The Independent Ear

Davey Yarborough interview

Davey Yarborough
Interviewed: Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Duke Ellington School for the Arts

Talk about the Ellington School’s unique relationship to the DC Public Schools.
What it’s actually called is a hybrid program, where we have the obligation to ensure that the kids coming here have the full compliment of high school academic education; on top of that we have a full arts development program as well, so we’re called dual curriculum. We have several disciplines: instrumental music, vocal music, literary media, dance, visual arts… we have the only museum studies major in the nation, and we have theater.

How does a student enter Ellington?
We have an audition process, but again we’re a unique school, we’re even a unique arts school because the majority of arts schools application process is highly affected by the academic prowess of the students. This school is purely motivated to the development of artists, so we have the task also of – if they are not academically sound when they come in, that we will remediate them because we are a college prep school. We have been successful historically, and I’ve been here as a band director since 1986; I came in as an attendance counselor in 1984, but my tenure here has witnessed the consistent graduation rate being in the 90s and up.

What you said initially suggests that if a student is prolific in one of those arts disciplines, but has issues academically, the school is willing to uplift the academic side?
I guess the caveat is where they may not even be proficient in their art field, their interview dictates – in terms of the aptitude and the attitude.

Where and under whom did you study jazz?
[Laughs] You need a book! My first exposure actually came from my family, not as artists but as listeners. My parents had a good record collection [he grew up in DC; parents from North Carolina]. The listening bug hit me hard when we would go away in the summer. I have an aunt who had a record player and records in her room. So when she would leave for school I’d go in her room and listen to her records.

She came back and caught me one day and said she didn’t want me to mess up her records but she saw that I liked them so much. So RCA put out the first stereophonic album, and it was called “Sounds in Space,” and on this record was every genre you could think of, it was a sampler. She gave me that record – which I still have today – and I wore it out and it’s hanging in the inspiration room in my house, along with the other things that inspired me to do what I’m doing. She gave me that record and said ‘you can play my record player anytime you want, and here’s your own record.’ I played that record until it turned white! It had orchestra, Dakota Staton, classical, pop… the various mediums.

At school they used to take us to Constitution Hall on field trips every couple of months to watch the National Symphony rehearse, so I got to hear Benjamin Britten’s listening guide to orchestra and found that very fascinating because I got a chance to really hear them talk about the various instruments. That got my ear. So by the third grade I knew that I wanted to be an artist.

My family wasn’t necessarily gung ho about my pursuing a career as a musician, as with most parents, and I don’t fault them for that because they wanted what they thought was the best for me. But if you stick to your guns you can prove whatever it is you are dreaming to be.

Where did you go to college?
Federal City College, UDC, and Howard.

Did you study with DC legend Calvin Jones at Federal City College?
Yeah, that’s my man. But before him, Bobby Felder brought what was called the Entertainment Package, the first big band I had ever seen perform. I was seriously fascinated and at the end of the performance he said “if are there any seniors who are interested in going to college, come up and talk.”

I had a pretty good ear, I wore out a lot of records, and I started out on clarinet. But when I got to high school my clarinet sorta disappeared – long story. My father said “well, I bought one instrument, but you’re gonna buy the next one.” So I worked at Arby’s for $1.10 an hour all summer and at the end of the summer I had $400, but the saxophone that I wanted [points to it in his band room] cost $425! So my dad loaned me $25. And I still have that saxophone, an alto; it’s like the baby. Later I was sort of forced to buy a tenor sax. I got into a R&B band called The Delusion, and recorded with a group called The Loveations, a record called “I Can’t Forget About You,” we had a vocal and an instrumental version. So I was big time, I was in high school and I was recording, but I couldn’t read a lick [laughs].”

When I got a scholarship from Federal City College without having to sight read, it was cool. They said “play something for me,” then they said “yeah, we’ll get you in.” So I got in and ran into Dr. Arthur C. Dawkins for my saxophone lessons. He put some pieces of music in front of me and that was the end of it for me [laughs]! But he said, “you’re in, and you’re in on scholarship” because my grades were good. “But you got grades, but you’ve got one semester to prove to me that you’re gonna be able to step up.”

A senior named James Palmore took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t taking lessons from Dawkins I was playing duets with [Palmore], who was very instrumental in helping me learn to read. He was doing John Coltrane transcriptions and all kinda stuff. At the end of that first semester he told me that, “the good news is you can maintain your scholarship and you can keep going, but we don’t have a saxophone major, so you’re now a flute major… go get one!

So I went to the pawn shop and found an Armstrong closed hole flute for $90 and that was my flute for three years. When I got ready to graduate, Dawkins said “you’ve gotta get yourself a real instrument, because if you’re going to play with anyone they’re going to expect you to play on a quality instrument.” He had a William Haynes flute and he was getting ready to unload because he had ordered another flute. I paid way under the value but I paid $3500 for that flute, in payments. He still wants that flute back [laughs], but I still have it, so I went from there.

I got my associates degree from Federal City and then it became UDC and I was convinced by Bobby Felder, because I got my associates degree and I figured I had satisfied my parents, went to college, and I wanted to get out on the road and play, I thought I was done with school. Bobby pulled me into his office and said “you tell me what you can do with an associates degree that you couldn’t already do with a high school diploma. You’re halfway through a Bachelor’s degree and with that all kinds of other doors will open for you. You’re on scholarship, on the dean’s list…” So of course I couldn’t answer the question so I thought ‘two more years.’

Right after that he said “what are you going to major in?” I said Performance, of course. He said “we don’t have a performance major, but we do have an education degree.” When I was in high school, Jessie Adams my band director pulled me aside one day when I was cuttin’ up and said “one of these days you’re going to be sitting here dealing with students just like you” [laughs]. And at that point I said “oh no, I will not teach.” I went from that point on all the way up to that conversation with Bobby I said I don’t want to teach. He said “hold up, just because you got an education degree doesn’t mean that you have to teach, it’s a bachelor’s degree, you can get a bachelor’s in basket weaving if you want.”

The bottom line is that was the standard up to that point. So he said “just get the degree, you love music, you’re playing, just go on and get the degree and you can do anything that you want to do.” Boy, he conned me good! So I took a practicum at Jefferson Junior High under Winston Hall, a piano player and a good band director. I did the practicum – just going in and observing a band director – he gave me a couple of flutes and gave me three or four little flute players and he said “you work with them, and that’s your teaching, and of course you watch how I deal with the band and how I deal with the rest of the kids,” and he would grade me on that.

So I’m working with these kids, and you’ve gotta work with them individually, and I turned my back on one and I heard this loud BAM, and I turned back around and a flute was sorta bent over the chair. I said “what happened?” The student said “I don’t know.” I said “come on man…” He said “I couldn’t do what you were telling me and I just got mad.” About a month later this guy comes in grinning from ear to ear. He had had a breakthrough and seeing that face, hearing that kid go from prune faced to the happiest kid in the world… that got me good! That’s where I decided that it was ok to teach.

What was your first teaching position?
That’s where Calvin Jones comes in. I was in a summer youth employment program under Mayor Barry and my first job was emptying trashcans at the government print office and I still have nightmares about that. Lillian Hough and Yvette Holt had a program over at Backus, an arts program – dance, and Calvin Jones was the band director for that program. When I got there for this summer job they put me with Calvin Jones. He took me on the first day to a couple of the elementary schools to pick up instruments. While we were picking up the instruments he had AM radio on in his car and I’m listening to big band jazz. He started telling me about the artists. He was a trombone, piano, and bass player and all of this was having a serious impact on me. At the time he was teaching at Cardozo High School.

