AFRO-AMERICAN MUSIC INSTITUTE CELEBRATES 36 YEARS
Pain Relief Beyond Belief
Mulgrew Miller (WKCR, 10-28-04):
TP: We were speaking about some of your early bands, and a musician from the next generation called and said, “Make sure you talk about the Buhaina days.” Now, we’ve spoken about those days before, but there are people out there, like Derrick Hodge, who probably wasn’t even born when you were out with Woody Shaw…
MULGREW: He was just being born.
TP: So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to go back and give folks a sense of what times were like at the time you came up. You came out of Greenwood, Mississippi. You once told me that you heard Oscar Peterson on The Joey Bishop Show when you were a kid, and it inspired you, gave you an aspiration that piano could be a mode of expression and not just something you were learning how to do.
MULGREW: Very much so.
TP: It got you into jazz. You moved to Memphis for college, to Memphis State University, where you met people like James Williams and Donald Brown and Bill Easley. Then you get out of there and embark on your professional career. What were the steps between Memphis State and your going out into the great wide world.
MULGREW: Mercer Ellington came through Memphis shortly after the death of Duke Ellington, and picked up the multi-reed player, Bill Easley, and Bill left Memphis on the road with Mercer. A few months after that, Mercer needed a sub on the weekend for the then-pianist Lloyd Mayers, and Bill Easley recommended me to Mercer. I went out with the orchestra for a weekend, and later on for another weekend, and a year-and-a-half later I actually joined them. I was on the road with the Ellington orchestra for about three years. During that time, I was making connections in New York. I met Cedar Walton and other musicians…
TP: Did you move to New York when you joined Mercer Ellington?
MULGREW: Kind of. We were on the road so much, we actually lived on the Greyhound bus. But when we were in town for a few weeks off or days off, we would be at the Edison Hotel on 47th Street, which is where all the big bands stayed going back through the decades. Basie, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, and all the bands stayed at the Edison. So that was my New York address during the time I was in the Ellington Orchestra. When we were there, I’d go hang out in the Village and hear all my favorite bands and piano players. I guess word was starting to spread that there was this young pianist from the country who was playing with the Ellington Band who wanted to come to New York.
TP: Memphis is the country?
MULGREW: Well, Greenwood, Mississippi is the country! Eventually, Betty Carter called me, because my name came up with her from several different sources, including James Williams, who was then with Art Blakey, and then Cedar Walton and a few others. She asked to come in to do an audition, which I did, and she hired me.
TP: Over that three-year period, 1976 to the beginning of ‘80, something is happening to your playing, from leaving Memphis and getting into the mix, both playing the Ellington book, but also soaking up the New York piano, which was at a certain peak at the time with Bradley’s and the other piano bars… What do you think were the most important lessons you learned during this time?
MULGREW: Well, it was like a double-gauged evolution. First of all, there’s the personal evolution. I was becoming an adult while I was on the band… I think I turned 21 during the time I was on the band. So I was learning a lot about life, being around so many of the elder gentlemen in the band. I have to tell you that being on the road with 18 different personalities is quite a learning experience.
TP: And Ellington was famous for having eccentrics in the band. I don’t know if that carried over into the Mercer Ellington edition…
MULGREW: Well, there were a few! Some would come and some would leave. But most of them were very interesting personalities. We spent a lot of time on the bus and a lot of time in the same area of space, so to speak. So you really had to learn how to get along with people. I like to say that I became a man on that bus. There was also the opportunity to learn to play the music of Ellington and to sit in the piano chair, and hear all of those extended works and soak in all of that sound. So it was constantly opening my mind up to a whole world of sound…
TP: Parenthetically, let me take you on a bit of a tangent. Ellington himself had one of the most distinctive sounds and presences on piano of anyone who ever played it, and a lot of what he did in real time would influence the direction of the band. So there are a lot of dynamics to that piano chair. Now, I know you’re very into Monk. Did you ever try to emulate Ellington? Did his approach soak in for you?
MULGREW: Not really, especially during that time. Obviously, there were certain signature things that you had to do, like the introduction to Satin Doll and Take The A Train and Things Ain’t What they Used To Be. You had to learn all those classic intros. I did take note of how Ellington played with the band as an accompanist, but I didn’t really try to emulate his style a lot at that time. I was listening a lot to Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner and many of the modern…
TP: Soaking up the modern vocabulary.
MULGREW: Pretty much. Because my agenda was eventually to get to New York and play with all the small groups. So I was listening to all the small group players.
TP: Then Betty Carter called.
MULGREW: Then Betty Carter called. We were on our way to Japan, and I told her, “Well, you have to wait two weeks until I come back from Japan.” Then she did, and John Hicks was getting ready to leave the piano chair in Betty’s band. She called me, and I went to an audition. At the time, she had Curtis Lundy on bass and Kenny Washington on drums. She used to call Kenny Washington “the kid,” because he was very young at the time. I made the audition, and I stayed with Betty about eight months.
TP: That would be a different type of seasoning.
MULGREW: Yes. Because now I’m in a trio, and I have to realize my capacity in a trio format. I had to really develop as an orchestrator and a soloist. So compared to the big band, there’s more focus on the piano chair.
TP: In that group, you’re rather exposed.
MULGREW: Yes, and Betty puts the heat on.
TP: There were a lot of hits in that band. Very precise.
MULGREW: Yes, everything was very arranged and crisp. So it was a great experience, even though it’s one that I never fathomed I would get to. I knew who Betty Carter was, but I wasn’t that familiar with her work. So I had to do a crash course.
TP: After eight months, what did you think?
MULGREW: I’ll tell you what. During my time with her, I came to realize how great she was and who she was, and the music and so on. But my whole big thing was to come to New York and play with Woody Shaw. I had heard Woody’s records—as well as everybody else’s—before I left Memphis, then I met Woody Shaw at a summer jazz camp, one of those Aebersol jazz camps for students. Woody was there with Joe Henderson, and man, they lit the camp on fire. He had just emerged out of one of his heavy woodshedding periods, a lot of practices, and so he was just on fire. He and Joe Henderson played and they lit the camp up. I have never forgotten that feeling, that fire and creativity they had when they played on the faculty concerts.
They had a piano class, and Woody came and sat in on one of the classes. Whoever the teacher was at the time had each pianist play a chorus of blues, and I played my chorus or two, and then he went on to the next student. At the end of the class, I went up to Woody Shaw just to introduce myself, and he says, “Hey, man, I’m going to see you in New York in two years.”
TP: Sounds like a big moment.
MULGREW: Yes. And wouldn’t you know that it was about two years to that week, or to the day almost, after I had joined Mercer Ellington, that I went down to the Vanguard to hear Woody Shaw’s band, and on the intermission I went back to the kitchen, which at the Vanguard is also the dressing room and the hangout and the office and so forth. I went to say hello. Now, mind you, at this point, Woody was legally blind, suffering from retinitis pigmentosa. I said, “Hey, Woody, how you doin’?” Or maybe I said, “Hello, Mr. Shaw.” Whatever it was. At the time I guess he was seeing well enough to see who I was. He says, “I remember you. You’re that piano player with the funny name. I told you I’d see you in two years in New York, didn’t I.” And it was two years almost to the week from when he’d said that earlier.
I continued to follow his groups. Whenever he played in town, I would go to see Woody’s group, or Dexter’s group, or Johnny Griffin’s group, Cedar Walton’s group with Billy Higgins and Sam Jones. These were all my favorite groups to hear. Woody kind of kept track of me through Betty Carter’s group and so on. When Larry Willis left the band, Woody called me, after I’d been with Betty Carter for about eight months.
TP: For a lot of musicians of your generation, his harmonic ideas, his ways of moving from point A to point B were significant and consequential. A lot of people see his music as one of the last big vocabulary jumps. Can you articulate what he did that had such an impact on musicians?
MULGREW: Woody had a conception that he had gleaned from listening to a lot of John Coltrane, and playing with McCoy Tyner and playing with Eric Dolphy and playing with Larry Young. All of these people were on the cutting edge of jazz development at the time, and Woody came right in the wake of that. So he had evolved a conception of using a vocabulary that was a departure, in many respects, from the many trumpet players before him, who used a more diatonic approach in improvising in the vocabulary they used. A lot of bebop oriented lines which go straight up and down the scale, and so forth. But Woody developed this concept of playing the pentatonics and other intervallic ideas, very similar to what McCoy was doing and many of the modern players were evolving. So in that respect, he was really the cutting-edge trumpet player.
