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The Independent Ear
The first time I caught Ralph Peterson, Jr. live was a 1986 performance by the Blue Note Records band Out of the Blue (OTB). The band, befitting its era as a sort of Young Lions on steroids unit, included Kenny Garrett on alto sax, Ralph Bowen on tenor sax, pianist Renee Rosnes, bassist Robert Hurst, and the explosive drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. The power and fluid drive of Peterson was nearly overwhelming, in a kind of Art Blakey and Elvin Jones stylistic mashup embodied by one young man from New Jersey. I quickly made a mental note to keep an eye and ear out for this brown-skinned powerhouse with the boundless energy.
Little did I know at the time that an Art Blakey heir apparent patina to Ralph Peterson, Jr., to the point that the old master frequently engaged Ralph whenever the spirit called for two fonts of drumming energy on Art’s bandstand, such as Buhaina’s occasional big band dates.
Fast forward a few minutes and Peterson was himself a bandleader, putting out potent dates on Blue Note. The most striking series of Ralph Peterson, Jr. recordings came starting in 1989 when he assembled his Fo’tet, a band notably including the kinetic clarinetist Don Byron, vibist Bryan Carrott broadened the band’s color pallet, that also included the enormously versatile saxophonist Steve Wilson.
These days Peterson has an active teaching career at Berklee College of Music and continues his efforts at mentoring succeeding generations, including incorporating some of Berklee’s brightest students in his ongoing GenNext Big Band, and revisiting his roots with his Messenger Legacy bands of Blakey alums. In addition to his playing and teaching, Peterson is a persevering cancer survivor who pilots his own record label, Onyx Productions. His Onyx venture prompted some questions for Ralph Peterson, Jr.
When did you start your Onyx imprint and what was your original motivation for having your own label?
In addition to being inspired by people like Betty Carter (BETCAR) AND Stanley Cowell (STRATA EAST), THE PRIMary motivation came from Grandmaster Gary Bartz who checked me STRONG one day he heard me belly aching about “oh the record business aint this and the record business aint that” …. Gary said… “Man ya’ll need to be quiet because ya’ll not in the record business…. ya’ll WORK FOR people in the record business…. you aint nothing but an employees of someone working in the record business because YOU DON’T OWN NOTHING !”
I started my recording career on a Major Label. In fact I SUED to get OUT of my Blue Note contract because of how long they were sitting on their options . From there I did a few of the smaller but active Independent labels…. Evidence, Sirrocco, and Criss Cross.
Ultimately the decision to launch my label comes from a direct desire to make a TRUMPET record. Stay tuned for that in 2021.
What have you released thus far on the Onyx label?
Projects under my own name… One of vocalist Lainie Cooke….. And the latest release is the debut of young Trumpeter Alonzo Demitrius.
You’ve begun to branch out and invite other artists to record for Onyx. How do you determine whether an artist or project is a good fit for Onyx and your process?
I look for strength of concept…. they should have an understanding of the kind of statement they want to make with the project. It also has to be about more than “so I can get some gigs”. Recordings are not only that, they are musical snapshots in time and most importantly an Artist’s statement about their world and
the world around them.
Describe your process once you’ve decided to make an Onyx label recording?
What is the motivation? What thought, person, place, thing, issue or event am I addressing as an Artist?
Who best can help me musically realize that vision? Is it in an existing group of mine or is it time
for a new configuration.
Would you say there is a prevailing Onyx philosophy?
RIGHT NOW MUSIC …That knows where it comes from.
What’s on the drawing board and upcoming for Onyx?
Super excited to be recording two more projects before the close of this year. One in the
first week and one in the last week of December. They might not be released in the order
of the recordings but getting them done this year is good business for the company.
Triangular will record again with my Trio featuring (bassist) Luques and (piano-keyboardist) Zaccai Curtis. We have grown into a real rhythm section team. There are two special motivations in addition to joining forces with the Curtis Brothers which is one of my favorite things in music. The first is that joining us for 3 tunes will be the one and ONLY Jazzmeia Horn. I have had the privilege of working in her band and while she is a singular and unique talent, it is my humble opinion she is to the late Great Betty Cater, what some might see me as being to Art Blakey. And having also trained in the Graduate School of Betty Carter I am honored she enthusiastically agreed to sing on the date.
The second motivation is that this project will be the first recorded in the Onyx Productions Home studio in Dartmouth Mass. During this pandemic one of the things I have been doing is upgrading my tech awareness
and even have a Protools tutor…. My Engineer and former drum student at Berklee, Dean David Albak. Dean mixed Legacy Alive Vol6 and Onward and Upward. He is chief engineer of the new project which will also include special guest percussionist Egui Castrillo on Afrocuban Percussion as well as myself on djembe, frame drum, water drum and other colors. The name of this project will be RAISE UP OFF ME and we are targeting March of 2021 for digital and LP release.
I have decided to focus fully on this project as the music is SPECIAL.
The title comes from the inspiration of the book written by the Great Pianist
Hampton Hawes [Raise Up Off Me]. The title speaks to the times we are living in in face of Social Injustice…..
