Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Memorable Quote: Chick Corea

"He wouldn't specifically tell me to do anything, but he'd hint at it," Chick said, referring to Miles Davis. "He'd turn to me at certain parts and say, 'I like that.'"

- Chick Corea, to Gary Bartz & all those listening in from outside the dressing room door (including me) at the Blue Note earlier tonight, referring to the time that Miles Davis took him (Chick) to see Ahmad Jamal in concert.

Memorable Quote: Kareem Abdul Jabbar

"Chick was channeling some Red Garland tonight!"

- Basketball legend, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, excitedly walking into the dressing room at the Blue Note to greet Chick Corea earlier tonight.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Memorable Quotes: June - November, 2011

"About the cell phone thing: maybe turn the volume off, but keep the vibrate on. Especially you musicians; I don't want you to miss that big break." -Chick Corea, earlier tonight, on stage at the Blue Note Jazz Club.

McCoy Tyner to the sound guy at the Blue Note, during soundcheck one day after Gary Bartz remarked that the piano stool was low, which reminded him of Erroll Garner: "Got any telephone books?"

"He [the composer] must've been in love [when he wrote that]. Well...I guess that'll help you write good songs." -McCoy Tyner, to me, on the song, "I'll Take Romance."

"Don't...No...No...The best exercise you can get for your hands is practice; strengthen your fingers, not your hands; scales do more for you than weights." -McCoy Tyner, to me, on weightlifting as a pianist.

"That's why music is better than sex: it lasts." -Benny Green, relaying to the audience at the Blue Note some wise words that Ray Brown once told him.

"If you're a musician, don't forget to listen to the birds." -Randy Weston, at an interview at a Manhattan Barnes & Noble.

"'cause when I love my baby but my baby don't love me you can only say that with the blues." -Randy Weston, on why Jimmy Rushing said that the Blues is the greatest music.

"If you blow it, you blow it. Nobody dies, and then you learn something." -Fred Hersch, at a recent masterclass at NYU.

"I didn't go to church on Sundays; I went to the Vanguard." -Dee Dee Bridgewater, to me, on her apprenticeship with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Big Band.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Ray Brown Tribute Band

As an intern at the Blue Note Jazz Club, I recently had the honor of putting together the following video. It was such a thrill to interview some of my favorite musicians of all time - Dee Dee Bridgewater, Benny Green, Christian McBride, & Greg Hutchinson - on their mentor and a hero of mine, the legendary Ray Brown.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Hanging Out with Ron Carter

Earlier today, I was treated to quite a thrill. Currently interning at the Blue Note Jazz Club, I was in the office today when Jim Hall and Ron Carter were there doing their soundcheck.

As the soundcheck ended and Ron began to head upstairs to the dressing room, I asked him if he'd like any help. He obliged and handed me his bass case. "Be careful," he said. "It's heavy." It was.

After we got into the dressing room and finally figured out how to turn the lights on, Ron, smiling, cracked a joke. "I like those," he said, referring to the complicated light switch. "But only one of 'em," he said, laughing.

It was obvious that Ron was in a very good mood and I could also tell that he was enjoying my company. I seized the moment, taking that opportunity to grab a video camera in hopes of asking Ron a question or two (for the Blue Note blog, one of my job responsibilities).

I found Ron downstairs just to the right of the stage. With camera in hand, I asked if I could ask him one question about the Blue Note, for the club's 30th Anniversary. "Of course," he said. "Let's go up to the dressing room for this."

We got up to his dressing room and sat down in the room's comfortable chairs. I turned the camera on and asked him my Blue Note related question. My one promised question quickly turned into two and then three. His answers were very telling of the care with which he holds all of the musicians with whom he plays. Here's what he said when I asked him if there was any particular Blue Note performance that particularly stands out to him:

"Well, you know, to answer that question kind of implies that the others weren't so important, so I'm not gonna do that. (laughter). They're going to come knock on my door and say, 'Why you!'...And I never answer that kind of question because I don't want anyone who is not mentioned in my commentary to feel that their job wasn't important to me, or that I didn't have a good time, or that I didn't learn any music, or that I'm not looking forward to working with them again. And each group I've worked with here, I've always had a good time, and I've always learned some music, and I've always had the chance to look forward to working with them some more, and hopefully I've gotten better in the meantime, so I don't want them to feel that they're not on my list."

It was obvious that I was listening to a very caring, thoughtful, and articulate man speak.

I mentioned to him that I'm a pianist; that I study with Don Friedman. He began asking me about Don; how he's doing, what he's been up to, etc. I felt us getting into a friendly conversation, so I turned the camera off and sat back.

As Ron began telling me about recording with Don and Joe Henderson, I was reminded of a really wild band - a totally unknown one - that Don was once a part of and had told me about. I told Ron, very excitedly, about the vocalist' Dick Haymes' group which included Don, Scott Lafaro, and Elvin Jones.

Upon hearing this, Ron was shocked. "What!", he exlaimed. "Wow, they must've washed Haymes away."

I told him what Don had told me; that on a gig they played at the Village Gate, the IRS came out to get Haymes; he owed a million dollars in taxes. Ron was certainly shocked. "One million dollars," he said. "In the sixties...Damn, in the '60's one-million dollars really was one-million dollars."

I mentioned that I hadn't realized that Dick Haymes' brother was Bob Haymes.

"Who's that?", asked Ron.

"He wrote 'That's All.'"

"Wow," said Ron. "I didn't realize that."

I told Ron that Haymes had also written one of my favorite songs, a song that isn't very well known, but a song that Blossom Dearie did amazingly, "They Say It's Spring."

As soon as I mentioned Blossom Dearie's name, Ron's face lit up. "I know that song," he said, smiling.

He began telling me how much he loved Blossom Dearie's piano playing. He said that he really admired the way she played chords; that she was really a master of voicings, and that she always played the perfect chord for each moment, always with the right note on top. He told me that he really had a lot that he had wanted to learn from her. "When I played with her, I knew the right bass notes and passing tones to play below her but I wanted to sit down at the piano with her and learn about the full chords from her." He said that the two always talked about getting together for this lesson of sorts, but for one reason or another, it never happened. "Regrettably," said Ron.

I told him how I love her repertoire; how she's really introduced me to so many beautiful songs that I never would have heard otherwise. He agreed. "She had a way with songs that were very rare that people didn't really know, but she would interpret them in a way that would make people want to know them, and she'd make them popular before they were popular...She was singing 'Peel Me A Grape' long before it was famous."

I smiled, saying how I also loved her arrangements; how she'd slow down songs - like "Tea For Two" and "Surrey With A Fringe On Top" - that were normally played fast. He smiled too, and during mid-laugh, began to sing - just a few bars - raising his voice to a high squeal, doing his best Blossom Dearie impersonation.

It was really a thrill to talk with Ron Carter about one of my all-time favorite musicians, Blossom Dearie. It was also extremely surprising and validating (in a way) to hear him speak of her piano mastery and his love for her music and her piano playing. Ron is always associated with Herbie Hancock, a pianist who is often considered the ultimate harmonic master, and it was very exciting to hear his excitement about the playing and music of Blossom Dearie.