He left Cardozo and came to UDC and that’s when he became the jazz band director. When I was there he had a septet, a sextet, and the big band and I played in all three. I have a history with pawn shops, I used to build stereo systems from components at the pawn shop and sell them to my friends. One day I was in the pawn shop and there was a soprano sax there and it was gorgeous to me, so a stereo I had just built paid $110 for that saxophone.

So I brought it to school and Calvin got excited! He started writing soprano sax parts for the big band; by that time I was playing lead alto. He liked the combination of soprano and trumpet so he started writing for the sextet. Judith Korey is the one that taught me music theory. She gave me a key to her office so that when she left I could go in and use the piano and practice. So I would stay there until it was time to go to the nightclub where I was working. So I would get there at 8:00am, go to class and study theory, then I would go to her office and practice until time to go to the nightclub; back then I played with a lot of different people. There was a place called Moore’s Love and Peace, which was probably my first real steady job. I had met [wife] Esther [Williams] by then. Dawkins sent me on one of his gigs as a sub, we played the gig together, we exchanged numbers afterwards. She said, “yeah, if we need another saxophone player we’ll call.” By then she was touring with her first record.

A couple of weeks later she calls me and she’s playing with Charlie Hampton, doing a gig at the church, and she said, “we need a saxophone player,” so I went there. Then about three or four months later she called and said “Charlie is getting ready to get rid of his saxophone player and I suggested you, he remembered you,” and so I got that gig. We ended up playing at that club for about eleven years!

What was your first teaching position?
Ernest Dyson taught jazz history and business of music courses at Federal City College and he worked at the Washington Community School of Music over in Northeast DC in a church and he offered me a job teaching flute there. So I walked into Dawkins office all proud and said “hey Doc, I got a job teaching music!” He said “you can’t have that job, because what’s gonna happen is you’re going to start earning that steady money and the next thing you know you’ll drop out, you’ll never get your degree, and it’s too early for you to leave [college], you’ve got enough to do just getting through college.” He went to Ernest and said “don’t give him this job.”

When I graduated with my associates degree Ernest called me back and said “do you still want that job?” So that was my first teaching job and I really enjoyed doing that, I was just a private flute teacher. In ’78 when I graduated UDC I was engaged to Esther and after my senior recital I announced that I was engaged. Bobby and Doc they all knew Esther, but they looked at me like “you’re gonna get married now? Before, you were talking about how you wanted to go out on the road, and now you’re going to come straight out of college and get married, don’t you understand what that’s about?” I said, “yeah, I do – and I did.” Once I let the cat out of the bag I don’t think there was a professor in the building that didn’t call me in and say “why are you going to get married as soon as you graduate?” But I did, and my first job after I graduated was at Wilson High School as a Drivers’ Education instructor. I got hired here at Ellington in May of ’78 for September, because I did my student teaching here under Wallace Clark and Mickey Bass.

Wallace and Antoine Roney were here then, but you couldn’t study jazz during the school day, you had to do it after school. Mickey would come down two days a week after school and teach the kids who were interested in jazz. Not that it was forbidden, just not yet established. So I was offered the band director’s job, but that year the government cut teacher’s salaries, so I got fired before I got a chance to work. So I went over to Wilson HS and taught Driver’s Ed because there was a trombone player there who was teaching Driver’s Ed and one of the Driver’s Ed teachers had fallen and was on disability, so it was a temporary job.

The band director at Wilson was elderly and about ready to retire, so they said come on over here for about a year or so and he’ll probably retire so you can slip into his job. He didn’t leave [laughs]. And also the Driver’s Ed program had some financial problems and I ended up getting Rifed from that, so I sold pianos at Jordan Kitts in Columbia, MD for a year. I came back and got a job at Carter G. Woodson Junior High. Robert Sands had retired. On my first day the principle told me about him, said he had a 300-piece marching band, etc.; I wasn’t about marching bands… but it was a job.

So I went by Robert’s house and he said “look, I’m a saxophone player, don’t let this teaching thing stop you from playing.” And I said “right,” not really understanding what he was saying, but then I realized that because you are putting your energy into these young people and there’s only a certain amount of time in a day, I could see how that could happen, but I never gave up playing. Dawkins had got me into playing in theater productions, so I was doing some of the theater jobs, and then I was still doing the nightclub thing. I did Woodson for a year and decided at that point that I didn’t need this. When they handed me my evaluation – outstanding evaluation – I handed them my letter of resignation.

A saxophone position came up at UDC, so I went over there part time. Then I started thinking if you do music round the clock guys burn out. So I took a job as an attendance counselor at the School Without Walls, and I did that for almost two years. I had taught Floretta McKenzie’s daughter driver’s education at Wilson and she started following me; she knew I played and she would show up places where I was playing. One day she walked into the building here at Ellington, walked up to the principle, Maurice Eldridge – who had seen me playing with Joe Williams and Bobby Blue Bland at Fort Dupont, [pianist] John Malachi was in that band. So Maurice is onstage giving Joe Williams an award, he looks down in the pit and says “what are you doing here?”

So just about a month later, Floretta McKenzie said she wanted me to run the music program at McKinley HS. Maurice said “he’s here [at Ellington] and if he’s going to go back into music education, I want him here because I need another saxophone teacher.’ I had been here for awhile and I knew some of the faculty members and students, so I picked Ellington.

What month and year did you start at Ellington?
March of 1984 as the attendance counselor, and then in September of ’86 I became the band director.

When you started teaching at Ellington, what did you teach?
Saxophone, and they allowed me to start the big band. They put me in a small room – one third the size of this current band room – and it had steps and some chairs in there, and a couple of music stands. But where’s the equipment? And I was also told by a faculty member that if you teach some classes make sure you schedule them before 3:00 because these students aren’t going to stay until 5:00, even though they’re supposed to. Another teacher said “well, the equipment was here, but it sorta walked out.” So there was no band equipment there. So come my first class, I had my drummers play air drums… I said you set up and act like this is your snare drum, your floor tom… and I got some music and I had a little keyboard that was there, and the horn players had their horns, so we just did what we did to get started. Lo and behold one day the door opens and a CNN camera crew walked in the room and they’re filming this and asking “where’s the drumset?” I said, “we don’t have any,” and just as I was explaining this to them, Maurice Elders the principle walked in and they turned the cameras around to him, and a little while later I had a couple of drumsets. I don’t even know if he knew whether the equipment was there or not, but after that I got some equipment.

Then Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis donated, they were the first contributors, and I went around Georgetown asking for whatever types of donations I could get for the equipment that I really needed, and that was the first wave of equipment. Wynton gave me $5,000 and Joe gave the same amount and that got us off the ground. From then I learned how to write grants, because I was writing letters to airlines… anybody that I thought would donate. I got enough to do what I needed from that point on.

What sense of Duke Ellington’s music have you given your students here?
First it was imparted to me. I was working with [bassist] Keter Betts, because of Dawkins, I worked with Bill Harris’ band, Rick Henderson’s band, all these things resulted from Dawkins and Bobby Felder connecting me. I ended up with Bill Harris at Wolftrap and that’s where he introduced me to Sarah Vaughan, Keter Betts… Bill took me to the concert and there were other musicians that he introduced me to. Keter asked me to come play with his band and I played with that band for about five years. I met Roland Hanna playing with Keter. When I got the Ellington job, Keter called and wanted me to come by his house. So I went over, sat in the kitchen, and he started asking me about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and I was already shocked that I got the job because a whole lot of veteran band directors wanted that job, and he could see that there was a little bit of tension behind that.