TP: He certainly figured out how to transmute those ideas into memorable melodies. That’s what gave him such cache. Everything was so flowing and consonant.
MULGREW: Absolutely. Well, what we remember about a lot of those players from that time, including John Coltrane, is the beauty that they were able to bring out through the experimenting with all of those things. As you said, all of the great melody and all of the beauty in the harmony… The great thing about Woody Shaw is he could play all of that stuff, and it would be beautiful. It wasn’t just intervals. It wasn’t just pentatonics. All those things were lyrically and melodically beautiful—and harmonically beautiful. There are times when I hear his signature sound in the playing of the trumpet players or in the writing of other writers.
TP: Is his sound imprinted in you, would you say? I’m not talking about a copycat way, but there are moments when it resonates in your own compositions.
MULGREW: I’d like to think so. I’d have to be a blockhead to be with him for three years and now absorb some of that stuff.
TP: You go into the Messengers in ‘83.
MULGREW: Yes. In most of those bands I spent three years. Just happened to be that way.
TP: Our caller wanted you to talk about those days, so here’s your chance. Just to put it in context for your bass player, who was only 2 or 3 at the time: When James Williams and Bobby Watson joined Art Blakey, there began an upswing after several years of treading water. Then in 1980, when Wynton and Branford and Wallace Roney come to town, and later Terence Blanchard and Donald Harrison, his becomes the band the hot young players were landing in. And the piano chair took a Memphis signature, from James to Donald Brown to you. So it was a very fresh period for Art Blakey, and his band became a workshop, in which ideas were batted around and coalesced.
MULGREW: It was really kind of a renaissance period on the scene. Of course, Art Blakey’s band had been an institution for decades. Art Blakey’s band was a career-maker. If you played in the band, chances are you had a great chance at establishing yourself as a name in the business. Or moreso than with other bands. You really had high visibility, and you really got recognition if you played with Art Blakey. So I always say that, well, that period and that experience put me on the map as a name.
TP: I’d imagine one thing it gave you was a taste for declarative drummers.
MULGREW: You got that right. That experience defined, pretty much, for me what I wanted to hear in other drummers. I thought I knew up until that point, but I really got to know and experience and feel what a swinging drummer feels like.
TP: Did it change your approach to piano?
MULGREW: I think it was an overall projection thing. Art played so powerfully rhythmically and sonically. He had such a big sound and the beat was so wide. If it affected my playing in any way, it was probably in terms of how I felt and heard the beat. Because Art had such a wide, strong beat. But it also affected me in terms of my projection on the instrument. The piano doesn’t naturally have that kind of clarity that the trumpet or saxophone has. There’s something about the trumpet that says, “Hey, listen to me.” There’s something about the vocal quality of the saxophone that says, “Hey, check me out.” But the piano has a tendency to be kind of understated and dynamically less obvious than some of the other instruments. So to play with a drummer like Blakey, you really had to learn how to project a certain kind of dynamic beyond the lights of the bandstand, as Art used to call it. He said, “You’ve got to make it go beyond the lights of the bandstand.”
Let me also state Art Blakey showed us how to be bandleaders. As Benny Golson said, he was very didactic in his own way. Art wasn’t one to always tell you “Do this” or “Don’t do that.” You just observed him, and he led you by the sheer force of his personality—and his musical personality. He shaped your musical experience just by sitting behind the drums and swinging so hard. He allowed us to compose and arrange. The whole experience was basically about the presentation of music, how to present music, and not get on the bandstand and not sound like you’re in a jam session. It was an organized presentation. So you learned a lot about professionalism, and how to call a set, how to arrange the repertoire from one song to the next, and varied the song… All those kinds of things are important. So we learned a lot just observing him observing us.
TP: Then you and Wallace Roney and Bill Pierce, and Charnett Moffett was one of the bassists with Tony Williams… It was an extraordinary band. I don’t think the contributions of that band are sufficiently recognized right now.
MULGREW: Tony Williams, in my eyes, was the same breed of musician as Woody Shaw, in that their involvement with music was so intense and so serious and so deep. Tony, in my estimation, was a true genius of the drums—of jazz music. I’m not saying this because he’s no longer with us; I used to say this when he was here. As an instrumentalist and musician, I always put him on the same pedestal with Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and John Coltrane. If Tony hadn’t played another beat after he was 19 or 20 years old, he would have changed history. Maybe even if he was 18 or 17.
TP: But he played a lot of beats afterward.
MULGREW: Yes, thank God! But he came to the scene with a ripe imagination and a fertile mind for the music. I think when Tony came on the scene at 17, he was already a visionary, and that vision was firmly in place about how he wanted to play music and how he thought music was supposed to go.
TP: Projecting with him must have been a challenge as well. He was playing LOUD during those years.
MULGREW: Well, I think loud was a natural component of what he was doing. He wasn’t only loud. He was powerful dynamically. Tony’s playing had that real urge in it. But quiet as it’s kept, Art Blakey was a pretty loud drummer. He wasn’t quite as loud as Tony, but Art was a very powerful and dynamically and sonically loud drummer. Tony Williams was even more so, and maybe for a lot of reasons, having gone through the whole rock-and-roll experience… Tony played some big, heavy drums, big drums, big cymbals, big sticks. I think Tony’s vision of music was that it should sound really BIG. I think he genuinely felt that way about the music. I don’t think he was just playing loud because he couldn’t play soft.
TP: You did a trio record towards the end of his life that amply demonstrates what he could do with dynamics when the occasion called.
MULGREW: That proved to be his last recording. But I played a few trio gigs with Tony, and on most of those trio gigs he played as loud as he played at other times.
TP: Back to you: All of this 16 years or so of playing in these high-level situations, during which time you were starting to emerge as a trio pianist and with Wingspan on records that come out in ‘87-‘88-‘89… Having self-assurance and a sense of who you are as a musician is a must. You can’t really coexist with them on the bandstand without that.
MULGREW: Exactly. I spent all those years developing self-assurance and confidence. When I came to New York, the last thing on my mind was having a record date of my own. Having my own record, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just thinking can I get a chance to play with this person or that person, and grow and develop. I think it’s a little different now. A lot of the youngsters want a record date when they get off the plane.
TP: Well, that attitude began in the late ‘80s during the Art Blakey renaissance when the “Young Lions” came up. Looking back, what do you think of the way the music evolved during that period? The overall sound. Did it change?
MULGREW: I think a certain area of the music changed. The younger players sort of had a sound and the older players had a sound. But because there wasn’t enough attention devoted to the older players, the younger sounds and developments and bands and music were perpetuated. I think the music suffered in a lot of ways because of that. Even though you had some really outstanding musicians then who were young and developing, many of them—or many of us—were exposed prematurely and with fragmented development and so on, and the major record companies weren’t pushing the veteran musicians enough. While the teenage piano players were getting record contracts and television appearance, Cedar Walton went around without a record contract. And how you gonna do that?! How you gonna do that to the music? In spite of that, Cedar Walton, for example, is one of the finest pianists playing today, and has been for the last 40-50 years. So I think that the Establishment, the jazz industry did a lot of disservice to the music by hyping so many musicians and ignoring the veterans, and so on.
James was a very dear, close friend for 31 years. We met at Memphis State, and he was one of my prime mentors. I loved him so and respected him so much, as everybody did. And he touched so many people.
TP: Wingspan goes back close to twenty years. Wasn’t the first Wingspan album [Landmark] in 1987?
TP: At the time, you’d just joined Tony Williams after several years with Woody Shaw and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, which would be two good apprenticeships, if you want to call them that, for setting up a group with horns and expressing your own compositional vision. Would that be accurate?
MULGREW: It would be indeed. I’d like to add that before the Art Blakey and Woody Shaw experiences, I was with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and with Betty Carter.
TP: You’ve continued to put in dues over the years because of the way the marketplace has treated the lifeblood music. You mentioned you did a Japanese tour and a West Coast tour with the group. The personnel’s been fairly stable over the last few years, no?