One thing that really shocked me during our conversation was how comfortable Ron made me feel throughout, and how genuinely interested he seemed in what I had to say, too. Looking back on it, it really felt like nothing more than two huge jazz fans having a friendly conversation about the music we both love.

I told him how I recently played with Houston Person and how his sound just knocked me out; how, while on stage listening, I got the chills and I realized that I'd never really heard that sound on the saxophone before in real life; no one really plays like that anymore.

Ron understood, seemingly shocked at that reality. He began to reminisce on that specific tenor sound..."One of my first sessions was with Coleman Hawkins, Tommy Flanagan...and Eddie Locke or someone like that. I think it was called Hawk's Groove...or something like that." He said it quickly, casually, in passing, before asking the question that mattered most to him: "Do you ever listen to Don Byas?"

"Oh yes," I answered. We began to speak about the Town Hall duo recordings of Don Byas and Slam Steward. Ron loves those recordings. He then asked about Gene Ammons, and expressed to me his love for that sound, the sound of the "Texas Tenors," quickly mentioning Frank Wess as another player that he loved.

I told him that one of my favorite recordings is the Coleman Hawkins/Red Garland album. He smiled. I also expressed my love for his album with Red Garland. "Oh yeah," he said. And then, so cool and casually, said: " That was with Philly Joe, too."

Our conversation kept on for a while. Ron was really at ease and seemed to be enjoying our conversation. He seemed especially grateful when, later that day, I brought him a copy of a Blossom Dearie piano-only record that he hadn't heard before. I apologized for my bad handwriting. "It's not bad," he said, laughing. "Don't worry. I've seen much worse."

As I was leaving the room, Ron said to me: "It was great talking with you. That was a bit more than one question, but I was prepared for it. I really enjoyed it."

I've heard stories about Ron being a tough guy, a difficult interview, and I've also heard some near-horror stories about some people's approaching him. To me, I sat in awe as I fathomed how those stories could be possible. That day, I was in the presence of a real sweetheart, someone who loves to smile and laugh and share his experiences. More than anything though, I felt that I was in the presence of an extremely inspiring jazz fan, someone who gets just as excited about jazz and specific musicians as he did when he was only a kid; the only difference is that this enthusiastic fan just happens to be the great Ron Carter, too.

Here's a video of a portion of the interview:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Monty Alexander

As I’ve mentioned in earlier blog posts, one of the more recent highlights of being a student at New York University has been a Friday afternoon interview series at a local Barnes & Noble between Dr. David Schroeder, NYU’s Director of Jazz Studies, and various jazz legends.

He’s interviewed many musicians who I admire and can relate to in some way, but for the most part, the stories of those being interviewed are very different than my story, and they are life stories that, given the time and place of my birth, are absolutely impossible to have happened to me. While that is also so with the story of the great pianist Monty Alexander – who Dr. Schroeder interviewed this past Friday - there was something about his story, what initially drew him to the music, and what continues to inspire him today that struck a deep chord with me.

While many of the jazz greats that I’ve heard speak live often talk of how their lives changed drastically from the minute they heard John Coltrane (something I can’t relate to), Alexander said that one of his first powerful musical memories was the contagious smile and happiness he felt when listening to Nat King Cole sing.

There was something I could relate to.

He went on and on; speaking about pianists Erroll Garner and Nat Cole (noting how Nat is certainly one of the most underrated pianists of all time, as his influence on great pianists such as Ahmad Jamal is extremely evident, which is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now). However, more than anything he could’ve said about their musical technique, he spoke about the way in which they performed, and how it impressed him so. He said that Nat would sit at the piano and play, but he’d have his legs facing toward to the audience; really playing for them.

He spoke of the joy he felt when he listened to Erroll Garner, and Milt Buckner, and Eddie Heywood.

“Did he just say Eddie Heywood?!” I had to do a double take! One of my favorite pianists of all, Heywood was a truly beautiful player, a master of touch and taste, and also one of the great masters of playing melodies.

As Alexander went on to talk about what he loved about Heywood’s playing, (“His playing was perfectly economical,” he said.) I began to feel like I was listening to myself talk. I sat in awe listening to how the exact same musicians had affected each of us in the exact same way at the exact same time in our lives.

I loved how he would say often that the things he most loved about certain musicians was that they made him feel good, or that simply, they made him smile.

Often, musicians, when asked the same question, go on about one’s technical mastery of the instrument, or things very specific, musically, that they admire. To me, it’s always been about making me smile and feeling good on the inside. It was truly a thrill to hear this simple, truthful answer come from this master. In some ways, it made me feel that my ideas and thoughts, similar to his, were finally validated.

He went on to explain that he wasn't attracted to the dissonances created by the music of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and more free jazz (although he loved to listen to it and was in awe of it!...He just didn't want to play it). His musical goal has always been to honor the melody and play with and around the melody in the most beautiful way possible. Another sigh of relief.

It was very validating to hear Monty Alexander express my feelings towards music as his. To hear these things, things that have often made me feel more isolated than closer to my peers, was exciting to hear because it made me realize that, "Hey! There are people thinking like me!" Plus, he's been thinking this way since the 1950's and it's worked pretty well for him, too!

Besides this extremely validating and inspiring insight into the thought process of Monty Alexander, he, too, like his heroes Nat Cole, Louis Armstrong, and Erroll Garner, is a fantastic entertainer. The stories he told left the audience jaw-dropped in amazement.

He spoke of a gig one night, where he was playing solo piano, and there sitting in front of him at a table were Frank Sinatra and Miles Davis, deep in discussion.

He spoke of hanging out with Miles at his house. He said that Miles constantly listened to Sinatra, especially when learning a ballad. "Miles played Sinatra around the house," Alexander said. "I was there."

He spoke of Jimmy Smith and Richard "Groove" Holmes, and the hardships of lugging around big organs. He said that both organists bought old Hearst cars and drove to every gig with the organ in the back.

He also mentioned a conversation he had had with bassist Bob Cranshaw just after Cranshaw recorded the now legendary Lee Morgan tune, "The Sidewinder." He said that during the session Morgan was trying to get pianist Barry Harris to play the classic bluesy figure that makes up the melody, and Harris refused. "I won't play it," he said. "That's Rock N' Roll!"

It was a truly exciting and inspiring hour, and I feel honored to have been present.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Memorable Quote: Sonny Rollins

"There's nothing to worry about. You have nothing to fear. If you can look the man in the mirror in the face, then everything's going to be OK. I'm not afraid of anything."

I wasn't at this show, but I read online that this is how Sonny Rollins ended his concert last week at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Memorable Quote: Roy Haynes

"We had one gig together and, after the first tune we played, Lester came up to me and said, 'You're swingin'. If you want the job, it's yours.'"

- Roy Haynes, this past Saturday evening at the Jazz Standard, on getting hired by Lester Young.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Memorable Quotes: Bill Clinton

"People are happiest doing what they're good at."
"You should strive to achieve happiness every day, not just at the end of a journey."

- Former President Bill Clinton, at the 2011 NYU Commencement at Yankee Stadium.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Frank Wess

This past Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing a live interview with jazz legend Frank Wess. His statements and answers were very powerful, and I wanted to share a few of my favorites with you.

