did; Joe was doing all the work.

Doc Cheatham credited his long playing career to the fact that he usually played lead and did not solo often. Joe said that solo players hurt themselves by playing so high. "I never played high; I was not that kind of player. I never screamed. Those guys destroyed themselves physically. They didn't know what they were doing. You have to play for a number of years before you realize the damage." I remarked that it was Louis Armstrong who created the art of the jazz entertainer by playing all those C's above high C, and subsequent players never looked back. "You think about Louis, and how his mind was so creative and having no one before him to get the musical information from," said Joe. "While I was listening to him, I was learning classical music from the Arban book.

Early in his career, Joe worked on a Philly radio show sponsored by Parisian Tailors. "The Kessler Brothers [the company's proprietors] used to make almost all the major band uniforms for Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and others," said Joe. "They weren't wearing tuxedos in those days, just dress suits." The tailors' chief cutter, Eddie Lieberman, began dabbling in black artists' management. "Eddie persuaded the Kesslers into sponsoring a show for black children, because Horn & Hardart [the Automat people, another Philadelphia-based company] had a show for white kids. In effect, sort of a payback for the tailoring business the black bands were giving them.

"I was the only one playing an instrument. Percy Heath was playing the violin, but they didn't like that. They called me 'Little Louis' only because I was playing the trumpet. I didn't sound like him at all. My father brought home first trumpet parts, and I would learn them and play them on the show with an accompanist, Ruth Mosley. There were boy and girl singers and dancers, and [the soon-to-be-famous] Stump and Stumpy, who would dance on a wooden board." The already-famous Nicholas Brothers were on the Horn & Hardart show.

The very restrictive Philadelphia Blue Laws were in effect, so on Sunday, all 'devil's music' had to cease. Joe remembered the Lincoln Theater—Philly's version of the Apollo Theater—on Sundays: "The bands which came through and played there all had to improvise for one hour on Sunday morning to what we did, as they couldn't play their music. I ended up playing [backed] by every major band that came through, Henderson, Calloway, Basie all played for us."

Already a road veteran with the Dictators, but still in school, Joe remembered playing in Annapolis one summer and seeing a band led by someone called 'Banjo Bernie." "He had an entire show package: orchestras, singers, bands, dancers," said Joe. "In one of those bands the alto player was one Charlie Parker." Wilder remembers Parker as a friendly guy, much-admired for his genius playing. "It was hot, and he would sit up in his non-air conditioned hotel room with the window open and practice, in every key. Slow, fast. I made a mental note to play that way when I got home."

Wilder once played in a Philly symphonic band that also included one of Bird's future band mates, trumpeter Red Rodney—then known by his given name, Robert Chudnick—and clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. Wilder faced an uncomfortable racial moment during a band photo shoot. He was in a solo chair, and as such, prominently placed in the photo. The principal presumably didn't like having a black man occupying such a central position in the photo, and asked Wilder to remove himself to a lesser position. DeFranco, among other fellow players, rose to Joe's defense and came down heavily on the principal, who reluctantly allowed him to remain where had been all along.

These and other incidents convinced Wilder that his future lay elsewhere. Walter "Gil" Fuller was then arranging for Earl "Fatha" Hines. Fuller had heard Wilder in Annapolis and Philly and recommended him to Fatha, who was in need of a new lead trumpeter. About that time Joe also got a call from Les Hite, a California-based bandleader whose group had also employed Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. "[Hite] had called me while he was on the road, and I accepted," said Joe. "My mother saw me off at the bus terminal saying, 'When you get to Lansing [Michigan, where the Hite band was], you behave yourself and don't do anything that disgraces the family.' I was on the bus with my luggage under the seat, and got all these people looking at me. That's how I got out of Philly. Britt Woodman was the trombone player and his brother Coney was the pianist."

Joe remained with Hite, who liked to cavort about the stage, for a year. He remembers playing the Howard Theatre when Dizzy Gillespie, ex-Calloway cut-up, joined the band. "Despite his previous disastrous altercation with Calloway [there was a blade involved] Dizzy was clownishly impersonating Hite's downstage antics and finally got caught in the act. The curtain came down and Hite announced, 'Everybody, you've got two weeks notice.' Lionel [Hampton] must have been looking over my shoulder, because I got a call from his people asking me if I was available. Of course, I said yes, because Hite had just fired the whole band. When we went into Hite's office to collect our checks Les told me that the firing didn't apply to me; he just had to get rid of Dizzy because he was afraid of another Cab incident." Nevertheless, Wilder stayed true to his word. He worked the rest of that week with Hite, then went with Hampton. "Not one of my best moves," Joe said. "It was like slavery: he played one player against the other. If you opened your mouth about anything, no matter how unjust, you were fired. I saw so many mean things; I never got over it."