So Keter said “what do you know about Duke?” I told him the little I knew – and it was a little – and he said “well that’s not enough because your job now is to enlighten those kids at that school, especially the ones that are playing.” So he went down to his basement and he pulled out a book called “Ellingtonia” and he started showing me all of the songs, the writing, the photography… everything – to the point of overload. I said to myself ‘how am I going to deal with this?’ That’s when Keter volunteered to come to Ellington before school. We had a program called Paying Your Dues that I ended up getting a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts to do. I brought in Steve Novosel… whatever artists that I could find I would give them a little stipend to come at 7am and teach the kids who wanted to learn jazz. John Malachi would come in; as a matter of fact the week he passed he came and did a rehearsal and a workshop.

The program Paying Your Dues allowed me to take the kids to the East Coast Jazz Festival (Ronnie Wells’ predecessor to Paul & Karmen Carr’s current Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival), and we’d do fundraising that enabled us to get to France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some of the other tours we did; grantwriting and fundraising enabled us to take the band out.

What’s been your ensemble focus here at Ellington?
Everything that I can! Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell came here, which demonstrated to the students the duo form, that you don’t have to play big band music all the time… jazz is jazz, I don’t care what instrument it’s played on. One of the things I had to do with the student body here is say, come out of that tunnel people have you in; if you hear [jazz] and you like it, you can do anything.

Currently I have my 7:15-8:15am class for kids who come in who don’t get into the jazz orchestra, or don’t get into my in-curricular combo. And I’m still teaching saxophone as well. Right now I’ve got about 8 of those students, and then 6th period Monday-Tuesday-Thursday I have a 5-piece combo and we work on anything from Go Bop – to ease them into bebop I would take bebop tunes and I brought John Buchannan here once and he was one of the founders of go-go an we went to Federal City College together. So I wanted them to get the true Washington art form of go-go, which they had been listening to, but I wanted them to see the evolution of that and make sure they had the genuine stuff.

We would take tunes like “Yardbird Suite” or “All Blues,” which we took
out of three and put it in four, and put it into the go-go beat. They even have what they call “Take the Metro”, which uses “Take the A Train.” They have a medley where they come out of “Nica’s Dream” and go into a go-go groove and do “Take the A Train.” So we have that, but we also visit the Herbie Hancocks, who whenever the genres change he adapts, just like Miles did. The idea is we want to produce artists. So I teach just as much of the European classical repertoire for my saxophonists. As the saxophone teacher I want them to understand that Charlie Parker liked Brahms. There are a whole bunch of artists that take from the other genres to put into jazz. The beauty of jazz is that you are allowed to do that, so that’s what I do with the kids. I try to make sure they’re exposed to everything. I took them to a concert once where Snarky Puppy partnered with the National Symphony to let them see that whatever is out there, you can do.

What awards has your ensemble won?
[Laughs and points out several shelves chock full of trophies.] We were the first high school jazz orchestra at Montreux [‘90], the year they reenacted the Miles Davis/Gil Evans works with Miles, and Wallace spelled Miles –when Miles would stop playing, Wallace would get up and start playing. We’ve been to North Sea Jazz Festival, been down to the Bahamas for their festival three times… so I’ve taken them wherever I could take them.

How have those experiences enriched your students’ experience with music?
It’s always good for them to see and interact with the top talent. I took the kids to Marciac Jazz Festival and their high school level in France is called college, but we took the kids over to one of the colleges and despite language barriers they all got together like they had been buddies for all their lives, and watched them interact and exchange, and see what their peers are doing in another area… I always felt that was their greatest inspiration; that combination of dealing with their peers and then also going to see Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Toots Thielemanns… Taking young people and having them interact with their peers, as well as the giants, I think is the best inspiration you’re gonna get. When they came back from those trips they’d be ready to play, ready to compete, and they excelled. They’d learned what practice was all about, their ears were tuned to what… my favorite statement generally comes in the 11th grade when a kid comes to me and says “Mr. Yarborough, it seems like the more I practice, the worse I sound.” And I say “yeah, your ear just caught up to your abilities [laughs].”

Who have been some of the more prominent students to graduate from your Ellington program?
Wallace Roney and Antoine Roney were already here before me, but I taught Antoine, I was in Wallace’s band, he was already playing professionally. Mickey Bass really straightened them out; even when they went to Berklee they called him and said “they’re not showing us anything here.” Eric Allen and Clarence Seay were here at the same time. Since I’ve been here are Chuck Royal, Marc Cary – he was already doing it when I got here, he was just waiting to be discovered – and then the barrage of artistry – the bassists Ben Williams, Eric Wheeler, Corcoran Holt, Ameen Saleem, Daniel Moore (the music director for Showtime at the Apollo), Clifton Williams (who won a competition while he was at Berklee to write the theme for Showtime at the Apollo), Brian Settles, Jessica Settles, Amy Bormet (Washington Women in Jazz), Elijah Easton

There is certainly a great DC bass tradition. How did you get so many talented bass students?
Some of those kids had been exposed – Ameen had never played jazz and I put him in D minor to work out a walk and that was how he started. In the 11th grade his father came in here with him and said “my son says he’s memorized this book” – it was the Real Book – and I said “yeah, he has.” I took the book, opened it up, closed it and had him play whatever was on a particular page. It definitely wasn’t just me because I’d have Keter come here, or whatever artistry I had been in contact with in DC.

Right now my focus is to develop a directory of artistry I’ve [interacted with here], including Butch Warren, Quinton Warren… anybody I knew that was playing I invited here to play for the kids, or took the kids to go see them. I didn’t have a budget until I started getting grants… A lot of these guys just came here because I asked them to come – Stanley Cowell… I realize now how long I’ve been here.

This award comes at a precipitous time for you as you prepare to retire. What are going to be your primary pursuits post-retirement?
My retirement is going to be from DCPS (after 40 years). When this school officially became the hybrid that it is, the principle back then told me he knew I’d retire someday, and that if I did they would just hire me back through the non-profit side. I do have so much of this place wrapped up in me; this was a dream… So I will probably come back here part-time, but I’m actually using the retirement to continue building my next project – which is the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, which will celebrate 20 years this year. We have operated for 20 years without a full-time employee and its been fairly successful; we average anywhere from 35-50 kids during the summer when we have a 4-week program, six hours a day, four days a week at People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, the church my wife and I attend gave us space to operate. We’re looking for a permanent space and we have some ideas. But that’s where I’m needed. We’re also about teaching life skills, rounding out individuals with a focus on music development utilizing the jazz genre. We haven’t been able to expand to the rank beginner because I don’t have the staff, but we work with kids anywhere from eleven to age 24.

The mission is to provide a support system for any Washingtonian or DMV resident the opportunity to be supported from the time that they know they want to be an artist, through retirement. The concept is that once you are given these lessons then you are obliged to give back, in terms of the artistic and life skills development you’ve gotten. That’s why say through retirement because eventually I would like to have my middle school kids actually coaching the elementary school level, high school mentoring middle school, 11th and 12th graders mentoring 9th and 10th graders, college kids mentoring 11th and 12th graders, professionals mentoring college students.

Sonny Stitt, Frank Wess, Art Dawkins, Calvin Jones… those were my mentors and that’s where the whole concept came from. Eventually that program that I was in with Calvin Jones really is what gave us that concept; I just want to make it formal, and I also want to have it in all four quadrants of the city, I don’t want to have just one location. I want a repertory band, a senior citizens group… I’ve run into lot of seniors who say “yeah, I played before I had a family to take care of, and I’d like to get back.” The knowledge they an impart… that’s straight from the horse’s mouth to the next generation!

