1978 Down Beat Interview
by Arnold Jay Smith
Hal Galper , at 39, has spent time in the company of mainstream as well as avant garde musicians. He has dealt with a variety of keyboards ranging from uprights to grands, clavinets to full keyboard electrics. He has been a professional since 1959 when he was with Herb Pomeroy’s big band in Boston and he did the duo scene in N.Y. with Lee Konitz in 1975. His sideman gigs have been numerous and now Hal has tried his hand as a leader and he likes it. The current group includes Randy and Mike Brecker, Wayne Dockery and Billy Hart.
“It all started when my brother, who was a waiter at some place in Great Barrington, Mass., stole a George Shearing album with Chuck Wayne on it and brought it home,“ Galper began. “It didn’t even have a cover. Now the last thing I thought I was going to be was a piano player, although I played it as a kid, like everybody else. It wasn’t until the last year of high school that I decided I wanted to play. For years I would go down to the Stables (a club in Boston) and listen to Herb Pomeroy rehearse. I studied bongos with the janitor, you know.“
An unlucky break turned into an advantage of sorts. Hal had lost an eye in a childhood accident. Massachusetts has a law that allows handicapped students to choose any school they wish, and Galper chose Berklee.
“I did three years there. That was the first time I got good marks in anything. I quit because I was a performance major and we were getting into higher Schillinger and string writing and that was taking time away from my playing.”
He gigged around Boston for awhile in the early ‘60’s playing with Sam Rivers, Pomeroy and others. But…
“I was playing free piano which wasn’t very well received in Boston. I went to France and Germany because I got tired of cats walking off the band-stand holding their heads. People are more ready to accept that stuff now, but I’m not playing that way anymore.“
“I was talking with Billy Hart and we decided that if we ever formed a group, we would play what we wanted to. Billy and I had a hard time getting to that because we had been trained out of it, in a sense, after all those years of playing what we felt would get us accepted more. I want Billy to play open drums and I want to play open piano. Most guys aren’t strong enough to tolerate that kind of a situation.“
“But I digress. I went with Chet Baker when he came through Boston. I wrote his first album, The Most Important Jazz Album Of 1964-65. He fired us! There’s more to it than just that. When I first joined the band he had Jymie Merritt and Charlie Rice as a rhythm section. Very bebop, laid-back-groove rhythm section. While Chet was away (he stopped playing for five years prior to this) on-top-of-the-beat playing had come into fashion. I couldn’t play dotted-eighth-sixteenth so I convinced him to let me get a young rhythm section. I got Steve Ellington and Mike Fleming. We were kicking ass, let me tell you. The front line couldn’t handle it.“
“It was a great experience working with Chet. I learned about dramatics, how to induce drama into my playing, how to play just short of giving them all – you know, leave them gasping for more.”
Then came two years of starving in the Apple and an unhealthy Galper went to his New England home. Things got a bit brighter.
“I felt that my ability to make a living had improved. That’s not to say that it’s good, just that my ability had improved. My experience with Cannonball Adderley helped me tremendously. I was his next-to-last piano player (Mike Wolf was the last.) I was with Cannon from 1973-75, and let me tell you, I swear I was a farmer until I got that gig with him. I didn’t know what working was. They worked to much. It was unhealthy.”
“I learned so much from Cannonball that I’m still absorbing it. It will probably last the rest of my life. I’m still applying what I learned about music, life, psychology, society, business, everything. Not once in two years did he ever tell me how to play. That’s the first time I ever ran into that. The only time we ever discussed it was at a rehearsal or off the gig. One night we had a big discussion about what to do when we get lost, or when someone else in the bands gets lost. There are about ten variables about whether you know that you‘re lost to begin with, or is the other guy lost, or does he know he’s lost, etc. I called him one morning and he laid a whole thing down on the subject and didn’t remember it the next day. It could have been a textbook on the subject.”