MULGREW: Well, it’s changed somewhat. The only original member is Steve Nelson. Steve Wilson has been with us for ten years or so, and Kareem Riggins has been with us off and on for about ten years. Our new bassist, Derrick Hodge, also plays in the trio; he’s been with us about 2½ years now. And we added trumpet a year ago with Duane Eubanks,
TP: Does this configuration inspire much writing?
MULGREW: I haven’t done much fresh, brand-new writing. But this project in 2002, all the writing was new.
TP: That’s pretty new.
MULGREW: It’s new to me!
TP: I guess it must take a while to wrap your mind around a tune and have it evolve. But there also will be tunes you’ve been doing since the late ‘80s. Some of your things are close to modern standards.
MULGREW: We’re also doing some songs I wrote from a recording I did for RCA called Hand In Hand in the late ‘90s. Plus, we do standards and cover tunes by such composers as Hank Mobley and so on.
TP: Now, with all respect to your writing, when people think of Mulgrew Miller, they think of your piano playing. And most pianists, when they’re presenting their music, will do so in the trio format. What are the satisfactions of a larger ensemble?
MULGREW: You get to take advantage of the different voices and colors, and get a larger palette of colors and sounds to deal with in playing the compositions. We have vibes and trumpet and alto saxophone. Steve Wilson plays also soprano saxophone and flute—his flute playing is a well-kept secret, but Steve is a marvelous flute player. We have the option of all these sounds, and it adds another dimension to the trio.
TP: Do you see it as the trio-plus?
MULGREW: I don’t really think of that, although personnel-wise, it really is that. For instance, in some cases, the repertoires are different. We play songs in the larger group that we don’t play in the trio, and vice-versa. So I don’t necessarily think of it as a trio plus horns either.
TP: You went for six years without being signed to a label, once RCA released, but you’ve found a home for now with MaxJazz.
MULGREW: They’re wonderful. Richard McDonnell and his sons are musicians, and they understand the art and they understand the artist vision. I’m really privileged to be able to work with such understanding businessmen who run this company, and we get a lot of support from them.
TP: Your most recent date, Live At Yoshi’s, is a trio record. How does a live performance differ from the studio? How will the experience of seeing Wingspan in person differ from a studio recording?
MULGREW: Well, the repertoire is pretty set. The thing about Wingspan is that the group is constantly evolving as the musicians evolve. The way we’re playing now sounds a lot different than how we played four-five years ago. It’s a matter of individuals in the bands expanding in their own right. For instance, I’ve seen a lot of growth in our drummer. Just in the last year, he’s playing at a whole different level than he was a year ago. Our bassist, Derrick Hodge, brings a lot to the table. By the rhythm section being different and evolving, that affects and stimulates what happens on the front line.
TP: How proactive are you as to tempos and beats? Are you open to feedback?
MULGREW: I’m very open. We might talk about a basic feel to a tune, a basic idea or something, but all things are open to interpretation. These are all remarkable musicians, and I trust them very much, and I trust their musicianship and insights and judgments and taste, and they tend to bring things off in whatever direction they want to go. If Kareem wants to take a Latin tune in a swing direction or in a 3/4 direction, then we go there.
TP: Were these liberties granted to you at an equivalent stage of your career?
MULGREW: More or less. I’ve always been open to the idea of flexibility and spontaneity. In the best groups I played with, that was certainly a strong element in various ways. Spontaneity is important.
* * *
Mulgrew Miller Musician Show, WKCR, 5-4-88 (Ted Panken):
[Art Tatum: “Caravan,” “Sophisticated Lady” (1954?)]
TP: I’ll turn the reins over to Mulgrew and let him say a few words about Art Tatum.
MM: Oh! What can I say? Well, as we hear, it’s pure genius. It’s divinity on the keyboard. [LAUGHS]
TP: At what point in your musical life did you hear Art Tatum?
MM: Well, it was pretty early actually. I had been a great Oscar Peterson fan in my early teens, and just through research… You know, I like to find out where the guys come from or who they’re influenced by. And when I learned that Oscar was influenced by Art Tatum, I thought I’d better go back and check this guy out. And lo and behold, I heard something that was unbelievable.
TP: Messed you up, huh?
MM: Yeah. I think Art is definitely the greatest of all time.
TP: You came up in the state of Mississippi. Tell us about your early years in the music, your early training and so forth.
MM: Well, I started playing the piano, like a lot of kids do, very naturally. You know, you go to the piano and you pick out these little tunes that you’ve heard around… My father eventually got a teacher for me, and I studied through high school, and then I attended Memphis State University. In Mississippi I played rhythm-and-blues as a teenager, and I played in church, Gospel, you know, spiritual music. I played a lot of cocktail parties. I had a little teenage trio, and we tried to emulate Oscar Peterson and Ramsey Lewis, heh-heh..
TP: You were born in 1955. That would make this 1970, 1971 when you were making your first strides…
MM: Yes, about ’71, ’72.
TP: This is all a matter of record, but we might as well get it down. Who were some of the people that you listened to? These are some people whose music we’ll be hearing during this course of this evening.
MM: Actually, while I was playing R&B, my really first piano influence was Ramsey Lewis. My older brother was into Jazz, and he kept telling me about this guy named Oscar Peterson. And I said, “Hmm-hmm-hmm, Oscar Peterson could never play…”
TP: Like Ramsey Lewis.
MM: You know, nobody can touch that. So I finally heard that Oscar was going to appear on the Joey Bishop Show one night, and I said, “Well, let me sit and take a listen to this cat, and see what’s happening.” And I was turned around forever, for good! And the record that I think we’re going to play next is very dear to me, because it was the first Jazz record that I had. This was the record that I started listening to, and it featured Oscar in his classic trio situation playing tunes like “Girl Talk” and…
TP: “Moon River.”
MM: “Moon River,” yes.
TP: “I’m In The Mood For Love” and so forth.
MM: “On A Clear Day.” He did some excellent block chord work. And it’s just so tasty, everything on the record is just exquisite. Well, this was the record that I was trying to emulate when I was 14 or 15. I had no idea of what was going on!
TP: But this sort of opened the door a little bit.
[MUSIC: Oscar Peterson, “Girl Talk” (1970), Phineas Newborn/Jones/Hayes, “Way Out West” (1961)]
TP: Phineas Newborn was in Memphis at the time when Mulgrew was attending Memphis State in the music education program. Tell me about the program, the areas that you were covering as a student.
MM: Well, as a student, I was a Music Education major. I only attended for two years. But the Jazz program at Memphis State was probably one of the best in that part of the South at that time. Unfortunately, they didn’t really have a program where you could focus on small group playing and improvising. It was basically a typical college big-band situation. And they had four bands at different levels, and so forth and so on. So that was the extent of the Jazz program at Memphis State.
TP: Did you enter competitions?
MM: Yes, we did.
TP: What kind of material did you play?
MM: Oh, we played a variety of composers and arrangers, some of the things from the Kenton band, and some of my favorite charts that we did were Thad Jones’ material, and there would be arrangements from the students within the band, and so forth and so on.
TP: Is Memphis State where you had your first efforts at arranging and writing?
MM: Well, you might say my first efforts. It was not much more than an effort at that time. I really was more into composing than arranging. But I guess you might say that my first compositions I wrote at Memphis State.
TP: [ETC.] Mulgrew will be appearing with the American Jazz Orchestra as part of a Jimmie Lunceford tribute — arrangements and recreations of the music of Jimmie Lunceford. You’ve been rehearsing that music this week. What’s it like?
MM: Well, it’s a very educational. I had had some big band experience playing with the Ellington band on the road for three years, so in a way it was sort of comfortable to me. It’s a situation where I have to exhibit my discipline, and lay back, and play the things that the music requires. John Lewis, of course, is directing the orchestra, and there are some very talented musicians in the orchestra as soloists — we’re really trying to recreate the style of the music.
TP: [ETC.: APPEARANCE BY WINGSPAN] We’ll next hear some music by Bud Powell.
MM: Bud Powell also was an artist who I discovered around the time I was in Memphis. I had known all along of his importance in the music, and his innovations, and his contributions. I first heard a record called The Amazing Bud Powell. I really listened carefully, and tried to understand what his contribution was. Of course, he was to influence a whole generation of piano players to play the same type of lines that Charlie Parker was playing, harmonically and rhythmically and melodically.