Jazzmiea wrote the Lyrics for my composition Tears I Cannot Hide…. She will also add spoken word to the piece “Raise Up Off Me”. The song “The Right To Live” is a commission from The Jazz Coalition.
This is music happening not just now ….This is RIGHT NOW MUSIC !
R.I.P.—Brooklyn born jazz giant, pianist Ed Stoute moved on from our plane of existence to join musicians in a heaven ripe for listening to his talented fingers. Stoute traveled the world with the flavor of Brooklyn’s Bebop, with jazz standards infused with tributes to the best compositions of Monk, Miles, and Coltrane.
Ed Stoute has been playing African American Classical Music, also known as Jazz, for more than 60 years. Composing more than 100 tunes and arranging standards with a repertoire ranging from Bebop to Brazilian styles. Brooklyn’s “Jazz Ambassador” carried on a music tradition that has a rich history in Brooklyn. Performing with his ensembles in large and small venues, few brought him as much joy as Fort Greene’s “JAZZ966.” Here, Ed plays on in the hearts and memories of his contemporaries and in the souls and imaginations of the young musicians he inspired.
(Remembrance from the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium)
In 2010/2011 I was engaged by the Weeksville Heritage Center (www.weeksvillesociety.org), Brooklyn’s oldest Black settlement, to conduct a jazz oral history project encompassing Central Brooklyn, with a specific focus on the historic Bedford-Stuyvesant community. For those unfamiliar with Brooklyn’s rich jazz history, there was indeed a time, particularly in the mid-20th century when Brooklyn’s jazz club scene rivaled and in some respects arguably exceeded that of Manhattan. Several of those oral history interviews have subsequently been featured in the Independent Ear.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our oral history project (and those interviews are archived at Weeksville) was the opportunity to interview some of the more undersung jazz artists of Central Brooklyn. One such interview was with the pianist Ed Stoute, which we conducted at his MacDonough Avenue home.
Professionally Ed Stoute contributed 60 years as a jazz pianist and composer. He was a member of the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra and the Minton’s Players band, his talents played well across the imaginary Manhattan/Brooklyn divide in that respect. In addition, Ed Stoute accompanied many singers, including Joe Carroll, Betty Roche, Dakota Staton, Melba Joyce, Cynthia Scott, Vanessa Rubin, and Carla Cook among others. Ed also worked with numerous horn players, including James Spaulding, Charles Davis, Harold Vick, Clark Terry, and Patience Higgins.
Are you a native of Brooklyn and if so what part of Brooklyn?
Edwin Stoute: Yes I am, actually this part of Brooklyn – Bed-Stuy – on the other end, on Thompkins Avenue. This (MacDonough Avenue) was the sidity end [laughs]. Where I grew up was the slums. I went to East New York Vocational High School; I quit high school in the last year, ran off to play music, and when I was about 30 I said ‘let me go back and finish that diploma.’ So I went off to Brooklyn Tech and [finished].
When you were growing up in Brooklyn did you have any interest in jazz music?
Oh yeah. When I was growing up my oldest sister got piano lessons and my oldest brother go violin lessons. My bed was in the living room where the piano was, I was four years old. On Saturdays this big German man would come and give my sister a piano lesson, and she didn’t want to play the piano, she couldn’t get away from there fast enough. [But] I was fascinated with this thing [piano], this thing that makes this sound just fascinated me. The minute she was gone I was there diddling around. I couldn’t get away from that piano.
So when did you start taking lessons?
I started taking lessons when I was about 19; I was actually self-taught, in the union, doing gigs… couldn’t read a note!
At what point were you capable of playing a gig?
I was doing gigs from the age of 18, I couldn’t read a note but my ears were always big, so I was able to do calypso gigs, little dances and stuff like that.
So from the time you were four years old you were figuring out the piano on your own?
I started figuring it out by myself. I knew but I didn’t know; like your ears tell you something is the right thing but you don’t know the theory behind it so you really can’t expand on things.
Were you interested in jazz as you were developing yourself as a piano player?
When I was real young I was actually interested in the classical side and at that point I would make up tunes, compose tunes. I couldn’t read the music to play the things my sister would play, so I used to make up my own melodies and figure out ways to play them; that’s actually served me well because I’ve always composed music. I stayed on that direction, so I’ve always been a composer of music – I haven’t made any money at [composing] but I plan to; everybody always likes what I write.
How did you develop your interest in jazz?
That happened when I was about 14 or so, my two older sisters had their boyfriends and they came into the house with these jazz records and I started hearing this music. They played Stan Kenton, some Bird, some Bud [Powell]… So I heard this and went in that direction.
When you say you went in that direction, what did you do?
When I heard Bud Powell… that was it! Bud Powell turned everybody around, especially at that time he was on fire. I was trying to play all that, I didn’t know what I was doing but I was agile, my hands were agile. We used to have little jam sessions around the corner at a friend of mine’s house and the drums were my friend’s older brother had been to the war, he had one of those big shells and made it into a lamp; that lamp became the cymbals for the drum. It turned out the drawer was the drum. We were fortunate because on that block Kenny Dorham used to hang out, on Hancock Street between Thompkins and Marcy. He actually came in the house one day and played for us, we had guys that did that, older guys who would stop in now and then, they knew we were trying to play. We were very fortunate.