It took me a year with them to get my strength and confidence up. Roy McCurdy was the pulse of that group. He made maybe two mistakes in the two years I was with them. That was great because when we got lost we could always go to Roy. It was a marvelous experience for endurance because if I didn’t get my strength up, Roy would have kicked me all over the band-stand. I had to match his strength and by the end of the first year I was up to that. I’ve got to believe that rhythm section was the best Cannon ever had. Walter Booker knows more about the beat than any bass player I ever worked with. He knows more about the tops, bottoms, middles, styles of playing the beat, controlling it, a master.”
“I learned about identity, the dangers of the road and its unhealthfulness. It’s a totally perverse way of life; isolation becomes dangerous when coupled with fatigue. They are the two basic ingredients used in mind control. You can lose your sense of self when you don’t have something to concentrate on. You’ve got to account for 20 hours for every day. You’re only on stage for four. My advice is to stick to the music. Other things can dissipate your energies and you aren’t able to play what you’re supposed to.”
“Cannon’s was a hight-energy band, so three sets with them and you were wrung out. You didn’t even have time to go sightseeing. After a while you were so exhausted that you sought other things and the whole world became disoriented. All your securities are gone – your home, your wife, nothing matters in your mind.”
After the road Hal realized that he couldn’t live without that kind of musical experience, but he was also unwilling to deal with it in that situation.
“I needed the high energy, the high level of rapport, the group confidence. But, I didn’t need the road to go along with it. I didn’t want the money that came with the one-night New York gigs where everybody played by rote and went home separately. I knew I had to start a band in order to survive musically, and develop my own musical identity, which I hadn’t truly done up to that point. Except for recordings I never had a chance to play my own music.
Galper’s recorded product runs to three albums under his own name on Mainstream and numerous others with the Adderleys, Baker, Randy Brecker, Rivers, Bobby Hutcherson, Pete Yellin and Konitz. In all he has composed and recorded 35 compositions. A new album was recorded last fall for SteepleChase. He wanted live experience, developing a cohesive unit, not merely for recording purposes but for developmental insight.
“I can compose and play in any style, but the point is to find where I am in all of that. My idea was to bring a young band up, train them myself. I made a demo tape which failed. My next step was to get a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for three “concerts” using high level musicians so that I could give myself a chance to see where my music was.”
On the added strength of recommendations from Konitz and Phil Woods, he got the grant. It took a year and a half to figure out what he wanted, how to make it work and how to carry it beyond the three mini-concerts. The personnel changed as one showcase club closed before his gig came off and other people became available.
“I don’t know why I waited 20 years to have my own band. I originally got the cats I finally got, but if figured they weren’t available. Randy and Mike were on my own recordings, but I figured they were busy with their own band and they wouldn’t have time for me. There’s something else I learned: go to the people you want first no matter what you think their situation is. I felt that because it was a new band it would be hard to keep the same personnel together. That’s one of the realities of getting work.”
But it has worked. Sweet Basil, a New York club specializing in “new” sounds, or groups that are not usually heard together, put them in for two months of Sundays at the end of 1976. The outcome was that the group became so cohesive that it was impossible to plug in modular sidemen. Jack Kleinsinger’s “Highlights In Jazz” hired them. The SteepleChase date was an important stepping stone to the group‘s credibility. Most important of all was Galper’s maturation process.
“I get the chance the chance to play acoustic piano. I never played acoustic with Cannonball. If anything waters out your identity no matter who you are, it’s the electric piano.”
His goals of a years and a half ago have been reached. Steady work with high level, high quality, high energy music. “I’d like to do some more concerts, and, hopefully, record the band on a steady basis. It’s another level we shoot for here: record contract, build an audience and take them with us. I’d like to offer the band enough to get a 100% commitment from them.”
Galper is eyeing a band that “will make musical history.” As of this writing he feels they are still working out their cliches. Hal concluded by saying that it doesn’t really start happening until you’re totally bored with the music. “When you get to that point, it means you have played all your cliches, everything you know, all your rote stuff, and you’ve run out of ideas. That’s when the real honest music starts.”