Then came World War II. "I was 1A and I knew I'd be going soon. But there was a rule that if you were with a band and one of your dates was near a military base, you had to play a concert as a morale booster. I had registered in California which I thought gave me four or five weeks more of freedom. It seems that those fellas at the draft board knew more about me than I did, because when we got to Philadelphia there was a notice awaiting me at my mother's home to appear. Honestly, if I hadn't been drafted I would have left Lionel's band anyhow. I was that unhappy. If there was a referendum on the ballot to reinstate slavery I believe Lionel and his wife would have voted for it. For example, say we traveled 300 miles to a dance. We'd get there in time for a quick rinse and a meal. But Lionel would call a rehearsal for an hour. We were due to play four hours of hard music and Lionel would call encores for another half hour, without pay, of course."

Meanwhile, back at the draft board Joe was told they were "not accepting non-combatants in the Army, Navy or Coast Guard, but the Marine Corps was accepting Negroes. 'Did I want to join the Marines?' I said, sure, at least I'd learn to fight. My platoon, the 44th, brought the number of black Marines to 1000. My commanding officer was Bobby Troup ('Route 66'). He got me out of a fighting unit—I was a hell of a shot—and into a band. We subsequently became close friends. I became assistant bandmaster of the headquarters band, and got to back up Louis Armstrong on a morale tour. Louis remembered me from the Philly kiddies show telling me, [he impersonated the Louis growl] 'I always knew you would make it.'"

A law passed during wartime mandated that vets be offered a position by their former employer after leaving the service. So in 1946 Joe was rehired…by Hamp! "I was very unhappy [about that]. But now I was on another level. The Marines had taught me to think for myself, and some of the things that Hampton threw at me I didn't like. As soon as I got the chance I quit."

His next gig was with Jimmie Lunceford. Joe sat back, smiled and said loudly "Finally!" The other trumpet players were Snooky Young and Gerald Wilson. His euphoria was short-lived, however, for Lunceford suffered a severe heart attack prior to a dance in Seaside, Oregon in 1947—a day after yet another distasteful racial incident, where they were refused service in Seattle. "After the constabulary was called, the owner was told to serve us or close. She closed and never reopened." The next day Lunceford appeared at a record shop to sign autographs. "Jimmie suffered something akin to indigestion and just toppled over. Boom! He died on the way to a hospital. He was already dead, actually."

Lunceford demanded his players act responsibly. "Jimmie was one of those concerned bandleaders. He was concerned about the black image," said Joe. "He was concerned about drinking on the bandstand. If he caught you drunk or nodding he'd quietly sidle up you and whisper, 'This one's on you.' In other words, you're not getting paid for tonight. Other times, he'd make a reservation at a restaurant and when the band would thank him for his largess he'd say, 'Don't thank me; thank …' and he'd rattle off the offenders' names and the dates of the offense, as they were paying the bill."

After the Lunceford band met its untimely demise, Wilder went with Herbie Fields, another Hampton parolee who learned his lessons well. "He was almost as bad as Hamp," Joe said. Fields was the first integrated band Wilder played with. "It was okay, but the problems persisted. In Chicago I stayed in one hotel for one night and had to leave by 8 a.m. I then moved in with Johnny Griffin, whose mother owned a big house on the other side of town."

After Herbie, Joe went with Sam Donohue's band, then Lucky Millender's. With every band there was a racial vignette, each sounding painfully like the last: Band walks into an establishment in the north; band is refused service; words are exchanged; no violence erupts; band walks away. There will never be a movie made from that scenario, nor will it ever make the late night news. Such incidents might have been more common than those we are more accustomed to hearing about, yet they did not advance the cause of integration. It took a bus seat in Birmingham to do that.

There was a funny one, though. The integrated Millender band was playing Charleston, when the police accosted them. Joe: "There were six white guys in the band. One was someone named Porky Cohen, a chunky fella. The cops asked him if he was colored. Porky Cohen, pink of face and eyes of blue, had a lisp, answered, 'Why thertainly.' One cop turned to the other and said, 'Well, if they all admit to being colored, guess there's nothing wrong with that.'" It was all about playing the game. They played the dance that night as well. "An interesting aspect about Lucky was that he wasn't a musician, yet he knew good musicianship," recalled Joe. "If he liked what he heard, he paid you what you wanted."