[MUSIC: Bud Powell, “Celia,” “Cherokee” (1949)]
TP: Mulgrew, someone asked me to ask you how you came up with the name Wingspan for your group.
MM: Actually, Wingspan is sort of a dedication to the legacy of Charlie Parker — Bird, you know. The tune “Wingspan” on the record is a composition sort of written i that sort of Bebop mode — with a few curves here and there! But it’s basically a Bebop oriented tune. Once again, the title derives from thinking about the legacy of Charlie Parker.
TP: When we last spoke with Mulgrew about his earlier years, we were around 1973, Mulgrew has left Memphis State. Pick it up.
MM: Well, after leaving Memphis State I had heard about a piano teacher in Boston who was sort of well-known among certain circles. She had taught years ago at Boston University, I believe. She was the mother of the great baritone saxophonist, Serge Chaloff, who was one of the original Four Brothers with Woody Herman’s band. She was known as Madame Chaloff. I wanted to study with her, because I heard that she really had this great concept for piano technique, and a lot of guys that had studied with her were the guys that I admired — Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, quite a few guys, Hal Galper had studied with her, and a lot of lesser-known pianists. She was sort of like this mystical piano guru hiding out in Boston. So I went to have a few lessons with her, and I’d like to think that I really benefitted from studying with this lady.
TP: What were some of her unique approaches?
MM: Well, her concept was sort of mystical and metaphysical, in a way. It involved things like breathing, a lot of things in principle that are similar to Yoga. It involves breathing and likeness of the arm and muscle-power…I mean, finger-power rather than arm power, you know. It was a whole philosophy behind the concept that sort of reminded me of some sort of Eastern philosophy or something.
TP: Again, in Boston were you able to supplement your studies with gigs?
MM: Yeah. Well, actually I was doing more working than I was studying! There in Boston I met some very fine musicians — Ricky Ford, Billy Pierce, Chris Albert, and some of the guys that are still around Boston. Some of them have since come to New York, like Boots Maleson, who plays bass in the Ron Carter Quartet. And I played with all of these guys around Boston, and this was back in 1975.
TP: Was it was around that time that you joined Mercer Ellington, or was there a hiatus?
MM: There’s about a year between that and the time I joined Mercer Ellington.
TP: That’s when Ricky Ford joined Mercer.
MM: Ricky joined Mercer about that time. Now, I was in Boston during the winter, and you know, coming from the South, I had never been that cold in my life! [LAUGHS] So it got a bit cold for me. I couldn’t stand it. Snow, covered cars for a month at a time. So I had a friend that I had gone to high school with who was living in L.A., and he kept saying, “Come out to L.A., man. You could make it out here.” And I had always heard that L.A. was like paradise, you know, since I was a kid. So I went to L.A., and I stayed out there for a year.
That was a very interesting period in my life. I met a wonderful tenor saxophone player. He’s really a marvelous, magnificent player. His name is Rudolph Johnson, and he’s not a well-known saxophonist, but he is one of the best-known saxophone players I’ve heard.
TP: Is he originally from Kansas City?
MM: No, he’s from Columbus, Ohio. But he’s been with Ray Charles for the last eight or nine years. But this guy is one of the most incredible tenor saxophonists I’ve heard.
TP: Did he record for Black Jazz?
MM: Yes, he did.
TP: Okay, I know which Rudolph Johnson you’re talking about. What else was happening in L.A.?
MM: I was working, I was doing all sorts of things in L.A. — musical things! I was working at some of the smaller jazz clubs down on the beach, and I was also playing in a church at that time, which I had been doing since I was a kid. So I sort of played in church from the time I was 8 years old until literally up until the time I joined Mercer Ellington.
TP: Some thoughts on the relationship of the church music to the secular music.
MM: Well, yeah, especially in the direction of Jazz and Blues. Certain areas of Gospel music and inspirational music, the tonality and the colors are very closely related with the feeling of the Blues. Actually, that’s what it is, the dominant seventh sounds and that sort of thing, and the rhythms.
TP: How did you come to hook up Mercer Ellington, then?
MM: Well, that’s sort of a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. I first studied with Mercer Ellington in my sophomore year at Memphis State. He had been touring some part of the South. Lloyd Mayers had been the piano player since Duke’s death, and I think Lloyd had to miss a weekend or something. A friend of mine who was working with the band named Bill Easley, who plays clarinet and saxophone, recommended me to Mercer to work one weekend as a substitute for Lloyd Mayers. I just did that weekend, and it was almost a year when I ran into Mercer in Los Angeles. I learned that he had been looking for me. He didn’t know where to find me because i had moved to L.A. I think it was coming up to New Year’s Day, 1977, and he needed me to play a New Year’s Eve gig. He said, “What are you doing for the next three weeks?” I said, “Well, nothing. I can make the gigs.” So he took me for three weeks, and actually, what was supposed to be three weeks turned out to be three years.
TP: Did you come in cold, or were you pretty familiar with the Ellington repertoire?
MM: Well, I was familiar with some of the most popular of Ellington’s music. But there was a great volume of stuff that I’d never heard. But I was familiar with Duke’s personality, because I had seen him on TV and I’d heard a lot of his music as a kid. So I didn’t feel like I was totally cold, but I was very green.
TP: That’s a heavy chair to fill.
MM: Well, I never related to that idea of filling Duke’s chair or his shoes, because my position in the band was that of a sideman. Mercer was the leader. So sort of all the pressure was on him.
TP: What were your features with the band?
MM: I had one feature I would play. That was a song I think Duke sort of spontaneously composed called “Reflections In D,” which is a beautiful piece for piano. It had an orchestrated background. So I did that, and sometimes Mercer would feature me on solo piano playing “Lush Life.”
[MUSIC: Wingspan, “Dreams of Brazil,” “Wingspan”]
TP: Your stint with Mercer Ellington spread your name around to the wider Jazz audience, I would think.
MM: Actually, as far as spreading my name around, my name didn’t really get around that much, especially in the circle of musicians, because Mercer didn’t travel that circuit that much. I mean, Mercer kind of… We played a lot of college dates, a lot of country club dances. So as far as getting my name around among the circle of musicians and critics and so forth and so on, I guess it was a very limited amount of exposure.
But, far more important than that is the fact that I got a chance to hear the very colorful music of Duke Ellington every night, still being played by a lot of the people that played with him, and it really opened my ears up to the world of musical color. And since that time, I’ve been really affected by that.
TP: Did it spur you to go back into the recorded work of Duke Ellington?
MM: Yeah, a bit. Yeah. Actually, yeah.
TP: After leaving Mercer, your next major gig was with Betty Carter…
MM: Actually, before we address Betty, I probably should add that a lot of people are familiar with Duke’s famous pop tunes, “Satin Doll” and “Sophisticated Lady” and so forth and so on. But not a lot of people are familiar with his more extended works, his suites, the “Liberian Suite” and the “Afro-Eurasian Suite.” I mean, that is some of the greatest music that’s ever been composed in this century. And I thought that is deserving of mention on this show.
TP: His work was so comprehensive, it seems impossible that one man put it down. I guess that can happen if you have your band as your instrument for forty-five years.
MM: That’s right. But I think he was exceptionally prolific.
Anyway, as we were saying, I left Mercer in January of 1980 after receiving a call from Betty Carter, and I was on the road with Betty for about eight months.
TP: Did you replace John Hicks?
MM: I replaced John Hicks, that’s right.
TP: Now, being with Betty Carter places a whole different set of demands on the piano player. You’re almost the second voice in the band, in a lot of ways.
MM: Yeah, in a lot of ways. But still, there was a common thread there underlying the experience, because I was still an accompanist, and that was my basic role — being an accompanist. I really learned to be sympathetic to that role and to whoever was up front, the soloist or the leading voice or whatever.
TP: Was this the time when you settled in the New York area?
MM: Yes. As a matter of fact, upon being employed by Betty, I found residency in the New York area — in Brooklyn, as a matter of fact.
TP: [ETC. on MUSIC] Your feelings about McCoy Tyner’s music.