Vocalist Esther Williams and saxophonist Davey Yarborough perform Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 at Westminster’s Friday Night Jazz in Southwest in Washington. (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)
Doubtless Davy Yarborough’s retirement plans include increased opportunities to perform alongside his vocalist-wife Esther Williams

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Night of the Cookers

With the melancholy recent passing on to ancestry of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and amidst all the many recollections of Roy’s tireless will to jam, I was reminded of one of the last times I saw Roy, engaged in a friendly trumpet “battle” with Sean Jones at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival. Both were guests of the great Kenny Barron as part of his Dizzy Gillespie Centennial tribute on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. That trumpet confab brought to mind one of the most celebrated trumpet battle royales in the history of recorded jazz – the performance that begat the now-classic Blue Note recording aptly titled The Night of the Cookers, a fabled evening that found Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan squaring off on the bandstand.

Several years ago, as part of a series of Brooklyn-centric jazz oral history interviews I conducted for the Weeksville Heritage Center, a project directed by my good friend and cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, we sought some insights into one of the most famous jazz recordings ever made in Brooklyn. (Historically, Weeksville was the first African American settlement in Brooklyn.) There are likely some who sleep the fact that The Night of the Cookers happened in Brooklyn, at a long defunct club called La Marchal, proving once again that one never knows where jazz history will take place! For insights on that momentous evening, we interviewed two of the sole surviving musicians who played that date, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Larry Ridley. In the customary manner of oral history interviews, we started with some background.

Where did each of you receive your music training?

Harold Mabern: I got my training from what I call from the university of the streets of Chicago. I hung out, made all the jam sessions; Frank Strozier, Booker Little and I spent a lot of time together and we stayed there until ’59. We formed a group with Walter Perkins called the MJT+3, with Bob Cranshaw, yours truly, Willie Thomas, Frank Strozier. They had two other [MJT+3] groups, with George Coleman, Booker Little, Paul Serrano, and Muhal Richard Abrams; but the group we had was the most successful one. So we stayed there until ’59, then we left and all headed to New York City.

Larry Ridley: I started playing the violin when I was five years old back in Indianapolis. I came up in a family that was very much involved with jazz. My uncle, Ben Holloman, was a good friend of Eubie Blake, so I got turned onto jazz at a very early age. I started playing and Freddie Hubbard, Virgil Jones, Mel Rhyne and a whole bunch of us started playing together as teenagers and my first group was called the Jazz Contemporaries, and Freddie played trumpet, Jimmy Spaulding played alto, tenor and flute, and Paul Parker was the drummer, along with first Walt Miller then Al Plank on piano.

I came to New York in 1959 after going to the Lenox School of Jazz, studying with Percy Heath, Max Roach and all the guys that were there. Then I moved to New York to play with Slide Hampton’s octet in 1960.

Max Roach schooling students at the Lenox School of Jazz

Leading up to this [1965] date “The Night of the Cookers”, what had you each been doing?

HM: Before then – I don’t remember what time we joined Freddie Hubbard’s band, because we were working with Freddie’s band at the time of that The Night of the Cookers. When I came to New York the first place I went to was Birdland, and Cannonball Adderley was out front. He knew me from Chicago and he said ‘you want a gig’? I said yeah, so he brought me downstairs; Pee Wee Marquette [Birdland’s legendary doorman] tried to bar me, but Cannonball said I was with him. Harry “Sweets” Edison was working there that night, and every night at Birdland was like New Year’s Eve, as Larry will tell you. Tommy Flanagan was getting ready to leave with J.J. Johnson, so Sweets said ‘you wanna play?’ I said yeah, and I sat in and played and Sweets called a song, he said “Habit”, 8 bar introduction in A flat. I didn’t know what the heck “Habit” was, so I fumbled through the first course and by the second course I had it and he said ‘you got the gig’; I was being auditioned on the spot, I got the gig right there and went right back to Chicago.

That was my first gig, I stayed with Sweets then I came back in 1960 and sat in with Lionel Hampton, stayed with him for about a year. Cedar Walton invited me down to Birdland to sit in because he was leaving the Jazztet to go with Art Blakey’s group, so I sat in with Art Farmer-Benny Golson [the Jazztet leaders] and they didn’t make any promises, but they said if we hear anything we’ll call you. They called me the next morning and I got the gig with the Jazztet, stayed there for awhile then I joined J.J. Johnson in 1963, right before I played with Miles Davis. I went on a tour with Miles on the west coast in 1963, with George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and myself. Before then I had been doing things with Betty Carter. I don’t know if Larry Ridley remembers this, but we went out with Roy Haynes‘ Quartet. After that I just kept doing different things.

LR: I came to New York with a gig; I joined Slide Hampton’s Octet in Pittsburgh and then we came into New York. I ended up working with Slide at different places, like the Half Note and many other different clubs in New York. It was doing that time playing at Birdland that Philly Joe Jones took me under his wing and I started doing a lot of things with him, then I ended up working a lot with Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer, and a whole bunch of folks. As Harold was saying, we were working with Freddie’s band and we always enjoyed playing with each other, [with] Pete LaRoca [on drums]. I think [drummer] Clifford Jarvis played with us for a minute and then Pete came in. Also I was working some gigs with Lee [Morgan]; George Coleman was the tenor player, Louis Hayes was the drummer, Cedar Walton [piano], so we were doing some gigs.

We all were playing a lot and interchanging with a lot of people; I guess we were the young Turks arriving on the scene so we would get a lot of different gigs. It was like a little fraternal situation with all of us because we knew each other, we loved playing with each other; it was great, it was really a fantastic period.

Before this session that led to The Night of the Cookers, had either of you been playing anywhere in Brooklyn?

HM: Larry probably had played [Brooklyn] more than I had. I think I played at the Turbo Village one time and I played [in Brooklyn] mostly at the Blue Coronet at the time a few times, sat in with Dexter Gordon, Blue Mitchell, and Jackie McLean.

LR: When I first came to New York in 1959 I went by the Turbo Village and sat in, that’s where I met Tommy Williams and Andrew Cyrille. Then when I moved permanently to New York I ended up working a lot… Harold and I did a lot of things together; I was working with Barry Harris… that was really a hot spot in Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet. I ended up working with Jackie McLean, when he had Tony Williams playing drums.

We were working with a lot of different people. In Brooklyn there was a lot of stuff going on; there was the Club Baby Grand where some of the guys worked. Rector Bailey used to get a lot of gigs [in Brooklyn].

Were there any differences in the audiences in Brooklyn from when you worked in Manhattan, in terms of the response or just the overall feeling?

HM: I’m sure Larry and I come to the same conclusion, but my first thought is yes and no. The people in Brooklyn were hip, if you played for the people – which didn’t mean you had to downplay your talent. The places [in Brooklyn] were packed and there were clubs everywhere. For me, once I left Brooklyn no matter where you went, you’d always end up at the jazz corner of the world; when you get through doing whatever you were doing, Birdland was the icing on the cake.

LR: The whole scene really was an extension between all the boroughs. Working uptown [Harlem] was always hip, working at Count Basie’s, the Club Baron, the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, up in the Bronx there was the Club 845; so we were all working at all of these different clubs. So my impression was, yeah there were hip people in Brooklyn – naturally people from each of the boroughs had their own parochial chauvinism going on, but it was basically all the same; particularly being someone who was – for lack of a better expression – an expatriate coming from Indianapolis, Indiana to New York it was all one big thing to me in terms of the places we could work. There were all kinds of jam sessions going on that we could play at, there was a lot of good stuff happening during that particular time.

Would either of you say there was more of an African American audience in Brooklyn?