On learning the craft: "Good musical sound, good time, and to be able to play a melody. If you can do that, you can get away without having all the theory in the world."

"When you play all those fast notes...Who's going to be able to hum that when they get in bed?" - Wess' quick response to being asked what's missing in jazz today.

"It ain't got nothing to do with the chords." - Wess, on the importance of melody in his solos. He was asked specifically if, when learning a song, he practices playing through the chord changes.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Ahmad Jamal Interview

This past Saturday, I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing the great Ahmad Jamal. Not only has he been one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time, but his music has been instrumental (no pun intended) in my development as a musician; in fact, it was his recording of "Like Someone In Love" that got me hooked on jazz. For years, I've had many questions that I've wished I could ask Mr. Jamal, and this past Saturday I was given that opportunity. He was extremely kind, honest, thoughtful, and giving in his answers. It was an absolute thrill to speak with one of my heroes, the great Ahmad Jamal, and I hope you enjoy reading the following bits from our conversation.

Joe Alterman: One of the things that I’ve always loved about your playing is your repertoire. I’m curious how you were originally introduced to the great standards.

Ahmad Jamal: My aunt, who was an educator in North Carolina, sent me many, many compositions via sheet music, and that’s how I gained the vast repertoire that you hear me indulge in. I was sent those things by her gracious efforts from 10 years old and on. So my Aunt Louise was the one responsible for me acquiring that vast repertoire of standards…It’s a combination of what she did and also working around one of the great cities for musicians, or people who were developing a career in music: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. So working with groups in Pittsburgh, and what she sent me, and the environment under which I grew up in. As you know I…well you don’t know (laughter), but I sold papers to Billy Strayhorn’s family when I was seven years old. So we [Pittsburgh] have Billy Strayhorn and Erroll Garner and Earl Hines and Roy Eldridge, Ray Brown, Art Blakey, and a pianist that you’ve probably never heard of, Dodo Momarosa. He was a great pianist…And Earl Wild, the great exponent of Liszt; a great interpreter of Franz Liszt…And Gene Kelly the tap dancer. The list goes on and on and on…George Benson, who was a much later personality that developed in Pittsburgh. But he’s a Pittsburgh personality, as well as Stanley Turrentine. It goes on and on and on.

JA: Mary Lou Williams too. Right?

AJ: Mary Lou came there when she was very, very young – a lot of people think she’s from Pittsburgh…but she came there when she was very, very young. I think she’s from Georgia, but she came to Pittsburgh when she was three or four years old. She went to the same high school I went to. And you can’t forget Billy Eckstine and Kenny Clarke…All those masters come from Pittsburgh.

JA: A couple months ago, Jimmy Heath came to NYU to give a class, and our teacher asked, “What was it like growing up in Philadelphia?” And he said, “I don’t want to talk about that. The great music town was Pittsburgh.”

AJ: (Lots of laughter) They had some great musicians too. That’s all the same; I kind of group them all as “Pennsylvanians.” Philadelphia had some wonderful artists, and Harrisburg produced one of the great bassists of all time, who I was just thinking about recently, Dr. Art Davis. Jimmy Smith is from Pennsylvania as well. So we have a grouping there. Philadelphia was a great area for music, but that’s all part of Pennsylvania. (laughter)

JA: There’s a bunch of tunes you played that are really rare, such as “Music, Music, Music”, tunes that you may have the only jazz version of. Were you purposely trying to pick out songs that weren’t played as frequently? Or did you just like those songs?

AJ: No, I just played songs that I liked. I just picked out songs that I favored; it wasn’t an attempt to do anything but use the repertoire and use the things that I had learned and heard in my growing-up years.

JA: Do you remember when you first heard “Poinciana”?

AJ: “Poinciana” was a part of the repertoire that Dr. Joseph Kennedy, Jr. had in our book. Joe Kennedy, the great violinist and educator - who is also from Pennsylvania. McDonald, which is also part of Pittsburgh…suburbia. But he had that in the repertoire when I formed “The Three Strings.” It was a spin-off from “The Four Strings;” I was the pianist in that, which was his group. I was introduced to “Poinciana” through his repertoire and what he wrote and what he selected as compositions that “The Four Strings” should perform. It was Joe Kennedy, myself, and Ray Crawford, the guitarist. Joe Kennedy was a master violinist.

JA: Do you learn the lyrics to the songs you play? Are lyrics important to you?

AJ: You have to…Well you don’t have to, but in order to re-interpret these things correctly or in a more informed-of manner, you should know the lyrics or know something about the lyrics. It gives you an idea about what the composer had in mind. Most of the songs that I perform I know the lyrics.

In fact, recently I’ve started writing lyrics to a lot of my things. I’m beginning to write lyrics to a composition that I wrote which is also going to Moscow, “Flight to Russia.” I think I’m going to send that to Igor Butman. I think Igor is one of the really popular musicians in Russia; I think he went to Berkeley too. James [Cammack] is well aware of Igor. I’m in the process of doing that as well.

So, lyrics are very essential. It’s like the famous story about Ben Webster, the great saxophonist. He’s playing a beautiful ballad…you’ve heard this story many times but I’m going to repeat it: Ben Webster was one of the great ballad players of all time, and he was playing this wonderful ballad and he suddenly stopped. And they said, “Ben, why in the world did you stop?” He said, “I forgot the lyrics.” You’ve heard that story before?

JA: Yes. I was reading an interview with Bill Evans and the interviewer asked him the same question and Evans said that he’s never learned any lyrics, he doesn’t care for them, and that the singer might as well be a horn player.

AJ: (Laughter). Well, different strokes for different folks. But, to me, lyrics are very essential. You know, you don’t have to, but I think you’re a more informed interpreter if you know the lyrics.

JA: Did you work consciously on your touch? You’ve got the “magic touch.”

AJ: Well, you know, that’s the interesting thing about Horowitz: he’s playing the same repertoire, but it’s his touch that makes the difference. If you listen to Horowitz or some of the great people who work in the European body of work, it’s the same repertoire. But, everything lies in the touch. Horowitz had a great touch.

JA: One of the other people I think of, in jazz, with a great touch is Hank Jones.

AJ: Hank Jones had a wonderful touch. So did Art Tatum. In fact, that should be a prerequisite for every music student: Tiny Grimes, Slam Stewart, and Art Tatum playing “Flying Home.” Whether you’re working in a European body of work or in American Classical repertoire, the prerequisite should be Art Tatum’s “Flying Home.”

That’s a unique thing about people in American Classical Music, which is a phrase I coined some time ago: you have to know the best of both worlds. I was playing Franz Liszt in competition when I was ten years old, but I was also playing Duke Ellington. So that’s a marvelous thing about the wonderful players that make up our genre. We have to be multi-dimensional. Dave Brubeck has to know Mozart. He has to know Duke Ellington, and it’s the same way with George Shearing; he can play the concertos but he can also write “Lullaby of Birdland.” So that’s the wonderful thing about people that are working in our field. They’re multi-dimensional; they’re not one-dimensional. That’s why I call them “American Classicists.” I think that “jazz” does not define properly what we do. I’m not paranoid about the term “jazz” but I don’t call myself a “jazz musician.” I call myself and my colleagues, the John Coltranes, and the Duke Ellingtons, “American Classicists.”

