Cadence Magazine Oral History
Tell us something about your early musical & and non-musical background?
I started studying classical piano with a local teacher, Mrs. Olivier when I was around six years old. I can still hear her yelling at me from her kitchen, “Harold, stop playing by ear and read the music!” I was always amazed how she could tell. Never did become a great reader because I could memorize so easily. Won a few local and regional competitions over the years but eventually convinced Mom to pay for a “popular” music teacher. Much to her disapproval, he wore loud plaid sport jackets, smoked incessantly and had tobacco stained fingers. The only song I learned from him before she‘d had enough of his “bad influence” was “That Lucky Old Sun” which he’d written out in big notes, floating in space, without a staff. She still has a copy of it in a drawer somewhere.
I didn’t play anything for a while in my early teens but had two great 45 records in my collection that I played a lot. One was a shuffle blues tenor solo called “Soft” by Tiny Bradshaw’s band (who I got to hear in person at the same Newport Jazz Festival I attended where Paul Gonzalvas played that famous 20 minute solo on Ellington’s Diminuendo in Blue), the other was a Latin song by Joe Loco‘s band, the title of which is to far back in the mists of time for me to remember.
Salem, Massachusetts was a yawning chasm of jazz. I wasn’t exposed to it until my sophomore year of high school when my brother returned from a summer waiter‘s job in western Massachusetts hotel with a coverless purloined LP of the George Shearing Quintet. This was the one with Margie Hyams on vibes and Chuck Wayne on guitar. Once I heard that record it was all over for me. I was hooked! There was a tune on that record called “Changing With The Times” that totally blew me away. The song was composed of many time signatures, 4/4, 3/4, and 5/4. I tried to figure it out but never got to imitate more than the first 4 bars of it in Eb. However, in 1987 I was playing with the Phil Woods Quintet on a Concord Records package tour in Japan along with George’s duo with bassist Neil Swainson.
This was the first time I‘d met George in person. I seized the first opportune moment to tell him his tune was the first jazz tune I’d ever heard and was one of the primary musical events that set me on the path to playing jazz piano. I asked him if he remembered how “Changing With The Times” went. He said, “Wow Hal, that was a long time ago. Give me a few days and I’ll get back to you.” A couple of days later I got a message to meet George on-stage at his sound check. This being a moment I’d been waiting for for over 40 years I borrowed Jill Wood’s cassette recorder and hurried to the stage. George fluently played the tune in it’s original key (E natural!) took a stunning chorus on it, stopping afterward to go over a few chords that were crucial to the tune. At the end he stood up and asked “Any questions?” Speechless, I managed to mumble “I got it” as he rode off into the sunset. One of the rare “circles closed” that occur in one’s lifetime. The tape is one of my most cherished possessions. I preserved the tape onto a CD, transcribed the tune and have it on my list for an upcoming trio recording.
Being of a somewhat rebellious nature, my grades all through my early school years were in the lower range. Junior year of high school my parents, with a faint hope I might have some aptitude for science, packed me off every day onto a train to an engineering prep school in Boston’s Copley Square. The school was across the street from a jazz club “The Stable’s” the long-standing home of the Herb Pomeroy Quintet. I’d spend my lunch breaks there, enthralled, listening to them rehearse, eventually taking bongo lessons from the club’s porter.
My parents faint hopes wrecked on the shoals of be-bop, I returned to Salem High to try to get through my senior year doing the least amount of work possible. To my great good fortune, the school’s music teacher, Mr. Deveau, recognized my youthful musical fever. Without hesitation he’d write notes to my teachers excusing me from class, ostensibly to help with the music for that year’s “Senior Review,” the end-of-the- year’s extravaganza put on by the graduating class. I spent most of that year in Mr. Deveau’s back room jamming on the upright piano with a trio with a girl bassist from Tennessee, if I remember correctly, and a drummer, John Prammas. Knowing almost nothing about music, let alone jazz, I wrote three original compositions and played them at the Senior Review to the, at-first stunned silence then reluctant applause of a completely baffled parental audience. Thus went my first ever public performance.
When I was about 7 or 8 years old I had an accident that destroyed the sight in my left eye. At the end of my senior year I was informed by the Massachusetts State Vocational Rehabilitation Board (created to pay for the schooling of disabled students so they wouldn’t be a burden on the State in the future) that, my disability qualified me for full tuition for a scholarship at any school I desired. My parents, bless them, wanted me to take over their grocery store, a goal not on my list of aspirations. The last thing my parents were going to do was pay for me to become a jazz musician, so I jumped at the chance, applied and was accepted at the Berklee School Of Music, as it was called at the time. I bid goodbye to Salem High, afraid to look back for fear of being turned into stone. I forgoed attending my, (according to the school principle), “reluctant” graduation. They had to mail me my diploma.
During the of summer of 1955 I took two piano lessons with my later mentor, premier Boston jazz pianist Ray Santisi, the regular pianist with the Pomeroy Quintet. After the second lesson he said “forget it kid, you’ll never play.” Not so incidentally, ten years later I had his job with Pomeroy’s band. I had completely forgotten the incident and to Ray’s great credit, he reminded me of it stating “I’ll never pre-judge another musicians ability again,” a lesson I took to heart as well.
Your were a scholarship student at Berklee School Of Music during the 1950 s. Please give us a glimpse into the school back then (curriculum ,students,etc.)?
At the time I began at Berklee in 1955 it had recently been renamed from the original “Schillinger House” after the Russian composer and musical theorist Joseph Schillinger. Schillinger Analysis, though not part of the current curriculum, was the theoretical mainstay of the school’s program. At the time I considered it dry and boring, though I was later thankful as it gave me a thorough analytical and theoretical foundation to help me figure things out when Ahmad Jamal or Sonny Rollins weren’t around to ask “Hey man, what was that?”. Many years later I realized what a beneficial effect Schillinger had on shaping my overall perception of music.
The school was in a small red brick colonial style building on the corner of Newbury and Fairfeild streets. I doubt we had more than 100 students at the time, the majority of them there on veterans scholarships. I was there from 1955 to mid 1957 when I studied piano with Ray Santisi again. The first time I’d studied with him he’d sit at the piano and you’d stand, looking over his right shoulder to watch his hands. Since I didn’t know anything at the time I had no idea what he was doing and didn’t learn shit. The second time I studied with Ray I knew a lot more. I’d stop him and ask him “hey man, what was that?” and he’d show me. I learned a lot from him then because he’d let you pick his brains. Herb Pomeroy’s arranging class was as much a jazz theory class as it was an arranging class. I think I did only one arrangement while I was in it but Herb was cool as long as you got out of it what you wanted out of it. That class had a definite influence on my orchestral approach to playing the piano.
