Artistic Director Don Lucoff conducted this interview with Gerald Veasley recognizing the music of Grover Washington Jr.
Q: When Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell eulogized Grover at his funeral, he referred to him as Philadelphia’s global ambassador. You and I were present on North Broad St. near Temple University just prior to Christmas, 1999 along with many of the 76ers and Philadelphia musical royalty. Can you expound on the mayor’s feelings about Grover?
Grover had a deep affinity for Philadelphia, its cultural scene, its sports teams and of course its place in the jazz world. It was a place that nurtured his musicianship and launched his professional career. No matter where he traveled he was proud of spreading the word about Philadelphia.
Q: Set the band dynamics first. Your years in his group and who else took part during that time? I recall many were if not all Philadelphians and Bill Jolly was the MD?
I played with many Philadelphians throughout my tenure with Grover. The longest-serving member was Richard Steacker who had been with Grover since the Locksmith, “Live at the Bijou” days. My very first stint with Grover was a week at the Blue Note in NY on the heels of his Then and Now release. The album was a straight-ahead project which featured Ron Carter, Tommy Flanagan, and Herbie Hancock. For the Then and Now live shows, he used a Philly-centric group: Monnette Sudler on guitar, James “Sid” Simmons on piano (another Locksmith alumnus), and his brother, Daryl Washington on drums.
It’s important to note that Grover’s jazz roots were deep. He became successful with his special brand of earthy, groove-oriented music but he was undoubtedly a jazz musician. For example, he loved jazz standards and it was difficult to stump him if you questioned him song or album from the jazz lexicon. The fact that my first shows with him were primarily playing standards is not ironic, its fitting. Grover had a profound impact on my appreciation for all eras and flavors of jazz.
For most of the time I was with Grover the music director was Bill Jolly who was also the main keyboardist. We had other keyboardists: Philip Woo, Curt Dowd, Adam Holzman (NY), and Donald Robinson, who became the MD after Bill Jolly. The drum chair featured some strong players (often from New York): Steven Wolf, Richie Morales, and Keith Carlock The percussionists were Miguel Fuentes and later, Pablo Batista. With the exception of the Blue Note band, Richard Steacker was the sole guitarist during my years with Grover.
Q: What were a couple of your life learning takeaway’s from playing with Grover?
The most important thing I learned from Grover was to try to find a sense of balance in life. For example, he always put family first. When I asked him why his reply made a lot of sense to me, “Music is stories and family is where all the best stories come from.”
Secondly, I learned to play each performance as though it may be your last. Though this is a well-worn cliche, I got to experience it first-hand with Grover. I was with him the day he died. He literally played his heart out.
Q: Where do you place Grover in terms of influencing you and many of your colleagues coming up which was at the dawn of the Quiet Storm radio format?
I believe Grover’s most significant contributions were artistic. He achieved three things that are most coveted by true artists:
1) Personal Sound: Great artists can play one note and you know it’s them. They are identifiable. It’s true of Miles, Coltrane, Santana, B.B. King, and it’s true of Grover Washington, Jr.
2) Emotional Depth: Just because Grover’s music didn’t offer harmonic or melody complexity doesn’t mean it didn’t have depth. On the contrary, Grover music revealed an emotional depth that touched people in a way that jazz artists rarely do. People who didn’t “get jazz” could “get Grover” not because of simplicity but because of the emotional depth of his artistry.
3) Intentionality and Clarity: As an improviser, Grover was intentional about his note choices and phrasing. He understood the nuances of every sound he produced from his horn. The resultant clarity created improvisational storylines that fans could follow no matter how educated they ears were.
Sidebar: After Grover, I worked with Joe Zawinul for almost 8 years. Joe introduced me to the concept of “Miscellaneous” playing. He would bemoan musicians who did not know how to treat a melody or solo line with intentionality. Instead they would just engage in “finger work” or “miscellaneous playing”. Listening to music with an ear toward intentionality helped me more fully appreciate Grover, Thanks Joe.
Q: Grover was beloved in Philly by so many people across all cultural spectrums. I was fortunate to have served as his publicist for a brief time when we recorded with Columbia Records, and he related so well to his fans, industry and musicians. But above all he was loyal and fully committed to his family and his family of musicians. Can you provide some personal insight into Grover’s character and what made him the special human being that he was.
I think of Grover as a “king with a common touch”. He had a way of making anyone in his presence feel special. He was very generous with his time to fans and to up-and-coming musicians, as well.
It was typical for him to accept a CD that was given to him by someone after the show and play it immediately on the tour bus. I didn’t understand how after a full day of travel, sound check, show and autograph signing, he would take the time to listen to someone else’s music. His reasoning? “Everybody’s got something to say”. What he meant was that there was always something that could be appreciated in someone’s music and musicianship. That explains why in all the years I knew him, I never heard him say a negative thing about another musician. Not once.
