Monday, December 14, 2009

Don Friedman

Don Friedman has been my piano teacher for the past three years at NYU. He truly is someone that I look up to - not only musically, but very much personally. He seems truly happy, truly fulfilled, something I long for some day.

Don and I have spent many hours discussing the musicians he's known and played with. He was Scott Lafaro's roommate; flipping through my "Real Book" one day, we came across the tune, "Gloria's Step."

"Oh yeah," Don said. "He wrote that at my apartment."

Among the many crazy stories Don has told me, one conversation truly stuck out.

Our conversation began discussing Charles Mingus. Don told me about the time he played opposite Mingus at The Five Spot, which he said was on St. Mark’s Place between 3rd and 2nd avenues. He said that Mingus’ group was known to be the “out” group. However, Don’s group turned out to be playing more “out” than Mingus’. During Don’s set, Mingus walked over to Don and said, “What are you trying to do? You’re making it look like I play Rock N’ Roll!”

Don then said that he invited a guest trumpeter on the stage –a man who had long, flowing blonde hair. The man played “out” trumpet, and Mingus looked at Don and said, “Who do you think he is? Jesus Christ?”

Reminiscing about the Five Spot, he told me about its’ owners, two Italian brothers who knew nothing about Jazz. They booked Monk and Johnny Griffin (or someone like that) when they first opened and the place was packed. That’s when it started.

Don asked me if I knew that Ornette Coleman’s first NYC gig was at The Five Spot. Being a historically important gig that I have read much about, I said I knew. Don then revealed some crazy news: Don was actually playing opposite Ornette on that gig (solo piano). He said that many famous people –including Leonard Bernstein- came out to see Ornette.

Don told me he used to play with Ornette back in California – Don, Ornette, Don Cherry, and Billy Higgins. Also, a saxophone player with whom Don compared Sonny Rollins named John Handy.

We began talking about Ornette and his crazy interviews, how it's hard to understand almost anything he says. Don told me that Ornette is totally “out.” However, he isn’t crazy. He is a very nice guy who can hold a normal conversation. "He isn’t crazy," Don said..."like Monk,"

Don told me that he is a good friend with Eddie Henderson, a trumpeter who is also a psychologist. When Eddie was a student resident, Monk’s wife had Monk committed to the same hospital in which Eddie worked. Knowing that he was a jazz musician and black, Henderson was assigned to work with Monk. Not remembering specific stories, Don told me that Eddie told him that Monk said some crazy, scary things. He said that Monk was a schizophrenic, and while he had times when he seemed nice and happy, he was crazy.

Elaborating on his point, Don said that he played opposite Monk’s group for a week or so at the old Jazz Gallery, which was one or two blocks up from the Five Spot, between 2nd and 3rd avenues as well (With the success of the Five Spot, the brothers opened this new club). He said that the musicians had a lot of interaction. There was the usual backstage talk with one another, the “usual bullshit” (to quote Don). However, he said that Monk never spoke a word. Never. He said that Monk would walk around with his battery-powered fan (it was a summer gig). He’d place it next to the piano and leave it on while he played. When he would finish soloing (and Charlie Rouse would start), he’d stand up, grab the fan, go behind the wing of the grand piano and dance. After the gig, he’d go outside, lean on his car, and let the fan blow in his face.

Hank Jones

Hank Jones is truly my pianistic idol. While I have many other pianist role models, it is Hank Jones whose playing is absolutely perfect to me. It seems that everything he plays is perfectly placed, a perfect balance of logic and emotion, and his touch is, as McCoy Tyner told me, "magical."

The following was the first encounter I had with Mr. Jones, backstage at the Iridium. While we have had a few other encounters - more personal, yet often very strange - since, this was the first, and it was quite a thrill. The following took place, and on March 11, 2009, after Hank played at the Iridium and I wandered backstage.

Hank was standing there laughing and talking with people, and I got in line. The guy behind me approached and began a lengthy conversation with him; one with which I joined. The first thing I heard was Hank talk about the Basie band. “He had four great arrangers for that band,” he said. “It’s usually hard enough to get one.”

Hank began talking about his first day walking in to record for a certain recording label. On his first day, he said, both Nat Cole and George Shearing were in the studio. He said he knew Nat for a long time, and he also talked about how great of a piano player George Shearing was. Hank said that an interviewer once asked George if he had been blind all of his life and George replied, “Not yet.”

The man Hank was talking to said that he heard that George said he would pick out the women on his album covers by himself (he’s blind). They laughed.