MM: Actually, I have to say that there are a lot of piano players that had a great effect on me. As with most musicians, there are people who affect them more than others. In my case, I think my first great inspiration was Oscar Peterson, and after that time I was really affected by a lot of people, some of the people we’ve played. But when I heard McCoy Tyner play live at the time he had the band with Azar Lawrence and Junie Booth, I felt that my soul was being ravished. [LAUGHS] It really took hold of me. I went back to Memphis State, and I was determined that I was going to practice as hard as ever, because I was really set on fire by what I had heard from McCoy Tyner at this period.
[MUSIC: McCoy Tyner, “Theme for Ernie” (1962); Freddie Hubbard/Wayne/McCoy/Elvin, “Birdlike” (1961)]
TP: That was killing, wasn’t it.
MM: Yes, indeed! That was one of the most famous Freddie Hubbard solos, I believe.
TP: You seem to have memorized everybody’s solo on “Birdlike,” gauging from your response while it was on.
MM: [LAUGHS] Oh yeah. Well, that was a record I really listened to a lot. McCoy’s playing on that is just immaculate, and Freddie’s playing and Wayne’s playing — just the whole group. That is really a 10,000-star record.
TP: You wanted to say some things about the pianist’s relation to the horns.
MM: Well, part of the conception of playing Jazz and improvising is playing lines. This particular innovation was carried forward moreso probably by horn players than piano players — maybe. Of course, in Modern Jazz, most of us have been influenced by the innovations of Charlie Parker and through Bud Powell, and a lot of the horn players that came afterwards, like Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown and Miles Davis, and of course, John Coltrane, and so forth and so on.
TP: We’ll now hear Thelonious Monk’s “Work,” which Monk recorded in 1954 with Mulgrew’s former employer, Art Blakey, and the title track of your second release for Landmark.
MM: My first exposure to Monk I think was the “At the Five Spot”…
TP: With Johnny Griffin, another former employer.
MM: Right. I remember one of the first so-called Hard-Bop songs I learned was “Blue Monk” and “Straight No Chaser.” I remember driving to high school, when I would drive to school in the morning, and a friend of mine and I would sing the melodies to these songs. But I readily related to Thelonious Monk’s music, because in a way, it was so simple. You know, in its complexity it was so simple.
TP: Monk really developed his conception performing up and down the Eastern Seaboard with various church bands in the 1930’s.
MM: Yes, and that’s easy to hear. When I listen to his composition, “Crepuscule With Nellie,” that sounds a hymn to me.
[MUSIC: Monk/Heath/Blakey, “Work” (1954); Monk/Roach, “Bemsha Swing” (1953)]
TP: We’ll continue with a selection featuring another of Mulgrew’s favorite pianists, Wynton Kelly.
MM: Wynton Kelly was a supreme accompanist and a very wonderful soloist. One of the great things about Wynton was his pulse and his time, and the way he made you feel when he played. He had what we call a lope. He played with a kind of a lope that was really deep in the time, and it kind of made you pat your foot or your feet or snap your finger. That’s one of the great traits in his playing that a lot of piano players have tried to pick up on. Just the way he phrased and the way he placed his notes.
TP: And he was a master of almost any type of music he had to play, whether Bop or Soul type pieces, ballads…
MM: Oh, definitely, right. I think Wynton Kelly was almost everybody’s favorite sideman.
TP: He also played a great deal in the churches in Brooklyn during his too-short life.
MM: Well, he certainly had that feeling, you know. [LAUGHS]
[Miles/Stitt/Kelly/Chambers/Cobb, “Walkin'” (1960); Bill Evans/Israels/Bunker, “Round Midnight” (1965)]
MM: We all know the contributions of Bill Evans, with its harmonic colors and the spring-like, airy lines that he played, and his renditions of the songs. I think he made a timely contribution to the art of playing Jazz piano. I’ve certainly learned a lot from listening to Bill Evans.
TP: As has many a pianist.
MM: Yes, as many a pianist and horn players.
TP: The next set will focus on Ahmad Jamal, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. There’s another Miles Davis connection. Miles got a lot of ideas from listening to Ahmad Jamal in the Fifties in Chicago, and of course, Herbie Hancock and Chick both worked with Miles.
MM: That’s true. Miles had so many wonderful piano players.
TP: Ahmad Jamal was one of your earliest and primary influences.
MM: Ahmad Jamal is a very unique player. He’s sort of in a class by himself, because he was of no particular school, but yet all of the areas and eras of the music are represented in his playing, all of the Modern approaches and…you know, the whole history of the piano is there. Yet, he’s so individual and his style and his approach and his conception is so unique. He is so deserving of the highest merit in the tradition and history of jazz pianists.
TP: And his music has been evolving as well for really some thirty-five years, in a continuous evolution. He’s never stood on his laurels.
MM: That’s right. He keeps encompassing all of the innovations that come along. That’s why he’s such a remarkable artist.
[MUSIC: Ahmad Jamal, “Dolphin Dance (1970); Herbie Hancock, “One Finger Snap” (1964)]
MM: Herbie, you know, what can I say? Herbie is like the supreme conceptualist. He is the ideal for me, without ever wanting to become a Herbie “clone.” Herbie is such an expansive pianist, musician, his compositions, and he has incorporated so many conceptions and devices into his playing. To me, Herbie’s playing at best is what Jazz is all about.
TP: Herbie performed on “One Finger Snap” with your current employer, Tony Williams, on the drums.
MM: Yes, let’s mention Tony, because Tony is one of the most incredible musicians that I have ever had the experience of witnessing on any instrument.
TP: For the last five or six years you’ve been working with Art Blakey and Tony Williams night after night after night.
MM: It’s an incredible experience. I think I’ve become addicted to those loud drummers. These are some of the greatest drummers of all time. Back in the summer, I had the experience of playing with three of the greatest drummers alive in one night! I played with Tony Williams at the Blue Note Festival, then I went down to Sweet Basil and I sat in with Art, and then as I was sitting in with Art, Elvin Jones sat in on the same set. It was just incredible.
TP: [ETC.] Any concluding comments?
MM: Unfortunately, we didn’t have four or five hours to play some of the artists who have affected me since I’ve been in New York. I’ve learned so much from a lot of the players in New York that we haven’t had a chance to talk about, players like Hank Jones and Tommy Flanagan and Cedar Walton, one of my very-very favorites, who I think is one of the most underrated piano players in the world, Kirk Lightsey, Kenny Barron and Harold Mabern — the list goes on. Of the younger players, there’s Kenny Kirkland and Renee Rosnes and Benny Green, and there are a lot more that are coming up behind us. So it’s really a healthy environment.
[MUSIC: Chick Corea, “Tones For Joan’s Bones” (1966)]
Mulgrew Miller (Musician Show, 6-29-94):
[MUSIC: Tatum, “Elegy,” P. Newborn, “Lush Life” (1961), Bud Powell, “Parisian Thoroughfare” (1953)]
TP: In selecting the music, Mulgrew was very definite about particular musicians and tracks. “Lush Life” was by Phineas Newborn, who bestrides the talented group of pianists who emerged from Memphis. Was your first exposure to him when you attended school there?
MM: Yes. I had heard of Phineas Newborn prior to my arrival in Memphis, but I didn’t know much about him. And I met him in a club one night, and subsequent to that I heard him playing live, and I was blown away — needless to say.
TP: In what kind of venue?
MM: Oh, it was very small, what we would call down there a hole-in-the-wall joint. A small club with an upright piano where it seemed like half the keys didn’t work, and he played them like it was a Steinway grand.
TP: Who did you meet when you got to Memphis?
MM: Well, the first pianist I met in Memphis actually was Donald Brown. We were both students at Memphis State at the time. A few days later I met James Williams, and we became very good friends, and James became a very important mentor to me. Actually James was a mentor to both Donald Brown and myself at the time. There was a very fantastic pianist who has made some impact in New York in the last year or so named Charles Thomas. And Phineas, or “Fine-as” Newborn was there also.
TP: Which is it anyway?
MM: I don’t know.
TP: How should I say it?
MM: I would say that it’s officially Phineas. But everybody down in Memphis called him Fine-as. Some even called him Pheenus.
TP: I remember the first time I had to pronounce his name on the radio, I had four phone calls, literally, telling me one was right, and they were divided between the two pronunciations.