One of the most rewarding classes at the school, which is also not part of the current Berklee curriculum, was the “Chord Substitution” class taught by Salem homey Bob Share. Bob was a mercenary bastard and more or less ran the school at the time. To his credit it was he who created the monster that is now called the Berklee College Of Music. School wags dubbed it “The Bob Share Cocktail Hour” because he’d sing and play these inane little melodies over the substitutions. We worked from the old, original 1000 tune “Fake Books.” The tunes were illegally photocopied from the original Library Of Congress copyright cards that were, in those days, used to register one’s copyrights. The songs often had, at worst, 3-note Ukulele and, at best, 4-note Guitar chord symbols that were the norm on sheet music of the day. What was great about them is that they were the upper structures of the original chords the composer wrote. Graduates of the “Cocktail Hour” could divine the more modern substitute chords that fit the melody while remaining true to the composers harmonic intentions. This was one of my favorite courses from which I was eventually earned the monicker “The Change Master.” In those days everybody got nicknamed by everybody else. Bassist Gene Cherico was “The Time Master,” Organist and arranger Charlie Bechler was “The Drag Master.” Sometimes you could have a dozen nicknames, but the nicknames were not for you but for the namer so you’d know who was calling it. My first nickname “Og,” from the series of childhood books “Og The Caveman,” was tacked onto me by Herb Pomerey as in my freshman year I was rather portly coming at and eighth of a ton. Since that class I always try to work from the original sheet music when re-harmonizing a standard song.
Charlie Mariano was teaching there at the time as well as pianist/arranger/composer Bob Freidman who wrote the music for one side of the First Berklee School Band recording, my first recording venture. Poor Bob. He was teaching the entry level pianists and I really put him through it. At one point, overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know, I buttonholed him at one of our lessons. “Bob,” I asked, You know me, you know I really want to play and work hard as well. Tell me what the “secrets” of jazz are. I won’t tell anyone else if you tell me. Man what an asshole! Bob, totally incensed, yelled, “There are no secrets to jazz, just hard work and talent,” and roundly, and deservedly ejected me from the room. However as time progressed I learned there were secrets. It did make me wonder though if the reason he got so mad was that perhaps he didn’t know those secrets.
A teacher to whom I’ll be eternally indebted is Harry Smith. One of the nicest gentleman one would ever want to meet, he played piano for Berklee’s Sunday afternoon TV talent show “Star For A Day” and was the school’s vocal coach. Harry had perfect pitch and a calligraphic “hand“ that was mechanically impeccable. There were a paucity of transcriptions in the 1950’s. As a young student my ears weren’t good enough to copy solos and chord voicings but I could always go to Harry and put an order in for a solo. Two weeks later he’d call me into his office and hand me, in a machine-like hand, perfect transcriptions of Red Garland solos, my model-of-the-moment. Try as I might, when I played his solos and block chords, it just didn’t‘t sound like Red, the epiphany being, as much as you’d want to play like somebody else, you had to find out what sounded good with your sound or touch.
The school was very “loose.” Because of its small size you got good individual attention. Combos were great and because of Herb’s arranging class, with writers like Arif Mardin, Chris Swanson, Gary McFarland, we always had interesting music to play. As a fledgling jazz music school the administration wasn’t overly scrupulous with it’s grading. In one case the school graduated a bassist who on his final exam didn’t know what a unison was! Of the 100 students that started when I did, I doubt that there are five, if that, who survived and are at this time playing professionals. The rest either quit, were in jails, mental hospitals or dead.
The school was much reviled in the neighborhood as the loud music was always irritating them. In protest they’d encourage their dogs to shit on the sidewalks in front of the school. It was like walking through a mine field. Not only could you hear the school but, during the summers could smell it from 3 – 4 blocks away. I have a vague recollection of having commemorated the circumstance in a composition entitled “The Sidewalks Of Newbury Street.”
Looking at Boston from afar the cities jazz scene remains such an enigma. I imagine you did some serious hanging out while a student?
It is one of the crimes of jazz history that, like New York City, Boston has no jazz museum. If it had, Boston’s ubiquitous influence on jazz music would be generally recognized. The influence of Berklee notwithstanding, the town has a rich and varied music history. Most of Duke’s band were from the boston area and at one time almost all of Woody Herman‘s and a large number Kenton’s band were comprised of ex-Berklee graduates.
In the 50’s we had ultra-modernist pianist Dick Twardzik, baritone saxist Serge Chaloff, Charlie Mariano, Jaki Byard, Alan Dawson among others of lessor name recognition but great influence: bassist John Neves (John, a total ear player, taught me how to play well structured “free” solos), drummer Jimmy Zitano, then in later generations, Steve Kuhn, Tony Williams, Sam Rivers, just to name few. Like today, the school was a magnet for musicians and a lot of competition for gigs. However, there were a plethora of mafia owned clubs where could almost always get a job playing in strip clubs where you could play, if not jazz, at least blues or rhythm and blues.
The steady gig that got me away from home for the first time, living on my own in Boston, was at a cavernous bar called “Izzy Ort’s.” Situated in Boston’s “Combat Zone” it was down the street from the famed Old Howard Burlesque Theatre where I used to do my homework in the loges. Izzy’s was carpeted with saw dust, smelled of beer and the was a rough joint. The safest place was on the bandstand. I played the piano standing up, playing shuffle blues from 1 pm in the afternoon until 1 pm at night, 40 minutes on and 20 minutes off, for $120 a week. I was, at 22, “shitting in high cotton,“ money in my pocket, a fine whore for a girlfriend, she buying me clothes and me lookin’ good, driving her Cadillac. I must have thought I was really living the life of a jazz musician.
Berklee had no dormitories. But my fondest memories are of the hallowed, but somewhat dingy, halls of 905 Boylston St., a old brownstone building directly behind the school over one of those mafia “b-girl” clubs. If you can imagine five stories of budding and broke beboppers, eight rooms per floor, most with upright pianos in varying condition, a community kitchen and bathroom, all for $25 a month, utilities included. There were jam sessions day and night until the cops broke them up after 10 pm when the neighbors complained. Afterwards some of us would go to the internal fire escape and have scat “cutting” sessions to see who could out-scat who. It was a gathering place for all the Boston musicians as well as those coming through town every week to play at George Wein’s Storyville or the Hi Hat Club in “Soul Town.“ Rumor had it that “Bird” had anointed the place by jamming there one early morning.
One of the least credited forces of Boston’s musical scene that had a global effect on the music at large was the influence Sam Rivers had on those who apprenticed with him. I played with Sam for 6 years (what I consider that my post-graduate education) and recorded “A New Conception (Blue Note) with him. Under Sam’s tutelage, we were the first to play free on standard tunes. Sam had a quartet, originally, with Phil Morrison on bass and Peter Littman (of Chet Baker fame) on drums. Phil Moore was the pianist before I joined the band. After Peter, Tony Williams played with us for years before he went with Miles’s band and was later replaced by Steve Ellington. Sam used to get hired as a sideman and, because his playing was so strong, eventually the club owner would ask him to bring in his own band. Sam would then fire the other guys and bring his own quartet into the club. We stayed working using that techniques for years until we found a home at The Mt. Vernon Coffee House in Cambridge, Mass.