Artistic Director Don Lucoff conducted this interview with Darrell Grant.
Q: Taking a moment to reflect on your colleagues who previously were honored as Portland Jazz Masters — Mel Brown, Thara Memory, Dave Frishberg, Nancy King, Charley Gray, Wayne Thompson, the band Oregon and Art Abrams — what is most apparent?
I would say that these musicians embody the essence of Portland as a jazz town. Individually and collectively they are emblematic of the artistry, individuality, and generosity that make our musical community so special. I’m sure I am not alone in being inspired by their musical gifts – the erudite songwriting and sparkling piano-playing of Dave Frishberg, Nancy King’s stratospheric flights of improvisation, and Oregon’s pioneering blend of musical cultures. Each of them have influenced my musical path, as they have so many others. I am also inspired by their contributions to community — the legacy of education represented by Thara Memory and my PSU colleague Charlie Gray, the advocacy and service to the art form of Wayne Thompson and Art Abrams, and the musical bedrock of Mel Brown, who is still my model for the way a jazz artist can inspire a whole city. It is an honor to be considered in the company of these torchbearers, who have done so much to make Portland a world-class jazz city.
Q: Portland as a community is rich in many ways, how has that nurtured the ecology of jazz since you arrived here?
Something that made a great impression on me moving to Portland from New York City was the deep web of connections in this community. With so few degrees of separation, Portland encourages its artists to contribute not only as performers, but as citizens and leaders. Our shared belief in the value of place, people, and quality of life makes Portland a dynamic incubator for ideas and a great place to start things. It also creates fertile ground for artists, artisans, and creative people of all stripes. We also have an incredible wealth of young musical talent and a community of jazz artists committed to nurturing the next generation. That culture of support is another part of what makes our jazz ecology thrive.
Q: I have lovingly referred to you as Portland’s Billy Taylor of Jazz, the first artist I met and worked with when I arrived in New York in 1984 to work in publicity. You spent serious time in New York, did our paths cross and was he an influence on you?
I never met Dr. Billy Taylor. I think it is fair to say, however that he is one of my most significant role models and inspirations. In addition to his indisputable place in the jazz piano pantheon, Dr. Taylor was versatile, articulate, and scholarly. A composer, a builder, an activist, and above all, a communicator, for me he was a shining example of the broad impact that a committed artist can have in the world. For me he stands as a reminder of the importance of saying yes – yes to doing many things, and doing them well; yes to being yourself, and following your own unique path; and yes to always giving back.
Q: You have led many projects, received numerous commissions and composers grants but Black Art has serious history for you and now you are celebrating that history. Articulate what is special about the recording and revisiting this music in 2019?
When I look back at Black Art from this vantage point, the first thing that strikes me is how young we all were. I was 31 when we recorded the CD. Wallace Roney was 33. Brian Blade was 23. Christian McBride was 20. I don’t think I fully appreciated what a special opportunity it was to be able to make music with those three singular musicians. In hindsight, the confluence of youthful creative energy and opportunity in New York City in the ’90s made for one of jazz’ golden ages. As my first CD under my own name, I hoped Black Art would be a meaningful addition to that conversation. Having the CD be so well received was incredibly gratifying, and also launched me on a wonderful artistic trajectory as I continued to find my place in the jazz landscape. Revisiting the music after 25 years, with the perspective that comes from age and life experience, is fascinating. i’m interested to see elements of my musical voice that remain intact from that time, as well as to add some touches that reflect where my music has gone in the interim.
Q: What have you looked most forward to in your sabbatical year away from Portland State University? Family time, writing, traveling?
This sabbatical year is turning out to be a time for exploring new directions. I feel fortunate to be engaged in some meaningful collaborative projects. Singer/songwriter Edna Vazquez and I are composing a song cycle based on letters written by refugee mothers from Central America incarcerated at the US border. I’m working with slam poet Anis Mojgani on a chamber opera about gentrification in Portland’s Albina neighborhood. I’m also happy to have more time for performing – with my MJ New Quartet, my trio with Eric Gruber & Tyson Stubelek, and my Territory Ensemble. Travel also figures largely into this year. My wife and I are planning a two-week trip to Italy and Greece with our son. And I was recently invited to perform my Ruby Bridges Suite at the Smithsonian African-American History Museum this coming June.
Artistic Director Don Lucoff conducted this interview with Gil Goldstein recognizing the music of Michael Brecker.
Q: Take us back to the time when you transitioned from Berklee to NYC and soon after found yourself working with Gil Evans in his Monday Night Orchestra at Sweet Basil and then meeting Randy and Michael Brecker during the Seventh Avenue South era?