What was the extent of your background in the literature of the music when you arrived in Memphis?
MM: Well, I came to Memphis State right out of high school. Up until that time, I had really been into the more traditional stylists, like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, and to a great extent Ahmad Jamal and Art Tatum. Those were my favorite players at the time. When I got to Memphis, there was a great student environment, a lot of students learning about the music. At that time, I was able to absorb the more modern players (that’s a comparative, relative term), people like Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner. Although I had heard some records by Bud Powell records McCoy Tyner records, and records by all of the contemporary players back down home, I didn’t really get into listening to them until I got into Memphis State. I would say I think of some of them more as conceptual players than actual stylists. In other words, you can sit and analyze what they do, and find certain formulas for things, and create your own language from that.
TP: I’m sure that being able to play in such a stimulating setting helped begin to hone the process of forming a vocabulary.
MM: Yeah. Because when I met James, I didn’t know very much theoretically or analytically about what I was doing. I was just sort of going for a sound. And there are a lot of limitations to that approach. James had been a student at Memphis State for several years, and he was actually in his last semester there, and I was in my first semester. So James knew all the stuff that I was trying to learn, like chord voicings and certain scales, certain records to listen to, who to listen to, what songs you need to learn, and he was very generous about directing me along those lines.
TP: You came up in Greenville, Mississippi.
TP: Excuse me. How much was Jazz listened to in the community when you were coming up? Were you an exception as a youngster playing Jazz on piano, or…?
MM: Oh, definitely, yeah. Well, actually there was an older guy who still lives there, who played a style that was kind of out of Erroll Garner, Nat Cole, Teddy Wilson. He had been a mentor. You know, I kind of looked up to him and tried to copy, emulate the way he played. But he wouldn’t explain things academically. You just had to sit and listen and wonder, “Wow, what was that?” Or he’d show you a lick or something like that. But to learn to look at the music analytically so that you could put it together yourself, I didn’t get to that until I got to Memphis.
So to answer your question: Yes, in my generation, in high school, I was practically alone in learning to play Jazz.
TP: Were you dealing with other types of music, that your peers were into, which I’m assuming was rhythm-and-blues and Blues…
TP: And of course, church music.
MM: Yes. Well, that was really what I was doing. I was playing on the weekends, playing in the rhythm-and-blues bands, and on Sundays, sometimes two or three hours from the gig, I was in Sunday School class!
TP: So the secular and the sacred were right on top of each other.
MM: Oh, yes. Yes, indeed.
TP: What were some of the models for the music you were doing with the rhythm-and-blues bands? What sort of bands were you listening to?
MM: We were doing kind of a wide range of things, from the really bluesy things like Little Milton, Albert King, B.B. King to the more popular hits of the day. James Brown was big at the time, and Aretha Franklin, and Al Green, and Marvin Gaye — all of those kind of things. Around 1966, when I was sixth grade, I started trying to emulate Ramsey Lewis, because he got two or three hits at the time, real big hits. He was probably my very first idol.
TP: You wanted to be in with the In Crowd.
MM: Yeah. But actually this was a little after that. This was the “Wade In The Water” period.
TP: Our discussion of Phineas Newborn brought us back to Mulgrew’s younger days in Greenwood, Mississippi. After Phineas Newborn’s arrangement of “Lush Life,” we heard Art Tatum’s arrangement of Massenet’s “Elegy.” You mentioned hearing Tatum in high school, I guess, and then probably delving into him in more depth subsequently. We also heard Bud Powell performing his original composition “Parisian Thoroughfare” in 1951. What were your first impressions of Bud Powell?
MM: Actually, I’m afraid the first record that I heard by Bud Powell didn’t really impress me at all, because it was a recording that was made in Europe, and I don’t think it was from his most fruitful period. He was playing some ballads, and they were very slow and very stark-sounding voicings that were… I was used to the big, fat, pretty voicings of Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum and so forth, and a certain kind of mood that would be set in a ballad, and most of these things that I was hearing from Bud Powell at first were very slow, very stark-sounding ballads. So I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed at first.
But I think the first record by Bud that impressed me was The Amazing Bud Powell, Volume 1, I think, the one with Fats Navarro and Sonny Rollins. Because I have always been impressed by long lines, long right-hand single-note lines; that always got me. And I was really impressed when I heard Bud’s conception of that.
TP: Mulgrew’s next selection (Charlie Parker and Strings, “Just Friends”) leads me ask whether primarily pianists, or also other instrumentalists have affected your conception of how to play the piano?
MM: Well, I would say primarily pianists, but certainly not only. I have learned a lot from listening to John Coltrane, from Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins…
TP: Is it about attack? About different types of…
MM: Generally about the language. Just learning language from them.
[MUSIC: Bird and Strings, “Just Friends” (1950), Miles Davis/Mobley/Kelly/PC/Cobb, “Bye-Bye Blackbird” (1961)]
TP: …”Bye-Bye Blackbird” featured the subtle swing and strong solo by Wynton Kelly, about whom I know Mulgrew has some words.
MM: Oh yeah. Well, it’s interesting to me that you referring to it as “subtle swing.” I think of it as very pronounced swing!
TP: Very pronounced, but I guess I was referring to the little modulation he did at the beginning of his solo. I should have been more precise.
MM: Oh, yes. Well, he had that kind of finger-popping, foot-tapping way with the way he played time. It’s very, very unique. I’ve heard many players, younger players trying to emulate that, including yours truly. It’s interesting to see how that happens in a person’s playing.
TP: Well, maybe I should have used the word “sophisticated.” Because it is everything you say, and yet, it’s always done in such an elegant way somehow. I mean, these are subjective words for dealing with music.
MM: Yeah, and words are always inadequate to describe something that’s so natural and so beautiful. But Wynton is still, I think, a very strong influence in the Jazz piano world. First of all, Wynton was a great accompanist. I think anybody who wants to be a contemporary accompanist would have to check Wynton out, because as Miles Davis said, he knew how to feed the fire. And that’s important, how to contribute to the time mechanism of the group, how to help the rhythm section and get deeply into that pocket. And that feeling we were just talking about, I think most of us would want that if we could have it! [LAUGHS] But you can’t teach that kind of thing, you can’t analyze it so that somebody else could really get to it. That’s one of those mysteries that happens in this music, when a person’s personality, his own ways and idiosyncracies (or however you want to refer to it, call it whatever you want to call it), when that takes a big part and comes to play into the music.
TP: I guess Wynton Kelly was the product of a number of influences, from Brooklyn and a West Indian background, and Classical music and church and all of that went into that incredible style, the singular distillation of which we heard on “Bye Bye Blackbird.” In terms of Charlie Parker’s music, have you as a pianist dealt first-hand with Charlie Parker in formulating your aesthetic?
MM: Well, probably not first-hand. I mean, I guess first-hand I would have to be here to play with him. But I understand what you mean.
Yeah. there was a phase in my development where I really listened to a lot of Charlie Parker and a lot of Bud Powell. And I still listen to them. But I always thought that Charlie Parker had the ultimate phrasing. If I were to pick someone to model how I would like to phrase my lines on the piano, it would be Charlie Parker.
TP: Well, enough said.
TP: [ETC.] Next up is Lee Morgan’s “The Delightful Deggie” from Delightful-Lee on Blue Note.
MM: Well, this is one of my very favorite albums. I think if I could probably take 10 or 20 records on the road or to the moon with me, this would be one of them. It’s great because it features both Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, and it shows the contrasts and similarities in their participation in the Jazz scene at that time — and it’s a very interesting study in contrasts. It also features McCoy Tyner, who I have always thought of as a very, very gifted melody-maker as a soloist and improviser.
[MUSIC: L. Morgan, “The Delightful Deggie” (1966); McCoy Tyner, “Surrey With tHe Fringe On Top’ (1968)]
TP: “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” is a trio performance within a quartet concert at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1968. As liner-note-writer Ed Williams who said, the trio hijacked “The Surrey With The Fringe On Top” and took it into some different territory!
MM: Oh my! [LAUGHS]
TP: [ETC.] You were mentioning McCoy Tyner’s melodicism before the set, and I guess nobody needs to be told about how that piece swung.