What remains uncredited is how Sam influenced one of the most influential jazz bands in history, Miles’s quintet with Herbie, Wayne, Ron and Tony Williams. Tony brought the concept of playing free on tunes into Miles’s band when he joined it. That was a Boston influence if there ever was one.
Boston has long had a reputation for it s racial divisiveness. How did you come to be drawn to cats like Jackie Byard, Alan Dawson and Sam Rivers?
Boston was a segregated town. “Soul Town,’” the area for 10 blocks in either direction from the corners of Massachusetts and Columbus Avenues, was packed with clubs: organ trio’s, and big bands. There were house rhythm sections that backed up touring single musicians and the famed Hi Hat Club that booked touring black bands and musicians. The gigs were inter-racial. I have a tape of Bird playing a Sunday afternoon Symphony Sid radio broadcast from the Hi Hat with Herb Pomeroy playing trumpet and Al Vega on piano.
One of my fondest memories was the shoe shine parlor on Mass. Ave, about a half block west from the Hi Hat. They had a back room with carpeting on the floor and walls with and upright piano and a drum set. The place never closed and anyone could use the back room to rehearse, jam or practice for free because it drew customers into the parlor. The vibe was totally supportive and relaxed and I always felt nothing but welcome.
Boston was that last town to have a black and white union. As a matter of fact, the white union wouldn’t let me join. They actually auditioned me and refused me membership because I couldn’t read well enough! I think they were just messing with me but I immediately went across town and joined the black union. The dues were cheaper and they could of cared less if I was black or white as long as I had the bread. I only joined the white union when both of them were later combined into one organization.
There was some “Jim Crow” as well as some “Crow Jim” in both directions but somehow it never affected me though there was a white “establishment” that was selective about which black musicians were “acceptable.” Jaki Byard, John Neves, Alan Dawson, and bassist Larry “Lanky” Richardson, were in that category. Tony Williams and Sam, as well as a Monk-ish pianist Ali Youseff (who taught me a lot) weren’t.
My dear friend, bassist Benny Wilson, along with “Lanky” Richardson were my “protectors“ in those days. They used to watch out for me, make sure I didn’t get into trouble I couldn’t handle. If I couldn’t they could. A frequent over night guest after many all night – early morning jam sessions, their old lady’s would cook for me, do my laundry. Another was the great trumpeter, “Wahgee.” He was a fireman and played like Miles. Wahgee, Rocky Boyd on tenor, myself, Benny Wilson on bass and Dickie “The Bandit” Banda had a quintet based upon the sound of Miles’s Prestige recordings. Drummers Baggy Grant, Randal Dash and Bobby Ward (who invented playing the hi hat four-to-the-bar that Tony made famous) were more a part of the black scene than the white.
One of the hippest bands in town was inter-racial. Trombonist Gene Distatio’s quintet. A dentist-musician who had the Monday night bands at The Stables for years. That band was “integrated” if you will, and had myself, either Tony or Steve Ellington on drums, Benny or Phil were the bassists with Sam on tenor.
Jaki was always an enigma. He arranged for and played tenor sax in Herb Pomeroy’s big band taking a perverse delight in “tweaking” Herb’s ire. Whenever he’d solo he wouldn’t play any notes, just squeaks and honks. Jaki could play like Bird if he wanted to but just refused play anything that was recognizable except sounds. He’d arrive at The Stables and during intermissions, write out one of his arrangement‘s transposed parts from a score in his head! By the last set he’d hand them out to the band and they’d play it.
Jaki had a little studio just down Newbury Street from Berklee. I probably learned more from him than anyone in town other than Sam, Ray and Madam Chaloff (Serge‘s mom). Trying to leave his studio at the and of my first lesson there were two oak doors side by side. Inadvertently I open his closet and all kinds of music scores fell out. Symphonies, string and brass quartets, fugues, etc. Piles of them slid out of the closet onto his rug. I had 18 lessons with him and a few years later I went over my notebooks from his lessons to find nothing in them. It was then I understood his teaching technique which I have since adopted. Jaki got your mind going, he “swung you,” stimulating your mind to consider new concepts. He wasn’t so much the teacher as a mental catalyst. While I thought he was teaching me I was actually teaching myself. He was a true genius. As a pianist he was ambidextrous, could play anything in his left hand he could play in his right and had a unique and original style. He used play intermission solo piano at The Stables opposite Herb’s band, often out-swinging the band to standing ovations with his four-to-the-bar left hand imitation of Errol Garner. It was Jaki who, when the time came for me to expand my horizons encouraged me to “take my spear and shield and go to New York City.”
During my early years in “Bean,” Sam Rivers was out of town but I’d had heard about him for years. For some reason I had the feeling that when he came back to town we’d hook up, and we did. We were like minds with similar interests in expanding the boundaries of bebop. Playing with him he pushed you beyond your limits. Space doesn’t permit me to relate all his mind-bending, ear-stretching techniques and experimental ideas here but this vignette should give you an idea about how dedicated and hard working he was.
In the years before his return to Boston, one of the rumors about Sam was that he had these amazing “practice books” of exercises he’d made up. No one, including me, had ever seen them and I was never sure it wasn’t just a myth. One afternoon, after I had been playing with him for a few years, I was hanging out at his apartment. Sam lived in a “railroad flat” where all the rooms were situated off a single, long hallway running down the center of the apartment. Sam always practiced with the radio, TV, and record player on full blast. He said it helped him concentrate. He was practicing walking up and down the hallway (he liked the acoustics) from the kitchen at one end to the dining room, where I was sitting, at the other end. As he walked up and down the hall playing, his volume would get louder or softer depending on which direction he was going.
At one point he was off in the distance at the kitchen end and I spied, laying on top of the TV, three spiral-bound music notebooks. They looked like the same kind of books I used myself. I thought “ahah, could that be them?” While Sam was still at the other end of the apartment I ran over to the TV and grabbed the books, ran back to the couch, opened them up. Sure enough they were his legendary practice books. I started memorizing everything I could all the while hearing Sam’s sax getting louder as he walked, playing his horn, down the hall toward the living room. By the time he got to the living room door I had memorized three pages. There were 12 tone runs and “I’ve Got Rhythm” changes with a chord per beat with double-time 16th note melodic lines written over them. It was an insight into how he organized his thinking, all of it mind opening stuff. Sam got to the living room doorway, spotting the books in my hands. Yelling “ahah” he ran across the room pulling them from my lap. I told him “too late Sam, I’ve already memorized three pages.” I asked him why he wouldn’t show his books to his pianist, friend, and brother in arms? He said “I worked hard to come up with all that stuff. Why should I show it to you? Work out your own!” A completely understandable and righteous attitude. I immediately excused myself, saying I had an errand to do and ran home to write down as much of what I had stolen I could remember. Although I lost my original practice books, having to replace them by memory, I still have one of his 12 tone runs written in my old practice book.