While he was with Lucky, Wilder got a call from Duke Ellington. "He wanted me to join his band. I was so flattered I couldn't believe it." Seems that he had heard about Wilder from his "fellows," and Duke wanted him in the band. "I was all over him with compliments like, 'I'm a fan of Cootie [Williams] and Rex [Stewart]' and 'you were my father's favorite; he had pictures of you all over the house,' you know, stuff like that." Then came the following colloquy. Ellington: "When can you join us?" Wilder: "I have to give Lucky two weeks notice. What are you paying? After all I have a family. Ellington wouldn't say how much, only that there wasn't much money around. I told him what I was getting with Lucky. I told him that as much as I would love to, it was not good business to play for less." Duke demurred, and the deal was never consummated.

The year was 1948 and the jazz world was rife with bebop. Noise was being made both in Harlem and on "The Street," West 52nd St. Wilder got in on the history-making by joining Dizzy Gillespie's ground-breaking big band. Wilder's band mates included such luminaries as the pianist John Lewis, bassist Al McKibbon, drummer Joe Harris, vibist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Lamar Wright, Jr., and baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne. "We were doing a concert," Joe remembered, "when the emcee, who was British, introduced Cecil—which is a British name after all—as 'Satchel.' [There was a famous black baseball pitcher around at the time.] Amazingly he got the name of tune right, 'Oop Bop Sh'bam.'" Dizzy was not only a good player, but a terrific bandleader, said Joe. "Everything was done to perfection." When asked if moving from a swing band to a bebop band changed his style at all, Joe said that he'd already learned a lot of the innovative syncopations from his early band books. "So bebop didn't affect me all that much." He didn't stay with Dizzy's band long. "When the band was scheduled to go to Europe, the money was not that good. So I decided not to go with him. Diz tried to tempt me by saying, jokingly I hope, 'Think of all those white girls!'"

1950 found Wilder in Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe in New York's Times Square with Noble Sissle's band. "Someone heard me there and asked me if I'd like to do a Broadway show. I had to give Noble two weeks. Noble said, 'You know, young man this could be a break for you, so I'll let you go without the notice. But if you don't come back within the two weeks I'll have to get a replacement for you.' I thought that was very nice." The show was a revue called Alive and Kicking, and starred Carl Reiner, Jack Gilford, David Burns, Bobby Van, and Gwen Verdon. The show ran only seven weeks, but Wilder was so good that Sissle took him back with the admonition that if he did it again, he would be permanently replaced.

Well, he did it, again, and asked Sissle, again, and was granted leave, again. "Only this time, the show was 'Guys and Dolls' which continues to be revived." Joe boasted, "I didn't have to go back with Noble after that. The pits can be a lifetime job. And you had to dress up," Joe remarked. "Unlike today's players, who you never see due to the stage overhang … [they] tend to dress more casually. We wore tuxedoes, or at least dark suits.

"Cole Porter's Silk Stockings was the first show I did where there was an African-American in a first chair: me." Producers Cy Feuer and Ernest Martin, who booked the show into Boston and Philadelphia, were furious. "With all the trumpet players in New York City you hired a nigger?!" one shouted at the leader. "I came this close to ending my career with one punch," said Joe. "I kept saying to myself, 'Think of Jackie Robinson.' When they asked the composer, Mr. Porter, he retorted, 'Can the man play my music?' That was it."

After that, there were Shenandoah and The Most Happy Fella. From there, Wilder joined the ABC studios. Not everyone was racist. He recalled doing a record date in a section with Billy Butterfield. Butterfield suggested that he would call Wilder if he could find something to throw Wilder's way. An ABC soap opera came along and Butterfield had a better paying gig elsewhere, so he recommended Wilder. After the session, one well-dressed guy was impressed and asked him to stop by his office. "I did not realize who he was, so I went home. A few days later I get a call from his secretary who asked me to come in for a few more gigs. I thanked her and said that I didn't know him. 'Funny,' she said. 'He asked you to stop by the last time you were here and you didn't show up.' The next time I went straight to his office. He said, 'Mr. Wilder. How do you expect to get ahead in the music business if you don't know a contractor when you see one?' Every time thereafter he would point to me and say 'He's Joe Wilder. He doesn't know a contractor when he sees one.' He asked if I would be interested in coming on staff." Joe remained with ABC for 17 years. In that time, he played the pits and the studios, but no jazz.