What other professional musicians were you aware of around your neighborhood?
There were a lot of them: Ernie Henry, Cecil Payne, Matthew Gee… there were a lot of guys… There was a guy named Maurice Brown who played drums. There was a guy we called Little Diz, Webster Young, he was around in Brooklyn then and he used to come and hang out with us.
So there were a lot of jazz musicians around the neighborhood?
Yeah, and they’d hear us trying to play and they’d come and hang with us.
What about clubs or bars in your neighborhood, were there any around when you were coming up?
You had so many places it was ridiculous. There was the Continental over on Nostrand Avenue, a placed called the Tip Top – what they played in there wasn’t always jazz, but they had shows: you’d have a comedian, a singer, a band, an MC. The Tip Top was on Fulton Street, right where Boys & Girls High School is now. And there was a club called the Berry Brothers that had music off and on, that was on Fulton Street in the same area. One of the big clubs was the Moulin Rouge, which was on Putnam and Sumner Avenue, which is now called Marcus Garvey Blvd; the place [building] is still there but it’s something else.
What went on at the Moulin Rouge?
Everybody played in there, including Miles Davis; Walter Bishop, Red Garland I remember… This was a place that had a long bar and back of the bar was a long bandstand; they had a white grand piano in there. The places were kept in fairly good shape, especially the places that were jazz clubs. The Moulin Rouge was a good place.
How old were you when you started frequenting these places?
We were frequenting these places from the time we were old enough to get in… 18. We all loved jazz so we used to follow jazz everywhere. I remember me and some of my friends got jobs working for Ruben H. Donnelly as stock boys and what was great about this job was in the wintertime they had you working, but when the springtime came they laid you off – but it was known they were going to hire you back in the fall. So summertime when we were living with our parents we’d get the unemployment checks and we were hanging out at all the clubs, catching all of the music. Thelonious Monk… that’s when they had the cabaret card business and we caught Thelonious Monk playing on Fulton Street at the Elks Club playing a dance because he couldn’t go into a lot of the other venues, and you’d catch him playing places like that. But wherever anybody was, we were there – we hung out, middle of the week, we didn’t care. The Continental on Nostrand Avenue… the Blue Coronet wasn’t happening then, but the Continental was the place then. Turbo Village on Reed and Halsey Street… Freddie Hubbard used to be there playing the Turbo Village when he first [came to New York].
Take a place like the Moulin Rouge… what would an evening be like there?
It was a fantastic evening because they had all of the good jazz groups in there every week.
What time would they start and how many sets would they play a night?
About 9:00 and it was a lotta sets; gigs were 6 hour gigs [back then], so probably 9pm-3am, at least 4 or 5 sets. I remember when I started playing a gig was 6 hours.
Were these the kind of places – the Tip Top, Turbo Village, Moulin Rouge… were these places where you could go into the place, pay a cover charge, and buy a drink and stay all night?
The Moulin Rouge I don’t think even had a cover charge; you could go in there, nurse a beer and stay all night. Sometimes, if we had a little more money we didn’t mind buying a couple of things, but I didn’t drink at that time. There was a place called the KC Lounge, on Gates & Throop, it was an organ room; there were certain rooms that were organ rooms. You had the Baby Grand on Fulton and Nostrand, which was owned by the same people that owned the Baby Grand in Harlem. As a matter of fact one of my first gigs, where I first learned to play for singers, I started working at the Baby Grand in 1960 or so. All we wanted to play was bebop – we were young, we didn’t want to play for no singers! So I got this gig at the Baby Grand with bass and drums. The set-up was they had a comic MC and a shake dancer; the girls didn’t take off all their clothes, they just did a little dance and took some clothes off, and that was quite sufficient for the times [laughs]. They usually had a singer in the rock or blues style, and they’d have one singer who was a jazz singer. That’s what the show was composed of, it was a variety show.
Was it that way at the other clubs?
Not so, the other clubs were strictly jazz, like the Continental was jazz; I believe the Turbo Village was mostly jazz. Places like the KC Lounge, that was organ, blues and that kind of stuff, the organ trios. The Moulin Rouge was strictly jazz,
You began playing professionally at age 18. Did you play any of these clubs?
I played at the Moulin Rouge, but not at the other clubs, and it was later on that I played at the Baby Grand; I got drafted and went into the service and came out at the age of 25, so it was around then that I played at the Baby Grand.
When you played at the Baby Grand, who did you play with?
I played with a guy named Jimmy Chisholm, a good tenor player, and we played for the shows.
So you backed up the jazz singer, the R&B singer…
…And the comedian, and the shake dancer…
So what kind of music did you play in all these situations?
It depends; for the shake dancer you had to play something Latin-flavored for them, but you had these rock singers who came in and they had their music, but most of them didn’t have music. When a new show was coming in we had to get there early Friday night to rehearse. And most of the time there wasn’t really any music, we just did the show. One problem with that is on Monday nights we had to go to the Baby Grand in Harlem because the regular band was off that night and we had to play that show totally cold. The guy that ran that show then was Nipsey Russell, he was a nasty sucker, I didn’t like him. We had this show, we didn’t have a chance to look at the music and rehearse it, just look at it and try to play it. So if you made a mistake he’d talk about people like a dog and I don’t appreciate that.