Alan Dawson was from the preceding generation, married with kids and very family orientated so we didn’t hang much. However, at one point, while I was house pianist with Herb‘s quintet and big band at The Stables, their drummer Jimmy Zitano was having serious marital problems that were affecting his behavior to the point where he was fired and replaced by Alan. I loved Jimmy’s playing, he was fiery, rebellious, but tolerated because he kicked ass. Alan played great but had one appalling habit, he was a “lick-stepper.” You played an idea, he’d play it along with you (stepping on it) making it difficult to finish an idea if he didn’t think it was going in the same direction he thought you were going. It almost always stopped my line at that moment, messing with its continuity. At this point I had been playing a lot because of the steady the gig at the Stables and my chops were in top shape but I began to lose chops while playing with Alan.
Cocky as I was, in frustration and youthful naivete, I gave Herb an ultimatum that it was either Alan or me. Since the was no substitute for Alan, who could read fly shit, and Ray Santisi, Herb‘s original pianist, was in town, it was me. After that I was persona-non-grata with the Boston “establishment.” You just don’t do that to the powers-that-be. Consequently things got chilly for me for a while. The only cats who would hire me were Gene, Sam and the other black musicians in town. It got so bad that I eventually had to get out of town. I went to Europe and spent a couple of weeks in Munich, Germany, then to Paris for a few months to seek my fortune then returned to Boston. That began a very difficult period for me where I didn’t play at all for two years. Lesson learned, I have never since given anyone an ultimatum. It was after this period that I eventually got the gig playing with Chet Baker and moved to New York City for the second time.
What do you think of Sam Rivers piano playing (something he seems to do less and less recently)? Moreover why haven’t you cats worked together again?
Sorry man but I don’t offer opinions on other musicians playing. Those kinds of questions are not very fruitful.
As far as us playing together again…we each have our own directions to follow. When we played together before, it was the appropriate time we were supposed to play together. After that we just keep on truckin’ and you can’t go home again anyway.
During the two years that you took off from the scene -how did you survive. What kinds of musical things did you shed on?
Mostly by my wits. It actually may have been longer than two years, maybe more like three. I’m not very good with chronology but after I quit Herb’s band I hung around Boston. I had a few house band gigs at Lennie’s On The Turnpike. Lenny Sokolof was a sweetheart. If I was having trouble paying my rent he’d front me bread if I had a gig in his joint coming up in a couple of weeks. I would boogie out to his place in this little white Fiat I got for pushing a broom in a used car dealership for two weeks, the only day gig I’ve ever had. It was where I first played with Phil Woods. From time to time I’d also get the house gig at Connaley’s club in “Soul Town“ where I had a chance to play with, among many others, Sonny Stitt, Brett Woodman/Johnny Hodges and “T” Williams, Tony’s dad. Also had a few gigs with Gene DiStatio’s Monday night band at The Stables.
Then things got really sparse. At the time Yugoslavian trumpeter Dusko Goykovich was going to Berklee. He’d let me crash at his place when I was between pads. I thought I might try my hand in Europe and he recommended I go to Munich, Germany. He wrote me a letter of introduction to Albert Mangelsdorf but when I arrived there I was told he wouldn’t be back in town for another week. So, I hung out until he arrived at this local club. He was standing at the bar having a drink with friends. I went up to him and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned around and, handing him the letter, told him Dusko suggested he might be looking for a piano player. Albert looked at the letter in his hand and without opening it, looked me in the eye and said “no.” He turned around to the bar again to finish his discussions.
Feeling a definite chill, I split town the next day and went to Paris. I hung there for a couple of months, playing a few gigs with another Miles style quintet. The last gig we played was a band contest which we won. Got paid $50 each. I was looking at the money in my hand and said ”screw this, I can make $50 in Boston with having to be a contestant.” So I bought $500 bucks worth of hashish from the doorman at a left bank jazz club, strapped it to my chest and took the next flight I could get back to Boston. That kept me alive for quite a few months during which I moved around a lot. Lived in Philly for a year finally ending up sharing a rent free garret apartment in a suburb of Providence, R.I. with my good friend, alto player, Joe Ferguson.
I had no piano for that period, didn’t play very much. I practiced on a kitchen table, visualizing the piano keys. It was a very low period in my life.
Your recording output overall has been sizable. During what point in your career did you start to record?
Other than the recordings I did with the Berklee Big Band my first two recordings were with Chet Baker in the early 60’s. It was in the period when Chet first returned from his years of living in Europe. He’d just been released from serving a sentence in an Italian jail and moved to New York with his new British wife Carol Baker. We toured for about three years with Phil Urso on tenor and Philadelphia’s Charlie Rice on drums and Jymie Merritt on bass. Chet and been away from the US so long the older laid-back groove style of playing he was used to had gone out of fashion. Rhythm sections were playing on top of the beat at the time. I‘d always felt I played to far behind the beat (you can hear it on the first record) and was working hard to get on top of it (you can hear it on the second record) so I convinced him to give me a chance to hire my own cats. Got my old cohort Steve Ellington on drums and Mike Fleming on bass but Chet didn’t like playing on top of the beat. He said it felt like the rhythm section was rushing. Eventually he got to like it though.
The first three recordings under my own name were made in the early 70’s for Mainstream Records with Mike and Randy Brecker on the first (The Guerilla Band) and third (Wild Bird) outings. I believe they were the first recordings of Mike and Randy. Very fusion, with double rhythm sections and experiments in Compound Rhythms and hiding “one”of the bar. The second release was my first trio release (Inner Journey) with Another old cohort from my early days in New York during the 60’s, Bill Goodwin on drums and Dave Holland on bass, a very experimental and challanging album for me.
It is commonly stated in the jazz press (both critical and historical) that the post Be-Bop piano jazz tradition was established by the cats……..Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner and to a lesser extent Cecil Taylor-in so far as the modernistic vocabulary. Where if at all do you see your own playing and influences against this history?
I’ve never felt I was anything but highly derivative of everyone you’ve mentioned. I doubt that I’ve added any original vocabulary to the genre nor do I feel that I’m anything more than a stylist rather than an originator like Chick, Herbie and McCoy. I wanted to be able to play anything anybody else could play so I copied everybody except (contrary to popular opinion) Bill Evans. My roots are the Post Be-Bop generation.
Coleman Hawkins, in an recorded interview (I think on a Prestige Record), said you had to go to New York City twice. The first time to get the lay of the land (learn the streets, subways, parts of town, etc.), meet musicians, go to the clubs to hear what was going on and assess your abilities and what you need to work on to be competitive in NY. Then you go home and practice until you think you’re ready to return. It took me three times.
When I got there the first time I had been working on my Pentatonic improvising, a style just becoming fashionable.
I lived on a Ave. C just around the corner from Slugs and spent ions hanging out there and when I could, sitting in. This was when Slugs had only an upright piano and the bandstand was on the left side wall of the club. The piano’s mid range keys were mostly broken so pianists were relegated to playing in the high register. I’d be playing my solos, trying to work my way through this new vocabulary when I noticed that the other piano players in the club, who were also trying to figure out Pentatonics, were sitting on my right side where they could see what my right hand was playing. I was shocked because, in all humility, I always thought I was playing “catch-up” with what was going on, not that I had a jump start on it. From that point on I played my solos in the bass range where my body blocked the keyboard from view.