My life changed quickly in l981 while working with Billy Cobham in a quartet format. We did a series of concerts in Lugano Switzerland that also included Gil Evans as well as Mike and Randy Brecker. It was there that my connection to Gil’s work and my first experience with Mike and Randy started. I also met my wife on that trip and moved to Switzerland about a month after. We moved back to the States in ’82 and I began working in Gil’s Monday Night Orchestra and began developing working relationships with both Breckers. My first was producing and arranging Randy’s record for Concord, “Into the Sun” which won a Grammy that year for best jazz album. Mike’s connection came a little after that as we toured with Don Alias in England, and it was the first live concert tour with both Mike and Randy.
Q: Can you recall the time when the Quindectet was conceived which later resulted in Wide Angles?
It was actually on the Alias tour at our first rehearsal that Mike asked me to arrange “African Skies” for a concert with orchestra he was doing in Bologna Italy later that year. It worked out very well and soon after he was asked by the same group that organized Don’s tour to do one of his own with a large ensemble. That was where the seed for the Quindectet was planted. I arranged songs from Mike’s catalogue for that concert including “Itsbynne Reel” “Syzygy” and about 10 more. The shape of the ensemble with, at that time, 3 strings: violin, viola, cello, three woodwinds, flute, bass clarinet, english horn and two brass, trumpet and trombone came into being and seemed very agile and yet had a very big sound. Shortly thereafter, Michael wanted to compose and record new music for this size ensemble and the Wide Angles project started to form. We had a great deal of genuine collaboration on all the creative decisions. Mike gave me remarkable freedom and respect to orchestrate and bring his midi demos and sketches to life and also to develop solo sections for him. When he questioned something I did, I immediately understood the reason why, and was able to find another solution and there was very little ego involved, only a desire to find the correct solutions that best suited this music and Mike as a composer and soloist.
Q: Is there a moment of personal reflection you can share on your working relationship?
How one meets and develops the opportunity to work with someone in the real world is very interesting. I met Mike many times and probed for connections and ways to find a common thread that would connect us, and I had to wait for the concert with Don Alias to make those things occur. He began to think of me as the arranger for his music, and he appreciated the way that I comped for his solos, which is basically another form of real time arranging. I remember in the first concert we did in London he was standing right in front of my keyboard and he turned around during his solo and said “Wow, you’re comping your ass off!” and that was another a big start in our musical connection that he recognized something in the way I could accompany his incredible solo voice and inferred that I could also then arrange in a way that was the best “foil” for his unfolding stories.
Q: Articulate Michael’s personal voice as a tenor player.
The ability of Mike to play any melody, but particularly his own, and his ability to create solo lines is so remarkable, has and will continue to touch, amaze and inspire. Every note he plays has the perfect dynamic, rhythmic placement, intonation, and the notes themselves are pure gold. There is an overall simplicity in even his most complex solo statements; a line which connects the solo from the first note to the last and takes the listener along the entire journey with him. To have been surrounded by that for so many years, two records, Wide Angles and Pilgrimage, several years of live concerts is a never-ending source of joy and pride for me. And aside from his remarkable musicianship was his equally remarkable humor, ease, humility, and kindness as a person and friend.
Q: There seems to be a certain mystique around this music that was so different from anything Michael ever composed and recorded.
I think no one knows how much traction any given project, composition, arrangement or solo will have at the moment of inception. I know, not to compare it with Miles and Gil, that the music for the Birth of the Cool session was left on the music stands after the recording session, and had it not been for Gunther Schuller going back in to get something and picking up the handwritten parts from the stands, it would have been left there and maybe never recreated. When we recorded Wide Angles there was a certain excitement but one never knows the impact it will have and it is rewarding to see and hear how many people were touched by that music and how it goes on to find new performance possibilities with other groups and saxophonists.
A: In the fall of 1966 I went to see Roland Kirk at the Jazz Workshop in SF on a Sat night. I went to say hello after the set as I was really moved by his performance. He invited me to come and play with him at the kiddie matinee the next day (Sun). After that, he asked me to stay and play that evening. We exchanged numbers and after that, when he would come through town, he’d ask me to come and play with him in the local clubs.
Q: Being from the Bay Area, you had a lot of time with him in and around the Keystone Korner, what was that scene like?
A: Well, initially I used to work with him at a club on Divisidero St. called The Both / And. Later, after I was living in New York and joined Rahsaan’s traveling band, I played with him at the Keystone Korner. Keystone kind of picked up where the Both/And left off, bringing in the best of jazz. I sat in with Art Blakey at Keystone Korner and Art asked me to join the band and come to NY. Then I played there with Rahsaan, and Woody Shaw + Dexter Gordon. Also with “Bishop” Norman Williams and Charles Moffett. It was really jumpin’!