When you played at the Baby Grand, when would the week start?
Friday night. When a new show came in we were playing six nights a week. We’d play Friday, Saturday and Sunday, Monday nights in Harlem, Tuesdays we were off, Wednesdays we were back playing in Brooklyn. They had a singer’s jam session on Wednesday nights and we had to deal with that. All of the singers – real amateur singers – they all wanted to sing the same tunes that were popular at the time, rock stuff, “Stand By Me”, those kind of things [laughs]. So it would be one singer after another, some of them were so amateur they would change key in the middle of the tune, so we had to follow them around from key to key.
What kind of gig would it be at the Moulin Rouge?
That was a good gig that was a strictly jazz gig. At one time it was my band, other times it was somebody else’s band. A guy I started playing with was Harold Cumberbatch; his daughter [Tulivu Donna Cumberbatch] is a singer now. He played baritone and he hired me to do some gigs with him. As a matter of fact that brings up some different places. There was a place called Ben’s, on Lexington and Sumner [Marcus Garvey Blvd.] Ben’s was a joint that had a raggedy upright piano, and I played there with [Harold Cumberbatch]. And there was a place called Paul’s, on DeKalb Avenue right off of Sumner Avenue [Marcus Garvey]. Paul’s was a nice place; I got a couple of gigs there with Harold, who had a fairly decent name. His favorite tune was “Stella By Starlight” and he named his horn Stella. Harold was a funny cat.
So who else would you play with during these times?
There was an alto player around named Buddy Williams, he was burgeoning and budding. In fact there was one night I played with him and all of a sudden… you ever hear someone when they’ve just completely got it together? This guy was so beautiful, he played so much. Buddy had just gotten there and it was only a couple of months later he got hit by a car and killed… going to his day job. He played alto and he had such a warm sound.
Did you ever work a day job?
I worked day jobs on and off. I worked for Ruben H. Donnally going up to Mt. Vernon loading mail trucks with 90lb mailbags… I worked all kind of jobs around there. I’d go for a job sometime and these places would look at me and say ‘oh yeah, big black guy, got a job on the platform for you.’
This was also back in the days when soloists would travel the country and pick up local rhythm sections, like Sonny Stitt. Did you ever do any of that?
No, I never did any of that. I once had an opportunity to play with Stitt, but I didn’t do it, at the Blue Coronet. I shoulda just done it because Stitt was a great guy. He was the kind of guy who would see a young cat in the club with his saxophone between sets and say ‘hey, come on up here.’ You weren’t gonna walk in that club with no horn and don’t play. He’d bring you up there and let you play; I mean you know you’re gonna get carved [laughs], but I think that was a great opportunity. He was the kind of guy who was trying to give you an opportunity to come up and be heard.
Did you find a lot of that kind of attitude among the musicians of that time?
A lotta that, a lot of compassion in a different way too because a lot of the older guys were junkies, and we loved them – we loved their music too. When we were still in high school those dudes used to be begging us for change, to get their fix. We’d give them quarters, dimes and nickels and whatnot. But there’s something that all of them said, they said ‘listen, whatever you see us do don’t do it, it don’t do you no good.’ They used to tell us , ‘stay away from this.’ That [warning] served me well. I got into a little bit of mild trouble, but I never stuck no needle in my arm. I remember once I saw a guy stick a needle in his arm, draw some blood and shoot those drugs then fall asleep. Another guy came right behind him, took that needle out of his arm, ejected the blood and shot himself up! I said to myself, these guys gotta be crazy! That’s how AIDS took over.
Take me up through the time when you started developing yourself as a musician in your 20s.
When I really started developing was when I came out of the Army at 25 and got this gig at the Baby Grand. I was real young, never played for singers before, didn’t know a lot of tunes. So every time a new show came in there I was under pressure, I’d have to see what tunes they were going to play and pray that I could get it together because there were some tunes I’d have to go get the book and learn. I was under a lot of pressure but also at the time there was a school called Hartnett Music Studios, it was in Times Square, upstairs, and that’s where everything really came together for me. Because I was still playing a lot by ear, I didn’t know a lot about different chords and structures and how to change them up, but when I went there [Hartnett] every day was a revelation because I was studying composition and arranging and they started teaching you little things about voice leading when you’re writing for different horns to try to make everybody’s part mean something, to make it move… that’s voice leading.
With what I was already doing, when I went there [Hartnett] they’re explaining it and opening it up, and showing me how to expand on things; it was a fantastic time! Even though I was tired because I was working at the Baby Grand and getting home at 3:30 in the morning and getting to music school at 9:00, not getting much sleep so I was tired. But [Hartnett] was so interesting it didn’t make much difference. You can’t be but so tired when you’re dealing with something like that. I learned a lot about music in the couple of years I went there, it opened me right up.
How long did that gig last playing those shows at the Baby Grand?
A couple of years. It was good experience because I learned to play with singers.
Who were some of the singers you played for at the Baby Grand? Did any well-known singers play there at the time?