When I returned to NYC for my third time I had a pretty good grip on Pentatonic playing and started my quintet with my old friends Mike & Randy Brecker. The band was a workshop where I could fine tune the concept by composing and playing in the genre with others who liked to play the same way. The genre did take me away from my post be-bop roots for a while but once having gone through that period, Pentatonics just became another element of my “post-bop” vocabulary and conception.
I had, over the years, avoided listening to Bill Evans. When I first heard a record of his I was chagrined as I believed we both had a similar stylistic bent. I stayed away from him but if he came to Boston to play I‘d be there every night, soaking it up, but I never tried to copy him. Any stylistic similarity between Bill and myself is purely coincidental. It has only been since I broke up my touring trio in 2000 that Bill’s music began to call me to it. His live recordings Consecration and The Last Waltz simply blew me away. His playing was so intense, so packed with musicality, ideas and prodigious pianist technique I had to take a break from listening to the collection because he was beginning to intimidate me. Not having been intimidated in years, it was a welcome but disturbing experience. I’m a pressure player, the more the better. This recent hiatus from 30 years touring on the road was the first chance I had to practice and I began to study Bill but not to play like him. In my youth, I’d though that the reason I picked this pianist or that pianist to model was that I wanted to play like them. Eventually I realized that the reason for selecting a model to study is not for what they can to show you about their playing but for what they can to show you about your own playing. The message he was sending me finally got through to me, to clean up and develop my harmonic concept. I’ve been since working on counterpoint, which they didn’t teach at Berkee and studying the way Brazilian composers harmonize their tunes.
Let s go back to two recordings from your past both on the now defunct Inner City Records label.Please talk about “Reach Out!” (L/P Inner City #2067) featuring the Brecker Brothers and the session (also released in 1977) “Now Hear This” (L/P Inner City #3012). The question is two fold I want you to talk more in depth about your work with that particular band (featuring the Brecker Brothers);this is a lead in to the other session which came out in 1977 with Cecil McBee-etc.The date “Now Hear This” with the great Cecil McBee and drummer Tony Williams….
After the early 60’s Mainstream albums “The Guerilla Band” and “Wild Bird“ with Mike & Randy, we each kind of drifted off to our separate fates. I, to eventually play with Stan Getz for a year. Then Bobby Hutcherson/Harold Land Quintet for a year and my three year stint with Cannonball’s band. Randy hit the studios as well as B,S &T and Mike became the busiest rock and roll funk saxophonist on the New York studio scene. Eventually they morphed into their own killer fusion/funk band “The Brecker Brothers.“
The years after leaving Cannon’s band was another sparse period for me. I assumed that once I’d had the “Cannonball-Seal-Of-Approval” the phone would be jumping off the hook but for almost three years after I left his band I got few calls as a sideman. I’d heard about a rumor going around that you shouldn’t hire Hal because he’s to strong and eventually takes over a band, musically, that is. I’m not so sure how true the rumor was but after playing three years, fifty weeks a year, six nights a week, with the strongest band I‘d ever played with, I was playing the strongest I have ever been or would be. Liebs has written about how difficult it is these days to achieve and maintain that high a performance level because the scene had changed so much from the days where we had the then commonplace opportunity to play three years, fifty weeks a year, six nights a week, on the road with the a strong band. One can only get and maintain that level of strength by playing an extensive amount of time in an intense and continuous musical environment. In all humility, by the time I left Cannon’s band I was so strong I could carry a band just by myself. It’s quite possible that when working as a sideman, my strength was working against me.
Since no one was hiring me, it finally dawned on me that, if I wanted to play, I had to start my own band. With a $2,000 grant from The National Endowment For The Arts, I approached Mike and Randy with the idea of starting a band. We had an understanding that I’d create an opportunity for us to play some jazz together, write the music and book the gigs and they’d lend their Marquee Value to the band’s attractiveness. Each of us had spent the intervening years becoming accomplished in the current modal/intervalic style of improvising that was the fashion of the time so I wrote music that created that kind of sound.
My first attempt to book the band was with Max Gordon. I’d noted that the Village Vanguard was “dark” Sunday afternoons so I approached him in the club’s kitchen one night and offered to bring the quintet with myself, Mike and Randy, Wayne Dockery and Billy Hart in for four Sunday afternoons,gratis. I offered to pay the band if he paid for the promotion. He turned around and walked away without saying a word. That happens to me a lot.
Undeterred, I walked down 7th. Avenue to Sweet Basil’s and made the same offer to Blaise and Dwayne. Knowing a good thing when they saw it they agreed to the proposal. By the third Sunday we had lines around the block and in the three years that followed played very club in town, many of them twice, including, I might add, The Village Vanguard. For years after that we were the “sub” band at Sweet Basil‘s when they needed a fill-in band. Whenever we played there the bar was knee deep in musicians. One of our local NYC wags dubbed the us “Average White Trane.” I loved it! We were pretty hot in New York for a few years until we played the town out and had to go on the road to keep working.
During that period, around the mid-seventy’s, the director of Century Records, an audiophile recording company, heard us at Basil‘s and asked us to record. That was the first incarnation of the “Reach Out” recording. When Century went bust (I always have a reversion clause in my recording contracts so the rights to the masters came back to me), I sold the master to Inner City Records. They were trying to expand from their the play-along market into the real recording business. They went bust. Again, when the rights reverted back to me, Steeplechase Records bought it. They haven’t gone bust. Yet.
After three years together I broke the quintet up. The avarice of so many promoters, club owners and agents was becoming a threat to the friendship between Mike, Randy and myself, leaving a bad taste in our mouths. Potential clients began to see me as a conduit to get to the “Brecker Brothers” (a title I never used while the band was together). On one of the last gigs we played the club marque advertised “The Brecker Brothers Quintet featuring Hal Galper.” Before the first set I was out in the parking lot knocking the letters off their sign with a broom handle. When I got back on stage I announced we had been purposely mis-advertized by the club owner and anyone could all have their money back if they wanted it. The club owner was back stage shitting purple onions. We all began to feel uncomfortable from that experience. I guess it was a sign that we’d had a good number of years playing and recording together and it might be the appropriate time to part ways.
Also during this period ENJA Records‘s Matthias Winckelmann heard the band at Basils’s and asked me to lead the “Now Hear This“ recording with Hino, my home boy Tony, and Cecil. At the end of the date Tony asked me to join his quartet because organist Larry Young had left, but he wanted me to play electric piano. I was so adamantly committed to knuckling down to get the acoustic piano together I said no. Probably not the best career choice but definitely a worthwhile pianistic move.
I went on to record many albums for Matthias. He also reissued the first release (on Gryphon/RCA) of the quintet‘s live New Orleans recording “Speak With A Single Voice” with Bobby Moses on drums, who replaced Billy, who was so in demand I couldn’t always get him for gigs.