There are only two art forms that developed in the United States and that’s American Indian art and this thing we call jazz. I call it American Classical Music and that’s what it is. The little thoughts that we have here have been put here by way of these two developments: American Indian Art and American Classical Music, both of which are never promoted. You don’t see Duke Ellington every day on the television. You should, but you don’t. You don’t see Dave Brubeck every day on the television. You don’t see me and you don’t see George Shearing, but you should. You don’t see Louis Armstrong. But in Europe, you do. Not here, and that’s unfortunate.

JA: I’m wondering if you were purposely trying to innovate this music, which is what I often hear from different educators that the greats such as yourself did, or if you played what you loved and it just happened to be different.

AJ: Well, the fact is that all Pittsburghers are uniquely different. No one plays piano like Erroll Garner. No one plays bass like Ray Brown. No one plays piano like Earl Hines. No one plays drums like Art Blakey. No one plays saxophone like Stanley Turrentine. We all have ushered in a different era that’s just one of the unique phenomena of Pittsburgh. No one danced like Gene Kelly. No one interpreted Liszt quite like Earl Wild. Lorin Maazel, the conductor, is from Pittsburgh too. Andy Warhol is from Pittsburgh. It goes on and on. It’s very difficult for me to exhaust the list but all of us are different and unique so it’s just a phenomenon that all of us have a different approach. This is a thing that happened to me as a result of growing up there; I followed that same pattern.

JA: Were you close with Erroll Garner?

AJ: My mother and his mother were friends, but I didn’t meet Erroll until after because he was working in places I couldn’t go in was a kid. Erroll had the best jobs in Pittsburgh and I was too young to go where he was working. So I didn’t know Erroll until later. He came back to Westinghouse High School and played for us. I was amazed because it seemed as though he was playing on all the black keys and in all the multi-flat and multi-sharp keys. He was certainly a person who heard everything in all the keys…B Natural, G Flat, F Sharp; it didn’t make any difference.

He was quite a stride player, too. A lot of people don’t know that. So I didn’t know Erroll until later on; I met him after I left home.

JA: I know you’re obviously influenced by Garner and Nat Cole, but one of the things that people don’t talk about as much as they talk about your linear and melodic lines is your mastery of the block chord technique. Who influenced you in terms of block chords? Erroll Garner? George Shearing? Milt Buckner?

AJ: If you really want to do a study on the mastery of block chords you have to listen to Phineas Newborn. Even today, he’s certainly underrated…That’s another area that’s produced some fantastic musicians: Memphis. My former bassist, the late Jamil Nasser, is one of them. But Phineas is from Memphis and so is Harold Mabern, who’s doing a professorship at one of your schools now – William Patterson College I think.

The block chords is, to me, demonstrated more by people like Phineas than myself. But I didn’t learn anything from George Shearing; we’re peers. I mean I admired George, but my influences were Erroll and Nat and Art Tatum.

JA: In the ‘50’s and ‘60’s people like you, Erroll Garner, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, and Dave Brubeck were the most popular guys around; but a lot of times in the textbooks and classes in schools they don’t talk about those people as much; instead they focus on people like George Russell, Lennie Tristano, and Cecil Taylor. Does this surprise you at all?

AJ: I pay little attention to that. I’m so busy doing my own thing that I don’t reflect on what the people are crediting and giving other people in my field. It’s just a waste of time for me. You know? (Laughter)

JA: Are you a book lover? A movie lover?

AJ: I don’t do movies at all. I like non-fiction and if I read, it has to be non-fiction. I don’t like fiction; I like the real thing. And I have books that I read but most of them are philosophical. I’m going back to the discipline of reading; I used to gobble up books when I was a youngster. But I’m going back to it now. In fact, I was surprised at myself: I was waiting for my car to be serviced today and I was reading the editorials in the Wall Street Journal, and I was reading also about the focus on the new approach to music videos. It was very interesting. A lot of it has stuff to do with things that are not musical, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of stuff on MTV has nothing to do with music, but that’s what we’ve created here. We have a focus on non-musical things and a lack of focus on musical things. Music is supposed to sooth the savaged beast and in many instances we’re raising the savaged beast.

But my point is that I’m getting back to the discipline of reading, which I lost some years ago.

Most of the things I read are non-fiction and I don’t care for movies too much. The last movies I went to see was “The Bridges of Madison County” because my daughter said Clint Eastwood had two of my recordings in part of the soundtrack. I wanted to see that. That’s the first thing you hear, soundtrack-wise, are my recordings of “Music, Music, Music” and “Poinciana”.

JA: Does it bother you that there is so much music in the background these days? Like at the mall while you’re shopping, for example.

AJ Not as long as it’s good music. I can’t stand the commercials. Without the mute button, I could never tolerate television because some of the commercials are just horrible. I don’t know what these manufacturers are thinking of because you can sell a product, to me, much more effectively with music that soothes and is not irritable and not nerve-wracking, as opposed to what they have now. I don’t know why they chose to do the negative instead of the positive on these commercials.

JA: I’ve been fortunate enough to be in contact with Houston Person, and one of the things he talks about is that it’s an enormous responsibility to have people come out at night and spend their hard-earned money on him. He wants to play good music of course, but he wants to relax the people in the audience; he doesn’t want to make them nervous with the music, and he feels a great responsibility to do this, especially after the people worked so hard for their money that they’re spending on him. Do you agree?

AJ: I have two words: He’s right.

JA: I find it interesting that you’re one of the few great pianists that didn’t come up as, or wasn’t documented as, a sideman, backing horn players for example. It seems that you’ve always been known as a leader. Did you ever do more sideman work and how did you make it as a leader?

AJ: Your question is a very interesting one and it has to do with my longevity in the field. I started playing at three years old, which is very, very young. That’s what I say when people ask, “How did you choose music?” I say, when you are that young, you don’t make conscious decisions, Joe. Music chose me; I didn’t choose it, and I was working as a sidemen at ten years old. I worked with groups around Pittsburgh for many years. I worked on the road with a song and dance team. So I had a history of being a sideman. I worked with George Hudson’s orchestra; he made me leave my happy home in 1948. I left at 17 years old and worked all over the country with him. Out of that band came Clark Terry and the great writer Ernie Wilkins. He was a great orchestrator, and I think he passed [away] in Europe, in Copenhagen. I was a sideman for many, many, many years…When I was young; that was part of my growing-up years…I was an old man by the time I was 18 (laughter). I went from young to old very quick and what made me old was when I started my group in 1951. That was the end of any sideman issues; I had to keep my men working, and I’ve had that responsibility now for over five decades, Joe: being a leader. But I was a sideman for many, many years in and around Pittsburgh and all over the United States with a group called the Cardwells. When I left that group, Ray Bryant, the great pianist, became their person in the pianists’ chair. And I worked with George Hudson all over; that was my first time at the Apollo Theater actually. We were touring with stars like Dinah Washington at that time so I was a sideman for many years. I became a leader at a very young age; I was 21 years old, so that’s quite a span of time.