Not there. Later on I played for Dakota Staton a couple of times, I played with Betty Roche, but not at the Baby Grand. I got a gig at Wells [in Harlem], my first-ever trio gig, with Joe “Bebop” Carroll. Remember Joe Carroll? “The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee” and all that stuff… That was my first time playing with a trio that was a whole different experience. So what happened was the gig was a singer’s gig but Joe was singing bebop so it was nice. The first two weeks [of the Wells’ gig] was Joe Carroll, the second two weeks was Betty Roche.
Did you play with these singers in Brooklyn as well?
No, just at Wells. But I played with Joe Carroll at a few other places, but that was the only gig I did with Betty Roche. She was a beautiful person; as young as we were she loved us because of the way we dressed. We dressed sharp & clean. It was myself and Bob Cunningham, Bob had just come to Brooklyn and that was his first gig. That was the time when you dressed sharp. Cats nowadays get on the bandstand with jeans and what not… forget that, no no. That, I don’t think, should ever happen. I think you do have a duty sometimes to spruce up a little bit.
So what’s the importance of being well dressed on the bandstand?
I feel like how can people look up to you if you come in the place looking like a bum. A lot of people are just there for the music and they don’t care, but there are people that do [care]. If people out in the crowd are dressed better than you, I think that means something. There are some gigs where you don’t really dress up and that’s fine. But the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Sunday evening… I think you put a suit on at least.
Do you think the audience takes musicians more seriously if they’re dressed well?
I think sometimes, but I don’t think that’s the only thing that’s necessary… you gotta be able to play, that’s first and foremost. But being dressed decently, I think that helps, that makes a certain kind of impression.
So what did you do when the gig at the Baby Grand ended?
Muddled around a lot. After that I started playing with Illinois Jacquet, he had a quartet and we would do gigs a lot in Boston and Toronto; we went to Houston one time but mostly it was Boston and Toronto. We went to Chicago and Cleveland. We might be out seven weeks just between Boston and Toronto. There was a place in Toronto called the Town Tavern, and there were two different places in Boston – Lenny’s-On-The-Turnpike was a little joint in Boston.
After your gig at the Baby Grand did you get many opportunities to play around Brooklyn?
I played a lot in Brooklyn. I played a lot of little dances and stuff like that, not real jazz gigs. Sometimes it was the Moulin Rouge. But most of the gigs we played were like commercial things – weddings, that kinda stuff.
Did you get many opportunities to record?
No, I recorded once with Jacquet – as a matter of fact on an album I wrote one of the tunes and he turned me around; they didn’t allow me to play on my own tune; that really turned me around because I had all these ideas about how things should be, but they’re [record company] into their commercial thing. They had this sister play [piano] on the album because ‘she’s more funky’, that’s [producer] Esmond Edwards out of Chess, Checker and Argo Records out of Chicago. When you have certain people that are controlling the music and they have no respect or no feel for anybody, they’re just doing what they think is best because they’re controlling the money, so that’s what happened.
So what other kinds of situations did you work in Brooklyn?
Like I said, it was a lot of weddings; there weren’t a whole lot of good paying gigs.
Did you work at the Blue Coronet?
I worked at the Blue Coronet. I played with Carlos Garnett – he was a Brooklyn boy then. And I did a gig there with my own group; we did a gig with a quintet and a singer, a girl called Gwen Michaels, she was a good jazz singer. We did some of my own music but I never got a chance to go too far with it because the world is just not wide-open like that and I wasn’t as well-known as I needed to get, and I was working in the day. And when you’re working in the day you can’t travel, you can’t get into the real circle of things, you can’t hang out.
Were there ever any opportunities to travel?
There were some, but I had to turn them down. I’d get a phone call, somebody got my name from somebody and they’ve got a gig in Ohio or wherever and I had to turn it down.
That scene that you described in Brooklyn: the Moulin Rouge, the Continental, the Tip Top, Berry Brothers, Turbo Village, and later on the Blue Coronet… How long did that scene last?
That scene lasted from the 60s into the early 70s; everything seemed to break down after we got through the early 70s.
What do you think caused that breakdown?
You know I’m not really sure, but all of a sudden there were fewer and fewer jazz clubs. They had some beautiful places that opened up. There was a place called The Id that opened up in the 70s, it’s now a church on the corner of East New York Ave. and Utica Ave. It was a huge place; it was originally Satellite Caterers and they called it The Id, and it was a beautiful place with a big long bar, real nice place. I’d walk in there and Cedar Walton and them would be playing, Billy Higgins would be laughing at me while he’s playing… They had some hellified groups in there – Charles Davis, Richard Davis…
Why do you think the need for these clubs diminished?
I don’t think the need diminished, I just think there were financial difficulties and stuff and places started to close. All of a sudden that place they called The Id – Satellite Caterers – closed, and that place was hot, the music was HOT in there. The Continental went [out of business] way before; the Blue Coronet was just the Coronet at first… We had jazz at the Brevoort Theatre, on Bedford Avenue and they had jazz sometimes… I played in there. There were just small groups in there. The group that I caught playing in the Brevoort was Miles Davis’ group, the one with John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, and Wynton Kelly; they played there for a complete weekend – on Bedford and Brevoort Avenue, one block past Euclid Pl.
Would the movie play before or after the music?