Many years later I found, hidden away in the back of one of my closets, the 25 track master tapes from that live session with killer tracks that had never been released, probably because I thought at the time my own playing sucked. Of course many years later, it didn’t‘t sounded so bad. The audio tapes were the old Ampeg brand and so old, when we tried to play them the first time they shed their covering, jamming up the studio’s machines. The tapes were finally resurrected by actually baking them in a specially designed oven, miraculously bringing them back to their original condition long enough to transfer the music to more modern recording media. When “Speak With A Single Voice” was reissued as “Redux 78” on Carl Jefferson‘s Concord Jazz label we found another never-released out take from the New Orleans recording (we recorded three sets a night for two nights) that were actually in the original masters to “Speak”. I got the out-take back and Doubletime Records’s Jamey Aebersold Jr. baked them again and added the albums title tune, “Children Of The Night.”
During the past few years we have seen the electric piano reclaim it s popularity. Any thoughts on how this came about?
I didn’t know it had. I’m not a fan of electronic instruments, mostly because I felt I didn’t have an aptitude for them. Never could make them sound as good as Zawinal or George Duke could, even though, little know as it is, I played a part in the development of the first performance version of the Moog Synthesizer. At the urging of my good friend and old schoolmate, synthesizer guru and fellow madman Chris Swanson, Bob Moog invited Reggie Workman, Bob Moses and myself to spend a week at his Trumansburg, New York factory to help develop the first keyboard performance model. Before that everything on the Moog worked by patch chords. At the end of the week we played the first ever live concert of the keyboard model of the Moog Synthesizer at the Trumansburg High School concert hall with Chris on lead Moog, myself on accompaniment Moog, Reggie on bass Moog and Bobby Moses on drums. I have a CD I burned of the cassette recording of the concert and it’s utter madness. The machines had a proclivity to go off and do things in their own. As a result of this week in Trumansburg the performance synthesizer was born. You can probably blame the following digital musical instrument revolution on us.
At what point in your career did you start in the direction of Jazz education?
I’d been married and needed to get off the road for a while so I started teaching private piano and theory lessons in my 34th street apartment in the late 70’s. It developed I had a knack for verbalizing musical concepts into comprehensible terms, especially when it came to explicating jazz proverbs, the oral tradition used to hand down conceptual musical information from one generation of jazz musicians to the next. I had become interested in looking for, studying and developing the musical concepts and theories inherent in these proverbs. I also began researching the latest theories and scientific studies about how the body, the mind and emotions are trained and used during performance. Eventually figuring out how to apply all this to achieve a more rapid rate of improvement, my students began to improve much more rapidly.
Musical knowledge falls into three categories; theoretical, conceptual and experiential. Educators, including myself, had adopted the Euro-centric informational approach to teaching jazz improvising as opposed to an Eastern conceptual, experiential approach embodied in the African oral tradition. It’ easier to teach numbers, notes and letter and much more difficult to change some ones way of thinking. Forgive the poor paraphrase,but, “Give a man lick and he’s just got a lick. Give him a concept and he has a million licks.” When you change the way someone thinks you put into effect global, not incremental change.
Scholarly and trade magazines began publishing my articles. Downbeat Magazine published the first three articles on Forward Motion in the early eighties. It turned out I also had a knack for writing as well and I continued writing and publishing articles in scholarly and trade magazines. Arnie Lawrence was a mench of the first order. Limitations of space prevent me from going on and on about what a great person, musician and teacher he was. He had just created the New School Of Jazz and Contemporary Music out of whole cloth. I guess the word got around that I was an effective teacher with “street” knowledge as a bonus and he invited me to join the faculty. I then went with Phil Woods from 1980 to 1990. I kept teaching in the cracks. After I left Phil and started my trio in 1990 we stayed on the road ten years teaching and playing the national and international college, and non-profit Arts-Presenters circuit as well as a rare club appearance here and there. During the last three years, of touring and booking the trio I wrote my first book “The Touring Musician, A Small Business Approach To Booking Your Band On The Road.“ (Billboard Books). In 2000 I broke up the trio and was invited by Todd Coolman to join the faculty at S.U.N.Y. Purchase. I then self-published published the first downloadable interactive musical instruction e-book “Forward Motion. From Bach To Bebop.” You can play it on your computer’s desktop by clicking on any of the book’s three hundred examples connected to a hiddenInternet website. There was so much demand for one I had to put out a printed version now being published by Sher Music.
Getting back to the subject of Jazz education there is an interesting article in the October 2006 issue of “Jazzwise”,in which Branford Marsalis had this to say. “My father(pianist and educator Ellis Marsalis) used to say people learning technique through learning jazz exercises is the reinvention of the wheel.He says classical music has one thousand years of established pedagogy in teaching technique so what do we need jazz technique books for?They are pointless,all they do is teach regimented performance techniques”. I would like your comments on this?
I get bored when I hear this bogus “Noble Savage“ rational that classical technique takes the soul out of jazz. I run into it all the time with students of mine who had classical training in their youth. Generally, young jazz students are insecure about their ability to swing. To compensate, they overplay their instruments resorting to excessive hand and body motion in a misguided attempt to energize their playing, causing over-use syndrome and stiff articulation, often at a volume too high to apply dynamics successfully. For some reason they have made a disconnect between their early classical technical training and jazz, as if the two have nothing common. Playing the piano is playing the piano no matter the musical context. To bridge this disconnect I have them play a Bach piece. Immediately their physical demeanor changes. They become physically and emotionally “quite” and play with a lighter touch and singing tone. As soon as this occurs I’ll ask them to switch over to playing the head to “Donna Lee” using their classical chops. It‘s always rewarding for me to see the shock on their faces when they realize they had, in their ignorance, been throwing away years of valuable hard work.
I agree that you can’t learn instrumental technique from jazz books. For the majority of us technique is taught in the context of a one-on-one master-student relationship. It as an absolute requirement that the student’s physical behavior be monitored and constantly corrected by the teacher. As is true for most who’ve had some classical training, this involves a long-term relationship with the teacher. My first three years with “The Madam“ I went to her Back Bay carriage house apartment once a week. I practiced six hours a day, six days a week during that period then the following three years I’d come back for a “tune up” when I‘d strayed from the path. I wish she was still around because I could use one. I suppose a musician can use any material to develop instrumental control. Some have it naturally. The story goes that Red Garland was playing in town he went to visit Madame Chaloff for a lesson and she refused to teach him saying “You don’t need any lessons from me.”