LR: Harlem was the same, and even in the Bronx. That’s what I mean by the African American [audience] thing, it was pretty extensive during that time. I worked with Randy Weston during that time, with Booker Ervin and Scoby Strohman,

This place where “The Night of the Cookers” was recorded, Club La Marchal, was that a place that was presenting a lot of jazz, or was this just a one-shot deal?

HM: Larry can speak more about that as far as the club itself, because up until that night I had never even heard of it before.

LR: It was a club that wasn’t really noted for presenting a lot of jazz. But how that came about was several of the musicians that were living in Brooklyn, like Bobby Timmons’ wife Stella, and Freddie Hubbard’s wife at the time Brenda, and Cedar Walton’s wife, they had a [social] club — and Charles Davis’ wife, I think she was involved as well – they had formed a club called the Club Jest Us. They were musicians’ wives who wanted to do something to promote their husband’s careers and so they rented the Club La Marchal in order to present this evening, which ended up being called “The Night of the Cookers” and that recording. Freddie had the foresight to record that; Orville Bryant did the recording and then what came out on the recording was Rudy Van Gelder remastered it from the original tapes [Orville] had put together. I thought at first that the early mastering of it by Rudy, to me it lost some of the fidelity that Orville had gotten, but Rudy remastered it later.

From what you’re saying this is not the kind of thing that happened at Club La Marchal regularly.

HM: Not from what I know, because if it had been I would have known about it. So as Larry said this was kind of a one time thing that they decided to put together, with the musicians’ wives.

Who owned this place?

HM: I have no idea.

LR: Neither do I. Again, I think this was a venue they [the social club Jest Us] scouted out and found that it was a place they wanted to produce this concert.

Can either of you recall Club La Marchal physically?

HM: The only thing I remember about it was that it was very small, it wasn’t that big.

LR: I don’t remember any real specifics about it; all I remember is that we had a good time.

How many people do you think were there that night?

HM: It was filled to capacity, if you had 100 people it was a packed house. It was a real small place right on the corner.

Talk about the audience participation that night.

HM: The audience was great, and I would say you probably had 98% African American people in the place that night. Audience participation was great; during that time all audiences were great, but there were a lot more black people involved because what we played they could relate to. When that free stuff came in we drove the people away; like Lou Donaldson said, you gotta play the blues for the people. Anything you play can be bluesy if you’re doing it within the right context.

The audience at Club La Marchal that night for “The Night of the Cookers” was that kind of a typical Brooklyn audience or was it different from what you had experienced at other Brooklyn establishments?

LR: There were a lot of Brooklyn fans that would hang around all of us, and they supported us, which was beautiful at the time. They were very receptive and they were into all of us as musicians, they had the records, there were even some of these guys that had listening clubs. There was a group that Jim Harrison was involved with – some transit workers, Nat White and all those guys – and they would follow whatever was going on in town and they used to have listening sessions at each of their houses where they would just listen to records and get into the music. They were just one among many that were always supportive, always on the scene supporting us, which was beautiful.

That performance “The Night of the Cookers” was so exceptional that it made a memorable record. What role did the audience play in inspiring those performances that are on that record?

HM: For me, it may sound like a contradiction, we were glad that the audience was there but it wouldn’t have mattered if nobody had been there because I motivate myself. The fact that they [the audience] was there was good but I didn’t really need the audience to motivate me. A lot of the musicians need that, a lot of musicians if it’s not a packed house they can’t play. I’m self-motivated, if there’s nobody there but me I’m gonna play as though I have a thousand people [in attendance].

LR: I totally agree with that Harold because we were all self-motivated, that’s why were involved in the music. We came to New York and we were around the giants, it was such a fertile period. We were having a ball just playing with each other, so whatever transferred to the audience… they were there but that wasn’t the primary motivating factor of what was going on, we enjoyed playing with each other. With having Freddie [Hubbard] and Lee [Morgan] together, as well as Jimmy Spaulding, and Big Black was there laying it down… we were just having a ball!

Not every live recording is as memorable as that one. What was it that made The Night of the Cookers work so well, as both a live experience and a subsequent recording?

HM: Two things: you had two of the most talented, most charismatic musicians that ever lived [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan]; they had charisma but they were musical geniuses on their horns. Freddie said in DownBeat that he used to follow Lee around just to get his overflow with the ladies. Like Art Blakey used to say, when you walk on the bandstand they see you before they hear you. The minute that Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan walked on the bandstand, we had the audience [full attention] then. The audience loved the way we looked; we had a dress code, we always looked good with shirt & tie…

LR: Our main focus was just making the music happen and swinging. [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan] were two of the young Turks who were setting the pace. In looking back in hindsight I reflect back because Booker Little was right there, but he passed. It would have been nice for The Night of the Cookers if Booker had been there as well, because we would have really taken off! Each of those guys had their own style and approach, but they all could swing and play their butt off.

HM: And they all respected each other.

Since Lee Morgan and Big Black were in a sense guests on this date because you guys were part of Freddie Hubbard’s regular group, how did Lee Morgan and Big Black come to make this date?

HM: Freddie invited Lee to play. If memory serves me right Lee had just finished recording The Rumproller [Blue Note], that’s how that came about. Freddie always loved drums so it’s no surprise that he would have Big Black on the date. Then again when he invited Lee to come on and play none of us had any idea this would be a historical date.

Big Black brought another dimension to that date.

LR: Big Black was a very strong character. I met Big Black through Randy Weston. He was on the scene and he was going around making his thing, then he wound up moving to California.

I ask that because back then having a hand percussionist on an otherwise straight ahead date was kind of unusual.

LR: He was on the scene and we all knew him, we had played with him on other circumstances. He was just a welcome addition to the thing, I don’t really remember what motivated Freddie to include him, but it worked. He just added that special touch. At that same time the Palladium was going – Machito and Tito Puente – it was that whole amalgam of what was happening with that whole thing, as Randy Weston always refers to that Mother Africa influenced all of that. So there was a lot of interplay with many of the Latin cats – Armando Peraza, Patato [Valdes], Tito Puente – it was all still a part of the whole mix of what was going on musically, the whole environment that was happening.

Harold, you played with Freddie Hubbard at the point “The Night of the Cookers” date was made. Was it that particular date that led to your later playing with Lee Morgan?

HM: Probably so, because I think during that time a lot of musicians were in and out of day jobs. I think after that I got a job at Alexander’s department store, and shortly after that I got a call from Lee Morgan, so I’m sure [The Night of the Cookers] had something to do with it. Plus Larry and I were on a date with Hank Mobley called Dippin’ and Lee always loved piano players, no matter who they were… I’m sure being on Freddie’s gig enhanced it for me to get a chance to play with Lee because I joined Lee shortly after that. I tell the kids ‘don’t leave the job, let the job leave you’, I’ve never left a job, and I always stay with the job and ride it all the way.

Who determined the set list for “The Night of the Cookers”?

HM: Freddie called the tunes because it was his band. Those tunes we had been playing a little bit before, “Pensativa” and “Jodo” and all those; Lee jumped in with both feet and did a wonderful job.

LR: Freddie controlled the compositions that we performed, the order and all that.

Did this combination of musicians ever work together again?

LR: I don’t think we ever did anything together again, particularly with having both Lee and Freddie; that was a one-time event. That was just a special occasion; Freddie came up with that whole idea of having Lee and I have to give the boy credit, he pulled it off.

Its not often that you find two trumpet players working together like that. Was there any clash of egos or any rivalry between Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan at the time?