JA: I know Miles Davis loved you. Did you two ever talk about playing together?

AJ:No, because he was leading and I was leading. That never happened; there was some attempt to get Miles and Cannonball and myself on record together, but that never reached fruition.

JA: I love the video of you and your trio playing “Darn That Dream”.

AJ:Oh yes. With Israel Crosby and Vernell Fourier as my guys, the masters that helped make my career what it is.

JA: In that video, I see Hank Jones standing over your shoulder, and Ben Webster.

AJ: That’s correct. Ben Webster, who I spoke of, is there. Jo Jones – Papa Jo that is – and some of the other greats were there: George Duvivier and Buck Clayton…That’s a classic. That video’s a classic.

JA: That must have been nerve-wracking. Did you used to get nervous?

AJ: I don’t remember what I got (Laughter). I know it was a very interesting experience, and it’s still being shown all over the world, especially now with the Internet.

JA: Do you teach?

AJ: I taught for a brief period of time in Chicago, my second home. But, you know, teaching is something you must dedicate your life to in order to give that student his or her due. So, I haven’t taught in a long, long time. I spent a period of time doing that in Chicago. I had this hit record, or what they call a hit record for instrumentalists. We don’t have hit records, but I had one and Dave Brubeck had one with “Take Five” and Herbie Hancock had a few and Chuck Mangione and Miles, but very few instrumentalists had hits. Singers get the hits but I did have one, and that took me away from teaching and I never went back to it (laughter). I was performing, and that’s what I’ve been devoting my life to. And now I’ve been devoting my life to resetting and reshaping my career, doing what I love so much, and that’s composing. I’m trying to get away from the sense of urgency that the cell-phone and the computer and all the activities have thrust upon us, and I’ve been trying to do the things I really love to do, which is playing in my favorite venue: my home.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Memorable Quote: Frank Wess

"Now I'm going to play a song that was a favorite of Hank's. We used to play it a lot together. In fact, I went to the hospice and played it for him on the day he died." - jazz legend Frank Wess, referring to Hank Jones' love of the song "The Very Thought of You," in a very touching tribute to the great pianist earlier tonight at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Jim Hall

One of the more exciting goings-on since coming to NYU has been a recently established Friday afternoon interview series at a local Barnes & Noble Book Store between the NYU Director of Jazz Studies, Dave Schroeder, and many different jazz legends. Among those interviews that I've been fortunate enough to see have been, among others, Roy Haynes, Lee Konitz, Jimmy Heath, Bill Charlap, Joe Lovano, Dave Liebman, Maria Schneider, and most recently, guitarist Jim Hall.

Hall is a bonafide jazz legend and he is, arguably, the most influential jazz guitarist of all-time. However, listening to Hall speak and watching his totally unassuming demeanor, he seems almost completely unaware of this, or at least surprised to hear to this. It was awe-inspiring and totally humbling to see someone who has played with Ben Webster, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter, Sonny Rollins, Hank Jones, and just about every other jazz great, repeat more than once, "I had no idea what I was going to talk about on my way here [to the interview]." (In fact, there was even a point in the interview when, seemingly baffled by the turnout and the care with which the thoughtful questions were asked, Hall remarked, "I'm just honored to be here talking to you all.")

To me, Hall has always been the "Hank Jones of guitar"; a master of elegance, touch, subtlety and taste, but watching and listening to Hall that day, he reminded me more of how I remember Hank Jones, the person.

When asked what he practices these days, Hall said, "Man, I'm still learning how to tune the guitar correctly." This reminded me of a time when I was backstage after a Hank Jones concert and a famous classical pianist came backstage to greet Hank. As soon as someone made the introduction, telling Hank who this man was, Hank said only, "Oh - a real pianist!"

This self-depreciating humor and honesty is extremely refreshing and inspiring. To see an absolute legend in ones' field so humbled, unassuming, and almost seemingly unaware of just how good he is, is just amazing. Seeing something like this reminds me of a Herbie Hancock quote I once read: "Being a musician is what I do, but it's not who I am." It's just refreshing to see this same idea come across in a legend of the stature of a Jim Hall or a Hank Jones. It reminds me that, more than anything, they are human, just like the rest of us, and this, to me, is inspiring.

Jim Hall, now 80 years old, is quite the comedian, too! When asked to speak about his childhood, he stated, "Well...I was born at an early age..." Then, when asked to elaborate on his childhood, he poked fun at his age saying, "Beethoven was a real pain in my ass."

Hall has really seen and been through it all and it was amazing to listen to him speak on many different subjects including Lester Young, Freddie Green, and Ella Fitzgerald.

He spoke about Lester Young when recounting the filming of "The Sound of Jazz," a 1957 CBS TV segment produced by Nat Hentoff and Whitney Balliet, among others. He said that after the filming was finished, he left the building and saw Young across the street, walking with his son. He said that he approached Lester and thanked him, telling him how much his music has meant to him. I wish Hall could retell it here; the way he told it was very touching. It was emotional and full of imagery, and, imagining Lester Young walking down the street, - at least by the way Hall told it- reminded me of all the romanticism in jazz that I have grown up believing in and hoping for for so long.

He recounted his first meeting with Freddie Green, the great guitarist with the Count Basie Band. Hall said that the first time he met Green, he walked up to him and asked, "Would you mind if I took a look at your guitar?" Green responded quickly. "Yes," he said. "I would."

It was obvious that Hall is in awe of Ella Fitzgerald. "I used to tune up to her," he said.

When it came time for audience questions, I couldn't resist asking Hall about his love of B.B. King. I've read many times that Hall loves King's guitar playing, and despite possessing much more actual technique on the instrument than King does, I've heard that King is one of Hall's favorite guitarists, and I asked him what he loved so much about his playing. "I'd rather listen to B.B. King play two notes than most guitarists play all night," he said. "He plays so succinctly...each note is perfect for the situation."

Someone asked what guitarists Hall listens to today. He spoke for a minute before saying, "I don't listen to Les Paul anymore. But then again, he doesn't listen to me either."

Hall recounted his days with Sonny Rollins, saying that they were the most helpful for his musical development. He also spoke with a bit of regret, saying that once Don Cherry joined the group and the band headed in a more free-jazz direction, Hall's playing didn't fit the group and Sonny basically fired him. Hall said that he wishes he could have another chance at that band, that he thought he'd do a lot better today.

Hall also said, "The driver on the way up here was playing 'The Bridge' in the car." After a short pause, he added, "I sounded pretty good on that!"

It was really a thrill to be in the presence of Jim Hall, a true music legend. However, there is something special about being around Hall -as there was with Hank Jones- that is greater than music. Jim Hall is a great human being, a nice person, and a humble genius who seems to have really figured out what life is all about, and that, maybe even more than the music, is what gravitates us all towards him and other people of such stature and makes me feel so lucky to have spent a little time with him, even if it was only an hour.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Memorable Quote: Lee Konitz

"They used to write that I played flat...Are you kidding me?...I could tell that they weren't listening...I play sharp!" -Lee Konitz, a few weeks ago at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, on some jazz writers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Memorable Meetings: Diana Krall

A few years ago, a friend and I waited outside of Diana Krall's dressing room door after a concert of hers in hopes of taking a picture with her.