In 1962 he went on an infamous State Department tour of Soviet Russia with Benny Goodman's band. "The band was great but Benny was so difficult," remembered Joe. "The week before we were ready to leave, Benny called and told everybody that we had to take a $100 cut in salary. I refused but I had already sent my family to live with my wife's people in Sweden while I was on the tour. So he said how about $50?" Ultimately, they all agreed. When they got to the Embassy in Moscow, they cornered the liaison officer and peppered him with questions about the pay cut. "Turns out, the State Dept. had nothing to do with the pay; it was all Goodman's to dole out."

The contracts were not ready until the tour was underway. Wilder refused to sign, and felt repercussions. Return tickets and overweight luggage charges were withheld, for instance. "He wouldn't let me play my solos; he would cut to the out chorus," Joe said. The infamously tight Goodman didn't give in easily. "We went through the Union to get what was due. Jimmy Maxwell's son was supposed to be the band boy. I don't know if Goodman ever paid him. He had disagreed with Jimmy about updating the charts, so he had asked Jimmy not to play lead, but just come along on the trip."

Wilder's memories of the trip are not good. "We were supposed to show how we get along with each other. When we ate our meals Goodman would be at a table by himself with a little American flag, and we all would be someplace else. When Benny wanted his translator whose name he had forgotten, he would whistle as if calling his dog. The Russians despised him. They looked like they wanted to kill him." [Joe related a third-person story of a proposed Harry Belafonte Russian tour, when every time Goodman's name was mentioned in the negotiations "the Russians spit on the floor." The Belafonte tour never materialized.] Mission to Moscow, a double LP recorded during the tour, was later issued by Columbia. It and a tongue-in-cheek successor, entitled Jazz Mission to Moscow under the leadership of Phil Woods on the Colpix label, are collectors' items. "I have never listened to [the recording]; it's too depressing."

Upon Joe's return from Russia, Abe (Glenn) Osser hired him to work the Miss American Pageant. Wilder held that gig for 22 years—only the second African-American member to play in that orchestra. He was also a member of the New York Philharmonic when trumpet parts were prominent. He was a member of the Symphony of the New World, the first completely integrated orchestra in New York, for six years.

Over the years there have been occasional jazz recording dates. In the '50s he recorded as leader for Savoy and Columbia. His two Columbia albums, The Pretty Sound of Joe Wilder and Jazz from "Peter Gunn", have been reissued as a single CD. In 1991, Ed Berger and Benny Carter approached him about recording for their Evening Star label. He's since recorded three albums for Evening Star: Alone With Just My Dreams, No Greater Love, and Among Friends.

Regrets: "There is nothing I have done that any other trumpet player could not have done. If I was playing lead in a Broadway show there were two or three other trumpeters who contributed to it." Wilder doesn't seem to regret not having gone with Ellington, or not being more confrontational towards the racists. "My father wanted me to meet Benny Carter. 'Listen to that man,' he would say.' It would have been regretful had I not [met him]. But I finally did, and we became really close. When I told my father he came very near disbelieving me." [While on the subject of Benny Carter we were interrupted by the sounds of the Warfield band rehearsing Carter's famous arrangement of "Honeysuckle Rose." A small bit of irony which drew guffaws and slapped palms.]


Bill Warfield: Trumpet playing bandleader, arranger, educator Warfield came down to our 802 basement lair as his rehearsal time ended. He gushed in the presence of the Master. "Joe Wilder has been among my idols since as far back as I can remember," he said. "He can and has done everything on the trumpet. He doesn't have to formally teach a thing; his examples are enough."

Ed Berger: In addition to being the primary mover at Evening Star, Berger is a curator at the Rutgers Institute of Jazz Studies in Newark, NJ. Both he and Joe are photographers, and as such are rarely seen without some paraphernalia dangling from around their necks. Berger had this to say about his friend and colleague.

"Joe's sterling personal qualities are at one with his musicianship. He is one of the most considerate and caring people I have ever met. Many of the same qualities that distinguish his playing—warmth, wit, and sophistication—are simply an extension of Joe Wilder, the person. He is a man of wide interests and talents, from cooking to photography. (As if his impeccable musicianship were not enough to ensure his position as one of New York's first-call studio players, the fact that, more often than not, he would show up at a session with a homemade cheesecake or cookies for the band didn't hurt!) As an African-American musician coming of age in the late 1930s and 1940s, Joe encountered more than his share of indignities and disappointments. In a sense, his entire career has been devoted to breaking down barriers: in the conservatories and classical world, as one of the first black Marines, in the Broadway show orchestras, and the New York studios. In all of these settings, he triumphed through sheer talent and hard work, and emerged without a scintilla of bitterness and with his dignity and humor intact."

June 03, 2009 · 6 comments