HM: It was called friendly rivalry; then it was competition without animosity. Nowadays it’s competition with animosity, and those cats with their thousand dollar suits couldn’t play “Here Comes the Bride.” All the musicians felt the same way about each other. It was rivalry, but it was friendly rivalry. They learned from each other, they loved each other.

LR: I agree with Harold. There were so many guys that could play their butt off, and they respected each other. One of the things that each of these guys had – it’s not like today with the clones playing each other’s licks and whatnot – each one of them had their own stylistic parameters they would work from, we all do. We never looked at each other as rivals. We just respected each other and everybody was going for their own individual signature, and that’s what made each of those guys so great. Freddie sounded like Freddie, Lee sounded like Lee, on and on…

Back to The Night of the Cookers, I’d like each of you to reflect on that and tell me what are each of your most lasting memories.

HM: I feel very fortunate and blessed to have been part of something, since it wasn’t really planned. Having a chance to work with two of the finest musicians on the planet… and they both were very supportive of me, they always did everything they could to encourage me; and that’s what you don’t find nowadays with the younger generation, not all of them.

LR: I agree, I feel very blessed about it. You can’t really predict a lot of things that happened; the thing I remember most generationally about coming up at that time was that we were very fortunate that we had so many masters who would take us under their wing.

Do either of you have any particular thoughts in closing on why The Night of the Cookers has remained so resonant?

HM: Not to be redundant, but it was about the quality of the music and the wholesomeness of the people who were involved.

LR: Sometimes some of the people that write about the music have not been able to ascertain some of the esoteric aspects of it. I feel that you have a charge that’s ordained to make sure that our perspective is included… As Randy always says, it begins with Mother Africa through the African American experience and the African diaspora… and that’s the legacy and heritage of this music; not taking anything away from any other ethnic group, but it’s just a matter of people understanding the roots that led to the fruits.

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Randy and Fela

The following recollections of several memorable connections Randy Weston made with the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti are excerpted from Chapter 8 of African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins; 2010, Duke University Press).

Fela Ransome Kuti

Fela is the bravest, most courageous musician I’ve ever met in my life. He lived in a country which was controlled at that time by the military government, and military rule is always hard core. As I mentioned, I’d actually met Fela on that first 1961 trip and was happy to see him this time; but by this time he was becoming an increasingly larger figure in Nigerian life. Remember, 1961 was right after many of these African nations had just gained their independence from colonial rule, and we had met President Azikiwe that first trip. He was a hero of the Nigerian liberation from the British. He was a beautiful man, very cultured, very educated. When we had that dinner at his house on that ’61 trip they served a ton of food. At one point Azikwe said to me “Mr. Weston, I don’t think you’ve had this kind of food before.” I said “I’m sorry sir, but I grew up with this kind of food.” And I told him about my father being from Jamaica, Panama, and about the okra, yam, peas & rice and all that stuff I had grown up on which is straight out of Africa. After Azikiwe came the military government and they had all those coups and killings and Nigeria just went crazy.

Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe

Fela was also an educated man, who was forever in opposition to these military governments, so he became a thorn in their sides because the people really loved his music; and as a result he became a global superstar. I don’t know how Fela got such power, but I do know his mother was a very famous politician, a real revolutionary. By the time I returned to Nigeria in 1977 Fela had developed his own village right in the city of Lagos. Also by this time Fela was making recordings and he had formed his own organization called Afro Beat. That band Afro Beat was the most popular group in all of Africa, except for the Congo because in Congo they have the strongest rhythms on the continent.

Fela was growing ever more powerful among the people, saying stuff like he wanted to be president of Nigeria. He was constantly insulting the military government: calling them fascists, murderers, assassins, writing songs about them… They put him in jail a number of times. When I visited him and went through his village there were brothers all around with stands full of reefer smoke. When Fela walked through there he was the chief.

Fela’s mother was also quite an impressive woman. An illustration of that was an incident I heard about where she organized some opposition to one of the Nigerian chiefs. Somehow this cat wasn’t doing the right thing; I don’t remember all the details. But whatever the case, what he was doing wasn’t correct with the women. Fela’s mother was so powerful that she gathered a thousand women to march on this chief’s palace. And if you can picture this, they stood in front of this chief and began disrobing. This scene was too strong for that chief and he split right outta there. Can you imagine that, standing there looking at a thousand naked women. Whatcha gonna do behind that?

FESTAC ’77… hanging with Fela again
Another great trip to Africa came after I had my first opportunity to tour the continent with my band, but that’s another story entirely. In 1977 I traveled there on my own to join a delegation of artists and great thinkers at the FESTAC event. FESTAC ’77 was actually the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The organizer’s idea was to bring over black representatives of the global arts and culture community from across Africa and the diaspora, including places as far away as Australia, which sent some Aborigine artists.

Once again I traveled to Lagos, which by that time was a bit different place than it was when I was there in the 1960s. For one thing cars had literally taken over the place and the traffic was horrendous around the clock. The ancient country of Ethiopia, which I still haven’t visited, is much older than Nigeria and except for an incursion by the Italians Ethiopia basically remained free of colonialism. Ethiopia was the host of Festac ’77, even though Nigeria was the site. The Nigerian government reportedly put up huge amounts of oil money to stage this event. The whole idea is that we are one African people, that was the goal of FESTAC. No matter if we’re in Mississippi or Havana, or Australia, or wherever; that was the whole point of the event.

They invited about 20,000 artists from across the globe. I never counted them but that was the official number. I only wound up playing once, at least officially, though I did jam with Fela; but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sun Ra was there and he played once. There was so much great artistry at this conference that you didn’t need to play more than once. Representatives from the entire black world organized this thing. They hosted colloquiums throughout FESTAC on every thing from education to health to music, all things involved with African people. It was designed to develop a sense of global unity. FESTAC lasted one month, throughout January. Each country sent groups and usually the groups would stay one or two weeks, then other groups would come. I stayed most of the month because I had come individually on my own; I didn’t come with the American delegation because I was living in France at the time.

One of the artists there was a dancer named Percy Boyd from Trinidad, the husband of the great dancer Pearl Primus. He was a fantastic artist himself and a very brilliant guy. The scene was kind of chaotic in a way, with a lot of confusion over transportation. But Percy was hooked up; he had a bus and a chauffer. Once he did his two weeks with his dance company and was ready to split he said “Randy, do you want this bus. I’ll give you this bus and this is your chauffer, he’ll do whatever you want him to do.” So I had this big bus and a chauffer like some kind of big shot – and meanwhile some of these visiting ministers couldn’t even find any transportation!

They had houses for the artists, not hotels. Each country had its own housing: Ethiopia is here, Mali is here, Brazil is over there, Cuba is there, Libya is there, Tunisia, Morocco… it was an amazing scene. Plus you can imagine all the music; it was so powerful it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The array of folks there was also incredible. For example I’d have breakfast and my tablemates might be Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Queen Mother Moore, and a heavy Sufi master named Mahi Ismail. Imagine me hanging out with those cats! Stevie and I actually managed to stay in a hotel. When he arrived Stevie came into the hotel with his guitar, walked in the lobby, sat down and started singing and playing his guitar; that’s the first thing he did when he got there!

The Nigerians had built a special theatre for this event, but the two brand new Steinway pianos and one Bosendorfer they had purchased were waiting at the airport hung up in customs apparently. Long story short the pianos didn’t arrive until the day of the concert. I was supposed to play first opposite some Ethiopian musicians. But they were late getting the piano there and I wound up playing second, on a new piano that had never been touched before!