She finally came out, surrounded by a large, fast-walking entourage of (what seemed to be) her staff.

When they passed us, I yelled out, "Mrs. Krall, Is there any way to take a quick picture with you?"

One of the members of her party gave my friend and I a very dirty look and yelled, "No pictures!"

Upon hearing this, Mrs. Krall immediately stopped, forcing the entourage to stop with her. She gave that man a very dirty look, shook her head at him, and then turned to my friend and I and smiled. "I would love to take a picture with you," she said.

I felt that, at that moment, Mrs. Krall felt connected to us, remembering what it was like for her, not so long ago, to approach her own musical heroes - ones who may not have been so kind to her as she had been to us.

For her to stop, scold her staff, and so kindly take a photo with my friend and I was an extremely heart warming experience. It will always serve as a reminder to never forget or forsake from where it is you come.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Memorable Quote: Bill Clinton

"I'm here representing the past 120 years of musicians who just weren't quite good enough to play here." - Former President Bill Clinton, also a saxophone player, earlier tonight at Carnegie Hall's 120th Anniversary James Taylor Concert.

He continued by saying that he used to walk by Carnegie Hall when he was younger, thinking to himself, "If only I were a little bit better..."

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Memorable Meetings: Harold Mabern

After reading pianist George Colligan's excellent blog post on the kindness and generosity of the legendary pianist Harold Mabern (A Short Story About Harold Mabern), I was reminded of an encounter I had with him a few years ago at a Herbie Hancock concert at Carnegie Hall.

It was after the show and I was standing outside of the hall next to the dressing room door where Herbie would eventually exit to get in the waiting car. There were a whole lot of fans doing the same, wanting to meet Herbie and the rest of the band too. Standing there, I noticed a man who looked very familiar. I knew it was Harold Mabern, but it took me a minute to believe it; I figured such a legend would certainly be backstage with Herbie instead of waiting outside of the dressing room with all of us fans.

I was 17 at the time and wasn't too familiar with Mabern, but I did know a few of the recordings I'd heard of him with Wes Montgomery and Lee Morgan. I introduced myself to him, saying that I was a pianist and that the recordings I had heard of him had been very inspiring. He thanked me and he began to start up a conversation, which surprised me; I never figured that a legend like that would be the one continuing the conversation.

He began to speak to me very excitedly about how much he had enjoyed and been inspired by the show. He said that after a show like that he knew what'd be in store for him when he got home. "I'll be practicing all night," he said.

He reminded me of myself and other young musician friends of mine; speaking so fast and excitedly about how pumped up that concert made him, how he hoped that one day he could do the things that Herbie had done that night.

After a few minutes, he said that he'd really wanted to say hello to his friend Herbie, but that he had to get home to practice. He told me that when I did get to meet Herbie to please send say hello for him.

It was so exciting to see such an accomplished musician, a true legend, not only waiting outside like a fan to express his gratitude to Herbie Hancock, but to also see someone like that so inspired and excited to go home and practice, that after a while, he couldn't wait any longer; he had to get home and practice.

It was very inspiring to see the forever-student side of a true jazz legend. I can only hope to go through life with such continued excitement for my passions. My encounter with the great Harold Mabern has and will continue to give me hope and inspiration that I can.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Memorable Moments: Gerald Wilson

At the 2011 NEA Jazz Masters Awards & Ceremony Panel Discussion with the then soon-to-be named Jazz Masters, a lady in the audience -during the audience Q&A- rambles on and on for five or so minutes about how people today are quickly forgetting or have already forgotten the great music and musicians of the past, and finally, in an almost-fury, yells out, "I mean how many of you know who Jimmie Lunceford is?"

Sitting a few rows in front of her is the great Gerald Wilson, one of Lunceford's former trumpeters and arrangers (he joined Lunceford in 1939!), and, amongst a room full of raised hands, Wilson smiles and raises his too.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Memorable Meetings: Michel Legrand

I recently saw the great Michel Legrand perform at the Blue Note. After the show, he was greeting fans and well-wishers in his dressing room. I waited in a short line before it was my turn to say hello.

I introduced myself to him as a pianist, wanting to say next that he has been a long-time inspiration to me. However, before I could tell him what a inspiration he has been -in fact, as soon as I said that I was a pianist-, Legrand stopped me mid-sentence and said, "Let me see your hands." I laid them out in front of him, spreading my fingers wide. He grabbed my hands, looked at them, and was quiet for about five or six seconds, obviously in deep thought.

Finally, he broke the silence. "Okay," he said, nodding his head. "You have good hands for the piano."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dr. Billy Taylor (1921-2010)

One thing that’s always stuck out in my head about Dr. Billy Taylor was how he pronounced Erroll Garner’s last name. “Gah-nuh,” or “Gahr-nuh,” he’d say. Not “Gar-ner”, like we say today. His pronunciation made the last name sound almost royal and Dr. Taylor, being the first jazz legend I ever spent a good amount of time with, made me feel –with just that simple and honest name pronunciation – welcomed into his world and into a bygone era of jazz greatness.

I was very fortunate to have spent a bit of time with Dr. Taylor at Jazz In July, a summer program that he founded at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. I went for one summer and there, was treated with a two-hour group piano lesson from Dr. Taylor each morning for two full weeks.

Dr. Taylor was just a thrill to be around. I remember the first day of the program, when the entire faculty performed; I introduced myself to him at the end of the concert. I was very young at the time, fully obsessed with jazz, but not very good at playing it. I couldn’t resist, in that introduction, asking him about Ed Thigpen (my favorite drummer at the time). He was so kind and I remember being taken aback by how long he spent telling me about Thigpen and how much he enjoyed playing with him. “Mingus stole him from me though,” he said, laughing.

The group lessons were a thrill. They were difficult too; it was the very first time I’ve played for one of my heroes, and it was extremely nerve-racking for me to play for him. But he was very encouraging, and helpful too. He showed me things that no book could. I remember playing “Misty” one day. After I finished, Dr. Taylor sat down at the piano and showed me a few ideas, things that Erroll Garner had showed him directly. He told me that he spent many late nights with Erroll in the late 1940’s, playing piano duets late into the night after each had finished their gigs on 52nd Street.

Dr. Taylor would always stay after class and was always eager to talk with us. I remember one day in specific; we must have stayed for an hour and a half past the end of class. Dr. Taylor told us the wildest stories I’d ever heard. He told us about one specific gig with Sonny Rollins where Sonny was late. Billy’s trio began to play and, all of the sudden, in the middle of the tune, Sonny made his way down the stairs of the club, blowing his horn powerfully, mid song.

He told us about his days at Atlantic Records in the early 1960’s. He said that, for a while, they were looking for a “new sound” and they thought that he, Dr. Taylor, mght help them find it. Every day he’d go to the Atlantic Records office and play some new music they’d give him. Every day they’d say, “No, that’s not it.” Then, one day, he came in to work and they said, “Mr. Taylor (I remember him saying “I wasn’t a Doctor then.”), we’re sorry, but we’ve found the sound we’re looking for.”