The two then had a lengthy discussion about the clarinet greats of jazz. Hank said that he used to joke with Benny Goodman; whenever Benny would get in a bad mood or something on stage, Hank would reach for his hat (as if he were leaving), and Benny would shape up. Hank was especially complimentary about Woody Herman, who he said was a fine clarinet player. He called Benny Goodman a genius, and a pretty good player. He repeated player over and over, until we understood what he was talking about. He then said, “He was a fine clarinet player,” just to throw off the women (his wife?) he was with, jokingly. He said that one time they went down south (Florida I think) and the place they were playing (a big hotel) spelled Gene Bertocini’s name, Dean Bertotini (close to it). He said Benny looked at it, shrugged his shoulders, said “Okay,” and turned back around.

Hank talked about his love for Vladimir Horowitz; how he had a very unique playing style. Hank said that it was rare for a classical pianist to sound that unique. "There must be thousands of great classical pianists," Hank said. "But when you hear Horowitz playing Chopin, it’s like you’re hearing it for the first time."

Hank then told a story about a man who came into a club once, introduced himself as “Rigor-mortus” and asked if he could sit in. He said the man then ate three bowls of shrimp and destroyed all the instruments, except the piano. Hank didn’t blame him for destroying the bassoon. He then said, “Here’s something to think about though: That man ate three big bowls of shrimp. That’s a lot of shrimp. He must’ve loved shrimp... and hated the bassoon. And after hearing so-and-so play it, I understand. That guy was awful.” He laughed.

When the man told Hank that Oscar Peterson loved Hank’s playing, Hank replied, “He’s always been a little hard of hearing.”

The man then left and Hank came directly over at me. I told him how much of an impact he has had on me and my playing and I told him he was my idol. I told him that I studied with Don Friedman, and he got all excited. He asked if that was at the New School. I said it was at NYU, and when I mentioned NYU, he got very excited and reached out to shake my friends hand. I told him my friend was a bass player and Hank said, “We got a rhythm section,” and then, pointing to the guy he had just been talking to, “and a clarinet player.” I told him how much I loved his recording of “I Cover The Waterfront,” to which he replied, “I’ll get it down one of these days.” I asked if I could take a picture with him. He graciously accepted and, being the nice guy that he is, spent a few minutes trying to figure out which angle would be best for lighting.

Standing there, I asked Hank about Teddy Wilson. He went on and on about how Teddy was one of his first influences, how much he loves the Benny Goodman Trio recordings, with just Teddy, Benny, and Gene Krupa on drums. He said Teddy had such a strong left hand that you didn’t even miss a bass player. “No offense,” he said to my bass player friend.

Hank then added, “But after I heard Art Tatum, I said, ‘Move over Teddy.’” He laughed. I told Hank that I loved Teddy for his elegance. I said that I feel that every note Teddy plays and every note Hank plays are perfect; that every time I listen to them I say to myself, “That’s the exact right thing to play there.” Hank was flattered, and he said to me, “Well, I’ve been playing a long time. I’ve learned not to mess up as much. I still hit wrong notes and mess up, just not as much.” He paused then said, “Erroll Garner once told me, ‘It took me twenty years to figure out what to leave out.’ That really got me thinking.” He then added, “Damn. Erroll Garner must’ve sure been playing a lot of piano before he realized that then, if what we got is him leaving out.” He laughed. My friend then asked Hank who some of his influences were. He said Teddy and Fats Waller. He said that there was such joy in his playing, in every note. He said that Fats was one of the only pianists like that. I then suggested Erroll Garner. “Oh yes,” Hank said. “Erroll Garner sure was another.” Then, back to Fats, Hank said, he sang too. “Well,” he added. “He said he sang.” He laughed.

Then Hank looked at me and said, “You know when Fats used to say, ‘One never knows, do one?’; you know what he was talking about?” “No,” I said. Hank began thinking out loud. “What do they call those things today?...Those fairies...” He couldn’t remember, so he said to me, “What do they call fairies today?” Not wanting to say “gays" and be wrong, I said I didn’t know. Hank then said, “Oh yes. The gays. That’s what he meant when he said, and in a very mischievous voice Hank repeated, "One never knows, do one?" He then paused. "Do one," Hank laughed. "Ha. Shoulda been ‘does one.’ Oh Fats.” And then he laughed.

We began talking about Oscar Peterson, and I asked him if he ever saw a documentary that featured Oscar Peterson and Andre Previn talking and playing together. No he hadn’t. And then he said, “Andre Previn! I got a bone to pick with him. I lent him my piano cushion a few years back so he could have a cushion and I never got it back. But he’s conducting symphonies now, so I’ll probably never get it.”

It was the first of many encounters with Mr. Jones, and quite a thrilling one, to say the least.

McCoy Tyner

This past year, I have had the unique opportunity of interning at the world famous Blue Note Jazz Club. Besides being a jazz club, the club also houses a record label -Half Note Records- and a management firm. One of the clients of the management firm is the great McCoy Tyner.