They didn’t have a movie there at all, not when they booked Miles Davis because Miles Davis was expensive. There was a place on Utica Avenue near Park Place called The Fantasy where some top groups, some trios played; Wynton Kelly might be playing in there… That lasted a good while and I played there towards the end of it.
There was a place called The Centaur on Franklin Avenue between Prospect and Park, a lot of people don’t remember The Centaur but Wynton Kelly lived pretty much around the corner and whenever the Wynton Kelly Trio was not playing with Miles you could catch them at The Centaur every weekend; Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. There was a grand piano up behind the bar. If they had recorded what Wynton Kelly played in there it would have run around the world like a shot, that was one of the most dynamic trios I’ve ever heard. With Wynton Kelly everything is going to start swinging immediately! And every chorus it would go to another level, until they got you in your chest and you would say ‘they can’t swing no more than this!’ They got your chest tightening up – and the next chorus, another level… That’s the way they played. That was an awesome trio.
At these places was the clientele strictly black?
Mostly, yeah; that was a black neighborhood and you didn’t find too many white people coming down there. The people that came down there came to hear some music, it was a nice group, and everything was beautiful. This was a place designed to hear music.
Were these clubs you’ve talked about all like that, where people actually came to hear the music and the music was not ‘incidental’?
Most of the clubs people came to hear the music, at that time. They had music in all kinds of places; up along Fulton Street they had a place called the Verona Café. Before you got to Nostrand Avenue there was a place called the Carroll Bar and Lucky Emmett, who was a tenor player, he’d be playing in there. He had a great pianist named James Sykes – they liked to drink too much, the both of them, but heckified players. A horn player would come in there wanting to sit in and he’d say OK. Guy would call “Cherokee” and they’d give the intro and you’d see the horn player get up there trying to play the melody with Lucky and you’d hear [the guest tenor player] scuffling and you’d wonder why he’s scuffling, that was because they played “Cherokee” a mile a minute in B-natural instead of B-flat. So this guy goes up there thinking he’s gonna play in this comfortable key when all of a sudden he scuffles a while then go sit his ass down [laughs].
So what are you doing these days?
These days I work with the Harlem Renaissance Jazz Orchestra, a big band. I’ve been working with them for a few years and we’ve done some things in the park, we’ve done some Jazzmobiles, and every July we close the session at Lincoln Center Outdoors – the Mid Summer Night’s Swing, where they have the bands come out for people to dance.
These places you played in Brooklyn were you playing for dancers or were you playing for listeners?
Sometimes we played for dancers, a lotta times. It could be Hancock Hall, and at one time there was a Sonya Ballroom [currently Akbar Hall]. We used to play a lot of dances at Shadow Gardens [Manhattan], down on the Bowery – a big venue that had a lot of different halls and there were some guys who used to rent out the whole hall and put a different band in every room. That was a busy spot.
Do you ever play the Jazz 966 concerts [Friday evenings at 966 Fulton Street]?
I play 966 usually once a year with my group, and I play my original music. It’s a good audience, they all know me; I used to go in there with a trio and a singer, but I got to the point where I was writing a lot so what I did was I changed everything and formed a quintet in 2005 and now I’ve been going into places with the quintet: Julian Pressley on alto, Keith Loftus on tenor, David Jackson on bass, Butch Bateman on drums and myself. Sometimes when Keith can’t make it I use Gene Gee on tenor. We rehearse at Donald Sangster’s house.
Last week’s post featured a May 1999 performance by a special Oliver Lake Sextet in homage to Eric Dolphy at the legendary Five Spot Cafe. Our Lost Jazz Shrines: Five Spot series actually kicked off by a very special performance by composer-conductor George Russell‘s Living Time Orchestra. NEA Jazz Master George Russell was one of jazz’s major theorist with the inception of his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization. He is also noted for composing the classic Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban vehicle “Cubano Be, Cubano Bop,” which became a major vehicle for the great Cuban hand drummer Chano Pozo.
Here’s Part One and Part Two of that George Russell and the Living Time Orchestra concert:
This is Part 1 of the George Russell event: https://www.youtube.
In 1998 my friend, colleague and longtime arts consultant Mikki Shepard and I met with David Jackson, a then Memphis-based journalist who had done significant time in New York and to whom I’d been previously introduced by our mutual friend, writer Robert Fleming, someone I had grown up with musically in Cleveland, including our now self-legendary duo interview with Miles Davis.
David Jackson had a very intriguing idea: celebrating important jazz venues which had been “lost” to the vicissitudes of time. He had surveyed the landscape and recognized that practically every major – and some smaller – cities – particularly those with deep histories of significant African American presence – had at least one, perhaps a handful, and in some cases whole histories of now-defunct venues which had been important fonts of jazz development in their locales. Unfortunately David passed on to ancestry before his idea was broadened and became a country-wide series of celebrations.
Mikki Shepard, whose cadre of contacts in the performing arts world has always been quite deep, began to develop a network of presenting organizations around the country to produce programming under the banner of Lost Jazz Shrines. The idea seemed to particularly resonate with presenting organizations in Black communities, thus a consortium of such organizations and other fellow travelers was developed, including as lead presenter Mikki’s own 651Arts – which at that point lived under the auspices of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and was based (then & now) at the historic Majestic Theater (now the Harvey Theater, named for BAM’s 30+ year president Harvey Lichtenstein) at 651 Fulton Street in the thriving Ft. Greene community.