“Oh yeah?” He asked. “What’s that?”

“A young, blind pianist named Ray Charles.”

Dr. Taylor then looked at us, laughed, and said “I remember saying to them, ‘A blind pianist? That’ll never last.’”

One day, I worked up the nerve to show Dr. Taylor a stride piece I was working on, “Lulu’s Back In Town.” I really couldn’t play stride very well back then, but I wanted to see what Dr. Taylor would say. After playing it, he showed me a few different ways of playing stride on that particular piece. Then he told me about the time he got shown up by the great Jelly Roll Morton!

He said it was in Washington, D.C. and it was during the period that Billy was really known as a great, young, modern pianist. He had been ignorant of Jelly Roll Morton but decided to go down to listen to him play at a club. Apparently, Jelly Roll got word that some young “hotshots” were in the house, and he approached their table. He looked at Dr. Taylor and his friends and said, “I bet you can’t play this,” and then walked backed to the piano and played something. “He was right,” Dr. Taylor said, laughing. “I couldn’t play it.”

After my time at the summer program I only had a few more run-ins with Dr. Taylor, but each time, he remembered me and asked me very specific questions about what I was studying on the piano.

It always made me feel like a million bucks because whenever I’d see him, we’d be among the jazz royalty, and he’d talk to me for ten or fifteen minutes, genuinely interested in my studies. I remember seeing him at the 2010 NEA Jazz Masters Awards, where I was volunteering. I greeted him right when he got off the elevator. Standing next to me was Roy Haynes, Jimmy Heath, James Moody, and Gerald Wilson. Before saying hello to them, he engaged me in conversation for five minutes or so, asking me what I was working on the piano.

That day, part of my duties as a volunteer was to bring Dr. Taylor to his car. I walked him to the hotel lobby and, as it turns out, his driver was close to an hour late. So for almost an hour, we sat and talked. He told me fantastic stories about Monk, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Dave McKenna, Willie “The Lion” Smith and many others (Our entire conversation is listed in my post below, from January 2010, about the 2010 NEA Jazz Master Awards.). It was a very special hour for me, and also the last time I’d see Dr. Taylor.

Sitting at his memorial service this past January was especially poignant. The church where the service was being held was packed, and watching the people’s faces and listening to their conversations I realized that I was sitting with many hundreds of people who had similar stories of Dr. Taylor’s kindness and making them too feel like “a million bucks.” At the beginning of the service the preacher announced: “One of the things that I’ve never had the opportunity to do in the Riverside Church…and especially in remembering someone as great as Billy Taylor, was to ask everyone to stand to their feet and give this man the kind of ovation that he truly deserves.” I got the chills. No one deserved that ovation more than Dr. Taylor did.

Every time I learn something on the piano, I ask myself if what I learned is something I'd be proud to show Dr. Taylor. To me, everything about Dr. Taylor was tops. Dr. Taylor was an extremely kind person and he will continue to inspire me for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Memorable Quote: Maria Schneider

"Playing music is the lifelong pursuit of figuring out who you are." -Maria Schneider, at an interview at Barnes and Noble on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Memorable Quote: Gary Burton

"I could tell that he was really playing, not just imitating someone really playing." -Gary Burton, at a masterclass at NYU, on guitarist Julian Lage.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Memorable Moments: Joe Lovano

Saxophonist Joe Lovano, at an interview at Barnes and Noble today on Manhattan's Upper East Side, after being asked about how long he warms up each day to get his fingers moving and his mind "in the zone":

"I live this music all of the time so I really don't know what you're talking about."

Sunday, February 20, 2011

NEA Jazz Masters 2011: Behind The Scenes

I volunteered once again at this year’s National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Awards & Ceremony, and, as excited as I was to write about it, it’s taken me quite a long time to do so; the inspiration just hadn’t yet struck me in quite the right way. Yet.
But this past Tuesday, while skimming across different jazz sites, I came across this article: NEA Jazz Master Award To Disappear Under New Federal Budget Plan
For some reason, as I processed this shocking and devastating information, what passed through my mind was quick flashes of pictures, people, and smiles –all NEA Jazz Masters- from both the 2010 & 2011 NEA Awards & Ceremonies. I saw James Moody hugging Gerald Wilson, laughing hysterically as they reminisced about their days in Dizzy Gillespie’s band together. I saw Ahmad Jamal laughing with Phil Woods. I saw, just over my right shoulder, one night at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola (the night before the 2011 Awards Ceremony), the biggest smile I’ve ever seen – on Gerald Wilson’s face – as he listened to, and danced in his seat, to the music on stage. I saw, in the same frame, Jimmy Heath, yelling something to Wilson, waving his hands in the air, smiling, dancing, and then, when the piano player on stage took a slight stride piano break, everyone yell “Oh!,” and then Heath yell, “Some James P. in the house!”

I saw, above all, a family; a community of smiles among people so happy to see each other, all who have given their lives to this music, all who have contributed so much to this music, all who rarely get to see each other all in one place during the year – except at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards & Ceremony.

Amidst all of these extremely happy moments, another memory flashed before my eyes. I saw the serious, solemn, grateful and almost shocked look on Yusef Lateef’s face, just moments before he walked out on the Jazz At Lincoln Center stage to receive his 2010 NEA Jazz Master Awards. It gave me the chills. He was finally being given what he deserved, proper acknowledgement in America which was long overdue. This wasn’t just an award; this was so much more than that. This National Endowment for the Arts award represented the acceptance of these special people and their very special music into America, finally. (Watching these Jazz Masters just before being given the award reminded me of what Moody once told me about his own career. “I felt totally worthless for my whole life until I went over to Europe, where they treated us like we deserved to be treated…” To me, this award seemed to represent an end to that attitude.)

Reading the announcement via the NPR article brought me back to day one of this year’s Awards, and I replayed the whole day in my head, realizing in disbelief that such a wonderful bringing together of these people may never happen again.

I replayed my first memory of the day: Greeting the jazz masters as they arrived at Jazz At Lincoln Center for a panel discussion. I said hello to jazz great Gerald Wilson as he got off the elevator. “Hey!”, he yelled, and approached me with his hand out. He couldn’t get his gloves off in time for our handshake and said to me, “Pardon my glove.” I remember being taken aback by this statement; I’ve never heard something so kind like that before, and via that one statement, I felt welcomed into a long bygone era.

The two-day event this year was another wonderful experience. There were a few moments that I’ll never forget, that I’d like to share with you.

I remember, on the first day, going to get lunch in a backstage room at Lincoln Center, just before the dress rehearsal for the following evenings’ concert was to take place. I walked into the room and, sitting at the table was Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, and Ellis Marsalis. A few minutes later, Benny Golson walked in. Everyone said hello and hugged each other, but when Golson got to Marsalis, he introduced himself. Marsalis replied, “Nice to meet you.” They both couldn’t remember if they had met before; if they had met before, they said, it had been quite a long time ago.