He came in one night as a special guest of tap dancer Savion Glover. As I sat downstairs watching Savion tear it up during his soundcheck, McCoy's manager approached my boss and I. He asked for a favor.

"McCoy's sitting in the dressing room all alone. Would you mind keeping him company for a little while?"

Not at all!

We walked into the dressing room and my boss quickly introduced me to McCoy as a fellow pianist. My boss told him that I was trying to get lessons with the great Hank Jones, at which McCoy said, "You know what it is about Hank? He's got the magic touch."

"Oh Elvin loved Hank," McCoy said. "He really looked up to him.

We spoke for a while about many different things: McCoy, not knowing Joe Lovano's recent injury (he broke both arms), expressed deep sympathy when we told him (my boss didn't know the full story, so I had to tell it to him).

"Joe is one of the sweetest guys I know," McCoy said.

McCoy went on to talk about his time in Europe. He spoke of living just outside of London, getting involved with a woman, but having to leave London before it got too late. ("You know what I mean," he said, snickering.)

McCoy's producer entered the room and we left.

I was about to take off for the day and saw McCoy sitting at one of the Blue Note's tables. I went up to him and told it was an honor and a pleasure to meet him.

I asked him if he knew a teacher of mine from Atlanta, Gary Motley, to which McCoy responded: "It sounds familiar, but man, I meet so many people I just have a hard time remembering. A lot of people think that's a drag, but I don't. I really don't. I enjoy meeting people. I've realized that every person is unique and different and really has something unique to offer."

Then he looked at me and said, "You're a pianist, right?"

"Yes," I said.

"Well keep with it. Never give up. It's a life force."

With that we parted. I told him that his music has truly been an inspiration, and I thanked him sincerely.

A few weeks later, McCoy came back. This time it was his show.

As he finished up his soundcheck, McCoy and his manager got their coats to go to dinner. They left, and I went back upstairs to work. As the day winded down and I left the Blue Note, I was walking down the street and peered into a Japanese restaurant where I saw McCoy and his manager eating.

I honestly hadn't planned on eating there, but as I was hungry, about to get dinner anyway, I couldn't pass up the opportunity. I went inside and placed an order. I said hi to McCoy and his manager Adam and asked if they didn't mind my sitting with them while I waited for my order.

"Of course not," they said.

I sat down, and somehow brought up the subject of my new album. I told Adam -McCoy's manager- that I meant to give him a copy of the CD and pulled one out to give him and his intern. "Well you gotta give one to the piano man now," Adam said.

McCoy laughed ("Yeah," he said) and I handed him one. He put it in his briefcase and looked at me, and very sincerely said, "I want to wish you the best of luck with your CD."

I told him that if he gets a chance to listen I really hope he enjoys.

Out of nowhere I decided to bring something up with McCoy and his manager. I looked at McCoy and said, "I didn't realize, until I got this CD out, how much B.S. is out there in this business." McCoy nodded. I told him, "I got an email from JazzIz Magazine. They said they wanted to feature me in the magazine. However, I did a bit more research and realized that the person who contacted me was actually in charge of advertisements for JazzIz, and sure they were willing to feature me - if I was willing to shell over $1500 bucks."

McCoy seemed a little outraged. He said, "That's ridiculous."

I expressed the difficulties I was having with these sorts of things. I told him I'd been receiving a few emails like that and it's hard to differentiate the B.S. from a truly good opportunity.

McCoy said, "Man, you gotta get someone to take care of all that stuff for you like I do. It's hard man."

As my food came and not wanting to impose any longer I got up and thanked McCoy again. He wished me best of luck on the CD and what seemed like a truly sincere congratulations. He looked me in the eye and said something I will never forget:

"I've gotten a lot of bad reviews in my day. What you need to remember is that you're gonna get some bad reviews eventually, but don't let it get to you, because really the people who write about jazz only write about it cause they wish they could play it, but they can't - and you can-, so you've always got one up on them. Always remember that."

I thanked him sincerely and told him that his music has been a true inspiration all my life.

As I walked away, I heard McCoy turn to his manager and say, "I like that kid."

Freddy Cole

This past summer I went through the process of recording my first album. The whole process took place while I was home, in Atlanta. While I had the music in mind for quite some time, I usually spent my mornings at Starbucks, writing out arrangements for tunes.

One of these mornings, I, quite a procrastinator myself, started browsing the web. When procrastinating - or just on my usual internet browse- I look at sites of favorite musicians of mine. I read Marc Myers' JazzWax blog each day, and I usually find myself on Sonny Rollins' website before long. This particular day, I came across a long time musical idol of mine's website: Mr. Freddy Cole.

I have known for a long time that he is an Atlanta resident, and once even tried contacting him for a piano lesson while in high school. I tried contacting through his site; this means I went through his management, and he most certainly didn't even receive my letter.