That consortium also included Harlem-based Aaron Davis Hall, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (Newark), Tribeca Performing Arts Center (NYC based at the Borough of Manhattan Community College), Kansas City, MO’s Folly Theater, The Carver Community Cultural Center (San Antonio), Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland (where at the time I served as artistic director), the Madame Walker Theatre Center (Indianapolis), The Philadelphia Clef Club, and the America’s Jazz Heritage program at The Smithsonian in DC.
The idea was that each of these venues would produce programming reflecting now defunct venues which had been important to the historical development of jazz in their respective communities. Each venue was free to shape their participation in this consortium to produce programming in their own images.
I was engaged to consult and coordinate each venue’s participation, beginning with editing a program booklet. Each venue selected its own writer to contribute a piece reflective of their community’s Lost Jazz Shrines (LJS). Jazz historian, documentary producer and radio show host Art Cromwell contributed an introductory essay. A distinguished cast of writers chronicled each community participant: K. Leander Williams (Brooklyn), Gregory Reese (Cleveland), NEA Jazz Master David Baker (Indianapolis), Clarence Atkins (Harlem), Bob Blumenthal (Kansas City), Amiri Baraka (Newark), James Spady (Philadelphia), Berneice Williams (San Antonio), and W.A. (Bill) Brower (DC). In edition to editing the resulting 65-pg booklet (pictured above), I also contributed the Lower Manhattan essay for Tribeca PAC.
Mikki Shepard largely built this consortium of presenting organizations to celebrate Lost Jazz Shrines in their respective communities through collegial relationships culminating in meetings at the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters conference in NYC. One interested participant in those meetings was Linda Herring, then the new CEO of Tribeca PAC. Linda grew up with jazz and was quite eager to have a jazz presence on TPAC’s annual seasonal program. Mikki introduced us and Linda brought me on to curate TPAC’s contributions to the LJS consortium. But Linda didn’t want to stop with just one year or one series of LJS programs (as you’ll hear in her introductory remarks before the concert below), she had eyes to develop that idea into annual TPAC presentations.
Meanwhile I went about researching what programs we’d produce at TPAC, primarily through a great many trips to the invaluable Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University’s Newark campus. IJS’ incredible stacks revealed scores of Lost Jazz Shrines just in the sector of Manhattan south of 14th Street, which is the territory we carved out with respect to the two other NY Metro area consortium participants in Harlem and Brooklyn.
Linda and I quickly determined to begin our series presentation with two legends: Cafe Society (where Billie Holiday had debuted “Strange Fruit”), and the Five Spot (where Thelonious Monk once spent a 17-week stint, and Ornette Coleman had made his NYC debut). Those first two series have morphed into a now 21-year annual series of TPAC jazz presentations, which due to college budget cuts was reduced a few years ago into a annual LJS concert (the pandemic postponed what was to be our 2020 celebration of the late club Boomers’ and pianist Helen Sung‘s tribute to one of her mentors, the late NEA Jazz Master Cedar Walton).
One of the three concerts we produced for our Five Spot series was an evening remembering the great Eric Dolphy at the Five Spot. For that I recruited the alto saxophonist-composer Oliver Lake to lead the band. Multi-instrumentalist Dolphy had not only excelled on alto, he had also mastered the flute and the bass clarinet. So Lake’s quartet was broadened to include James Newton on flute and Lake’s St. Louis colleague Marty Ehrlich on bass clarinet. Lake augmented his quartet with spoken word artist Tracy Morris and a concert was born.
In our 2020 pandemic-enforced, virtual performance universe, Tribeca PAC has begun posting a limited number of our LJS concerts and pre-concert humanities programs on its YouTube channel. Here it should be mentioned that a consistent presence on our LJS programs has been free pre-concert humanities presentations, including panel discussions, one-on-one interviews, and film screenings reflective of our subsequent programming. The first of our humanities programs posted for streaming was our panel discussion on a subsequent series celebrating the 1970s Loft Jazz scene. Here’s that Loft Jazz Scene panel discussion hosted by jazz journalist Howard Mandel, followed by the Five Spot concert with the Oliver Lake Quartet plus James Newton, Marty Ehrlich, and Tracy Morris in its entirety.
|DMV-based pianist Chris Grasso has carved out a niche that certainly qualifies him for the pantheon of great jazz vocal piano accompanists. That admirable coterie includes a distinguished list of piano accompanists who were and are particularly adept at providing vocalists with the kind of pianistic care and feeding that is by equal turns comforting and challenging.
That list of great vocal pianist accompanists certainly includes artists like Bobby Tucker (Billie Holiday), Tommy Flanagan (Ella Fitzgerald), Norman Simmons, Jimmy Jones, Ronell Bright, Ellis Larkins, Jimmy Rowles, Lou Levy, Bill Charlap (Tony Bennett), and other notable vocal specialists.