Fela was one of the main people I wanted to see while there, and like many African musicians he had his own club called The Shrine, just opposite his village in Lagos. Fela’s club was really big, it must have held about 1,000 people and the night I went there it was packed. When I got to Fela’s village he was sitting in a corner, holding court and eating away. I’m stepping through all kinds of women, all surrounding this dude. It was quite a scene. He saw me and said “Randy, come on and have some food.” We talked awhile then it was time for him to perform, so he put on his stage costume and we were stepping around all these women to get outside. As we’re walking through his village it was obvious Fela was like a king to these people.

We entered the Shrine and this place, along with Bobby Benson’s joint, really became my inspiration for wanting to open up my own club. Fela got his band together for the performance and he calls me over and says “Randy, you sit there.” He had an English film crew capturing his every move. He started by playing this little rhythm on the piano, then the band came in and he grabbed his saxophone. The rhythm was totally infectious, but you have to hear it live, you have to be where people are dancing to this band to fully appreciate this groove. At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America,” and they brought me onstage. So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military – and there were military guys in the club! I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness ‘cause those cats don’t play! Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’… what this guy didn’t call the government… and he wouldn’t let go of my hand! The people were cheering him on!

One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place. They threw his mother out of a window, beat him up and took him to prison, and raped all his girls. But when he came out of jail Fela was the same, still defiant. He said “I’m the president of Africa;” he was against all that stuff that was in opposition to the true Africa, he was incredible.

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Ron Scott on Umbria ’18

Amsterdam News jazz journalist Ron Scott had the enviable assignment of covering the 45th anniversary edition of Umbria Jazz last summer. Here are Ron’s impressions of one of the world’s great festivals.

BY Ron Scott
Most recently, Umbria Jazz 18 celebrated its 45th anniversary as one of the most popular jazz festivals in the world. Aside from its wealth of participating musicians the picturesque Perugia is the capital city of both the region of Umbria in central Italy, crossed by the river Tiber, and the province of Perugia (that dates back to 310 B.C.).

It covers a high hilltop 1,617 ft. ((493 m) and part of the valleys around the area. The top of the hill with its cobblestone streets (watch your step when walking or dancing) is where the action takes on the piazza in the midst of a historical museum and churches with its string of cafes serving wonderful food, a host of delicious gelato shops, local crafts people; and street musicians from dancers, to trios, puppeteers and jazz singers.

The music venues were located in this joyful madness including the de Cesarino, where the nightly jam sessions played on until after 4am each night (causing me to miss that free breakfast). However, the main outdoor arena Santa Giuliana is located at the bottom of the hill.

This is where the 10-day festival opened celebrating the 85 Birthday of the impresario Quincy Jones. His special guests and friends, who have worked with him in the past included; the distinct voices of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin, Noa with Gil Dor (one of Jones’ favorite performers of Brazilian music), Take 6, the Brazilian singer/composer Ivan Lins. From Cuba, the pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Italy’s most prominent trumpeter and composer Paolo Fresu and was also a guest. The Umbria Jazz Orchestra conducted by John Clayton and Jones with bass guitarist Nathan East and the always vibrant drummer Harvey Mason played from the original arrangements of Jones.

The orchestra opened with Jones’ theme song from the popular television series “Sanford and Son” followed by “Ironside.” Jones’ music bought a new hipness to television something that hadn’t existed since the theme to the “Peter Gunn series (1950s).

The acappella sextet Take 6 performed “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a reflection of Jones’ friendship with Ray Charles. Ivan Lins swung the Bossa Nova and Gil Dor more than represented that Brazilian flavor. “Brazilian music is my favorite it has a combination of Cuban, Brazilian and African roots,” said Jones. He sat on stage for the celebration answering questions on his various musical stages and introducing his guests.

Jones noted Erroll Garner gave him the composition “Misty” at the airport in Paris in 1958. When he gave it to Sarah Vaughan to perform it was the song’s debut outing. He introduced his Goddaughter Patti Austin, who sang “Misty” but not before her reputed “Razzmatazz” from Jones’ album The Dude which put the audience in joyful bliss. Her rendition of “Misty” made it evident why she has never been placed in one of those confining genre categories. She swings jazz from up-tempo to ballads with the same essence as a pop or R&B tune.

Jones’ big band connection with Ella Fitzgerald and the Count Basie Orchestra was reflected in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s rendition of “Honey Suckle Rose,” singing and scatting high as the moon in the sky.

Just when it seemed the best of the Cuban pianists had already been seen Jones introduces Alfredo Rodriguez, a young man he befriended and assisted in getting him to the United States some years ago. He played the popular hit “Manteca” as he ran through classical licks and Cuban-Latin jazz flavors along with his countryman Pedrito Martinez, a fine young conguero, who is forging his own path acknowledging the ground work of the great Candido.

Jones spoke briefly about his active involvement with Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and his fifteen minutes with Pope Paul III. Bridgewater, Austin and Take 6 went into R&B mode with a nod to Marin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and “Moody’s Mood for Love” with Austin and Take 6’s Mark Kibble singing lead followed with the party song from the Jackson-Jones collaboration “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Music was also dedicated to his many film scores and love of Italian films inspired by one of Jones’ mentor Joseph Marconi.

A special moment came that evening when Jones was presented with the first “Umbria Jazz Award.” Jones thanked the festival officials and discussed his long love affair with Italy. All the special guests and orchestra came together on “Let the Good Times Roll,” conducted by Jones. “Performing with these great musicians in celebration of Quincy was surreal,” said Mark kibble of Take 6. Some felt the show was a little long considering it started at 9pm and ended at 1am.

This was a celebration for Quincy Delight Jones born March 14, 1933. Within in his six-decade career his roles encompass; a composer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, record company executive, magazine founder, multi-media entrepreneur, humanitarian, investor, and record, film, and TV producer. He has a record 79 Grammy Award nominations, and 27 Grammys, including a Grammy Legend Award in 1991.

Ideally, a celebration or tribute to the genius of Jones would have to be a recorded radio or television (PBS) series that would run-over a month duration, at best.

At the after party Jones joined friends like Take 6 and Patti Austin. At this point it was 3am and he ws still hanging tough. I asked him what does this night mean to you. His response, “It makes my soul smile.”

Over the days that followed one of my favorite performers was the R&B group the New Orleans Mystics. One morning at breakfast one of the group’s co-founders Michael “Soul Man” Baptiste humbly mentioned to me they were a group doing music from the 1960s, the Temptations and Motown sound. The description was more than an understatement.

The Mystics hit the stage in that Temptations, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles gear, the red suits with sequins, or yellow sequined sports jackets with tan pants and the boots. Hey, having seen all those groups at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, I had to stand right at the stage and pay attention to make sure they weren’t perpetrating.

They had me singing the words to hits like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Know I’m Losing You,” and “Same Old Song.” The audience danced frantically and sang the English lyrics, considering most didn’t speak English but they were familiar with these blasts from the past.

The high-energy New Orleans Mystics have the routines perfect but they aren’t carbon copies of the past. “We have a diversity in talent and we exploit it,” said Baptiste. “We have over 60 songs we haven’t even performed yet and a wardrobe as long as our repertoire.” These are the songs of Motown deep-rooted in some New Orleans funk that ignites folks of all ages to dance. They cover Jackie Wilson’s “Work Out” now that’s going back but folks loved it. When Freddie Johnson took the lead for “Hey There Lonely Girl,” it was pandemonium. His high falsetto stroke a chord. The other group members include; William “Billy” Sims and Lee Barnes.

To keep that New Orleans funk thumpin’ they are backed by the Real Soul Band that features the conga player and host Bobbie Parker, drummer Brenman Williams, keyboardist Rick McQuillis, bassist John Ragas, and guitarist Shammika Ernest. Whether &B acts should be billed at a jazz festival is a discussion for other time but R&B, jazz, blues, and soul is all black music that energizes people of the world and the New Orleans Mystics is pat of that explosive connection!