Later that night, the NEA had a sort of party at the 2nd set at Dizzy’s Club that night. Many of the jazz masters came out with their families and had a great time hanging with one another and eating some food. The band that night was saxophonist Walter Blanding’s group –which was great!- and, it seemed to me that many of the songs were progressive/modern type melodies over very conventional, traditional, almost Dixieland type chord progressions. Seated next to me was Gerald Wilson, master composer, arranger, theorist; basically THE man in terms of knowing tunes, chord progressions, and reharmonizations. I tapped Mr. Wilson on the shoulder and asked him if the tune being played was the Cole Porter song, “It’s Delovely.” He smiled. It was, he said, and seemed a bit excited at the mention of that tune. For the rest of the set Mr. Wilson and I had an amazing time throwing song suggestions at one another. He’d tap me when a tune would excite him, and I’d do the same. At one point, he asked me if I knew the tune called “I May Be Wrong.” “I don’t,” I said. He thought for a second and then laughed: “That was the theme song for the Apollo Theater in the early ‘40’s. I guess you wouldn’t know that one.” It was a thrill suggesting different tunes to him. “Oh!”, he’d say, then close his eyes, place his hands on the table as if he were playing the piano, and then he’d hit a few chords. After a few seconds of doing so, he’d confirm the tune for me and then tell me four or five other tunes it also reminded him of.

At the end of the set he asked me what I played. I told him piano, and then he said, “I know you play something because I can tell you’ve got ears.” That meant a whole lot to me. He asked me if I loved it. ‘I do,” I said. Then he looked and me and said something I’ll never forget. “Stay with it. Jazz music will keep you honest.”

He meant, of course, and went on to explain, that it’s impossible to really play anything but yourself if you’re really playing the music. “You never meet any jazz musicians who are murderers, do you?” he asked.

A few friends came over and Mr. Wilson began to tell us some wild stories from his past. He told us that Roy Eldridge could play better trumpet (and higher notes on the instrument) than Louis Armstrong could, and he also told us about his crazy days being Redd Foxx’s musical director. He told us about the many times Duke Ellington would call him, in the middle of the night, and ask him to arrange a piece by the following afternoon. He said that he’d stay up all night writing the piece and that his wife would copy the parts (by hand) for the rest of the band. He said that Duke did play Gerald Wilson original songs, but that Wilson felt especially honored when Duke would call him to arrange some of Duke’s famous songs.

Mr. Wilson then turned his attention to the show we just saw. The band had played a version of the famous waltz “My Favorite Things” that was very similar to the Coltrane version. “You know,” he said. “People always say that Fats Waller wrote the first jazz waltz [he was referring to “Jitterbug Waltz”], but I wrote the first swinging jazz waltz. It was a blues based off of a classical piece [he named the classical piece but I’ve regrettably forgotten it].” I remember being in awe thinking to myself that I am having a conversation with someone who was actually once in competition with Fats Waller!

After we left Dizzy’s Club and helped those Jazz Masters who needed help to the elevators, I had a very sad moment with the great record producer George Avarkian, who is now extremely frail. His wife had misplaced her cell phone and I helped Mr. Avakian take a seat – he was using a walker and was having trouble sitting down -. He thanked me for the help and then asked me to sit down beside him. After asking me about what I did and so forth, I asked him if he was looking forward to tomorrow -the luncheon, the picture with all the masters, and the concert. “Yes,” he said. He wasn’t feeling too well but “I can’t miss being in that picture. That picture is history.” And then after taking a deep breath, he said, “I think I’m going to be history pretty soon too.”

The following day was the big day. Highlights included sitting next to Jimmy Heath backstage. Mr. Heath was clowning around, telling jokes, and cracking everyone up. There was the threat of snow storm later that night and when the speeches kept going and going, Mr. Heath whispered to me, “They better get the show on the road before Frosty the Snowman comes out to take a peak.” He was laughing, dancing when there was music, listening intently, and poking fun at the speeches made on stage. (When someone onstage said, “Jazz is a uniquely American voice,” Heath said, “No kidding!”) He then pulled out his new digital camera, which he was having trouble figuring out, and took a bunch of pictures of everyone.

What really struck me was watching Mr. Heath when the NEA launched into the memorial part of the program where they honored the Jazz Masters who had passed away this past year. Those included Abbey Lincon, Hank Jones, Dr. Billy Taylor, and James Moody. I know that Mr. Heath was close with them, especially with Moody. As the memorial video said each Masters’ name, I watched Mr. Heath shake his head very sadly. With all these losses, Mr. Heath has surely had a sad year; his son also passed away earlier in the year too. Looking at his demeanor as the memorial was being introduced, I really realized what a remarkable person Jimmy Heath is. Here he lost his son and best friend in the same year, and he’s still here, so happy to be here, and telling his jokes and making everyone excited and happy too; he’s got such a positive and optimistic energy about him. Here’s someone who’s really grateful to be alive, I remember thinking. His musical is legendary, but Mr. Heath and his attitude are truly remarkable. It was very inspiring to see something like that.

After the show, I approached Ahmad Jamal – who I’d been helping get from place to place all day. “Hey man” he said. I said, “Mr. Jamal, I’ve got to tell you. I’ve been working here all day and had to act all professional, but now that it’s over I’ve got to tell you. You’re my hero. I’m a pianist and, for me, you’re ‘the guy.’”

It really meant a whole lot to me to be able to express my gratitude to Mr. Jamal, a man whose music I admire so much, and I think it meant something him. He got a big smile on his face and said, “That means a lot. That makes me feel that I’m still in the game.”

“Mr. Jamal,” I said. “You are the game!”

It was really a thrill to be around such humble people. These people are so much more than amazing musicians; they are truly remarkable people who radiate such kindness, warmth and knowledge when you are around them. It’s such an honor to be able to spend a little bit of time with them.

And for them, they rarely get to see one another. And when they do, it’s probably rarely in this type of environment. They’ve been paying their dues all their lives and now, not only are they being recognized as the Bachs and Beethovens of America, but they are also all together and can celebrate with one another.

It is a huge shame that this event and honor is being taken away because, not only is it a necessary and long overdue honor to bestow upon these deserving people, but the awards' being removed represents the idea that maybe America never really did catch up to the greatness of jazz and it’s creators like we had finally been led to believe. It brings me back to Mr. Moody’s statement and makes me wonder.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Interested In Your Thoughts

Recently rereading the interview with pianist Chick Corea in the June 2010 issue of Downbeat Magazine, I came across what may be my favorite interview question I've ever read. I wish that more interviewees would be asked this question, or asked to react to it's preceeding statement. While that is obviously impossible, I figure I'd ask it here, in hopes of hear from you - whoever that may be. Here is the question, asked by Downbeat's Marius Nordal.

"During your 1950s early roots period, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown, Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal and Dave Brubeck won polls and critical acclaim, filled stadiums and generally seemed to "own" the piano or piano trio scene at the time. Recently I was astonished to see that some of the most prominent and influential college jazz history texts today have literally excised most of those names and replaced them with George Russell, Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. That would seem similiar to banishing Elvis, Chuck Berry or the Beatles from pop music texts.
Do you think univiersities, to some extent, might be erasing the common street history of jazz and replacing it with an alternative, academic, fantasy universe?"