For the 2019 DC JazzFest – which now seems like a lifetime ago, what with pandemic restrictions in 2020 and our impending 9-month prohibitions of concert performances for audiences – we mounted an evening in tribute to Quincy Jones and Roy Hargrove. Opening that evening was the distinguished vocalist Sharon Clarke with the Chris Grasso Trio. That evening also featured an array of distinguished special guest soloists, including Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett – each expertly accompanied by the Chris Grasso Trio, which added immeasurably to the great success of that Kennedy Center evening.
Fortunately for the DMV community, Chris Grass has answered the pandemic era call for fresh musical performances with a series of live streams from Blue House Studio in Kensington, MD. Blue House, site of several of our virtual DC JazzFest 2020 performances last September, has proven itself a particularly adept space for streaming performances and Chris Grasso has seized that locale for his ongoing series. Next up for the series is Billie Holiday Competition winner Sara Jones with the Chris Grasso Trio on Friday, December 4. Clearly some questions were in order for Chris Grasso.
When did you begin your Covid-era performance series at Blue House, and what was your original motivation?
Our first performance was in March. It was actually a replacement for a live show. I had just started a new ticketed monthly series at Mr. Henry’s in February. Our first night, which featured Lena Seikaly, sold out. It was such a great audience – really a listening crowd, and not an empty seat in the house. Sharón Clark was the next featured performer, scheduled for March 20, and also sold out in advance. But the week before the show, the COVID shutdowns hit, and Mr. Henry’s had to close. I got in touch with Jeff Gruber at Blue House and we moved the show to his studio. Jeff and I have known each other and worked on projects over the years. I was really fortunate to know someone with his skills, and a beautiful studio, who was available and willing to help make it happen. Then, when we saw the response from the audience, it was pretty overwhelming.
How have you gone about publicizing these performances, and what has been the streaming audience response to these performances?
Over the years, I’ve developed an e-mail list that’s grown to a decent size. Of course, social media is essential as well. I also try to get the shows listed on CapitalBop, JazzNearYou and other jazz listings and social media pages, including those done by Bertrand Uberall and Maryam Balbed. Promotion is definitely a big part of the work.
Do you monetize these streaming performances? If not, how is this series supported?
Yes, since the beginning, we’ve been requesting contributions from viewers, and that’s actually been successful. I think there’s something of a debate about the best way to handle streaming concerts. One school of thought is making payment mandatory – you send money, then you get a link to the show. I definitely understand that approach, and it’s obviously more like the way things would work in the analog world. The challenge with that is you miss part of the benefit of social media. Many people don’t plan or like to commit ahead of time, but if they’re scrolling through Facebook and see that a show is about to start, or even has already started, they may hop on and watch. Very often, they’ll also contribute.
You’ve carved out a real niche for yourself as a sensitive vocal accompanist. Has that been your intention all along, or did other circumstances contribute to your excelling at that important role?
I’d like to say that was by design, but it really was not. I’ve always loved great singers, but I didn’t really start to work with vocalists regularly until I began performing and booking the jazz at the Henley Park Hotel. We started the program with strictly instrumental groups, but it pretty quickly became apparent that the management wanted vocalists, so we switched the focus. Sharón Clark and Dick Smith became featured artists, and then we expanded to lots of other great singers, including Felicia Carter, Paige Wroble and more. Then, when I moved the program to the Mandarin Oriental, singers were really the draw, and that’s when I started working with Lena Seikaly, Sara Jones, Alison Crockett, Julian Hipkins and others. We also had a guest artist program where I got to bring in people like ThimNicki Parrott, Alan Harris, Denise Thimes, Denise King, Becky Kilgore, Byron Stripling, Annie Sellick and Deborah Brown. I was really lucky to get that opportunity.
How has your Blue House series of streaming performances evolved thus far?
Well, like everyone, we were really flying blind in the beginning. We had no idea whether people would tune in, and whether they would support it financially. After the first show in March, we realized there was a need for this kind of thing. But then, of course, lots of other streaming music started happening, so there’s a lot more competition. But, knock on wood, we seem to have developed something that people like and that, I hope, they’ll continue to support.
What’s upcoming for your Blue House series, and do you view this as a temporary pursuit or have you extended your view towards this series being ongoing despite our collective desire to return to “live” performances before audiences?
Our next show on Friday, December 4 features Sara Jones, a really wonderful vocalist who should be better known. Sharón Clark will be back in January, and I’m hoping to have Paige Wroble in for her first time in February. We had Dick Smith for a show over the summer, and I’d really like to have him back again if he’s up for it. I’d also love to start bringing people in from out of town if and when travel is a little easier.
Do you view this kind of streaming “live” performance as a wave of the future, or is this purely a temporary response to the pandemic?
There is nothing I would rather do than go back to performing live in a room packed full of people. I was really excited about the series at Mr. Henry’s because it was the first time I had the chance to do a recurring, ticketed performance series. As wonderful as they were, all the other regular venues I’ve done have been non-ticketed, and as everyone knows, that’s a crap shoot as far as audiences go. One night can be a dream, and the next night it can be dozens of drunk people yelling all night. That’s one thing you never have to deal with during a live stream, at least.
I suspect live streaming will be with us for a while, but it’s so hard to say. But as long as it is, I’m going to try to make it the most satisfying musical experience I can, both for the audience and the musicians.