Q: What was the musical take-away playing in Rahsaan’s band?
A: Follow the Spirit! Go with the Feeling — he would always “take you there”.
Q: You have played with many prolific artists who have passed, Bobby Hutcherson, Woody Shaw, Ray Charles, among others. But you choose to carry the torch for Rahsaan. Please speak to that spirit.
A: Rahsaan was the 1st Grand Master to “take me under the wing” and look out for me (or as they say in academia mentor me). I learned too much from him to write out like this. I am honored to have been asked to play his music and keep it out there in people’s ears. I feel he never got his due when he was alive, but he was a musical force like no other. I also perform tributes to Woody Shaw and J.J. Johnson, two of my other “mentors”.
Q: You have been playing Rahsaan’s music for many years, how has it evolved for you personally and how you apply it to the ensembles you put together in tribute?
A: Well, Rahsaan’s musical force is still with me (even if I’m not playing his music per se). I found out about playing sea shells when I played with him at the Both/And in 1970! He made me aware and schooled me on the importance of the Lineage of our music, he would say, “As far back as you can go will directly affect how far forward you can go.” That stuck with me. I don’t just play one style or era of the music, but draw from the whole pallet. When I put together music to present “Rahsaan’s Music”, I keep it authentic – to represent it (not only in sound but in spirit) it the way he did it. I don’t “re-harmonize it”, or “re-voice the three horns” that he played at once, or as the critics say as a selling point – “re-imagine it”. It does not need re-imagining!
Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart informed us 80 years ago on Broadway that “Spring is Here,” and we have enjoyed this reminder ever since through the timeless renditions by Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, and Chet Baker. We also appreciate live jazz in the Spring and are about to globally celebrate International Jazz Day on April 30 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Recognized by UNESCO, this auspicious day culminates Jazz Appreciation Month and PDX Jazz is sharing their appreciation with you, the audience who also appreciates this great art form that began in America but is now embraced globally.
The snow is now behind us and there is lots to explore during the second half of April. Our partners at the Soul’D Out Music Festival do an incredible job at musically extending and complementing what we do every February. Our centerpiece co-production is the return of the two-time GRAMMY® Award-winning singer Cécile McLorin Salvant at Revolution Hall this Saturday. Three additional artists making their PDX Jazz debuts during the Festival are Roberto Fonseca, Jaimeo Brown Transcendence, and Ryan Keberle and Catharsis. Roberto, best known for his work with the Buena Vista Social Club, is based in Havana and making a rare U.S. west coast appearance. Jaimeo, who packed the Goodfoot last year, returns with legendary guitarist Chis Sholar (Stevie Wonder, Kanye West, Beyoncé, John Legend, Robert Glasper, Frank Ocean, among countless others) and saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, and the New York-based Catharsis, who collectively bring a wealth of top-tier associations.
Our PDX Jazz Presents series continues with free shows by Portland’s finest musicians at our four partner venues — Teutonic Wine, SouthFork, The 1905, and Solae’s Lounge. Presenting partners across Portland help sustain us and grow this music far and wide. We thank the Lan Su Chinese Garden, who will host our second summer series for five Tuesdays beginning July 24 with tickets just now on sale. Last year’s series completely sold out, so don’t miss out. There’s a lot to be thankful for this Spring as we celebrate and appreciate what America created and the world has thanked us for.
So much going on in April, jazz appreciation month, at PDX Jazz including a performance by reeds man, and Portland native, John Nastos. He has an impressive bio, but it’s his energy and seductive sound that speaks louder than any words. I’ve heard him many times, yet I know the next time he’ll play, there will be no ennui and the audience will not be disappointed. He’s that good, and that adept, at giving jazz a good name. One of those “next times” is offered by PDX Jazz. April 10th the John Nastos Group will perform 7:00 pm – 10:00 pm at The 1905. See y’all there!
During the recent 2018 PDXJazz Festival, Marcus and KMHD Jazz Radio Host & PDX Jazz Board Member, Deborah DeMoss Smith sat down at the Portland’5 Center for the Arts bar for a Jazz Conversation.
One of Deborah’s favorite jazz pianists is Marcus Roberts. Blind since the age of 5 and, with a Gospel musical background, Marcus has never allowed his sightlessness impede his musical acumen and career, including his playing with Wynton Marsalis for six years. As a leader, he’s released 25 albums, plus more as a sideman.
If you missed the fun, check out the entire interview here.
Also, a reminder to purchase your festival tickets now and enjoy jazz, jazz, and more jazz. Nothing like having the sound of live jazz surround you as you move to the music. You might even feel like second lining!