Billy Hart the steadfast drummer blazed the Teatro Morlacchi with his quartet that featured the pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street and saxophonist Joshua Redman. They started off with two compositions by Iverson adding their own personal definition of jazz from there. The tune “Dedicated to all Grandmother’s” had a mid-tempo swing with everyone in an intuitive mode. Hart’s roaring drums filtered in and out with a definitive swing that inspired intense solos from Redman’s deep colored riffs to Street’s bellowing bass.

During an interview following the show Hart stated, “I always wanted to be an improvising drummer”. Well, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that at all.

More to come from th Umbria jazz Festival.

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Randy Weston’s Duke Ellington Connection

In my research phase of writing Randy Weston‘s as-told-to autobiography, African Rhythms, and in his playing, it was quite clear that he held a deep reverence for the grandmaster Duke Ellington. However it wasn’t until we were into our exhaustive interview process that I learned of the depth of his love for Ellington, and his subsequent relationship with Duke’s only sister Ruth. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14, titled Post-Morocco And The Ellington Collection that details those unique relationships.

My connection to Duke Ellington was equal parts musical and spiritual, long before I met the man himself. Duke was everything, going way, way back. Duke was always such a classy gentleman and his music was so powerful. Duke and Basie were alike in that those two giants were totally a part of the black community they never forgot their roots even though both achieved worldwide fame. I loved Duke’s music – Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Jimmy Blanton and all those masters he employed had a huge impact on me. When I first heard the Gnawa in Morocco and heard them play that guimbre I heard echoes of Jimmy Blanton’s bass and where that sound came from ancestrally. If I had to pick one giant of our music over all others I’d pick Duke Ellington because he was so complete and like Coleman Hawkins he stayed forever young; he recorded with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. He recorded with Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, so people like he and Hawk covered the whole spectrum of our music, they stayed young and always advanced.

In the 60s we used to give rent parties at my apartment on 13th Street to benefit the Afro American Musicians Society. One particular night we featured my good friend pianist Ray Bryant. Big Black and I cooked food all day long: ribs, stew, and all that stuff; we sold liquor and food at the party to raise money. On this occasion Reverend John Gensel, who started the jazz vespers at St. Peters and was an all-around jazz clergyman, brought Ruth Ellington, Duke’s sister, to the party. It was a really soulful party, people were all over the apartment, we jammed maybe 100-150 people in this apartment and everybody was having a ball. That’s when I met Ruth Ellington. I always laugh about it but she swore Big Black had spiked the food because she felt mighty high, even though she didn’t mess with any drugs at all.

Eventually Ruth and I got to be very close. Duke had given Ruth and his son Mercer beautiful homes on Riverside Drive and 106th St., but Ruth also had an apartment on 59th St. I went there once and played some piano for her and she got excited and said I was the next Duke; she used to tell me that all the time. Even after I moved to Morocco whenever I came back to New York I would visit Ruth; at one point she actually wanted to marry me, but I was afraid of marriage, I didn’t want to get married, no way, no how. She only wanted me to play solo piano and she was very critical of my recordings because I wouldn’t play much piano, I’d just feature the other musicians in my band. We even gave a big birthday party for my mother and father at Duke’s house.

Ruth always called Duke “Edward”, and one day while I was there she said “Edward’s got to hear you,” and she was intent on arranging that. Duke did a concert of his “Night Creature” with the New York Philharmonic, with his trio, and Ruth arranged for me to play the reception, myself and Peck Morrison on bass. After the concert they had the reception in a bar in Philharmonic Hall and we were playing at one end of the bar when up walked His Majesty, the Duke. He checked us out and gave me a great look, an approving look, a look as if to say ‘everything is OK.’

Later on Duke called Ruth one night while I was in the house and she said “you must hear Randy Weston.” So she played “Blue Moses” on the phone for Duke. At that time she was running Duke’s publishing company, Tempo Music. When I finally met Duke, we talked and he told me he wanted to start another publishing company with just my compositions and his compositions. I was blown away! So I put 20 of my compositions in his publishing company, Tempo Music. Duke had started a small recording company called Piano Records and he wanted to record Bobby Short, Earl Hines, Abdullah Ibrahim and myself. That wound up being the record date I did which was later sold to Arista Records, titled “Berkshire Blues.”

Sometime later I encouraged Ruth to set up a big concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to raise money for the seven West African countries of the Sahel Region because they were experiencing a terrible drought. The great dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder was the producer of the concert. We had the Symphony of the New World, we put together a big band with Melba Liston conducting, we had the Joffrey Ballet and we raised about $7,000, which was basically just symbolic, and presented it to the President of Mali. I must admit I had an ulterior motive in my relationship with Ruth and that was to encourage her to establish a house of African American culture and music. She had a friend who had the ideal house for this purpose up on the Hudson. We were kinda playing games with one another; she wanted to get married first, I wanted to get the house first.

Duke treated Ruth like a queen, and she was only surrounded by certain kinds of people, for me very bourgeois kind of people. I’m still basically a street dude and for awhile it was OK being around these people, but I got bored with that stuff, all that pretense. Once I talked her into having a party for Josephine Baker because recently the King of Morocco had given Josephine a large sum of money for a research project she was spearheading. At the same time I was trying to establish that dream cultural center in Morocco and I wanted to reach the king, which I thought I might be able to do through Josephine, thinking that perhaps this party might be a step towards that.

So we had this party at Ruth’s house the night after Josephine’s last appearance in New York, in the late 1970s. I hired Danny Mixon to play the piano so that I could co-host the party with Ruth and mingle freely among the guests, but my real motive was to connect with Josephine Baker. Unfortunately even though I met her I could never get to talk to her that night because throughout the evening she was surrounded by these ex-chorus girl friends of hers. It was almost like they were protecting Josephine.

Ruth had a big heart and we really became like family; my daughters Cheryl and Pamela, my father, we’d be at her house all the time. But she lived such a sheltered life and it seemed there were few people she could trust. She was a wonderful, wonderful person; very kind, very generous. We might have possibly married but she never wanted to go anywhere by herself, you always had to go with her, she was really sheltered. Whenever she would go out she had to be decked out, had to have her jewelry, her rings, had to wear her furs; she was an Ellington lady after all. She’d always feel better having a strong man by her side; eventually she married McHenry Boatwright.

Through Ruth I got to know a lot of the guys in the Ellington band. Reverend Gensel started the original jazz vespers services back when his church was on Broadway at 93rd St. I actually played the first jazz vespers and played Billy Strayhorn’s piano, which Billy had given to Gensel for his church. It was as a result of that connection that I wound up playing at Strayhorn’s funeral.

Ruth actually felt that I could be the next Ellington; she wanted me to take over the orchestra after the master passed in ‘74. But the orchestra was Mercer’s, and Ruth handled Duke’s compositions. There was always a kind of friction between her and Mercer because Duke had given Ruth everything. He was like a father to Ruth. You’d go to her house and in her bedroom there’d be maybe 25 different kinds of crosses, which Duke would send her from the road; silver crosses, gold crosses, wooden crosses, all kinds. She took care of business for Duke’s publishing company, Tempo. Our relationship was romantic, but for me it was more about the culture than about Ruth as a woman. During that time we also gave a benefit for my club in Tangier where we had 25 pianists play at the Ellington devotee Brooks Kerr’s mother’s house, an East Side townhouse. Ruth and I were very close and the core was Duke himself.

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