MM: Absolutely not. But yeah, I think that McCoy has had, and still has a very unique gift of melody. Because I realized what the challenge would be of getting into an area of pentatonics and fourths and other kinds of unconventional intervals for the time, and to sort of get melody out of it takes a rare gift. McCoy has that gift, and you can hear it in his very earliest recordings. He has a very, very great gift of melody.
What I’d like to say here is that I think writers and critics have probably not understood the great significance, the cultural significance of McCoy’s influence in American music — Trane, along with McCoy, or vice-versa. But I often see reviews where they will critique a younger player, such as myself or some of the younger players, and sort of write off, “Oh, he’s another McCoy Tyner influenced piano player.” But I think that influence is not going anywhere very soon. I think it has great cultural significance.
MM: Well, there’s a sound there. There’s a sound in McCoy’s playing, in the music that Trane brought forth, brought into fruition, that very much influenced American society and American culture. So I think McCoy’s playing will affect American music for a long time. Not only Jazz, but I hear it, you know, in keyboard players in particular in all sorts of genres of music. I think some of the writers and critics sort of treat McCoy’s style as if it’s, you know, another passing phase — “Well, it’s time to get on to something else,” and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. But I see McCoy as sort of a prophet of musical truth, and that’s going to be around a long time.
TP: Of course, McCoy Tyner recently has recorded some amazing solo releases for Blue Note that show his expansive grasp of the whole piano continuum, and always with his own distinctive sound. It’s always there.
TP: You mentioned before that Oscar Peterson was one of your primary early influences coming up in high school. I think he’s also been misunderstood by the critical community, and I think Phineas Newborn ran into that problem with people who were writing about the music.
MM: Well, I guess it’s sort of the nature of the beast when you have this whole thing that we call art criticism. You know, you have to say something! And it’s always a matter of opinion. There are no absolute truths in those criticisms. It’s always opinion. I think many, many great musicians, especially John Coltrane, suffered from the lashings of the critics.
Oscar Peterson, there’s no doubt about it, is one of the great pianists of all time. But Oscar is primarily a stylist. I don’t see Oscar as a conceptualist as I do, say, Bud Powell or McCoy Tyner or Herbie Hancock. He brought forth a style that was pleasing, and it’s the cause of his popularity maintaining itself through the decades.
TP: Well, he’s one of the virtuosos of his time…
MM: Absolutely. Undeniably! [LAUGHS]
TP: …and a pinnacle that almost any jazz pianist has to deal with. You were very specific about wanting this particular trio side from the mid-1960’s with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham as opposed to one of the sides with Ray Brown and Ed Thigpen.
MM: Well, I think when people think of the “classic” Oscar Peterson Trio, they think of the Ray Brown-Ed Thigpen trio. And I think that’s probably true. But without trying to compare anybody with Ray Brown or anybody with Ed Thigpen, I think as a unit this particular trio with Sam Jones and Bobby Durham (and at one phase of it was Louis Hayes) brought out another side of Oscar, a kind of less cocktailish side, if you will… I’m taking a bold step in saying that, because I never thought of Oscar Peterson as being a Cocktail Piano Player. But those are relative terms. You know, I’ve heard people refer to Ahmad Jamal or Red Garland even as sort of a Cocktail style.
TP: Some cocktails have more of an impact than others.
MM: Yes. As a matter of fact, I’ve heard some so-called cocktail piano players that I’d rather hear than some Jazz players! But that’s all relative.
But anyway, this particular trio brought a little edge to Oscar’s sound, I think, and to his playing, if you will. This particular record was my first record. Oscar was the first real Jazz piano player that I heard that really just knocked me out, that made me… When I heard Oscar Peterson, I knew I wanted to be a Jazz player. And this was the first record that I had.
TP: It’s a moment you remember vividly, I take it.
MM: Very vividly.
TP: How old were you? Where were you?
MM: I was about 14 years old, sitting up one night watching The Joey Bishop Show. And they announced that Oscar Peterson was coming on. And I had been hearing about Oscar Peterson through my older brother, who was always trying to point me in that direction — because I wanted to play like Ramsay Lewis and whatever. But when I heard Oscar Peterson, I just flipped. Because I could relate to it on a number of levels. Here is Black music being played at a very high level of sophistication. That sort of motivated me. I could study Classical Music and all of that, but I was never motivated to do that. But when I saw Oscar Peterson, I was motivated to master the piano.
[MUSIC: OP Trio (Jones/Durham), “Girl Talk” (1972); A. Jamal, “Poinciana” (1971)]
MM: As one can tell from that performance, the one great thing about Ahmad Jamal is, for me, he affirms once more that there’s no one way to play Jazz. There’s no one way to play Jazz piano. There’s no one way that Jazz is supposed to sound. I was very captivated about the way he went about that performance with reckless abandon. There’s something about that approach that’s really captivating for me, very interesting. He did some very daring and unusual things in that performance. Ahmad has always been one of my very favorite pianists, one of my initial inspirations.
TP: Well, Herbie Hancock, who we’ll hear next, undoubtedly heard a lot of Ahmad Jamal when he was coming up in Chicago…
MM: I’m sure of it.
TP: …and Miles Davis, of course, used Ahmad’s orchestrational approach to the trio as the model for the dynamics of his rhythm section.
TP: And I’m sure Herbie Hancock applied these lessons to very good use during his time with Miles. [ETC.] Next is “Head Start,” from a recording by the Bobby Hutcherson Quartet featuring Herbie Hancock in February 1966, one of several collaborations between the two, although not all were issued contemporaneously.
MM: Well, I’d like to say, everybody knows how great Herbie Hancock is, and there’s no doubt about it — I mean, Herbie is so amazing. You hear that because so many young pianists today are emulating Herbie, and he’s had a mammoth amount of influence on the piano scene for the last thirty years.
TP: If you had to crystallize it, what would you say it is about his sound and his conception?
MM: The great thing about Herbie is that it’s no one thing, it’s a lot of things. There’s the touch, there’s the sophistication, the taste, the intuitiveness, and the versatility. So it’s all of those things that make Herbie so great. He’s just such a phenomenal musician. Probably if “genius” applies to anyone these days, it’s him!
I’d also like to say that Bobby Hutcherson, who is playing on this next recording, is one of my very favorite musicians alive. He’s just such a great improviser. I’ve personally been influenced by the way Bobby plays.
TP: How does that translate?
MM: Well, Bobby has a very advanced harmonic approach in the way that he plays his lines. He plays his lines between the cracks, I think. I mean, Herbie has that same quality, and that’s why they were such a great match for this record. I played with Bobby back when I was with Woody Shaw in the early Eighties; Bobby was a great friend of Woody’s, and they played a lot of music together. Bobby did some recordings and concerts and tours with us, and I was just knocked out by him, not only as a musician, but as a person also. So he’s one of my very favorite improvisers.
TP: I guess you must have had an extended taste of Woody Shaw’s unique harmonic sensibility.
MM: Oh, yeah. Well, another one of those great affirmations that there’s no one way to play Jazz. Woody was always searching, you know, for that certain sound that would open up vast new musical horizons and territories.
[MUSIC: Hutcherson/Hancock, “Head Start” (1966); Bu/Golson, “Along Came Betty” (1958)]
TP: [ETC.] Both Benny Golson and Art Blakey have played an important role in Mulgrew’s life. You were a Jazz Messenger for several years in the mid-1980’s, and you’re on several of Benny Golson’s recent recordings.
MM: Right. I have actually worked quite a bit with Benny over the last five or six years or so. Benny is one of the greatest saxophone players alive. I think he’s very much underrated today. I think it’s kind of sad that we don’t take those giants and embrace them and treat them the way they should be treated. Benny plays a whole lot of saxophone these days. His style has changed somewhat from the days we just heard. He still has some remnants of that sound, but also conceptually, he’s taken on some of the Coltranish mannerisms in his playing. And you know, quiet as it’s kept, it might have been that they influenced each other. They were friends, very close friends…
TP: Jimmy Heath was a third leg of that relationship, too.
MM: That’s right, that Philadelphia kind of connection there. Benny has always had that almost kind of sheet-of-sound concept, as you can hear in this solo, running up and down the saxophone. He was doing that way back then, playing the chords and things like that.