But Eillis is only slightly off base as the wheel of knowledge about instrumental technique is reinventing itself every year. In the last 7 percent of that thousand years much more is know about the how the mind-body connection functions during the creative experience and many classical teachers have accommodated the latest information into their pedagogy. Many equate technique with “fast.” Technique‘s primary function is to better control the instrument to enhance one’s ability to be expressive. Technique must be subjugated to the will of the music that is being played and is at it‘s best when never noticed. The mind, body and emotions are the universal tools all artists use to create. Red Garland excluded, each must be subjected to long-term discipline. How these tools can be harnessed to do your artistic bidding has been the subject of continuous scientific inquiry since music began. The tools of scientific have advanced to a sophisticated degree. Instrumental technique has long escaped the boundaries of the older classical technical theorists. Some technique teachers, like Madame Chaloff, Lucy Green and Sophia Rosoff, were already teaching modern piano technique before western scientists caught up with them. I’m not so sure how true it is for the others but I know Madame Chaloff was heavily influenced by contemporary Russian piano technical research, which has always been ahead of the West‘s. She called her pedagogy “The Russian Shoulder Technique.” Without going into detail, it was a marvelous system and gave me whatever chops I have now. For the curious, and I wish I had a copy of it, you will find an article on Pianoforte Playing in the 1964 Harvard University Press edition of the Harvard Dictionary Of Music By Willi Appel that describes it in detail. I do have a few, cherished, aged and yellowed, crinkly sheets of coffee stained typewritten pages (with a burntcigarette hole in it) copied from the same edition. I suspect I got it from The Madame.
1980 was when I read George Kochevitsky’s “The Art of Playing The Piano, A Scientific Approach” (Summy-Birchard). I was stunned to realize that he was saying, scientifically, the same thing that The Madame had said to me 25 years earlier; “Hal, technique is in the brain.” The body is a complex system of weights, levers and muscles. No matter the instrument, technical mastery can’t be achieved without understanding how they all work individually and together with the mind, body and emotions. Classical technique teachers have this information. I advise students of mine who have never studied classical technique to expect to dedicate at least a couple of years, or three, to making sure they are using their tools in the most efficient manor. It is best to correct bad technical habits at the earliest possible stage in a musician‘s career as bad habits can take a long time cure. It’s not only a musical issue, it’s a health issue as well. The Miller Institute in New York City was specifically created answer the specialized need for health care to deal with musician‘s injuries. Their are health issues involved with playing any instrument.
Those who would make a case that you can learn instrumental technique from a jazz book hasn’t experienced the disciplined training of a classical teacher, doesn’t know what true technique is or is making a case for ignorance. As far as that is concerned, I agree with the Marsalis‘s.
You have been on the road on & off for a long time. In what ways has being a working jazz musician changed?
That question requires two answers, one general and the other personal.
When I was still living in Boston, listening, practicing, gigging, and working on developing the craft part of the art, I knew that I would have to follow in the footsteps of others and make my own pilgrimage to Mecca, New York City. From afar it loomed in my future. In order to prepare myself for the inevitable, whenever some NY cats came to town I’d bug them to tell me what it was like for them there. Each had a different story. It was then I realized we all write our own histories. No matter what someone else‘s story may be, my story was going to be my story. That being said, I can your question best from my perspective and experience.
When I did get to NY the third time I saw that you had to make a choice between working on the road or being a “townie,” working with one band one night or week and another the next or, going on the road as touring musician. A political instinct was one of the necessary attributes to being a successful NYC musician. Having a big mouth and telling the truth has always been one of my failings in that regard. (I can’t count the times friends of mine had to pull me off the union floor because I was about to go left on some totally jive dude). Hanging out was a prerequisite. Found wanting in that regard I didn’t made the investment of time and energy it took to be well known to the powers-that-be in the city. Most townies had families or didn’t favor the rigors of the road. But the constantly changing personnel that was the norm for NYC gigs were, with a few exceptions here and there, barely scraping the surface of the music, not plumbing its depths. Mostly it was jamming. I believed the real music was on the road playing night after night with the same band, getting tight, building endurance and chops, getting solid bandstand experience playing with the masters. The road was school for me and the only place where you could go beyond the surface and get deeper into the music. I love the road. You can keep me out there all the time. I never get tired of it.
In those days the majority of venues were “location” gigs. You could play 5 – 6 nights a week in each one. On Cannon’s gig we were on the road 50 weeks a year, playing 6 nights a week. There were enough organized working road bands in those days to fill those venues every week. You had the unique privilege and opportunity to experience almost on a nightly basis the on-the-job-training that is a basic requirement of the self-teaching process unique to jazz music. It was the apprenticeship system at work on its highest level. It affected the music and promoted musical growth. But the jazz music business has changed much since I first came on the scene. For example, take a listen and compare the tightness of the band and level of playing of the Monk/Coltrane recording at the old Five-Spot to that of the Monk/Coltrane recording at Carnagie Hall. No doubt both top notch performances but the latter recording shows what a tight band that has been playing together for a while can achieve.
These were mostly clubs I was playing. As jazz clubs faced increasingly higher overhead, more and more of them went out of business. Many clubs, in order to survive, adapted, and, imitating their European predecessors, started offering a mix of nightly fare to appeal to a wider audience. Others pared down their artist rosters to those that were guaranteed draws, the biggest names, saving the expense of promotion. However this began denying newer bands access to jazz audiences, minimizing their opportunity to have a working band and build a career. Of course there were still the festivals and concerts, and eventually the non-profit sector. In those days, after rotating the circuit as a sideman you could eventually make a recording, form your own band to play the circuit yourself. The clubs needed new bands to keep the circuit vital so they’d do a little “audience-building” and give your group three shots once every nine months to a year. They can’t afford to do that anymore. This, combined with Corpo-Bop‘s marketing control via vertical integration of the jazz industry and their maniacal focus on youth, sounded the death knell of the apprenticeship system. I was lucky enough to catch onto the the very tail of this never-to-be-seen-again experience.
In a sometimes valiant, sometimes cynical and self-serving attempt to fill in this vacuum of basic jazz experience, academia has tried to raise the cudgel to fill this void. But it has failed in that regard, mainly because the jazz education industry didn’t create an educational format that fit the demands of the music. Denying the requirements of “set & setting” in jazz education, academia tried to fold a music derived from an African sensibility into the existing framework of theEuro-centric educational tradition. Jazz education‘s modus operandi has since morphed from an elitist, “earned-right-to-play,“ where only the best survived the rigors of matriculation through the jazz scene, to a democratic “everyone-has-a right-to-play” jazz education. Democracy has one downside, it assumes that since all are created equal all have equal rights. However all are of not equal talent and temperament and should be judged on their merits not rights. Protestations to the contrary, academia created a glut of mediocre jazz musicians on the market. The standards of the music have been lowered. Increased competition becomes demeaning in a way that compels musicians to perform for diminishing performance fees. Jazz radio stations DJ’s inundated with 100’s of new CD’s a week testify to this condition.
This tendency to promote all by virtue of rights is currently a topic of discussion in the education community at large. It is seen by many as a crisis where students rise through the educational strata regardless of merit, lowering standards, creating a less educated populace.
One of the justifications for its existence jazz academia promotes is that it offers an alternative to the apprenticeship system by creating a playing experience for them. A recent scientific study has shown that the drug adrenalin is the chemical that ties memory to an event. Jazz improvising is an art learned during performance by experimentation and trial and error. A classroom combo does not create the pressure from public performance necessary for the brain to secrete enough adrenalin to learn from and remember the experience. Consequently the experience of playing in a classroom combo will not be as readily retained by the students.
