Interview for the magazine Chet’s Choice
CONVERSATION WITH HAL GALPER Vol. 1, No. 3
Hal Galper played piano with the Chet Baker Quartet for two years. He also toured with Cannonball Adderley for two years. In 1980 he joined the award winning Phil Woods Quartet for a 10-year stint as pianist-composer-arranger. He formed his own trio in 1990 with Todd Coolman on bass and Steve Ellington on drums. “After being a professional musician for years, I decided to quit compromising and play what I wanted to play.” A solo album, LIVE AT MAYBECK HALL, and a trio album, INVITATION TO A CONCERT, have been issued within the last year on the Concord label.
Hal, a native of Salem, MA, studied at Berklee School of Music and privately with Herb Pomroy and Margaret Chaloff. Leonard Feather notes that Hal came to general public attention when he replaced George Duke in Cannonball Adderley’s quartet. Working in Adderley’s group was great. “He (Adderley) had an intense rhythm section that gave you plenty of room. You didn’t have to talk about the music.” There was a wonderfully intuitive ambiance in that groups as well as in Phil Woods’ quartet. Hal likes to play with the Breckers because, “We don’t talk about the music, we just play it.”
According to the JAZZ ENCYCLOPEDIA Hal was classically trained: however, jazz is his first love. In addition to Cannonball and Chet, he played with Stan Getz, Randy and Michael Brecker, Lee Konitz, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Johnny Hodges and, of course, Phil Woods. “Chet taught me how to comp,” says Hal who accompanied Joe Williams, Anita O’Day, Cris Conner, and akota Staton. At first he was intent on becoming a good accompanist, then after working with Phil Woods, he knew intuitively that it was time to go out and form his own group.
Hal’s biography has the following quote from Chet: “He’s a very good player…I like the way he plays and I like the way he writes. I asked him to sit in with me at the Jazz Workshop in Boston and hired him … just like that.” Chet and Hal recorded the following albums: THE MOST IMPORTANT JAZZ ALBUM OF 1964/65; BABY BREEZE; CHET BAKER / HAL GALPER (a private recording done in Rome); and the Fat Tuesday’s radio broadcast which has just been released on CD. Maggie Hawthorn in her 1981 DOWNBEAT interview with Chet offers these observations about the session: “A pianist, Phil Markowitz, completed the New York group although the young key-board man was no match for either Harold Danko, who played on the recording, or for HAL GALPER, WHO SAT IN ONE EVENING AND GALVANIZED THE PROCEEDINGS.” (italics mine).
Chet recorded at least three of Hal’s compositions. “This Is The Thing” and “Pamela’s Passion” appeared on the BABY BREEZE Lp and has just been reissued on the DC as well as the Emarcy CD, CHET BAKER COMPACT JAZZ. “Mr. B” is on the Timeless recording MR. B. The liner notes state that Galper’s tune, “Mr. B,” is a Baker original; however, the listing of the tracks correctly credits “(H. Galper) WW Music.”
In JAZZ-THE ESSENTIAL COMPANION by Ian Carr, Digby Fairweather and Brian Priestley, Chet is described as “Not one of nature’s bandleaders, he seldom asserts his authority and has take part in some highly unsatisfying performances and albums.” This statement certainly does not describe Hal’s experience with Chet. In Hal’s book, “Many band leaders were fascists. They had their own way of getting you to do what they wanted.” I wondered what he meant. “When you have a bunch of crazy egomaniacal musicians, you have to get them under control. Chet was one of the better fascist bandleaders. They expected lots of control, and they taught you though fear, intimidation, and terror teaching.”
Some examples of how this was accomplished were maddening. “Chet made his comments on the bandstand: he just couldn’t save them for after the gig.” One night at the Blackhawk in San Francisco Hal was trying to play real soft (when) he hit a chord that was a bit loud. Chet turned to him – now this was in front of a packed house – and said, “You got it.” Chet, who was sitting down as usual, just quit singing in the middle of the chorus of a number. He didn’t leave the bandstand, but his message was unmistakable. On another occasion he told the bass player, “I told you not to do that.”
Delivering criticism in private was not part of his leadership style. Of course this was very embarrassing to the musician who received the barb; but inevitably this message was received, the player modified or the musician left the group. On a gig at the Music Inn in Rome, Chet fired the drummer, then the bass player so the quartet became a trio, then a duo. Hal knew it would be a solo act if Chet fired him. Hal wasn’t fired, but one night while he was playing a solo, Chet said, “Gee, Hal, every time you do that I get lost.” Not exactly the kind of comment to help one’s concentration.
Chet’s singing was so soft that it made the accompanist super aware and very attentive to what the soloist was doing. On the BABY BREEZE album, another pianist (Bob James) played for the vocal numbers. “I learned a lot from Chet about dynamics, restraint, listening and how to play a ballad … but the parting of the ways came when I wanted to play more modern stuff.”
Although Chet and Hal worked together, they didn’t hang out. Hal says, “Betty, we were from different generations.” That accounts for a lot, but Hal sounds like he is an intuitive, articulate intellectual, while Chet never appeared to be terribly interested in the world of ideas. Aside from their talent, and obsession with music, they seemed to have had very little in common. The following vignette, which Hal sees as typical, supports that assessment. One summer, Chet was driving up Broadway in his convertible with Hal. They had ridden in silence for about 10 to 20 minutes when Chet said, “Hal, if I’m saying anything, it doesn’t mean anything except I’m not thinking anything.” Hal’s response was, “Chet, you can’t not think.” End of conversation.
LET’S GET LOST in Hal’s opinion is the best jazz movie ever made. He liked it better than BIRD or STRAIGHT NO CHASER. I raised some questions about whether it was authentic and mentioned Chet’s riding in the back seat since he loved to drive so. Hal didn’t have a problem with that, but did concede that Chet like to drive and, “He parked at 75 miles an hour.” The movie seemed typical of the years in which Hal knew Chet. Chet had been addicted for many years when they worked together. Hal wonders if trying to stop may not be worse and create more problems than making drugs legal for someone with a chronic addiction. It was difficult to understand the things that Chet did in order to support his habit.
“I have the utmost respect for his musicality; he was a master improviser.” I state my admiration for Chet’s continuing to play despite his troubles. Hal’s response was beautiful: “No musician does it by choice.” Yes, the talent drives one, but we agreed that some talented people do get derailed by drugs. Fortunately Chet persisted. Hal recalls, “He was deadly serious about his music. He sat in with Phil’s band, and he knew how to take over the rhythm section.” So our wispy, dreamy, lyrical trumpet player who was very “picky” about the accompaniment when he sang was made of rather stern stuff.
In the interests of historical accuracy, the event described as happening at the Blackhawk in San Francisco actually took place at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago. Chet’s band opened the club.
In reference to Chet’s statement that he asked me to sit in at the Jazz Workshop. A week before Chet came to Boston, my good friend, bassist Charlie LaChappelle, had called me from Providence, RI, where Chet was playing at the Kings and Queens club, to tell me that Chet was looking for a piano player. I spent the week collecting every recording of Chet’s I could find and learned most of his tunes. I was laying in ambush for Chet his opening night at the Workshop. I approached him, asked if he was looking for a piano player and if I could play a couple of tunes with the band. He said “sure“ and when we hit the bandstand he asked what I wanted to play. I said “you call it.” He was impressed because every tune he called I knew. He knew I’d done my homework and hired me.