As I browsed his page on this particular morning a thought crossed my mind: What if I could get Freddy Cole to sing on my album? After all, he lives in Atlanta.

I seemed at a dead end when I came across the same contact page as I did many years ago, and I almost gave up. But...maybe it was the coffee kicking in, or maybe it was just guts, but I had an idea.

I called 411, and asked for Mr. Freddy Cole's residence.I was immediately connected.

The phone rang, and someone said hello on the other end.

"Is Mr. Cole there?", I asked.

"Speaking." He said.

Part of me was in shock that I had actually connected with him. The other part of me was in shock at how cool it felt saying the words "Mr. Cole."

I introduced myself as a young pianist originally from Atlanta, now in New York for school. I asked him if he'd be willing to accompany me on my upcoming project. He was very nice about it, but basically shut it down right away.

However, for some reason he kept up the conversation.

"What tunes were you thinking about?" He asked.

"'Teach Me Tonight' and 'I Cover The Waterfront'," I said.

"Oh I love those tunes," he said.

He asked a bit more about me.

"Oh. You played at the Blue Note?" He sounded impressed. "Wow," he said.

He knew my piano teacher, Don Friedman well, and suddenly his whole tone changed.

"You did a good thing getting out of Atlanta," he said. "It's a great place to live, but there ain't no good music here."

I tried to change his mind, telling him of a recent group I saw at Blind Willies: Scott Glazer's Mojo Dojo, "But still," he said. "There's nothing like New York."

He asked me a bit more about my project, and we had a nice conversation about music in Atlanta, in New York, and so on.

Then he asked, "So what are you doing?"

"Nothing," I said. "Just getting ready to head back up to school."

"No," he answered. "I meant tonight."

Totally taken aback, I answered, "Nothing."

"You want to go listen to some music and we'll talk?"

"Definately." Shocked I was.

We met at an Atlanta establishment/tourist favorite called "Dante's Down The Hatch" at around 10:30 that night. He walked in and generously approached my Dad and I, sat down, and started conversation. Before long, he was engrossed in the song being sung on stage.

It was deep, he said. He'd never heard it, and asked if I did. I did. It was Elton John's, "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word." When the singer came off the stage he complimented her on it, noting how "heavy" the lyrics were, and what a beautiful song it was. "Maybe I'll do something with it one day," he said. The vocalist said, "You could have it ready tomorrow," to which he responded, "I like to sit with a song for a while before I make something of it."

The vocalist went back on stage and opened with a tune called "Here's To Life," truly one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Freddy was so happy to hear it. He looked at me, sang the lyrics in my ear in a whisper that made it sound like he was speaking the words to me; that the lyrics, oh so poignant and meaningful, were the greatest piece of wisdom he could bestow upon me. However, it wasn't just that he was teaching me something through the lyrics. It seemed that he himself was taking something from this song that he must have heard a thousand times; however, somehow it sounded new this time.

He sang, in that hushed tone, that breathy, speach-like voice, the entire song. With each phrase he'd take a deep breath - not because he needed one, but because the words he was speaking provided him such relief, such peace.

I spoke to him about my frustrations of music school. How everyone was so in to the "modern" thing and how things felt to me devoid of emotion - excluding anger- , but real, tender emotion: the Ben Webster kind of emotion.
"Yeah," he said. "Everyone's got all the chops, but everyone sounds the same."

He got me up on the bandstand to play. During an embellishment on the melody of "Polka Dots And Moonbeams," (I think it was a Paul Desmond quote) he smiled at me.

He turned to my father and said, "He's got my repertoire down."

The pianist then welcomed Freddy to the stage. Freddy looked at me and said, "I don't want to go up," but, being the gentleman that he is, he walked on stage and launched in to two beautiful pieces: "Because of You," and "Blame It On My Youth."

Mr. Cole was as friendly as could be. He couldn't make my record date, but he sure taught me a lot that night - not just about being a musician, but about how to carry myself, how to be a gentleman.

"People often criticized me as a cocktail pianist," he said. "But I always had more gigs than them. You gotta be ready to play anything if you're going to be a real musician."

After the CD came out, I sent it to him and we spoke on the phone. The first thing he asked was, "How's your father?"

In response to the CD he said, "You'll do just fine. Just follow your heart. People may criticize you some day, just as they have me, but don't lose your way. You'll do good."

A true gentleman, I'll never forget that memorable night I spent with Mr. Cole.


Looking back on this past year or so, I realized that a lot has gone on. A lot of interesting stuff has gone on: Things that take more than a 182 word Twitter post to describe. Anyways, I have long thought, why not write this down?
So that's all I'm doing. I've been fortunate enough to meet some unique and well known personalities, and take part in some truly one-of-a-kind experiences. In an effort to have them in writing - so that I never forget them - I want to share them with you. Hope you enjoy the rambles.