TP: Without knowing it for sure, it would seem to me that Benny Golson has folloswed that Coleman Hawkins-Hershel Evans-Don Byas-Lucky Thompson line of saxophone playing, and Trane maybe got more into the post-Lester Young end of that spectrum…
MM: Yeah, Dexter Gordon and that kind of thing… Yeah, absolutely. There are points of departure, but there are also points where they have things in common. You can hear, especially when Trane first started to get into running the scales up and down the saxophone… There’s a lot of similarities in the approach to that anyway. The stylistic sound of the horn is different. But probably they influenced each other.
TP: When Benny Golson joined the Jazz Messengers, as he tells the story, Art Blakey was looking for a way to establish a definable group identity. Not that it was floundering, but when Benny Golson came in he seems to have codified what became the Messenger sound, and begun the continuity of Jazz Messenger units that lasted over the next thirty years.
MM: What I’ve noticed from playing with many bands, it’s usually two major factors that sort define the sound of the band. Not necessarily in this order, composition is one of the main factors that defines the sound of a band, and number two is the drummer. The drummer has a great influence on the sound, how the band plays, how it swings, he influences the freedom and the type of vocabulary that a soloist can use. Coltrane might have been quite different in his development if he had had some other drummer than Elvin Jones.
TP: Well, referring to our next set, speaking of drummers, and speaking of Art Blakey, he and Thelonious Monk were just about best friends, birthday-mates, and so forth. Of Clark Terry there’s not much we can say except that there is no greater trumpet player. And there’s a session Mulgrew was very specific about including called In Orbit, from 1958, Clark Terry with Thelonious Monk as a sideman, Philly Joe Jones on drums and Sam Jones on bass. You’ve recorded a number of Monk’s compositions.
MM: Yes. I first heard Thelonious Monk’s records when I was in high school, and it was probably some of the first real Bebop (as it were) records that I heard. I found it so easy to relate to Monk, as opposed to how I first heard Bud, for some reason. Monk I could easily relate to. It was that childlike kind of simplicity in his playing.
TP: Did you first hear his solos or his group things? A lot of people seem to have first heard his solos.
MM: Well, I first heard the group things, the Five Spot records with Johnny Griffin and all of that. And I first heard tunes like “Straight, No Chaser,” you know, the melody and the rhythms — the syncopation in the melody really intrigued me. I was talking to Bill Easley last night, and he was telling a story about how he first heard me, first met me in Memphis, when I walked into a jam session and played “Blue Monk” just like I’d heard it on the record, or as close as I could get it. It was probably one of the first Bebop tunes I knew, if you want to call it Bebop.
TP: James Williams tells that same story.
MM: Oh, does he? [LAUGHS]
TP: The same session. He thought, “Wow, there’s a sensibility at work here.” Let’s listen to the only Monk composition on In Orbit, “Let’s Cool One.”
[MUSIC: CT/Monk, “Let’s Cool One” (1958); Keith Jarrett, “Rainbow” (Bye-A-Blue)]
I was just saying to Mulgrew Miller that every pianist who comes up to do a Musician Show has their one favorite Keith Jarrett solo, to which Mulgrew said, “And this is mine.”
MM: Yes. Well, I think Keith Jarrett is a melody-maker of the highest order. Not only is he a great melodist, he’s also a very lyrical player, and there’s so much poetry in his lines and his improvising. “Rainbow” is just one of the finest recorded examples of that, for my ears anyway. I just love that piano solo.
TP: This will take us into the world of Duke Ellington, and the “Liberian Suite, Dance #1.” Mulgrew, I guess the gig that got you out into the broader world of touring, professional big bands and Ellingtonia was two or three years with the Mercer Ellington Orchestra, from about 1977, was it?
MM: Right. Three years.
TP: I guess that experience would give you a full, idiomatic range of piano techniques and melodies and the great Ellington book, not to mention the opportunity to play in an accomplished big band.
MM: Well, that was a great experience on a number of levels, not only musically, but personally, too. I always like to say that I grew up in that band. I turned 21, I think, the year before I joined the band. It was quite an experience on a personal level, because I had to learn to live with 18 other people on a bus, [LAUGHS], and get along with them, all types of personalities, and so forth and so on.
But on a musical level, it was a great experience because I learned in that band that music is about sound and color and feelings. It’s not about exercises and formulas all the time, you know. Duke Ellington was a sculptor of sound, a painter of sound, if you will. And that has left a lasting impression upon me.
TP: Were you able to check out the scores, for instance, in the band?
MM: There were piano scores. But a lot of the extended works we were doing were transcriptions, and basically my experience was hearing the performances live.
TP: As the pianist in the Mercer Ellington Band, you’re of course inheriting the mantle, so to speak, of one of the most individual-sounding pianists that ever played the instrument. Were you at any point trying to actually get the type of sonorities and dynamics, or was it a question of playing live?
MM: No. Of course, there was a certain role as accompanist to the band and a certain thing about… I mean, I had to deal with the style to a certain degree. There are certain intros, like the classic intro to “Satin Doll” or to “A-Train” that I had to do. But basically, I mean, my whole musical makeup is totally different from Duke Ellington’s, you know, and I wasn’t expected to come there and sit in the band and be Duke Ellington.
TP: And thank God for that.
MM: Yes, and thank God for that. I would never have been able to fulfill that kind of demand.
TP: So of course, the band then took on a very different personality than the Duke Ellington band.
MM: Yeah, because there were a lot of younger guys in the band as well, and the younger guys are influenced by a lot of different things than, say, Cootie Williams and some of the older guys who were the Ellington luminaries. So yeah, you’re right. It took on a different feeling and a different sound, with a different personality.
TP: And yet, an invaluable experience.
MM: Definitely. Most definitely.
[MUSIC: Ellington,”Liberian Suite, Dance #1″ (1947); Milt Jackson/Cedar/Higgins, “Bullet Bag” (1993]l
MM: Well, what can I say about Milt Jackson? He’s probably one of the greatest musicians of all time. I only played with Milt Jackson for the first time about a year ago. When I first came to New York, I had a list of guys that I really wanted to play with, and he was on that list. Up until last year, last June I believe it was, I had played with just about everybody I wanted to really play with really badly. When I played with him, I told him, “I can go and quit” or lay down and die in peace or whatever! But it really sort of put the lid on all of my greatest desires as far as playing with people.
TP: What impresses me most in listening to him is that he seems like an endless fount of melodic invention. I can recollect a concert a few years ago, just kind of a pickup band. He played 14 or 15 pieces. And he started hitting his stride maybe around the fifth piece, and everyone that followed he did something to out-do what he’d done on the previous piece, when it didn’t seem he could possibly come up with anything new to say.
MM: Yeah, he’s amazing. Milt Jackson is amazing. And how he can weave everything around the Blues, no matter what kind of song it is… I heard him play what we would call a modal tune, I think “So What” or “Impressions,” one of those tunes that he plays sometimes, and how much blues he can play in that is amazing!
TP: Cedar Walton and Billy Higgins is a rhythm team that goes back thirty years.
MM: Well, when I first came to New York, Cedar and Sam Jones and Billy used to play together. And I think to this day it’s probably the finest rhythm section that I’ve heard in New York. That was just a team that was unbelievable. Cedar is another one of those great, great melody-makers. I love Cedar’s playing because he’s so great with melody and orchestration. He’s such a great trio player because he’s a great orchestrator.
TP: A role he filled with the Jazz Messengers, one of your predecessors.
MM: Certainly. And I’ll say this about Billy Higgins. A few years ago I got to play with Billy Higgins for the first time on a record with Bobby Hutcherson, and I mean, I was high for a month!
In closing I’d like to talk about Art Blakey. I would like to talk about Art because we miss him, and I miss him, and it was great experience — and the scene misses Art Blakey. There is now such a void for that kind of energy on the scene. I think if anybody deserves credit for the so-called revitalization of Jazz vis-a-vis the young lions and all of that, it’s Art Blakey. Because throughout the decades, he kept marching right on, in spite of whatever the conditions were. I think the Messengers at one time had sort of come down to three pieces and a singer. But he kept on! So when it came time again for an interest in Jazz, he was there already, with a whole army of new and young talent. So I think Art Blakey deserves a lot of credit for revitalizing, if you will, Jazz.