During the time I was with Cannon’s band we played the same circuit three times. Plus or minus a few here and there the same fans returned each time to hear us. Just for the hell of it I did an ad-hoc count of what I figured Cannon’s audience would be and came to a ball park figure of 100,000 fans world-wide that would support his band for the rest of his career. Fledgling bands, without access to these audience-building venues, now can’t maintain working bands to continue the oral tradition of the apprenticeship system by denying new bandleaders the opportunity of handing down their knowledge to succeeding generations.
Would I be correct in saying that the trio recording “Portrait” got you back on the map musically(in terms of garnering some modest degree of attention)?
Certainly modest as the album, like so many of mine, has since been deleted from their catalog. I’m not sure it got me back on “the map” at all. If I did it wasn’t because of the album but the 24/7 hard work I invested into booking and promoting my trio, quartets and quintets during the ten year period from 1990, when Portrait was released, and breaking up my trio in 2000. We were touring national and internationally four to six months as year, grossed a half million dollars and made a lot of well received recordings. If you Googled my name you’d find that most of my reviews were in the higher rating range but almost with out fail most reviewers described me as “underrated” by the industry. Most of our work was focused on the not-for-profit sector. I didn’t have the Marquee Value it took to get work in clubs. When we did, we died, mostly because of the reticence of club owners to spend money on promotion. We once played a major club in Boston and were not listed anywhere in any of the local media. Five people showed up. When I went to pick up the check from the club manager he made it obvious that we’d never be invited to return. I mentioned that lack of promotion may have and something to do with it he said, “sometimes we like to see how and artist does without any promotion.” I said “yeah, but because you didn’t promote us we won’t be invited back.” Not responding he just looked at me and handed me the check. It was only later, after doing some research, that I discovered he’d hired us because he’d had a cancellation and we were an inexpensive fill-in for the date.
After ten years of booking my band I realized that, in spite of the success we were having, in the end, I hadn’t earned a higher industry profile. None of the major jazz venues I‘d played as a sideman would hire us as I was still considered “underrated.“ The industry never noticed I had pulled of what I and my peers, who suffered the same career fate as I, considered a minor miracle. I got disgusted with the business, wrote my now infamous R.I.P. letter on Bret Primack’s short-lived but wonderfully muckraking birdlives.com web site, took my ball and went home. I was also pretty burnt out by that time anyway because I’d spent the last three years of my band not only booking and touring but also writing my first book. That too has been removed from Billboard’s catalog but shall rise again from the ashes! From the feedback I got from those that bought it I know the book helped a lot of musicians. Undaunted, I’m in pursuit of another publisher for it.
During this hiatus from the music business I resumed my teaching at the New School and was invited by my ex bassist, and now head of the Jazz Department, Todd Coolman, to join the faculty at Purchase Conservatory. During this period, after much soul searching, I experienced a complete reversal of attitude, reverting back to my original reasons for playing, my joy for playing the music. Eschewing the the chimera of “success” it eventually dawned on me; I had a situation that many could only dream of. After almost thirty years on the road, I had the time and piece of mind to devote myself to practice and study. In that regard, it has been, on a personal as well as musical level, one of the most rewarding periods of my life.
You have (much like Sonny Rollins) gone in & out of the music scene,but the trio format has been a constant aspect of your artistry. Please comment?
I like to play the piano orchestrally. The more horns in a band the less orchestral the piano can be. For that reason, except for my time with Herb Pomeroy’s band, I never worked as big band pianist. A piano is a big band. I’m also reminded of Bill Evan’s remark when asked the same question: the trio format offers the most control for a pianist. Having a predilection for the art of small group arranging my forte has always been trio’s quartets and quintets. I feel I’m able to communicate with an audience better in a trio setting. When playing with the Phil Woods band I noticed a more vigorous audience response from my trio features than my solo’s within the group. An often neglected aspect of performing in public is the psychological element. Performers are required to take hold of the listeners attention and take them on a trip. As I mentioned in my Down Beat Magazine 1994 article on the subject, “The Social Contract,” in a very real sense we have been given permission to and are being asked by the audience, to manipulate them mentally and emotionally. In a trio context I can better “read” what the ears of the audience requires to keep them involved in the music.
Would I be correct in saying that the disc “Agents of Change” is a pivotal chapter in your recording career? There seems to be a freer aspect the improvisation?
You are exactly correct. This was an unexpected result of the practicing and studying I’d been doing since I got off the road in 2000. About 11 pm every night, after running out of every excuse to avoid playing the piano, I’d sit down and start playing. This was what came out. It was all unitentional and intuitive. I’ve always been a free player at heart, my experience playing with Sam Rivers being a shaping influence on me. When Ornette’s first album, “The Shape Of Things To Come” came out I almost kissed the ground in joy. At last, I though, a direction I can really relate to. Until Sam returned to Boston, I was the only free played in a bebop environment. I started playing free on tunes like we eventually did with Sam but the cats couldn’t handle it. One bassist walked off the bandstand in the middle of a tune holding his ears, yelling I was giving him a headache. All of a sudden I’d become a stranger in a strange land.
As a result of this recent period of being “in the shed” I‘ve intuitively stumbled onto a musical concept more natural, less derivative and more personal as is evidenced in my latest trio recording “Agents Of Change.” Everything is clear in hindsight, so when I look back at my musical history I see that I’ve always displayed a penchant for “broken-time“ or Rubato playing, where the beat is maintained but using subdivided or superimposed rhythms. Ironically, I’d forgotten the incident but was recently reminded about hanging out at Richie Byrack‘s pad many years ago. I ripped of a couple of broken-time lines on the piano and he yelled rather excitedly, “Yeah Hal, that’s your shit!” I thought he was crazy, which he is, but not about music and I should have listened to him. Not that my wanderings down the alleyways of Bop have been without reward. I would not be able to play the way I’m playing now if I hadn’t spent all those intervening years, since I heard that first album of Ornette’s, acquiring a firm jazz foundation via absorbing the vocabulary of be-bop.
Congruent with the rubato style, for the last five years I’ve been developing a improvisational concept based on “Cell Theory.” It allows me to be free from the changes at will but still remain super-melodic. I’m working on a book on the subject but don’t want to write about it until I’ve completely figured out the theory and can play it, which I feel I’m just being able to do. Again, like my book “Forward Motion,” the concept is not mine but a distillation and exposition of the current and ubiquitous post-bop Coltrane style of diatonic improvising.
Whether or not this new concept adds anything to the post-bop vocabulary is not a concern of mine. I’m not really TRYING to be original. Just trying to be as honest as I can, playing what I feel, whatever that is. My musical goals and ideals are rather simple: To have fun, swing as hard as I can, play pretty and try to keep from boring myself to death with my own playing by taking risks and riding the wave.